Tuesday, 20 May 2014

interview: Gary J Tunnicliffe

Legendary effects bloke Gary Tunnicliffe created the monster suit for the brace of Pumpkinhead sequels which were filmed in Romania in 2006. Although he didn’t visit Bucharest himself (leaving that to Mike Regan and co) I was able to interview Gary by phone a few weeks later in June 2006. (Picture shows Gary (centre) with two of the on-set Pumpkinhead team, Blake Bolger and Mike Regan.)

Are you in LA at the moment?
"Yes, back in Los Angeles. It’s kind of crazy. We’ve been doing reshoots on Pulse. It’s been a manic couple of weeks. We’ve just moved to a bigger and better workshop so everything’s been kind of manic but hopefully it’ll calm down in the next few weeks and I can get my breath again. On top of which, Pumpkinhead was probably one of the most nightmare-ish pre-productions I’ve ever had. I went in with my eyes wide open and knew what was going on."

How were you approached about this?
"Actually I was first mentioned through Alwyn Kushner who is Donald Kushner’s daughter. I’ve done a lot of work with Alwyn over the years and she recommended me. I get a call from Karri O’Reilly and obviously I already had a relationship with Donald Kushner so I was asked if I was interested in being on Pumpkinhead. Obviously the design factor was already there but the budget was very tight and also the pre-production schedule was nightmare-ish due to the shooting schedule. They had to shoot in the first week of March and I got the call at the end of February. The actual production time we had - including the nightmare of trying to get things to Romania which is at least a ten-day add-on - basically gave us four weeks to make Pumpkinhead."

Given that the basic design already existed, how long would you have liked to have to create the suit?
"It would have been nice to have two months. The reason that I took the job is it was a no-profit project. I had just finished on some work as it was and we were kind of winding down, we were just moving workshops. The last thing I needed to do was to get involved in a pretty intensive creature suit. But both of the directors were awesome and also it was a chance to get my fingers into a design that everybody loves.

“Stan Winston released a full foam version of the suit; it would have been the easiest thing in the world to get one of those, mould it and run the pieces out of that. But I really wasn’t interested in doing that. I really wanted to try and basically take the 1988, brilliantly executed design - but obviously things have got better now, sculpting has got better over the years - and really try and push some of the form to it. Add a bit of Tunnicliffism to it, if you like. At a cost to myself, really. We made sure that we hired some really awesome sculptors and I managed to get the bits into it I wanted. Jake West wanted to change the design a bit, he wanted to lose the big bones on the shoulders and he didn’t want any teeth on the exterior of the mouth. He had actually done a design himself which was very Alien and I was frightened that it was getting very bony, very spiny and it wouldn’t feel like the original Pumpkinhead. Whereas my design interest was to make something a bit leaner which had a bit more musculature.

“I wanted to go back in and really refine some of the form on it. If you look at Stan’s original it’s a bit lumpy and bumpy in places. It’s brilliant, it’s wonderful but the body is a bit lumpy and bumpy. I wanted to do that and I really wanted to refine the hands and show the bone structure of the hand. And that’s what I think we were able to do. We kept the essence of Pumpkinhead. You saw it; hopefully when you saw it you didn’t go, ‘What the hell’s that?’ I think in retrospect I would have liked to make it a bit wider, a bit bigger in places but we were working on the form of our puppeteer. If you get too big it tends to wrinkle and buckle in a very weird way so we tried to make it more lean, more sleek."

Was it daunting to work on something that’s not only popular but sufficiently old that everyone thinks they know about it?
"Yes, it was daunting without a doubt. As I said to the producer at the time: I know the first film was a low-budget movie but it had the full weight of Stan Winston Productions behind it. Here was a Stan Winston production making Stan’s creature. So I knew that at the very least I was on a slippery slope straight away. I was damned if I do, damned if I don’t to be honest. The best thing I could ever hope for was for people to look at it and go, ‘Oh yes, that looks like Pumpkinhead.’ My mantra was always that if Stan Winston saw it he would go, ‘That looks pretty cool.’, not ‘Oh my God, what have they done to it?’ or ‘Eugh, what a mess.’ Jake West wanted to make Pumpkinhead very dark and I pulled him back a bit and said, ‘Look, you’re going to be shooting at night. You still need that light colour.’ But I didn’t want to go with a yellow Pumpkinhead, that kind of dead flesh colour, so we warmed him up a bit and made him more earth tan."

