Toby Wilkins On "Splinter", "The Grudge 3"

Toby Wilkins directed one of the best horror films of 2008, "Splinter", a film just recently released on DVD after a limited theatrical run. Coming up in May, he'll also be taking on the latest in the "Grudge" franchise, so he sat down with us recently to talk about both films. Check it out.

Give people the chance to see a film on their own terms, in as many ways as possible, and hopefully it will find an audience.

You made short films for a long time before moving on to features. Is that a format you really enjoy? What was the motivation for sticking with it so long?

I love short films. I guess I just love telling stories with film, and some stories just don't need ninety-plus minutes to be told effectively. And for me, and I think a lot of filmmakers, short films are a great way to learn the ropes, make mistakes, and experiment in a low-risk environment before jumping into features. But I also just love the medium, and the immediacy of it. If you have the right script you can shoot a short film in a day, and have it edited and in front of an audience in a under a week if you want.

For those horror fans who haven't heard of Splinter, how would you sell it to them?

I guess I would just let them know that we made the film for horror fans. It's really an homage to all the great siege based horror films of the '70s and '80s that made me love horror in the first place, and we stayed as true to that love of the genre as we could while bringing something new to the table, the creature.

The horror in the film is very "body" oriented, as the monster sort of takes over the victims bodies and destroys them... is that something in particular that you find scary? Why did you choose to go that route with your monster?

Absolutely, I find the idea of infection and disease to be one of the scariest things in life. And the fact that this creature... this infection, parasite, whatever... attacks you from the inside is terrifying. The dread of being killed by an enemy creates one type of fear, but not being killed by it, and slowly losing control over your own body while it destroys you is a whole other level.

In moving from directing shorts to features, what was the biggest surprise? Were there any difficulties that you weren't anticipating with the longer shoot?

I have been around features for a long time, working closely with people who may be months deep in their films, and looking at any months, even years ahead, so the length of commitment was no surprise to me. But what comes with that kind of timeframe was the greatest revelation. With such an extended immersion in a project you can really explore the story and its characters, you can dig much deeper, experiment with different options, and find solutions to problems that might have been bigger hurdles. Time is the most important element in making a film I think.

Obviously in the last 10 years there has been a huge change in the way films are distributed. A decent horror film can now get a nice limited release followed quickly by a DVD, like what happened with Splinter. How do you feel about this mode of distribution, do you think it was good for your film?

The reality is that the industry needs to be more reactive to emerging distribution ideas, and I think that's something that Magnolia and a few others are really embracing. Splinter didn't just get a theatrical release, it was available On-Demand, it got a sneak-preview
on HD-Net in the days before it hit theatres, it premiered at festivals around the world, was shown on cable months before its DVD/Blu-Ray release last week, and should be available for instant-view on NetFlix, in really amazing HD quality in mid-May.

With the explosion of independent film we have seen over the last decade this is exactly the kind of exposure distributors should be looking at. Let's face it, when a ticket to a major theatre chain costs as much as a DVD, you really have to hit an audience over the head with advertising to make them drop their cash on a one-time fix of entertainment, and that's just not on the cards for most indies. Give people the chance to see a film on their own terms, in as many ways as possible, and hopefully it will find an audience, and the audience will find the film.

Now there was a delay in the DVD release, can you explain why that happened?

I'm not privy to the details, but I can guess... I know there was great interest in the film, not just here in the US, but in many countries around the world, some of those countries have released the film theatrically in the last couple of months and having DVDs in stores here might have affected that, and here in the US the SciFi Channel showed the film a few times in the mean time. But the great thing is that because we had more time, we were able to gather a lot of extra content for the DVD release, including recording two commentary tracks that would not have happened otherwise. And we managed to get a Blu-Ray release, which is awesome because... well, it's Blu-ray!

You recently directed "The Grudge 3". Were you at all familiar with the Ju-on films before taking on the sequel? Did you try to emulate what made them scary, or did you forge your own path?

I have been collaborating with Ghost House Pictures for a while, and I was familiar with the entire series of films, the original "Ju-On" films, and the "Grudge" series. I also directed the series of tiny little short films that came between the first and second American sequels, which I think are on the special edition DVD of "The Grudge 2". With this third film we were careful to stay true to the American franchise, while trying to bring something new to the world and hopefully make the film self-explanatory for people who might not have seen all the films, or haven't seen them for a while. This is however the first American "Grudge" film to carry an R rating, so we were able to introduce a little gore, which the original "Ju-On" films had more of.

Toby (right) on the set of "Splinter"

Speaking of those "Tales Of The Grudge" shorts, do you think those are an effective way to build hype for a film?

I have no way of knowing if its effective, but I think it can be a fun way to remind people what was great about a franchise, or tell stories that don't fit into the features themselves. I worked on Jonathan Leibesman's short film "Rings" which came between "The Ring" and its sequel, and in a similar way to "Tales of the Grudge", we worked at continuing the story from one film to the next, and bridging the gap. With "The Grudge" shorts we wanted to communicate the idea that the curse could spread beyond the Tokyo house because that was an important part of the plot of "The Grudge 2".

Some directors are uncomfortable with being labeled as a "horror director". Is that something you're concerned about, or would you welcome it?

I have always been a fan of directors like Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott, Fincher, and of course Sam Raimi, who hop from one genre to another, and that's something I have tried to do even with my short films before this. But I tend to respond to darker stories, even my comedy shorts like "Kidney Thieves" might be at home at a horror festival.

Finally, you've talked about being sick of the "torture porn" subgenre. Is there anything in horror that you've seen recently that you really enjoyed? Any trends you're liking?

I'm really excited by the horror that's been coming from overseas, The Descent, 28 Days Later, Let The Right One In. I enjoyed the originality of the first Underworld, and I love that There Will Be Blood was essentially a horror film disguised as an art film. And I really loved Saw when it played at the Sundance Film Festival, it was unlike anything I had seen, but I think that what used to be a small subsection of the genre became the predominant trend, and it's really not for everyone.

That's had a slight chilling effect on the general perception of the word HORROR as a whole, and that's a shame. When I was a kid horror was exciting, a little taboo maybe but above all fun. Films like Jaws, Alien, Gremlins, C.H.U.D., An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead... there was something for everyone, and that's what I love about the genre. Next time you hear someone say "I don't like horror films" just name a few from the various sub-genres to remind them they actually love the ones they see.

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