You can’t be a fan of British horror and not know the work of top make-up effects artist Paul Hyett. From I, Zombie (when he was still in his teens!) through to The Descent, Mutant Chronicles and beyond, Paul has created some amazing effects. I did this interview by phone in January 2008 and an edited version was published in Fangoria. See also my 2013 interview with Paul about his directorial debut The Seasoning House.
Am I right in thinking that The Descent was a watershed for you in terms of moving on from low-budget films?
What immediate effect did it have on your career?
"It was the difference of being able to go into a meeting - and people had seen The Descent. The nice thing about Descent was I finished it and then, about two months after we actually finished shooting, it was out. So it was absolutely great. For the first year after that, I would go into interviews and: ‘Oh, you’ve done The Descent! Yeah, yeah.’ And suddenly, the things I was going for I tended to get. That was absolutely great."
What was the first thing you did after The Descent?
"Let’s see. I’m going to check my CV. I know that straight after The Descent we were looking at The Cottage but it didn’t happen. Sick House and Straightheads was one year after. It might have been Wilderness."
Would you say Wilderness was a horror film?
"It’s rat-kids borstal, in the woods. Yes, I’d call it a horror film because it is about people terrorised by psychopaths with dogs. I didn’t do prosthetics on Wilderness but I did all the dog effects. I got a call, right at the last moment. Basically the guy that was supposed to make the dogs had let them down and they said, ‘Please, please make these dogs.’ I was told that I had quite a bit of time but it turned out, once I’d started, there was hardly any time. So we rushed it all in and I think we made all the dog puppets in three weeks or even less than that."
When you say ‘we’, do you have a regular team?
"I’ve got a few people that I always, always use but they’re all freelancers so if I haven’t got any work on they go and work somewhere else."
But you’ve got a pool of people that you know you can call on and you know you can work well with them?
"Absolutely. To be honest, there’s some guys who’ve only worked with me for the past few years, from Descent. There’s probably a core two or three that I always use but it changes from film to film. Sometimes, like on The Descent, I’ll have up to ten people. But usually there’s a few guys milling around in my workshop."
The skills required to make a dog puppet, are they different from the skills required for prosthetic make-up?
"Basically, I’ll design exactly what I want it to look like, what I want it to do. I’ve got one person who comes in; she’s worked on absolutely loads and loads and loads of stuff. She’ll come in and be in charge of the sculpture and fabrication and then we’ll have a mechanical person coming in, I’ve got electronic people that I call in from time to time and fur people that I call in, guys that are really good at sculpting creatures. Part of my job is going to meetings, putting together the right team for such a big project, delegating it, all this sort of stuff."
Some time after that you did The Sick House, which comes out on US DVD in March. Did that ever have a UK release?
"As far as I know it only had an American release, I think. It had US theatrical distribution."
Were you making up the plague victims?
"Yes, that was an interesting one. The make-up artist was Jacqueline Fowler and I was prosthetics designer but she had a lot to do with it. We would make up all the prosthetics and she would apply them all. I don’t think I actually applied any plague victims."
Were you aiming for realism or, given that most people only have a vague idea what bubonic plague looks like, did you have a bit of creative license?
"Yes, absolutely. Sometimes it just has to look cool. Like on Doomsday, we looked through so many different things and I said to Neil, ‘What do you fancy? Does it have to look like anything in particular?’ and he said, ‘No, just make it look gross and cool.’ So we went with a real mix of sexual diseases and fungus and pretty much everything that was gross that we could think of."
Is it more fun, the more gross you can make it?
"Yes, he just wanted grossness: ‘Ah, let’s do something really, really nasty.’ I was like, ‘Okay...’ I showed him a few gross pictures and he was going, ‘That’s gross... that’s gross...’ There was one point where I put something on each side of their face and asked, ‘What do you like?’ He said, ‘I kind of like all of them.’ So I said, ‘Which should I use?’ and he said, ‘Use all of them, we’ll call it an ultra-virus.’ Fine, let’s do that."
Is there a danger, in trying to push the limits of extremely gross stuff, that you’ve then got to try and top it with the next picture?
"It’s kind of weird. I mean, take the work on WAZ for example. Me and Tom Shankland the director, we were thinking of the grossest things possible and we came up with a lot of gross things. It’s all been cut out of the theatrical version but it’s all going to be in the DVD version. But if you said to me, ‘You’ve got another torture sequence,’ I’d be like, ‘All right,’ and I’d just think of new stuff to do. To be honest with you, as a prosthetics guy you tend to think, ‘I wish I’d done this, I wish I’d done that.’ So there’s always somewhere to go."
