41: Tribute to 'Re-Animator The Musical'
October 23, 2015 1:58 p.m.
Episode 41: Behind the Scenes of 'Re-Animator The Musical'
A tribute to 'Re-Animator The Musical' featuring interviews with director Stuart Gordon plus the actors and effects crew.
Related Story: Podcast Episode 41: Tribute To 'Re-Animator The Musical'
Welcome back to the KPBS cinema junkie podcast. I am Beth Accamando.
I have a confession to make. I am a Re-Animator The Musical groupie.
[Re-Animator title song][0:00:14]
My obsession with Re-animator The Musical began in March of 2011. I had always loved Stewart Gordon’s 1985 low budget cult horror film “Re-Animator”. So when I heard there was to be a musical stage version with a splash sound, well, I was hooked. Both the film and the play are based on an H.P. Lovecraft story about Herbert West, a young med student who discovers a reanimating agent that could bring the dead back to life.
The dead are pissed about coming back.
In the years since it has opened I have seen it more than two dozen times, including following it to Scotland for the Festival Fringe and most recently to Las Vegas, where I saw it four times in three days. I just can't get enough. I constantly have songs stuck in my head including one about an “Outstanding Basement”. I even learnt the Miskatonic Fight song by heart
And then brought pompoms for audience members and then taught them how to sing along. So you are probably thinking what could possibly prompt such devotion and obsession?
First of all, the show serves up a rare kind of perfection and ingenuity. When Stewart Gordon decided to bring his own film to the stage he recognized that doing a stage play now is like doing a low budget horror film in the 80s because there was no CGI and no budget for optical effects back then. So everything was done like you would in live theatre and that contribute to another reason to love the show. It makes us willing participants in the illusions it creates; it has a charming, as well as wickedly clever, do-it-yourself quality that thoroughly engages the audience. It is like knowing the magicians trick and still being dazzled. And maybe that is the do-it-yourself quality that inspires creativity on the part of its fans.
People in line have come in elaborate costumes and with homemade props, sometimes of amazing quality. I have met people at Re-Animator The Musical that I have become fast friends with because of our shared passion. Then of course there is the blood, that’s a big reason to love the show. Graham Skipper who plays Herbert West makes it his personal goal to shoot the blood out as far as he possibly can or to pick on one victim, like a little boy in Las Vegas, who screamed with delight as he was showered in a spray of blood.
At the opening week of the show I spoke with a pair of giddy fans, Gabriela Rodriguez and Emilio Castro, about sitting in the splash zone.
Gabriela Rodriquez: I was sitting 4th seat in and I like right in front of like the intestine spray at the end. So like I got pretty much splattered and really I am so drained now. Being in the front was freaking amazing, I mean like, I don’t know, its once in a lifetime experience, so it’s like, WOW !
Emilio Castro: Splatter zone was really awesome, it was great; I hope other people come by and come see the show. The actors have really done a good job.
Beth Accamando: Re-Animator The Musical also has an amazing tone. It is funny but never at the expense of the characters. It has outlandish gags, but we always care about the people and are actually moved when events turn tragic. Unlike the Evil Dead Musical, Re-Animator The Musical never ridicules the characters or the source materials, but rather is respectful and playful.
The Evil Dead Musical, although charmingly performed here in San Diego takes the tone of the movie screen and is constantly doing the nudge, nudge, wink, wink, look how much smarter we are than the material we are making fun of. Re-Animator The Musical has none of that smugness and the actors are playing the characters straight as they are written rather than mocking them. And that is a much more winning approach.
I have to admit I am not a very musical person; in fact I am rather tone deaf. And when I don’t appreciate something like “Into The Woods”, I am told that I simply don’t understand its musical complexity. Fair enough. But I don’t need to understand the musical complexity of Re-Animator The Musical, to know that I love it and I can listen to it endlessly.
But I wanted to know why the music so enthralled me. So I asked Jesse Merlyn, who plays Dr. Hill and who also happens to be a classically trained opera singer if he could help me articulate why I find it so delightful and rewarding to listen to the music repeatedly. So this is what Merlyn sent me back in a midnight Facebook message. He said, “I think it is fair to say that Mark Netter’s music is chromatically inventive in the sense that the chords move in unexpected and clever ways that seamlessly match the pithy multilayered word play and rhyme scheme. Mark uses intervals uncommon in modern musicals such as the Tritone or Devils Interval, think European siren. There is a patter and rapid text requiring dexterity and diction more akin to operetta than a modern musical. And although his music sounds just fine with modern voices and contemporary singing styles, it is also well suited to classical voice like mine because he writes long legato vocal lines that have substantial direction and shape”. Okay, what he said that explains why I love the music so much.
So, let me begin my Re-Animator The Musical tribute with an interview I did for NPR with director Stewart Gordon the opening week of the play.
Beth Accamando: When you decided to bring this to the stage, what kind of challenges did you see right off the bat?
Stewart Gordon: Well, the biggest problem is that you have got a character who gets decapitated at the beginning of Act II and spends the next half hour carrying his head around in his hands and that seems like a sizeable problem.
Beth Accamando: Now, talk a little bit about kind of the approach you and the FX team took to bringing the effects you know, from the film to the stage.
Stewart Gordon: When we did the film, you know, back in 85, lot of the effects were happening, we were live stage effects, you know, we were not, we did not have a budget to do optical effects, there was no CG then. So we did things very sort of simple and the way you do them in a live theatre and that’s what I finally realized is if we could use those same effects right here for live audience seemed like it should work pretty well.
Beth Accamando: And how has the audience responded?
Stewart Gordon: They have been going crazy, which is great.
Beth Accamando: Now, tell me whose idea was the splash sound and tell me what that is?
Stewart Gordon: Well, you know, Re-Animator is known for bloodletting you know, we used about 30 gallons of blood in making of that film. So everyone when I would tell them I was doing Re-Animator they’d go is there going to be lot of blood, is there going to be blood, so I said okay, blood is part of the story, and decided that we should have special zone for the audience who really likes blood to be able to bathe in it, to be showered with it. And every preview I’d come out and ask the audience, you know, how they liked the show and they would always say, more blood, more blood and I started realizing that the only thing that would make them happy is if we could do something that they did in promo for The Shining with the elevator doors opening up and 3000 gallons of blood come pouring out. I think they wanted to swim out of the theatre.
