“All kids have stories and fears about monsters”
Award-winning visual and makeup effects artists Freddy Chavez Olmos and Shervin Shoghian’s (District 9, Watchmen, The Dark Knight) are co-directing and producing a sinister fairytale inspired by Guillermo del Toro.
Based on a story they penned with Michael Stasyna, Shhh follows Guillermo (Sean Kyer), who overcomes his fear of bullying through his imagination. The film moves through quietly unnerving territory. Guillermo has lost his mother to cancer, his father is quick-to-anger and his hair-obsessed sister – Helena – mercilessly bullies and torments the frail boy. Putting pen to paper, the boy draws what he fears the most: a hair-eating monster! But is the creature a figment of the child’s imagination or something far more terrifying?
What aspects of Guillermo’s recollections caught your attention most?
FCO: There are times in life when you come across something you feel really inspired by. A day at work, during the post-production of District 9, somebody sent me a YouTube video where director Guillermo Del Toro was interviewed about his fascination with monster and horror films, he said:
“When I was a very young child, I woke up one night after watching an Outer Limits episode called ‘The Mutant’. I was so scared by it that I started to see green ants on the wall and monsters in my closet. That’s exactly the moment when I made a pact with the monsters. I told them ‘If you’re nice to me and let me go to the bathroom, I’ll devote my life to you’. That’s the reason I started to do horror films.”
I’m a big fan of del Toro’s work and I was so intrigued by this idea that I knew right away I wanted to create a film based on this premise.
SS: I think all kids have stories and fears about monsters. It’s something that is built up by your environment and continues to grow until you confront it. If you don’t it consumes and controls you. In our film the boys’ monster is one that was placed in his head by his sister. It torments him and he has to build the courage to face and confront the creature.
You penned Shhh with Michael Stasyna, how much did the story evolve from conception to finished script?
FCO: We originally had a more dramatic version of the script based on the same premise. We decided to change some of the characters and explore more of the fantasy elements.
SS: We went through a few drafts and changes to the overall feel of the film. After all it’s a short film, so we wanted to get to the point in a clean direct way. Our storyboard artist Sion, helped us visualise the written words into boards and sculpt the feel of the film. It was a great collaborative process.
Can you tell me a bit about funding the movie and some of the other people involved in the film’s production?
FCO: We privately funded the majority of the film, but a big contribution during post-production came from a crowd funding campaign we ran through IndieGoGo. We were lucky to have a great production manager and line producer, Sarah Ann Chisholm, who helped us put together a great production team and introduced us to one of our associate producers, Heinrich Beisheim of Means of Production – one of Canada’s largest production houses.
FCO: Coming from a makeup and visual effects background you are exposed to some of the mistakes and key decisions, directors and producers make on-set or right on the script, and you get to fix them digitally most of the time. Learning different perspectives, production techniques and developing ideas is always something I keep in mind when storytelling. It is very important to know how each department operates because in the end, they appreciate that you know what you’re doing and that validates you even more as a filmmaker. The rest of the process comes naturally when you know your production team believes in your idea and you’re persistent in achieving it.
SS: I think when you love the world of cinema, whether you’re on the post-end doing the visual effects or creating prosthetics, you envelope yourself in the medium. I began my career working on the visual effects aspect of film but gradually became more involved in the bigger picture. For me, it was a natural transition from providing a specialised element for a film, to starting to think about the writing, story, characters and so on that help create the experience.
Shhh has a fascinating premise, with such heavy subject matter, did you ever feel there might not be enough room to explore everything in a short film?
SS: Absolutely, there is so much we wanted to add in there. We found ourselves getting more into the social issues of the characters and their underlying conflicts. But to really hammer that opinion home, I felt we needed a feature length film. So we tried to craft the film to take some important cues and really played with the stylisation and look of the film. I’m sure down the road we will revisit the subject matter and have a go at a really deep film.
You’re both visual and makeup effects artists and have worked on everything from District 9 to The Dark Knight. You worked closely with Tibor Farkas (a prosthetic and creature designer whose recent work includes Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to make the creature that plagues Guillermo. Can you tell us about the collaboration?
FCO: With a background in makeup and digital effects, our approach to creature work was simple: use a hybrid of prosthetics and digital effects. To do this, we recruited Sion Lee, Eduardo Parra and Kelsey Grant as our concept designers. We then approached Tibor Farkas of Theta Effect—a special effects company in Vancouver specialising in character and creature design. It was important that Tibor completely understood the psychology of our eight year old protagonist, in order to bring the monster to life. This also served as a foundation for creating a practical ingredient in our film.
Constructing a full-body creature suit was not an easy task. It required great creativity and technical skills: life-casting, sculpting, moulding, running foam, baking, painting, applying makeup, you name it. We also needed a performer to play the monster. Thanks to contemporary dancer, Ashley Whitehead, the creature had its puppeteer.
“Finding the right actor to play Guillermo was one of the most difficult challenges we faced.”
Sean Kyer plays Guillermo. What was it like searching for the right actor to play the troubled child?
FCO: Finding the right actor to play Guillermo was one of the most difficult challenges we faced. We had various casting sessions and although we liked some of the kids who auditioned they didn’t fit the part. We met with Heinrich Beisheim, our associate producer, who introduced us to Sean Kyer, an amazing and talented young actor and we knew he was Guillermo right away.
SS: We were looking for someone who could show fear and inner conflict. There was something about how Sean played the character that made me feel sorry for Guillermo. He’s a kid that’s being bullied and like most kids he takes it. There is an innocence to him but also a little bit of revenge that takes hold when he is pushed to the limit. Sean did a great job getting those emotions out.
Any plans to make Shhh into a feature? And if not, what are you working on now?
FCO: Although I believe Shhh could be expanded, at this moment, we are working on a different idea that most likely will be our feature film debut. It’s more sci-fi than horror – it will be very graphic and violent with a strong political and social message. We are pretty excited about it and we’re working on the script at the moment.
FCO: I grew up watching horror movies featuring creations from monster makers Lon Chaney, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Dick Smith, Rob Bottin and Sam Raimi. Films like American Werewolf in London, The Exorcist, The Thing, Evil Dead and Jurassic Park are the reason I got into the movie industry and more precisely, into the FX industry. Nowadays I’m a big fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work when it comes to genre. Coincidentally, he also comes from a makeup effects background.
SS: I’m a fan of anything that is different from the norm. The designs in Guillermo del Toro’s films are always fresh and interesting. Especially the work in Pans Labyrinth. I also like some of the floral and background creatures in Avatar. I thought they were well designed and thought-out. The designs are one thing, but you also need to add personality and emotion.
And finally, what makes a perfect film?
FCO: A good script will always make a great movie no matter how big the budget. There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ film but when movies are wonderfully made and tell a good story, their flaws become either invisible or totally irrelevant.
SS: Story. My career has been built on looking at films at the visual level. Not to say that is a bad thing, but the bigger picture is the story. I find most big films focus on the visual effects, or big action sequence and fall short on subject matter and intent. Films that grab me are the ones that have a deep story or theme, with strong characters. Once that basis is established then you can layer on the FXs and car chase scenes. My favourite films are the ones that you talk about for hours after you leave the theatre. I often play back a film in my mind and create sub-stories or think about the characters in more depth.