Recently, Father Gore (a.k.a C.H. Newell) spent 45 minutes on the phone with legendary FX artist Gabe Bartalos, in anticipation of his latest film as director— Saint Bernard— finally becoming available on VOD, as well as DVD/Blu ray. Originally completed around 2013, the film’s mostly been seen on the midnight movie circuit and at festivals.
Now, the surreal madness of Gabe’s latest vision will infect the masses!
Honestly? You’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Check out what the man himself had to say. In this interview, Gabe talks about his artistic process, what influences him, dreams, what it was like to parachute a bunch of chickens out of a plane, and a bunch of other neat stuff that came up along the way.
C.H. Newell: I loved the movie— it’s right up my alley, between the surrealism, the absurdism, and the horror. I’m going to jump right in.
There’s obviously a plot here, but is it safe to say you were more concerned with emotions and atmosphere than a concrete narrative?
Gabe Bartalos: I’d say both. I first came up with the narrative of the musical composer losing his mind and wanted to convey madness interestingly, and connect it to the audience. That became the task for me. Like yourself— it sounds like we might have the same reference points— I do enjoy cinema of the absurd and the surreal, and, of course, all blanketed in horror. They’re all close cousins. Or can be, or should be.
I wanted to find another language to convey madness. I’m fascinated by dreams and dream logic. I always crack up when I realise that, in a dream a lot of strange scenarios happen, but in the moment you take it as reality. It’s only afterwards where you think back on it and you say, “Wow, that was strange.” I wanted to take that kind of mood and logic, that seems whacked at times, and make sure it all works together during the viewing experience. That was important, that as far out as it seemed, it worked in the context. And it’s only after the theatre lights come up that you’re like, “What the hell?”
I’ve always felt that when you speak in metaphors or symbolism, as long as it’s coming from the right place for the right reason, that’s almost a better way to communicate with the public. If you just write it out and hit them over the head with it, they’re going to glaze over and not remember anything. People are smart: scratch their intelligence, give them something that’s on a different layer, and let them start to connect the dots. Then it really does become more personal to them. If you add ambiguity to it, that still serves the narrative, that’s great, and— if it’s their cup of tea— [the audience] will connect with it.
[Gabe laughs] You know, I proudly slam my flag in the sand that Saint Bernard is not for ‘them’— whoever ‘them’ is, but you and I know who ‘them’ are’— and I don’t want ‘them’ seeing the film. The ones who want to see it, I really wanted to say thank you for coming and giving me your time. There’s a lot of great movies out there. I wanted to make sure the viewer would see things they didn’t see anywhere else, that I really worked hard to get their ticket.
CHN: You certainly did that. There are things in your movie that’ll stick with me for a long time, for various reasons. One of the scenes I kept thinking about over and over after seeing it was when Bernard’s onstage and he’s been embarrassed, people are laughing at him, berating him. He turns into this wriggling, earthworm-like thing and leaves the building. And it was unexpected.
There are a lot of unexpected things in the movie. This was one that really hit me. I think because of dream logic, which you mentioned is of interest to you. It feels seamless, as a dream would. One minute Bernard’s there, the next minute he’s this weird manifestation of, maybe, how he feels inside.
GB: Exactly. And [when you dream] there are reference points to your daily reality. And then some people in your dreams seem to be concerned with the dream and the outrageousness of it, and some don’t. It’s a great scene that you point out because, if you look, there’s a shot in there where, when the wiggling— we call it the Fleshsicle— passes the security guard, he looks at it in disbelief. Everyone else is glazed, looking forward— is it a hallucination, or an escape fantasy of Bernard? It’s probably all those things. But then this guy sees it? And he chases after him? Then Bernard pops back to his regular self and drives off.
So that’s where I’d very much try to focus and analyse my dreams and the dos and don’ts of it. It’s fun when that stuff connects with somebody.
CHN: Speaking of all the dream stuff, did any of your actual dreams make it into the movie? Obviously you wrote this, it all came out of your head one way or another. I’m just curious if there’s any imagery from your own dreams, a recurring dream of yours, anything that weaved its way into the final product.
