Fresh off it's World Premiere at the Chattanooga Film Festival, Abigail Braman had the chance to speak with director/actor Graham Skipper about his directorial debut, the sci-fi/horror film, SEQUENCE BREAK.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Graham, thank you so much for speaking with us today! To start things off, can you tell us about the premise behind your new film and what sparked a story like this?
Graham Skipper: SEQUENCE BREAK is about Oz, played by Chase Williamson, who's a reclusive video arcade repair technician, who on the same day as a beautiful and mysterious young woman enters his life an equally strange and potentially malevolent arcade game appears at his shop. Upon playing this game, his reality begins to crack and unravel as he begins to experience hallucinations and strange mutations as he tries to solve the mystery around the game and this girl.
In regards to what sparked this story, I have, for many years now, known about this urban legend called Polybius. It's essentially a story about how back in the 80s, there was this one arcade game in Portland in a video arcade that supposedly would cause people to have seizures, memory loss, hallucinations, and even killed some people. As the story goes, there were shady government operatives and this whole government conspiracy about mind control in the form of this arcade game. So, when I heard about this years ago, I thought it would make a great movie. But, I could never quite get it to work, or get it to a place where it was affordable to do; it never quite linked together. But, a couple of years ago, I revisited Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, and for whatever reason, everything just sort of clicked - I knew how I wanted to tell the story and it all just kind of fell together.
NC: I'm always curious to know how directors approach their preparation for a film, especially in regards to framing shots and sequences - some people use storyboards, while others wing it, or use their own methods - what was your approach?
GS: Brian Sowell, my cinematographer and I did a lot of preparation. A lot of it was watching movies together and getting a sense of the visual language that we wanted to use. I think a lot of it was both of us liking certain elements from certain movies, and how effective certain colors would be. As we would go through scene-by-scene and line-by-line in the script, we would use that mutual visual language that we kind of developed together to figure out our shots. Once you get in the room, the bulk of the work is coming in super prepared and saying, "If we had an infinite amount of time, this is what we would want to get." But once you get into the room, you block it out and you see what the bodies are like in the room with that light, and then you adjust as needed. But, I think that a lot of the success of our visual storytelling is just in being super prepared and both being huge movie fans. Brian and I really have a mutual understanding of what we like about movies, so it was really fun and engaging to get to go through that together and explore what it is that we like. Especially for me, coming from primarily being an actor, getting to look at the filmmaking process from that perspective was just really fun and different.
NC: I love the special effects in this movie, and one of my favorite scenes is when Chase's face is melting off - how did you guys tackle the special effects for SEQUENCE BREAK?
GS: That magic all belongs to Josh and Sierra Russell, of Russell FX. Those two are incredible and total wizards. They 100% got what we were going for from day one. I sat down with them and sent them the script - their immediate sketches and ideas they came up with were what I had in my head. I think with respect to building those practical effects, it really is like wizardry to me - they would come in and bring these like, strange and goopy tentacled arcade components and I would say, "how in the hell did you make that, and how did you rip that out of my skull?!" Same with the melting skull - that was definitely one of the main effects challenges from the beginning. I think it's just a testament to how excited everyone on the team was to be working on this, and to be making something that I think we all just wanted to see on screen, because we're all horror fans and we love this stuff. When you get people like Josh and Sierra, who are incredibly talented at what they do and you give them a task like that, they are all over it. They hit it out of the park.
NC: What was your overall experience like working on your first film? If I would have to guess, I'd say very rewarding.
GS: It was a great experience. I wanted to basically surround myself with people who really knew what they were doing and loved this movie and really create a family around it. I think the best film sets really thrive when it's a bunch of people that know each other, that have a report. We totally had that on this set. Being an actor, I really wanted to give a lot of time to work with my actors. I had a whole cast of really incredible performers that just totally nailed every beat - I'm so lucky that I had them. It was great being a director and being able to say, "let's have rehearsal and let's sit down and do some script work," you know? I was able to approach that aspect of it in a way that I always sort of say, "in my dream world, I would love to have several days of rehearsal." For me, it was all about collaboration, knowing what I wanted and being able to trust everyone on my team enough to really listen to what everyone had to say and to make the best decision that we could. At our first production meeting, I sat down with everyone and said, "In every single department across the board, when faced with two choices, I want everyone to make the bolder choice." No matter what it is, you can't go wrong. We're making an awesome movie and we're making something totally unique and bold, so let's be bold at every choice that we make.
NC: What were some of your influences for SEQUENCE BREAK?
GS: Cronenberg is obviously a huge influence all over this movie. I really tried to not just make a Cronenberg-homage, although a lot of people look at it that way. I really tried to think about what it was about Cronenberg's work, especially his early body horror work, that is effective and why is it effective. For whatever reason, Cronenberg's stuff really sticks with me in a different way - like, I can watch THE EXORCIST, and I think about it and it affects me, sure, but then I watch something like VIDEODROME, RABID, or DEAD RINGERS, and there's something so unsettling about them that I find it really fascinating. I think it was in developing SEQUENCE BREAK that I really got to explore the idea of body horror and this sort of biomechanical and physical mutations as a way of cinematically making metaphors come to life. It's a totally unique thing that you can only do in a movie, and I think Cronenberg does that so beautifully. So for me, I ultimately felt like this story is about a guy who's really caught at a major crossroads in his life and he doesn't know which passion he needs to be devoting himself to. It just suddenly felt appropriate to be using these techniques and these elements that I don't think are used often enough. In addition to that, there's Ken Russell's ALTERED STATES. That is a movie that I didn't get at all when I first saw it. But that's another movie that if you keep unraveling those layers, the movie keeps going deeper. That's what we wanted for SEQUENCE BREAK - we wanted to make a movie that people want to come back to over and over again to really pick apart through all its meanings.
NC: I totally agree with that, too. Some of my favorite movies have a ton of complex layers, and your opinion of them will be totally different from the third watch prior to watching it for the first time.
GS: Oh yeah, definitely. The first Lynch movie I ever saw MULHOLLAND DRIVE. A bunch of old high school friends and I gathered at my parent's lake house, and we rented two movies from the video store - we rented MULHOLLAND DRIVE, because one of the guys in our group said, "oh, I hear you see boobs in it", and then we rented FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART SEVEN. Once we put on MULHOLLAND DRIVE, we stayed up all night long and watched it three times in a row. We watched it, and we said what the hell was that? The second time, we still said, "What the hell was that", but I think I understood it a little bit more. There were a few of us still awake at dawn and we watched it a third time, and for me, that moment made me realize that movies can say a lot, and David Lynch is a total master. And of course, after that, I went down the rabbit hole that was Lynch and haven't really ever come back.
NC: (laughs) Yes I completely agree. For our last question, what do you have planned next in regards to writing and directing?
GS: I would love to continue to write and direct. I think that SEQUENCE BREAK was an opportunity that presented itself really out of the blue. It was almost a bolt from the gods that delivered unto me this amazing opportunity. I have several scripts that I have been working on over the years - right now, we're working on touring around SEQUENCE BREAK and getting the word out about it, and hopefully selling it and getting it out into the world. And then from there, who knows. I'm also looking forward to acting more and getting back into that as well. If the opportunity comes about, I'd love to direct again and tell some stories, hopefully each one weirder than the last.