Lonely Wolf International
Film Festival 2022
A Ship of Human Skin
June 5, 2022
A gothic tale of mysticism and violent crime. Two women go out into the fringe of rural culture to seek a revelation. They get trapped in a fierce place, and one murders a man with an ax after she has a vision he is an evil thing. Legend spreads that while locked away in prison, she levitates.
Hi Richard, it’s great to get to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening?
I’m doing very well, thank you. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been able to keep working on fiction films and documentaries, owing to safe practices with a very small crew. Filmmaking might seem like an indulgence in such serious times, but it isn’t. Images are important for the culture and the inner-lives of individuals. My part is to work responsibly and try to contribute interesting images.
How have you managed to stay positive and busy?
The work makes me happy. Not comfortable, necessarily, but happy. When I’m thinking about the emotional and spiritual values of aesthetic preferences, the images in a film and the language that goes with them, I’m a better partner, better friend, and better neighbour. It has to do with being fully occupied, being of use—even in the tiniest way an independent filmmaker can be of use. That’s where the positivity comes from and the desire to keep busy. As to method, I’ve always worked with small, restrictive budgets. This experience has helped me navigate films through difficult situations like the ones we have with the pandemic and subsequent inflation.
You have had a great festival run so far with A Ship of Human Skin, did you imagine your film would get this type or response?
I’ve been delighted by the festival response and am grateful for it. Festival programmers have seen past the tight resources A Ship of Human Skin was made under. That isn’t to say judges have had to look through muck. Ship is beautiful movie to look at. It’s poetically inclined, with compelling performances. But there will always be a rough hewn quality to films made for less than the price of a used car. And yet, such a budget is, for me, part of the point. I refuse to think that a large budget presents the only means of achieving something of quality. My films are intended as evidence to back this up. I hope this statement doesn’t seem immodest or as though I’m speaking towards some indie film manifesto. The point is, I’m grateful there are festivals hospitable to films that are inventively raw. I think everyone benefits when festivals take occasion to look past name brands and lucrative packages and present films that have an appealing oddness.
A Ship of Human Skin was shortlisted for Best Feature Film at Lonely Wolf, what has it meant to you to be part of this amazing line up for film?
It’s been great! The people involved with Lonely Wolf want to make something interactive and important for indie film lovers and filmmakers. I’ve been totally delighted by their enthusiasm. And their presentation is top notch.
How important are festivals like Lonely Wolf in championing and supporting indie filmmakers?
Very important. The marketplace for movies, and that includes festivals, is in flux right now. One way to navigate this is through intelligent programming at the festival level. Bold new films and hidden gems—that’s the vital stuff. Truly independent festivals connect viewers with the optimism that drives innovation.
What is it about the macabre that interests you so much as a filmmaker?
There's something mysteriously optimistic about the macabre. It somehow manages to confirm our convictions that we're not living in the worst of worlds.
Can you tell me how A Ship of Human Skin came about, what inspired your film?
I was very excited to tell a story that involves mysticism and violent crime. And I wanted women at the centre of it. Female characters invested with the authority of prophetic visions. That detail would make them outlaws. Women aren’t allowed to show such authority in the major faiths, and the restrictions create all sorts of dramatic possibilities. The two women in this film are called Jeannie and Saribeth. Jeannie has a gift for religious language and Saribeth is her disciple. They’re young, and not too sure about how to apply themselves. They go out to the fringe of rural culture to seek a revelation. And there they encounter real trouble—an evil situation. Jeannie commits murder with an axe to save Saribeth from a bad fate. While in prison, Jeannie levitates.
As for the inspiration, the prophetic imagination is very interesting to me. But I’d have to say the film is chiefly about defending the notion of being different. Caring about people who find wonder in the normal details of daily life and then dramatising the tensions that arise in such a life, distilling the toughest situations with humour. Humour is important in this movie—an absurd sort of humour.
How close do you like to keep to your screenplay once you start shooting, do you allow yourself much flexibility?
I value flexibility. But that’s not to say we improvise on set. I like to attach camera angles to specific lines of dialogue, and so I try to preserve that workflow. But I begin with a short script—about 70 pages. I know I’ll need to fill in more once production begins. It gets worked out on set which ideas need further exploration and how he might show another side of a character’s nature. These things get talked about and then I write them out. We then find time to fit them into the schedule.
What where some of the challenges you faced making A Ship of Human Skin?
We managed to make it past the usual impediments of zero budget filmmaking. And then something quite unexpected happened. This goes back to your question about the importance of independent and underground film festivals, how vital they are. Ship got picked up for world wide release. This elliptical picture about axe murder and levitation is now available in living rooms and on laptops and devices everywhere—think about that!
As to the central challenge, I had a hard drive die on me while editing. I tend to make three or four edited versions of a scene. Fortunately I had those copies, but I lost a lot of source material. In Pro Res HQ format, DCP and Blu-ray, the film looked terrific in festival theatres. But the QC test for streaming is unforgiving. The magician’s tools of distraction such as montage and music have no effect on a QC test. Every technical flaw had to be addressed. It was extremely difficult because I didn’t have source material for a lot of the film. The copies of the scene’s I’d made had colour and sound baked in. And those colour and sound decisions weren’t final at the time I lost the hard drive. Long story short, I worked day and night to get every frame of the movie up to code. It was exhausting and terrifying, but it all worked out in the end. I’ve looked at the film on different streaming platforms and I’m pleased with the quality.
Is there anything you would have done differently on this film?
No, but I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. There’s an innocence about Ship that is perfectly preserved. I can revisit that innocence when I see it. The film is as much about the making of a movie as it is about the story of prophetic imagination in two rural women. You can see the making of the film in the various experiments employed in the style of the film. The story and its making are of one piece. Probably that’s a naive decision, but I like that about this film.
"There’s a distinct quality of light that falls on north Texas, where I live. Most films set in Texas aren’t shot here, and so moviegoers don’t get to see this light."
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes. But I grew up on a small farm in Texas, and so the idea of making movies seemed pretty remote. I found that I had a cinematic imagination. Chores like feeding cows, mowing fields and mending fence were all invested with cinematic flourish when I was a child. I imagined lens flares and tracking shots in all my labours. I’m grateful that digital technology makes it possible for people like me to make movies. And I’m grateful for the edgy festivals that program movies like mine.
Has your approach and style to your films changed much since your debut film?
All my films have been driven and will continue to be driven by natural light. There’s a distinct quality of light that falls on north Texas, where I live. Most films set in Texas aren’t shot here, and so moviegoers don’t get to see this light. But it’s marvellously cinematic. I love to shoot outdoors. I follow the light.
King Judith is currently on the festival circuit, can you tell me a little bit about this film, where did the idea for this story come from?
King Judith is the story of a detective named Miriam, who is investigating the disappearance of three women. The missing women are academics who'd been studying "lady of the lake" stories across the American south. The case turns dreamy and strange when Miriam starts having visions of Judith, a powerful ghost of the lake.
I grew up in a rural place. I love folklore and ghost stories. This was my opportunity to make a poetic ghost story.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone thinking about getting into filmmaking?
Please consider the local plant and wildlife in the area where you shoot. Consider how noise and emissions effect the lives around you.
Will you continue to explore the macabre genre or are there other themes/subjects you are hoping to explore with future films?
Oh yes, I really love a macabre storyline. But one alternative stands out. I’d like to make a movie about the artist Nancy Holt.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from A Ship of Human Skin?
It’s a film about selfhood and eternity. And about what we mean when we talk about miracles. I hope people will have interesting reflections about these matters after seeing the film.