GB: 99% of it was written and dreamed up to help push the narrative. But that’s a great question, because there’s one sequence that did come to me as a dream. I shot it almost literally as it was, and I was so excited. It’s like a romantic myth: it came to me in a dream, you know? And it’s like, “Shut up, no it didn’t.”
There’s a lot of new research that’s come out on dreams and sleep. I’m talking brand new, this year. There’s an amazing book by a guy called Matthew Walker, I believe. It’s the best read ever. It’s called Why We Sleep. Finally, with MRIs, they’ve cracked a lot of the code of why we spend a third of our lives asleep and vulnerable. A lot of it has to do will cell growth and other stuff.
One thing they found about the dream state is it’s like a rehearsal for your future life. It takes considerations and worries you have and starts running it through your brain, rehearsing it, channelling. You start to get muscle and synapse reflexes, so when you hit the waking day, you kind of feel like you’ve got it going. Really interesting.
Anyway, this sequence that came to me in a dream, is the baton reveal— where young Bernard sees these industrial miners go into a warehouse and there’s a patchwork of wood making this abstract sculpture. From that point on, that image appeared. My dreams usually aren’t that visual. They’re like, you know, I’m talking to my dad, he turns into a turtle, we fight over an ice cube tray, and a baby cries on a roller coaster. Just typical nonsense dreams.
This one was very image driven, and graphic, like art style. So these shapes appeared and a cut was made in the wood, a light was reflected through it to create the silhouette of a baton that was drawn and cut out. So that piece in the sequence came in a dream. I thought that was really cool. I had to back it into the script a bit, but I was excited a film that follows dream logic was able to use a part of an actual dream.
CHN: It’s great to have a piece of your dream in there because it goes back to what you said earlier, about becoming more personal when there’s ambiguity. Putting your dream in there adds a whole other personal layer.
GB: It comes from a more personal place, it wasn’t only made in service of the film. So I love that.
CHN: I knew your work, obviously, from Leprechaun— it’s one of the awesome movies I grew up with— and I was looking through the work you’ve done that, to me, was unknown. I saw you worked with Matthew Barney, whose films I love.
You’ve had an incredibly interesting career. You’ve worked with big, well-known names, to an artist like Barney, sort of in a world of his own. I’m curious if any of the people you’ve worked with— whether Henenlotter, Barney, [Tobe] Hooper— have influenced parts of this film.
GB: I’m sure they all have. While you’re serving the project you’re also receiving stuff. I’ve been really lucky. People who are longtime collaborators, who I can call friends, who’ve asked me back, and where my work has been significant to the film overall— it seems we’re very like-minded. Obviously we’re different, but there seems to be overlap, and we’ve often talked about how one finds another.
Frank Henenlotter asked me to join Brain Damage when I was extremely young, while he was interviewing a guy I was working for. Frank likes to tell the story. He said: “Nah, I’m not interested in that guy we met with, but his assistant sitting quietly back there..” and Edgar Ievins is like, “Frank, he’s 17 years old.” But Frank thought I had something.
Whatever that translates to besides huge flattery is really cool. For me, it becomes really significant. I was a fan of Basket Case, so I was thrilled to meet Frank and then be invited to design for him and work with him. When someone you respect puts that encouraging trust in you, it’s very inspiring, and there was no shortage of design elements that just poured out of me. It was great because, in a sense, Frank found a wonderful way— to use a term— to exploit me, in the best of ways. At the end of the day it’s to serve the film. I was just overflowing with ideas, and he was just such a great person to do it for.
And in the same way, it was fun to run into Matthew [Barney] early in his career when he was feeling around the dark, trying to learn the language of prosthetics, and do something similar to Hollywood on his own terms. It was perfect because that’s what I’m doing day in, day out, and suddenly I’m meeting this guy with a boundless imagination, with a real sense of anarchy, playing against the system but becoming the system.
