Filmmaker and Makeup Effects Artist Gabe Bartalos Returns to the Wild World of ‘Skinned Deep’ [Interview]

Horror

Gabe Bartalos is a special effects artist and director who has been working in the field for over three decades. With dozens of features across his resume, working on tentpole franchises like Friday the 13th and Gremlins, Gabe has also stepped behind the camera a few times to direct surreal, nightmare-fueled pictures of his own.

Trapped on an out-of-print and incredibly limited release DVD, Skinned Deep’s uncut version is now back in circulation – restored and remastered – from Severin Films. We got to sit down and speak with Gabe about his career, the film and the new release. 


Bloody Disgusting: Before we get into Skinned Deep, I just want to do a little background on you, because just taking a look at your career here, and even when you watch the movie, I think you can tell that you’re an effects guy. So what drew you to that? Like, when did you start realizing that was the thing that you wanted to do? 

Gabe Bartalos: Well, it’s maybe a full circle because when I was younger, I had a fascination with films, especially fantasy films or horror films, and then was making my own Super eight films. And they all had the special effects aspects to them, whether miniature effects or makeup effects. And I started to zero in on that and began to focus on that. So I was lucky enough to make that a career. And as I continued doing makeup effects a lot of times, you know, you do the face of a character, let’s say the design and the sculpture, that you maybe extended to the upper body if it’s a creature suit or gloves. And then sometimes that character would go further and I would imagine what it’s wearing, which would complement the makeup, then create a whole character. And then I would kind of picture a backdrop that it should be seen with and that would be relevant to it. And then a narrative that would get it to that backdrop. Right? And then it started going back to storytelling and the idea of communicating cinematically. And then the bug started biting again to like, you know, if you like, making a couple of short films, seeing with the film stocks are like these days. And then enough ideas started coming together for a full feature film narrative storyline.

Bloody Disgusting: That’s awesome. I mean, so obviously, you have an interest in character design; I just have to ask, were you a comic book kid growing up? Was there a series that made you fall in love with character creation, or did you kind of just stumble across it? 

Gabe Bartalos: I think probably if I were to pin down the first influences, it probably started with, like Godzilla, the big people in creature suits, which is fascinating. I think I understood even at an early age that it was make believe because maybe the built in charm of its artificialness was front and center. And I think maybe everyone was allowed to see past that. Either way, as a very young lad, I think I picked up on that, but still just loved the sheer bravado of the guy in a lizard suit stomping on stages. The Exorcist was also very, very pivotal because now we’re zeroing in on human features and changing the anatomy, but still having the declaration of a humanoid human underneath. That probably in a wonderful way scrambled my young brain and intrigued me. And then I think maybe between ‘79 and ‘81, the perfect timing of being a teenager and the sheer explosion of splatter effects and makeup effects led by Dick Smith and Rick Baker that just began to take center stage. The great effects in really great films like a really, you know, perfect storm of this new art form. And not necessarily a new art form, but an art form hitting its stride for the coming of age for a contemporary audience, which would be whoever was probably between thirteen and seventeen. In the early 80s, like a perfect window to get hit by this stuff. Like a big heated steel fist that just punches you in the face with happiness.

‘Skinned Deep’

Bloody Disgusting: It’s so awesome to know you are such a big fan and obviously hungry for that content. Then you look at your lineup of work here and it’s truly impressive. What was it like to go from being that fan to then working on projects in major staple franchises like Friday, Texas, Gremlins; working with directors like Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper? Did that just blow your mind? Like, what was that transition? 

Gabe Bartalos: It kind of did. And it’s cool you say that, right? Sometimes you see it, people in the industry could be difficult. And sometimes the job grinds you down and makes you lose perspective. But for some reason, and I count myself lucky, I really haven’t. I think at a very early age, I was lucky enough to start getting in on film sets and just getting to execute my craft, which I was already so enamored with, and was really like “whoa, this is cool.” And for some reason I already knew it was a privilege. I think just because it felt so good, it probably felt to me like you just can’t have it that way. You can’t be so into something and then be allowed to practice it professionally. I don’t know, something in there set up that equation that maybe allows me, even to this day, to be excited. But I never lost that perspective. You’re absolutely right. It was right in with Frank [Henenlotter]. And later, Stuart Gordon. Tobe Hooper. It was like within four months jumping to these talents who had already been the trailblazers and have been celebrated in the magazines we were reading about. So it was like, whoa, it wasn’t like ten years later. It was like right away. And all of them were cool. All of them were doing films that people look back on fondly now. And most importantly, had already left their mark with a film that healthily scarred me. And now I was getting to participate in their second or third film. And it was abstract at times just to be sitting there talking with them, prepping something. And it might almost be like an out of body experience, like, well, this is weird. But then to see that there is room for people to grow and get into the craft.

