As the founder of special effects house, Almost Human, Robert Hall has been working steadily since the early nineties on such projects as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Superbad, Fanboys, Pineapple Express, Quarantine, Devil, Paranormal Activity 2 & 3, NBC’s Grimm and the upcoming John Dies at the End.
But his talents go beyond that, writing and directing three films: Lightning Bug, Laid to Rest and it’s sequel, ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2.
Robert took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to FOG! about his work, his influences and why he hates the word, “iconic”
Probably at five or six years old, believe it or not. I was born in 1973, but I saw both Halloween films in the theater when they came out. I begged my parents to take me to go see them so I think pretty much from then on I was hooked. So at a very young age.
I was born in 1971 and I don’t think there was as much censorship as there has become. I remember my dad took me to go see Alien because he wanted see Alien. It scared the crap out of me, but I loved it
Yeah, that’s me. The first drive-in experience for me would have been in 1979. I saw Alien and Dawn of the Dead at the drive-in. I think that I’m sure was probably a little scared as a kid but I don’t have much memory being scared; I’ve always been more intrigued than scared.
You started in the industry as a special-effects person and you founded Almost Human in 1996. At what point did you realize you want to make films or was it always the ultimate goal?
You know it never was the ultimate goal. I just want to scare people and I knew I wanted to work on movies and scare people, and I think that I did that.
I moved out here at a very young age did a bunch of stuff my twenties and then I built up a good resume. At one point I had been writing what I didn’t realize was a script, it was kind of like my memoirs of growing up in the Bible Belt and wanting to do effects and being looked upon as a Satan worshiper. I started writing this thing and it wound up being a screenplay my first movie Lightning Bug which is about my life growing up in the South.
So that’s sort of how it came about and so when I had written a screenplay I was, I think, 29 at the time and I thought, “Well I’m the only person tell my story,” so I wound up directing that film with Laura Prepon from That ’70s Show and a lot of other great folks.
We put it out through Anchor Bay and then I went back to doing effects for a while and then and then I came up with Laid to Rest in 2008.
ChromeSkull first appeared in Laid to Rest. What were the origins of that character?
I always want to do something with ChromeSkull.
I’m a big fan of technology, but I’m also very acutely aware of how dependent we are on it. I just wanted to do something that represented technology for me, but moreover, that which makes him a little more unique.
He’s not a mongoloid, he’s not some guy in the woods, he’s more like a Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. He wears a mask because he thinks it’s intimidating. So that’s really what I wanted to do; I wanted to create a cool, silent masked killer and I wanted to give a little bit of mystery to him and give him an inclination that was representative of the voyeuristic society that we have become.
Did you plan on a sequel from the very beginning?
No. I don’t think you can ever really plan sequels.
I just think that maybe you can plan sequels if you’re Peter Jackson, but I think that every other movie, even big studio movies, you can’t ever plan sequels, especially with being the independent guys that we are. You can’t really plan it. And my goal from the get-go with ChromeSkull and with that movie was to not try not try to do anything “iconic”.
I kind of hate that word. So many people come to me and come to my shop and say, “I want to create this and that, I want to make it iconic and I want this character…”, and I just know from experience, any time you try for iconography it usually doesn’t click, it never achieves lift-off.
My whole goal with ChromeSkull was to not try to push him into anyone’s face for being iconic and just see if the groundswell would sort of make people come and pass the DVD around and I really think that’s what happened more than anything.
Now I’d be lying if I said that we planned it. We definitely talked about it, we joked about it in some special features like the cast talking about ChromeSkull and sequels and blah, blah blah; but I think that’s a great milestone and something to strive for is not anything you can plan and we were just lucky enough that people identify with him.
I was struck when watching ChromeSkull: Laid To Rest 2 by the level of violence and gore and understand curious if you consider this film to be along the lines of the torture porn genre or do you really think it’s just an updated slasher film?
I think it’s an updated slasher film.
I’ve never been a big fan of the torture porn. I thought it kind of went away with the demise of the Saw movies and the funny thing is two people that have criticized the plot of the new ChromeSkull movie said that I lifted ideas from the Saw movies. Other than the first one, I’ve never seen a Saw movie, so I don’t really know what they are referring to, except maybe there’s an organization behind everything in the Saw movies, I don’t really know…
I’ve only seen the first one.
I never really enjoyed those movies and never really watched them at all. They really don’t do anything for me. I can see better effects by walking three feet and going into my shop, so I don’t need to see movies for that.
I do enjoy foreign films. I do enjoy films don’t give you all the answers, where it leaves a bit of mystery, where you put it together yourself. Sadly, a lot of American films, they’re used to being force-fed all of the information and people are kind of used to that so if you don’t give them that, they sometimes bolt, but that’s okay. I prefer to do what I want to do and see if people like it. I don’t know if that answers your question…
No, I think I think you did. It’s interesting to me, it’s obvious to me that you love the period of films that you grew up with, but as a filmmaker on kind of curious if…
No, I get what you’re saying. I think you have to update because anyone trying to do a slasher movie now and they say, “Hey, it’s retro, it’s like old-school from the 80s”, there’s always that tongue in cheek factor to it.
So with the Laid to Rest movies, I abandoned that tongue in cheek factor. Nobody’s wisecracking, they’re taking it very seriously, and the horror is very real and sort of like reinventing it all over. You have to do something that stands out today.
