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Getting a Buzz: Clark Brandon Talks about Skeeter

Giant bugs and oversized, man-eating reptiles are nothing new to the horror genre. Early films from the 1950s like Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), and Beginning of the End (1957), swarmed theaters in postwar Hollywood, becoming what we now refer to as the “Big Bug” subgenre. In many of these nature-runs-amok films, the creatures symbolize the manifestation of cultural, political, economical, and environmental anxieties within society. During this era, entomological warfare programs (the systematic biological weaponizing of insects to damage or destroy crops and attack populations of people) sprung up around the world, as did a fear of geographical invasions of insects, like the Africanized honey bee from Brazil. The use of insecticides, like DDT, and other chemicals also managed to stir fears in people as the impact of these substances on us and the environment was still largely unknown. Mutated animals derived from toxic waste and man’s abuses on Mother Earth became a go-to subgenre for many low budget horror filmmakers. While many of the movies were made in the 1950s and 60s, this film genre never really vanished from the horror genre—and why would they? After all, one of the things that horror films have excelled at for more than a century is reflecting many of our cultural fears and phobias. With all of that said, may I kindly introduce: Skeeter.

As a horror-crazed youngster, I grew up on a diet of B-monster movies. Films like Skeeter (1993) represented a particular flavor of 90s low budget horror which appealed to me back then, though it wasn’t for everyone. Some considered the era—which, admittedly, had its fair share of silliness—to be hackneyed and forgettable. Still, there seemed to be an appealing quality about this kind of B-movie fare—whether it was because they fell into the “so bad it’s good” camp, or because many were void of a campy, self-awareness that so many contemporary B-movies seem to have in abundance. Whatever it is, nature-runs-amok and when-animals-attack movies from any era have scratched a particular itch of mine for as long as I can remember.

It wasn’t just the bugs that drew me to the light of Skeeter. I’ve also long been an admirer of actors Michael J. Pollard and George Buck Flower. My first time seeing Pollard on the screen was when he played Bug Bailey in Dick Tracy (1990)—though he’s perhaps best remembered as portraying C.W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The first films I remember seeing Flower  in were Bill Rebane’s 1979, The Capture of Bigfoot, and a personal favorite, Pumpkinhead (1988). Both actors brought a considerably unique style to the films they appeared i—and today are still considered by many inside the film biz—as two of the most memorable character actors in cinema. Few actors can boast as diverse a film resume as Flower’s (he appeared in everything from softcore erotica, horror films, and family-oriented films) or Pollard’s who studied acting under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg and alongside other soon-to-be world famous acting giants like Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. Indeed, despite their quirky personas and willingness to appear in everything from low budget schlock to big budget cinéma, do not be fooled: Flower and Pollard were true veterans of cinema.

But I digress…

The plot of Skeeter is all too familiar: a real estate developer is dumping toxic waste in old mines which causes local mosquitos to mutate into giant, bloodthirsty monsters. Local sheriff Roy Boone (Jim Youngs) and his love interest, Sarah (Tracy Griffith), are tasked with stopping these killer insects—and the local real estate corruption—before they take over the world. The film, initially released in 1993, was directed by child-actor-turned-filmmaker, Clark Brandon. In addition to the aforementioned talent, Skeeter also stars Charles Napier (The Silence of the Lambs) and Bill Sanderson (Blade Runner). And one interesting side note I learned while talking to crew members: some of the prosthetic molds from Raging Bull (1980) were repurposed for some of the skeeter stings. Fascinating!

Below is an edited, condensed version of my conversation with Skeeter director, Clark Brandon. We unpacked everything from why he made the movie to some of the freedoms and handicaps he experienced on the set. As it turned out, Skeeter was the ultimate education in first-time, low budget horror film directing.

John Campopiano: Tell me about the birth of Skeeter. How did it all begin?

Clark Brandon: I had written and acted in a film called, Fast Food and the producer on it said, “I’ve got this bug movie idea that everybody is biting at, but I need a script.” I told him that I didn’t want to write or star in it, but that I’d love to direct it. That’s how Skeeter came my way.

The very first script dealt with the heavy metals which had created the big mosquitoes. Unbeknownst to the townspeople, the radiation slowly began affecting them and causing them to hallucinate. The initial concept was very visually surreal and that was the appeal for me: to explore the visual elements of storytelling. That visual element was something I felt would stand out to audiences.