And I guess what is funny is that makeup effects as an industry, as an industry that supports a lot of great talent, that is new. It used to be a handful of people for years dominating it and feeling their way through the dark and creating this backdrop. And I’ll start with like Dick Smith, who was blazing a trail on his own, but then opened the door to where there’s an industry and studios and people on payroll, made it so that it could support that. That is so funny that people as young as myself at 16 and 17 were being brought on a set. Major motion pictures supporting people like Tom Savini and Rick Baker. You know what I mean? It’s like, I don’t know if you’re going to get that in the medical community or even in advanced aeronautics or something just because they need people. We get them. They’re young. I don’t know. I think it’s all pretty special and completely this product of the time, but lucky enough to be positioned and right at the age of getting into the workforce while this industry, just like a galaxy, suddenly took shape and appeared. It wouldn’t have happened four years before. And if you’re getting in, let’s say, five years later or any time after that, it’s not that same supernova burst of a big bang of a universe, you know. 

Bloody Disgusting: Now I have to bring this up for personal reasons. Munchie. No one ever seems to remember it, but I watched that movie so much as a kid. It was like a staple in my house, my cousin and I were obsessed with it. So when I saw that you were the creature creator for that movie and then found out I was going to get to interview you, I was like, “how strange the world works.” I had to text my cousin and tell him.

Gabe Bartalos: Yeah. Well it’s funny, I think you’re absolutely right, the one slipped through the cracks. I think the reason that it doesn’t get easily corralled into the world of creature effects is because it was played for a kid audience. I was doing a fair amount of films for Roger Corman at the time and most of them were horror related. Stepmonster was kind of kid friendly, but also had a horror theme. Unborn was played more mean-spirited for horror film watchers. But then they had Munchie in there. And in talking with Roger Corman, it was fascinating because it’s like it’s going to be Dom DeLuise uses the voice. And I was like, really? And I was like, yeah, I think we’d be happy to do it. And I totally liked that the marching orders were a little different. “Hey, we’re playing this very much for a kids market.” And at the time I was working a lot with Dave Kindlon, a very talented animatronics artist and mechanic. So it made sense to me that after I had designed and sculpted and painted Munchie, it kind of became his, because the head is really this marvel of animatronics. It’s just jammed with mechanics. And even though Roger Corman is known for modest budgets, Dave is known as this excellent engineer, so he just took the financial resources we had and expanded it to, you know, jamming this little Munchie with animatronics. So it was at a time where two jobs were in the studio at once, Leprechaun’s the first one, and Munchie. So it became that Dave would take Munchie on set because if there was a problem, it wasn’t like a little makeup that needed to be maintained. It wasn’t just the skin and any hiccups, it was going to be mechanical. So Dave would have been the source anyway. I was down there a few times, but it was kind of Dave running it. And then at the same time, my presence was probably best used there on the set of Leprechaun, where my skills as a prosthetic artist were being used every day, literally gluing the prosthetics on Warwick Davis. But fascinating, right? Muchie. [laughs] 

Bloody Disgusting: I am a massive Leprechaun fan and seeing that you have worked on pretty much the entire series of the original Warwick Davis run, it’s just so cool to see. I imagine working on those is how you built that friendship up with him and now he’s in both of your movies.

Gabe Bartalos: And that’s where it came from. We became fast friends. And it’s interesting when you’re doing a makeup effect and it’s a character that’s sustaining a feature film, they’re in it for the long haul. They’re going through a lot of glue-on time. And that’s where some makeup effects artists, you get to wear a lot of hats from, sculptor, painter, the prosthetic artist to what’s your character like? Are you going to be able to click with this talent and make sure it’s a pleasant experience for them? So when they go out on set, they can make the work look as good as they can. Luckily Warwick’s just a really good dude and we hit it off very well. And we actually looked forward to the sequels because we are lucky enough to have a friendship. But it was a wonderful way to spend extended periods of time while we’re each doing our thing. But hanging out, you know, having a good time. And yeah, it’s really cool. He really shared with me that when you say yes to a project you can’t control, you could still just focus on your own department and do the best you can. And I think as the Leprechaun series went on, we never spoke about it, but I could see that as seriously as I took the makeup, he took the performance just as seriously. So as the sequels went on, some went in different directions of camp or using humor. However they used it, looking back, I think we kept a sense of purity to it. Like we’re going to take what we’re doing seriously without winking at it. And maybe somehow that informed the DNA of those films, even if they started getting wild or a little, you know, out of bounds. Something in that whole stew was still grounding it a little bit. Yeah, it’s really interesting. 