WAZ hasn’t been released yet but the early press coverage suggests it falls into the ‘torture porn’ category.
"No. Basically, reading all the article about it, people may think it’s torture porn but it’s actually not. Everything is done for a reason. Everything is done because someone is going through a certain state of mind. If you look at Hostel 1 and 2, it’s pure torture porn: let’s get some kids, torture them, beat them. But with WAZ it’s all in the story. The torture scenes are secondary. It’s more about the story than it is about some cool gross stuff."
So what sort of stuff did you have to do for WAZ?
"We did flayings, cheek slicings, we saw a guy’s cheek sliced open with a scalpel and then fingered. We had a nipple being ripped off, we had bits of stomach being torn out, we had a whole leg flayed, we had scalpel slices. We had nails being hammered into people’s fingers. We had, I think... did we have a castration? We’d got a castration but we felt we didn’t need to show it. Oh, and his knee gets hammered until it’s pretty much completely smashed to pieces. So me and Tom really went mad. We were talking about all the gross things we could do: what about this? what about that? We shot loads - and also Selma Blair’s got the most horrible rape scene - and I remember saying to him, ‘There’s no way all this can get through, I’m sure.’ I watched it and, yes, they’ve taken it out. It’s still a great movie, it’s really good. Great reviews. But there’s always a part of you that goes, ‘It would be nice if...’ But like they said, it’s got great reviews, it’s a great movie, they’re going to stick it on DVD with all the extras. I saw them putting up an extra section when I was up at Vertigo last and it was pretty predetermined. So it’s a treat for all the gore fans."
With something like that, does the script accommodate what you can do? It sounds like you had a script that said ‘torture scene here’ and the director said ‘What can you do?’ and you said, ‘Oh, I can do a knee.’
"You know what, as I remember, it wasn’t that specific. Me and Tom pretty much worked it out. The writer of WAZ came on set and he went, ‘Oh, this is gross! This is gross! I didn’t think up that bit!’ The writer was actually quite squeamish and he wasn’t as full-on as you’d think. So basically, me and Tom had a talk and Tom was going on and on about flayings. I wasn’t sold on the flayings - ‘Is that going to look good?’ - I was thinking more about drilling knee-caps. I knew about inserting things whereas he was much more about the flaying. I said, ‘Okay, let’s try it’ so we did a quick test and I said, ‘You know, that’s actually quite gross.’ We also did, with the cheek flaying, instead of having huge chunks sliced out, I made it so that it was like the smallest sliver being cut away with a scalpel. As it was coming away from the cheek, it just looked, rather than a chunk, like a really thin slither. I think that made it look a hundred times worse."
Do you sometimes come up with ideas for things and keep them on file somewhere until you can find a use for them?
"Not so much. What tends to happen is that if I have ideas for a script and we don’t use them then those will be stored and that’s all cool. But I will hardly ever think of anything then right it down. It will always be connected to the script. I’ve got so many ideas about torture now that if I’m given a film with a torture scene I just go, ‘Oh my god, yes, there’s loads of torture things I’d like to do.’"
Do you prefer trying brand new stuff or perfecting new variations on things you’ve already done?
"I’m always trying to come up with new stuff, I’d say. A lot of people think ‘Oh, I wish I’d done it this way... If I get a chance to do it again I’d do this...’ But I’d rather try something new, just because it keeps me sane. To do the same thing wouldn’t really be interesting to me."
Straightheads is a film that completely passed me by. Is that a sort of Straw Dogs revenge-type movie?
"Yes, it’s kind of odd. It was out in the cinema a while ago. Huge posters."
Not in Leicester, there weren’t!
"Alan Jones was a big fan of it. It’s like a very dark revenge-for-rape movie. There’s one guy who gets a shotgun inserted into him. We did an eyeball puncture, all the stitching and the healing around eye wounds. We did a mechanical deer that they run over. There’s a whole thing of them trying to rescue a dead deer. They get it off the road and that’s when they’re attacked and she’s raped and he’s beaten up. We did a dead dog, loads of bits and pieces. There was an eye-gouge at one point but I think they cut that in the end, it was just too nasty."
Another one coming out soon is The Cottage. Does the fact that it’s a comedy affect how you do the effects?
