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Gabriel Bartalos Interview Main

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Interview conducted by Stuart D. Monroe

It’s not often that I’m going to go out on a limb and TELL YOU something (I’m soft spoken like that), but I’m going to tell you something: even if you don’t “know” Gabriel Bartalos, you actually do “know” Gabriel Bartalos. He’s the SFX guru behind The Leprechaun.

Have I got your attention now? Good.

Gabriel is the man responsible for the iconic Warwick Davis character. He’s the man who gave us the Vegetable Gremlin from Gremlins 2: The New Batch. He also worked hand-in-hand with genre legend Frank Henenlotter on Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, and Basket Case 2. He’s had a heavy hand in underrated classics like Happy Hell Night and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series, as well as acknowledged classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.

I repeat: Do I have your attention yet? Goddammit, I hope so.

That’s just his SFX work, for the record. The point is that he has a signature look and vibe, if you will, to everything he does to go with an important place in the genre. His first effort as a writer/director was 2004’s Skinned Deep, a Fangoria Films release that doesn’t get the credit that it deserves. In short, he’s the kind of guy that has moved to the top of the horror game in the modern day, a true horror nut who speaks our language.

I was lucky enough to speak with Gabriel about his new film Saint Bernard, as well as the influence of David Lynch, the saturation of the SFX industry, his thoughts on the continued life of the Leprechaun series, and just how fun it is to be utterly fucked up. Enjoy!

gabriel bartalos interview 05Stuart Monroe: Hi, Gabriel! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. It’s an honor. How are you doing today, sir?

Gabriel Bartalos: I’m doing good, thanks. And yourself, Stuart?

SM: Just gearing up for this and then heading into work afterwards.

GB: Right on!

SM: I’m one of those people with a day job, ya’ know.

GB: Yep! What do you do? What’s the day job?

SM: Peterbilt, on the manufacturing side. I do my part building trucks.

GB: Nice. They’re a good company to work for, aren’t they?

SM: They are indeed excellent to work for; one of the few left that still have a pension plan, believe it or not. They’re pretty old school like that.

GB: Good for them. It makes people stick around, I think.

SM: That it does, sir. It’s the best job I’ve ever had by far. I don’t see myself going anywhere.

GB: Right on! Well, you have the perfect after-hours job being a horror fan, right?

SM: Yes, sir! I stay immersed in horror between Horror DNA and my own site, but I jumped on this opportunity when I saw your name come up for interview. Even if I hadn’t been the one who reviewed Saint Bernard I would have pounced. We published the review a couple of days ago, and it knocked my socks off. Man…insanity.

GB: [Laughs] How did you guys get the film? Did you get a screener through the internet?

SM: Yeah. When I was going through the list of potential reviews, the trailer alone told me it was right up my alley. The truly weird stuff always ends up with me; they know that. It struck me as almost being a Salvador Dali painting on film. It was a real gut response thing for me. You don’t see a lot of movies like that. Do you find it to be almost unsafe to make a movie that way? It’s really, really ambitious! Most people aren’t going to get it…

GB: Yeah, well…it is ambitious. I’ve got a big imagination, and I think there’s so many films out there I want to make sure those who might enjoy it will see it. And if gabriel bartalos interview 01they see it, I really want to make sure they see something they haven’t seen before. Otherwise, why am I going to bother? There are plenty of other cool things out there. So I try and compete in a crowded field with my imagination. And I’m the first to say this, as I’ve read the reviews: it’s not for everybody. That’s fine. I didn’t make it for everybody. The people who make films that want to make sure they appeal to everyone, well, that’s really finance talking. It doesn’t take a lot to realize that’s what they’re trying to do. They want money out of every single person’s pocket. I would much rather, when I make a film (which really isn’t my day job), to make sure that it’s done for love and for the fun of it and that it is for me, who is also the fanbase. I love horror films. I love surreal films. I love films that mash up things that I just haven’t seen before, so I’m going to gravitate toward making that kind of cinema. The idea is that those it’s for will really enjoy it. And for those it isn’t for, well…if they happen to see it, then it’s even funnier! These poor people are subjected to it when they thought they were going to watch On Golden Pond, and Saint Bernard comes into their living room. So, yeah. I have no problem with that separation.