‘Skinned Deep’

Bloody Disgusting: So at that point you’re twenty years into your career and you get to a point where you make your own movie; you make Skinned Deep. How did that happen?

Gabe Bartalos: Well, I think it was probably 1995. I just started, in my mind, picturing some characters that were growing past the cosmetics outfits wardrobe. And basically my mind was expanding into scenarios, high energy scenarios, cinematic frames, you know. So I shot a short film called In the Pool of Darkness in ‘95 on 16 millimeter, to basically see what is the state of the art with film these days? How expensive is it?  How are the cameras? What does it look like when it’s printed and tipping? So I make an eight minute film, just kind of a montage of stream of consciousness, I should say, scream echoes. Kind of surrealistic high energy images. And it was really, really exciting, you know, picking a little piece of the cake and realizing I’ll take this whole thing home with me, thank you. And just really reignited the feeling of “man, I think I’d like to find a way to expand and make a full feature.” And, you know, that led to then collecting my thoughts and zeroing in on things like, “OK, it looks like a bunch of whacko characters are starting to take shape.” But there’s some things that are familiar in this narrative I’m writing and there’s some stuff that’s pretty far out there. And, you know, I was hesitant a few times because of the restrictions of finance. And I began to realize that if  I could get past that hurdle, if I could still shoot, I’d shoot it in film in sixteen millimeters. That was a very good lesson for me. It made it all more important than to create images and scenarios that are standouts, that are different, because it’s a modest film and we all have a lot of them that are close to our heart that look a little rough. But there is something about purity and the emotion behind the filmmakers and the scenarios they created that rise above it. And if you’re coming from that place, even if a film is a real struggle, it will.

It’s interesting because film as an industry is one of the few things where money does equate quality but doesn’t mean quality for the narrative, you know, or good storytelling. But it’ll make a film look better, you know, and sound better. You could then throw money at nice lenses and nice gear and the sound design and a good composer. You still have to be careful about getting the basics right, of storytelling and imagery. But so there would be the hesitance and I think it’s probably what holds back a lot of people who want to be filmmakers from pulling the trigger. I think it’s worth taking the plunge, even though you’re going to know you’re going to go and create something that might be seen as modest. But if you could get some original ideas in there, it sure feels good if it’s really something you want to do, because from there you’re just going to grow. You learn so much and it’s like the best feeling on Earth. It’s so much fun to have this format of ninety three, ninety five minutes. Room to explore your imagination and, you know, my brain just keeps turning out weird, surreal imagery. So feature films are a really good place for me to wet a towel, ring a bell and get all these out into a film. And, you know, when you do it independently, yes, there are restrictions that you’re doing it with. Whatever money you have available. And you may be limited to the availability of people. But if you just flip to that, those same things that could be a problem are actually enormous blessings. The minute you take somebody’s money, you are answering to them. So if you’re independent and you have something to say, you really have a chance of making something unique. And if you have a unique voice, whether it’s writing or photography or film, you might get noticed. And, you know, time is so valuable in shooting stuff. And when you are doing a truly independent film, it’s a very valuable commodity. And you could really take a deep dive into some weirdo stuff. And that’s really what I started enjoying doing. Like we’d shoot the sequences, pretty much like a normal movie. But then as I indulged into the prosthetic effects and making them weirder, like Brain’s head cracking open and the blocks coming out, you know, things that took a lot of time. Elevated sets, multiple heads to crack open. You know, it becomes hilarious that you’re spending a lot of time on this strange stuff, but that’s the high of it. That’s what makes it special and actually worth doing. Because it’s, for me at least, so much fun. And it’s really where the expression comes out. You really get to speak through so much. And it’s amazing if you love having a weird imagination, as I do. It’s a really cool rush. 

Bloody Disgusting: So I have this column with Bloody Disgusting where I look over movies from the 2000s. That’s always been one of my favorite decades. And I’m going over this list and I see Skinned Deep and I’ve never even heard of this movie. And let me tell you, tracking it down to watch was no easy feat. And I end up watching it and I’m just like, “this is insane because it’s just so bonkers.” The effects are so fun and splatter filled, like, you know, splatstick and gory. And I was like “How are we not talking about this movie more?” Because this movie has shades of Texas, shades of The Hills Have Eyes, but then it just really runs, you know, like in this super gonzo direction. With Surgeon General and Plates and Brain. I really was marveling at watching it, I’m almost thinking this shouldn’t work. But because these effects are so good and because it’s just earnest and made with passion. This movie is so enjoyable. And I’m just really excited that more people are going to be able to finally see this thing. 

