By Chelsea Fung
He Took His Skin Off For Me was harmoniously put together by a band of students along with guidance from SFX professionals, which took them to this year’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Aston tells us about the journey from page to crowdfunding to screen and how he went about making his short so bloody fantastic.
What drew you to tell the story of this couple?
When I first read Maria’s remarkable story I couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist as a film. The imagery and the language were at once haunting, dark, tragic and beautiful. It feels so familiar yet it’s totally unique. I just simply couldn’t 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 guess I was drawn to it because I didn’t want to keep having dreams about skinless people.
How did you go about adapting the story into a script? What changed from the original story?
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 channeled 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 retell the story to someone else.
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 becomes unbearable. I was scared that the skinless man would just look silly when speaking. The decision to keep the voice-over 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 Maria’s prose, but we had to be able to let this film exist on its own. We decided that the voice-over should fill the holes that the audiences can’t 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 voice-over 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 dialog entirely. We felt it would secure the voice-over 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.
Tell me about your process of bringing the story from page 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 it’s super expensive to make something impossible.
It was by chance that I heard that Colin Arthur, who was the SFX supervisor for The Never Ending Story and countless other films, was holding a weekend workshop about prosthetics and practical effects. I attended the class and afterward 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 of 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 sculptors.
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.
Who was part of your writing team?
Maria Hummer, who wrote the original story, was my co-writer on the film. Or rather I was her co-writer… I was just in the room really. It’s her brain on screen; I just gave it a voice.
How did you go about assembling your crew?
Almost everyone was a friend. We’ve been making and working on shorts in London for the last 4 years, so our network was pretty large. Coming to the shoot was like a big reunion party. For those people, we didn’t know the greatest draw we had was the capital of the idea. Who wouldn’t want to work on a film like this?
Who else besides the VFX artists were students?
It was my graduation film from the London Film School. The vast majority of the crew, including myself, were students.
If you were to take your skin off for someone, who would it be?
Ha. Nobody, you really shouldn’t do it.
Who would you ask to bare it all and take their skin off? (physically or metaphorically)
This is a pretty hard 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 fairy tale. And the wonderful thing about fairy tales is how they relate back to our real lives.
When people tell me what they think it means (ie. Is it about baring oneself?) 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. Others see it as a parable on sacrifice, that a love that demands such one-way giving 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.
The one thing that’s pretty clear from Maria’s story is that it’s probably a really bad idea to take your skin off for anyone! Things just get messy.
How was your experience at Sundance?
Insane. So many wonderful people, too many really. The whole thing was a kaleidoscope. It was an honor to have our little film played against some truly amazing other shorts. Made far too many new friends.
Was it your first time attending?
Yeah, and I now really want to go back.
What are you working on next?
Right now, we’re developing a wonderfully mad feature called JOHN MOVES IN, which I can’t say too much about, other than it’s wacky. Basically John and his fiancee Rachel move in together, and then the next day John moves in again and again. Think Being John Malkovich meets Project Mayhem. Maybe? It’s a weird one.
If you could imagine a life outside of being an independent filmmaker, what would you be doing and why?
I’m not quite sure why, but I always thought I’d be a good counselor, I’ve never been to therapy, but from what I understand about the process it seems like a fulfilling and giving thing to do with one’s life. Also a dinosaur, I’d really like to be a dinosaur.
I’m noticing a theme with your storytelling, couple dynamics, what is the inspiration behind that? anyone, in particular?
Goodness, I’m not really sure. I guess they are all about love in some way. And any character-lead story is going to be somewhat relational. Filmmaking is therapy, you get stuff out and only in looking back do you recognise something authorial. Feel I need to make a few more before being able to properly answer the question.
Who is on your team for your feature?
It’s loosely based on a short story by Maria Hummer (HTH SOFM) and is co-written by Russian Roulette screenwriter Oli Fenton. We’re getting the band back together basically!
If you had the curse/ability to rewind as your characters do in your upcoming feature what would you do differently making your short or while attending film school?
Every film is always unfinished so I’d want to tweak a little bit of everyone. But the biggest thing I’d do differently is to have watched a lot more films, especially shorts, a lot earlier. I guess I was a little threatened or something, and in not exploring that as long as I did I perhaps postponed my development as an artist. It took going to film school to force me to expose myself to work outside my comfort zone, which was basically anything that didn’t have ninjas.
What advice do you have to student filmmakers?
Making things makes things happen. It’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of re-writing, editing, funding, festival submissions etc and essentially standing still as a filmmaker. It’s a kiss of death. Keep making stuff all the time, at all budget levels, in all mediums and genres, just to make them. Take 48 hour challenges if you need a kick-start. Make as much as possible as often as possible. It only makes you a better artist, expose you to new people and will unblock any stagnation that larger projects might create.