Monday, 18 March 2019

interview: John Carl Buechler

I'm not sure of the exact date of this phone interview with FX legend John Carl Buechler, about Tarzan: The Epic Adventures. It was published in the July 1997 issue of SFX so must have been conducted a couple of months earlier. Buechler was an absolute joy to talk with and sent over loads of stills and designs from the show. The second, unpublished part of this interview covered his broader FX/directing career - I'll save that for another time.

I dug this out in March 2019 when I heard that John Carl Buechler had passed away, aged 66, after a short battle with cancer. We never met in person but it was a privilege to interview him and I offer this here as a tribute.

How did you get involved with Tarzan?
“Honestly, I found out about the show by virtue of a small article in one of the local trades. So I called the executive producer. Actually, I didn't find out about this show - I found out about Conan that the executive producer is also doing. I called him up and said, 'Hey, I gotta do Conan.' And he says, 'Hey, I know you. Yes, I know you'd love to do Conan but it ain't ready to go yet. How about Tarzan?' 'Okay, fine! Let's do Tarzan.' So I met with everybody - I understand there was a lot of people in the running - and they liked my work. I went ahead and got the show.”

Are you a big fan of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books?
“Oh, huge, yes. I think probably the first book I ever read for pure entertainment was A Princess of Mars, which was the first book in the series of John Carter adventures. And after I went through that series, I wanted more Burroughs and I started reading the Tarzan books. Yes, I'm a huge fan.”

Was this a dream for you?
“Absolutely! I love Tarzan, I love Conan, I love all those characters who were created for the pulp magazines between, say, 1914 and 1936 or so. They're really larger than life and full of adventure.”

Is Tarzan screening in the US yet?
“Yes, I think we're into the second season. We did twenty episodes in South Africa. I think in syndication that translates to roughly ten episodes per season. And they're showing the second season right now.”

Are there any more beyond those 20 episodes?
“Yes, they're gearing up right now.”

Are you going to be directing any more?
“They really liked the stuff that I did. It's the concern for me. I do not want to compromise on one job for the sake of the other. But I think we have a system now where I can do a little bit more directing. Initially, Max Keller, the executive producer of the series had wanted me to do six or seven episodes, plus do all the creature and make-up effects. I didn't think that was feasible, with regard to: how am I going to do this?... there's no system yet... we've got to start things up... I've got to figure out how. Because essentially we build everything in the United States and ship it. There's never enough time between when a script is developed to do the essential construction on the average television schedule. If you keep in mind that you have to ship and get through customs and all that nonsense.”

It must be tough trying to get giant spiders through customs.
“Right, but I think we arranged a system that works.”

How tight is your schedule on an episode?
“Six days. We've got to shoot the whole thing in six days.”

How much advance warning do you get of creature effects?
“I try to get five weeks advance notice of every major creature effect that's in the series. What that means is that at the beginning, in pre-production, I do a tremendous amount of design work and sketches. And ultimately it comes to the point where they pick the basic characters that they're going to use in the shows, and then it's a process of me to go ahead and begin to construct.”

How many of the characters you create are from the ERB books, and how many are original?
“Some of them. The Oparians certainly are. There are some new inventions - the Lysarians which are a reptile people. And the particular episode that I directed, I tried to stay as close to Burroughs as possible; I love the material. So I created the Shagoths of Pelucidar, I created actually two species of Mahar, and we threw in Rokoff who came from Tarzan Returns. And the Iron Mole! Which tunnelled to Pelucidar in actually At the Earth's Core. So we borrowed from all the books in my episode and tried to put them into one big cluster of something interesting.”

Burroughs is wonderful, imaginative, pulp fiction stuff.
“I find that the John Carter series just being really larger than life, is something every teenage kid should read because it's fantastic stuff.”

Are they republishing the books to tie in with the series?
“Yes, they are. I've seen more Burroughs on the shelves now than I have in quite a while, thank goodness.”

Are you having to liaise with the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate?
“I understand that the production company is in close contact. I have yet to meet them, but I really want to; I'm a huge fan.”

What sort of reaction is the series getting?
“Actually, in New York it's number one in its time slot. I think that people who are new to the concept of Tarzan in fantastic worlds are taken a little aback until they realise that this is what Burroughs initially intended. And now they're looking at it not so much as a rip-off of Hercules but as a translation of Burroughs' vision. In that regard, we're satisfying a lot of folks. I believe that there probably are some die-hard Edgar Rice Burroughs fans who will find problems with some of the execution of the material. I think probably everybody will.

"You cannot please absolutely everybody, so the best that you can possible do is attempt to remain true to what your vision of the material is. I certainly tried to do that with my episode. I guess that it's good that I'm an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, and I actually got to do the design and direction of one of these shows, so maybe the Burroughs purists will respond kindly to mine. I don't know; I hope so. I hope I got it right.”

Roughly how many creatures have you made for the series so far?
“Oh, golly. At least 20, not including all the different appliances and prosthetics. There's quite a few - at least one per episode.”

Do you have to mould the suits to the particular actors who play them?
“Essentially, what we do is: there are generic body types that we can start with. I've been in the business a number of years and I have a number of full-body castings of people. Sometimes when I design a big guy, we have to find a big guy to portray the creature. But by and large I brought into this project an acquaintance of mine, and we've since become good friends. His name is Don McCleod, and he is one of the most versatile, talented actor-mimes in the world. He has played in 90% of the creatures, and many of the creatures are based on his body proportions. He plays Bulgani the ape - he essentially plays all the apes! Sometimes there's somebody else in the suit, but he's very good and he does a lot to sell, in terms of performance, the reality of the costume. That, combined with a certain amount of attention to detail and sophisticated animatronics; I think we've come up with some very wonderful fantasy pieces.”