Beth Accamando: Recently Spiderman has been in the news, the stage version of that where they are having a lot of problems with their technical effects and stuff, so talk a little bit about kind of like the approach you have taken versus what they are doing and why do you think yours has been successful?
Stewart Gordon: Well, ours is a very low tech approach. Spiderman, I haven’t seen the production but I am assuming that it is real state-of-the-art kind of effects, but this is stuff that is the simplest stuff. It goes all the way back to ancient Rome, you know in those days they used to have chicken blood and little bladders that they could explode on stage and we have got trap doors and we have got, you know, we are using all of the kind of old school effects, and I think maybe that is the difference.
Beth Acamando: Do you think those kinds of effects are engaging the audience more?
Stewart Gordon: Well, what's great about these effects is that it’s not like we are fooling the audience. The audience knows how we are doing, everything, but I think they enjoy being in on the joke. I also think it is really great to let the audiences imagination be part of it. It is almost like if you do too much then the audience becomes very passive, they just sit back and say alright, you know, thrill me, whereas here it becomes, they are part of the game and it gives them something to do, it puts them to work and I like that.
Beth Accamando: Now you actually have a theatre background correct?
Stewart Gordon: Yeah, I did theatre; I was the artistic director of the Organic Theatre Company in Chicago for 15 years before I did my first film and so, yeah theatre is my first love.
Beth Accamando: And how did this musical stage version of this come about?
Stewart Gordon: Well, I had been thinking about the idea for a long time but couldn’t figure out how to do it and then finally it just dawned to me that yes, you know, there is a way. And I met an old friend, Mark Netter, and saw a show that he wrote the music for, called Bicycle Man. And that night I realized that this is the guy who should be writing the music for Re-Animator. He has got this very twisted sense of humor but his music is kind of cheerful but disturbing at the same time
Beth Accamando: Because this is radio and I cannot like show them the picture or something but describe a little bit like when the audience comes in, what is that splash zone look like and how is the space kind of like?
Stewart Gordon: It kind looks like an episode of Dexter, you know, when everything is wrapped in plastic and, as a matter of fact, right before the show starts we have one of the people, one of the staff at the Steve Allen theatre here comes out with garbage bags for them to wear and he kind of shows them how to put them on. And it is kind of like the stewardess at the beginning of a flight showing you where the exits are but this is, you know, we want the audience to be protected as much as possible from this, you know, the flying blood, you know the plasma going through the air.
Beth Accamando: And describe the venue a little bit because it is a nice intimate space.
Stewart Gordon: It is very intimate. It is a 99-seat house. So everybody is really close to the action which is great, we don’t even have to mike the actors which I love. It is the furthest row back is may be about 10 rows at the most.
Beth Accamando: Tell me a little bit about how the actors have kind of responded or accepted their role in this.
Stewart Gordon: I think the actors have been fantastic and it a very physically demanding show, you know, to get some of those headless gags to work. Jesse Merlyn, you know, who plays Dr. Hill has to literally climb into a box and he has to wear these weird rigs where he has to hunch over and to make it look like he is carrying around his own head. He used to be a contortionist and I found out when we were in rehearsal that he actually is double jointed which I think makes it possible for him to do half of this stuff.
Beth Accamando: Do you have a like a favorite gag or anything, in the effect?
Stewart Gordon: I have to say it’s the intestines at the end of the show. Herbert West gets strangled by Dr. Hill’s intestines which come flying out of his body and that sequence was something that came into the show very late in the game and Mark wrote this song that is kind of his version of “My Way”
Stewart Gordon: Which Herbert West is saying as he is getting strangled by this boa constrictor like large intestine.
Beth Accamando: Do you think that the way this, the effects are, and the way the play is, do you think it is almost kind of like a magic eye?
Stewart Gordon: I think there is magic in here in a sense we do a lot of switching things, we go from a prosthetic head to a real head without the audience realizing it, which I love. You know last night there was a woman sitting in front of me and when Dr. Hill’s decapitated head opened its eyes she gasped and I thought, great! You know, we did it, so this is working
Beth Accamando: Do you think there is two kinds of audiences that are coming to this or are there other people who are the diehard Re-Animator film fans and also people who have never seen the film?
Stewart Gordon: Oh yeah, we’re doing the previews out, we ask them how many here have seen the movie and only about a half or a third of the audience would raise their hands and so most of the people that are coming to see this have not seen the film which I think is really interesting. And so a lot of the plot points that are shocking them, the characters that they’ve gotten to like getting killed; this is like they are not expecting this. So it makes it even more fun.
Beth Accamando: Do you know how some of these people who have never seen the film, what is drawing them to this?
Stewart Gordon: I don’t know, I think, it is that they’ve heard, a lot of them have heard about the movie. They meant to see it and never got around to it and this is kind of next way to reach a whole new audience. Plus you are getting that sort of musical comedy. People who walk into this thing expecting it to be guys and dolls and then end up you know, having the shock of their life
Beth Accamando: Has this success surprised you in any way or you knew?
Stewart Gordon: Well, I am very happy that the people are enjoying it, you are always hoping that is what going to happen but you never know and but from the very first preview the audiences were just having such a good time that I just relaxed and starting enjoying myself.
Beth Accamando: Next let us hear from Jesse Merlyn. If you are a faithful cinema junkie podcast listener, you will already be familiar with him from the tour he gave us of the macabre Surgeon Halls Museum in Scotland.
Jesse Merlyn: Well, I play Dr. Carl Hill who is a neurosurgeon, and he gets exposed as being a plagiarist in the second act. We find out he is actually very much obsessed with Dean Halsey’s daughter, Me,g and it is kind of his guiding force that he has this all consuming obsession for this young co-ed
Jesse Merlyn: And in the second act he is decapitated by a shovel and that actually liberates him. After he gets decapitated it is like he is finally free to act out on his unnatural impulses and he is really, really even becomes more alive after death. It is a wonderful character. There is a decapitation on stage, then I have a puppetry rig where I am carrying my own decapitated head around while singing which is something new. You know, as a singer you don’t get to do this sort of thing that often and it is wonderful fun.
