Effects artist and director Gabe Bartalos’ second feature, Saint Bernard, needs to be seen to be believed. The story, on paper, is simple: Bernard, portrayed by Jason Dugre, is a conductor struggling to maintain his sanity. Where things get complicated is the fact that his life has devolved into a series of nightmarish hallucinations. But like a feral dog, Saint Bernard sinks its teeth into your brain and refuses to let go.
However, the film wouldn’t be remotely possible without Bartalos’ decades of experience as an effects artist, collaborating with iconic cult filmmakers like Frank Henenlotter, Stuart Gordon, and Tobe Hooper to make some of their craziest ideas a reality. Fortunately, Saint Bernard’s dream logic permits Bartalos to creatively run wild, crafting sequences that evoke the animation of the Quay brothers, the visual decadence of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the scrappy ingenuity of DIY punk.
In the following interview, Bartalos discusses the challenge of piecing together a dreamlike narrative and shares some truly jaw-dropping production stories (like how they shot on a traffic-packed Los Angeles freeway with a bloody prosthetic dog’s head and avoided security outside the Eiffel Tower).
What inspired the film?
Gabe Bartalos: Being that it’s my second feature film, I wanted to get closer to learning the language of cinema. As my narrative came together about a conductor descending into madness, how to portray the madness is when I said, “Well, maybe this is an opportunity to expand my education in film and try to visually portray what unraveling mentally would be like.” Playing to my strengths as a visual artist, by using prosthetics and all the techniques of film—editing, music, sound design—I wanted to portray how the mind jumps around. That was one of my personal walking orders to myself: how can I create dreamlike insanity through the visual medium of film?
Although Saint Bernard is often described as horror, I found that it has more in common with surrealism. Was that deliberate?
Bartalos: I agree with you. The horror comes from what happened to this poor guy and his mental unraveling. I don’t think it’s horror in the traditional sense. The label may be there because of some of the scenarios and my background, but I agree that it leans more towards surrealism. Both my parents are doctors, so I grew up around anatomy books and medical texts. Reading about mental disorders was scary because a lot of them would appear to people who were leading normal lives—they were like sleeper cells. It was disturbing to me that this could be in any of us, at any time.
At the same time, I have a fascination with dreams. On an absurdist level, I love dream logic. You go from one scenario to another. In a dream, the weirdest scenarios make sense and they blend together. You could be going into a grocery store and then suddenly you’re underwater. You could be talking to a dead relative that’s dressed as a pigeon. In the dream, it makes perfect sense. It’s only after you’re awake that you laugh and go, “What the heck was that?” I was fascinated by that. Could I create scenarios that forward the narrative but make them feel like they’re cut from the same cloth? The transitions have to work. They have to point to one another, even subliminally. They have to feel right during the film. It’s only after the film you go, “What the heck?” That was a fun challenge.
What was the writing process like?
Bartalos: I started with my straight storyline of introducing Bernard who has a public breakdown during a concert. I also wanted to plant false flags. We see drug paraphernalia but we also see in flashbacks that he already was having visions when he was a kid. So, even if drugs are involved, he’s already out there. Then, we get visions of the abuse he had as a child from his uncle, but I want it to be unclear. Basically, it’s Bernard’s odyssey of getting mentally unwound. I like the idea that Jay Dugre is a likable looking guy. He’s accessible, vulnerable, and almost naive at times. It takes you a while to realize that he’s not the victim: he’s the creator of these scenarios. He’s fucked up. He’s got mental problems. These are manifestations of his brain. When I knew there was going to be this journey, that’s where I had fun creating scenarios that I would enjoy building, where I could visualize the language of insanity through creative set design, prosthetic characters, and cool sound design. It then became a challenge to write the script to convey the mood as best as possible so that when I shared it with the cast and crew they understood where I was going.
What were some obstacles you had to overcome while making the film?
Bartalos: Some stuff was easy to write like, “He suddenly appears in France and runs through intersections.” But how I am going to do this? But that’s half the fun. When Bernard finds the dog head on the side of the road, I designed that so that other filmmakers would go, “Wait a minute. There’s no way that was permitted, and there’s no way that’s digital. That’s an entire highway system ground to halt, and this guy is walking with a bloody dog head.” I designed that to happen on the Monday after Easter Sunday, where I have seen every highway become gridlocked from a certain window of time. We had five cars, all part of the production, slowing to a halt so that no one would get hurt. The front car was me, the actor, and the dog head. We jumped out, planted the head, I poured blood on it, and started rolling. We were literally protected by our cars behind us. The nice thing is, most people wanted to get by us. We could clearly see people stopping and falling over their morning coffee as Jay was walking by in his conductor outfit, with this giant, bloody dog head. I try to compete with other films with my imagination and the playful anarchy we’re going to do in setting up a shot.
Same with France. We went to France with a small crew. We scouted everything around the Eiffel Tower. We timed the guards. We knew we had ninety-eight seconds before they come around a corner. I like the energy of it and the adrenaline. Everybody is sky high. You’re getting away with something. It’s for art’s sake.
In the recent Larry Cohen documentary, King Cohen, a lot is discussed about how Cohen, as an independent filmmaker, would frequently go out and steal shots. It feels like that spirit doesn’t exist anymore.
Bartalos: The term, independent filmmaker, was highjacked years ago, but stealing locations is fantastic. That’s the fun of filmmaking. The Wall Street sequence, where Jay has the money suit on, we planted only six business people. The amazing thing was we shot it twice: down one street and reversed up another. In between, we had him hidden in a van. That crowd grew from six to what it is on the screen. It was an interesting social experiment, a mob mentality. People saw people pulling money off a person and thought it was a free-for-all. No one saw me with the camera about ten yards back. We had to finally pull people off Jay and pull the real dollar bills out of their hands. Jay was a little rattled. I didn’t think that would happen. But I think it’s wonderful to steal shots.
What’s next? Another feature film?
Bartalos: One of the things that’s fun about doing features that have my fingerprints all over them is I like doing it when it’s the right time. A lot of filmmakers get stuck with having to turn out product and having to water down their own stock. I’m lucky to have my own studio, Atlantic West Effects. That’s the “day job”. I’m totally privileged to have that. I really enjoy making my own films. It usually starts when ideas start swirling, scribbling them down, and if it starts to piece itself into a narrative, I’m totally up for that. If I’m the auteur of a film, I like doing it for the right reasons.
Saint Bernard is available now on blu-ray from Severin. Watch the trailer below.