So all that stuff from these guys is super appealing. I do like to think that the best aspects of them I would pick up on. I know one of the things I specifically looked at Matthew for is, he would choose his projects in a stop-and-start way. They were so dense sometimes, whether it was effects, or set design, that he’d do two or three months prep— the team would focus on a sequence, then shoot it, and then everyone would be in a collapsed heap, go home to our families, catch our breath, and then build again, hit it for a few months, and do this again several times until the film was complete.
This was very smart to me, because my day in, day out was shooting 40-50 days on films and you’re just gone by the 20th day. By the 40th day, from a production point-of-view, you’re not getting anything out of your crew, they’re demolished. Mistakes happen, accidents happen, the gears have just wound down. I thought, with all their financial resources, why don’t [Hollywood studios] do what Matthew’s doing? Just figure it out.
For me, doing the film independently, I directly looked at Matthew’s model and thought it made a lot of sense. We could build sequences and really hit them at a 100 miles an hour until this 8-10 day shoot blast is over, catch our breath, then I start to go off and work on something else. And during that whole time there are smaller micro-projects being worked on, too, whether it’s long-term prosthetics for the film or whatever.
CHN: It does make a lot of sense to shoot that way if you’re dealing with something so elaborate, like a lot of the sequences in your movie. You can see in the finished product how much effort when into each sequence. They’re like contained little universes of their own, which, again, speaks to the idea of dreams where you kind of float from one nightmare landscape to the next.
GB: Yes, and they all have their own arc, from beginning, middle, to conclusion. That was important to me. As a film lover, I get frustrated when I see a 90-minute film where it just lets loose for 2 minutes and that’s the quote unquote gift to me. I wouldn’t mind a little more energy. Film work is always physically demanding, and if you’re doing really ambitious stuff with sets and elements of water and other things, it takes its toll. So, again, it did make a lot of sense to shoot it that way. It made everything have the dense-ness and the energy I wanted to have in there.
CHN: I was thinking about the chicken in the plane sequence.
From storyboard to film, what was it like bringing that to life?
GB: It’s interesting you ask. Even before I knew who was going to shoot it— because it had to be an aerial photographer— I was laughing because I thought it’d be most interesting if it wasn’t haphazard. I wanted to shoot this scene like any other scene, so another filmmaker would look at it and start laughing like, “Oh my, god. He’s got a wide shot, then he cut to a close-up, then he cut to an over the shoulder. Are you fucking kidding me? It’s like he’s doing two people talking in a coffee shop, but they’re 9,000 feet in the air with a chicken.”
We did storyboard it. I met a guy called Joe Jennings, a very accomplished aerial photographer. When we met, he got on board because he said, “I get it. You do stuff for Hollywood films, but this is your own film, not a Hollywood thing.” We had a lot of freedom. I explained the importance of doing this for real. This will sound weird, but the more real this sequence feels to the audience— and I think we succeeded, people can see there’s not a hint of digital in there— that actually informs the fantasy. It’s all out of the bounds of safety, narrative, and reality, and hopefully you’re engaged more than when it’s glazed over and you think, “That was shitty digital.” You don’t even acknowledge a bad idea when it’s badly done synthetically. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t even tip my hat to a good idea when it’s done poorly, I almost get mad.
So that sequence in particular, I knew the message was going to come from the medium. If I’m shooting on film, which we were, and I’m nailing this for real— it took about 3 days with two jumps a day, and Joe was incredible getting all the shots, he really took ownership— then it was going to work. And I think it did. The whole sequence is an absurd wink to another filmmaker who’d watch this and see it’s shot like a normal sequence would be, not a scramble to find a frame. Like, nope, it’s all there.
CHN: There are a lot of great moments, and that’s definitely one of them. Many are terrifying great. This one is absolutely absurd, in the right way, which I love. You can tell none of it’s digital, and, like you said, it only heightens the absurdity. Such a strange image you can’t help but love.
