Q&A with Neal O’Bryan & Chad Thurman, Directors of “Toe”
Name a Horror character you relate to on a spiritual/personal level?
Chad: Ash from The Evil Dead franchise. I can’t relate to him on a personal level—at all—but I do on a spiritual level. I‘m a huge fan of comedy and horror, and to me Ash is the embodiment of the two sensibilities in harmony. He also has an amazing character arc. Ash starts off as a bumbling underdog, but when it’s all said and done, he’s got a boomstick in one hand, chainsaw for another, and one hell of a chin. He’s the average Joe’s delusion of grandeur.
Neal: This is going to make me sound like a maniac but I would probably say Jack Torrance. I mean the man was just trying to write his next big novel. Is a little peace and quiet too much to ask? In all seriousness, as a creative it can be difficult living in the modern world where there are so many distractions that pull you away from your work. I often think about what the perfect circumstances would be to spark creativity, like isolating myself at The Overlook. Most likely I would find myself pelting a tennis ball against a wall and getting nothing accomplished.
You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?
Chad: My latest dud was a livestock-slasher idea in which a bunch of farmhands start getting murdered off after their farm inherits a mysterious cow. The cow is covered head-to-hoof in brandings, and when the farm owners finally start cross-referenceing them, they learn that she’s hundreds of years old and that all of her previous pastures have incured some sort of devastation. The cow is basically an indestrictible Jason Vorhees character, and the story devolves into a sort of Tremors/Maximum Overdrive dilemma for the remaining survivors.
About 99% of my ideas are terrible, so the key for me to get past the bad ones and find that spark is to write as much as I can. I know that sounds lame, but it’s true. Bad ideas are an inevitable part of the writing process, so it’s important that you embrace them and keep trudging forward. That said, I do have a few hacks that I use to keep my ideas fresh. Whenever my writing starts feeling stale, I leave my apartment and go do something productive, like go to the gym, take a walk or hang out with my friends. What this does is it roboots my mind and floods it with new images, concepts and situations. I’ve also gotten in the habit of taking notes whenever I have an idea and I’m not at my desk. I’ll write just about anything down: an idea, an interesting phrase, a cool name, a weird fact, etc… That way, when I sit back down to write, I’ll already have a bank of ideas to help jumpstart the process.
Neal: I have three terabytes of bad ideas on my computer. A few years ago we filmed a movie called Manphibian which was a total disaster. The plot involved a group of treasure hunters who get attacked by a half-man half-frog creature after their ship capsizes. We needed a leading lady but didn’t know any females who were interested so we threw a wig on my male cousin. We had a shaman character that my cousin also agreed to play so we put a lampshade over his head to suggest his wise nature. It looked ridiculous and pretty much sums up the entire production. Even though the film has never seen the light of day, I learned a lot about filmmaking. I made every mistake in the book which is invaluable for growth. I’m sure Orson Welles had his own Manphibian before Citizen Kane.
Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?
Chad: Definitely. Chicago is a fantastic city for horror fans, and I’ve made a lot of friends at local film festivals, conventions and midnight screenings at the Music Box Theater. I’ve also made a lot of connections through social media. It’s an incredibly passionate and inviting community, and I’m really grateful to be a part of it.
Neal: I certainly do! I have been seeking out the horror community for many years now. I feel like moving to Chicago from Kentucky really helped with that. I religiously attend horror movie screenings, film festivals and conventions. The horror community is my happy place. Fans of the genre are some of the most passionate and kind people I know.
When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?
Chad: Since Neal and I had to build the entire world of “Toe,” we would look almost anywhere and everywhere for inspiration. The biggest source of inspiration came from watching movies that complemented the atmosphere we hoped to achieve. David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” and the old Universal Monster movies wound up having a bigger influence on our world than expected. And whenver cabin fever began setting in, we’d go someplace visually stimulating like a museum or a coffee shop. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t cite Stephen Gammell, who created the haunting illustrations in the Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark series. His illustrations were so iconic and it’s what I remember most about the series, so when creating the world of “Toe” it was important that we were doing his work justice.
