Back at the end of July, when I’d worked through most of my review slate for Fantasia, I realised I had room to take on just a few more titles, going beyond what readers were already excited about and checking out some unknowns. One of those films was Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink. I was quite unprepared for what I was about to experience. Though at first it may seem maddeningly obscure, this is a film that will seep into your subconscious, unsettling you at a deep level, and if you’re willing to let down your barriers, you will never quite be the same again. It is, quite simply, the most disturbing horror film to come along for decades, and there’s nothing else like it. It doesn’t so much break with formula as abandon it altogether. There’s smart science fiction underneath, and a faint echo of folklore, but for the most part, it is the stuff of nightmares.
Discoveries like this are what film critics live and breathe for. It wasn’t long before I made contact with Kyle, but we had to wait before an interview was possible, because he had a secret: he’d made a deal with Shudder, as a result of which you will have the opportunity to watch this film in the discomfort of your own home from the end of this week: Friday the 13th, no less. Whereas it’s often a disappointment when a good film misses out on a cinema release, in this case home viewing is the perfect way to watch, ideally alone and in the dark. Just don’t expect to sleep well afterwards.
With the release date now so close, Kyle and I got together to discuss the film. I told him that the first thing that struck me when watching it was the power of its fuzzy, grainy texture – the visual noise which kept my brain thinking it saw patterns which weren’t there. It’s a powerful effect but, it turns out, accidental.
“I always wanted to have grain, and I always wanted to do things like shoot down a dark hallway and have people think ‘Oh, I wonder something's going to jump out.' The whole we have grain going and in the grain you see shapes that maybe are there, that was completely an accident. And I didn't find out that people were experiencing it in that way until I started getting reviews. So that was an amazing, happy accident.”
It’s a film which builds up slowly, presenting us with a lot of questions before we begin to have a sense of what’s happening. Was he worried about holding onto his audience at that stage?
“I did always want the movie to be a little bit slower and a little bit more challenging as far as holding people's attention,” he says. “That's partially because I think audiences do have a lot more patience than people give them credit for. And I did plan things, but I did find in the end, as far as showing rough cuts to people on the crew, to my producers and such, I did have to speed things up. So I know the version that's out there feels really contemplative and paced, but there's a version out there that's way more slow and is actually 20 minutes longer. So yeah, this is as fast paced as I could get it.”
There are all sorts of little clues in there, but for much of the film, we’re following young children, and the difference in how children and adults think provides an additional layer of obfuscation and uncertainty.
“I did always kind of want to play with the idea of seeing the world through a child's eyes, and maybe their naivety and also their fears,” he says. “And the thing is, before you even start typing up the script, if you have that in your mind and set your building blocks in a certain way, and in a certain world, a lot of it just happens naturally. When the actors who played the mom and dad asked me ‘Okay, so how is this going to look on screen?’ I said, ‘Well, we never see anyone's faces and the grown-ups even more.’ We almost never see them. You know how in Charlie Brown, the grown ups are all ‘Wa-wa wah wah wah’? Well, I didn't quite want it to be like that, but that's how I explained it to them. I wanted it to feel like they're so separate from everything.”
I suggest that going with child characters makes the audience feel a bit braver about admitting that they're scared. Adults aren't supposed to let themselves be scared by certain things, but it's okay for the children to be scared, so if we identify with them then we can go into that space.
“Yeah, absolutely. I did want grown-ups, who aren’t supposed to be afraid of things, I wanted them to be able to explore being more afraid, and to almost Trojan horse the audience's feelings. And I do think also, naturally, whenever a movie is centred around little kids, we do have kind of a natural inclination to first and foremost empathise, and second of all, be afraid for them, right? So yeah, absolutely.”
I wondered if there was any improvisation on the part of your child actors, because kids often will take a film in their own direction, especially when they're that age.