Gabe Bartalos: Yeah, you know, earnest is a good word because you, a great way to be is to not be too self-aware. I mean, it’s got to kill everything and stop everyone in their tracks and, you know, earnestness or naïve meanness. It’s a wonderful way to stumble forward. And, you know, I think you probably found the film originally in the best way, that it’s the kind of thing you would connect to if you were appointed to it. But because of a potentially limited release, those who celebrated it have found it like that. And secondly, take real ownership of it. And that’s almost the most satisfying part. We shot from ‘98 to 2000 and you know, very raw, independent, true, and I felt like an imposter for like a year. Then I got a distribution deal with AMSO Entertainment, but I don’t think their reach was that far. And in a sense, it was almost fun. I mean, it’s not the most financially aggressive attitude to have, but it was like, you know, let it just do its thing. Those who will find it and like this stuff will probably be happy about it. It’s the kind of film that I make no mistake about, it’s not for everyone. I know that, you know. Shove it down a normal ticket buying audience’s throat and they will be like, “What is this?” But those that are on the prowl for the outlandish and they find it, they’ll be psyched about it.

And it is exciting to now have Severin put out Saint Bernard. And we’re really happy with the way they rolled it out. And they were very quick to then say, look, you know, it’s like, a landmark for our kind of vocabulary and pedigree. And I love their films. So I said, well, you know, I think we’re all happy with Saint Bernard’s roll out. And I let them know we had an unrated version that we mastered way back when David Gregory ran the company and they said, well, that’s great. And the fact that it’s never been on Blu-ray and now they’ve risen to the level of being able to afford going back to the original negative, it was really great to see the picture rescanned. There’s an amazing amount of information in there. You know, it’s amazing what eighteen years can do. And the colors are richer and meaner and more psychedelic. And it’s really nice to see that film format, even 16 millimeters, has all that in there. And then the same with the audio. All the audio has been able to be pushed forward. And I think this new Blu-ray is a really nice way to either rediscover the film or see it for the first time, because all of its modesty is there for everyone to enjoy. It’s really exciting. 

Bloody Disgusting: I do have to ask, because I’m curious, how much of this was a shoestring budget? How much of the weirdness of this movie is pulled from having to get innovative and creative with things in particular? Like, I think of the cactus field fight.

Gabe Bartalos: Yeah. You know, a couple prongs to that answer. One is that, and this can be a hindrance, if you’re writing something as a screenwriter and you know you’re going to shoot it, you keep certain restrictions. Like I’m not going to write a narrative that needs a finish like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s out of my reach and I’ll be sanding sets my whole life instead of, you know, filming. But if I write something that plays to my strengths about interesting locations or things that I could build, that makes more sense. So you want to have some kind of survival instincts and write what you could shoot if you really know you’re going to shoot it. Now, obviously, there are plenty of people out there that are writing scripts and sell them as script writers and they cut their imagination loose and a project buys them and they find the money for it. And that’s great. In this case, I’m writing what I know I’m going to shoot. Sometimes there are locations like that place called the Cactus Corral. It’s in the North San Fernando Valley that I visit. There’s a place you could go and pick out cactuses and have metal sculptures. And my jaw dropped. I was like, this is a crazy place. This is fantastic. This looks like sets we are already building on, you know, so instantly I’m like, I know what I’m going to do. We’re going to shoot this, because now we’re going to get into something really wonderfully organic where we’re at a real location that has the time stamp of reality. Like the dust, the metal, the sheer volume of stuff you couldn’t build. But as you walk through doorways, then we begin to control the steps, the sense that they could build wonderful transitions. So I think finding locations has always been fun for me because you stumble upon stuff, and if you’re guiding the project and directing the film, you instantly know how I could use a corner of that or that crossbeam or this whole location if we could get access to it. So I think to answer your question, there’s a little back and forth. If I see something that’s exciting and I have access to it, I will try and leverage the narrative into it. You know, we’ll do some exteriors, that’s fantastic and have Shakes chase Plates through the cactuses. Like, I’ve never seen that before. And that’s funny. But at the same time, subliminally a threat. You know, if you fall, you’ll get spiked on the cactus. I’m laughing my ass off. This is absurd. But there are some stakes at play and then more weapons are used. Like what? 

