In the past decade or so, the art of short form filmmaking has really come into its own as a viable and even fruitful option for burgeoning filmmakers. Previously relegated to film festivals, compilation DVD’s and special feature sections of longer films, the world of digital distribution, Vimeo and Youtube has breathed new life into short filmmaking, allowing calling cards for up-and-comers to become more accessible than ever while also giving a new home to the increasingly sequestered art of music videos. And while the genre world has seen names like Neill Blomkamp, Jason Eisener, Andres Muschietti and Fede Alvarez find themselves launched into prolific careers based solely on their impressive short films, this platform has allowed low-budget filmmakers to also share visions with the world that they may otherwise never have gotten the chance.
Enter director Michael Ling, whose adaptation of Edward Lee’s The Bighead, has already started to make waves through the genre community as a cool and graphic little horror short that’s as shocking as it is ingenious. Ling’s short recently was accepted by Calgary Horror Con, who are hosting a screening of the elusive and blood-red short, with Ling and friends speaking on the film afterwards. With a feature version in development, Ling spoke to Diabolique about putting together this eerie effort and what exactly it takes to film a novel otherwise thought unfilmable…
DIABOLIQUE: What attracted you to the project of The Bighead? Have you always been a fan of horror films, particularly monster films such as this?
MICHAEL LING: I was blown away by Edward Lee’s book,as it was only my second foray into “splatter punk”, for lack of a better term, and I kept thinking while I was reading The Bighead, “This would be a fantastic movie. Granted, a highly fucked up movie, but still a cool and original horror movie, unlike the majority of the ones out there now.” Getting Lee’s blessing for an option was a great day, and was very exciting.
I grew up on classic monster movies, the Hammer horror films and all that stuff. Detroit had a guy called Sir Graves Ghastly, and he’d show something every week when I was a kid that ranged from Godzilla versus King Kong to The Mummy to The Raven and so on, so it was a great initial entry way into that genre. Then, as I got older and had more access to other movies, my love grew [for the genre].
DIABOLIQUE: You worked with Edward Lee to make sure the film suited the novel it was adapted from. How different was the final film from your initial concept? Was there any sequence or idea that you particularly wanted for the film that didn’t end up making the cut?
LING: I’d say I got pretty lucky, since I tried to keep it as faithful as an adaptation as I could. Lee didn’t have too many story notes for me and thus, we ended up with the final script being pretty close to the initial draft I wrote. Since we just shot a short version of the full-length feature script by taking the second act and turning it into a “pilot” for the feature, there is a lot I’m still dying to get on screen. Father Tom gets very little screen time in our short, but I love that character and can’t wait to see him fully fleshed out in the full length version. His chats with Jesus are gonna be a blast to film!
DIABOLIQUE: How did you set out to make The Bighead different from stalker-monster pieces of the past? Was there any particular horror trope that you wanted to avoid or subvert?
LING: I think just the nature of the story makes it stand out, as the reason I dug the book so much is that, besides the over-the-top gore and sex, Lee actually created great characters that you get attached to and can root for. That is what is lacking from a lot of the similar films in this genre. It was our job to take those great characters from the book and not fuck ‘em up too much when translating them to the screen. Assuming we’ve done our job well enough, that should help us stand apart from other movies. Of course, the fact there is some extreme stuff in the flick doesn’t hurt in differentiating us from the pack as well.
In regards to a feature version, without getting too far into spoiler territory, I love the paths our main characters all end up taking. You might think you can see where they are headed, but by the final act, there are some shocks to come. With this short, we tried to introduce as many characters as we could and still pack in a surprise or two, mostly with Father Tom being a little bit of a bad ass.
DIABOLIQUE: Sometimes, acting in horror films can be a fun yet thankless job due to the technicality of the production and the content of the film. How important was it to you that the short film not marginalize the work of the actors? Did you approach directing the actors with a sense that lent to improvisation and collaboration or did you stick closer to the script?
LING: We got super lucky as ended up getting a fantastic cast for this short, and they were all amazing. Kelsey Tipton, who plays The Bighead‘s first victim, was a trooper and we were lucky to have her. The poor gal had to be battered around on the ground, get covered in blood, and then have a second head attached to her, for SFX purposes, all while reciting a page of a dialogue, and then doing all of that while topless in front of a small crew of people who keep reapplying blood and brain to her was something I could never pull off. Ashley Totin also had a rough day on set meeting her demise thanks to two psychopathic rednecks. Both of these ladies were super professional while dealing with intense scenes and made everyone’s job so much easier, especially mine.