The other appeal of Skeeter was the opportunity to direct and get that first feature film under my belt. At the time I felt that I’d rather become known for making a movie that blew everybody’s mind even if they didn’t know what the hell was going on, than for making a film that was predictable and failed to stand out. Some of the small, 1960s-style hallucinogenic visuals remained in the final version, but most of it was squeezed out of the film. Michael J. Pollard was a remnant of that first script draft. Initially, it really was this unpredictable B-movie with loads of visual components to it. That’s what I was excited about. Ultimately, I think the result was that the film had mixed messages. A lot of people said that Skeeter didn’t lean in hard enough towards being a crazy B-film, but yet didn’t have the chops to be considered an A-film. I had the audacity to think that it would be an artsy, visual film.

JC: Were you a fan of the big bug monster movies of the 1950s?

CB: Actually I wasn’t, but I did see all of those films because I grew up in the 1960s. Them! was very popular. While we were raising money for Skeeter, I made another low budget film called, Dark Secrets, with the same producer, James Glenn Dudelson. It was essentially an erotic thriller. We made it in six days for $60,000. That film was even further outside my genre of preference. You know, I’m that New England, puritanical square. [Laughs] For me, I just loved low budget filmmaking and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

JC: What was the experience like for you as a first-time director?

CB:  I was an actor’s director back then, so I don’t think I was as tough as I should have been. But at that time I was just so grateful to be working on the film that everyone smelt it and took advantage of me. That led to another batch of inconsistencies with my vision which was just corrupted. Not to blame anyone, but that’s just the result of having 100 people make a film. Everyone has ideas. I’ve since raised three step-daughters and spent ten years working with high schoolers, so if I could make this movie again nobody would fuck with me. I’ve learned tough love.

I really wanted to pitch myself as an actor-turned-director. That’s why I had the movie bonded which was very difficult to do for a low budget movie because nobody wants to insure a low budget movie especially by an ex-actor who has never made a movie! [Laughs] But I felt it was really important for my next movie to say, “Hey, I’ve already been bonded–someone has already trusted me with a film project.” There were a lot of things about Skeeter that were preparing me for a career as a director.

JC: What was it like working with New Line? Them jumping on board must have been a bit of a morale boost.

CB: Back in those days you would sometimes go and pre-sell a film which meant you’d sell your foreign rights for half the budget and sell your domestic rights for half the budget and then go make the movie. When we got involved with New Line it was right around the time when they were bought by Time Warner. They went from being a company that loved to do freaky, offbeat movies, to trying to polish everything up. So, the energy changed for our little film almost immediately, and there seemed to be a sense of wanting to give Skeeter some A-movie elements or traditional arcs, instead of what we originally had. But we stayed on schedule and under budget. I’m not sure how much money we made on Skeeter, but I do know that we made our money back. New Line didn’t lose a dime on the movie, so that feels good.

JC: You made Skeeter at a point in the early 1990s when digital special effects were being developed. It looked like the skeeters were designed with both practical and digital effects. Can you talk more about how the film’s titular villains were created?

CB: Right as we began editing Skeeter, the industry started to cut digitally. So, it was an interesting time to make a movie because we were in such a transition. I said to our producers, “Either we’re people who are going to do practical FX or we’re going to be the first movie that’s going to try digital effects.” There’s one shot in the cave where our post-production did about 4 seconds of very primitive, digital mosquitoes swarming around. That was fairly experimental at the time. Those few seconds were all they could give us. I almost didn’t want to do it, but thought maybe we’ll be in the museum of digital filmmaking as the first digital effects movie!

JC: Well, the practical mosquitos are great fun. They lend themselves to the throwback big bug B-movie vibe that Skeeter has.

CB: Our production had lined up a huge company to build the mosquitoes, but right when they got Skeeter—which they were initially really excited about doing—they ended up becoming a huge part of the Super Mario Brothers. movie that was being made at the same time. So, all of a sudden most of the crew went over to that film and they ended up essentially giving us some interns with fishing poles. [Laughs] It’s one of those wonderful stories that you lose your hair over at the time, but now—nearly 30 years later—it doesn’t drive me so crazy.

JC: I’ve read that the mosquito POV was coined, “Skeeter cam” on set.

