A creepy rendition of a familiar nursery rhyme, Itsy Bitsy (co-written by Daily Dead contributor Jason Alvino) made its world premiere at Popcorn Frights Film Festival in Fort Lauderdale, giving attendees with arachnophobia (myself included) enough nightmare fuel to keep them awake for days on end. While at Popcorn Frights, Daily Dead had the pleasure of speaking with director/co-writer Micah Gallo about the multi-year journey to getting Itsy Bitsy made, using as many practical effects as possible to bring the film's big spider to life, and working with a talented cast that includes Elizabeth Roberts, Denise Crosby, and Bruce Davison.
Keep an eye out for Itsy Bitsy when it crawls into theaters and on digital and VOD platforms beginning August 30th from Shout! Studios.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Micah. I know we talked about years ago in 2017, and you had the Kickstarter video and you got all these people to back it, and at that point, did you have some of the movie filmed, or was it completely from scratch at that point? Because I know it's been a long journey.
Micah Gallo: Yeah, we had filmed pretty much the whole movie. I think after that we maybe did a few pickups, but I think we pretty much had the whole movie in the can. But, yeah, we did have a few things that we picked up—no big scenes, but some shots. We had some kind of VFX-oriented photography where we're shooting elements, and so that's a big misnomer on VFX is sort of like a lot of VFX are still done practically, right? Even when we composite it digitally, we used practically shot elements, which I think gives it a more realistic old-school look to the VFX, and so that was part of it.
Then part of it was picking up some exterior shots and things like that, which we kind of intentionally left. You can waste a lot of time with exteriors and transitional shots when you don't know what you need. Then, once you kind of have the scenes edited together you see, "Oh, okay." We kind of see what's important and what isn't. Some of the things we had planned to shoot, we didn't need to shoot. Then, there was some other stuff where it's like, "Oh, we really needed that and we didn't know it." So, we got that.
Going back to the story idea for this, how long was this brewing? I know you initially came up with a story, and then you got Jason Alvino involved and you brought in another screenwriter [Bryan Dick] as well. Where did the story come from? It's so unique because it's a spider movie, but it's not a Godzilla-size spider, but it's not like Arachnophobia, either. It's this middle ground that makes it even more believable and scary, too.
Micah Gallo: Yeah. That's exactly right. That was our intention was to have this spider that's basically the size of a small dog, and we wanted it behaviorally to act like a real spider. It was very important to us to be true to nature first, and then heighten it. That was the original concept that I came up with and I was surprised that it hadn't been done because it seemed to me, especially when I was looking at spiders under a magnifying glass, I thought to myself, "Oh, well, that is horrifying to look at." Then, you don't really see that with the naked eye. We want it to be just large enough that you see those horrific details and that we stay true to that so it gives you that gut reaction that's sort of baked into our DNA about how we all feel about that to some degree.
Spiders may be the friendliest creatures on Earth, I don't know, but we certainly don't have that gut reaction towards it when we see it. It looks more like an alien creature from outer space when you start looking at it at that size. We wanted that quality, but we also wanted it to have the quality that you associate with spiders, where it can hide under things and it's more reclusive, and that sort of gives it that sense of danger and suspense of where is it? It could be anywhere. It could be hiding under something that a giant spider doesn't really give you. That was the middle ground, as you put it, that we thought was the sweet spot for what we were going for.
It kind of reminds me of a Facehugger, and the way it moves, too, the way it latches on to the face, it's very practical. I know you had a practical effects company work on it and you also have some digital effects, but it sounds like it was really important for you to make it as practical as possible. The venom that it has and the way it just oozes off the floor and the gore in the movie—it's all very slimy and realistic. Was that really important to have it be as practical as possible? And how much input did you have in the look of the spider?
Micah Gallo: It was one of my main focuses on the movie over time, and so it was something that, you mentioned Jay Alvino, and I met Jay as an effects artist, so he worked on a short film called Wick, and that film we bonded over a certain type of practical effects movie from the ’80s. Namely, ones that incorporated a lot of smoke and slime and kind of a darker chiaroscuro lighting style, something that gives it a tangible texture.
We thought that, there's something about it, it's heightened obviously, but there's something about it that works. It gives you a more tangible feeling about that thing because light's hitting it in a certain way. It just somehow seems more believable to us. We always liked it, and even when I ran a VFX company, what we always told everyone was, "Look, do everything you can practically first." Because in my opinion and I would argue that it's basically a fact, CGI, it's animation, and what you're talking about is a really expensive cartoon. It's sort of like if you want it to look like a cartoon, that's the way to do it. If you want it to look real, you're better off, in my opinion, especially on a low-budget film, to start with something real, and then if there's something that you're not getting, you add that in. But then in our case, like I mentioned to you, even that, we opted to as often as possible, shoot a real element that's then composited in.