SM: Definitely. I love that risk/reward. Yeah, the people that don’t get it are really not going to get it and they might shit all over it. However, the people like me that do get it? Now you’ve got a connection there that’s a whole lot stronger than something they saw and forgot about a month later. Saint Bernard is the kind of thing you just don’t get out of your head. You’re asking people to stretch their brain out a little bit.

GB: Yeah, yeah! And it’s really just like a social circle. If we’re hanging out at a bar, I’m going to be hanging out with you and not the executives from the ad agency on the other side of the room sipping their martinis. People forget that there is nothing wrong with playing to your strengths and playing to your chosen audience. If you’re your own audience, then you might as well make yourself happy.

SM: Absolutely. Well said. Even in Skinned Deep you have the habit of using symbolism and visual metaphor to tickle that intellect and imagination probably because most people don’t use it all that much. Do you find that it’s getting easier or harder asking people to be cerebral in the digital age of the short attention span, the “Vine People” if you will?

GB: [Laughs] It might be, you know? But I do like to think it’s harder to make a picture that speaks in metaphor and symbolism because I have to do my homework to do what feels right in that universe. Even the most abstract images, to me, still have to further the narrative and connect to the DNA of the film. So, one of my big jobs as the director is to oversee all that and make sure that it constantly is the same pedigree. I think surprisingly though it’s obtuse in its language, the reason it’s resonating with people that enjoy this is that we still have a universal connectivity to metaphor and symbolism that literary and visual direct stimuli doesn’t always cut it. A lot of times we may discount how much we rely on instinct and mood and impulse. A film like Saint Bernard that just drips that may be getting into the consciousness more than we would have imagined despite the short attention span. It’s bypassing all modern technology, all modern connectivity, and going back to a very simple way: “How does it feel? How does it make me feel? Do I feel emotion for these characters?” I think a lot of great films used to do that as part of the entire package of the narrative that was always built into it. It may have been a very small percentage of it. Other films maybe told more of the story that way, like in the era of silent films needing to keep that front and center for them. For me, enjoying building the visuals and dreaming them up is a really good fit to try and communicate 90% of the film through that.

SM: Was Eraserhead a big influence? I feel like it was; at least, it felt that way to me…like an Eraserhead on steroids. It slides along at that same pace of the images hitting you; you’re working to understand it and then BOOM! You see something like the Fleshsicle, and it’s just burned onto your brain forever. That was my interpretation, but Eraserhead is a movie you can take many different ways.

GB: Sure. Absolutely right. I love Eraserhead. I actually love most of David Lynch’s films, even the straight stories when he’s making for a picture for a bigger audience for Buena Vista. He’s a very good storyteller and has proven to himself and the world that he’s quite comfortable speaking in parallel dialects. He isn’t just straight ahead. His takes on dream imagery and symbolism are almost completely successful to me, and he makes films that I find really enjoyable. Yeah, definitely. I’m sure David Lynch’s world has rubbed off on me. He’s also given me the confidence that the film doesn’t have to be for mass appeal. Doing it for art’s sake, ya’ know? Just really follow the impulses that you feel are right and those that find it exciting are the reward.

SM: I love it. Hell yeah. Saint Bernard is incredible and an added bonus, but what a list! Growing up soaked in horror as you did…you’ve been so blessed. You’ve worked with Savini, Baker, Henenlotter, Stuart Gordon, Barney…all those names! It’s such a different game now, not that practical effects are dead by any stretch of the imagination, but is there a new generation of practical guys coming up that you see now that you are one of those epic names in special effects? Is there another generation to keep us going? There’s so much CGI nowadays. It seems like people almost don’t have the balls to rely on practical effects anymore; they want that mass appeal.

GB: I think it’s both. There are a lot of makeup academies that are teaching the basics and the advanced techniques of makeup effects and prosthetics. That’s a double-edged sword because digital has taken a significant bite out of practical effects. So, they may be heading in for work that even at its height had to be careful about absorbing that many people. The difficulty of getting into makeup effects, the right of passage…is it something you want to do? And do you want to be a technician in the lab or an artist? What you’re competing against and what you need to know; navigating through those to get yourself into the work environment was difficult enough. That gauntlet was what was needed to filter through the right people to be working in it. The makeup schools are yielding much bigger quantities, and one has to be careful with that because there is much less opportunity with digital going on. So, there are new people coming up, but at the same time there are a lot of people that got excited by digital. Rightfully so. It’s a very exciting medium, and it allows for people who maybe don’t have the three-dimensional tactile skills. Are they not interested in directly applying prosthetics and making molds but are genuinely good illustrators or technicians and artists in their own right? Now there’s the digital outlet. I think it lands in both places. There’s still more people coming through the tunnel of makeup effects and excited by it, while the explosion of digital is allowing for more work opportunities.

