“For One of the Head Explosions We Only Had Four Heads”: Joe Begos on The Mind’s Eye
Made for just $50,000, Joe Begos’ feature debut Almost Human (2013) landed a slot at the Toronto International Film Festival, secured distribution, and earned a bit of critical praise for its Carpenter-influenced chills. For his follow-up The Mind’s Eye, the multi-hyphenate (Begos wrote, directed, produced, and photographed) had six times the budget at his disposal. That money brought a few changes – such as paying the crew and expanding the shooting schedule to a robust 37 days. Other things stayed the same, like shooting in Begos’ home state of Rhode Island. Like using practical effects. Like leaving enough blood stains behind to not be invited back to locations.
The ’90s-set, Scanners-esque plot finds a band of escaped telekinetics (led by Almost Human star Graham Skipper) battling the institute that had imprisoned them. With The Mind’s Eye out now on VOD, Begos talked to Filmmaker about crafting a throwback indie horror flick that operates under the logic “if Cronenberg eviscerated one head, let’s do a half-dozen.”
Filmmaker: I love that The Mind’s Eye opens with the note, “This film should be played loud.”
Begos: I got that from Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer. It was always very striking to me when that came up at the beginning of that movie.
Filmmaker: Since we’re talking about the sound let’s get into the score by Steve Moore, who did Adam Wingard’s The Guest. I’m ecstatic that synth scores are back in vogue again.
Begos: I looked Steve up on IMDB. His number was there and I just cold called him. He had actually seen Almost Human and was a fan of it and he was into our script, so he came aboard the movie. I didn’t realize a score could elevate a movie so much, but his score really elevates our movie. It’s just so damn good and he did it all on authentic synths from the period.
Filmmaker: I interviewed a foley artist right before I watched your film so I guess I was particularly attuned to that aspect of the process. How important are foley and sound effects to helping sell the practical effects?
Begos: They’re huge. My editor [and fellow producer] Josh Ethier actually does a lot of the sound design as we’re cutting so we’re able to sit there while we’re editing and experiment and see what works. To be honest we recorded a lot of the [foley and original sound effects] on our iPhones. So it’s this cocktail of sounds built from sound libraries and things we recorded on our iPhones. Then we had Graham Reznick come in; he’s the sound designer on a lot of Ti West’s films, and he did all the telekinetic soundscapes. Each character’s [telekinetic] sound has its own unique quality.
Filmmaker: I read the budget for The Mind’s Eye was around $300,000. How much did you have to work with on Almost Human?
Begos: Almost Human was only $50,000. I put $20,000 on credit cards, Josh put in $10,000, and the rest came from friends and family.
Filmmaker: What luxuries does that extra money afford you?
Begos: We doubled the shooting days from 18 to 37. A lot of that extra time was just spent doing effects because there were so many gags and pyro days. For example, Larry Fessenden [who plays Skipper’s father] has 22 pages of dialogue and he only shot for three days. So that gives you an idea of how much time we put into the FX. About a third of our budget went to pyro, effects, and wirework. Another large chunk went to doubling the schedule. The crew is mostly the same crew from Almost Human, so another large chunk went to actually paying the crew that didn’t get paid on (the last film).
Filmmaker: What was the learning curve like in dealing with all the practical effects elements?
Begos: I had never done any of that type of stuff before, so I was thrown into it and it was a huge learning experience. I couldn’t afford to bring in [the effects departments] for rehearsal so they would just come in on the day and figure it out. I didn’t think beforehand about the fact that I’d have to shoot [the non-effects portion of scenes] with wires and motors all over the place. So, there were a ton of times where I would try to shoot a scene and I just wasn’t expecting where the rig was going to be at and I couldn’t shoot as wide as I’d hoped. Next time we do it, it’s going to be much more calculated in how we approach it for sure.
Filmmaker: The special effects coordinator, John Ruggieri, and the stunt coordinator, Paul Marini, have both worked on huge shows. How did you get them to come in on your film?
Begos: Yeah, it’s crazy. We shot in Rhode Island. There’s not a whole lot of stuff that shoots there, but it’s an hour outside of Boston and it’s close to New York City so you get a lot of spillover of guys who work in those cities. The biggest stunt coordinator in the area is Paul Marini. He did The Departed and The Town. When movies like that come through, they hire those guys because they’re the best guys around. Paul was excited to do our movie because he got to build all these new rigs and do things that he’d never done before. We’d be in a tiny bedroom that was 8′ x 8′ and we’d need a guy to fly across the room and through a closet door. And Paul would be like, “I don’t know how the fuck we’re going to do that, but let’s figure it out.” It was really cool to work with somebody like that who has 30 years of experience.