Beth Acamando: The effects are really very effective on stage but they are very kind of low tech on a certain level and how does that engage the audience more than if it was may be trying to be more flamboyant or more…
Jesse Merlyn: I think it is flamboyant, it is really messy. I have never done a show with this much projectile blood in it before, it doesn’t have the hyper realistic quality of the film. The film is like is shockingly realistic. This is, it is different a thing because it is musical, because it is an operetta style, it has a natural lightness which kind of plays counterpoint to the gruesome and grotesque doings on stage, but people connect with it. It is like people are happier to see kind of how things are happening, the illusion I think is still effective particularly after I get decapitated. I have two different decapitated heads that run around besides me in the show. And when we switch from the decapitated head to my actual head so I can start singing in a brain pan it is very effective. I mean it is really gratifying, almost every night we get a round of applause and if occasionally sometimes people gasp when my eyes open because they don’t realize that is a better switch
Beth Accamando: Well, this is fun because it seems you might have, what is going on with the like of Spiderman musical where they are trying to do this very kind of high tech things and they are running into all these problems but it seems like these effects that are kind of practical effects that are happening right in front of your eyes, seem to engage the audience a lot more.
Jesse Merlyn: It may not be as like death defying as what they do in Spiderman, but these are very dangerous effects and stunts too. I mean Stewart is an astonishing director. He pushes you to the very edge of what you are physically able to do. He kind of pushes you to edge beyond which you cannot go any further, you can't make a change faster, you can't do this anymore dynamically or really quickly than he asked you to do, but you are inspired to do it because he is kind of like this, this Zen Buddha of horror, he has a happy smiling character who has this demented imagination and you really just want to excel for him because he so amazing.
Beth Accamando: Tell me a little bit about that effect of you holding your head like--.
Jesse Merlyn: I don’t want to give it away. It is pretty magical!
Beth Accamando: Well, maybe explain because it is for radio.
Jesse Merlyn: Oh, sure, sure
Beth Accamando: Maybe explain like what the effect like--.
Jesse Merlyn: The illusion?
Beth Accamando: Yeah.
Jesse Merlyn: Well, what it is and people honestly, I mean, lot of people cannot figure out how we do it, but I have the decapitated trunk with a bloody neck stump and then my head is in front of my torso and I am holding it and so it really looks like I am a contortionist, I am able to walk in this too. It looks like I am holding my own head and it creates an illusion, I think very effectively, and you can see there is a long smuck where you can see wheels underneath it, so there is clearly some kind of seat, but people cannot tell if it is one person or two and it really, especially at first when you see the bloody nerve is hanging of my neck and my hands holding and this kind of drool on my chin and there is really this demented angle of the character, his raw hide coming out I think it’s very effective.
Beth Accamando: I mean we are being here in the theatre, explain to me where we are sitting?
Jesse Merlyn: Well, we are in the second row, the splash zone was just supposed to be the front row. It is the front two rows that are completely cuffed with cellophane but the way the projectile blood in the show works is, I mean, people in the back row are going to get hit, there is nobody safe, the poor, the musical director, his score is covered with blood, pages there are covered with blood, there is a lot of gore in this show and it starts in the beginning.
Jesse Merlyn: And most of it is in the second act, but the way I kind of describe it this show is, I think, it stands on its own and you don’t have to have seen the movie but it really is a love note to the fans because there has been great attempts to the detail and recreating gags, props, costumes, moments, all the dialogue it is really every key iconic bit of the film is recreated in this show. So you will hear that… you will hear this kind of awkward laughs and responses to things that aren’t visibly funny because people are recognizing moments from the movie.
Beth Accamando: Your character is actually responsible for most of the blood that gets sprayed into the audience through his intestines.
Jesse Merlyn: That is right. That right. And that I try and take credit for that because it is wonderful body-double’s work. But it is not, it’s actually my wonderful body-double, Brian Gillespie, he is one of our chorus members and he plays my trunk. Most of the time I am carrying my own head but there is some scenes where he is actually doubling for me. And there is a long length, I don’t know, may be 10 or 15 feet of lower intestine that wraps itself around the protagonist, remarkable Graham Skipper who plays Herbert West. And he sings his fond farewell, his kind of like his torch song at the end as he is being strangled by a boa constrictor like intestine that shoots blood all over the audience. I mean, even if they cannot hit the back rows two of them sitting in the back row and he got in one eye. So there is nobody safe. I don’t actually personally get to manipulate any of the things that shoot blood into the audience but I do get to do some gruesome effects, particularly with the decapitation.
Beth Accamando: From the stage, can you guys see much of the audience’s reaction?
Jesse Merlyn: Yes. Yes, we can, it is a very animated venue. I act and this is my second show here, I did a show here that ran a year called the Beastly Bombing that was a kind of a cult sensation of its own though without the projectile blood. This is really not even a theatre, it is a lecture hall that has been repurposed as a theatre. It comfortably seats 85, at a pinch it can fit may be 95 or a 100 and with very little room to spare. There is no wings and there is very little backstage area, it is really tight. And you can see people, you try not to focus on that too much because that can affect your performance, but you know, one way or the other, but the response is truly remarkable. I mean, we were selling out with people lining up for this show in previews before any reviews have come out and the buzz around is particularly devoted horror fans that loved the movie has been astonishing and very, very gratifying.
Beth Accamando: Okay, great thank you so much. I also spoke with actor Graham Skipper after the performance I attended. But I had to take my audio kit out of a double wrap plastic bag because I had been sitting in the splash zone. I put it in the plastic bag because I wasn’t sure how far you are going to spray this time.
Graham Skipper: Yes, I try to get it nice and far.
Beth Accamando: So tell me a little bit about who you are playing in this?
