Director Toby Wilkins on SPLINTER

One stick and you're stuck: a contagion spreads in SPLINTER

One stick and you're stuck: a contagion spreads in SPLINTER

Here’s SPLINTER’s back-to-basics approach to freaking out an audience: Get a bunch of people — in this case, a vacationing couple (Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo) and a hardened criminal and his main squeeze (Shea Whigham and Rachel Kerbs) — trapped inside a gas station, and have a Big Nasty try to get at ‘em. Screams, hopefully, will follow. Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons spoke with director Toby Wilkins:

How did this project come about?

Director Toby Wilkins

Director Toby Wilkins

It was a two-fold thing from the beginning. I got a script in February, ‘07 called TOOTH AND NAIL, which I hugely responded to because it sort of reminded me and plucked at my heartstrings for all those entrapment kind of stories like DAWN OF THE DEAD, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE THING, ALIEN — you know, those kinds of movies where people are trapped with each other, whether they’re friends or foes, and have to deal with the situation that’s at hand.

And then I had had this creature design in my head for a while, with my friend, George Cawood, and I had been brainstorming ways to bring it to the screen. It was sort of a what-if question: What if an entity were able to get inside the human body and use its skeleton and break it, distort it however it saw fit? What would that feel like; how long would you live? Visually, how cool would it be to see the human body used just as a puppet, from the inside? What SPLINTER ended up being was a combination of those two ideas.

What appealed to you about these entrapment films, and how did you feel you could break away from what had been done before?

Paulo Costanzo brings the hammer down.

Paulo Costanzo brings the hammer down.

It was the interesting characters that I identified with, and being put into a situation where I feel that it’s the characters’ own set of skills and flaws that make them succeed or fail. In DAWN OF THE DEAD, you’ve got people trapped in a shopping mall, and it’s how the most resourceful use all they’ve got there to survive that makes that movie really interesting to me. There’s a direct parallel to SPLINTER there, with my people being trapped in a convenience store for most of the movie. I saw DAWN OF THE DEAD when I was perhaps fourteen or fifteen, and it stuck with me for the following twenty years.

They don't know what they're getting into: Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo.

They don't know what they're getting into: Jill Wagner and Paulo Costanzo.

What we wanted to do different was… I don’t know that we wanted to do anything different. Stylistically, it’s very, very different; it’s quite a modern look. The d.p, Nelson Cragg, helped me create that, and editorially it’s a lot faster than any of those movies from the ’70’s. But fundamentally, what I think is so great about those movies is kind of what’s been missing from horror recently. There seems to be this joy in creating and killing as many characters as you can as quickly as you can, which I think totally ignores an audience’s need to get to know a character in order to feel any kind of dread at their death.

Once you came up with the concept of the monster as a sort of meat puppet, what was the genesis of the creature?

Once we came up with this visual and visceral concept of how the creature takes over your body from the inside, all that was left was how it transfers from one body to another, how the infection spreads once you are infected. The idea of the sea urchin/spine concept sort of resonated with George and myself as the perfect way of spreading this thing from one person to another — something’s got to break the skin, and everyone who’s swum in a tropical ocean and has stood on a sea urchin and gotten those spines stuck in their foot know how painful that is, and how those things are designed to burrow into your skin. What purpose does that serve for a creature like that? So taking that and expanding on that idea to create a method of reproduction for our splinter creature just seemed like a great and scary thing. From one, tiny prick, you can be doomed to be slowly consumed from the inside.

One of the cooler things in the film is the choreography of people who are being taken over by the creature. How did that come about?

Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner and Shea Whigham behold the nasty.

Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner and Shea Whigham behold the nasty.

It was a combination of lots of things. I did, at the very, very early stages of script development, a series of animated, wireframe human figures moving and being distorted and broken, just to communicate the idea of this creature, so we could just be on the same page as to how this creature moved as we were developing the script. Some of it just came from the abuse of a CG human being and me playing with different ways it could walk and move and jump, based on the basic premise that, in my head, the creature, if you can call it that, has no brain or intelligence. It just works on muscle memory of the creature that it has assimilated. So if it’s coming from a forest and it’s inhabited anything from a squirrel through a deer or a bear, those are the animals that influence how it moves. But because there’s no brain, there’s no head to the creature, it doesn’t know really how to [organize] all these pieces of information that create a method for it to move. It becomes a jumbled version of the types of movement those different creatures use.

On the [shoot] we had three different people working inside the suit or in varying types of makeup — actually four, including the close-ups of hands and stuff: We had a national champion gymnast; we had an actor with four years of mime training; and we had a stunt man who was signed up to do the really dangerous stuff. All of those different people doing different types of movement, different pieces — we had the gymnast to do a jump or a flip, and then the mime would come in to do the more expressive arm movements that you see in the first attack in the movie — just all those little pieces were stuck together to make the movement of the creature sort of what was in my head.

You went out of your way to give Dennis, the character played by Shea Whigham, a pretty extensive back story. Why was that important?

Jill Wagner and Shea Whigham team up.

Jill Wagner and Shea Whigham team up.

I think it goes into the thinking with all the characters. With Dennis, specifically, his transformation goes from a pretty extreme, violent bad guy in the beginning of the film, and in order to get the audience on-board with feeling some empathy for his character at the end of the movie as he overcomes one hurdle after another, to feel empathy for him we needed to know what events in his life had led him to be the guy he was pretending to be at the beginning of the film. And by way of telling those stories and opening up to Polly and Seth [the characters played by Wagner and Costanzo], he’s sort of opening up his heart to the audience as well. For the most part — and this is true throughout the history of movies as well — those bits of back story and the opening up of people’s pasts are essentially irrelevant to the matter at hand, but do an enormous amount of work for creating likeable and believable characters.

What do you think Shea Whigham brought to the role?

The new good/bad guy: Shea Whigham.

The new good/bad guy: Shea Whigham.

Oh, Shea’s an amazing actor. He just such a… I keep saying he’s a powerhouse of acting talent, and he really is. He walked onto the set — day one we shot the event that initially thrust the two couples together and locked them in this very violent situation that bubbles and boils throughout the rest of the movie — and his performance during that scene, which was I think our second day of shooting, really set the bar for the intensity of the rest of the production. He just ripped into the movie like… like a banshee. [Laughs] That’s not really the right word… Tasmanian devil, dingo, I don’t know. But it was a very intense first day of shooting for him — we shot that carjacking scene basically as a play, let it play out from start to finish and shot it from the sidelines, and it really opened everybody’s eyes as to what this movie was going to be, the intensity and level of acting that was going to be present on-set.

About the Author

Dan Persons

DAN PERSONS is a New York-based writer who first got bit by the Cinefantastique bug when he encountered the 1979 double issue devoted to the sci-fi classic FORBIDDEN PLANET. He contributed for many years to the magazine, first as a correspondent, then as an editor.

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