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Q+A: Director Andy Stewart talks chunk-blower “DYSMORPHIA”, screening this weekend!

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Glasgow-based horror crit Andy Stewart’s debut short film DYSMORPHIA has been hitting gag reflexes all over the festival circuit since it premiered at Manchester’s Grimmfest last fall. Often paired with the Soska Sisters’ AMERICAN MARY, which shares its gruesome penchant for DIY surgery, DYSMORPHIA is something of a showstopper itself. A Man. A Room. A Decision; a modest setup, but one, I assure you,  you will not soon forget.

Andy Stewart talks to FANGO about his transition from critic to director, the pleasures of body horror, and gives us a tease at what his follow-up plans are.

AndyStewartFANGORIA: In DYSMORPHIA, your character explains in actions as an attempt to feel “whole” – I assume you’ve seen Melody Gilbert’s documentary WHOLE, about people who want to be amputees?

ANDY STEWART: I have, yeah but only after I had the basic idea for the film down and started looking around for some more information on the subject matter. I made a textbook mistake early on by calling the film DYSMORPHIA as the condition depicted is closer to BIID  (Body Integrity Identity Disorder) than BDD (Body Dysmorphia Disorder), however, given that it’s also a mistake often made by people in the medical profession, I figured that I could get away with it. Plus DYSMORPHIA makes a far better title.

FANG: Dysmorphia/Body Integrity Identity Disorder makes a great launching point for a horror story, but do you empathize with your character’s dilemma at all?

STEWART: To be honest, not really. In so far as BDD goes, maybe I can. Of course I have things about my body that I hate and would love to change. I think we all do. It was more the disassociation with the limb and the desire to be rid of it that interested me most. That feeling of having this alien or parasitic appendage. It’s something that I couldn’t quite get my head around and something that I think most people would struggle to comprehend or empathise with. I couldn’t fathom the thought processes and the personal journey that these people go on that leads them to this last, desperate point.

I have a far greater understanding for people afflicted with BIID now and an appreciation for the severity of the condition.

FANG: The FX in the film are really squirm-inducing, and I understand they made someone pass out in Vancouver! But it’s also interesting that it’s having that effect on horror fans, who are used to seeing abundant gore FX, and the sound also plays a key role here, because you actually hear more than you see – can you tell me  a bit about creating the FX and sound design? And also how the subject of the film informs what people are imagining when they aren’t being shown everything?

STEWART: Actually, we have made someone faint or throw up at every single screening so far, not just in Vancouver.

To be honest, the reaction has been unbelievable. I knew when I was making it that it was gory and even at times, graphic, but  I never expected it to have this kind of physical reaction on people. It is quite strange that these are all in front of horror crowds who most likely see, arguably more violent material on a regular basis. I think it’s the fact that you can’t escape it. The film demands that you sit through the procedure and experience it in an intimate way and it’s the escalation of events, the inevitability of what is about to happen, that keeps you watching and wondering, “Is he going to do it?”

FX-wise, I’m a first-time film-maker on a no-budget film, so I knew going in how I wanted to do the FX and, given that our budget was somewhere in the region of £160 ($250), my limitations. So I knew that, some key moments aside, that most of the procedure had to take place off camera. I have a basic knowledge of special effects make-up and was lucky enough to get a young make-up girl named Ruthy Devenny on board and, between us, we decided what was feasible within the budget and what wasn’t.

It was great working with Ruthy. She knows what I want. Ruthy designed and applied the prosthetic appliances and I designed and operated the mechanical effects and it worked. We did the same on Banquet. We did all the gore effects using real meat, red strawberry licorice and fake blood. In fact, there is only one moment where you see a fake arm. All the rest is Gordon.

In the end, we spent about £10 on the gore effects and actually managed to scoop the award for Best Practical Effects in Vancouver.

With the sound design, we got very lucky. David McKeitch’s involvement came around at a time of desperation and it couldn’t really have worked out any better. We had been working with another sound designer, who had relocated to Barcelona, which wasn’t ideal.

