Thursday, 19 December 2013

interview: Rob Hall

When I visited the set of the Hallmark Frankenstein in Slovakia in August 2003 for Fangoria, one person I really wanted to speak with was make-up effects legend Rob Hall. Unfortunately, Rob had returned to the States by then but he very kindly agreed to a phone interview the following month.

How did you get this job?
"I had done Monster Makers, which is this fun little kids movie, for Kevin Bocarde who is one of the producers over there and Larry Levinson. I’d done that for them and basically that was it. So when Frankenstein was coming up, I’d just done all the creatures for this fun little Hallmark thing so I was the first person they called, I guess the only person they called. So it was cool. We leapt at it. As a creature designer, to be able to reinterpret something like that is really cool."

It must be daunting because you have the iconic Jack Pierce make-up and all these other versions.
"This particular make-up was daunting. Our original ideas for it were a lot more far out than what we ultimately wound up on. The only thing daunting, frankly, was just the sheer volume of people we had to go through to finally achieve the ultimate design. A lot of producers at Levinsons and Hallmark had different ideas and opinions and even Luke Goss himself, when I got there with him, he had a lot of ideas about how it should be. So it wound up being an amalgam of what we originally designed and what everybody else wanted. Ultimately everyone was happy - so I’m happy. But it wound up being a little more of a romanticised, subdued version. I wanted to go a little more monstrous with it - but that wasn’t the film we were making."

When you say ‘monstrous’...
"Well, he doesn’t really look like a dead guy. There’s not a lot of that discolouration that I originally wanted to do. We did a test where we did a lot more stuff like that and it was ultimately vetoed. It just wasn’t what they were looking for. And Luke also didn’t feel like he wanted it for his performance. He wanted a more subdued look for the guy, he wanted him to look a lot more human - ‘almost human’ you might say. So that’s what we wanted to do. He had some pretty nasty stitched-up scars on his neck but other than that, at first glance he doesn’t really look like a corpse, like a lot of the other interpretations."

What he does look like is how the character is described in the novel, which hasn’t been done before.
"Which I think was probably our take and that was the reason I conceded. We absolutely went back to the novel. Kevin Bocarde literally e-mailed me right from the novel the description of the creature when we were designing it. How she talks about the jaundicy skin stretched over bone - and that’s what we did. He basically has this creepy, really thin, pulled skin over his musculature and bone structure to really bring that out. We talked about him looking kind of skeletal with the dark sockets and the really big cheek bones and that type of thing. So yes, we did go back to the novel and try to forget all the Jack Pierce ones and all the other good ones and bad ones: forget them and do our own spin. Luke was helpful in that too. He had been reading the book a lot and was really in that mindset. So it was good to tune everything else out and do our own thing, for whatever that’s worth."

Luke’s body shape must help. As a former drummer, he’s thin and tall but very muscular.
"When we were first talking about doing this they were talking about getting a massive guy like Michael Clarke Duncan to play this guy. They actually tossed his name around which was a little frightening. So I expected a really huge guy, so when they decided on Luke it definitely was surprising. As far as stature, he’s not super-tall but he does have good musculature and a great, great face."

Probably the best ever visual interpretation was the Bernie Wrightson illustrations. Did those influence you at all?
"We tried literally just to go back to the book and not to look at any of that stuff. Sure, we looked at it when we were building: yeah, that’s really cool. But it wasn’t what we were doing. We doing something a little more like that; I think if it had been up to Almost Human it probably would have looked a little more like that, but since there were so many other powers that be in the mix, we did what everybody wanted collectively. We wound up not looking at anything, just drawing the look from what everyone thought it should be. Kevin Connor as well."

When I went out there it was extremely hot and there’s no cooling system in that suit. Was there nothing you could do?
"Um... no. An ice cube on the back of the neck every once in a while. Unfortunately that’s just par for the course in taking a job like that. Luckily he’s been in prosthetics a lot. I don’t know if he’s worn a full-body suit but he’s been in prosthetics quite a bit. He knew what he was getting in for and he’s in good shape. We kept him as cool as we could. We’ve put guys though a lot more torture than that on Angel week after week after week - so it wasn’t that big a deal. Since we did make everything out of silicone, even the body suit was out of silicone, it was much more like a closed, neoprene structure. It wasn’t like a foam suit, it didn't have any room to really breathe. Silicone is a lot more closed off, so it was probably slightly hotter than a foam suit. Gabe De Cunto did a great job because he stayed there six weeks in the sun and had to do that make-up. He did a tremendous job after I left."