Are you doing all effects in camera, or are you using computers?
“What we're doing is that the computer comes in when we, say, digitally composite a large character into a scene. An example would be the Mahars. There are many flying sequences, and I shot all of my people in their costumes in front of blue screens. Then we digitally composited those characters into the matte that I had shot. Then they digitally animated the shadow of the creature on the ground as it was flying across. We also did a giant spider, where we created a full animatronic spider plus a miniature which was digitally composited into the frame and a shadow was made beneath him. We've also done a sea serpent type of creature that was digitally composited into the background. So there's a lot of interplay between the two media.”

Was the sea serpent a puppet?
“It was a puppet with a radio-controlled head.”

Was it tricky doing something with as many legs as the spider?
“Well, it is and it isn't. It's a matter of planning out. I think we had eight puppeteers on the miniature spider, so it wasn't that complex. It was just a matter of co-ordinating the movements. If everyone has a monitor in front of them, in a few hours they can get it down in terms of exactly what they're doing. then it becomes a process of choreographing the camera movement and co-ordinating it with the plates.”

Are you finding that some monsters are popular enough that they might come back for other episodes?
“Well, they keep hinting at that, yes. At first, when they wanted an ape in the show, Bulgani: well, everyone is afraid of using any sort of animatronic character for television, because nobody believes you can do it well in the amount of time. So they said, 'We're going to use an ape in one of the first episodes, and it's going to be something where he's in the shadows, you're not going to see that much, so it doesn't have to be that good.' Then they saw the ape suit that I'd provided, out there in broad daylight in every episode!

"So Bulgani has become a major character in the series, and is utilised a lot, which makes me really happy. I also think we're going to be using the Mahars again, because they're very popular characters anyway. There's something we've created called the Mangalor, which we'll probably see again. Obviously we're going to see the Oparians. We're going to see a lot of recurring characters. Perhaps we're going to get into some characters that we haven't even drawn from the Burroughs universe yet.”

There's a long history of bad ape suits. How have you got round the problem of apes' and humans' different proportions?
“I think you hit it right on the head. The fact of the matter is that we have been doing this for a very long time, and as we've been doing this, we've been seeing bad examples of ape-suits get better and better looking as time wears on. By the time we got to Greystoke and all the wonderful things that Rick Baker did, there are people that will look at those photographs and say, 'Hey, this is a real monkey.' You learn quite a bit as you build these things. In my case, Congo had just been made, and that is an achievement certainly in realistic looking ape proportions and creature effects. So you build on what has already been done. You don't have to start from scratch. You look at how everything has been done that preceded you.

"I think the only modification that I really made in terms of what had been done before was that I insisted on doing mechanical eyes in the animatronic heads of the apes. Because I think when people wear contact lenses, they have a tendency to look like people wearing contact lenses. So we created a broader neck crest on the body suit under the hair, which essentially gorillas have. They have this large crest on their skull and these mammoth neck muscles that go into their trapezius. They also have by proportions very short legs and a very long torso and very, very long arms.

"First of all, a talented mime who doesn't walk around like a human being but who has studied ape movement, is essential in getting it to be real, to begin with. Then you play with the proportions: you build the shoulders up higher; you extend the neck up almost beyond the head - in this case, our actor looked out through the nostril, just to make it work; we gave him arm extensions that he could walk on, or gloved hands so he could articulate, depending on what the shots were. There's been wonderful breakthroughs in different synthetic fabrics and lightweight urethane that you can make the muscle suits out of. All in all, it's not a trial and error process any more. You see what has not worked in the past, you try to discard it, then you go for what has worked and try to improve on it.”

Do the suits get knocked about a lot and need repairing?
“Oh heck, yeah. But I think you'll find that even with people who wear normal costumes in movies and television. They'll rip a sleeve or crumple a shirt collar. The same is true of these things. I would say that some of the materials we use are reinforced in areas that are going to go through more stress. Areas which obviously need more movement need to be more flexible and therefore are perhaps less durable, and those elements will have to be replaced from time to time.”

Did you enjoy directing an episode?
“Oh, I loved it. My best time in South Africa was directing an episode. It's kind of neat really. I got to do a lot of things in my show that I wanted to happen in the series anyway. And being essentially one portion of the creative entity that had nothing to do with story or direction previous to that, I had to pretty much keep my mouth shut. But getting an opportunity to do it, I put a little bit of the old goshwow into it. I wanted to see a Jules Verne-looking device tunnel through the Earth; I wanted to see winged Mahars flying around; I wanted to see the temples of Mahars filled with Shagoths and cages filled with people screaming; I wanted to see beautiful women transform into hideous creatures. I think that a show like Tarzan should have lots of fantasy and lots of adventure and lots of action, and it was an opportunity to really put my stamp on it. I enjoyed it a lot.”

It must have been nice going out to South Africa.
“I was in South Africa anyway. I was going back and forth from the States, getting designs approved, working with the creature effects unit, coming back, starting up new designs, packing the finished ones, throwing them in a box, jumping on a plane, getting off the plane, getting through customs and getting them on set.”

Are the writers over- or under-estimating what you can do?
“I think by and large, on a show like this you will find people who are not used to doing high-concept visual fantasy, so they have a tendency to think in terms of cop shows or westerns. When you deal with fantasy characters, they need a logic and a sense about them, and you shouldn't be afraid to show them, because that's what the show should be about, really. I think sometimes there's a tendency to poo-poo the magic area and just go for people talking. I think story is essential, and part of the story, particularly in high-concept fantasy, are the magic characters that are there. We've created some wonderful stuff that has hardly been seen.”

RIP JCB, 1952-2019