“There wasn't really,” he says. “I did direct them a fairly certain way, because I wanted things to be easy for them. I will say though, I was shocked at how naturally they delivered the lines. With grown-ups, you have to work hard to strip away the acting and get them to be natural. But kids, the kids just naturally deliver things. It was like they had seen every John Cassavetes movie and just knew how to make it feel so natural.
“There's a scene where Kaylee goes upstairs and comes back down and originally in the script the two kids were supposed to hug. And we had planned for this in advance, because we were just coming out of one of the waves of Covid-19. And I talked with both the parents about ‘Okay, are you comfortable with them hugging? Because Covid and everything.’ And we had taken all these other precautions around them, to make sure that they would be safe and not transmit, etc. But one thing we didn't account for is cooties.
“When we got the kids in position, and I explained it to them, they just looked at each other and they're like, ‘No, no.’ I'm like, ‘Really?’ And they're like, ‘No.’ And I'm like, ‘Oh.’ We spent so much time taking precautions for Covid, we didn't worry about cooties, right? So then I said ‘Okay, how about this? Instead of you guys hugging, you just are sitting on the couch. Lucas and Dali, you can just come and sit over here, right?’ So we had to change that shot to accommodate their artistic differences with me. And I think the shot that ends up in the movie is really just as sentimental and even a bit more subtle and sweet.”
The film has tremendous sound design, which is a lot of what gives it its power.
“I really wanted it to, on top of looking like an older movie, to sound like an older movie,” Kyle explains. “And so we had all the dialogue recorded crystal clear, and then when I got to editing and sound design, I spoke with my friend Tom, and he was able to show me how to make it sound authentically like something that was recorded maybe in the early Eighties to late Sixties. And then as far as the sound effects, I had found a treasure trove of public domain Foley that I was able to use to great effect. And the nice thing about that too, as far as just like the visual grain where we have to fill in blanks either consciously or subconsciously, the same goes for sound, right? Even if you understand someone who's saying ‘Hello,’ in this scene, if it's not 100% crystal clear, our mind has to start doing things to surmise and fill in the full picture.’”
That makes sense, I say. Why 1972 specifically?
“Oh, so yeah, you're referencing – for those who don't know, in the trailer, there's a part where it says ’In theaters 1972’ And then it flips to ‘2022,’ and IFC actually had to change that. They had to find the specific fonts and everything; I'm sure it was a headache for them...They changed it to ‘In theaters 1973’ Ha ha, ‘2023’. But I picked that year, 1972, specifically, just because that's the year before The Exorcist came out. I also felt like this feels like an early Seventies movie that hasn't necessarily been influenced by the masterpiece that is The Exorcist.
“As far as setting the movie in 1995, that's the year that I would have been four, just about to go into kindergarten. And that was just before the world changed forever for me when I went to kindergarten. And also, it felt right for Kaylee's character, too, because she's a year older. And even though she's just a few months older, because she's already been to kindergarten and is going into grade one, she's much more mature and has things figured out a bit more.”
There's a lot of set decoration there that's really important because we’re trying to find clues in every tiny detail when we're watching it. Where did all those toys come from?
“My mom, bless her heart, kept a bunch of toys as keepsakes. Not all the toys we grew up with, much to my chagrin. There's some Star Wars toys that I don't have any more, but she kept a lot of other stuff from when we were really young, in perfectly preserved Rubbermaid bins in in the basement. And so we pulled them all out and went through them. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, these are all eerily preserved.’ These looked like they could be new in 1995. So we used a bunch of those, and a certain toy telephone was also in the bin. And I don't remember that from my childhood. I wrote it into the script based on just what I knew were toys from the early Nineties. And then when I saw that toy phone staring up at me I was” – he hesitates – “unnerved. But I thought, right, we don't have to track this prop down.
