Following the release of her brand new book Monsters, Makeup and Effects Volume 1, featuring interviews with some of the most renowned special effects artists from the 1980s, we caught up with author Heather Wixson to tell us more about the book plus the second volume.
Can you tell us when you first started writing Monsters Makeup and Effects?
I first started this process back in April 2016 which began as my first book, Monster Squad. I had hoped to get 20 interviews at the time, but the more research I did, the more artists I wanted to talk to, and things just kept snowballing from there. As of now, I’ve completed 83 different interviews and there are a few more artists that I still would love to speak with, so that number could increase by a few more by the time I get through all four volumes.
I get the feeling you gravitate towards the golden age of practical effects of the 1980s?
I did! No offense to the recent special effects artists out there who have been hustling and creating brilliant effects, but for me, this journey has been about preserving the history of the FX industry, and I wanted to make sure I took the time to chat with artists who were part of the heyday that began in the 1970s and carried through to the 1990s. Part of it is my own personal nostalgia too, just because these were the effects that made me fall in love with horror and science fiction (and movies in general), so that’s the biggest reason I chose to go back and locate as many artists as I could from that era in Hollywood. One day I may go ahead and do a book that celebrates so many of the contemporary artists out there, but I’ll probably need a little bit of a break before I do that.
We know some of the obvious choices, but which lesser-known films were you able to go into detail in the book?
One of my favorites, from this book that I was able to highlight was Freaked, which was a movie that I only saw once as a kid, but that one viewing was forever burned in my brain, which is why I was thrilled to be able to chat with “Screaming” Mad George about his involvement with it, as well as a few others (and it’ll be a title that will pop up in future volumes as well). Another one is Spookies, which isn’t what I would call a “good” movie by any means, but I’ve been fascinated by it for years now, and I have always loved all the effects in it, so I wanted to try and speak with as many folks who worked on it as I could (and it’ll definitely be coming up again in other volumes as well).
Special Effects people tend to be very practical and clever people, was it daunting pitching anyone for an interview?
All of them in their own way. The thing is, I came at this whole experience as a fan so pretty much any time I’d send out any interview request, I was terribly nervous about it. I will say that the most intimidating interview for me to lock down was Tom Burman. That’s not to say anything bad about Tom – quite the opposite in fact, as he was an incredibly lovely interview – but Planet of the Apes is a movie that has meant a lot to me ever since I was a kid, so I just wanted to have the opportunity to speak with him. And it was wonderful. I also got the chance to touch one of the original appliances from Planet of the Apes when I went to interview his wife Bari at their home, and that might be one of the coolest days of my life.
Can you share a lesser known story that made you smile during the interview process?
I think that, for me, just hearing stories from everyone from their lives before they got their start always ended up being my favorite part of this process. To me, that was always extremely fascinating because I loved hearing how people would make their way into the industry, and no two stories have been the same at all. I will say that I really loved all of Tony Gardner’s stories about how he used to sneak onto the Universal lot wearing a red hoodie and accompanied by his own homemade E.T. just in hopes of meeting Steven Spielberg. Not something you could get away with today, but it was fun hearing his experiences when he’d infiltrate the lot and run into all sorts of people (including Zach Galligan who was on a break between scenes during Gremlins).
What was the writing process like, was it a mix of research and interviews or did you conduct one part first?
There was a lot of watching movies and also, increasing my own understanding of the FX industry as a whole – the types of positions, the hierarchies, the responsibilities and even how everything happens during the Oscar nomination process for special effects work. I had worked in a special effects shop previously, so I had a basic knowledge of the ins and outs of the business, but after five and a half years, my understanding of everything has grown exponentially.
How important do you think practical effects are to shaping the horror genre today?
I think they’re still as vital today as they were in the 1980s. I do think it’s interesting because we have experienced a wave of more introspective horror over the last few years (and I imagine we will still see that for the next few years due to the lingering effects of the pandemic), where stories are more centered around the horrors of the mind. But that being said, there will always be a need for practical effects in some regard, and I love that we have a really healthy mix of older artists still out there working and a ton of new talent bringing new ideas and inspirations to the table as well.
We have seen a renaissance in the genre of using practical effects, with films such as The Void, do you think this is the children of the 80s now grown up?
I definitely agree with you there and I think that one of the biggest reasons we are seeing so many great showcases for practical effects in horror again is because so many of these directors grew up watching all these films from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s that were highlight reels for special effects, and they know how cool it is when you can pull off an in-camera FX gag. I love that you mentioned The Void too, just because Steven Kostanski is not only an incredibly talented director but he’s also a brilliant FX artist too, so I love seeing how he’s been able to continue to thrive in both arenas.
What are some of your favourites films featuring mind-blowing special effects?
I’ll be a basic fan and say that two of the biggest movies that blew my mind with their effects growing up were An American Werewolf in London and The Thing, because both raised the bar in such different ways. But when I think about creatures and characters, I will always love what Chris Walas was able to create in the original Gremlins as well as The Fly. In regard to The Fly, Brundlefly was one of the first monsters that I was completely repulsed by but also, it made me incredibly sad. To mix horror and empathy into a character like that is no easy feat, which is probably why I have always loved Walas’ work in The Fly so much.
The title obviously says Volume 1, so can you tell us what we can expect from Volume 2?
Well, 20 more interviews for starters! In all seriousness though, the next 20 interviews will hopefully give fans even more new perspectives and artists to appreciate, as my goal with this whole series is to make sure these books don’t feel repetitive, especially since every artist has their own unique journey. I’m going to be revealing the next 20 artists in December, but what I can tease for now is that fans will be able to read more about The Fly in that volume and I’m also doing a tribute to one of the more underappreciated FX legends who passed away in the last few years, as we were unable to chat before he succumbed to cancer.
Were you surprised no one had done this sort of project at the time you started writing?
I really was surprised. When I set out to do this, I saw so many amazing books that were focused on the “How to” aspects of the special effects industry, but nothing that really stopped to celebrate the actual lives of these artists. There have been a few artists who have put out their own biographies in the last few years (Steve Johnson’s Rubberhead series is great, and I’m still dying to get my hands on Rick Baker’s two-volume book set), so I am loving that there seems to be an interest in celebrating all these artists now because it’s long overdue.
Read our review of Monsters, Makeup & Effects by Heather Wixson.