Bloody Disgusting: Have you ever thought about returning to the world of Skinned Deep

Gabe Bartalos: You know, yes. There have been windows here and there. It’s so ripe with opportunity, even with the characters gone, you know, it’s easy to bring them back. Yeah, the characters are hilarious. They’re all products of absurdism and kind of archetypes taken to the full extension. And really, at least in my mind, there’s no shortage of that. I could go down the list and create 30 others to compliment those or resurrect them. And they all just lead to the funniest scenarios. So it would be easy to dream up another world for those characters to inhabit and would probably be a lot of fun. And they may be back.

Bloody Disgusting: Even just Surgeon General stands out so much to me. His design and… this monster but with a very human element to him. He’s captivating.

Gabe Bartalos: Well thanks. I appreciate that. And that’s I think there’s always that balance where each of those characters have this maybe little see-saw that I want to play with, that there has to be some touchstone of familiarity, whether they’re humanoid or if they’re not, doing something about masks or makeup that connect you with them. But then I want to make sure to take that to outer space, get really weird with it and absurd. But it’s that kind of back and forth and this may seem strange to say, but when I go really far out there, I want to make sure there’s some tethers in place to keep pulling it back. And I think that’s the way you keep people invested or at least myself invested. I see it as a little bit of a balancing act. If your eyes are shut and you’re walking out on a balance beam, I want to keep touching a rail in the dark to make sure there was something connecting me to a world that was familiar. And all those characters have that in their own weird way. You have Brain with wanting to have some humanity and wanting to be seen as normal. Plates, just by the lack of cosmetics on him, he’s a familiar; an insane little person. And Surgeon General who has the heaviest masquerade is still a bipedal humanoid. You know what I mean? So there’s always this little back and forth of trying to go far out there, but make sure there’s something for people to hang on to, whether it’s a sense of humor or when the violence gets a little elevated. That’s really fun. I think that becomes the craft of directing. And I see it very much like sculpture when you’re editing the film and considering sale. And how do you push the boundaries and keep the narrative flowing to tell your story? But like a sculpture, push wrinkles, push expression, pull it back to make sure that it serves what its been built for. That’s really the funnest part of it. And it’s funny how people throw around the term director. I think someone who really invested in putting projects together that they’re lucky to direct, I’ll speak for myself, I consider myself more a filmmaker. I love all aspects of it. Writing is fun, organizing it is fun, shooting. It is a blast. Editing is so important to me and you realize the power of frames when you’re putting it together. And that’s really borderline magical when you’re considering frames in, frames out. Did this punchline work, did the humor work and was the horror impactful. How far to go with the sound and the music. It’s such a cool process. 

‘Skinned Deep’

Bloody Disgusting: Well, Gabe, again, I want to thank you for decades upon decades of amazing work and then especially for bringing something as wild as Skinned Deep into the world for horror fans to check out. I mean, it’s obvious you’re still working. You got to work on Army of the Dead recently. Is there anything coming up that you’re excited about or want to promote? 

Gabe Bartalos: Yes, excited that things keep rolling. Army of the Dead was a lot of fun to do. It’s like just the sheer geography, the size of the real estate of my canvas, this giant horse to do all this weird shit on their super funds. And as there are projects, you know, as a makeup effects artist, it’s hard to control. You never know where a film is going to land. Right. It’s always the luck of the draw unless you’re doing your own film. 

Bloody Disgusting: Do you have any more ideas swirling around in your head that you need to ring out soon? 

Gabe Bartalos: There seems to be a cycle where suddenly it seems like I need to get the ideas out. I don’t know what that time is. It’s probably similar between Skinned Deep and Saint Bernard, where characters start appearing and ideas start appearing. And the trick is that they don’t go away. And it’s probably some kind of obsessive trait. And then, you know, I have a sculpture set up at home, as well as outside of my studio. And that almost becomes the signal when even after hours they sneak off. And it kind of starts forcing itself out and coming up with ideas or funny narratives or something that can crack me up. Even a sentence or a structural thing. And that’s usually what it is. And at a certain point, if there’s enough stuff to start selling it together. Like I said before, making a film is so much fun because there’s so much room to be creative, especially how I like to do it, where I like to sit there and literally drill credit cards and tie them together and solder blocks together. And obviously all the makeup, I love taking a deep dive in that. So that’s all gotta happen.

Bloody Disgusting: Well, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed because it was about 10 years between Skinned Deep and Saint Bernard, so we’re almost back on that cycle. 

Gabe Bartalos: You’re probably right. 

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