I love having the actors collaborate with me on the dialogue. I am more than open to that. Carrie Malabre, who plays Charity, considers herself a co-writer on the short as she tweaked so much of her dialogue for the bar scene. I think letting the actors have that comfort can only help their performance and thus, make a better movie. Again, our entire cast was great and I think the quality of acting, especially for a genre film, is phenomenal.
DIABOLIQUE: The Bighead sports many cool special effects and awesome creature make-up. How did you come up with the design for The Bighead itself? How important was the pre-production process to you as a director?
LING: The Bighead is described in the book in very brief detail, so that was a little liberating for us. We worked with Mark Villalobos at Monster Effects and he kept us in the loop from the first sketches to the initial mold, and then the sculpting and painting of the creature himself. He is uber-talented and a great guy, too. I was like a kid in a candy store getting to hang out in his studio and watch him work.
Being a low budget short film we didn’t have all the prep time I’d have liked, but I think that there is never really “enough” time to get everything done you want to before filming. Luckily, our Assistant Director’s kept us focused on our tight schedule during the shoot and we managed to get everything we needed.
DIABOLIQUE: The Bighead pulls off a lot for an independent production. If you had more money and time, would you do anything differently? What are the benefits to making a film like The Bighead on an independent scale?
LING: Well, the obvious answer is that we’d love to have shot the entire feature script with an unlimited budget over the course of months, but that didn’t happen, obviously. In fact, that doesn’t happen for the majority of movies being made these days. I would have loved another hour or two every day, especially looking back at the shoot, but I am very proud and happy of what we pulled off.
Keeping this independent was nice as we didn’t have to worry about a studio giving us notes or trying to tame the script. I don’t know if we’d earn an R-rating or not, but making the movie we wanted to make and not having that be a concern was very liberating for all of us on the crew.
DIABOLIQUE: What was more concerning while making the film: locking down a cohesive, believable story or focusing on the practical effects so that they’re more effective on screen? Did you seek inspiration from any previous film or filmmaker when crafting The Bighead?
LING: Can I say both are equally important here and hope that we achieved that balance? Obviously, you want the story to be believable, even when dealing with a deformed, mutant creature raping and killing his way across West Virginia, since once people stop taking the film seriously, you will lose them. Practical effects, though, aid in that cause and support the story when done well, and thus, are equally important. People need to think that poor Wendy really got her head torn open to keep them in the moment, you know ?
For this flick, we tried to evoke the spirit (and even look) of 1970’s exploitation movies like Last House on the Left and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, among others. I love that raw, in your face style that lends itself to an almost-documentary feel. I’m sure, subconsciously, I’ve borrowed from my favorite directors and films I’ve loved over the years, too. There are just too many to list here.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any future projects coming up? Would you consider making a sequel to The Bighead if the eventual feature film took off with audiences?
LING: A sequel is something I’ve discussed with Lee, and he already has some ideas for another book. It would depend on the timing of a second movie, but I’m sure we’d love to use that story for the further adventures of our characters. Well, the ones that survive, of course.
Our company, Large Melon Productions, has a few projects in the works from other scripts of mine to other books of Lee’s we’d love to adapt, but right now, we are focused on the fundraising for the feature version. We have just started reaching out to people, and it is going very well. In a perfect world, we will be filming within a year. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for the most up-to-date news on festival appearances, too. We hope to be playing a bunch this fall. We are also so thrilled with being part of the Calgary Horror Convention, too!
Stay with Diabolique to learn more about The Bighead, and if you plan to be at Calgary Horror Con on August 3rd and 4th at Hotel Blackfoot in Calgary, AB, make sure to check out The Bighead. For more information and stills from the film, you can visit The Bighead’s official website. To purchase tickets and learn more about the convention, which features The Bighead, Patricia Tallman, Jessica Cameron, Tony Todd, Tom Savini, Michael Berryman, Clive Hall, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Bill Moseley, you can check out www.horror-con.ca, and you can visit their official Facebook and follow them on Twitter: @YYCHorrorCon.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.