Did Mike Hurst have any input?
"I think Mike was very understanding of where we were at and how cramped we were. He was very trusting because he said, ‘Whatever you can give me, I know that you guys are under the gun as it is. I’ll be happy. I trust you - go for it.’ And Karri O’Reilly and the producers were great because they said, ‘We know for a fact that anything we can get beyond Pumpkinhead is a gift so whatever you can do in the way of blood and gore and death and horror it’s purely a bonus.’ They were wonderful to work with. It’s hard enough when you’re on a low budget production if you’re being treated badly or you’re waiting for payments. Everybody seemed to know that we were struggling and didn’t have any time to waste. We were treated very, very kindly by everybody. It was wonderful, one of the best productions I’ve ever had for that."

How do you design something which already exists? Did you make a maquette?
"It was great actually because, very luckily, there’s been lots of maquettes done over the years. There have been so many wonderful model kits and the one that was used as the basis for ours was one which I thought had a great pose and a great form to it. It elongated some of the form for the original. I looked at the original maquette Stan had done which was released by Sideshow and again I thought it looked a bit lumpy in places. I wanted to try and streamline it a little bit so I found this other kit and put it into Photoshop, did some additions on that and showed those to Jake West. He said yes but by that point, because we were on such a time constraint, by the time I was showing designs to Jake we were already sculpting!

“It wasn’t like: here’s the design, what do you think, what would you do differently, let’s get your input. It was: here’s the design and just to let you know it’s being moulded tomorrow. This is it, this is what you’re going to get. It was like a menu of ‘spam and eggs, spam and eggs, spam and eggs, spam and eggs’: I hope you like spam and eggs because that’s what we’re cooking right now. ‘Yes, we want spam and eggs.’ Well, it’s a good job! Luckily, everyone liked spam and eggs. The menu special was what everyone wanted."

What is the suit made from?
"It’s all traditional, good old-fashioned foam latex. In reality, it’s probably almost identical to what Stan had done for the first film. It’s a foam latex suit. The only thing we did differently on the head was, instead of standard one-lid eye blink we did a double-lid blink. So both lids came up to meet each other. It was a nightmare for Mike Regan who was doing the mechs because I said to him very early on, ‘I don’t want it to be a standard blink.’ He looked at me and was like, ‘We don’t have time,’ and I was like, ‘I know, but I don’t want a standard blink.’ ‘Yes, but we don’t have time.’ ‘I know, I understand that we don’t have time. But we are going to do a double blink.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ I did a little design and he was like, ‘Yes, I guess so.’ It meant a few extra late nights for him but I think it makes a difference when you see the creature blinking.

“Luckily the design is such that it allows things which require a lot of mechanisms. Because Pumpkinhead has got white eyes he just has to look around so that negated the mechs in the eyes. So we just went with a very traditional jaw, lip snarls, brow and then we enhanced the blink a little bit. But it’s a foam latex suit, a foam latex skin head with a fibreglass underskull and all those good old-fashioned techniques that work so well. We didn’t have the luxury of trying to reinvent the wheel. Nor would I want to. It worked perfectly well for what it was. Silicone skins weren’t needed for this, we just needed it to last the duration."