GB: Severin Films is distributing the film, they’re releasing it on May 14th. On the special features there’s a great bit for this sequence. On one of the jumps, Joe’s friend, who’s an Olympic parachutist, was visiting that day. He went up with a video camera and jumped with them. We have, I think, in the history of film, some of the most interesting behind-the-scenes footage. People are going to shit, because you’re suddenly inside the plane, you see a guy with the rig we built for the over-the-shoulder shots, and the 35mm camera on the helmet. Then there’s the jump, and just the sheer violent roar of the wind, it brings the whole thing to another level. Unbelievable footage. Anybody who buys the film for their library and watches the Making Of is going to be blown away. We go through some of the ins and outs of how the speciality rigs were built, too.
CHN: I love that. I was thinking too about you as a director, and where you come from an effects background. What’s your favourite part of the process now? I know you’ve only directed two films of your own, so far. Do you feel more geared towards the directing? Or are you still very at home working on effects and design and all the rest?
GB: I think it’s all of it. I grew up on the East Coast and I love in California now, where my studio is, but I constantly work back on the East Coast, at least once or twice a year. I’m always back and forth. People ask what coast I like more, and I always say I like them both. I’m not stuck in one place the whole time. And maybe that answer applies to your question.
I already feel it’s a privilege to make a living in makeup effects and creature design. It’s what I wanted to do, and luckily it’s working out with some great colleagues. To expand further into stories and films is another layer. When you do makeup effects for a film, you can’t control how the film’s going to come out. You obviously take ownership of your effects, and you choose them best as you can where you think that you’re going to be able to serve the film, and that the filmmakers are going to do your work justice and make a good film. More and more these days I want to not just be the showstopper effects, I want my effects to compliment the story in a good film.
It doesn’t always work out that way, you can’t control the film. When you do your own film, you can have your hands all over it. I take my time in prepping it, doing it, and finishing it. Especially with my film, it’s still independent, there’s still a sense of modesty to it. If [my films] succeed at any level, it’s because of the imagination, not because of the budget behind it or the money spent on a specific piece of equipment, or whatever.
I think only doing one or the other is probably healthy. After I directed Skinned Deep, my marching orders to myself, as an effects artist, were very different. I’d seen things from the other side, and it wasn’t me prepping stuff for someone else, it was me in the director’s chair, I was prepping things for myself. It upped my game.
I think makeup effects and creature design is still the main trajectory. I get to do them more frequently. A director, if they’re lucky and working, only gets to do a movie every couple years. As an effects artist, we do the effects and move on to another. We do five, six, sometimes eight films while a director only gets one or two. My imagination likes that pace, because the creatures just keep coming [laughs].
CHN: In light of all that, do you have any advice for people who are starting out nowadays? I know it’s probably a lot different from when you started out in the industry. Is there any advice, regardless if it’s for a director or an effects artists, that you feel is worth the time for young creatives to hear?
GB: Yeah, I think as an effects artist, it’s an exciting time. It’s Chinese food— sweet and sour. The exciting part, the sweet, is there are many, many venues for info. There are seven to eight legitimate, great makeup schools where people can learn the essentials, and they stress the importance of design, sculpting, and painting. If you’ve got the money.
The negative part, the sour, is that practical makeup effects are now competing with digital effects, so that pool’s getting smaller even as the schools expand and turn out students. It’s tricky. At least now in a digital age, and with a spotlight on the importance on practical effects, there’s a lot more information readily available. I wish it was like that when I was finding my way in the ’80s.
In regards to filmmaking itself, there’s now an explosion of technology where you don’t have to shoot on film, you can learn your chops on digital and iPhones. Even as modest as that may be for an overall cinematic look, a person can begin to learn the language of film— When do you cut? Why do you cut? Why did you frame it that way? What are you saying with the negative space or why did you cram them together?— and they can start to learn the psychology of filmmaking. That wasn’t available 20 years ago. It is now. So a person could make the big mistakes without wasting film stock and lab time, and then, if they, like me, were still interested in the beautiful immersion of film, they could step up, save the money to shoot the film, and have a head start.
CHN: That’s a great point about shooting on digital. Less costly when you’re messing up, first starting out.
GB: [laughs] Exactly. Like, when you’re finding your way around a 35mm still photograph, you shoot a whole roll of thirty-six to get three photos without a thumb print on it, you know? Pretty expensive to get three shots. Now with digital you can shoot off 60 shots to get your hero photo and just delete what doesn’t work for not a dime. It’s exciting that way.
