Wake up. Go to the bathroom. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. I was never more self-aware of my seemingly meaningless daily routine than during the summer of 2020. The monotony followed by another dull day in quarantine became almost unbearable. I needed a creative outlet to sustain my sanity, so I decided to make a film to regain control over my life. The fact that “Sink” turned out to be my most successful short film leaves me bemused and humbled.
Some genre filmmakers took advantage of the lockdown “free time” to quickly shoot and release short films online. These stories were often told in small spaces starring a reluctant partner with a paint-by-numbers plot centered on a global pandemic. (Come on, dude, leave them alone… all they want to do is make sourdough and get through this.) Masked characters furiously cleaned their surroundings, shrouded in contrasty chiaroscuro cinematography against an ominous score pulled from a royalty-free library. I didn’t want to make that kind of film.
I considered what I had on hand: As a freelance one-man-band, I have a decent setup and know that my Sony a7Sii can handle low light. I hadn’t acted since college, and featuring myself on both sides of the camera felt narcissistic. I also didn’t want to bring anyone into my apartment.
Maybe I would just do a stop-motion project? That thought brought me back to the repetitiveness of our private routines, the motions of everyday existence. I thought about what the bathroom sink would see throughout the day, from teeth brushing to hand washing to mirror checking. I thought about gazing into the porcelain abyss over and over again. What if you told a story only from this perspective? Could it be done? Would it make sense?
Inspired by experimental point-of-view films (see classic Andy Warhol) and Scorsese’s “Big Shave,” I ran with the idea. I could use a locked-down setup with my camera on a C-stand with light manipulation. I gravitated to a zombie-esque movie about a man slowly falling apart. I thought little about the COVID metaphor but George A. Romero’s use of zombie horror as contemporary social commentary is deeply ingrained in my psyche. The genre explores human emotion even further. Horror is visceral cinema in its purest form.
The concept solved my acting concerns, but I still needed art direction and additional gear — a dummy battery and a long HDMI cord. Thanks, Amazon. Due to the story’s progressive goriness, I had to learn makeup and blood effects using body paints and brushes, scar wax, false nails, bandages, and sixteen fluid ounces of fake blood. Thanks, YouTube.
I bought some prosciutto for peeled flesh (pricey, but the fattiness made it appear more human). A bit of ripe banana became the pus surrounding a bite wound. I figured out how to pull out a fake nail over a bloody mold. My character eventually breaks a glass mirror and uses the shards to carve the flesh from his face and remove his eyeball. I found a fake eyeball for $18 and a disposable mirror.
A traditional script was unnecessary. I didn’t need to articulate a “vision” to department heads. It was like imagining a painting. I created a detailed spreadsheet to keep track of the logistics for the shoot day, including action, lighting (time of day), props, and makeup. The film is one setup, but it is not a oner. I took breaks, stopped recording, and made adjustments. I couldn’t play back in this setup, so I had to trust that I got the shot or try for another blind take.
The day itself was pretty simple. The props and equipment were ready. It was stressful knowing that if I bumped the camera, I would have to start over. I steadied my camera above my shower with foam around the C-stand and taped the battery to the wall. I checked my focus about a hundred times. It felt like shooting on film, having only one shot, which forced discipline and focus.
I relied on the practical overhead light, wrapped in black wrap, and two work lamps placed to the side of my shower. Each had a dimmer and temperature gels to mimic night and day.
I shot the film in relative order, beginning with the pre-transformation routines (brushing teeth, using the toilet, etc.). This material was easy to capture, so I could do several takes. I tried to pay attention to different details, swapping out bars of soap of various sizes I had saved for weeks and gauging the amount of blood on my wound. I’ve never brushed my teeth that many times in one day. I cut my hair for the first time in months.
I filmed the initial bite scene twice, but it’s barely noticeable. The monotony of the first act is repeated with additional bruising, wounds, and self-mutilation. I used the fake blood or dark cherry Kool-Aid, depending on whether it was in my mouth. Spitting up black sludge was done in one take. A mixture of ground-up Oreos and water is messier than I expected.