I get really sick of hearing people say, “less is more” because I feel like we live in a visual world where you can throw in a video game right now that’s more violent than most movies and more gory and that has insane effects.
So I really get sick of “hearing less” is more especially with the slasher movies.
Less is not more, more is more.
So my approach is look, “you’ve seen everything” Most the time that whole whole “how did they do that?” factor is sorely missing, which is how I got inspired to be in the business to begin with, rewinding film’s 15 times to figure out how did they do that.
Nowadays people just see stuff and go “Oh, that’s probably CGI” and they don’t think about it. Well, with our movies we don’t have big CGI budgets so what I wanted to do was go in and to create things where you literally didn’t know how we did it and you think “Wow that doesn’t look like computers”, but it doesn’t look like a fake head and I can’t really tell what it is and so that’s sort of what a wanted to do with updating it.
And that’s what we have done and I think that that’s also something that’s unmatched by any other slasher film that’s come out in a good long while because I really put that ingenuity behind it that we had in the 80s that we all love that we still talk about it. There are conventions that attest to it.
But by doing that you can’t just do Tom Savini stuff you have to trick people again.
We’re so used to seeing stuff that you have to really trick people again, people are so anti-CGI, you have to do it in a way where people think they’re not seeing CGI. I get a lot of undue credit when people say “Wow I love I loved it because all the kills are practical…” They’re completely not practical but I did in a way that incorporated all the tools and effects at my disposal to trick you so if I tricked you into thinking that they were practical then I did my job.
You mention the word iconic but do you think that a back story for ChromeSkull is necessary or do you think he’s a force of nature like Jason or Michael Myers?
Not so much like a Jason or Michael Myers. Those guys sort of dealt more in the supernatural, I’ve always seen ChromeSkull more like a Patrick Bateman but who has seen those movies, but still wants to wear a mask and intimidate people and not speak so he doesn’t have his voice heard.
Now in the events from the last movie, the first movie, he sort of turned himself into this silent killer. In the second film, he can’t speak and his face is fucked up and now he needs to wear the mask. It’s kind of ironic but, no, he’s not supernatural and I don’t want to break my own rules. I wanted to set it up as realistic as you can within the confines of not only a horror film but as a sub genre film.
We also live in an age where I will never know why the BTK killer did what he did and any back story that anybody gives me is not going to be sufficient. I watch the news every night and you’ll see two weeks ago a guy in Louisiana decapitated his mentally challenged son and hid his head in the front yard. I don’t know why he did that, I have a back story for that, but I believe it.
So that’s where I come from, that sort of the basis that I come from and no back story that I could write or Stephen King could write would satiate fans. Anything that I would do, they would go “Aw, that’s a letdown, that’s silly or that’s stupid” Why don’t you just believe that evil exists and believe that a human is capable of stuff and move on? That’s sort of what my motivation is. You’ll never ever find out some kinky back story in these films, ever.
There’s a shot at the end of the movie, where he’s walking down the street in Los Angeles. The crowd that was walking past, were those extras or were those people’s honest reactions to seeing this character?
No, those were real reactions. We shot it on Halloween and so we had Halloween in Los Angeles without really telling anyone. We had a few people stop and go “Look, it’s ChromeSkull! That’s a great costume!” but for the most part that was all just real reactions and we were sort of hidden getting their shots.
It was great! Who or what are some of the biggest influences on your work?
I guess I can start with films like John Carpenter’s early work, they were a huge influence around me. The fact that he was a multi-hyphenate. He would write and direct the music which I which I do a lot of that plus the effect stuff. So John Carpenter’s early stuff certainly they were some of the first movies I ever saw and really scared me.
Also, in terms of directing style, someone I really love and appreciate is David Cronenberg and the way he he would delve into really dark dark material within a drama and not be afraid to dark material within a drama and he always had intelligent thought provoking stuff whether it’s body horror or just whatever. Always been a big fan of those two from a directing standpoint
From the effects standpoint has to be the classics, you know, Dick Smith is the reason that most of us have jobs and have a business because of Dick Smith, guys like him and Rick Baker sort of helped lead the way.
And then Tom Savini for the visual impact that he created. If you go back and watch a lot of the stuff that is being remastered on Blu-Ray like some of the Friday the 13th films and stuff you can see that the prosthetics have mismatched color and and they don’t quite fit. But for the time period, it was really cool and revolutionary how he would put a bunch of stuff together and he saw very simple ways to do things.
I often times think of that very same way to do things in terms of very elaborate kills done as simply as possible. The only difference is that they have a little bit less of a tolerance, there’s a lot of stuff and it’s not like in the 80s where you can tell it’s a phony head and you can tell it’s this or you can tell it’s that, today we have less of a tolerance for that so you have to do a better job, you have to use a little sleight-of-hand.
What are your upcoming projects? Is there anything that you can talk about?
I directed a web series called Fear Clinic with Robert England so were trying really hard to get that made into movie because it was pretty good that we’ll probably more than likely be my next thing and then the shop is always working on lots of stuff, so we’re always consistently busy. Yeah, it’s good.
Finally, what scares you?
Honestly, George W. Bush’s second re-election really scared the shit out of me. To be honest, the news scares me. It’s built to scare you. It is more horrifying than any show I could ever come up with or any film I could come up with or any slasher film. I’m not saying this to be a wise-guy. If you watch 10 minutes of any news show, you want to lock your doors and buy the products their telling you to buy.
What I get from the news is that the world is ending. This is scary. I don’t watch the news, it’s non relevant