Filmmaker: Why Rhode Island? Is there some sort of tax incentive or rebate?
Begos: They do have an incentive, but the main reason is that Josh and I grew up there. When it came time to make Almost Human we’d been living in LA for maybe four years and we knew if we went back home we had enough people that we grew up making movies with that would pitch in and help, and we knew enough people that were actually working in the industry there to help as well. We also had our families. We flew out our actors and some crew and we all stayed in my parents’ house. We also shot in a lot of locations there for free. The production value of shooting in Rhode Island really elevated Almost Human. So I wanted to get that aesthetic again. I love that setting. It feels very Stephen King-esque or David Cronenberg-esque. They do have a 25 percent rebate too, which was important.
Filmmaker: You’ve got to set the next one in the summer so you don’t keep freezing your ass off.
Begos: I wish. The Mind’s Eye was actually supposed to take place in October because I wanted that New England-in-the-fall look. But we got pushed because of some financial issues and we had to shoot in February again, which is around the same time we shot Almost Human. We did have a giant blizzard this time around, which made it more difficult to shoot but looked awesome.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot in your parents’ house on this one? With all the effects gags and fake blood — which always seems to stain everything it touches — did their house come out unscathed?
Begos: After Almost Human we weren’t allowed to use my parents’ place again. (laughs) On this one we were actually fined by a technical school that we shot at. They have a hospital room in their building so we shot our hospital scene there. The day that we shot we had an extra hour so we picked up a couple insert shots in the parking lot and we got blood all over the ground. The next day the school called and apparently 2,000 students had been going through the doors of the school stepping through a giant puddle of blood. They fined us and said we had to pay for the cleanup, but they never ended up sending the bill.
Filmmaker: Since you also shot the film, let’s talk a bit about the cinematography. You definitely broke out the party gels for this one.
Begos: I love multicolor lighting, but I also like it to come from an organic place. Everyone talks about Dario Argento because of the way his movies look, but I feel like his movies exist more in a dream-state whereas with The Mind’s Eye, while it is definitely an elevated look, I tried to have it come from an organic place. I’m really happy with the way the movie looks — really dark and kind of nasty and grungy.
Filmmaker: You shot this one with the Red Dragon as the A-cam and then Scarlets as the B-cam and C-cam. What did you use on Almost Human?
Begos: We used a Red MX on Almost Human. We only had one camera and I had to use still lenses on that one. But on this I had a nice big Fujinon zoom with a servo.
Filmmaker: Why the ’90s setting?
Begos: The area we shot in still kind of looks like the late-’80s, early-’90s, so we could make it a period film without having to do a whole lot of production design. I don’t know, I just feel like it makes it a little more timeless. With technology evolving so fast, it can date your movie. One of my favorite examples is something like Pet Semetary, where I feel there’s a timeless quality to it.
Filmmaker: Pet Semetary absolutely scared the shit out of me growing up – more than any other horror film. What was that movie for you?
Begos: Phantasm is the one I remember really scaring me when I was young because it’s told from a kid’s point of view. I could see out of the crack of my bedroom door all the way down the hallway and I always imagined The Tall Man walking down the hallway toward me.
Filmmaker: Of all the practical gags in the film, which was the most difficult to pull off?
Begos: They were all pretty difficult. The thing that was the most worrisome was we only had a few chances to get most of them right. For one of the head explosions we only had four heads and it wasn’t until the fourth one that we finally got it. The scene where the body gets ripped in half was also a big problem because the room was so tiny. It was like a 6′ x 10′ room and we were trying to rip a body in half with a lot of force. And we had to do it while hiding the face, because it wasn’t molded to the actor. There were a lot of things that were close calls on set but worked fine once we got into the editing room.
Filmmaker: Let’s break down one of the effects. My favorite comes toward the end of the film, when the camera tracks alongside an axe as it’s telepathically propelled through the air and splits a henchman’s head down the middle.
Begos: For the tracking shot I had the dolly on a track and we connected the axe to the side of the dolly. Then we pushed the dolly really, really fast at eight frames per second. For the axe’s point of view I went handheld on the dolly and two people pushed me toward the screaming actor while I was zooming really fast and dutching the camera.
For the actual [head split] I wanted to whip pan into it. So I was operating the camera, somebody off-screen was holding the axe — which was a real axe — and then millimeters before the axe hit the head, two effects guys on either side pulled the head apart with strings as somebody underneath hit the blood hose so blood would shoot up. So there were like five things that all needed to be timed out perfectly. And the effects guys were all worried about my whip pan. (laughs) I was like, “Guys, you worry about everything you’ve got to do.” We landed it on the first fucking try, but the blood was a little less than we wanted so we did another one and that second take was the money shot. [Click photo below to enlarge.]
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.