Ronni Thomas’s vital short, Skin Kligman, starring screenwriter Matt ‘Ugly’ McGlade with Jackie Martling as Kligman, executive produced by Frank Szelwach, is a wake-up call for awareness of what is and what is not “informed consent” and what is the real cost of your vanity. In a wide-ranging discussion we touched upon the puppets created by Geppetto Studios for the film; the experiments conducted behind the walls of the Holmesburg Prison; chiseling down the story, and the call for new voices by David Cronenberg’s longtime producer Jeremy Thomas. Strong opinions on Hollywood-type films such as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer; Metrograph’s George Schmalz, Robby Müller: Remain In Light with Claire Pijman’s Robby Müller: Living The Light, and finding the vision for Skin Kligman all came up and more in our very lively meeting of the minds.
Matt ‘Ugly’ McGlade on David Cronenberg and Nicolas Roeg’s producer Jeremy Thomas’s quest for new voices: “In the pile! Underneath the Barbie and the Oppenheimer, we are in the pile of films.”
From New York City, Ronni Thomas and Matt ‘Ugly’ McGlade, and Frank Szelwach from Pennsylvania (days before his wedding), joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Skin Kligman and the state of independent films today.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello!
Ronni Thomas: Hi, Anne-Katrin, how are you?
Matt ‘Ugly’ McGlade: Hi!
AKT: I’m very well! You are my second Zoom this morning.
RT: Who was the first?
AKT: Claire Pijman from Amsterdam on her Robby Müller documentary [Robby Müller: Living the Light].
RT: That’s cool - was that a feature or short?
AKT: It’s a feature documentary screening at Metrograph.
RT: I know the guys. George Schmalz, who programs at Metrograph, he’s a friend.
AKT: It’s in connection with the Robby Müller retrospective [Robby Muller: Remain In Light], he’s the cinematographer of many Wim Wenders movies, and Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier. Do we have video for Frank? Yes, here you are - and not across the courtyard!
Frank Szelwach: Hi, how are you? I’m out in Pennsylvania getting married this week!
Ronni Thomas on Hollywood: “They have that system where they’re not making films, they’re making products.”
AKT: I know! Congratulations!
FS: Thank you very much! I’m exhausted.
AKT: Let’s get to the film! Which one of you began this project? [All Zoom fingers point to Ugly]
m.u.m.: I noticed a structure, a building. It was kind of a feudal era looking wall, when I was driving one day. And I asked my partner “What the hell is that?” It was really imposing. And it turned out that it was a prison and there were a couple of books written and my partner says “Oh the books are out of print and kind of rare and really expensive”.
And, whoa, the title is Acres of Skin. Through reading about it, it turns out that there were a lot of experiments conducted behind the walls of the Holmesburg Prison. Through trial and error and Frank’s patience and then Ronni’s skill with the camera we created the film.
AKT: So Frank, you heard about it and then your patience set in?
FS: Ugly and I, aside of good friends, we are bandmates and we like doing creative projects together. And so basically he read this book called Acres of Skin, he lent it to me, I started reading it. I actually never finished it. [Ugly shows mock shock on his face]. Sorry! But he wrote this really interesting synopsis short about some things that were happening in the book.
It was a bit crazy, his first go at the screenplay for it. So we sat down together and tried to hone it in. And I thought it would be a really good idea to get Ronni involved because he has a good vision for this kind of stuff. So we all connected through this hub of the three of us, all adding a little bit of something.
Frank Szelwach on Matt ‘Ugly’ McGlade and Allen M Hornblum’s Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison: “He wrote this really interesting synopsis short about some things that were happening in the book.”
AKT: Frank, you had sent me some time ago the link to Walter Potter: The Man Who Married Kittens, which is about taxidermy. So Ronni, are you the “skin” filmmaker?
RT: I wouldn’t say that! But I’ve done a lot, a lot of short films about weird topics. This wasn’t my idea. Usually when I make a film it’s completely my idea, I have 100% creative control. Here it had to be true to the point Ugly was trying to make, which when it came to me, I wasn’t quite sure what that was. The screenplay clearly had a vision, but it was madness. It would have been really hard to accomplish with no money.
m.u.m.: The short format, too. It was not a short format, more like a feature.