You’re a big fan of silicone vs foam, right back to Club Vampire, when it was unfashionable but now more people are using it.
"Absolutely. When I was doing it there were a few other people pioneering it. I wasn’t a pioneer by any stretch of the imagination. But I have been a big fan of it for many, many years. I just think that, until there’s something else, it’s the closest that we have to flesh. It’s not right for everything. I think I started using it on Buffy and Angel; no-one else up to that point had used it on those shows, and it certainly works for certain make-ups here and there. But with just the sheer volume of demons that we have to do on that show, it wouldn’t make sense to put a stunt guy in big silicone make-up for ten hours of fighting. So it doesn’t work for everything, but for things that are supposed to be really organic and fleshy, there’s nothing better. So I’m definitely a fan of it and we’re constantly trying to work with it and discover new ways to make it better."

Is it cheaper than latex?
"It’s actually more expensive. It’s about five times the price."

Can you give some idea how much each suit that you make costs?
"The suits we make reusable, but the facial prosthetics are not reusable. It’s tens of thousands to produce something like that. Just the silicone alone is thousands and thousands of dollars. That’s not counting all the special equipment that you need to inject it into the mould, or the labour. That’s just materials."

Do you make it in particular colours or is it painted afterwards?
"The thing with silicone is you try to intrinsically colour it. You try to colour it in layers as you put it into the mould, and you tint it as well. The thing is to try to preserve as much of the translucency as you can and then control the opacity in the painting. That’s my philosophy anyway. You get a good skin tone and keep it really translucent. That’s one of the reasons I really like silicone; you need very little painting on the outside. I could put those pieces on Luke’s face and I could see the skin, the red blotchiness, underneath. So the camera can see it too.

"If you’re careful to preserve a lot of his own contrast and a lot of his own skin tone and ruddiness under that, you don’t have to overpaint it. I think that’s why sometimes when people jump into silicone, or any translucent material, gelatine or any of that, they have a tendency to overpaint it. When you start with foam latex, it comes out solid white - it looks like your garage door, solid white and opaque. You have to then paint that in different layers with flesh colours to imply that it’s translucent although it never really looks translucent. A really, really, really good artist can do that. Dick Smith certainly did it on Amadeus - that’s a great make-up which looks like skin, because it’s done with the right lighting as well. That’s the other thing, that can make or break something like that. So yes, you try to preserve the translucency and minimise the painting."

Were you also responsible for the body parts?
"We did the body parts and we did the Bride. The Bride’s great, probably the best thing we did."

When you’re developing these things, do you go through a lot of prototypes before you end up with the one you want?
"Yes. It’s the same thing as directing. I just directed a movie over the summer and I can relate that to that. It’s the same sort of thing where you expect something and then it’s completely different. But sometimes there’s still that heart there. You’re like: ‘Okay, I see it but it’s completely different to the way I saw it in my head.’ It’s the same thing but on a smaller scale, doing make-up or a creature. You have great ideas, you see it in your head, you go through the design process, you go back and forth to people about certain aesthetics - and ultimately it winds up the same thing but not the same thing. So it’s a fun sort of birthing process. I actually welcome it, I like it."

How did you land the job on the Marc Hershon-scripted Monster Makers?
"Kevin Bocarde, who’s one of the producers over there, I’d been friends with him since the Corman days. He and I stay in contact and work together a lot. I’ve worked with him on a multitude of projects, but that’s the first project that he’s done over there that he was able to bring me into the fold. Normally they do all these cuddly movies that don’t need decapitations and body parts and monsters. This was the first thing that we could actually work together on so Kyle, Clake and him brought me in on Monster Makers."

With it being a family film, how do you go about making horror effects that are suitably scary but won’t upset kids?
"That’s sort of subjective because the weirdest things scared me when I was a kid. Just random stuff would scare me, stuff that wasn’t even intentionally scary. But I loved movies like Monster Squad when I was a kid so I think everyone in my shop pretty much knew where we were heading. It was: make it like a wolf-guy but a little cartoon-y. It’s pretty easy, you just restrain yourself a little bit, don’t go too realistic. Even when we were painting the dentures for the teeth, you don’t put too much stain on them to make them look really real. You just hold back about twenty percent."

There’s a rat-guy and Mannikin.
"Mannikin was kind of creepy. I think we went over the line with that! I think it might scare some kids. Mannikin will probably scare the piss out of them!"

You worked with Roger Corman on 22 movies. Everybody I’ve ever interviewed has worked with Roger Corman. It’s like you have to do it to get a union card.
"If you work too much with Roger Corman they withhold your union card!"

You must have been in tune with Roger Corman to work with him that much?
"I was. It came at a very formative time in my life and it was something that I will always hold near and dear to me. In many ways, working for New Concorde and Roger Corman started my company. I started Almost Human when I was doing films for him. It just came at a really good time. I was in my early twenties and I had worked at Stan Winston. I had done all these big movies but realised that I really wanted to do my own thing. I knew how to do things quality and I knew how to do things on my own. I had done a lot of music videos and stuff, so I knew how to do quality work very cheap and on a budget and on time. So when I started working for Corman it was like: wow, what we normally pay guys to do a really bad job, this guy can do a good job!

