We had the amazing opportunity to see Seeds during the Salem Horror Fest and also gained the ability to connect with its creator, Skip Shea. Beyond making some truly interesting and intense movies, he’s had quite the life.
As an outspoken survivor of clergy sexual abuse, he wrote, produced and performed a one-man theatrical memoir called Catholic (Surviving Abuse & Other Dead End Roads). That’s not the only tragedy that he’s endured — in 1999, his daughter Shawna Shea, twin sister of Erin, tragically lost her life in a car accident at 16.
Skip transformed this ultimate loss as best he knew how: through art and film, as well as by establishing the annual Shawna Shea Film Festival, a growing gathering attracting the best independent films from across the U.S. and the world with all proceeds going directly to the Shawna E. Shea Memorial Foundation, Inc.
I’m overjoyed that Skip and I have had several opportunities to connect and discuss his films, what they mean, how they were made and what comes next.
B&S ABOUT MOVIES: How did the challenges in your life inform your work?
Skip Shea: Interesting question. I was already into expressing myself as a visual artist long before I had any of these challenges. I had a book that I wrote and illustrated on display at the Worcester Art Museum when I was in second grade. So it was almost second nature to explore the clergy abuse and death of my daughter through art. I don’t believe that my art is therapy or a cathartic experience. I see a therapist for that work. Although the first time I did the one man show and had people listen, it did change things for me. Most clergy abuse victims are told over and over again no one will believe you if you tell anyone. Having that notion proven wrong at that moment was powerful. But in some instances they were right. There will always be a group that won’t believe you. Especially with the church. They believe somehow that my story invalidates theirs, which is probably one where the church helped them in a dramatic way. A truly good experience. The reality is both the good and bad coexist.
B&S: How did you move from a one-man show to acting and then directing?
SKIP: After having performed the one man show for maybe a year I was reading the local paper and read an ad for background actors needed for a movie being shot at the Worcester Airport. It was Edward Anderson’s Shuttle. While on set two people approached me, had me stand up etc. Then I was bumped up to being the pilot. Just simply walking off the plane at the very beginning. A PA came over to me with a stack of paperwork but when they found out I wasn’t in the Union they walked away. So I knew I was missing something. I asked a couple of other background actors how they got into it, about local casting directors etc. So I started submitting after that.
I was put in the ESPN show The Bronx is Burning and a similar story happened. Like a Seinfeld episode I became a hand model for one of the police officers who is taking a shot of whiskey. This was before SAG and AFTRA merged and the show had an AFTRA contract. So I joined the union. Shortly after that I joined SAG. Much too soon. I should have worked on a few non-union projects to get some movie acting under my belt. Because ultimately I just got background work. Which is pretty grueling in its own way. The folks who do that are very hard working and underappreciated.
But somewhere in me, I’ve always wanted to write and direct. Mostly theater but I always had a great love for cinema. It was always something I wanted to do. And doing background work I was able to watch how Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Lasse Hallström and Richard Kelly work. Many others too but these four were great to watch and to see how differently they worked. It was a great bootcamp version of film school.
B&S: With Microcinema, you made a film you really do change — your words — the rape/revenge movie. You fundamentally change one of the issues I’ve always had that it’s exclusively women in those movies. What was your motivation?
SKIP: Some of the rape/revenge movies had a political point when they were made. Others are just exploitation for people (men) who enjoy watching violence against women. The type who review movies with kill, boobs and blood and as part of their rating. I wanted to make something that might offend that audience. And I think it did. I also wanted the perpetrator to be punished for thinking about assaulting the woman. She’s never touched. Never a victim outside of the thoughts that are in his head.
B&S: As for Trinity, how much would you say is real life and how much is fiction?
SKIP: It was based on a moment when I went Christmas shopping with my wife and the priest who abused me was working at the Barnes and Noble. He came right up to me like we were old buddies. And my mind raced through this incredibly dissociative moment. It was an out of body experience. Some of the things touched upon in Michael’s journey were quite real. Suicidal ideation was one and a topic that I think needed to be explored. But Michael is young and single. Neither of which I am. In the movie it is a coffee shop not a bookstore. What is the ultimate truth in Trinity is the feeling of surreal confusion that any one viewing it may experience. That was the real point of it. To share that feeling.
B&S: Obviously, I loved Seeds because it feels very 70s American folk horror. What were your influences on that film?
