If you’ve just watched a story that centres around a man taking his skin off – I’m assuming you’re going to have questions…We know we did! Having featured director Ben Aston’s work on Short of the Week in the past, we didn’t want to miss the chance to grill the filmmaker about exactly what was going through his mind when he decided to make such a unique and ambitious short as his graduating film from the London Film School.
Your film He Took His Skin Off For Me is based on a short story with the same name by writer Maria Hummer – how did you come across the story and what made you want to adapt it for screen?
I was the first person to ever read it, basically at the right place at the right time. I had recently finished on Dinner and a Movie (our previous collaboration) and very much in the market for a new idea.
Maria was working on a much larger story but had hit a bit of a wall, so she took an afternoon off to write something else. She saw a flash fiction competition (which she subsequently and hilariously found out she missed the deadline on) with the prompt Cursed Blessings. I have no idea how her mind works, but this story pretty much just exploded out of her fully-formed in one sitting.
The imagery and the language were at once haunting, dark, tragic and beautiful. When I read it I was surprised it didn’t already exist, it feels so familiar yet its totally unique. I just simply couldnt stop thinking about it, I was dreaming about it. I could SEE it. The worst thing about ideas like that is that you have to make them to get them out of your head. I didnt want to keep having dreams about skinless people.
She never wrote this as a film and only gave it to me to get some feedback, but I instantly told her it was going to be a film. Thank god my producer Fiona Lamptey agreed too.
The original narrative written by Hummer is only just over 650 words, how did you go about translating this into an 11-minute film?
There was a very long writing process, but it was almost entirely structural. The content itself sticks very closely to the story. I pretty much trusted in that special thing she had channelled and tapped into, it felt like a precious commodity and worth preserving. Anything new (like him returning to the closet or her testing her own skin) were embellishments that naturally came out when trying to re-tell the story to someone else.
To be honest, if you were to try and describe what happens in the film you probably couldn’t top 650 words. Its why short stories translate as often to features as they do shorts, theres usually too much story there. A good short film can often compare more favourably in literature to a poem or haiku. Paradoxically, simplicity can enhance depth in short film storytelling. With this story it allowed us to reward the attention of the audience while simultaneously entertaining on a surface level with its conceptual audacity.
Tonally it was all there from the start, paradoxically mundane and horrifying. Obviously SEEING a skinless dude is a very different experience from imagining it, so we had to compensate somewhat. Just like with the robbery in Dinner and a Movie it felt important that we make it the friendliest version of this story possible, lest it become unbearable.
I was scared that the skinless man would just look silly when speaking.
The decision to keep the voiceover was long discussed throughout the adaptation process. I felt that it was essential as a way of communicating the tone of the story and effectively deflating the horror that only showing the imagery would result in. I loved the wordplay present in Marias prose, but we had to be able to let this film exist on its own. We decided that the voiceover should fill holes that the audiences cant directly see and should, where possible, work against what we are seeing to create a dynamic that reveals more about the character. However, given that the plot of the film is very unusual, it was important that the voiceover also explain what was happening on screen without falling into the trap of simply describing it. The best way we thought we could achieve this was by losing all dialogue entirely. We felt it would secure the voiceover and prevent it from feeling invasive. Finally it also helped avoid an inevitable production problem I was scared that the skinless man would just look silly when speaking.
Im assuming there was a lot of thought and planning that had to go into the pre-production of Skin to make sure it was possible to achieve the look you wanted – was there any point in the process of working out how you were going to make a film about a man who literally takes his skin off, where you felt youd bitten off more than you could chew?
Honestly, no. I just had a blind faith really. No idea how wed do it, but just knew that we would. The only point that I suddenly felt like we overstepped was the morning we shot the test shoot, and I’ve never felt more fired up then I did after getting that in the can. It was the first time it was real.
From what I understand about Marias process developing the story she found herself writing the first line and was really scared by it, but deciding to dive in. That was pretty much how we treated every aspect of production. Ive never really done anything that wasnt a comedy, but just trusted we could do it. Same with the SFX, we had never done anything like that before but just dove in.
To be honest I can’t really take any credit for that. Every step of the way I had an incredible ally and fighter in my producer Fiona. She was on board about a week after Maria wrote the story and allowed us to believe that this was something we could do. She somehow created a magic vortex around us that meant we never really questioned what we were doing at any point. It was like, ‘of course we can do this, Fiona says we can!’.
I always figured this was an easy film, I mean, one location, two leads, no dialogue. Just needed to figure out the skin thing and we were home free.
You raised over £9k on Kickstarter, what did these financial backing mean for the planning and production of your film?