"The gore’s in there but because it’s done in such comedic way, none of it’s scary. It’s all fun and gory. They still do the same things: some guy gets his foot chopped, you’ve got the farmer. The farmer’s make-up is not so much state of the art, more like what was done in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was a cool, dirty old farmer with loads and loads of scars, so it was a scary make-up but also a funny one as well. Everything was done slightly tongue-in-cheek. Jennifer Ellison gets a spade through her mouth. She’s swearing at first - ‘You fucking...’ - and then the farmer just gets this spade, shoves it in her mouth and takes it all the way down so it chops the top of her head off. It’s hilarious, everyone laughs, but it’s one of those things where, if it was done in a serious way it would be horrible. Yet the actual effect doesn’t change. It’s just how they shoot it. Being a comedy doesn’t really affect you."
The last time we spoke was in 2006 on Simon Hunter's Mutant Chronicles, which is still in post. Do you know how it’s going?
"Last time I was up there they had about 400 effects shots to do. Poor Simon, it’s a three-year project for him so it’s quite full on. Apparently it’s looking great. It’s a green-screen movie and I haven’t seen much of it, maybe just a couple of minutes. It’s one film that I’m not quite sure about, really because it’s such a big ‘post’ thing. When we were shooting it, it was pretty hard to tell what it was going to be because you’re shooting loads of mutants on green screen and actors walking around. But Simon’s got a really great vision. You always hope that it’s going to be great and it has the potential to be amazing."
After The Descent you did a lot of violence and wounds but this was a return to designing fantasy creatures. Which do you prefer?
"To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want to do just one or the other - but I’d be happy doing just one or the other. It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s lovely to just go along and chop someone’s head off or slice someone up, but on the other hand it’s nice to do a full creature make-up like in The Descent or a full mutant make-up like in Mutant Chronicles. We had so much stuff to do: infection make-up, dead bodies, heads exploding, decapitations, squashed cows, people being run over and squashed by tanks. Every day was different on that film for me and it was great. With The Cottage, all I did was gore, with Mutants I did mutants. Also Gallowwalker was another fun one to do. We had skinless cowboys, lizard make-ups, flaying victims. Sometimes I get hired just to do gore and I’m totally fine with that. But I wouldn’t want to do gore all the time, I do like to have a few different things now and again."
Gallowwalker is another one that was film back in 2006. What’s the latest you’ve heard on that?
"It’s still in post. As far as I know, it’s 90 per cent cut and they’re just finishing it off. I’ve seen bits of it and I think it looks great, it really does look good. And that was a lovely film to work on. The director’s a lovely guy, the producers were lovely. It was a very rewarding film."
There are several directors who you’ve worked with more than once: Neil Marshall, Simon Hunter, Andrew Goth, Paul Andrew Williams? Are these relationships important to you?
"Yes, obviously. It’s a mix of they like my work and they like working with me. It’s a big thing. You can do the make-up and sit in a corner and wait for them to film it or you can actually get in there and make it a real collaborative thing. Some effects guys, they do the most beautiful make-up but they’re not very good on how they film it. I really try to get in there with a director, talk through the storyboards, talk about how they went to shoot in. Really work out not so much what they need from me but exactly what we need to make this scene work. It can be so many different things apart from your make-up: what shots they’re doing, how your effect fits into the telling of the scene. Rather than some guy who just goes ‘You want a head cut off? Okay’ and they just cut off a head.
"It’s all the other things within a scene, trying to make it work. I come along as a head of department and I’ll make sure everything’s in place, everyone knows what they’re doing, they know exactly what they’re going to get. Every single shot is what they need. Another one we’ve done - have you heard of Donkey Punch? Basically four kids on a boat and it goes horribly wrong. It’s a Warp X production shot in Cape Town and basically I came along and filled in all the blanks. They’d shot loads of stuff but they’d maybe not had enough time to shoot prosthetics or whatever. So they called me along, wanted to get me in. I came in, studied all the footage, worked out exactly what we needed to tell the story, all the different shots. We built it all and we worked out everything the director needed and we shot it all. Someone gets a piece of glass in them and they pull it out, it’s a horrible, wincy moment. Someone gets an outboard motor in their chest. Someone gets stabbed, they’re twisting the knife and pull it out. It’s one of those things where I had to study all the footage and work out exactly what we need - and them come along and shoot it.
"I’m working with Tom Shankland on his new movie, the last one being WAZ. That’s a film called The Day but I’m not sure how much I can tell you. It is a horror film [Eventually released as The Children - MJS]. Tom is absolutely lovely to work with. When I work with people like Neil Marshall and Tom Shankland, they very much have a vision and they’re very collaborative: 'What do you think? Where should we go?' It’s that whole collaborative thing where everyone brings their skills to the table and you’ll get a much better effect."
We haven’t yet discussed Eden Lake - I don’t know much about that.
