INFINITE BREASTS: An Over-Sized Interview with John Skipp, Andrew Kasch and Cody Goodfellow About Their Short Film ‘Stay At Home Dad’ (Pt I)
[Note: It's highly recommended you watch Stay At Home Dad here, if you haven't already seen it, as this interview doth containeth spoilers. Consider yourself adequately warned.]
I had the pleasure of catching a screening of John Skipp and Andrew Kasch’s film Stay At Home Dad at this year’s Bizarrocon. I’d read Cody Goodfellow’s work before, so I knew to expect the opposite of what was being presented by the time the credits hit. What I didn’t expect was to emote with Steven (Matthew Currie-Holmes plus feeding mounds) while he went through a real-world terror exclusive to women. That is, unless you count when I saw Schwarzenegger’s lesser-known body-horror film Junior and experienced true shit-my-pants fear for the first time. Society often treats women like priority citizens while they’re pregnant, then gets out the pitch forks and torches when it’s time to nurse, and it caught me off guard to see the situation flipped here. I think that the character of Brenda (Alisha Seaton plus pants) probably has a lot to do with that discomfort, as she steps into the traditionally male role of breadwinner and emotional backhand to Steven’s character. But that’s casting a really serious light on a film that’s almost anything but. Simply, this film kicks ass. It’s fifteen minutes of what the shit am I watching until it sinks in. It’s gross-outs and yuks and a bit of old-fashioned horror. Show it to your friends and watch them stir uncomfortably in their seats and then laugh together when it’s over. It’s like that. It is.
So who read de Beauvoir and Lovecraft back-to-back and thought: this.
ANDREW KASCH: This was Cody’s baby – both figuratively and literally. He’s the Lovecraft super-freak of the group and I think he drew a lot from his personal experiences as a new father.
CODY GOODFELLOW: That was pretty much my fault. I was looking for new and different engines to drive the classic 8-page EC-style horror short comic strip, and different sources of insecurity and fear. I’ve stayed home with two daughters and the dislocation, the oddness of it, isn’t just society’s preconception; the kid looks at you like, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Where’s the one with the upfront snack bar?’
I once read a great editorial caveat concerning submissions of Lovecraftian stories to the effect that, if you take Cthulhu out and substitute anything else, and it doesn’t collapse, then it’s not a Mythos story. If you put anything else in here, it only feels like half a joke. The Mythos is such a whole concrete system of meaning that plugging it in just speaks volumes and puts you into a unique aesthetic space. It allows you to do supernatural horror without God and the Devil; it’s materialist mythology. So it seemed like a fun challenge to fuse cosmic horror with very intimate body horror.
With subsequent viewings of the film, I keep noticing the foreshadowing more. From the plush Cthulhu in an opening shot, to the baby’s cries, solid food, etc that all have a reprise later or serve as a continual build toward a major reveal. It’s a very tightly-coiled structure.
AK: FINALLY! Someone caught the plush Cthulhu! I’m a firm believer in the Robert Zemeckis School of Set-Up™ where even throwaway lines can hint at big things to come.
JOHN SKIPP: We wanted to be incredibly careful how we layered things in. On the one hand, we needed enough clues so that people went “Ah-HA!” at the end. But we also needed to bury them so hard that nobody saw it coming.
But for me, the image that drew it all together was the amazing Steve Gilberts painting over the bed, with the multi-armed aqua-woman that contains astounding things. Imagining Brenda’s face reflected there threw the door wide open for me.
As there are a lot of writers that follow Bizarro Central, I’m sure some are curious as to how fiction writing compares to screenwriting, especially regarding short films. Would you say there’s an easy parallel between short stories and short films?
JS: Absolutely. It’s all storytelling. The same requirements are there. It’s just the delivery system that’s massively different. So just as you can only read the words that are there, you can only see the scenes that are shot. The screenwriter provides the scenes. The director breaks them down into shots.
CG: Screenwriting has to be as tight as you can wind it. Prose can always afford to economize, but if you’re wasting time in a film, you’re telling the audience to go outside and play or change the channel. The refining of this script was a constant process of folding information and imagery into layers, and we started talking about things that would become apparent on repeat viewings, versus stuff that had to come across at first glance. A film screen offers you the luxury of showing and telling and signifying all at once, but you have to keep it up and keep it coherent. Prose is much more forgiving, and it’s actually a relief to return to just making shit up with words.
Being male and not having any experience with parenthood, I outsourced some reaction to a friend. (Alicia, thanks!) She pointed out an attention to detail I’d missed, such as how many of the characters invalidated Steven’s emotions, the appearance of postpartum depression, as well as his difficulties coping with the stigma around public breastfeeding, lactating, etc.
AK: At the end of the day, this is another spin on the “anything you can do, I can do better” theme. Men have it so fucking easy. Being a woman requires more strength and a much higher tolerance for bullshit, so it’s always fun to throw that in the face of a character who thinks he can shoulder all that. My favorite moment is when he gets punched in the boob. Talk about a wake-up call!
JS: I think Steven’s sense of diminishment as a person, the second he settles into those big boobs he’s so excited about, is the most fun, subversive, and heartbreaking aspect of Cody’s story. All the monster shit is awesome, but when you hit the sexual politics of it, that’s where the real nerve endings get smacked around.
Was Steven’s pretty comical nightmare castration a play on a common view that doing things the “other” gender typically does is like being stripped of your own sex?
JS: Being stripped of your masculinity, absolutely. Cuz if this had been a story about a woman growing an enormous cock and saying “YOU stay home!” it would have played very differently. (laughs) Albeit a story to keep in mind!