Our kickstarter funded the entire effects budget, without that money we couldn’t have shot a frame, so we were placed into a position where we had to convince people this was something we could pull off. Each and every one of our backers took a huge leap of faith in trusting us to deliver what we said we could. That sort of accountability was a positive pressure and actually pushed us to work even harder.
From a production point of view there was a very weird month where everything hung in the balance. My job became the kickstarter and nothing else. Afterwards it was a weird sensation to suddenly switch gears back from campaign manager to film director. We had auditions a few days after reaching our goal and it occurred to me that I hadn’t read the script in weeks. It was odd.
It goes without saying, that whilst your film is so much more than an FX-film, the special FX play a huge part in the films success, can you tell us a little bit about how you went about bringing this vision of a skinless man to screen?
We had to achieve a skinless man but never really had any idea exactly how we were going to do it, we just sort-of knew we would. We were in the process of developing the screenplay adaptation and had taken a few meetings with both VFX and SFX houses across London, but weren’t being quoted realistically achievable amounts. Turns out its super expensive to make something impossible.
It was by chance that I heard that Colin Arthur, who was the SFX supervisor for The NeverEnding Story and countless others films, was holding a weekend workshop about prosthetics and practical effects. I attended the class and afterwards had a long chat with Colin and his wife. After some pints and a few great war stories, they were in. His one condition being that we construct our team using people from the class. This was how I met the amazing Jen Cardno, who became our SFX supervisor. She had just dropped out from the Royal College of Art and was at the time a guardian at an abandoned old-folks home, which would become our ramshackle studio! Colin really wanted to give back and help. He was able to share his years of experience with our young and vibrant team of makeup artists and sculpters.
In the end, we had an FX crew of over 12 people constructing hundreds of individual muscle pieces in a wonderful abandoned west-London retirement home. It was amazing, especially considering that no one was paid anything more than the smallest possible amount (we could only Kickstart the basic costs of materials). It was a real passion project from all departments. This film is a testament to their incredible talent and dedication. What they were able to achieve is genuinely groundbreaking. It delights me to see their careers take off, off the back of this film. We never considered touching it up in the computer, they made something incredible, we only want to show it off. EVERYTHING ON SCREEN IS PRACTICAL.
Even though we considered CGI early on it was clear pretty much immediately that this was a practical SFX film.
Practical productions like The Fly, Alien and The Thing created tactile worlds that have stood the test of time. All those films play with the kind of body-horror that we were exploring and all are effective at affecting an audience. I dont believe that they filmed a real Xenomorph the same way that I dont believe they filmed a real Hulk, but what I do believe is that what I am seeing is actually there. In addition they were all able to underplay and hide any weaknesses of the models or prosthetics due to the fact that they were physically there in the room when they shot it. In my experience an image that has been practically photographed has a hard-to-define yet tangible quality that distinguishes it from an image that has been rendered digitally. This is not to say that the latter cannot or has not succeeded the former, rather that the former has a regularly embedded advantage over the latter.
Looking at what we were able to achieve I dont believe our actor Sebastian has no skin, I will always see an extremely well made prosthetic. However, unlike with Hollow Man the quality of its design and application combined with the tangibility of the practically photographed image is sufficient to allow an audience to suspend disbelief. This is what I mean by effectiveness. I dont believe it, but I am sufficiently convinced such that it triggers sensations of revolt and discomfort. This suspension of disbelief is the reason for the effect in this story and I believe that choosing a practical route was the best decision.
You hear these stories of cast members and make-up artists spending many hours of the early parts of the day preparing to bring a character like Him to life – What did the FX-work mean for your cast and crew on a daily basis during the shoot?
Jens design for the suit meant that it was composed of hundreds of smaller pieces, like a jig saw. Were it to have been a single suit it wouldn’t have stood up to what we were asking of it. However the result of that aesthetic decision was an increased application time.
At its longest Sebastian was in makeup for 8hrs. Given that we were working to 12hr days and that it took an hour to take it off, we had him for only 3hrs on one day.
As a result we brutally story-boarded the film, something Ive never really been happy with, however everyone needed to know exactly what we needed to apply, if we could save an hour by not applying muscles to the other side of his legs then we had to know. We were careful to imply that you see everything, while never actually filming everything all at once. It simply would have taken too long to do a full body shot.
We had 5 days in one location (my house), and we ran like a military operation. We had leg day where we shot anything that might feature that part of his body. We tried not to split up individual scenes too much but some are cobbled together over different days.
The real challenge was making sure that the performances and overall arc of the film remained naturalistic and delicate while slicing up our shotlists to meet the production realities of the SFX. Its a testament to these incredible actors that it feels seamless.
