Gavin Schmitt Interviews Graham Skipper
Let’s be blunt: Graham Skipper may be the next big thing in the horror genre. It’s as simple as that.
In the last five years, he has starred in the well-received “Almost Human”, “Tales of Halloween” and “Beyond the Gates”, just to name a few. In 2016, he made “Space Clown”, which was essentially a one-man show: writing, producing, editing and directing. Then at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival, Graham dropped the bombshell: his feature film, “Sequence Break”, which was one of the best movies to screen at the festival. (This is saying a lot, as Fantasia already narrows it down to the best of the best before the first frame hits the audience.) It has a healthy dose of David Cronenberg mixed in with a retro arcade storyline that brings out both the nostalgia of the 1980s and alludes to an arcade-centric urban legend, the story of Polybius.
“Sequence Break” is available exclusively on Shudder starting May 25, 2018. I had the great pleasure of chatting with Graham about the film and some of his other work, as you can see below.
Gavin: My understanding is you played the lead in “Re-Animator: The Musical” and directing the production was Stuart Gordon himself. Your first day on stage… was it exciting, terrifying, surreal, or some combination?
Graham: It was all of those things! I’ve been a huge fan of Stuart’s my entire life, so being in the room with him was certainly surreal, and also just super exciting. I went in basically thinking, “be all ears, soak it in, this is a dream,” and in the process I learned so much from him. He’s also such a kind and down to earth man that any fear quickly went out the window. He’s very respectful of actors and embraces teamwork, so he really created a wonderful feeling of family that resonated throughout the cast.
Gavin: You’re very passionate about horror, whether it be acting, writing, directing, etc. Do you ever fear being typecast, or are you “all in” with the horror life?
Graham: I love horror! I often say that growing up, if I had met somebody like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt I wouldn’t have cared much, but put me in a room with Robert Englund or Bruce Campbell and I would have lost my mind. Those are the films that inspired me and stayed with me, so having the opportunity to make them has been such a blessing, and I am thrilled to make more of them. The other great thing about horror is that it’s such a diverse genre, so every movie you make has the potential to be worlds away from the last one. It’s always exciting and fresh, and I find that horror filmmakers are always some of the nicest, coolest people in the business.
Gavin: When casting “Sequence Break”, how much was done in the traditional way, and how much was just asking people you knew or had worked with? You obviously knew Chase Williamson, for example, and he knew Fabianne Therese from “John Dies at the End”…
Graham: It was a combination of things! I did know Chase from “Beyond the Gates”, and also a few shorts that we’d done together, so I reached out to him immediately. Lyle and Audrey – who produced the film – are both incredible actors and veterans of the film industry for decades, so it was a no brainer to ask them to act in the film! We auditioned a couple of really talented people for Tess, and when Chase suggested Fabi I of course leapt at the chance to see her read for the role, and she killed it in her audition, and so that worked out great! Johnny Dinan – who plays the mysterious unnamed Man – had worked with Lyle on another project, so Lyle brought him in and he just crushed his audition. We’d seen a few people who were all also very good, but Johnny has an intensity about him that was really special.
Gavin: How did you come to work with cinematographer Brian Sowell? For those who don’t know, he’s been a regular with Adam Green and recently worked on “The Disaster Artist”.
Graham: I can’t exactly remember how I first met Brian, but we’ve been friends for some time. The LA indie horror world is fairly tight-knit, and we have a lot of mutual friends, so I’m sure somewhere down the road that’s how we met. But then we worked together on “Beyond the Gates” and really bonded over that project – he’s got an incredible eye and focus and is always a calming presence, something necessary on a film set. He and I talked about influences and inspirations and definitely had a short hand that would be crucial between a director and cinematographer, so there wasn’t anyone else I wanted to work with but Brian.
Gavin: And then there is Van Hughes, whose score is phenomenal. I love the resurgence of synth, Tangerine Dream-esque themes, which Hughes definitely offers. Did you give him guidance on what you were looking for, or just let him run loose?