SM: Sure, great point. I don’t mean to crap on digital, because Lord knows there are plenty of times that it enhances the experience. Our generation, if you will, just grew up so heavily on the practical effects that it just feels more at home in the genre when you can see how heavy the practical is. It’s the centerpiece of everything you do.

GB: I think that’s a good way to put it. It’s the centerpiece of those kinds of films – horror films, genre films. When it’s digital, I don’t feel the same visceral response and it tends to shortchange the entire fun of what the experience is. That’s a good way to put it that practical effects are the foundation or the center point of those kinds of films. It seems strange, you know – if you’re in a period piece and you’re creating an impossible time travel background it’s totally appropriate. But in creature design the practical sits a little more comfortably in those kinds of films.

SM: It’s very jarring when the VFX stuff is kind of obvious and all you were hoping for was someone to get covered in the real gore. It’s very clearly something that comes from a computer and takes me out of the moment.

GB: Oh, yeah.

gabriel bartalos interview 02SM: The practical side is so heavy in Saint Bernard. I don’t want to sound remotely offensive, but where in God’s name did Static Boy come from? That shit is going to be burned into my brain forever! It’s the moment in the movie where I’m saying out loud “Oh, holy shit…what in the hell is that?”

GB: [Laughs] You know, I don’t remember the origin of it. I try and, uh, when I’m writing things just flow out, no pun intended…

SM: [Cracking up]

GB: …it’s being channeled and just begins to fill it out. There’s a little bit of that. I knew that Bernard, at that point in the film, is looking for escape fantasies and he was going to (as a comfort zone) involve musical instruments. It has to keep pushing forward the narrative of this alternate world of his distorted subconscious. The underwater was coming into play, and how do I create a body of water in an impossible place? Heck! Diarrhea is always great! You know, Static Boy specifically was me wanting to sculpt something that was three-dimensional and there on set, but had the feel of a two-dimensional cartoon. He was a huge sculpture I did at the studio, nine feet tall! But he just vanished around the corner. So, he was actually a giant, flat mold. The addition of his leg that cocks up when he takes the poop was a separate element. And I knew I wanted his eye to be this big burst of static. We had an actual television, which was the biggest part of Static Boy on the back of the set. It’s a ledge fused onto the eye socket just running…

SM: Wow! That’s a real screen?

GB: Yep. A real screen just showing bursts of static. He was actually just a relief sculpture and that was something I was interested in making, the two worlds of a two-dimensional art piece that occupies a three-dimensional space. He had a giant, eleven-inch circh plexi-tube exiting his ass, and we poured huge quantities of muddy, diarrhea-like substance down for it to violently propel onto the ground and make this puddle on the ground. Jay was able to jump into and impossibly go into this underwater world.

SM: Yeah, it works! You know you’ve made one of those moments that will be the first thing that comes up when people talk about Saint Bernard

GB: [Laughing] What the hell is a Static Boy? What the fuck was that?!

SM: It’s one of those things that you just tell them to go watch it and text you after the Static Boy scene. You get that text that says, “What in the actual fuck did you just have me watch?!”

GB: It’s a challenge to them. I love it.

SM: Change of pace, but it’s so good to continue to see Warwick Davis doing what he does. Thank you for making sure we all get that treat. He’s such a complete and total badass. I was so tickled to see him in the movie.

GB: He’s so generous with being available when I come up with these crazy projects. I think he likes it, you know? He’s smart in that he just keeps reinventing himself wonderfully every few years. Like the true thespian that he is, he likes to be challenged with different roles. He is continually able to stay up there with these A-list pictures he does with the Harry Potter and Star Wars stuff, so it’s really cool that he makes room for my stuff. It’s like a lot of other actors they say, “I’ll go do stage”; for Warwick it’s, “I’ll go do Gabe’s movie”. This way he stays relevant to a different audience and expands his acting chops. We have a wonderful time with it. He’s a genuinely good guy and super talented. He always brings something a little extra to his work

SM: That’s an understatement. That’s got to make you feel good that someone like that wants to come back and work with you, but so many of the other names you had in here were amazing. Bob Zmuda knocked my socks off.