Time was dragging on so, we parted company with him and David came in on a recommendation and he did an amazing job. He turned round the whole sound of the film in a little under a fortnight. We didn’t record any sound on the shoot so every single thing you hear, was built by David. He’s very talented and is now working on Banquet, and I hope to continue this working relationship with him.

He pulled out all the stops on the sound to make everything as visceral as possible and it is his sound, in those moments where we only see blood, or Gordon’s pain-stricken face, that let us know exactly what is going on off-camera. It is those sounds, I think, that have brought about many of the fainting incidents.

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FANG: How did you decide on the structure of the film, namely that instead of a character study you wanted the act itself to be the showpiece?

STEWART: Structurally, as it was my first film, I knew that focusing on one character and keeping the action confined to one room was the way I had to do it. I wanted to make a film about this guy, with this condition, at a very specific point in his struggle and, given the run-time of the film, I wanted only to hint at his past and his family life as he makes this pretty life-altering decision.

Let’s be honest, in this case, the procedure had to be the show piece.

FANG: Tell me about the overall trilogy that DYSMORPHIA forms a part of. What unifies the films, and what draws you to those themes?

STEWART: Well, the trilogy was originally conceived as part of a body horror anthology feature script that I had been writing. I am a massive body horror fan and love the films of David Cronenberg, Shinya Tsukamoto and Stuart Gordon and I felt like there wasn’t an awful lot of body horror being made nowadays, so I thought I would have a stab at writing something myself. That’s what drew me towards the themes of the film. Just a love for the sub-genre. I also wanted to play with slime and gunk.

After writing a few segments which I felt were pretty strong, I realised that I was now just writing any old shit to fill up pages, so I put my editor’s head on and broke it all down into the constituent segments and quickly realised that, as I had never made a film before, no-one would buy into this project on an untested director anyway. It was then that I decided that I would actually make something.

So, DYSMORPHIA was picked as the first, which makes sense, and I picked the strongest out of the other segments, BANQUET and SPLIT (which we film in August), and decided to make them as a short film “trilogy”.

The three segments all revolve around, what are to most us, seemingly irrational, dangerous and bizarre thought processes, that lead the protagonists to make these radical decisions or lead them into their ultimate predicaments.

FANG: You just finished shooting the second film in the trilogy – when will it start hitting festivals? Will the goal eventually be to have them all play together as one entity, kind of like Doug Buck’s FAMILY PORTRAITS, which started off as three separate short films?

STEWART: My hope is that BANQUET will be totally finished and ready for submissions by the start of June. We just finished shooting on April 3rd and we have taken a few days to relax and think about how it all went before diving into the edit. We are also shooting Split in August, so that’s in pre-production now.

Beyond that, I don’t actually have a goal for the films, other than to get my name, and those of the people that work with me, out there but I would love to play all of the “trilogy” at a festival, either back to back, or spread out across the festival programme. That would be awesome.

I know that this is what I want to do with my life and I will continue to do it. It’s so new and weird to me that I am just enjoying every single second of it.

FANG: You have screenings of DYSMORPHIA coming up this weekend, in Bradford, as well as in Sydney, Australia – will you be at either of the screenings?

STEWART: Yep. We are playing at Bradford International Film Festival on the 12th and 19th of April and in Sydney, Australia on the 14th as part of the A Night Of Horror International Film Festival. Myself and DYSMORPHIA actor Gordon Holliday will be in attendance in Bradford on the 19th. You won’t miss us. I’m the scruffy guy with slasher movie tattoos and Gordon is the skinny guy in the vintage tweed suit. I’d love to make the trip to Australia but, sadly, funds are too low for that right now. Maybe one day…Dysmorphia will also be playing at the Mascara and Popcorn festival in Montreal in August.

Follow Andy’s writing at http://www.andyerupts.com

About the author
Kier-La Janisse http://www.big-smash.com
Kier-La Janisse is a writer and film programmer based in Montreal, Canada. She is the Founding Director of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and a film programmer for Fantastic Fest, POP Montreal and SF Indie. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver and co-founded Montreal's Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012).
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