RT: It was a tough one and it took a long time to figure out what the hell we were trying to say with the thing and I’m not even sure that we got there. It’s a very short film. Ugly eventually wants to do a feature about it, so aptly it’s just to tease people and get their interest. I knew it was going to be a weird film.
AKT: It works within five minutes, I think, because it is so shocking. It’s also the time it takes to put some face cream on at night - well, if you take your time…
m.u.m.: It’s a good point!
AKT: Frank, you are getting married - I noticed that Sara [Bender, the bride] did hair and makeup for the film!
RT: In one scene! With Ugly’s transformation to the sophisticated guy, Sara did the hair and makeup for that.
Matt ‘Ugly’ McGlade as the Writer in Skin Kligman: “It’s not a documentary, it’s a docudrama, kind of. So this fictional character is based on a few inmates and the author.”
FS: To talk on the original concept, I think in general Ugly, and I hope he doesn’t take offense to this, he’s got a very big brain with some really big ideas.
RT: High concept!
FS: High concept, and I think between myself and Ronni, we needed to chisel it down into something that was more focused and shorter, because we never would have gotten it done had we not.
m.u.m.: I mean originally it was a lot of medical jargon and the true accounts of these horrendous situations that were not just related to skin cream. There were a lot of other products that were tested on the inmates and different companies that we know well that were involved. I realised it was too much information.
RT: There was also a dance routine, which I loved, but it made no sense. The murder, which we filmed, which made no sense. This film took forever to make. I don’t usually finish projects that I do with other people. I can’t believe that we finished this one!
FS: Ronni and I still have a bunch in the can.
RT: There’s nothing in the can.
FS: Or out of the can. There is no can.
RT: It’s hard. With the puppets, there was this weird idea. And then Ugly found this great puppeteer who made these amazing puppets.
Ronni Thomas on the puppets by Geppetto Studios: “The girl-puppet is a metaphor for people who just buy products mindlessly …”
AKT: Geppetto Puppets?
m.u.m.: Yeah, Geppetto Studios.
RT: The program it’s in at Raindance is the perfect thing for it. If you’re doing a short film you should take chances. One, I think people should do more short films because films are too long in general. When you go to festivals, and from 2003 on I’ve been to so many, and you look at those short films, people are trying to make normal Hollywood-type films. It’s nonsensical, you’re supposed to take chances and do weird shit with it!
AKT: You are talking about an extremely serious subject with this short - unethical experiments on prisoners! Questions about informed consent will arise and audiences will think about all kinds of testing now. Testing on animals, for instance - all the things people don’t want to see and don’t want to know about. And you package it in this, actually quite funny, short!
RT: Absurd! I don’t think it’s funny and the puppets are a metaphor. The girl-puppet is a metaphor for people who just buy products mindlessly and the male puppet is of the Kligman guy. It’s not just absurd to be absurd, there’s metaphor there.
AKT: Yes, I got that.
m.u.m.: The imagery juxtaposed with the grave information. More important is that so many people are interested in the organic lifestyle and what is healthy. What are people buying is not part of their focus but they want to make sure that it got some natural essence to it, but they’re not quite sure where the product, especially pharma, comes from. We like having the puppets, as Ronni said, as metaphor of oblivious consumerism.
Ronni Thomas on Stuart Gatt’s Catching Dust: “It’s just straight storytelling, there’s no gimmick to it, just a good story and good acting.“
FS: Just very serious subject matter packaged in this kind of absurd, more digestible on a level, less digestible on a level, but presenting it in a way where you learn a thing or two, maybe you giggle at certain stuff. Maybe you don’t understand everything that’s going on, but a point will be made. We live in a world where these things are happening, and like you said, we don’t know where things come from and the horrors behind them.
AKT: And very often we don’t care. It’s the easy way out, call it organic, give me the label and I’m fine with it. “The devil made me do it” says the label on the little tchotchke thing in the film. It made me rethink what it means, because the idiomatic expression is normally used as an excuse when somebody did something horrible to others. Here you are switching the proverb into a Mengele situation.
m.u.m.: Very true!