"I was working out of my garage for the first few films and just having a really good time. It was training; I learned a lot, about blocking and just everything to do with the set I learned there. I did my first minor little bit of directing over there. It’s a great, great, great place because everyone who works over there is working for the right reasons. No-one thinks they’re making art, no-one thinks they’re going to be huge stars right after that. No-one’s definitely doing it for the money! So everyone’s there with the right mentality of, ‘Hey, let’s do this and let’s move on.’ I wound up staying there because frankly it was a great gig. I got to do whatever I wanted.

"It was completely unlike what I do now with Angel or with Buffy in the last couple of seasons. There’s a huge, huge approval process; a horn sticking out of a guy’s head has to be run by nine people. Roger Corman was completely the opposite of that: ‘I need an alien for this.’ ‘Do you want to see what it looks like?’ ‘No, I feel confident you’ll make a good one.’ You bring it in, they love it, and you move on. So it was great, it was wonderful, I could flex my creative muscles and do a bit of what I wanted to do. I did that and did his TV show that went to Sci-Fi. Met a lot of great people over the years over there, and a lot of those people went off to do other great things and called me in on them. So it was a great experience."

One Corman film I have to ask you about. I saw it on TV recently and I couldn’t believe that anything as cheap-looking as that -
"Starquest II?"

It was called Mind Breakers, but yes. that’s the one.
"Oh God. Starquest II was the very first Corman movie that I did."

It really looked like it had been made for about a thousand dollars.
"I know, it’s true. That was where I was going with the aliens: ‘We have five bucks, we want you to make some alien masks.’ ‘Well, what do you mean by masks?’ ‘Well, you know, the guys have to be aliens.’ ‘Don’t you want prosthetics?’ ‘No, it takes too long and it’s too expensive. Just make a mask.’ Then you get there and: ‘Why isn’t the alien talking? It’s got to talk. Can you hook fishing line to the mouth to make it talk?’ No! That looks bad! You get there and it looks bad, but you live and you learn. So that was an interesting experience. But what’s funny about that is it was the first thing I did over there and I think I got about $10,000 to do the whole movie which was completely ridiculous. But I actually got to work with Robert Englund on that which is one of the highlights to this day of my career."

Do you actually get to see the script, assuming there even was a script?
"Believe it or not, there was one! I do get to read the script, but back in those days I didn’t care what it was, to be honest with you. ‘Are there monsters in it? Okay, great. Do I get paid something at least so I can eat? Okay, wonderful. Let’s go.’ It's just the way it was: good script, bad script, it really didn’t make a difference to me back then."

What’s the film you’ve just directed?
"It’s called Lightning Bug. It’s about a young kid who wants to make monsters in Alabama."

That’s you.
"You jump to that! I didn’t say that. But it's cool. I’ve got a really wonderful cast. It’s a story I wrote about four years ago, and we’ll be hitting the festivals with it. I’m really excited about it. It’s a really fine film."

Did you do the make-ups too?
"My company did. I was a little too busy to actually do the make-ups but my company did, yes. There’s not a whole lot of stuff in it, believe it or not. Most people expected me to do this big monster movie but really my film is a lot more psychological and the monsters in the film are human. Which is sort of what it’s about; it’s drawing that line between fantasy and human elements, how human monsters are so much more horrifying than the fantasy ones. We’ve just completed the film. It’s done and we’re going to be getting it out there in the next couple of weeks."

Had you directed at all before that?
"Actually Kevin Bocarde and I co-directed a documentary for Roger Corman on the making of the TV show, Black Scorpion. So we did that and I got to direct Adam West who was our host. I’ve directed second unit for Roger on a few movies, but for a feature, this is my directing debut. You can check out the website at Laura Prepon from That Seventies Show is my star."

What’s next?
"We’re doing two movies. For Silver Nitrate we’re doing a movie called Dead Birds. We’re getting back to our roots, doing two horror films for this company. Alex Turner is this guy who’s directing a thing called Dead Birds. It’s really cool, very Lynch-ian, it has Henry Thomas in it. We’re shooting that down in Mobile, Alabama and building lots of very cool stuff for that. It’s fun, it’s probably the coolest movie we’ve ever done. Hot on the heels of that we’re doing a film for the same production company called The Bayou about these killer fish. Killer fish - can’t escape that Roger Corman vibe! That’s being directed by the guy who directed Spawn, Marc AZ DippĂ©." [This became Frankenfish! - MJS]

Do you have a pet project that you’d like to do one day?
"Yes, but it was already made. It was called Freddy Vs Jason. That was my dream job and I’m a little sore about that. That was an unfortunate victim of runaway production. Had it been shot in LA I probably would have killed someone to be able to do it, but what are you going to do? I really wanted to do that because I was a huge, huge Freddy fan when I was a kid. I always wanted to do a Freddy movie. So my dream job has already slipped through my fingers."

Maybe there’ll be a re-match.
"That’s what I’m hearing. You never know. As long as they don’t shoot in Canada. Maybe we’ll get some jobs like we used to back in the ‘80s."


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