From EFX to Action: Special Effects Artists in the Director’s Chair
They say that it’s hard to do more than one thing in Hollywood. If you’re known for being at least competent in one field, it’s usually difficult to convince people to give you a chance in others. There’s just too much money and too little time involved. There are always exceptions to this, however, and during the mid-1980s to the late/mid-1990s, it seemed like a concentrated group of special effects artists were merging into that fabled second thing in Hollywood: In this case, it was directing.
The 1980s were a heady time for makeup and SFX artists. Magazines like Fangoria, Gorezone, Starlog and smaller cult and fan magazines were highlighting the behind the scenes artists specifically, and hungry fans were eager for information—in large part so they could recreate the magic on their own. While only movie buffs and dedicated Famous Monsters of Filmland readers were usually familiar with Jack Pierce, roaring out of the ‘70s came Tom Savini: Handsome and brash, he was as talented with a brush as he was handy with a whip. As he picked up more onscreen acting roles and did more interviews, he only added more cachet on to the goodwill he engendered in 1983 when he released his book “Grande Illusions,” which treated makeup effects like magic tricks that were just waiting to be learned. We also had colorful characters like Screaming Mad George, a Japanese punk musician who used effects in his music videos that would echo in creations appearing in the Brian Yuzna films he worked on.
Not every makeup artist had a sexy or punk rock image, but even the nice kids from small towns who wore jeans to work were becoming stars in their own right. As much as Hollywood loves glamour, it loves money more. These artists’ ability to get a lot of quality work done on time and within a budget didn’t go unnoticed: Why not give the chance to direct to someone who already knows how to work on a set and relate to actors?
John Carl Buechler showed interest in directing from early in his career running the effects department for Roger Corman at New World Pictures, but he wasn’t having much luck convincing producers to give him a shot at directing his own project. HARD ROCK ZOMBIES came about in 1985 and gave him the opportunity to work as a second unit director as well as the head up the effects. Buechler continued trying to find more directing work, but nothing came to fruition until Empire/Full Moon’s maverick honcho Charlie Band tapped him to direct a segment of what became THE DUNGEONMASTER. Thanks to Buechler’s proficient work on that and his effects work on GHOULIES, Band agreed to let him direct TROLL as well as handle the effects in 1986. A weird and imaginative effort, TROLL had a wider release than most Band pictures, appearing on over 900 theater screens, and it turned a tidy profit.
Buechler followed it up with the slight but fun (and with an inborn prestige of having Jeffrey Combs) effects-heavy CELLAR DWELLER the following year, also for Empire. Cementing his place in mainstream horror popularity, however, came about when he directed FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD in 1988. It was obviously a hit at the box office and on home video, and many Jason fans cite it as a favorite. Even with NEW BLOOD’s success, Buechler kept his efforts in the low budget realm with sequels like GHOULIES 3, WATCHERS REBORN and scattered horror films in the 90s–even trying his hand at a children’s film in A LIGHT IN THE FOREST. A SyFy movie here and a few more recent directing projects there are heavily eclipsed by his continued success in effects.
Tom Savini first met George Romero when he auditioned for a screen test for the never-filmed THE WHINE OF THE FAWN. When he came back for the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD years later, Romero remembered his name, and a relationship that would last until Romero’s death was born. Unfortunately, Savini was called to Vietnam and couldn’t do the effects, but the professional tracks between the two future legends were firmly laid. Over 20 years later, Savini assumed he’d do the effects for the remake when it was brought up, but Romero told him that he was the one he trusted to direct it. This would finally be Romero and John Russo’s chance to get an official copyright on a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and bring a fresh reminder of the classic zombie series into the 90s.
While the remake underperformed critically and financially, over the years, it’s become much more appreciated. From its updated take on Barbara as an actualized, kick-ass character and with a bleached-daytime realistic look, NOTLD ’90 is a true companion piece to Romero’s original and manages to hold its own with a unique approach that’s genuinely fun to watch. Still, heavy cuts due to censor feedback and a lukewarm response must have hit hard. Savini directed only shorts and segments in anthologies post-NIGHT while keeping busy with his acclaimed makeup work and his special effects makeup educational program. That said, Savini is finally set for a triumphant return to directing: With the in-development remake of Umberto Lenzi’s NIGHTMARE CITY, we’re long overdue to see what Savini’s unique eye can conjure up from the director’s chair again.
“Who knows? That’s the fun of it. I hope for more directing jobs, of course. If this movie is successful, I hope someone pops up and gives me a three-picture deal. I’ll go back to special effects if it’s a failure. But that’s the excitement of this business. You never know what’s around the corner.” – Tom Savini, 1990.