Again, you still have that tangible reality. You're not having to invent that from scratch with an animator. There is some animation in the movie, but it's very few shots comparatively. There was a lot of the effects work, but it was really done in this old-school way. It just happened to be digital composite, which is better than old optical compositing that used to have black bars around it. That was kind of our approach, and because Jay was an effects artist, too, it was something that we talked about from the beginning and I started doing sketches of what I wanted to see. I wanted prehistoric-style mandibles. I wanted more of a black widow-style leg, which we didn't fully get there. I wanted a certain look on the close-up. I wanted to have it close-up so that you got the sense of there being sentient life there, so that there's some believability about this character being a real, living thing.
Those were some of the elements that we brought along and it was kind of a mix of a wolf spider with some aspects of a black widow mixed with a brown recluse, and then you throw in some of the prehistoric aspects, including the mythology. Then, what we did from there was Jay knew a sculptor named Mario Torres, who works on a lot of Guillermo del Toro stuff and is really talented. We worked with him in his garage, in the back of his house, and we did the sculpt and from there we made some practical molds, did some initial tests with my buddy Christian Beckman over at Quantum Creation FX. We learned some things about what we didn't know, then, Christian wasn't available when it came time to do the shoot, because he was working on these big-budget superhero movies, and doing suits and stuff. That's when I found Dan Rebert, and he had just left Masters FX, which had just done a bunch of really cool work on True Blood amongst many other things. They had worked on James Gunn's Slither and stuff like that. He's definitely an old-school guy, but understood that blend between visual effects and practical effects because they also did the werewolf transformations in Hemlock Grove, which had some really cool blends between practical and visual effects, especially when the hand comes out of the werewolf's mouth.
Working with Dan, I immediately knew that he was going to approach it like an actor, that he also was hip to what I was throwing out there about, "No. We want this to be a real character and behave a certain way." I trusted his judgment on it and we collaborated very closely on how to make it a plausible character. We looked at the script and we did some performance tests, and then adjusted the creature based on those performance tests.
Additionally, we didn't have the money to have a different puppet for each gag the way Child's Play or Gremlins would. We couldn't afford that. There was no way we could afford that on our budget, and so we had to use our ingenuity and so we came up with about only four different puppets that could do a variety of the gags that needed to be done and we could switch parts and stuff when we needed to on at least the two main puppets. I think we got what we needed and I think that people will be pleased with the spider performance considering what we had to work with.
Is it an animatronic spider, or did the movement come from the digital marriage with the practical effects?
Micah Gallo: It's a little of both. We had a posable puppet, we had a floppy puppet that you could throw around and beat up. Then, we had our two main puppets—one was a rod puppet. The rod puppet is generally what you use for the walking and you could also add wires and stuff to kind of move the mandibles or pedipalps around a little bit.
Then, we did have an animatronic puppet as well. You could switch out those parts to some degree, but you had to be careful with the animatronic puppet and so that's mainly used for close-ups and things where you really want to see those kind of finer details.
But we did add CG details, and the way we approached it, I sat down with Stephen Chiodo, you might know from Killer Klowns from Outer Space. I met with him and Edward and basically, we were talking about the movie and they were very helpful in giving us some tips. That was my original plan was to work with a stop-motion animator, someone who has that experience in the physical realm animating, who could take a look at some of our movements and say, "Okay. What should we work on from a VFX standpoint?"
It didn't exactly work out the way I envisioned, but it was still very helpful. A lot of the ideas that we discussed were a lot of the things that we ended up doing as a general philosophy. We didn't look at every shot, but we kind of looked at the different types of shots and what was needed, and so mostly it was all 2D stuff. Meaning, you're just manipulating movement or manipulating, this leg wasn't hitting right, so that needs to hit a little bit better and/or you're adding a little breath or motion to something.
But other times, there are some 3D shots in the movie where you're adding an element that wasn't there, whether it's a little abdomen lift or just something that gives a little more life to the spider. You look at it, you do everything you can on the day, and then you kind of workshop, "Okay. Here's what we need to do."
In addition to the spider stuff, the cast is great, too, and then they also have this really good story with the mom [played by Elizabeth Roberts]. When you see a single mom on film, sometimes they're doing everything right and they're almost like a saint. They're really the ones that are keeping the family together. But in this case, the mom has a lot of her own demons. Was that always in the script? She's a very flawed character, but that's what makes her that much more relatable, too.
Micah Gallo: Oh, good. I'm glad you had that experience with it because, yes, it was very important to me. We find, Jay and I and also Bryan, the other writer, we find that the types of movies that we go back to personally tend to be character-driven. It tends to be that the characters drive the emotions that we feel and they're the reason that we want to go back and watch those movies again because they don't feel incidental. It feels like there's a connection between the creature and the person. We like to reference that it's Jaws mixed with The Exorcist, but it's also Q: The Winged Serpent. You look at that movie and you can see the psychic link that's occurring and/or Of Unknown Origin with Peter Weller, right? There's something psychologically going on with the character that connects them in an inherent way to the creature. That makes the story more compelling, was kind of our thought process.
