When a lonely drifter arrives at an isolated farm looking for work and a place to stay he finds himself battling the cerebral takeover of otherworldly visions. Marking his third appearance on DN, Eli Powers’ rural horror Skin & Bone is a menacing horror about the ongoing presence of the past. The film’s two leads, and real-life partners, Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried bring great depth to the characters of Christian and Serene as they confront one another as two lonely individuals both with their own personal baggage. Powers’ short excels in its darkest moments where Christian’s visions see him coming face to face with the farm’s animals in encounters rife with Lynchian unease. Following Skin & Bone’s successful arrival online, DN joined Powers for a conversation about the making of his short, covering everything from his history as a genre filmmaker to his vision for the feature version of his unsettling tale.

What was the creative inception for this story of a drifter experiencing strange visions whilst working on an isolated farm?

For nine months I worked at the defunct Meadowlands Sports Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. After the Devils and Nets abandoned it for better stadiums, it spent a decade in limbo before being resurrected as a makeshift TV studio in 2019. They built the sets right on top of the court, while twenty-thousand empty seats loomed ominously on the periphery. You could always feel eyes on you. The security guards told me that during construction someone had fallen from the rafters and died, and his spirit still lingered around. I spent my time there thinking a lot about the idea of purgatory, about spaces that are so strange and powerful that we run the risk of being trapped there indefinitely. I think the first inklings of Skin & Bone came to me as I roamed alone through the cavernous hallways of New Jersey’s sports catacomb.

While I was there I started writing a project for Thomas Sadoski. I wanted him to play a security guard with terrible facial scarring working alone at the arena and having supernatural experiences. The issue was each time I sat down and write it, his character would always end up leaving the Meadowlands and drifting Upstate to a farm. I couldn’t keep him in the one location I was trying to write for. The story would open inside the arena, but a few pages later he’d be hitching a ride up the Palisades, drawn to farmland, and the woods, and obscurity…

That’s how it goes sometimes, you have an idea… you let it float away… and it comes back to you transformed.

Eventually I forgot about the haunted security guard idea. It went the way of so many semi-promising brainstorms. But a year and a half later, when I started to write Skin & Bone it all began with a man arriving on a farm, and instead of facial scars he had a milky blue eye. I realize now that Serene’s property really isn’t that different from the Meadowlands, both bizarre liminal spaces where the past remains more powerful than the present. I think that’s how it goes sometimes, you have an idea… you let it float away… and it comes back to you transformed.

Prior to making Skin & Bone, you’d made a real breadth of work across multiple genres, was there something about psychological horror as a genre that was attractive to you as a filmmaker?

I dragged my feet committing to the word horror at first. I didn’t really know it was a horror film until later on. I described it as a folk tale, then half-jokingly as a farm-noir, then as a psychological thriller. Eventually a friend of mine, Nick Verdi, who appears naked in the barn scene, said something like “If you try and make it all of these different things, you’re gonna fall short. Just make it one thing. Make it a single thing and aim for that, and if you land somewhere else… that’s fine.” Horror it was. After I landed on that word, the path became clearer. I could see what was expected of me and wrote in ways to subvert that as best I could.

What does preproduction look like for you? Do you like to plan heavily before heading into a shoot?

Our shoot got pushed twice because of Covid so there was a lot more time than usual to sit around and ponder and stare at the walls. I more or less planned out every single shot in my head. I’d call Aidan Sheldon, our Directory of Photography, and we’d talk and talk until eventually, we both had the entire vision imprinted into the backs of our brains. In addition to his incredible camerawork, he’s also a writer and a director, so he became an essential source of creative support for me throughout the lengthy and sometimes head-spinning process.

After I landed on that word, the path became clearer. I could see what was expected of me, and wrote in ways to subvert that as best I could.

Could you talk about creating the palpable tension on screen, is that something you devise in the screenplay or more through how you shot the film, or a combination of the two?

The tension is just something that we always felt our way towards on set. If it didn’t make me feel sick to my stomach, I didn’t want to shoot it. I knew that everything needed to be steeped in that horrible feeling of cold dark dread. You know the one where it feels like something out there is getting closer and closer and there’s nothing you can do to stop it because it doesn’t have a face or a shape or a name… it just is? That’s the true unrelenting manifestation of dread that Skin & Bone aspires towards. The project is my ode to that feeling.

What do actors the calibre of Amanda and Thomas bring to a production?

Everything. Their on-screen presence is incredible. I’m consistently inspired by them. In real life, they’re very chill. Exactly the type of people you’d want to watch TV or go to a hockey game with. But the second the cameras are rolling, I think that they both become antennas for something powerful, and they pull it down out of the sky into the room. My whole goal was to create an environment for them to be able to channel as much as they want to. I’m there to follow to them and capture whatever truth they stumble on.

How long were you shooting for and how challenging a shoot was it?

It was a five day shoot. I look back on it with rose-colored glasses, but it was pretty tough. Mostly because we had to shift halfway through the schedule to splits in order to get all of the night work done. We also had a lot of animal actors, which is historically one of those no-gos. Luckily most of them were incredible and hit their marks at three AM in the cold. If they hadn’t, it would’ve been pretty easy for the collective morale to tank terribly.

If it didn’t make me feel sick to my stomach, I didn’t want to shoot it. I knew that everything needed to be steeped in that horrible feeling of cold dark dread.

On the last day, we had a rainstorm that came through and pummeled us during the finale with Christian and Serene on the hill. Everyone was devastated. It was our last chance at it and we were all crowded inside the horse stable, staring out at a torrential wall of water. Just to tempt fate I started playing Riders on the Storm really loudly on the bluetooth speakers. I think it’s pretty funny to show an exaggerated amount of confidence in the face of your potential undoing. The storm cleared ten minutes before sunset and we slopped up the hill just in time to get a few takes in. That’s partly why that scene looks so ethereal and strange: the sun is going down on the far side between a few openings in heavy dark storm clouds.

I read that you’d like to expand on Skin & Bone in the future, could you tell us anything about where you would like to take this story?

I can say that the story encompasses the larger mythology of Serene’s family and the true secrets of the land that she inhabits. It also touches on a turning point in American history and the rampant destruction of the environment. It’s about running from guilt, and fear of facing oneself. The 97 page version ultimately became a large enough container for me to draw in several themes that felt important and personal to me.

And to close out, what’s next for you?

Writing. Pushing the rock up the hill.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *