This week lucky Fantastic Festers were able to watch a 35mm print of An American Werewolf in London and listen to Rick Baker chat and answer questions about his experiences on the film. BAD got a chance to sit down with the man himself.
BAD: Are you excited to have An American Werewolf in London screening here as part of Fantastic Fest?
Rick: Yeah, I’m excited to see the poster. It’s just nice to know that thirty years after we made it, we can still fill a theater.
BAD: I can assure you that there is no expiration date on the drawing power of American Werewolf. Now correct me if I’m wrong, did you get started in thisindustry doing episodes of Davey and Goliath?
Rick: I did. My very first job was at Cloaky Productions. I was involved with the last couple of Gumby’s that they made, and did a lot of stuff on Davey and Goliath. My hobby, trying to make monsters out of makeup, was an expensive hobby. If I was lucky I would get a quarter per week allowance, but I wouldn’t always get it because my parents didn’t have it. To buy a quart of rubber was like $8 or something, that was a lot of money for me. I had to mow a lot of lawns and save my money for a long time. Eventually it was clear I needed to get a job. I didn’t have a car, I used to walk to every supermarket and fast food place within walking distance trying to get a job. Nobody wanted me. I grew up thirty miles east of Los Angeles where there are no film people. For some strange reason, Cloaky Productions was there. My father, who was a truck driver, was supposed to deliver some plumbing supplies to a place that was right next door to Cloaky and accidentally went into the wrong place. So he told me about it, he knew I was interested in stop motion, and he said, “well, maybe you could try getting a job there.” So I went there with a box full of stuff and started working there the next day. That was the summer between my junior and senior year of high school.
BAD: Very cool, so it was kind of by accident?
Rick: Yeah, and propinquity. That place was a kind of a magnet for every nerd film guy who was a Harryhausen fan to show up at some point. At seventeen when I was working there, Doug Beswick who I did my first film with—Octaman—was already working there. And he knew this guy David Allen and David Allen knew this guy Dennis Muren. And then one day this guy stop-motion animator Bill Stromberg showed up who had a young protégé named Phil Tippett. So it was the whole group, I’ve known them since I was seventeen and we all had the same interests. We were kind of like the geek squad and we hoped to one day work on a movie. And we’ve basically changed the industry that we were in. Now we’ve all got Oscars and it’s unbelievable to me that this group of kids, who were basically fanboys, are now doing this.
BAD: Holy shit, that’s an incredible crew. Doug Beswick worked on Empire Strikes Back, Ghostbusters, Evil Dead II, and a ridiculous amount of other awesomeness and Phil Tippett’s resume reads like a list of the greatest movies ever made. I feel like I’m hearing the creation story right now. And you actually worked with Tippett on Star Wars of course. It’s interesting because there was a time when special effects makeup wasn’t a collaborative process and artists didn’t want to share their secrets; back in the era of people like Dick Smith, although he was kind of the one breaking out of that mold. Do you prefer working alone or do you revel in working with some of these other guys?
Rick: I like both. I like it to be my vision, and I think design-by-committee isn’t the best way to do it. That’s how you get watered-down mishmashes of things. It was unbelievable to me that we all got to work on that film. The cantina stuff I was involved with was kind of an afterthought. They had already filmed the cantina sequence, Stuart Freeborn already did a whole bunch of stuff for it, and George just wanted to embellish it. So he asked Dennis, “do you know anybody that can make some masks?” And he said, “yeah, I know a guy.”
BAD: “I think I might have somebody in mind.”
Rick: I mean it was for no money because as far as Fox was concerned it was finished. So we had to do it really cheaply and not as elaborately as we wanted to, but it was such a cool idea for a scene. George showed me what they had already and I thought it was so cool. It was great to be involved in Star Wars.
BAD: I can only imagine. So getting back to American Werewolf. Given the extensive canon of werewolf films that existed even back when this film was made, what was your specific approach to make American Werewolf it’s own beast?
Rick: Well that was more John than me. When I was doing Schlock, which was John’s first film, I was only twenty. John had by that time already written American Werewolf and he knew exactly what he wanted. He gave me the script then and we made the movie that he wrote. I think that’s one of the few films I’ve done in my life where the script that I’d already read is what we ended up making. The only major difference between John’s original script and what we ended up making is that scene in the porno theater. In the script it was a cartoon theater, because when John traveled through Europe, at that time went to this theater it was originally a cartoon theater and then it became a porno theater in the interim.
BAD: That’s a pretty drastic change in business models
Rick: He told me what he wanted the transformation to be. We both loved seeing Fredric March turn into Mr. Hyde and Lon Chaney Jr. turn into the wolf man. But it just doesn’t make sense for them to sit still and change a little bit, and then change and change, and then get up and move. He thought that transformation would be painful and he wanted to show the pain. And from day one, he insisted we not use horror lighting.
BAD: That scene is so stark, it’s right there in front of you.
Rick: The transformation was going to happen in the girl’s apartment, it was gonna be lit like an apartment. I was like, “can’t we take advantage of a little bit of shadow?”
BAD: So he made it a more challenging for you because it was basically going to be under spotlight and in full view.
Rick: It was a lot more challenging, yeah. But we planned it out. We storyboarded the whole thing and we pretty much shot it as the storyboards. And it’s stuff that doesn’t seem to happen these days. The mentality is always “we’ll fix it in post because we don’t want to think about it now.” He asked me in the beginning, “what would it take for you to do this.” I said, “some time and money.” When I did Schlock, I did it entirely by myself. I had six weeks and $500 to figure out how I could do this. I told him that if we had more time and money that we could do better stuff. And he gave us that in American Werewolf.
BAD: But the effect was still sort of a trial-by-fire?
Rick: Well yeah, he knew that we were only going to be able to do a little bit of shooting per day with some of these stages. So what we did was to shoot the movie, have a wrap party, and then came back with a smaller crew and shot the transformation. We had someone for lights, a camera operator, and a grip or two so we could spend ten hours in makeup if we had to and not be rushed. It was a plan, you know, and they don’t do that anymore.
BAD: No, they don’t. I mean look at the most recent Wolfman. You actually created some practical effects for the film that were almost completely replaced with CG.
Rick: Yeah, we didn’t get to shoot any of it. We made stuff based on no information from anybody. Just me thinking of what would be cool. We were invited to the set the day they were shooting stuff and there was no makeup or anything there. It was all gonna be done in the new modern way.
BAD: And that’s the thing, there’s a contentious relationship between practical and CG. Do you think there can ever be a happy marriage of the two?
Rick: Oh yeah, and I think there has been. I was involved with Digital Domain on Benjamin Button. That was a really interesting experience because when CG first started happening, suddenly I was a dinosaur in the eyes of a lot of people.
BAD: I’m sorry, but that’s absurd
Rick: And especially since these guys were doing some really shitty CG, like nowhere near as good as the stuff I could do. They were trying to learn stuff that I learned a long time ago. But it was a really different experience on Benjamin Button. They came to me because they knew that I could do this, that I could sculpt each head better than they could on the computer. They wanted to use my eye and my ability to make these heads that they scanned to make the models and they got the paint job from what we did. Then they asked us to come look at the stuff and critique it. So I’m finding more and more now that they are starting to recognize that the old farts have some knowledge and some skill and that they can benefit from that.
BAD: Well I know I will always prefer the practical. So the word is that you are returning to the Men in Black universe soon. What can we expect from MIB III? I’m assuming your return to the franchise is not just rumor.
Rick: Oh no, I’m working very hard on Men in Black III. Last I counted we had 105 aliens.
BAD: Badass. We’ll be on the lookout for that. Thank you, sir.
You can watch the live-streamed Q&A here.