I have to mention, too, you have Denise Crosby and Bruce Davison in this movie. They're both legends in their own ways. I remember you had told me that originally the Denise Crosby character wasn't female. What was it like getting them on board, and did you switch that character when you found out Denise was interested?
Micah Gallo: No. We switched it when Bryan Dick came on board as a writer. It was right around then that we switched it. It was something that Jay and I had always struggled with. It was always cliché, this male sheriff that you've seen a million times. You've seen it in Jaws, you've seen it so many times and nothing fresh that can be done with it. On top of it, it just didn't feel right. It wasn't really connecting with the main themes of the film. Then, somehow, when we came up with this idea of, "Oh, of course, it has to be a female sheriff," we were able to kind of riff on the main themes and have this connection between those characters that I think made enough sense.
It made enough sense to justify itself, which was always kind of like, "What is this character doing here? Why do we need this person?" Then, that sort of made that up. We were really lucky to have Denise and she really went the extra mile for the part. She had some kind of personal connection or understanding with it to where it really spoke to her. She nailed it. It's a very subtle performance. Every actor's different, and so it took like a different editing style even. She's very nuanced. If you're not picking up those little details and you try to cut it too traditionally or too quickly, you miss all the little specks of gold that she's put in there.
Davison was great, too, because it almost felt like he was a father figure for the mom and the son, and he had some great scenes with the spider. It's kind of interesting that he doesn't really believe in it, either, and he's living with it, which I think was cool to have that contrast there.
Micah Gallo: I thought it's kind of interesting that there's this paradox at the heart of his character. I think there's a part of his character that really respects these cultures and is really genuine. Then, there's this other part of his character that I guess you could argue has taken all these artifacts and made money off them.
He plays it beautifully, and as an actor was so dedicated to making that part good. It really rose everyone's game up a notch just by him being there and putting that amount of effort into it. Bruce was always the consummate actor. In fact, he wouldn't let me as a director slack on that. He wouldn't let me just be like, "Oh. I'm just going to focus on my shots and do these other things." No. No. He wants to talk about it. He wants to talk about every scene, lines that are important to him or that he might not jive with, and you have all these conversations, and so I was lucky also to have Bryan Dick on location with me so he could help with some of those nuanced rewrites and stuff like that.
You got picked up by Shout! Studios for US distribution, which I think is awesome, and you're going to get a theatrical and digital release on August 30th, followed by a Blu-ray release. What was your reaction when you found out that they would be the ones releasing it?
Micah Gallo: With distribution, you're kind of going with the flow a little bit. We had a company called Throughline, and they were sort of leading the charge on distribution, going around to different distributors, but we're definitely glad and we're lucky to work with Shout!, because Shout! really understands the genre and they're putting out Collector's Editions, even with the new artwork. They worked with the same artist, Matthew Peak, from A Nightmare on Elm Street. He did the original poster and also did the new poster [for Itsy Bitsy].
They were very understanding, and the Blu-ray is going to be stacked with a bunch of fun stuff. There's going to be some cool little promo shots on it and commentaries and storyboards. They understand that collector's mentality at a time when it's bouncing back. Shout! understands that and has respect for the genre and understands other classics of the genre. To be up alongside other great movies like they have in their catalog, like John Carpenter movies and so many other great movies, it's just an honor.
What does it mean to have the world premiere of Itsy Bitsy at Popcorn Frights? They're growing every year, and they have a lot of passion.
Micah Gallo: Yeah, they reached out to us, and I really appreciated that because we had this release coming up and I didn't know if it was in the cards to go to a festival, and so I'm really glad to be able to share it in this environment.
I hadn't been to Popcorn Frights before, but having been to it now, I think it's really well-programmed. I think the artwork they do is fantastic. It's a really fun crowd and they're really good guys, and so yeah, I'm definitely appreciative of showing it to this audience. I hope it's a packed house, but either way, I think it's going to be a fun group to watch the movie with.
With Itsy Bitsy coming out later this month, is there anything else coming up that you can talk about?
Micah Gallo: Well, I definitely have projects that I'm working on and what I really want to do is find a collaborator. I want to find a studio or a company or a producer who wants to work with me to where we can kind of achieve both our goals, because what I know from carrying this one on my own back for this many years, it's a lot of work and it's nice to share that burden and also know that there's going to be the right amount of support for the movie.
That's what I'd really like to do is collaborate with other people, whether that's an existing property or something that I do, but finding a producer or a company that's onboard and also has a vision for what they want to accomplish.