Graham Skipper: I am playing the iconic role of Herbert West, made legendary by the legendary Jeffrey Combs, and I am a medical student who has discovered a reagent serum that can re-animate the dead. Of course, it has potential to be greatest breakthrough in science but I haven’t quite perfected it yet. There is still some hurdles along the way
Beth Accamando: This play involves quite a few effects. So tell me a little bit about working with those as an actor
Graham Skipper: I have never done a show like this, I mean I don’t know if there is a show like this. But you know working with this special effects team, you know, I know that they had to make effects that could one work night after night, you know wasn’t just a one shot thing you know, let’s get the shot and it is done. Two they had to be easily manipulated, there are lot of really quick changes backstage so a lot of the [indiscernible][0:23:42] that they use like the shot gun wound to the head and you know mauled by the bear mask there, whereas in the film they would take hours and hours of make up to put you into that, here they made masks that are shaded to match the actors faces that can slip on and off really easily with effects that I personally work with, like the intestines. I wrestle with these demon intestines, zombie intestines and I am not sure what you call them towards the end of the show and they squirting out bile and blood and things like that. And so it is really a matter of finding kind of the most low tech way of doing it possible because that is often the easiest way and then lot of it for me, we don’t have the intestines that will actually attack me so then it is up to me as an actor to pretend that they are attacking me to time out with the stage manager who is under the stage pumping the blood out, time that with him so that I am squirting it in different parts of the stage and on to the audience, mostly on to the audience, to be really efficient with it.
Beth Accamando: Tell me where we were actually sitting here in the theatre?
Graham Skipper: We’re sitting in the splash zone. The front two rows officially are those splash zones. I know I make up my personal goal to shoot the specifically the intestine blood as far out as I possibly can but we offer ponchos to people who often refuse them which I think is really fun, I know I certainly would. We spray them liberally with all kinds of liquids.
Beth Accamando: These are what you basically call practical effects because they are happening in real time right in front of you, how do you think that may be engages the audience more than if you try to do something maybe a little more high techy or something.
Graham Skipper: Main difference between something like a film and theatres is that first I refer to that when you are seeing live theatre, you are breathing the same air as the cast, you know, you are there with them and even if they never break the fourth wall and all that it is all there is this sort of communion that you have with the audience that you share. And with this show specifically, because we included so liberally and so specifically with the show things like blood flying out, and well a lot of blood flying out, that the audience can't help but be engaged. I cannot imagine sitting back and relaxing in the show because something might really fly out at you and what better way to go see theatre than to be in danger.
Beth Accamando: Which also is with the cat and Dean Halsey’s buddy, like a puppet and kind of a giant doll that is used on stage?
Graham Skipper: Yes, you know the special effects team put that together to make it as much like as much like George as possible and you know it is great, it is again all about what the zombies do with the doll, how do they smash it on the ground, how do they move it, how does the lighting work with it, to keep tricking the audience. But again it is a thing where the audience, the suspension of disbelief where you know you are seeing the dummy but you are so into the show that it is ruckus and it is crazy, and you are going, that is awesome, that is George went flying around getting slammed on to the stage and getting his arms pulled off. And it is fun, really fun.
Beth Accamando: Now, you guys actually even come into the audience at one point, can you describe what you do?
Graham Skipper: Oh, sure. Well, we are looking to find the best corpse, I say the most live corpse and the corpses that we are searching with our flashlights are on the front row of the audience and each of them of course has a different cause of death, and so that is fun and audience plays back too. And the audience gives us faces and fun
Beth Accamando: So how is it for an actor doing, this isn’t a typical kind of thing to have kind of this amount of gore and effects on a show, so how is that for you is it more difficult to have to work with that or…?
Graham Skipper: It is awesome, I mean I love it. I love the stuff anyway but to be able to work that into your performance and it is like a science, you know, you get it down to a rhythm where you know exactly how everything works and you know the right timing to get the best response out of the audience that you can to get the blood to go furthest. You know these things and you learn them over the course of doing the show and so it is fun, it is just an added element. It is like a prop that indulges you in certain amount of, added life to your character, you know the show would not be the same without this. All this stuff it really adds something and makes it a truly unique theatre going experience
Beth Accamando: Do you ever aim it in anybody in particular?
Graham Skipper: Well, tonight there is somebody wearing a white panda hat sitting in the front row and I thought really, you are going to wear a white panda hat so I got it, I drenched it. I don’t think that panda hat will ever be white again. But she loved it. She was really happy. So felt great.
Beth Accamando: Well, speaking of drenching things, what color are your hands right now?.
Graham Skipper: Beet red, I mean, it all washes out, but hey, you know, why speed along that process?
Beth Accamando: And finally, here are the special effects geniuses behind the gore for Re-Animator The musical and they all worked on the original film as well
Male Speaker: To everybody in the lobby and around the lobby we are recording some audio over here for a National Public Radio so we can hold it down, really appreciate it, thank you. Pass it on.
John Beckler: My name is John Beckler and I was one of the members of the effects team for the original Re-Animator and also I have had the privilege to work on the stage musical version up there. I guess on the original film there was a version of the doctor’s head held where the eyes moved around and was operated, I actually wore the thing once as Dr. Hill, bumping into things holding the head spilling over occasionally. I created some of the Re-Animated corpses, memorable one called shotgun which we sort of reverently called Guzon Tight. We did the failed operation and a few more disturbing things and kind of did pretty much the same on this one. We added a little bear mauled victim and recreated shotgun, our Guzon Tight and we did sort of a nasty looking burned victim
Tony Dublin: My name is Tony Dublin and well, I was like I guess you might say, the chief on Re-Animator for special effects and makeup effects and coordinating all these guys and all the effects work and stuff. And John, and I and John designed everything together and floor operated it, what you see is our work on the show and John and I got together with Stewart when he said he wanted to do this as a musical and we are trying to figure out, okay how are we going to make that transition between a film which has very different staging effects to the stage which is a completely different way of staging things and coming up on some lists and you got John involved, and this John and the rest as they say is history.
John Novin: I am John Novin, and Tony and I co-supervised the original film and I would have to say that the experience on this was not any different than that in the fact that it had all started off with breakdown from Tony and the discussion of, Oh my god, how can we possibly do this within the time allotment and budget, and all that sort of stuff and it was even more of a discussion this time but especially the theatre because it is so small, so tiny and limited sidelines and stuff. So it is more of a combination of magic illusion. The table which Tony built and props, and Steward had actually done a sketch of the roll around gag, which on the film we did something very similar but it was done with two people, and of course we could control the angles much greater. And you know if you look at this it is a little, comes out a little too wide but that was just for what has to happen underneath it is a little too wide. In the film it is actually wider.