Graham: Yes, Van is amazing, isn’t he? While editing the film, we laid in a temp score comprised of a lot of music that tonally drove the scenes, and I basically gave him that and said, “Let this be your guide, go nuts.” I’ll never forget listening to that first set of files he sent with my producers Lyle and Audrey and all of us at the end thinking, “He nailed it.” I think we gave him a few notes which he also immediately fixed, and the score was done. He killed it – we were lucky to have him.
Gavin: No doubt you were working with a fairly low budget, but the Russell FX team did amazing work and the overall production value is astonishing. Can you think of an example where you were able to take a shortcoming and turn it into an opportunity for creativity?
Graham: Thanks! Yeah the Russells were such a blessing to us. The whole crew’s instructions from day one were, “When making a choice, always make the boldest one.” I knew there would be challenges and difficulties, as there are on any indie film, and one of those challenges is always time. So I knew we often wouldn’t have the luxury of trying out a bunch of ideas to see what worked best, but instead would have to make a choice in the moment, and the only way to ensure this movie would be as impactful as I wanted it to be would be if every one of those choices made was the boldest one possible. An example I can give is that we had like five pages of dialogue to get on the last day of shooting with very little time left, and getting conventional coverage seemed like the only way to stay on schedule. But we talked and said, “We could get all this dialogue in one big take and be done with it.” Now that was going to be very difficult to pull off, and would require us to spend more time setting up and rehearsing the take, but it would be way more interesting visually and aesthetically. And so we made the bolder choice and it’s one of my favorite shots in the film.
Gavin: “Sequence Break” obviously takes a cue from “Videodrome”. Was there any discussion (even with yourself) about how to make an homage without crossing the line into something blatant? I’m impressed how well the writing/execution makes the inspiration clear but never seems any less original because of this.
Graham: I appreciate you saying that! I definitely didn’t want to just rip off Cronenberg, and that was certainly something at the forefront of my mind. I think for me the key was to be inspired by what made Videodrome so impactful – the physical effects of technology on the human body – and see how that worked within my own story. One key difference I wanted was to root my story in the human relationship between Oz and Tess, and let the fleshy Cronenbergian elements infiltrate that. As much as I love Videodrome, I feel it’s not so much about Max Renn’s relationship with Nicki as it is about Renn’s relationship with the TV. It’s a pretty cold film, and I wanted mine to be a love story first, but to use the filmmaking tactics that Cronenberg pioneered to help accentuate the changes Oz was going through. The scariest thing to me is not being able to trust my own mind, and Cronenberg is one director that is able to masterfully manipulate reality, so I wanted to use that inspiration for this story. That’s a clunky way to say: it was a fine balance, but instead of copying, I tried to absorb and remold.
Gavin: The film was one of my most-loved features at last year’s Fantasia film festival. How did Shudder end up getting the distribution rights? I assume there were multiple interested outlets.
Graham: It was all pretty organic! The film found its way into the powers that be out of the Cannes Film Market last summer and Shudder came running out of the gate! I’ve also been a customer and big fan of Shudder’s for years now, and I know the people involved and how dedicated they are to horror, and so I knew this would be a perfect home for us. They really understand the power that horror films can have, and having a team behind you like that is both comforting and powerful.
Gavin: You appeared in both of Joe Begos’ features, but he has been pretty quiet since 2015. Have you heard any rumblings of his next project?
Graham: Oh, I have heard rumblings! My lips are sealed but let me just say that some cool shit may be on the horizon…
Gavin: There is allegedly a film called “Hipsters, Gangsters, Aliens and Geeks” coming out that you appear in. Based on the people involved, it sounds like a spiritual successor to “Forbidden Zone”. Please tell me I’m right.
Graham: Yes! You have heard correctly! And all I’ll say to that is…yes. You are right. It. Is. BONKERS.
Gavin: Oh, wow. I’m looking forward to that ,and congratulations on “Sequence Break”!
Graham: Thank you.