CHN: When you’re making a surreal film like you’ve made, in terms of trial and error, did you ever feel at all while shooting that something might not come together quite right?
Because I’ve been on a set where something’s being filmed, seen it shot and thought it’d look good, then when it’s played back afterwards it’s like, well, that didn’t turn out near as well as I thought.
GB: I had that more on my first film, Skinned Deep, because I hadn’t done it before. I didn’t have an understanding of lenses. I love photography, and photograph stuff all sorts of time. I was much more hands-on with the photography here, I shot three-quarters of Saint Bernard myself, with my eye actually on the eyepiece. And I had learned the lenses.
I’d seen the film many times in my head before we even started shooting. That was the only way for me to really get ownership of the avant-garde material, to really make sure it would flow and work. A lot of times I would almost be as specific as saying, “This shot will be a wide angle,” and so on. I knew exactly what I wanted, before nearly every shot.
The short answer is no— there weren’t any surprises. I would know it when my eye was on the lens, whether this was what I envisioned. If it wasn’t right, I’d just swap out the lens, move the camera. And doing it independently, one of the benefits was I took my time. Once I felt that’s what I want to get out of this bit, I’d roll it. So that growth from Skinned Deep to Saint Bernard was really significant, in my learning the technical language, and really helped take the surprises out of it.
CHN: We only have a few minutes left, so I wanted to ask you one last question.
I really did love the movie and I want to know: what are your plans? Do you have any ideas for a new feature yet? Or are you content working on other projects for now?
GB: Ideas are always flowing in. Some end up on my sculpture bench, they’re characters I just want to create as a bust or a makeup. Some of that artistic energy goes to the films that come through my studio, Atlantic West Effects, as a makeup effects job.
I’m always keeping my cerebral eyes open for what comes next. I really enjoy making these films. It’s a wonderful outlet to clean the brain. I don’t rush to do it, because I think that’d be the wrong reasons for me. Ideas do get sketched down in the back of my creepy notebook that’ll probably get turned into something one day.
In the meantime, I’m conscious a lot of people never get the opportunity to make a film, and I’m trying to be present and enjoy it. And it’s fun to promote. I really appreciate you giving the time to [my film] and that you saw it. Of course I’m glad you liked it, too. It’s probably made for people like you and me, as I said earlier. If it gets any level of appreciation, that means a lot to me, more than the idiot in the business suit who’s concerned with commerce— it’s not made for that kind of person. If things go well and as time goes on, I’m sure there’ll be something more to come.
CHN: I think the film’s definitely not for everybody, which you already know. But it appeals to a wide range of people, all the same. It’s cerebral and intellectual, if you want to look at it in that light. I’m very interested in representations of trauma as a theme, and there’s much to unpack in the film when it comes to that. It isn’t solely a nice time at the theatre, there’s stuff to dig into. And it also has the visceral stuff for people who are hardcore horror fans, who dig the wild and the grotesque imagery.
Even if it doesn’t seem like Saint Bernard has a wide appeal, in a strange way it does.
GB: Well, I appreciate you saying that, and I agree. That’s part of the intention, that if someone does give it the time, especially if they don’t immediately think it’s their cup of tea, there’s things that’ll get the mind going. Mental illness takes its shape in all different forms. If, in this case, where it becomes a palette for all these artistic scenarios to unfold, people may connect with that. If nothing else, it’s an exciting new way to have a story told to them.
CHN: Like I said, I loved the movie. I really appreciate that you took the time out of your schedule to talk with me today. It’s been truly awesome. I’m going to be posting an article about my reading of the film for the release on the 14th, too. I really want to help promote Saint Bernard in any way possible. Hopefully as many horror fans and surreal, absurdist fans as possible come out of the woodwork to get a load of what you’ve put on film.
GB: That’s great. It’s going to be exciting to see how people react to it. And if you make it out to any conventions or our paths cross and you see me, please come say hello, man.
CHN: Will do. Thanks again, Gabe. Look forward to whatever you’ll get your hands into next.