If you have arachnophobia, you might need to take a deep pull from an inhaler after watching the trailer for Itsy Bitsy, an upcoming horror film in which a single mother and her children are stalked by a spider that's large enough to haunt your dreams for life, but still compact enough to fit in your bathtub or under your bed... As impressive as the trailer for Itsy Bitsy is, the film still needs help from horror fans to make it across the cinematic finish line in post-production, and director Micah Gallo has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help bring his creature feature to the big screen.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Gallo about his new character-centric thriller, and he discussed teaming up with Daily Dead contributor Jason Alvino and Bryan Dick to write the screenplay, filming the movie in sections, depicting the spider through painstaking practical effects, developing strong characters, working with Denise Crosby and Bruce Davison, and much more. Read on for my full interview, and visit the film's Kickstarter page to learn more about Itsy Bitsy.
It sounds like Itsy Bitsy has been in the works for a while. It's been quite the journey to get it made.
Micah Gallo: Oh yeah, I've been working on the film for at least ten years, from the idea phase on up. I had made a short film called Wick, which was based on a different feature script that almost got made, and we collaborated on that because I had been introduced to Jay through Paul Solet, because he had done effects on Solet's movie Grace. So he did all the monsters on my short film Wick, and we were always hanging out and talking on the phone, and we would always talk about the same movies, which at that time were Ghostbusters  and The Thing. He decided to move out here to L.A., and he wrote this script that he ended up letting me read, and I was totally bowled over by the thing, it had a personal pathos to it. It was a genre movie, so it had a monster-type character, but it had this human drama and edge to it, which is exactly what I wanted for Itsy Bitsy. After reading it, I said, "Hey, maybe you'd want to collaborate with me on this?" And he was totally down, and we spent the next several years writing an entire draft of the script, which was suspenseful and interesting, but it just didn't have the character dimensions that we wanted. So we literally tore the whole thing down and built it back up again. It was really easy to come up with the suspense sequences, especially for me, maybe because I'm afraid of spiders or because I like those scenes in cinema, but what was hard was to integrate that in an organic way with the character drama so that it has a level of depth with the characters and performances that bring you back.
And then I brought in Bryan Dick, and we re-focused the narrative and he added a lot to the female drama, which was the direction that I pushed it even farther to go. We had this male sheriff character that never worked. It always seemed cliché and uninteresting to me, and as soon as I came up with the idea to make that a female sheriff, suddenly everything clicked. What was supposed to be just some clean-up work was in essence a fairly massive rewrite again, before going into production. At the end of that, we had some collaborations with Jay, where he was able to look at the thing with fresh eyes and give us his perspective from his intimate knowledge of the characters from him and I working on it for several years.
Micah Gallo: We had to shoot the movie in parts. I didn't have all the money that we needed to make this movie going into production. But I decided that that was the only way to do it. The only way to get to the end goal was to march in that direction, because if I continued to wait for some magical person to hand me everything that I needed, I would never get there. I just had to start moving in that direction and have the faith that somehow we would get there. I realized that my perfectionism only has value when it's in motion, and that other people want to support something that's happening.
We had our initial shoot, which was 16 days up in central California, where we mainly shot a lot of the character drama. There was some spider stuff that we had to do there, but we also knew that, or at least I strongly felt that, shooting the spider stuff on a stage in L.A. was going to give us the flexibility that we needed. Especially because we had chosen to do it practically with puppets. So you have to have spaces for the puppeteers to see, and be able to cut holes in walls and floors and things to make that physically possible.
That was kind of our tactic, was let's shoot the human drama up in a location in central California and be able to focus on the acting, and then come back to L.A. and be able to focus on the creature performance. Now, again, it wasn't quite as cut and dry as that, but that was essentially the idea. Which makes sense, because really the needs that a filmmaker has to keep in mind for a scene with actors, and the way that that's blocked and shot is different than how you block and shoot a suspense sequence or something like effects, where you can pretty much only shoot it from one angle and you're having to cut these various pieces together in a way that creates that suspense and the illusion of reality. It was very helpful.
After that first shoot, I had to raise more money, plus do the planning, and refine some things and finish the storyboarding process, which we had to have very detailed storyboards because in shooting those scenes, we had a lot of scenes with children. It's figuring out this puzzle of how you're going to do all this stuff and have enough time for the puppeteers, because it takes some time to coordinate when five people are making one thing move.