GB: He’s terrific, isn’t he?

SM: It took me a minute to recognize him and figure it out. Once you see it and it clicks, you’re like, “Wow. It’s Tony Clifton!”

GB: He’s, you know, having worked with him for years (and Tony Clifton) I’ve gotten a good sense of his vocal strength and range and his sense of absurdity and playfulness. I just thought he’d be perfect for this. He was charmed to do it and did a great job with it. I think he also liked the perversity of being a priest, you know?

SM: Definitely. Back to Warwick, if we can…he’s so synonymous with Leprechaun, obviously. There have been two films now that didn’t involve you or Warwick. I gabriel bartalos interview 04was curious how you felt about those two films if you’ve seen them. I just found them to be so different from how you treated the character. There was the WWE one in 2011 and the recent one. The WWE one just shit all over the character, but I rather liked the recent one. I’d have preferred Warwick, of course, but it wasn’t bad at all. That’s your baby, though…your character.

GB: Right. Well, I didn’t actually see them. You know, though, I think there’s plenty of room out there for studios to try and reinvent things with either different talents or different artist. There might be more life in it rebooted. I can’t comment on the quality of them, but I understand why studios do that. It’s a big character. They’re very big boots to fill, though. Warwick is exceptional in it, and I agree with you; he really branded the character where that’s what you think of. It’s a challenge to go in a different direction. But, you know at the same time everyone involved with those films had such a good time making them. When they started being sequelized, it felt really good that you were involved in the creation of a character that is now a franchise and is making the studio money. Luckily, Warwick and I are both able to stay busy with other projects, so that you’re not stuck with one identity. So, in a weird way I’m feeling generous that I feel it’s great that, hopefully, the other productions go to enjoy the same pleasure we all had. I don’t know how successful they were. We were so happy when Leprechaun was a success and continued. I think that’s great. There are all sorts of room for that stuff.

SM: Another thing I was very curious about with Saint Bernard, while there’s still time, is that IMDB says 2013. Did it take a long time to make it? Why are we seeing the Severin (Blu-ray/DVD) release now?

GB: That’s actually a technical error that just keeps being reprinted. Now I jokingly laugh. It just adds to the confusion, as the whole films is confusing. I had the film rough edited in 2013 with a long way to go, and I was invited by a couple of film festivals to show it out of competition. It’s almost like when you do a test screening and grab a few buddies or agencies show it to a few people to test it. I was like “I’d love to see, with an audience, where it’s hitting before we go post with digital and sound.”

SM: Oh, okay. Gotcha.

GB: Those dates got misinterpreted as completed. We didn’t finish the film until 2017. At that point, things went really quickly. I premiered the film in North America at the Boston Underground Film Festival in the same year, 2017. Then it started all the conversation that I wanted. It got a bunch of good reviews and attention with distributors. Shortly after, I ended up doing the deal with Severin Films. Then they took the elements and artwork and do their dance to bring it out now. It’s funny because it adds to the confusion in a playful way, but that’s just an erroneous thing people think.

SM: That makes a little more sense that it wasn’t intended for release 6 years ago. It’s the IMDB monster running away with bad information.

GB: That’s exactly the way to put it! I think Severin officially puts 2018 on it. That’s when they finished all their elements and stuff and began all the artwork.

SM: Cool. Thanks for the clarification. It wasn’t making sense, thinking that this sat on the shelf for that long when you see how quickly some of the really bad stuff takes to come out.

gabriel bartalos interview 06GB: To David Gregory’s credit (the owner of Severin Films), he felt the same as you. He said, “There’s definitely a market for this!”. He said that there wasn’t only a market for it, but it’s well done. It’ll be a step up. His company handles so many great films, and they’re starting to handle more contemporary films. It was a really good match. They said it’s a great way to let people know they’re doing more contemporary stuff.

SM: They’re good people to get hooked up with. They put out a good lineup.

GB: Agreed. I really enjoy a lot of stuff they have. It felt like a really nice fit.

SM: Excellent. So, we come to the inevitable “what’s next?” question. Horror is, in the last couple of years particularly, big at the box office and on streaming. It’s a big boom. What’s coming up? Is there anything that you can let us know about? Are you more back to the special effects or sticking to directing? I know your day job, so to speak, is where your heart is.

