Ben Aston is a 26 year old director who graduated with a BA in Philosophy before moving on to The London Film School where He Took His Skin Off For Me will be his graduation film. His previous short Dinner and a Movie has been officially selected for the Palm Springs Shortfest, London Short Film Festival and Edinburgh Film Festival 2013 which named him a ‘British director of tomorrow’
Ben (website: www.benastondirector.com) has recently launched a kickstarter campaign in order to bring the enchanting yet haunting story of He Took His Skin Off For Me (penned by award winning author Maria Hummer) to life, needing £7000 to add to the cost he has already personally invested in the project. Halfway in and already halfway funded, prospects are looking good for the young director although crowdfunding is a nerve racking experience and one which needs the continued help and support of the public in order to succeed.
Hello Ben, firstly what was it that made you want to become a director?
To be honest there was no other option for me; it’s what I have always wanted to do, ever since I was a kid. I really like telling stories and this seems like the best way for them to reach as many people as possible.
Tell me a bit about your previous short Dinner and a Movie
Actually Dinner currently doing the festival rounds, we just got back from Edinburgh and its off to Rhode Island at the end of the Month. It’s a dramady about a man who meets a woman on a prison dating site, taking her out on the first day of her release and brining her back to his trailer park. It was shot in London but set in Michigan which we were amazingly able to pull off. I see it as a bit Lars and the Real Girl-esque. It’s about the fear of opening yourself up to love but ultimately letting that fear in and dealing with it, whereas He Took His Skin Off For Me is more about damaging yourself for love so in a way it’s kind of an emotional sequel. They both toe the line between different genres
What was it about Maria Hummer’s story He Took His Skin off for Me that drew you in?
Reading the story for the first time is an experience. The imagery and the language is really strong, being at once haunting, dark, tragic and beautiful. When I read it I was surprised it didn’t already exist, it sounds familiar yet it’s totally unique. It’s one of those tales that that grabs you by the back of the neck and demands you make sense of it- the whole idea of the guy being skinless; what does it mean? What are you trying to tell me? What is the subtext? As a writer Maria is elusive as to a singular interpretation, thus the power of the allegory is how multifaceted it is. Everyone comes out with something important and personal.
When I read it, I see as a cautionary tale. I see someone changing themselves totally for another person. Two people can change together, but this situation is a one way sacrifice. If I were to take off my skin for the person I love, it could mean giving up on being a filmmaker. It’s something I could do, it wouldn’t kill me… It might even be great at first, romantic, but slowly things would mount up, and before long I would grow to resent the person I was with. In fact I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself. It would be horrifying.
In relation to genre where does He Took His Skin off For Me lie?
That’s part of its appeal, there are so many different aspects to this film that defining the genre has been difficult. It is definitely not a comedy but there are elements that are darkly comic, it is a mixture of magical realist, fairytale, body horror and sci-fi all rolled into one. There are elements reminiscent of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, in relation to morals, and it’s also kind of a cautionary tale in that this guy is sacrificing everything for his partner, but having such a skewed relationship is always going to end messily (both literally and figuratively in this case). The skinless man is anatomically beautiful but also kind of terrifying, the gore gives the audience a visual of the horror, however the couple don’t quite see it, they can’t comprehend how their relationship is poisonous, and that in itself a horror story.
Where did you gather inspiration for the visuals and bringing the skinless man to life?
Obviously the source material was a great guide for the visuals; I also have the pleasure of working with Jen Cardno, who is taking time away from the Royal College of art to be our SFX supervisor. We could probably point to anything that has a Jon Brion soundtrack as a tonal inspiration to skin, think Eternal Sunshine or The Future, but in general the flayed man imagery is ancient; there are so many places to gather inspiration. Damien Hirst’s Saint Bartholome, Exquisite Painand particularly the work of Gunther Von Hagens have been influential, they are extremely beautiful. Gunther took these skinless people and had them playing chess and doing normal things, that’s what we were looking to do – take the imagery and make it simplistic and domestic. There are many films, for example Hollow Man, where you see people lose their skin and you just don’t believe it – you know it’s not real. Hermes Pittakos who worked for the FX house that did Robbie Williams Rock DJ video also, which has been a useful recourse. Robbie’s not the skinniest of chaps and in this case prosthetics need to be added on whilst giving the illusion that something’s been taken away, so we decided the size of the actor would be important in casting as we want to be able to sustain long close-ups, therefore as oppose to going for an anti-skin suit we have opted for a body map– which is creating individual muscle tones and painting them onto the body to give a more realistic visual.
You have a really strong team working on the project, how did all come together and what is it like working with experienced professionals such as Colin Arthur and Fiona Lamptey?
