Canadian filmmaker Derek Franson created a strange, eerie body horror feature entitled “Comforting Skin” about a lonely woman desperately seeking meaningful relationships in a closed-off, aloof urban environment. She becomes increasingly dependant on a surreal tattoo that has ravenous needs. With its character-driven narrative and spooky genre elements in place, Franson has crafted an elegant and haunting nocturnal film that should appeal to those with a taste for horror films slightly off the beaten path. We touched base with him about the struggles and joys of low budget filmmaking, as well as his inspiration for such strange content and the tour-de-force lead performance by Victoria Bidewell.
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JK: It sounds like you had a long process of getting this from script to screen, even starting and derailing the film back during the mini-DV era. How did you keep the project fresh and alive for yourself during that time, and what enabled you to finally get it going?
DF: Rewriting the script structurally helped keep “Comforting Skin” fresh for me creatively as I had matured as a writer in the 10 years since [our producer] Justin James and my first attempt to make it. Yet paradoxically it was, at the core, that same script that kept it alive for me all those years: that of its main character Koffie and her personal journey.
There were a few events that enabled us to push it finally into production. First was our decision to stop waiting for someone else’s green light. We looked at all the crew and resources available and asked ourselves, “How big a budget do we really need, and what can we raise ourselves?” We cut our $1.7 million budget down to a shooting budget of roughly $100 thousand, which not only removed our need for approval but gave me complete creative freedom. And finally discovering our lead actress Victoria Bidewell was a defining moment for two reasons: not only is she is a fearless and amazing talent but casting her led us to manager Andrew Webster, who was looking to expand into producing at the time. Andy is an extremely positive and energetic person, exactly the kind of fresh blood we needed. With some seed funding from him, the three of us began the big final push.
JK: In what ways do you identify with Koffie? It’s a very unfiltered depiction of someone going through a dark time in her life, and one can’t watch the film without feeling as if you’re reading someone’s diary.
DF: Well it’s certainly not my dairy we’re reading—but I’m flattered the depiction felt as such. It was a conscious decision to convey Koffie’s experience as honestly as possible. And I also believe its voyeuristic nature helped infuse the film with a sense of unease.
JK: When choosing your cast and crew, was the frankness of the content ever an issue? Was this something you felt you had to defend in the early stages of assembling your group of collaborators?
DF: Content was rarely an issue but I definitely talked it through with my actors. Characters’ motivations are paramount for me cinematically, so it was imperative my actors and I were on the same page once we got to set. As far as the crew goes they never seemed to blink, so it wasn’t an issue. Though now that I think about it, there was one personal moment of truth regarding my handling of the content and it came when my editor, the very talented Lenka Svab first saw the dailies. Lenka would have been the first to scold me for capturing the story in a gratuitous fashion and I remember waiting nervously for her reaction. Thankfully she thought what we caught on camera was beautiful.
JK: The film is told with admirable restraint. Are there restrictions on the style and look of the film because of the budget? Did those have to be addressed with your cinematographer Adam Sliwinski and your art department? How did you communicate the look and feel of COMFORTING SKIN with them?
DF: Adam and I agreed early on the film should have “a stillness” to it; that the absurdity of the narrative be counter-balanced by a simplicity in shot and composition. I wanted the viewer to feel they were getting an unfiltered view of a personal metamorphosis without having to fall back into a cinema-verite style. Adam did a masterful job in achieving this. I also spoke at length with Alain Mayrand and Elena Dublova [our brilliant composer and production designer] and kept referring to the film needing to be visceral, tactile, layered, and a ridiculous nightmare. Editorially, I also wanted the film to seep slowly into you. I’m a proponent of allowing an actors’ performances to breathe. So much can be said in the gaps between words.
JK: How did you find Victoria Bidewell, and what did she bring to the role? What was your working relationship like? She’s incredibly brave.
DF: My working relationship with Victoria was beyond brilliant. The two of us spent many hours discussing things, coming more to a synchronicity on the character’s state of mind as opposed to specific beats within scenes as the character’s pathology drove the reality of the narrative. By the time we got to shooting, we trusted each other fully; I only shepherded her. While I can be demanding, Vic pushed herself harder than I ever could have done. Her performance was more than courageous and I’m honored she brought Koffie to life.
JK: The tattoo sequences where Koffie is battling against these inner demons— what was the atmosphere like on set during the making of these scenes, and how was the post process handled?
DF: Our crew was very respectful and we kept the set down to a minimum during the scenes with nudity and heavy emotion. Though truthfully, I think Vic wouldn’t have blinked twice had we not done so – coming from acting on stage, her level of focus is palpable and she hit every single take with abandon. There were times we had a performances that took our breath away. The scene with Koffie and Nathan on the sofa for example: it’s a single shot for well over 2 minutes, and Vic and Tygh’s performance together was riveting. When all had ended, there was silent pause from the crew, followed by an emotional round of applause. We all knew we got something special. It’s a great memory to have.
JK: Is there a connection between horror and the absurd in scenes such as
the elevator sequence where Koffie is trying to have a conversation with
Nathan and struggling against the tattoo?
DF: If there’s a connection for me, I’ve always felt an oblique moment can be effective in cultivating a sense of unbalance and lends itself perfectly to a horror film such as this.
JK: It’s a genre film, but do you find there’s a discomfort level for viewers associated with fears of the body and of being alone?
DF: I was determined to try to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible. The nudity itself was never my tool of choice, but rather the viewer’s exposure to Koffie’s most private moments. What she presents is beyond her nakedness; we are witness to every single bit of her knotted psyche.
JK: How have audiences responded to the slow burn style of the movie?
DF: People love it or hate it, really. It’s my job as an artist to make something that resonates. To those where the tone and pacing is met with resistance—then it’s just not for them! I have just as many others saying they found their mind retracing the story for days afterwards. And that’s the best compliment the film can be given.
JK: What’s your experience like watching the movie now? Where are you thinking of going next, and how did making “Comforting Skin” affect your decisions about a second feature or whatever you would like to do after this?
DF: I’ve seen the film so many times I find it difficult to sit through, to be honest. Also, I have a number of projects I’m currently working-on to push to the next level. If I reflect on at what this film taught me, it’s to stick to my convictions as everyone and their dog comes at you with an opinion. And what I believe is if you’re going to make a film, first find a good story. Then make it better. Then make it even better. Then and only then, if the story is good enough and has the potential to rise above the endless hiss of crap out there, should you even consider making it. Be ruthless. Prepare for failure. Use it to fuel you. And most importantly have stamina. That’s what “Comforting skin” has taught me.