"Basically lovely, young, good-looking couple, out having a little holiday. They get harassment from some horrible kids. Somehow, the character played by Michael Fassbender, he grabs a knife off them and the lead bully’s dog is stabbed and killed, so basically it becomes a hunt across the forest with all these ASBO kids trying to kill this couple. James Watkins was the director for Celador. I’m not sure how much I can tell you but there’s a lot of gore effects. I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to give away but believe me, it has some nasty moments. It pretty much is like a chase movie: nasty kids after lovely young couple."
Is there anything else we haven’t covered?
"I don’t think so. There’s loads of other stuff I work on like docudramas but nothing that would be of any interest to your readers. We just finished The Hunger which is the story of Bobby Sands."
Have you got any burning ambition? Do you want to direct?
"I’ll tell you about all my plans when it gets a bit closer. Some people really love doing old age, some people want to do more creatures but when I get a script, that’s when I get excited and then all my ideas start flowing. If you give me a script with a stabbing, I’ll come up with a different way of doing it. If you give me a script with infection make-up, I’ll come up with a different way of doing it. I pretty much get off on a script when somebody gives it to me and all the ideas will flow. I’d kind of like to do another torture scene but then, saying that, the uncut WAZ will come out. Truthfully, I wanted to do the strongest torture scene ever done on film - that’s what I’d like to do.
"A lot of people come to me because I’m seen as the guy to go to for gore but the nice thing about The Mutant Chronicles, Doomsday is they’re something different. Doomsday is going to be great because it’s such a big movie. It’s really, really good and it doesn’t disappoint in the gore. Me and Neil were talking about it, in fact I think we were actually out in Cape Town shooting it. The day before shooting, Neil was looking at this fake head which basically explodes and I said to him, ‘Neil, you know there’s more gore in this than in The Descent.’ ‘You sure?’ We went through the list and he was, ‘Yes, there is, isn’t there?’ But because in the movie there’s so much going on, the gore is secondary but when it hits you it’s full-on."
When you’re working with actors you’ve worked before, is it easier because they’re relaxed and confident that you know what you’re doing?
"That’s definitely a part of it. Now and again I’ll work with an actor who’ll say, ‘I’ve done this but your stuff’s much better’ and that’s cool. There’s people I’ve worked with quite a few times. You get friendly and it’s easier. You know what they’re going to be like and you can go for a beer afterwards. It’s a lot easier if you know the people. More and more I’ve worked with the same directors and it’s lovely because you all know each other. Working with production designers like Simon Bowles who I’ve done Cold and Dark with, Straightheads, Doomsday. He’s an absolutely brilliant production designer and I love working with him because he’ll always have an idea and we’ll work stuff out together. Sam McCurdy, DP of Descent and Doomsday, he’s great as well. I know how he likes to shoot stuff, he knows what he’s going to get from me. Jacqueline Fowler, who’s a make-up designer, we’ve worked on maybe eight films together. It’s great because I know exactly what she’s going to do and she knows what the prosthetics are going to be like. I can give her some prosthetics to put on while I deal with the bigger stuff. So it’s always lovely working with the same team. Also it can be very rewarding working with people you haven’t worked with before. A new director will come in and have a chat and it’s a new vision, a new way of working."
Finally, you’ve established yourself in the UK but have you been tempted out to Hollywood?
"The whole thing with Hollywood is it’s so hard to work out there, just because their film industry is really suffering because all their films go abroad. For me to go out there, I wouldn’t be welcome because I haven’t got a green card. I’d have to be really requested. For me, I love shooting abroad, that’s my main thing. Last year, to have three months in Cape Town on Doomsday and four months in Namibia - I absolutely loved it. Yes, if Hollywood calls me to come out and do something I’d be out there like a shot but it’s hard for me to pursue projects in Hollywood."
"I’ve never really thought about it. If a film in Hollywood called me I’d be straight out there in a second, don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way saying that I wouldn’t want to work there, it’s just that the opportunity’s never come up."
They’re not short of effects people out there, are they?
"There’s so many great effects people. You’ve got the KNBs and the Stan Winstons and loads and loads of companies. I don’t know if I’d have to work on non-union pictures. I don’t know how it would work. If somebody I’d worked with before, like a director, suddenly gets this big job in Hollywood and wants to bring me out, I think that’s the way I would do it - and I would be out there in a second. But it’s hard for me to actually pursue a film I want to go for; if it’s in America I tend not to go for it just because I haven’t got a union card and I don’t know what I would need. To be honest with you, it’s just never come about. I haven’t crossed any of those bridges yet.”
interview originally posted 22nd January 2012