So it was an improvement, I’d say an improvement and now it is done by the actual Dr. Hill actors who built the autopsy corpse and corpse in the opening, and the intestines, which Tony then rigged to blow all kinds of fun stuff out of him. Funnier, oh god, when we saw the audience was dying in that particular scene and so we died with them and that was fun. And we did of course the cat on the roof this time we got just kind of basic puppets that were designed that Tony found online by a company called Fukmanis up near the bay area. We kind of de-stuffed them a little change around it and I rigged him up and did one of them as a dead Rufus and just kind of reprised pretty much what we did on the original, except that we took the original Dr. Hill head casting and that done by young gentleman named Gregory and I can’t remember his last name at this time, who had worked with Stewart on Edgalon Poe [phonetic][0:33:27] and done some make up with him. So he was willing to do it and I think he was working over KNB, so I think they supplied the materials and stuff.
Tony Dublin: Well, he also had a life cast of Jesse who plays Dr. Hill
John Novin: Okay, so he already had…
Tony Dublin: Yeah, they already had that. They took the life cast, that was already existing from another shell, and turned that into Dr. Hill with addition of some weights and stuff, I guess.
John Novin: Yeah, I got the fun choice of doing the wigs and with our budget and Stewart saying but they are going to be human hair wigs, and I just said No, because you know first of all getting three human hair wigs that match exactly is almost impossible. Because people don’t happen to have that much hair for one person to get rid of it and of course we didn’t have the budget, so took three actually three female wigs and re-blacked them and steamed them, recut them and styled them that’s, you know.
Beth Accamando: Can I ask what your budget was?
John Novin: Let us say that the budget to build everything for this was approximately 10% of what the budget was on the film 26 years ago.
Tony Dublin: Yeah
John Beckler: I have never been paid so much. [Laughing] [0:34:41]
Beth Accamando: Talk a little bit about the approach you decided to take in terms of the effects because the choices you make are really fun because I think they engage the audience. I mean, you are not obviously trying to make them completely realistic.
John Novin: Failed, well I don’t know, I mean, I would say we actually used some of the original sculpture work from the film as far as the anatomical head which I provided the tooling for. Tony made the vacuum pieces and then we did the painting and we did the latex one and so that was from the sculpture from the original film. I had made a foam master before that mould literally rotted. So we took a casting off of that and so that worked out and then the same thing with the next stump was actually from an old foam master. The actual the mould was made on this was from a foam master that I painted up and given to Stewart. So we had that from an old rubber piece.
So, you know, we are able to obviously recreate lot of that stuff from the film because it is very similar, because it is out of the original sculptures and stuff. I would say one of the choices was Rufis could be a little less realistic and part of that is just because of the dialogue and the music and kind of fun tone and leaving the note and all of that sort stuff and from our meeting. We had our first meeting with Stewart on this over a year ago.
Tony: Almost two years ago.
John Novin:Yeah, So, I mean… [Crosstalk] [0:36:15]
Tony Dublin: The first thing, out of my mouth was ‘How the hell are we going to stage all this, you know, because again, when you are shooting a movie, you have a very small window that the camera lens... So you have a very small window, that you have to stage to you now and lot of everything we did in the film staged to that window. Whereas when you get out on stage you have got 20 foot presidium and you know audience got looking around. So how the hell are you going to stage all that stuff? It is a very different concept.
John Novin: We even literally got to a point where Tony had recommended using a Super 185 format for the film that shared the same bottom frame but same bottom frame as a STD safe, because controlling those sidelines, controlling those angles cut off points and stuff was so important that something literally that would work on the film wouldn’t work then for the VHS. So you know that’s how much it was broken down for the film and controlled and here it is just happening, it is right there in front of you. What we did with bio-luminescent, lumini type material for the film Tony decided to go with LEDs. You know, LED technology for the--..
Tony Dublin: Occasionally, on the film we went through 900 of those glow sticks and you had to cut them open and take the parts apart and filter it all out and plus the stuff they said was non-toxic. It actually burned people’s skin and that. So we didn’t want to have that stuff, plus it was only good for about half an hour and you know to do it for a stage play you know. So I have been working with LEDs lot on robot chicken, lighting and sounds like Okay, this is the way to do this. You know, do the bottles, do the syringes something we can turn on and off, replace the batteries, you know much simpler, much cleaner a lot less heartache, plus it is bright enough, it also has to be bright enough under the stage lights. So that really reads and you know that’s always the problem with bio-luminescent. You had to stage the scenes properly because it was too bright, even with that stuff going you couldn’t see it.
John Novin: Yeah, and we have to say that, we have got all big thanks to Mac Albert for that.
John Beckler: On the original re-animator, Mac Albert, which could light anything and make it look like a masterpiece and he was right in there, making it look great. Nobody had enough money back then and to do anything correctly. So you did it the way you could do it and Mac was the savior, he really came through. He was a great addition to the team.
Beth Accamando: One thing that might have prepared you for doing the show from the film is that you are kind of working with practical effects in the film. I mean it wasn’t CGI, I mean, you were using the stuff that was…
Tony Dublin: Well, to put it in a time frame, I think that a year and half earlier the last star fighter would come out and that took them couple of years on Cray super computers just to get the spaceship shots and nothing else. So this technology CGI did not really exist in any feasible form for motion pictures in those days.
Beth Accamando: So, do you think working on the film kind of prepped you in odds for the way for the kind of work doing here in the theatre?
John Beckler: You know, in many ways the specific gags that I was involved with were practical effects anyway and they have to work 3D, that to work in round all the time because these are applications you put on actors and they have to perform in them. The only gag that I was involved was making the little mouth and the eyes move on the Hill head. But by and large the translation from film to stage used a lot of the same elements because I got a life mask, I made a sculpture, I made a mould, I did a casting. The difference is I had to design a way to put it on the actors so they could put it on and take it off themselves without any application time, without any blending edges or anything, so basically I designed half-masks so the phantom of the opera kind of a thing. So it would hold tight to the skin and from the stage it reads pretty much like an appliance. So the skills required are very similar and it is very low-tech, very retro I guess.