And then, after that, we started the editing process, which was back in 2016. We really didn't share it with people outside of our circle, but we started to get feedback from people who were trusted or involved in the movie or a couple close friends and family just to see how things were flowing. And we still had some pieces we needed to shoot because we ran into some production problems on the original shoot, so we knew we had some pieces to pick up, like house exteriors, and there were some jungle scenes that we still hadn't shot. We decided to just take the time we needed to plan it and to make sure that when we went back to get those things we were getting the right stuff.
So we did that. Some of that was writing and once again talking with Jay and Brian and figuring out what we needed, especially in terms of story. We discovered that by adding some new elements, potentially to these jungle scenes in the beginning and making sure that the audience is tracking along well with the mythology—which is very important in horror films especially—that it just sort of helps make sense of the things that were happening in the end with our main characters. We added those things in and then we had several small shoots over the course of 2017 of two to three days here, two to three days there, two to three days here, so we had six production days to finish the movie. Now we're into post.
So this is the last leg of the journey for you guys. That's what you're looking for some help from with the Kickstarter, to bring this thing full circle and get it out there.
Micah Gallo: Exactly. And what's been interesting is that I think we had this great initial success with Kickstarter, but we really do need people's help. Because despite the fact the film looks great and done—which, I think, a lot of people's first perception is, "Whoa, that looks great! It looks done. They don't need my help!"—in actuality, we really need help in order to finish this movie, because as I explained, it was sort of like jumping off a cliff and just hoping that somehow we would land perfectly. And that's kind of where we're at and the journey's not over. We definitely need people's support in order to finish this film. We are asking that people show any support they can because any bit helps, so that we can actually finish this and release it next year, which is our plan.
You have a background in visual effects, and I know Jason has worked in effects, too, so was it important for you guys to show the spider as practical effects creation? Did you guys, from the outset, say, "We need to do it this way and be old school with our approach,"?
Micah Gallo: Sure, we love those old-school movies, but we didn't just do it to pay homage to that. Really, even my experience in visual effects, and I worked on a lot of low-budget genre movies because those were the jobs that we could get. Those were the filmmakers we could help and have the most impact on. We always told them, "Do everything you can practically first," because it's going to get the best result for the look of something. Essentially what you're dealing with is that when the audience is looking at something they know is fake—let's say you're even looking at the dragons in Game of Thrones—you know that there's no dragons. So immediately your eye is looking at it like a magic trick, you're watching it like a magician, trying to pick apart what he or she is doing. What's great about practical effects is that it helps with that illusion because you have something that's in real space, that has light bouncing off it in the right way, that has a texture that human beings can interact with. So whatever you're building on top of that base is going to have a lot more realism just by virtue of the fact that there is something there that your eye is drawn to.
So that's kind of why we took that approach, because we just didn't want it to feel like a cartoon spider. And my experience of visual effects is that even if you have a ton of money—which we don't—really it doesn't matter how great the effect is, there's always something that's going to be off to the eye for most people. Even if they let it go and say, "Okay, suspension of disbelief, we're going to go along with this story because we love the story so much," you're still missing out on something, I think. You're missing out on a tangible reality that just makes the movie work on a deeper level for you by not having something real there.
That's really why we did it, because we felt like as challenging as it is—and it was definitely challenging, it took at lot of time on set, it took the ingenuity of a lot of talented people to make the thing work—we just felt that was going to create this result that when you walk out of the theater you feel like you saw something real. You feel like you really saw this new spider, and it sticks with you in that way because that's how humans experience the world. They see something real and then it feels real. Or they see something that's a cartoon and it's remembered as a cartoon.
I liked, too, the size of the spider, because it's not super big. It's bigger than usual, but it's not this massive creature. It's even creepier because it can still be hiding in places. So I do like that it's something that can still be hiding in the bathtub, but it's not going to be towering over your house or anything like that.
