Rick Baker may be a groundbreaking makeup and effects artist of movies like Greystoke, Men in Black and The Wolfman, and Joe Dante may be the accomplished director of such films as Gremlins, Innerspace, and The Hole, but at heart these two guys are still excited little boys when it comes to talking about horror movies and screen creatures.
For an hour today they engaged in a freewheeling conversation, moderated by TCM Senior Writer/Producer Scott McGee, at The Hollywood Museum. For fans of classic horror, it was a delight to hear these two expound on their influences and passions.
Dante grew up loving the paranoid sci-fi films of the 1950s. “If you get nightmares,” his puzzled mother asked him, “why do you watch these things?”
This drew some teasing from Baker today, who said he never had nightmares from watching those movies. Instead he was simply fascinated by the monsters, especially the ones that drew the audience’s sympathy. As a child, he wanted to be a doctor — albeit a doctor like Dr. Frankenstein. Later, he told his parents, “I think I want to be a monster maker.” They replied, “I don’t think that’s really a job.”
The subject turned to technology and the way it has changed the craft. Dante recalled that visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen basically retired when he saw Jurassic Park because he realized that he would not be able to adapt himself to such modern, ultra-realistic creature depictions. And Jack Pierce, the makeup man behind all the famous 1930s Universal horror pictures, was a huge early influence on Baker, but Baker noticed that Pierce also did not adapt well to the changing times in the 1950s, and eventually lost his job. “I didn’t want that to happen to me,” Baker said, so he has been very conscious over the years of staying up to date and constantly learning new methods of creature making. “I don’t know if it’s made it better,” Baker said of the modern computer technology, “but it’s certainly faster.”
One of the biggest problems, he said, is that an actor on a motion capture stage is simply not going to deliver as good a performance as an actor wearing makeup on a real set.
Finally, McGee asked the pair about horror remakes. Dante mused: “To try to find something new in something that’s been done before is much more appealing to me than saying, ‘well, let’s just take all the angles from Psycho and shoot them over again and call it a remake.’ I don’t get it.”
“I actually worked on that,” Baker chimed in, to raucous laughter.
The two agreed that changing beloved monsters too much for a modern film is a dumb idea, with a case in point being the Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. Various producers have tried to mount a remake over the years, but they are always flummoxed because they insist on changing the Gill Man into something else — including in one instance, Baker said, into a part-octopus, part-dinosaur creature!
Baker also recalled seeing the original Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey within weeks of each other, and being thunderstruck by the differences between each film’s apes — each very different, but perfect for the given film. “One wouldn’t have worked in the other,” he said.