I met Fiona, who is a production manager at film4, at the London film school when I had the opportunity to pitch to people on her course. I just read Maria’s story and she said yeah let’s do this, let’s make it rock. Her company ‘Fruit Tree Media’ is producing the film. With Colin I was in the process of developing the screenplay from a one page first person story, which is difficult to do. We had just met with a few production houses across London but weren’t being quoted realistically achievable amounts. He was holding a weekend workshop about prosthetics (which is also where I met Jen). Afterwards I had a chat with him, bought him a few pints and that was that, he was in. He really wanted to give back and help, he said I needed to bring together young people who were passionate about the project and he’d come in and give his wisdom on the things that you’d only know from years of experience. Everyone’s just doing it out of love really. Colin and I have been emailing back and forth casting, he’s anti CGI as he was around before and knows it just doesn’t look as good. What we are doing is ballsy and rare, and real! Those who work in SFX are artists, but at the minute all they get to do is zombie films. We’re trying something completely different – we get to skin a guy!
What to you plan to do with the funding you raise from Kickstarter?
Well I have been working on this for the past year, saving and contributing whatever I can. This is my graduation film from the London Film School, so with the money from them and work I had a start but not enough to make it really come to life. The funding from Kickstarter will cover the expenses and the base cost of what we’re buying – transport, food, space etc. We believe in practical special effects, and that’s what this is about for us – making the visuals as strong as possible. This is the smallest amount we could ask for and be able to make the film, it would also be ideal if we could shoot for another day so hopefully reaching and exceeding our goal will make that possible. I also want to be able to give back a little to these great artists who are giving us there time; say ‘hey! I can get your bus fair or maybe even lunch as well as providing them with skin man’s lube and blood’.
If successful (and fingers firmly crossed for you) when do you plan to have the final piece ready for audiences?
Currently we’re set for the second week of September for the shoot, depending on who we get in the roles, so it’s not far away. The thing about Kickstarter is it’s novelty is wearing off so now you have to really convince people, they have to love the project to invest – which in many ways is a positive thing. The really fun thing about it is the feedback from people who tell us what this means for them, which has been quite profound, the story has affected people in many different ways and the response for us has been overwhelming and outstanding – it really makes you aware of your audience.
Hopefully we’ll be able to deliver the finished film by the end of this year, start of next – I am hoping to have it ready in time in order to hit Sundance, but I’d also like to get people who’ve invested to see it as soon as possible.
There are some excellent incentives for investors in this project, can you tell us a bit about them?
Oh yes there are some great incentive for backers, we spent a lot of time thinking about what to give back and it was a really fun part of the process. One of my favourites is for those backing £100 or more where Maria will write you a personalised story with your name and a setting of your choosing, but there are tonnes of others. There are digital downloads, personal thank you videos, access to the score, producer credits, tickets to the premiere, pieces of muscle – which is really cool and also for one backer we will get the skinless man to record them a personal video message which can be for anything they’d like. Oh and finally if anyone bids over £1500 they get everything else plus the skin suit – a truly one off piece of artwork that hangs in the closet in the film, imagine how much you could freak your friends out with that.
Were there any major obstacles to overcome in getting this project off the ground?
When you do something this different, there are always going to be certain challenges to face. It actually feels closer to literature than a lot of films (think Margaret Atwood) but I just knew this was the story for me, I didn’t want anyone else to get the chance to ruin it so I just had to do it. However it is darker than stuff I have done in the past and coming to terms with how different it is was kind of difficult, it puts you in scary but very special place. And the fact that we’re stepping on new ground, unchartered territory with no reference to work off, is kind of scary.
Whose career do you admire, or is there anyone you would love to work with – either in front or behind the camera?
Ruby Sparks was my favourite film of last year – it’s not dissimilar to skin in taking a domestic relationship story and applying a magical-realist twist. It astounds me how it maintains such a high level of quality throughout, whereas the similar Stranger than Fiction simply can’t. Pretty much any film that has a Jon Brion soundtrack has my heart, I don’t know why but he just ends up working on the most amazing stuff. I get excited by stuff that messes with genre, particularly comedy-dramas- your Jason Reitmans, Alexander Paynes and Wes Andersons. Or anyone that mashes sci-fi sensibilities into the real world- your Edgar Wrights or Neil Blomkampfs
And finally… any advice to aspiring filmmakers out there?
I’m an aspiring filmmaker! But I’d tell younger me to freaking do it, just make them. Also collaborate; always find people you enjoy working with, I remember reading that Bruce Campbell once said ‘the secret to filmmaking is finding the people you really like working with and keep working with them’ which is something I really took on board. Don’t do it alone, having a strong support network is key. I think aspiring directors fall into two categories – those that need to learn modesty or those that come round the other way and need to learn to comfortable being called an artist. I struggled with the idea of being an ‘artist’, so I guess I’d say make lots of movies, but when they start becoming films, don’t be scared about it.
Listen to Maria Hummer reading out her short story He Took His Skin Off for Me here
This is one campaign that really caught our eye here at Critics Associated and we wish Ben the very best of luck. For more information and to find out how you can help Ben and his team bring this unique tale to audiences visit their Kickstarter page at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/benaston/he-took-his-skin-off-for-me-a-practical-sfx-short