Did you make two suits?
"You always say that you make a hero and a stunt but what really happens, the truth is they’re both hero suits. When one gets the shit beaten out of it, it’s the stunt. I had the producers saying, ‘Well, Pumpkinhead only shoots for 19 days out of the 36,’ - and of course Pumpkinhead shot for virtually every day of the shoot. Full credit to Mike, Mitch and Blake and the Romanian crew, Ionel Popa and Daniel Parvalescu, who I know were basically every day having to repaint and patch and fill and all those nightmares of trying to keep the suit the best it could be. I’m sure at the end of the film there are going to be a few shots where it probably looks a little bit worn down. But luckily Pumpkinhead is a demon who has been born from the earth so a little bit of slime here, a little bit of blood there - and he looks as good as new!

“The thing for us was: as long as he looks good from the torso up - good chest, good head, good hands - I’m happy. I always know that, due to the design of the leg, in the first film whenever Pumpkinhead is seen in a wide shot, he’s on wires. They made it so that Tom who was wearing the suit in the first film was suspended so they could make the legs a lot sleeker. We had to make a stilt for our leg. You’ll always have a problem there because you have to deal with the shape of a human foot and the actor who was wearing the suit had big feet! I always look at him in wide shots and think he looks a bit off but that’s just the nature of the design unfortunately."

Were you responsible for Haggis’ make-up?
"Yes, we did Haggis’ make-up. That was insane. The turnaround on that make-up was absolutely insane. I think we turned around that make-up in three days and that was for a four- or five-piece make-up. We didn’t even have time to do a cowl. I think we did basically a large brow-piece that blended off and then a nose. Luckily Neill Gorton out of the UK did the live cast. They cast Lynne Verrall literally a few days before she was shooting. We got the life cast, I blocked it out and Mark Maitre worked overnight on it. I did blocking on the pieces, Mark took the pieces and worked on them through the night, brought them back in the morning and then we started the moulds. Then we ran out the pieces we needed so Mitch had something to apply. Mitch took the first three sets of appliances with him on as excess baggage.

“I really wanted it to look like the first Haggis but it just wasn’t possible. The girl who wore the first make-up was very long and had a huge neck. They had done a full cowl and we just hadn’t the time or the resources to do that. So what we basically had to create was a hag make-up, a witch bitch make-up. The only thing I was amazed by, nothing to do with the make-up, was when I heard Lynn’s voice. I’ve never heard such an incredible recreation of the original character in my life. It was fantastic, she sounded just like her. When I saw the trailer I thought she’d been dubbed. I thought they’d taken lines from the first film. I was just blown away. Blake and Mike and Mitch said no, Lynn was really dedicated to try and recapture that and listened to the first film over and over and over again. She was wonderful and Mitch had a good rapport with her. The great thing about that is: prosthetic make-up is only ten per cent of the character, it doesn’t work if it’s on somebody who isn’t into it or is no good. It’s like Pinhead - so much of that is Doug Bradley. I think we were able to pull off something very, very fast and luckily Lynn’s dedication to the character brought it to life so a total tip of the hat to her. After that of course, we had to do a whole bunch of transformation stuff."

On Lance Henriksen?
"Yes, that was basically me. Over a weekend I made a whole bunch of mechanisms. We did a change around which was great because we were able to basically use the technique from An American Werewolf in London but use silicone which is much more stretchy and more realistic. So I made one of those and I made a chest section which would suck in and I made a face plate with a change-over mech underneath it. They were literally all done over a weekend; it was a crazy, crazy weekend. I even drew boards for that and spoke to Jake about it. I said, ‘Look, as long as you keep cutting away to flames flickering and shadows on the wall, I’ll give you a couple of elements.’

“We made a bladder. It was literally a case of any chance we got to make anything else: ‘You’ve got five minutes, make me some bladders.’ ‘You’ve got five minutes, start making some latex sheets and I’ll wrap a skeleton inside them to make the Lance Henriksen husk.’ The body I made on the table one day by taking a skeleton and binding it in latex. All those years of doing Dracula 2000 and things like that prepare you well for making corpses. I had a wonderful, wonderful crew. Everyone got involved. I was in the fortunate situation that I could throw jobs at crew members and everyone would get behind it. And people were keen to work on it too because it was Pumpkinhead. They were excited by working on Pumpkinhead. The first day we tested Pumpkinhead - got the actor on a table, dressed him in the suit and put the head on - it was great to see everyone’s eyes light up."