Micah Gallo: Yeah, that was the original concept that I came up with. And it felt so obvious to me, that I didn't understand why nobody had every done it before. I was so protective of it because I didn't want somebody to steal it before I could do it. It's really unique. It hasn't been done in movies about spiders that I've ever seen. It really does capture all of those elements that I think are frightening about it, where you're seeing it at a larger size than would be possible, which gives you this glimpse of what's really horrific about looking into the face of the spider. And yet it does have this ability to do things that a normal spider would do, like hide under something and not be some kind of lumbering Godzilla spider, which just never seems scary to me.
You mentioned the sheriff character, played by Denise Crosby in the movie, which is really awesome for a lot of people who have been following her career. You also have Bruce Davison, who I'm a big fan of as well. What was it like getting them involved? To have them championing an independent movie like this is a pretty cool thing.
Micah Gallo: We were so blessed to have such great actors in our film. And both of them coming on board was a real coup for us because we took the human drama so seriously. And with Bruce, what happened was, we had a mutual friend named Eileen Dietz, who worked on The Exorcist, and her manager is Bruce's manager. It's a really tricky thing for a first-time filmmaker to get good actors in their movie, especially if you don't have a ton of money, because actors don't want to take that risk. Especially a very busy working actor like Bruce, who's on a lot of TV shows, and has a busy schedule, and can command a fairly healthy salary.
People like that, they don't want to take risks on people that they don't know, who don't have a track record of already making movies and eliciting good performances and so on. So I think it was just really thanks to Eileen, who is a big advocate of me and believed in the project, and was willing to say that and ask for the support of Bruce and asked Bruce's manager, Chris Roe, to read the script and take me seriously. And so thanks to that, we were able to work out a deal with Bruce to get him attached, which helped us with the casting process. It didn't really blow open the doors to Hollywood or anything, but it gave us credibility just because we were working with Bruce and he believed in us, and other actors were more excited about the movie because of that. Because they knew that he is a great actor that was going to bring a lot to the part and so then they wanted to join up and be a part of that.
Working with Bruce on set was great because he brings so much energy into each moment. He wants every single moment to be truthful, and so that means constant discussions about the script—almost every line. That back and forth really brings another dimension to his character in the movie. He didn't have to do that, but that's just the type of actor that he is. He's going to make the film and the character as great as he knows how, and he's a very engaged collaborator in that way.
Working with Denise was great. It was one of those things that just seemed fated from the beginning. There was something very personal about this film for Denise, about this character. It was very clear to me that she just completely understood who this character needed to be, and brought all that history to the role. She didn't need to do a movie like this. Denise gets plenty of work. But there was something that she really believed in about this movie, and we were just lucky to have her. Her style on set is very naturalistic. I offered her the opportunity to change lines and she really wasn't interested in that. She was really more interested in making the existing lines work, and it just felt like the script spoke to her and that she understood it innately. She has an acting style that requires a different kind of editing, because if you cut Denise too quickly, you miss out on the gold that she's giving you, because there's so much subtlety in her performance, that you really don't pick up on all of those little details unless you linger on her a little longer than other actors. We're very pleased with her performance and I think that her fans are going to love this role.
You have some things on Kickstarter for fans to check out, including a video with Andy Dick. How did that come about?
Micah Gallo: I worked with Andy on a project a couple years ago called Massacre Lake, where he played a darkly comedic character in the Hitchcock comic relief vein. I told him I was working on this movie and we came up with this idea of a skit where the concept behind it is, "Oh, we tried to use motion capture, but it became such a disaster on set that we had to go practical. He just thought it was hilarious and he came out and it was just a blast to shoot that. It was so ridiculous and I hope people find it funny. It's another entertaining skit to bring awareness to the movie.
If you do meet your Kickstarter goal, are you aiming for a 2018 release?
Yeah, I'm hoping that we have some sort of premiere in the first quarter of 2018, but it really depends on how much support we can get, not just on Kickstarter, but in general. We really need support, both financially and otherwise, to get this film to its audience.
Before I let you go, is there anything else regarding the Kickstarter campaign or the movie that you'd like to share with our readers?
We made the movie that we wanted to see and made the type of movie that we've always loved, so we hope that it connects with people, and we're really excited to hear everyone's feedback on the trailer and the Kickstarter campaign. We hope that people comment and share and speak to me directly so that we can understand how it's working. Do they love it? Do they hate it? Let us know. We hope to hear from them.
Photo credit: Above photo from the Kickstarter page for Itsy Bitsy.