Interview by David Gelmini
Visual effects artist Kevin McTurk has worked on a huge number of projects over the years, with some of his most notable credits including Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Galaxy Quest, Stranger Things, Malignant, and Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. He has also directed a number of acclaimed animated shorts, including The Haunted Swordsman, which received a multitude of award nominations.
McTurk is currently using Kickstarter to raise funds for his next project, a Nordic-themed puppet horror short film called Grylu Sker. And he has brought some impressive talent onboard the project, as the screenplay was co-written by Oscar-nominees Sjón, who also co-wrote The Northman, and Tab Murphy. While Oscar-winning visual effects animator Phil Tippett will oversee the stop motion sequences, which means that Grylu Sker is clearly going to look incredible. On the other hand, it has also been confirmed that actor Peter Stormare, who previously appeared in major films such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Constantine, will voice the main character.
Although the plot is largely being kept under wraps, we do know that Grylu Sker will focus on a lone explorer who finds himself stranded on a bleak and desolate island, which he soon learns is also home to various unspeakable horrors. We decided to interview McTurk about this very intriguing project, and he provided us with a plethora of interesting details about how Grylu Sker came about and what viewers can expect from the film. You can read the full interview below, and while Grylu Sker does not yet have a release date, it still goes without saying that you should certainly back the Kickstarter campaign if this sounds like a project you would like to support.
We Belong Dead: Can you discuss how the project came about?
Kevin McTurk: Grylu Sker is the fourth film in my series of what I call ‘Ghost story puppet films’. It all began back in 2011 with The Narrative of Victor Karloch, a gothic Jules Verne-style short that was a grant-commissioned project from Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams series. The second film (and my first Kickstarter) was The Mill at Calder’s End (2015), which was a tribute to the films of Mario Bava and Hammer Studios, and featured the voice talents of Jason Flemyng (Snatch) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday). My third film, The Haunted Swordsman (2019), is the highest funded Kickstarter live action puppet film (to date) and is the tale of a wandering samurai on a search for revenge in a haunted world of feudal Japan. Following The Haunted Swordsman, I wanted to explore the mythologies of Nordic lands and began conceiving Grylu Sker with my long-time writing friend Tab Murphy (Gorillas in the Mist) and award-winning author (and true Iceland expert) Sjon (The Northman, Lamb).
We Belong Dead: Without going into spoilers, can you describe what the film will be about?
Kevin McTurk: At its central core, Grylu Sker is the story of an English explorer who, while returning from an expedition to Greenland, finds himself shipwrecked and the sole survivor on an uncharted island somewhere off the coast of Iceland. This is a story of not only the explorer’s fight for survival on a bleak, unforgiving island, but also a re-imagining of the legendary Icelandic witch Gryla. I am designing the film to be more hallucinatory and nightmarish in its tone than my previous films.
We Belong Dead: What attracted you to create a story based around Icelandic mythology?
Kevin McTurk: I travelled to Iceland back in 2001 (in the winter time, which was very bleak and moody) and I have always been intrigued by the landscape, the music (Bjork, Sigur Ros, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, among others) and the creatures and mythology of the country. After completing The Haunted Swordsman, I began thinking of a Nordic tale. I also absolutely loved The Northman and began thinking of a story of an outsider encountering this haunting landscape and the creatures of ancient Nordic folklore.
We Belong Dead: How did your background as an animator influence Grylu Sker? And can you discuss the animation style?
Kevin McTurk: My animation style incorporates live action bunraku or ‘table-top’ rod puppetry with large-scale figures (forty-inch tall semi-mechanized puppets controlled by two or three puppeteers hidden directly behind the puppets), stop-motion sequences, miniatures, and other ‘smoke and mirrors’ trickery.
We Belong Dead: And what about the horror elements? How will you go about creating the fearful animation?
Kevin McTurk: I find that puppetry is the perfect medium to convey the horror elements of Grylu Sker. Puppetry lends itself to the ‘campfire storytelling’ quality of ghost stories. As soon as the audience starts to watch these characters onscreen in the hands of an expert puppeteer, they lean forward in their seats and are completely engaged.
We Belong Dead: Grylu Sker is being co-written by Oscar-nominee Sjón, who also co-wrote The Northman, and Oscar-nominee Tab Murphy. How did these two talented individuals come onboard, and what has it been like working with them?
Kevin McTurk: I have been good friends with Tab Murphy since we met in 2017 when he attended the premiere of The Mill at Calder’s End at The Jim Henson Company Lot. We had a fantastic collaboration on The Haunted Swordsman, as we are both samurai film and creature film fanatics. We began several very rough drafts of Grylu Sker and then (through a mutual friend) I reached out to Sjon to see if he would be interested in collaborating on the project. He really loved The Haunted Swordsman and my earlier films. He agreed quickly and we held many zoom meetings and script exchanges to reach our final draft. Sjon brought a perfect authenticity and true Icelandic feel to the work. I hope to work with him again, and I always love working with Tab.
We Belong Dead: And what has it been like collaborating with Oscar-winning animator Phil Tippett on the project?
Kevin McTurk: Phil is a true legend and a mad man. His film Mad God was absolutely jaw-dropping and was an inspiration for the hallucinatory, existential approach to this film. He has been so receptive to all of my creature design and early armature design questions, and I am looking forward to the stop motion days ahead.
We Belong Dead: And can you discuss the cast?
Kevin McTurk: The cast at the moment is only Peter Stormare (at the moment), as he is the only one I have recorded. Peter was phenomenal as one would expect, and I am looking forward to testing the puppet reading of his recorded lines. I am thrilled to be working soon with Aaron LaPlante (the guttural voice of the caveman Spear in Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal). The other remaining voices to be recorded are under wraps at the moment!
We Belong Dead: What do you hope horror fans will take away from Grylu Sker?
Kevin McTurk: As with all of my short films, I hope the audience are entranced by both a chilling story and the performance of the beautifully crafted puppet in the hands of an expert puppeteer. For me, I love the moment when the audience is not quite sure what they are looking at. And then, once they realize that this is a live action puppet, they lean forward in their seats and get lost in the storytelling.
We Belong Dead: Do you think there will always be a market for mature animated horror?
Kevin McTurk: Yes, absolutely! With anthologies like Love, Death, and Robots, and shows like Primal and Castlevania, there is a definite interest in mature animated horror.
Kevin’s Kickstarter link for the project was recently fully funded: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/935772123/grylu-sker-an-icelandic-ghost-story-puppet-film