Beth Accamando: Okay, so I want to know if you think these kind of practical effects engage the audience more.
John Novin: I think that naturally they do. I mean obviously they do it in the theatre environment. I come out of here, I mean I got my first degree in theatre and you know I did, have done 16 years in theatre off and on. My daughter is a theatre student and you know works with non-profit groups and stuff like that and Tony comes very strongly out of physical effects. And I mean you can ask Tony you know how they did something on a 1918 film and he will tell you how they did it. I mean that’s just kind of, he is just kind of walking physical effects library and even though I think we have all been involved in digital effects subsequently I did lot of work in, my wife and I created the first reflective suits for the first TRON. We did all reflective markers and stuff like that for the first TROM was prior, that was actually prior to Re-Animators. So and then subsequently first set of live marker macabre suits. We did the first ones of those as well. You know it is kind of mirage, it is kind of mirage in the film industry. But you don’t have that ability here, I mean this is cap right in front of you. You know we talk about what the theatre know, we talked about the black art, you know Japanese black art, and actually having people in black costumes in front of black operating things and…
Tony Dublin: Anything that you know, it also had to be stylized, that’s one of things that I wanted to work, talked Stewart into stylizing everything, so we get away with a lot. You know, because there was no chance to do it over again, if the guts fall out and they don’t hit the guys so he can work with them, then worse no take two. You know, you have got one shot at it and it has to work you know. So it was just trying to stylize things to get that you know that case so we are not trying to show you the real autopsy head or have all kinds of stuff, gallons of blood falling out. There is still lot of blood, but not like we went through 52 gallons of blood on the film. Okay, so this should give you an idea, I had to bring in special crew people just to clean up the bloody drool and blood on the floor on the stage so we can move on to the next setup.
John Novin: Peter can’t use the original, also primary stunt of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he had been doing, he was doing the first Terminator movie, at the same time we were doing Re-Animator and he is the bone-saw victim you know here in the original film and he laid on the floor dead for so long that he stuck and completely stuck to the stage floor, but he was afraid to just kind of rip it off as he had to go and literally do one of the scenes where he has got almost no clothing on and as a terminator that night. So (a) we had to make stuff so that it was cleanable and (b) I remember we are there, that horrible, trying to get him prised off the set to that we could get him up and off the set because it was all sugar based.
Beth Accamando: How much blood you go through in a production here?
Tony Dublin: Probably two or three quarts. I think we have got a half-a-gallon Hudson sprayer in the stage bucket and a couple of syringes and in a bag, you know it is basically the same gag that we are doing when West forces the bone-saw through the guy in there and it is minimum bag that is decorated on the front and the costumes is revealed three cut that you can push the bag through and he can just squirt with his free hand, he has got a dummy hand on the side. We did that on the film, we had a fake chest on the actor and he is leaning over so that he is bent forward and his chest went straight down and I have got my arm up between his real chest and backside of the fake chest and have the bone-saw, the front end of the bone-saw was a prop, put that in my hand put two tubes for fake blood and ground beef around my hand and I stuck my hand through his chest. Okay, I am covering a trash bag, running down my arms and stuff like that.
Beth Accamando: When you say two quarts, does that include what Herbert West sprays into the audience?
Tony Dublin: Yeah.
Beth Accamando: Really.
John Novin: Well, you atomize it. You know, you put a lot of air in it and you feel it and wet. If you start blowing gallons of stuff around the theatre, they would spend whole day cleaning the theatre and it is a soap-based material this time around. So people would be slipping around on it, it is just not necessary. I mean, people don’t need to get that wet for the effect.
Tony Dublin: Funny thing is, Stewart and I, when we first started in previously, we were having a discussion. I was pushing for more blood, he was pushing for less blood because we were afraid you know, you have got the stage lights, you’ve got the stage, people got to clean up, you don’t want to get in their eyes and we were still working that out as well. But then he is like well, maybe we have enough then he comes back to me like after the first preview and he says we need more blood. I said, what a surprise. I say, the funny thing is our roles have changed, because for the film, you are fighting for blood, and I was trying to talk out less. So we could keep shooting. He wanted, you know the roles have changed. So when I went out, when he called me in the morning like Monday morning after the previews, well we need to get more blood. So I went out and just on the way in here stopped at couple of hardware stores. Dug through my garage and dug up some of my stuff and filled the box full, topping it with hardware stores and grabbing things like put something together on the stage. You know that one, you both, fill some grab it all have got here.
John Novin: When you talk about is the kind of practical effects used in the films back in the 80s and how it relates to the theatrical presentation here. Is that actually more, does it grab an audience better and I think there is certainly an argument to be made that when you have a practical effect onstage or on screen, it does have a tendency to grab the audience better, because the actors have a tendency to react to it more realistically because it is honestly there and the audience is there in the moment, experiencing whatever happens and you know it is that old thing where you play the moment. Whether the blood spill to the left or to the right, it is real and honest thing. It is not something that is story boarded four months ago and CGI artist has contrived to put it exactly where it is going to be to create the effect. This is practical, it is real and therefore I think it works better.
Beth Accamando: Now who said he wants the splash zone?
Tony Dublin: That was Stewart’s. John and I were trying to talk him out of it because we were afraid of the liability. You know somebody shows up in really nice clothes and they don’t know that you are going to be spraying this stuff around and you know you could be...
John Novin: That’s why there is a great girl here at the theatre, that’s working at the theatre. She goes out and she explains it to whole first to the audiences. Now, I have to say, my son who is going to come and see the show next Saturday, has requested to be in the splash zone. Because he was reading the reviews and stuff and he specifically wants the stuff sprayed on him. He is planning to turn down the bags and wear a brand new T shirt and whatever ends up on the T shirt, he wants to get Stewart to sign it afterwards and I am going to Hey, merchandizing...
Speaker: I had enough blood on me.
John Novin: And me too.