“THE FLY II was a film that got made the wrong way for the wrong reasons,” director Chris Walas told Marc Shapiro in a 1990 interview. Oscar-winning Walas was in charge of creature effects in David Cronenberg’s THE FLY; he melted Nazi faces in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and created Gizmo and the gremlins for… GREMLINS. Walas was one of the most respected artists in the field almost from the immediate beginning of his career. Working for ILM put him right in the thick of major genre projects, and he rose to the occasion every single time.
For his first time directing, Walas was in the unenviable position of following up a critically and commercially successful film helmed by an acclaimed director while dealing with in-fighting between studios and producers, including Mel Brooks. While THE FLY II was no picnic to film and seems to be generally derided by fans of the original, it has some great moments, and, of course, effects.
Having his creative wings clipped was a disappointment, but Walas continued on to direct “’Til Death” in the second season of TALES FROM THE CRYPT in 1990. An effective, humorous creeper, a scam artist uses a voodoo love potion on a snooty millionairess to typically wonderful EC Comics results. Back to feature films, THE VAGRANT came along in 1992, pitting Bill Paxton against Marshall Bell in a cynical dark comedy. While a bit uneven–a strong, psychologically twisted first half melds humor with old-fashioned mind fuckery, the second half pays off in the action and effects department but falls somewhat flat in its established originality and off-kilter humor–it’s a solid, fun, weird flick… and as of writing, it was Walas’ last turn at directing.
“I have this battle almost daily in my own head as to whether I’m getting away from effects and into directing. It’s really hard to say where I am at this point. I definitely want to pursue directing, and if the opportunities are there, I’m going to take them. But I love doing effects, and I love making monsters. I do envision a day when (his effects company) Chris Walas Inc. will be doing the effects for movies I direct. But until that day comes, we can handle both.” – Chris Walas
Robert Kurtzman is the K in the famed K.N.B. EFX Group. Together, Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger brought life (and death) to a staggering amount of projects: everything from Romero zombies to EVIL DEAD films to pretty much everything for Tarantino and much, much more has come from their shop and company. Kurtzman struck out on his own, however, with 1997’s WISHMASTER, his very own directorial debut. With Wes Craven as executive producer and Andrew Divoff seemingly having the time of his life in the incredible Wishmaster makeup, the simple plot lent itself to weird and grotesque deaths: an ideal situation for an effects artist turned director.
Greg Nicotero directed second unit and Berger was essential in the special effects department. This, combined with working with the other artists who not only knew how to act in prosthetics but also how to continue to work on improving them showcased why using effects artists works so well, at least on paper. With a built-in studio, a major department was already completely coordinated and effectively overseen by the director. The artists and director would be peers, probably even friends: Miscommunication and ego problems would be much more rare than usual on a film set.
You can’t get bigger than Stan Winston when it comes to bringing creatures to life on screen. From the extraordinary dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK to the Terminator, the Predator, Alien… it’s Stan Winston, and I know I didn’t really need to type those names out. And in 1988, between SFX work for THE MONSTER SQUAD and LEVITHAN, he not only designed another memorable creature, but he also directed it. PUMPKINHEAD is a personal favorite of mine: from the heartbreaking relationship between Lance Henricksen’s character and his young son to a truly brutal murder sequence, the film proved to be memorable beyond its unusual title. Winston, of course, designed the Pumpkinhead monster himself, and it’s since entered the pantheon of being immortalized in every horror toy line to the late artist Dustin Pace’s beautiful pin.
PUMPKINHEAD endeared the horror crowd, but Stan followed it up two years later with a children’s movie called A GNOME NAMED GNORM. A Guns N’ Roses video followed by some shorts came after, but since his passing in 2008, we’ll sadly never get another look into the kind of brain that can create such terrifying creatures while remaining such an affable and beloved person. Winston was well-known for encouraging everyone he worked with to go above and beyond, even if they initially had no idea how to pull something off. It’s hard to imagine a better trait for a director to have.
If you combine the box office totals for NEW BLOOD, THE FLY II, PUMPKINHEAD, WISHMASTER and THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it’s just over $84 million total. Adjusted for inflation, that’s (very) roughly $176 million for five films. (It’s worth noting that Buechler’s TROLL earned $5.5 million at the box office while F13 VII earned over $19 million.) While that’s not bad for genre fare, it wasn’t quite enough to set the world on fire. Effects artists continue to direct and even produce: Greg Nicotero himself is an executive producer on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD and has directed 20 episodes so far.
With the advent of easy-to-upload internet video outlets, independent project funding websites and affordable digital cameras, more and more young effects artists are taking up the directing torch themselves, be it for passion or necessity. This access is also opening up more opportunities for women, minorities, and those who live far away from Hollywood or who can’t afford college to get into the game.
While there’s always something to be said to dedicating yourself to one discipline, there’s an inherent magic in passionate, creative people stretching their abilities to new fields. To succeed as an effects artist, you need to juggle your creative drive and imagination with time and budget realities, and the fact that the director or studio may hate or pervert what you created. If we can get these creative technicians to do more of their own projects, we’re the luckier for it.