That’s why casting was so important, and why Matthew Currie-Holmes was such a perfect choice. Hard as he works, he’s a stay-at-home-dad much of the time, so all the emotions were right there. Coupled with his baby face, winning smile, and fierce devotion to the acting craft, he brought every bit of nuance we needed . . . including the manly assertion he whipped up for the ridiculous fight scene.
CG: At its core, this story is a modern take on the old fable about the husband and wife who switch jobs for the day, and the man makes a dog’s breakfast of the household, learning in the process what it really takes to be a woman. And in taking on her role, he learns something he might never have discovered about his wife. Empathy itself has been feminized, so even trying to understand the other side puts you at risk of losing your balls.
Lovecraft was deeply conflicted and fucked up inside on the question of sex, and with good reason. His father died in a madhouse of syphilis, and his unstable mother dressed him as a girl and kept him from school. His marriage was a disaster, and he fled it to live with his eccentric spinster aunts. It’s easy to over-analyze Lovecraft through a Freudian filter that sees vaginas everywhere, and a colossal sexual neurosis sublimated into these “indescribable” monstrosities. And it’s rich material for that kind of thing, and may even explain why he wrote it, but is that why we are compelled to read and imitate and expand on it?
The horror we’re mining is the raw stuff that Lovecraft tried to indirectly deal with in his Mythos stories, and tried to escape in his Dreamlands fantasies (of which not enough is said or read). It’s terrifying to be inside a body, once you realize that you are not that body. Bodies fail and fall apart and are always subject to these impulses that threaten to change or destroy your life without warning. Lovecraft is almost archetypal in his outsider-ness. He would’ve been delighted to discover that he was not human at all, or to be removed from his body and transported across space in a brain-cylinder after the end of the world. And I think that’s a feeling anyone who’s going through menopause or cancer treatment can probably relate to.
The transition break in the fight scene was fucking brilliant. It had a very Looney Tunes sort of quality to it. Whose idea was that?
CG: One of those other guys. It’s hilarious, and then to segue into Justin Cruse’s freaky time-lapse of nightfall. . . I want to make up an award to give us every time I see it.
AK: I think Skipp & I were just looking at the beautiful view from the deck and thought “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if. . .” We were both raised on a steady diet of Looney Tunes so it was kind of a no-brainer.
JS: MINE MINE MINE! That was a pivotal Looney Tunes joke for me – from the Bob Clampett/Frank Tashlin school of cartoon comedy – and a way to break up the ridiculous mayhem. From the second I pictured it, I couldn’t imagine not doing it. THANKS FOR NOTICING!
What kind of budget were you working with?
CG: We raised a paltry six thousand from anonymous weirdos when we were looking to make this film ourselves, my wife and I, and Andrew and Skipp kicked in a bit more, but in terms of the talent and tech that they was able to conjure up out of thin air and favors, we got way more than we paid for.
JS: $6,500 and change. Most of which went toward fx.
AK: Less than the craft service budget on a car commercial.
How did the score develop—was the score’s direction a collaborative effort, or did you guys just shove a keyboard in front of Cody and tell him to basically go apeshit?
CG: Mostly the latter. Some of the cues did have sound engineer Justin Cruse’s atmospherics and stuff laid on top of them. I’ve always been a hobbyist composer; I did some really insufferable soundtracks for pornos in college. Skipp is an accomplished composer (ask him about Misty Beethoven: The Musical) and player and we’ve worked on tunes together since before we wrote together. But I really wanted to do the whole thing in a very 80’s electro style. I did everything in Reason, so I was able to make changes as needed pretty easily. The percussion kit in the end credits is made of Space Invaders sound fx.
AK: Cody was working on the music before we even shot a frame. He’s one of those guys that will endlessly experiment in his man-cave and emerge weeks later with dozens of tracks and cues. We had no shortage of stuff and at the end of the day we just used the ones that fit the best.
JS: Andrew and I sent Cody a list of the scenes, with our suggestions for moods and tempos and such. He came up with a whole bunch of music, sometimes two or three pieces per scene. Then we plugged them into the edit and saw what worked. Sometimes none of them worked, but a piece he’d written for another scene worked perfectly. That said, all of the spooky CREEPSHOW-flavored grand finale stuff was composed to the assembled footage, and played exactly right.
The only scenes we used other music for were the exotica for the opening breakfast scene and the muzak for the doctor’s office. There, we needed to set up a sorta ordinary world. And ordinary isn’t Cody’s long suit. So we used Les Baxter for breakfast. And Andrew picked “(Theme from) A Summer Place” as the most horrible song to be stuck in a room with. (laughs) So I insisted we go with the classic Percy Faith.
How did the three of you come together?
AK: I met Skipp on my documentary Never Sleep Again when we interviewed him about writing the ill-fated A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. I grew up a big splatterpunk nerd and he was one of my favorite writers, so I sort of geeked out when he came in. At the DVD release party, we shot a game of pool and I pulled him aside and said “Dude, I really wanna work with you.” And the rest is history. I met Cody through Skipp since they’re writing collaborators and was instantly won over by his stuff. He’s a hyper-intelligent fountain of creativity and I love him!
CG: Skipp and I have worked together on stuff for ages, and Andrew hooked up with Skipp on the Elm Street documentary. When we decided to look outside our own house for a director, we talked to Andrew just as and Skipp were working out a partnership scheme to do features. So it gave them a chance to try out the partnership, and it was great. They were able to cover everything and coordinate and take turns being stressed out so there was always a fresh rider holding the reins.
We weren’t fucking around when we said this thing was over-sized. Want more?! Come back tomorrow for Part TWO!