Tony Dublin: One of the things that lets us do that story out of the film was one of the guys that was working the one of the Dr. Hill bodies, it was like his hands when he was holding the fake head, he put his head down and actually we had to replace the set of contact lenses because the blood, that the food coloring in the blood dyed his contact lenses. So we had to replace his contact lenses which trust me was not in our budget.
John Novin: That Pizza was not in our budget, right?
Tony Dublin: Yeah.
Beth Accamando: Go ahead
John Novin: Well, you know, part of the situation that we ran into in the film is like you said, Stewart has more foam, he drew more blood, more foam he drew and I will never forget at the very, very first casting crew screaming after it is all done. Stewart walks up me to and goes ‘You know you are sick’ and I just looked at him like ‘Me? What are you talking about?
Tony Dublin: That’s what the production manager said to me looks at me. I was turning my paper work, he looks at me, and if I code him exactly it is one of the seven words you can’t say on the radio. But he said, you are one sick poo; I said, thank you.
John Novin: Well, because we had a butcher shop upon [Indiscernible] [0:50:43] boulevard one of our main supplier on Re-Animator for brains and for…
Tony Dublin: Chicken heart, ground beef and we bought a couple of full size beef livers which are the size of this table, and that’s what the body was
John Novin: Those were the days.
Beth Accamando: Talk a little bit about the first effect that happens in the play and how that kind of may be affects…?
John Beckler: That wasn’t me, it was Dr. Gruber.
Tony Dublin: And you did it in the film too
John Beckler: I did it in the film, actually I did not do in the stage version. I did it in the film and I haven’t seen the stage play yet. So I am going to see how they do it.
Tony Dublin: I thought you did this
John Beckler: No, I did not. It was not MUAH.
John Novin: What is the two other names that is listed for special effects?
John Beckler: And the original film, it was actually done as a second thought. I think it was in the original screen play, but they didn’t get around to shooting it and they saw the film scene, we really need that. So we designed the basically bladder appliances underneath a prosthetic of the actor’s face, so that we could actually fill his eyes up with air and subsequently with blood and literally blow them out of his onto the people standing around him and I think, aside from the physical aspect of it looking nice and [indiscernible] and being very distressing to watch. I loved the writing because the lady says ‘you killed him’ and then Herbert West, ‘I gave him life’
Beth Accamando: What about the intestine scene at the end that guys work on?
John Novin: The intestine scene, we discussed and tested about three or four different ways to do this and you know, those promotional characters that they have you know, just waving around and stuff like that. The first idea was could we blow them out and it turns out that it takes lot of pressure to do that, and I got it up to literally leaf blower type pressure before we could get anywhere near. So that was not acceptable because of the noise it would make and then the second thought was maybe we can take it and have it attached and the actor pulls it towards himself or something like that. Well, Stewart says, what about the lifelike feather boa and my wife took… Shana, my wife, did all of the soft sculptural pieces of the stuff we did, and she has 30 some years, she took this flesh colored material that is actually designed for making the inside lining of swimming suits and it is kind of like sewing air and she sculpted it and with little bits of polyfoam in between, the whole thing didn’t weigh, I mean it would really move like a feather boa and weighed almost nothing. Subsequently Stewart said, can I have six more feet of that and that’s the standard a Stewart situation. We made 10 to 12 feet of it, he wanted another six feet and Tony got the idea putting line down the centre of it, make it--.
Tony Dublin: I would love to take credit for that by myself but it’s really Stewart, and I was standing over the counter and bringing the thing and we are trying to figure out where we can add more blood to these things simply. Okay, like I said earlier, I had stopped by the store and picked up just happened to pick up like 20 feet of tubing because I knew the standard kit that we all used on. So I grabbed all that stuff and found the last wand for the replacement wand for Hudson sprayer, the spray wand, got to bring it in here. What can we do with this stuff, how about on your thing, get the guys we lined it up. I had some red tire wraps in my kit. So just red tire wrap the thing in there and then ran a couple of tests for water like, standing right over by the door and hey, this looks great.
John Novin: I think they added the line in the song where it says ‘What did Hill have for dinner?’ and it is just been like the audience just was absolutely on the floor for that one.
John Novin: And we were right there with him. I thought well, that’s really great, that really worked. So you know, it evolves and I would have to say this is one of the things about working with Stewart, and this is the fifth thing that I have done with Stewart and you have done it through for a moment as well and the thing is that you never walk-in with a final gag with Stewart. Once he sees it that’s when the last 10% of idea and creativity stuff that comes from being a stage director. It is that first time that first dress rehearsal where everybody is in costume and your make up where suddenly he starts his gel. It is basically a situation there where it just evolves that last 10%, once it all comes together and I have a day job at the time, Tony was on hiatus so he was able to be here for those magic moments and I wasn’t this time around.
Beth Accamando: Yeah, what I want to ask is part of the reason that I was interested in pitching [indiscernible][0:55:36] in contrast the success you are having, how well the show is playing for the audience, Spiderman they are trying to bring it to the stage and they are trying, it seems like they are trying to do these very hi-tech, cinematic effects and they are running into all these problems and delays and actors getting stuck on wires. I was wondering, how do you view that?
John Novin: You got to look at what they did for Lord of the Rings you know they used force perspective like, which has been on films for 60 years with a lens that will hold focus for, you know, deep focal length and they used it brilliantly. They used diopters which is the basis of the old inter-vision system, they used every kind of physical gag that is ever been done to my knowledge on film and then combined it and framed it and brought out and gelled it with certain moments and elements of digital. And again it is a mirage and you know the ones that successfully do that are always the ones that end up with the Oscars and things like it.
You know, digital has not replaced practical. ILM still has a creature department you know, friend of mine works there, Mark Seagall works out there and you know down in New Zealand at Wella they still have a physical, huge physical department.
Tony: But you know Spiderman, you got…
Beth Accamando: I’m talking about the play, yeah
Tony Dublin: Trying to fly somebody on wires is very difficult and you know when you look at stuff like Peter Pan stage plays and there is a bunch of – they have wire flying, there are guys they do really well and are famous for stage wire flying.
John Novin: Welfare was one of those that helped come up with the systems for the first Peter Pan.