GB: Yeah. Exactly. I think it’s exactly that. I’m back in the studio working on a couple of interesting effects projects, but the ideas for films I want to do on my own keep coming in. I keep scribbling that down. I think it’s a way for me to, when I don’t put a hard deadline on when I want to do it and start up something, is a nice way. It’s kind of like the difference between bands who are forced by their label to turn out new product every year and those who take their time and put out the songs when they’re ready. They tend to have more longevity. They’re happier with their pieces. Lo and behold, it turns out they put out a better product that the audience likes more. I think that’s a pretty good motto that I like to follow, and it seems to be a nice, organic zig-zag that when the itch comes to start making a film it’s usually a nice break from the main Atlantic West Studio activity. Then, when the film is over with, it’s always exciting to rush back into the studio and jump back in serving other films. It’s a pretty lucky place to be, and that’s not lost on me. It’s a nice balance where I can really be committed and fresh to whichever way I’m pushing.

SM: That’s cool to have the freedom to go full Tool mode, a ’la Maynard, and say, “You know…you get my shit when you get it!”

GB: Yes! And a lot of the things going to go into the films that I “auteur” are really fucked up. They’re not going to be appropriate for other films or other narratives even if they have weird preachers or scenes that are meant to push the limits. There are still limits and they’ll just stare at me like, “No. What are you talking about?” So, as a makeup effects creator and creature designer, the job is to really serve those films that I sign onto in tone and appearance. It’s about making the overall project look right and feel right. The other things that I tend to dream up are unbridled and tend to land in a different universe, which is terrific. It makes those films have a signature of their own that completely point back to my creativity and they don’t feel out of place in a different film, but they’re completely at home in a film that I wrote and directed.

SM: Well, please keep that signature going out there. I’m not just speaking for myself when I say I need more weirdness like this in my life. I shared it with my family and they were all like, “What the fuck? Really? Where did you find this?” But it was said with a smile. I told them it just fell right into my lap.

GB: Like most great gifts do, right?gabriel bartalos interview 03

SM: Precisely. Man, I loved it. Thank you so much for your time; I think I ran you a little long.

GB: Oh, no. I really appreciate the kind words. I’m glad you really liked it. The film is made for people like you and me with the same sensibilities. Like I said, when it’s that kind of candy I want to give plenty of it.

SM: We will keep eating it up. I’ve told the Horror DNA when I put the review out that I haven’t had anything yet I’ve enjoyed as much this year. I put the warning label on it that if you don’t like weird you might should stay away, but then I said if you don’t like weird then you SHOULD watch this because I have to know what your response is!

GB: Who knows? It might even change some people’s minds for how I chose to visualize it. Maybe they’ll get something out of it that’ll surprise ‘em.

SM: Or scare them away from staticky TV’s and parachuting chickens, anyways.

GB: [Laughs] Exactly! That’s one way to do it.

SM: Again, thank you! It’s been my honor.

GB: Totally, Stuart. I appreciate all the kind words and the airtime. When I hear directly from you about how you like it that’s super encouraging to me. It means it’s landing in a good spot. Mission accomplished.

SM: That it did, sir. Thank you for everything.

GB: Right on, Stuart. Maybe we’ll cross paths sometime down the road, hopefully. Have a good one!

Horror DNA would like to thank Gabriel for taking the time to share so much with us. Make sure you pick up a copy of Saint Bernard by clicking below!

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About The Author
Stuart D. Monroe
Staff Reviewer - USA
Stuart D. Monroe is a man of many faces – father, husband, movie reviewer, published author of short horror, unsuccessful screenwriter (for now), rabid Clemson Tiger, Southern gentleman, and one hell of a model American who goes by the handle "Big Daddy Stu" or "Sir". He's also highly disturbed and wears that fact like a badge of honor. He is a lover of all things horror with a particular taste for the fare of the Italians and the British. He sometimes gets aroused watching the hardcore stuff, but doesn't bother worrying about whether he was a serial killer in a past life as worrying is for the weak. He was raised in the video stores of the '80s and '90s. The movie theater is his cathedral. He worships H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Clive Barker. When he writes, he listens obsessively to either classical music or the works of Goblin to stimulate the neural pathways. His favorite movie is Dawn of the Dead. His favorite book is IT. His favorite TV show is LOST.
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