RT: It’s funny, when you do a short, every little detail has to make some sort of sense. And that was just a random object, I think Ugly had.
m.u.m.: Ah, not random! Not so random! To me it’s directly related. Not only is it Kligman’s internal monologue, but this fictional character. Which is another thing that I keep talking about with anybody who’s seen it or knows about it. What is this film? It’s not a documentary, it’s a docudrama, kind of. So this fictional character is based on a few inmates and the author. It is also party to the atrocities. So the devil made me do it are the consumers. It’s Kligman, it’s the person trying to expose Kligman. It’s all the people who are culpable in this situation.
AKT: Apropos the doll, did you see Barbie?
RT: I didn’t see it. I don’t intend to see it.
FS: I had a great time. Existential Barbie, yeah, I’m all for it. And Sara cried. She really really loved it, being a Barbie fan. And not so much being a a Barbie fan, I thought it was about as good as a Barbie movie could ever possibly be. It exceeded my expectations of what it might be.
Skin Kligman screens in Nova Express at the Raindance Film Festival
m.u.m.: That’s nice!
FS: Ryan Gosling was really good.
AKT: I agree, and like Sara, I was also very fond of Barbie always. I loved the movie, too.
RT: Hollywood turns out products. I’m very anti-Hollywood. I think that I have to put a line in the sand somewhere.
m.u.m.: Oh no, you’re not!
RT: They have that system where they’re not making films, they’re making products. I can’t judge the film because I didn’t see it. I walked out of Oppenheimer. I thought it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. It was just so contrived and boring and dumb. A fraction of that money could go to ten different filmmakers to make ten original ideas.
The independent scene is suffering and always has been because there’s not a lot of money to go around for it because they’re not very safe investments. I don’t spend a lot of money on Hollywood stuff. I don’t think it’ll ever return from what’s going on in the business right now and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’ll have its crushing death blow with these strikes and just peter off in my fantasy world.
AKT: Recently I spoke to Jeremy Thomas, the producer of many David Cronenberg films and Nicolas Roeg, and he was also saying, where are the new voices?
m.u.m.: In the pile! Underneath the Barbie and the Oppenheimer, we are in the pile of films.
Ronni Thomas on Skin Kligman: “I knew it was going to be a weird film.”
RT: I’m telling you, there’s this movie I wanted to make that somebody made, it’s called Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose [directed by Adam Sigal]. I thought it was phenomenal.
AKT: Good title!
m.u.m.: It’s a hoax!
RT: It’s a true story from the Isle of Man and it is about a talking mongoose. It’s such a weird story and the fact somebody else wanted to make that film and then did it, I found inspiring. But you’re not going to find it anywhere. People are not interested in storytelling, straight story. They’re not selling these movies. My friend [Stuart Gatt] made a movie called Catching Dust and I thought it was brilliant, just a straight story, very noir-ish.
I expected to hate it because I wanted to be jealous. It’s playing at Raindance as well with us, premiered in Tribeca and I wanted to hate it because he shot it on 70mm film and I thought it was such a dumb decision to make and it was great. Why did none of the other festivals want this? It’s just straight storytelling, there’s no gimmick to it, just a good story and good acting. It’s not what people want nowadays, they want ideological infusion. Not that we don’t have that in this film. There’s some ideological aspect to it.
AKT: Well, who is going to say: “Informed consent, do we really need this?” On the other hand, the way the world is today, some people might.
RT: That could be controversial as well. You could take informed consent to mean pharmaceutical industries mandating you to do certain things you don’t want to do. Which I don’t think was the case here, but you could read it that way. I like that you can read it in multiple ways.
Skin Kligman poster
AKT: Thank you all for this conversation and congratulations on Raindance! I hope it will be a great success.
FS: Thanks so much for taking the time!
m.u.m.: Thank you, Anne-Katrin, I really appreciate it as well.
AKT: I’ll time the feature for Raindance!
RT: That would be great!
Skin Kligman screens in the Nova Express program at London’s Raindance Film Festival at 3:00pm on Saturday, October 28, followed by a Q&A with Ronni Thomas and Matt ‘Ugly’ McGlade.