Tony Dublin: That group flying by Foyer. They have been doing that stuff for years and that’s [indiscernible] and is strictly mechanic, you have got tracks overhead, you have got cables, you have counter weights, you have got things that are taking up the slack, you know the plus you have got balance points and if your actors can’t support themselves properly, they start getting off-balance and then things can… it’s a big deal, it is difficult. I have worked on, I have done some wire flying on things out on shows, we did From Beyond; we flew Jeff Combs on the Giant Orum and a tank. It is tough and trying to do it again and in front of a live audience and have those things you know, people running and jumping and he is flipping across the buildings and stuff like that... You have got people working those wires behind it like, it is like human marionettes and if somebody misses a cue or the wire jams up or the weights are not quite right, they are going to go down. You know, if you pull him too fast you can snap the wire, if they miss the cue and you pull the tension up on the wire you can snap because you can’t use a heavy wire, otherwise the guy’s hanging on steel cables.
John Novin: And they try to do today digitally what’s been done manually in the past too. I mean, as I understand that they use the lot of the cable camp type technologies and stuff like that, when they were trying to work this all out. So lot of it was digitally controlled, you know, they ran into this Disneyland years ago they had the very first audio animatronics show was called with little birds ‘Dicky Row’ and this dude has been running the techie room for years, and years, and years. And they were, you know, he was so attuned if one of those solenoid valves out of sync he heard it and he went and it is only 180 degrees he would just fix it. The show ran for years successfully.
So they actually brought a company digital company in and okay, we are going to fix it, now we don’t have to pay these guys. That’ll save us a lot of money and within two to three weeks they are back at his doorstep knocking on his door saying, okay how did you do this and how did you do that, how did you catch if this happened and that happened. He came back as a consultant to show them how to fix it for a lot more then; probably, they would have had to pay him until he retired.
John Beckler: There are lot of special effects driven movies which absolutely feature the effects more than ever before and lot of them are digital, lot of them are practical, lot of them physical. But the fact of the matter is that I think the audiences and the producers have seen everything that is possible to do by simply throwing it into post and doing it all digitally. They think they can do it physically and practically on stage and make it just as easy whereas in old school, in the physical effects school you respect the fact it is tough to do and it takes time to work out all the bugs and you can’t fix it in post and that’s what they are looking at in Spiderman, they can’t fix it in post, they are in post and it is not working because it didn’t work. It didn’t work like the first place. So part of the design is to figure out what is feasible and still looks great. You still have to be a magician.
You are absolutely right you know. ILM built the best miniatures in the world and they use them. It is not all constructed with CGI, people think yeah that’s what they do. No, we don’t just push the button and water to make an effect. It is hard work and if you tried to make that happen every night with a different set of people and a different set of circumstances it is going to screw up.
Beth Accamando: Do you guys… can each one of you talk about your favorite effect you worked on in this play or favorite kind of moment from it, do you have one or…?
John Beckler: I am going to view the play for the first time to see this evening.
Beth Accamando: Should I ask after…?
John Beckler: Perhaps, I do remember we added a new little character that wasn’t in the movie and that’s a, and I hope it is still in the play. It is a little brownie that was mauled by a bear and for me just the idea is very distressing and I am looking forward to seeing it.
Tony Dublin: I haven’t seen it yet.
Beth Accamando: Or something that you have created, I mean in terms of process of putting this together something solution, you have found to a problem or something that you created, something you are proud of?
Tony Dublin: I am proud of syringes, stuff like that it took a lot of to figure, you know just to figure out. You know I think that’s something. You know, I am quite proud of the whole thing. The fact that people responding to it. You know responding to Stewart’s work in that. It is like... Catch him all of it, but that’s pretty much, I think I am proud of it. It is hard to say like something actually to say what is your favorite movie or your favorite kid.
John Novin: They are all your children.
Tony Dublin: Exactly.
John Novin: I mean we actually went, we went through some of the discussion about this in the process it was like, where are the key moments, you know, obviously we have to make them believe that Hill has lost his head and this other thing and you know where can we take a pre-made puppet and change it a little bit, and where can we take a Halloween gag or something like that and make it a little different or add a element or two to make it work and things like that. But the fact that you still believe that a guy walks up behind him, hits him with a shovel and cuts his head off, they put the rubber head down it falls back, the actors head comes up and I was sitting next to newbie’s when we saw it, and when he was tapping a pencil those eyes open he started talking. These people did not catch it at all. It is a clean switch and it is a magic gag and they hadn’t caught that at all, and it was several seconds ago they were completely 100% believe it was a rubber head until it came back to life and to me that was probably the most special moment. That was Greg’s head, my wigs, your table and the little neck piece that I put together. So that was kind of a, it is [Crosstalk] [1:05:25]
Tony: Actors that were acting.
John Novin: Greg, absolutely.
Tony: And working a business, because if they won’t work in the business properly out there on the stage, the stuff we built wouldn’t work at all. You know, it is really, this is even more collaborative than doing a film. Because once you give it to him, you say this is how it works and it is up to them to make it operate. I can’t walk out there on the stage and you know you screwed this one up, we need to do this again. You know, they have to do in it.
Beth Accamando: There are no announced plans of Re-Animator The Musical to open anywhere else. Everyone involved is interested in keeping this brilliant show alive. But finding a venue and getting a backing is tough. So if there is anyone out there with a million or so dollars lying around, who wants to back a production say in San Diego, please step forward. Then I can enjoy this bloody little masterpiece in my own city and not have to make a road trip to see it. I have faith that Re-Animator musical will continue to re-animate. I can’t imagine life without it. Thanks to Stewart Gordon and Company for giving many people a lot of blood-soaked joy. We eagerly await announcement of the next splash zone location.
Thanks for listening to another horror theme October edition of KPBS Cinema junky podcast. Next week I will end my month of horror with a collection of people recalling the first film that scared them. I spoke with horror icons like actor Tony Todd, and Fright Night director Tom Holland as well as people attending Horrible Imaginings Films Festival. And next month I am off to Wales for the Abattoir horror film festival and we have some special podcast for you. So, till our next film fix, I am Beth Accamando, your resident cinema junkie. You can subscribe to my podcast on itunes or visit my blog at kpbs.org/cinemajunkie.