Sebastian Armesto and Anna Macguire do a fantastic job as your lead characters Him and Her – they beautifully portray the tenderness, commitment and complications of the relationship without ever having to say a word. How did you go about casting for the film and how important was it that you got actors with this kind of emotional range for your film?
Its hard to audition a film without dialogue, so we just spent that time talking with actors about what they felt the script was saying. After a long, long search we were lucky enough to meet two of the most intelligent people I think Ive ever met. They got it immediately. Finding actors like Anna and Seb meant I could let go, we were all on the same page and given the intensity of the this production I needed them to be that good. The film was an insane performance challenge, but they knocked it out of the park.
Seb had a tough time in the suit, its never easy to starve your own skin like that and he gave us more than anyone should need to. The fact that you can capture micro-expressions through the face pieces is incredible fusion of performance and design.
A lot of the focus and attention the short will get will surely revolve around its unusual concept and wonderful FX work, but for me the one thing I loved about it was just how relatable it felt. Whilst none of us (I hope!) have actually taken our skin off for a loved one, relationships are all about compromise and sacrifice and you captured this beautifully in your film – what do you hope your audience takes away from a viewing of Skin?
This is probably the hardest question to answer. The film demands you make sense of it; in constructing an interpretation you necessarily draw on your own life experience and, in a way, become a part of the story. It’s a fairytale. And the wonderful thing about fairytales is how they relate back to our real lives. We made a film with deliberate vagaries that the audience subconsciously fills, if you feel anything then thats probably because you are interacting with it. When people tell me what they think it means they are often revealing part of themselves as well.
The power of the allegory is how multifaceted it is. Every audience member has their own take; sympathies and meanings seem to go in almost all directions. For some this is a story of nakedness, about the problems that arise from holding out when your partner has bared themselves for you. Others read it as a cautionary tale of trying to lie about your true sexual identity. You mention compromise and sacrifice, which is something I definitely recognize in the story, but a love that demands such a one-way sacrifice is fundamentally doomed. By this reading the film urges us to see a toxic relationship for what it really is – horrifying. We, the audience, see this from the beginning, and the moment the narrator understands it for herself the story ends.
I dont want to tell people what the film should be. Even finding a genre to describe it is difficult.
We had a story on set that we knew we were telling, and I see it as being the most clear, but I dont want to tell people what it should be. I want people to come to this film just like I came to the original story, completely unprepared.
Its a big experiment and I really hope it works, but I dont want to go over the deep end into full on pretentiousness. If I can leave with one pearl of wisdom; taking off your skin just to be with somebody? Thats only ever going to end messy
This is the third film of yours weve featured on Short of the Week, how did your other shorts Russian Roulette and Dinner and a Movie help shape and influence your approach to Skin?
In many ways its an emotional sequel to Dinner and a Movie. That film is all about virginity and the fear of love, while this one is about how much you can do for love once youre in it. It was also a simple two-hander about a man and a woman, contained within a ridiculously ambitious production (in that case turning London into rural Michigan). Both were about trying to make other worlds and both are probably the friendliest versions of their respective premises.
Conversely, Russian Roulette was actually made as a reaction to this film. We were deep in pre-production and it had almost been a year since Dinner. I really wanted a rehearsal to make sure I wasnt rusty when we got to film Skin. I also was a bit sick of how fucking heavy it was and just needed a palette cleanser. In the same way that Marias original story exploded out of another larger work, Russian Roulette was a release valve over a weekend. Looking back at 2014 I am so freaking proud of both of them.
Skin is your graduation film from the London Film School – what has your time at the school given you as a filmmaker?
I couldn’t have imagined ever making this when I started. Film schools are what they are, which is to say, they are what you make of them. I got really lucky. I met some amazing people and caught a few breaks. I cant say anything better about the LFS than the fact that I wasn’t an artist when I arrived, but I was when I left. This movie was a giant experiment that I couldn’t have done outside of the playground that is a film school. The truly awesome thing is that I still get to make movies that I would have loved before I came.
What are you working on next? And would you ever think of expanding the universe of Skin into something larger?
Skin 2 : Skinless Planet. FUCK NO. This is short exactly the most that everyone would want to see this story. However now that I’ve got a taste of the weird stuff I dont really want to let it go, I just want it to be funnier.
Right now were developing a wonderfully mad feature called JOHN MOVES IN, which I cant say too much about, other than its not too far away from the domestic-fairytale logic of Skin, just much, much funnier.
Basically John and his fiance Rachel move in together, and then the next day John moves in again and again. Think Being John Malkovich meets Project Mayhem. Maybe? Its a weird one.