CB: We had to hire a group from Switzerland that had access to a helicopter with a 35mm camera rig mounted inside it. The camera was actually mounted inside of a vertical pipe—it was seriously impressive. I believe they were one of the few people who did that kind of stuff back then. That actually ended up being a huge chunk of our budget because we had to fly three Swiss guys out and shoot all of this flying footage. Our “Skeeter cam” was a big deal for us at the time. I remember people asking, “Oh, wow! You’ve got helicopter operators from Switzerland?” Nowadays lots of kids have drones, but back then this kind of stuff got us some press attention.

Our “Skeeter cam” would be no problem today. I actually loved some of the visuals—some of the shots in it are classic movie-style shots. I had so much fun with the camera, even though I would have liked to have experimented a bit more with the “Skeeter cam” particularly for some of the aerial bug death sequences. We shot a lot of those sequences over three days in the Palmdale, CA area, near the desert and mountains. My thinking was that, even though this was a small movie, I wanted it to have big, expansive locations. I wanted it to look like Lawrence of Arabia even though we only had Lawrence of Arabia’s donut budget. We shot the rest in and around the TMZ, or thirty-mile zone of Los Angeles.

JC: Michael J. Pollard is one of my all-time favorites. He was such a legend.

CB: I loved Michael J. Pollard. He was in Fast Food with me and, for a while, I wouldn’t do a movie without him. There was one day when we had about a three page scene to do with Bill Sanderson, and Michael J. Pollard at that strange power station location. We had it booked for the early morning and my producers asked me if I was crazy. Michael J. Pollard was completely unpredictable. You just had to keep the camera on him and keep it rolling during all of his scenes. I was privileged to be able to work with him on a couple of films. He was an icon. As far as the other cast, it was a typical, low budget cast. It did seem like I had either everybody’s brother or sister in Skeeter: John Savage’s brother, Jim Young, and Melanie Griffith’s sister, Tracy Griffith. Charlie Napier would do anything. Bill Sanderson came on at the last minute—he was great. I loved all of my actors.

JC: It must have been exciting to have Fangoria come to town. They gave the production a nice little write up at the time.

CB: It was really exciting because that type of exposure legitimizes the project. That was part of the excitement of the whole film. At the time, my enthusiasm for the potential of Skeeter was so massive. And because New Line was involved they had a press machine that helped us immensely. The challenge, however, was that that meant there were big expectations. Little did people know that we were a New Line picture but for just a million and a half dollars.

JC: In that same article a possible sequel to Skeeter was teased. Was there ever any real consideration of that idea?

CB: That was the thinking with New Line and all of the studios back then: we can make this a franchise! They’re always talking about sequels or spin-offs. It may have been discussed at one point. About five years ago I went to Larry Horn (who was another writer on Skeeter) and said let’s do it again, and the way we originally had wanted to do it. But I think at this point we’ve officially walked away from Skeeter.

JC: Budgetary limitations and technical drawbacks aside, do you look back fondly on your little (big) bug movie?

CB: Absolutely! It was like we were on a playground. There wasn’t one person from New Line telling us “Oh, do that again” or “Try that again.” We got to cast who we wanted to cast and were given a lot of freedom which doesn’t always happen. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t end up making another film after that was because I wanted that freedom again. But, at the time, I didn’t realize that every experience is different. I just got lucky that they left us alone on Skeeter.

Of course, many of us would love to do films over again. But ultimately, I loved doing Skeeter. I’m always wonderfully and pleasantly surprised when people even just say, “that was watchable” and that’s no offense to anything or anyone. Everyone on the film worked their asses off. It was a great experience—a very pure experience. You learn so much on every film you work on and apply it to the next project. You take the bruises and bumps on each project and keep going.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About John Campopiano

John Campopiano is an archivist, independent filmmaker, and film writer living in Boston. He is the co-producer, writer and director of Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary as well as co-producer and writer on the upcoming documentary, Pennywise: The Story of IT. John is also co-author of the upcoming book, Creatures For Kids, which is examining 30 years of monster movies and creature features made for children, young adults, and their families. In 2015, he launched the New England Media & Memory Coalition (NEMMC)--a regional organization dedicated to fostering discussion and promoting a better understanding of how media and digital and analog technologies intersect with and relate to memory, identity, nostalgia, and senses of place. When he's not engrossed in films, John serves as the Archives & Rights Manager for the PBS documentary film series, FRONTLINE.

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