“And then the lego, we had to consciously shoot around it some ways, like we couldn't have too many super close ups of it, because it's got the Lego logo on it. And also, there was one reference to it, where one of the kids says it in the script, and then later on, I'm like, ‘Let's be safe and not have them say that line so we don't get a copyright strike.’ But regardless, I have a friend who just by wonderful. happenstance has bins and bins and bins of lego, and I happened to need that for the movie, so I was able to track that down. And then as far as making the house look sufficiently Nineties, it was a lot of taking things away. So ‘This picture looks too modern, this unit looks too modern, this couch cover makes the couch look too modern. Let's take that away.’ So it was a lot of stripping down.”
I like the way it looks like a house that's inhabited by children, because of the way things are scattered around it. Did the actors help with that?
“That was all me,” he says. “I made it all messy myself. We actually, for a lot of scenes, had to write it so that okay, when the actor walks over here or sits here, let's make sure the set is relatively clean, and we'll have things get messy after that. Because I don't want to have to worry about continuity, right? So a lot of times you see the mess, that's all shots where the kids aren't even there.”
It's such a big concept film. How did he get other people on board with that and get them to understand what he was doing?
“I purposely picked people that I thought I could work with and had understood the films I made previously, and could kind of get into my mind a little bit. So I approached my friend Jamie McRae, who's not even technically a director of photography, he's a filmmaker like me, but I think he's fairly competent as a director of photography and he also can think the same way I do. He follows all the same sub-Reddits as far as liminal spaces and weirdcore and all that kind of groovy stuff.
“And then my friend Joshua Burkhalter, also very much sees in my mind. He liked Heck, the proof of concept short film I did well before I had even started writing the initial script for Skinamarink. So I just surrounded myself with not sycophants, not people that would necessarily be critical, but people who I felt I could jive with, and it worked out. And also, I do have a lot of filmmaker friends, so I had a abundance of choices.”
Is there any secret behind the title?
“Yeah. So here's the story: I was trying to think of a working title, I heard the word skinamarink sung in a old Elizabeth Taylor movie and I thought ‘Oh, that's neat.’ I thought that was a song that was written by a Canadian musical act called Sharon, Lois & Bram, and it was somewhat popularised in Canada in the Eighties and Nineties. And then I'm like, ‘Oh, well, I guess, Sharon, Lois & Bram didn't come up with that.’ And then I researched it and found it's actually a traditional song that I think the first time it appeared in print was maybe a musical in the early 20th century. And I think even at that point, it was based on a traditional song that goes back and back and back, right?
“I thought ‘Oh, that actually could work as a working title for the movie’ It feels like it's personal to me, but actually is personal to a lot of other people. It sticks in your head, like an earworm. It's a children's song, but also nonsense. All these things kind of aligned with my vision for the movie. ‘So we'll call it Skinamarink for now. Eventually, I'll think of a way better title than that.’ And it just sort of stayed there.”
So how does he feel about the way that it's been received? And how is that going to change his career going forwards?
“It's been amazing and incredible, seeing the way people have reacted to it, seeing the way people have made fan art for it. I feel like the luckiest filmmaker on the planet right now. And I don't think it's a leap to say that that's probably true. I think I'm probably the luckiest director living right now, in this moment, and I'm incredibly grateful for it. And I feel like for my next movie – although a lot of things are uncertain, and Hollywood is a strange industry, although it's going to be a challenge, partly because I have to overcome the shadow that Skinamarink's cast – I think my next movie is going to be a lot easier, at least as far as getting funding.”
So just finally, does he ever find it hard to get to sleep at night when making this kind of film?
“Sometimes,” he says. “So in writing it – and this was a little bit of trying to run in that direction as much as possible – I do get creeped out sometimes. It's not necessarily like I wrote a scene and really creeped myself out, but more just when you're thinking about horror – when you live, sleep and breathe horror – it can be taxing. It can cause falling asleep to be difficult sometimes. For the most part I was able to keep a distance from it because, you know, it's hard to be creeped out by stuff when you saw how much went into it and you were there through the whole process, but I'm not going to lie. There are a few parts where I was editing it late at night where I did creep myself out. And I did jump and and I thought ‘Okay, it's working.’”
Skinamarink is available on Shudder from 13 January.