Neal: I try to pepper in every film aesthetic I love into the movie. When filming Toe, I was watching old Universal Monster movies and fell in love with the black and white gothic visuals. David Lynch’s Eraserhead inspired the steam pipe and the rich, textured atmosphere. I looked to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to get ideas for the sound design. For my next film, I have a stack of works by Ray Bradbury, Herman Melville, Roald Dahl, H.P. Lovecraft and set design concepts inspired by Jim Henson and Hayao Miyazaki. I’m going to throw them in a blender and see what comes out.
What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?
Chad: I’d tell the boy about the apple orchard just 50 more yards ahead.
Neal: I would have probably prepared the Toe in a different manner. I feel it would have tasted better had it been simmering in a crock pot. Maybe served over a bed of steamed nightcrawlers?
Who would be on your ultimate horror villain squad?
Chad: My ultimate horror villain squad would include Jason Vorhees because he’s an ourdoorsman who also knows his way around Manhattan and space, Hannibal Lectar because he can whip up a nice dinner, Christine for reliable transportation, and Leatherface just to keep things interesting.
Neal: If I had to go up against an army of Deadites I would recruit Ash for his experience and leadership skills, Carrie White could flush them out with firehoses, Leatherface and Jason could be the bash bros, slicing and dicing their way to victory.
Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?
Chad: Jason, Stephen King, Practical, Pre Apocalypse
Neal: Jason. HP Lovecraft. Practical. Pre Apocalypse
How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?
Chad: Once I’ve figured out the location I need, I research sets and props that complement the look and feel I want to achieve. And by “research” I mean Google Image keywords like “decrepit house,” “gnarly tree,” and “rotting toe.” I’ll also watch movies and behind the scenes documentaries for inspiration. Then I start the building process. Crafting stores like Michael’s have been great for finding supplies like foamcore and popsicle sticks, but sometimes using what’s around you can be cheaper and even more effective. For example, I built the well in “Toe” by collecting asphalt around Chicago and gluing it all together. The pipes in the boy’s house were also made out of paper towel rolls.
From my experience, hand building props and sets from scratch is a great way to create objects that are both relatable and unfamiliar. When you build something yourself, it brings out the unique way in which you perceive the world, which can feel askew to the viewer. Take the kitchen in “Toe,” for example. If you asked five people to each build a rundown kitchen, all five sets would probably look different from each other. I’m not a craftsman at all by nature, but I think that can benefit me when building horror sets because it helps give my creations this familiar, yet off-kilter feel.
Neal: We were forced to build just about every set piece you see in the film. We also had to do this on a miniature scale which made it challenging. To build the exterior of the house, we covered pieces of foam core in popsicle sticks and made the roof out of hundreds of hand picked pine cones. The wardrobe was made up of slabs of wood, textured with a Dremel to look old and weathered. We made it functional by installing a tiny hinge so the door could open and close. The wallpaper was ripped up fabric which we burned and soaked in coffee grounds. The toe was crafted out of Sculpey clay and I discovered the plastic from a gallon of milk was perfect for the nail. We focused on the details so the environment would come alive.
What scares you, and does it inspire your storytelling?
Chad: Everything scares me: flight turbulance, heights, people with clipboards asking if I’ve registered to vote. But in terms of storytelling, I think a sense of insecurity and helplessness has inspired me the most. Without spoiling too much of “Toe,” there’s a scene in the film where the boy is lying in bed, paralyzed with fear, as he’s being confronted by an evil entity. As a child who watched way too many horror movies, I’ve spent many nights in bed terrified that Jason, Michael Meyers or the Candyman might come into my room and make mincemeat of me. So I think that state of helplessness has not only influenced the stories I chose to create, but it also inspires how my characters react during times of conflict.
Neal: Being creative is what drives me so the thought of not having an outlet scares me. I’m excited to embark on the next project to continue exercising my creativity. It should keep me pretty busy for the next few years.
And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’
Chad: Evil Dead 2
Neal: Evil Dead 2