Did you find a real enthusiasm and excitement about Pumpkinhead because it’s something special, not just another monster?
"We were excited too, you know. Pumpkinhead is an awesome creature and it's a good, solid, little horror film. We went back and watched it again. I think everyone who watches it goes: ‘Wow, Stan Winston could have just gone off and had a nice little career as a horror movie director.’ I think at the heart of it is a very cool creature. If there’s a credit missing from this film, whether it’s Stan or some of his guys, it’s whoever did that original design. That’s where a good creature can endure. Then I think you’ve got a couple of directors who understand action and pacing. Certainly from the trailer I saw, I was very excited."

Do you know Stan Winston? Does he know about these films?
"I have no idea at all. I don’t know Stan well enough to give him a call and say, ‘Stan! We’ve got your creature!’ I’m sure if it was a film I’d directed I’d be curious to see what someone else had done with it. Obviously it’s more of a sequel than the second film, this follows on from the events of the first film. I’m sure there’ll be some nitpicking from the guys when they see my bastardised version of their wonderful creature but I hope that they’ll look at it and realise the budget restraints and say, ‘That’s a pretty good job, actually.’ It’s a different Pumpkinhead but at the same time it’s got the core of it.

“Luckily I had some great sculptors, people like Dave Grasso and Tully Sumners who had just worked on Silent Hill. Richard Addison-Wood, the WETA workshop supervisor on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, did the eyes for me in New Zealand. Because he is a Pumpkinhead fan so I wanted to get him involved. I tried to pull in a few favours from people. One of the painters from Spider-Man 3 came over and helped me for a few days. It was great to be able to call people and say, ‘Hey, do you want to come and work a few days on Pumpkinhead?’ Instantly people were, ‘Yeah, that would be cool!’ They would come in and see the head and go, ‘That looks really cool!’ Even after all the crazy hours - and it was crazy hours, every day was a very, very long day and no weekends for that four-week blast that we had. But the first day that we were able to get the suit on, a couple of the producers came over. We turned off the lights in the shop and we made some cookies and we lit him from underneath and we brought him to life. Everybody, myself included, was: ‘Wow, look - it’s Pumpkinhead!’"

Who's that handsome devil?
If these do okay and they make V and VI, would you be up for those?
"God, yes. I’m up for anything. I’m a horror film whore I am, I don’t care. I’m up for Pumpkinhead XXVIII! It would be good if we got a few more dollars. I’m sure the producers would be: ‘Well, you’ve got the moulds.’ Yes, absolutely. Certainly if it was the same production team as before. They were so courteous and so wonderful to work with. You can only dream of having that kind of support. And the same from Jake West and Mike Hurst. To get phone calls from your director from another country the day after Pumpkinhead shot to just say, ‘Thank you so much. It looks amazing. We’re just blown away that there’s a creature here I can film.’ To get e-mails after the show saying, ‘Thank you again. It looks awesome. We’re just jazzed with the creature and your guys were awesome.’ I know that Mike and Blake and Mitch were put through the wringer and were having to come up with a lot of stuff on the spot so credit to them for backing me up. Unfortunately I couldn’t get out to Romania. I had to send them because I was dealing with Pulse reshoots and stuff like that. But I was getting phone calls nightly from Karri O’Reilly and from Mitch and Mike, post-being drenched in blood or post-being rained on."

There was some pretty unpleasant stuff out there.
"I know. That’s why I sent them! We keeping hope for that horror film, a Caribbean zombie movie or Caribbean werewolf movie where the visitors to a beautiful Caribbean resort are terrorised by one zombie. I invite any writer out there to write that because I would happily do that. Scuba divers who get terrorised by a zombie, that would be great because I could dive all day.”

Website: www.garyjtunnicliffe.com

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