SKIP: The biggest influence is The Wicker Man. It is one of my top five movies of all time. And a UK folk horror film called Robin Redbreast (1970). It was a made for TV movie in the UK, it’s black and white and a terrific story*. I’m not sure how many folks in the US have seen it but it’s well worth a look. I also wanted to honor New England in Seeds so I used the same ferry that was used in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Another that helped influence the story was Wake Wood (2009).
Folk horror is my favorite sub-genre by far. It’s pretty exciting to see all of the interest these days.
B&S: A lot of Seeds feels informed by gnostic Catholicism or the idea that there’s another church within the church. Is it?
SKIP: There is another church within the church. And it is a business. That’s why I brought in the Vatican Bank which does invest in all sorts of companies. For profit. I wanted to show that ultimately it is a corporation that sells salvation.
B&S: What is your dream project?
SKIP: The next one? I don’t know. It’s a funny business to be in. I’m not sure if it matters the level. There are certain expectations that people have. Usually based in commercial success. I’m more interested in the art of it. And how to push boundaries there. I saw some interesting movies lately like Brain Death by WL Freeman, John Harrison at the Salem Horror Fest, Kamaloca by Christophe Karabache at the Buffalo Dreams and Fantastic Film Festival and Execution by Stavit Allweis which also screened at Buffalo Dreams which we had screened at the Shawna Shea Film Festival too. All of them challenge what a movie is supposed to be and how it should be viewed. It’s exciting to be present at this time with artists who are challenging and changing the artform. I don’t have a dream project but I know the direction I want to go.
B&S: What are your influences?
SKIP: Influence is a funny word. I think there are artists I admire who changed things. From the Dada movement to Pop Art. Or in music like John Coltrane to the Velvet Underground or David Bowie. In cinema I’m going to say mostly foreign films. They don’t seem to be as obsessed with weekend box office results. I have a great love for Italian cinema from Fellini and Antonioni to Argento and Fulci. And anything in between like Lina Wertmüller and Luigi Cozzi. Even today Paolo Sorrentino has made things with incredible artistic integrity. But also filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, Agnès Varda, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel’ etc all helped change the landscape of cinema.
That’s not to say I don’t like American cinema. I think Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider isthe great American film. Bob Fosse challenged structure and styles in particular with All That Jazz.
I could write a book! But all of this is to scratch the surface of artists I admire. I’m already thinking of who I haven’t mentioned like Marina Abramović or Diamanda Galás! But they have changed things. I have not. Nor do I intend to. That’s too ambitious.
B&S: I’m excited that you mentioned way beyond the usual Italian directors and bring up Cozzi. It’s funny because I saw a lot of similarities — maybe tone? — between his film Black Cat (AKA Demons 6 de Profundis) and Seeds. What of his films — and Fulci and Argento’s — do you gravitate to?
SKIP: I’m actually friends with Luigi. I visit him every time I’m in Rome and we’ve shown his newer movies at our Shawna Shea Film Festival. We had two just this year. Neither are genre pieces but excellent nonetheless. So I’ll take that as a compliment that you saw similarities between us. If I were to gravitate to one of his movies it would be The Killer Must Kill Again. It’s a different take on the giallo tropes as we know who the killer is. But it is by far one of the most disturbing movies of that genre. I rate it above the classics by Argento or Fulci. I think it is the best.
For Argento the obvious ones still hold up and I rewatch them.Suspiria is great simply because as a work of art it broke so many rules in narrative form. The use of colors etc. It is amazing. And of course Deep Red, Inferno etc. But the one I rewatch over and over is The Stendhal Syndrome because I think it almost happened to me at the Uffizi while looking at Caravaggio’s Medusa. It was so mesmerizing I just couldn’t move! I also love the use of classic art incorporated into stories. I did that a little Trinity and I’m doing it again in the feature I’m working on now. It also appeared a little in Seeds but that was mostly during the lecture in the gallery when Michael, from Trinity enters and we see his artwork hanging on the wall. Both of my features take place in the same world. The one I’m working on now exists there as well.
The Fulci film I turn to is a no brainer for me, Don’t Torture a Duckling. His take on the Catholic Church isn’t that far removed from mine. He’s way ahead of his time.
B&S: How did you get Barb Magnofi to be in Seeds?
SKIP: I’m connected with quite a few people on social media who are involved in the horror industry. She was booked at a local convention, Rock and Shock in Worcester, MA so I did an outreach to see if she was interested. She knew I was friendly with Luigi so that helped. So it wasn’t too complicated. I was lucky she agreed.
*It’s part of Severin‘s new All the Haunts Be Ours folk horror box set.