Breaking the glass didn’t go exactly as planned. I rigged a cardboard box carrying the pre-broken shards. Upon punching the mirror, only a few pieces fell. I had to reset and try again more forcefully without breaking it. A jump cut in the edit still bugs me. The suicide scene was almost catastrophic. I rigged a rubber tube around my back and taped it to my neck. One end was facing forward and the other was in my mouth. It was full of fake blood that I would blow all over the sink. At first, almost nothing came out. The blood was too thick. I had to reset, water it down, and carefully clean up (without disrupting the broken glass). I blew until I was about to pass out. It worked.
The denouement came when my character was revived as a zombie. After collapsing to the ground, I staged the scene so I had one hand out of frame to work the dimmers inside the shower and transition from night to day. My resurrected zombie would then spit up blood, peel more flesh (prosciutto), and pull out an eyeball. By the end of this long day, I was covered in fake blood and looked horrific.
Editing the film was time-consuming but fun. I had overshot the first act. The initial assembly of usable footage was about fifty minutes long. It occurred to me this cut could almost be an art installation. Only my parents watched the whole thing (and surprisingly didn’t call for a welfare check). The stand-out moments in the narrative became clearer. Fifty minutes became thirty-five, then twenty, then seventeen, then twelve, and then… sixteen.
I sent different cuts to a producer friend, Nate Gilbert, who eventually provided financial support; frequent collaborator Tony Scott-Green, who became the film’s composer; and fellow horror film director Jim Vendiola, who helped set the pace of the final edit. The film was critiqued as too long for festivals. I knew it would be less likely to program at sixteen minutes than eight, but I followed my artistic instincts. I take it as a compliment when viewers think the film is shorter. Part of the gag is forgetting you are watching a single image.
The film’s score truly set the tone. I initially thought we would hear my character speak on the phone to a doctor as he tried to understand what was happening to him, alluding to the emerging apocalypse, but the music speaks more than any dialogue could, from upbeat jazz as the character prepares for a date to a pounding heartbeat after the bite. The cadence swells in the third act with the realization of his gruesome fate.
Kyle Delso at Third Beacon post-production helped with color (in particular, matching blood), VFX, and sound mixing. We pushed the saturation in the end to emphasize the rebirth. There weren’t many VFX issues besides working around some transitions and masking unwanted shadows. After I clean the sink, a fade-in occurs independently of the rest of the image. Sound was vital in post-production. The source audio was well-recorded from a boom mic I had aimed at the sink. Kyle found appropriate background sounds that complemented the score and hinted at the outside world. We recorded our zombie growls and a blood-curdling scream, creating a deliciously goopy soundscape.
The film was finished just before the submission deadline to the Chicago International Film Festival. With a focus on arthouse programming, screening at this Academy Award-qualifying festival is difficult, even for local filmmakers. It was my white whale. “Sink” was accepted and made its world premiere in October 2021.
My genre mentors Stephen Susco (Unfriended: Dark Web) and Jennifer Reeder (Perpetrator) provided some cool pull quotes for the trailer, which helped generate buzz. The subsequent festival experience was incredible. “Sink” screened at some of my favorite genre festivals, including FilmQuest (winner, Director’s Choice Award), Nightmares, NYC Horror, Mile High Horror, and HorrorHaus (nominee, Best Practical VFX…thanks again, YouTube).
The success of any film is up to the audience. Some react strongly to the thought of something rather than what is shown, as when I pull out the razor for the first time post-bite. The idea of what could happen is worse than what’s on screen. I knew I had accomplished my goal when I saw someone walk out on “Sink” at the premiere, a rite of passage for any horror filmmaker. Other validation came from an industry professional who found it a solid directing sample.
Ultimately, “Sink” is an exploration of the medium and the human psyche. It is about monotony and a sense of self. It is about the pandemic, but not. It is about working within limitations that breed creativity and instill focus. A story can be told from a unique perspective with little or no resources (but copious amounts of red fluid).
It has been over two years since I made the film, and it’s still in conversation. I made “Sink” the way I did because I felt I had to. More often than not, in film craft, the creative project that most compels us breaks through.