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Filmmaker Jason Baker Talks Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini

Anyone who reads this site with any regularity knows the name “Tom Savini” and knows it well. His Special Makeup FX work on films such as Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Creepshow, and Friday the 13th are legendary. His acting roles in From Dusk Till Dawn, Planet Terror, and Land of the Dead equally so. However, as well as audiences think they know his work, the man behind the FX magic is a mystery… not unlike the great and powerful Oz.

Filmmaker Jason Baker Talks Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom SaviniIn production now is a documentary called Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini which aims to change all of that by lifting the veil and showing who exactly Tom Savini really is. Recently, filmmaker Jason Baker unveiled a trailer for his film online and the response has been incredible to say the least. The donations to the film’s Kickstarter page have yielded unprecedented results.

Dread Central recently spoke with Baker and learned a bit about the making of the film, its subject matter and plans for its release.

Dread Central: Tell me about yourself: did you go to film school and did you attend Savini’s makeup school?

Jason Baker: Originally, I’m from the Seattle area and I always had a huge thing for film and for Special FX. I really didn’t know much about Tom. I just kind of came to do Special FX. His school is advertised so much in FANGORIA, so if FANGORIA says this place is legit, then it’s got to be pretty good. I looked into it and thought it was the best deal for my money, so I came. I did that and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then, I got a really good deal on a second student loan, so I just took the film program. As I was in the film program, I got to know Tom a little bit and I thought, “Man, this guy is not like people think” and decided to make it my life’s mission for the next couple of years to get his story out there.

DC: I’ve read of you saying that a couple of times… “He’s not like people think.” What DO people think?

JB: Well, I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Tom is that he’s really arrogant and very hard-headed and egotistical. I think a lot of fans get this misreading of him when they meet him at conventions or things of that nature. I think people confuse arrogance with confidence a lot of the time. I think the other thing that throws people off is how old Tom is and Tom is sixty-four. He’s lived the better part of his life and he’s no-nonsense.

DC: People also often mistake being reserved for being stand-offish.

JB: I completely agree, and that’s the thing, he is not this guy. He’s the nicest person to everyone. You get out of him what you put into him. If you’re nice to him, if you’re courteous and professional, he will treat you the same way. If you’re laughing and smiling and having a good time, he will joke and crack jokes with you. But, if you come up and you have an attitude towards him, he’ll give it back ten-fold.

DC: What was his reaction to the idea of the documentary?

JB: At first, I think Tom was like, “Ok, great… whatever. You kids have fun with whatever you’re doing.” I think he thought it was going to be like a little ten minute student final. When I pitched it to him, I told him that I wanted to do it feature length because how else do you show sixty-four years of just a regular human’s life, but him being such an iconic person not only in the horror genre, but in film itself? There’s been things like SCREAM GREATS and a lot of little behind the scenes DVD documentaries done on Tom, but nobody’s ever really talked to him about where he truly came from or what it was like and that was the angle we pitched to him and that’s what I think really caught him off-guard.

DC: How many hours did you guys sit and talk with him?

JB: Oh, god… We have shot Tom collectively… we have at least a hundred hours with him. I mean, he’s a storyteller and he loves to just talk. And that’s the great thing about interviewing Tom, you won’t just throw him a subject and he’ll just answer the question. You throw him a subject and he’ll tell a story which will lead him to something else and then he’ll have an epiphany about something and that will lead to something else. He’s all over the place, but in a good way. [laughs] Every time is an adventure.

DC: I was kind of shocked at how forthcoming he is in the pieces of interview that are featured in the online trailer. Is that footage just a matter of a hundred hours of keeping Tom talking?

JB: We shot that over several times. That was the other hard part… being a student, we were literally paying out of pocket because we’re so passionate about this film. Tom works and we’re not paying him, so it was always like, “Hey, Tom… can we set up an interview?” and he’d say, “No, I have to go to Germany for six weeks.” But we kept after him for so long that he’d return our calls and say, “Ok, I’ve got an afternoon free if you guys want to come up to my house or do you want to meet at the school?” What was so great was that Tom didn’t treat us differently because we were from the school. I’ve seen him work with other interviewers and other documentarians and he treated us in the same way he treated them. He was like, “Look, if you guys can fit into my schedule, great. If not, too bad.” Not in like a rude way, but the guy has his career. But also, I feel that in the last year that we’ve been interviewing him, a lot of the biggest part was building that trust with him trusting me and my crew and telling us things. I think another big thing I noticed was that we did a couple of those interviews at different locations and he would be himself and he would talk, but when I interviewed him at his home, he was completely different. He was so much more relaxed and calm and those defenses that everybody puts up would kind of be lowered, if you understand where I’m going with that. He’s lived in the same house since he was born, so that is his comfort zone.

DC: Was there ever a time when he gave you some stuff and then, after the fact, retracted it… like, “Oh, man… I didn’t mean to say that”?

JB: No. Everything we’ve talked about… He’s been open and honest about. A couple of the taboo subjects we’ve talked about like a couple of the situations in Viet Nam or situations between him and is daughter, Lia, I’d ask him, “Tom, do you want to put this out there?” He’s answer, “Yes. This is a part of who I am. It’s the good, the bad, and the indifferent.” Him trusting us with his entire story has been a huge blessing and also an even bigger responsibility especially for us being first time filmmakers.

DC: Is it a benefit that he’s really savvy? Is he at all helping you craft the finished product or is it like, “Ok, guys… I’ve done my part, go ahead and do yours.”

JB: It’s a little bit of both. I mean, Tom trusts us, but also it’s like any time we do anything, I take the time and the respect to show him so it’s not like, “Here’s the movie and it’s completed” and he’s like, “What the fuck did you guys do to my life? You made me look like an asshole.” [laughs]

DC: So, you’re showing him segments as they’re being cut together?

JB: Yeah, and he’s either like, “Oh, I liked that” or… Tom doesn’t officially have final say, but I give it to him anyway because I want to be respectful of him and his family. This movie is being made to honor the man and not to exploit him in any way, shape, or form.

DC: When I last spoke with him, he mentioned that you’d been up to the house to shoot a bunch of archival stuff like stills and rare photographs and promotional material. How much of that went on?

JB: We have well over eleven hundred family photos and of his work. There’s a lot of stuff that nobody has ever seen, just behind the scenes photos and stuff from the shop when they were doing screen tests and stuff like that. We also have a lot of family photos that people have never seen, I mean, Tom’s even given us home video of him at like five years old, so it’s a true collection of everything. That was the whole point of what we wanted to get across with this film. We know the guy who made Fluffy for CREEPSHOW or invented Jason or blew his own head off in MANIAC, but where did this guy come from? We wanted to know about the guy who sculpted the stuff in his basement in Pittsburgh while everyone else was working at football field-sized soundstages out in LA.

DC: Are you speaking with some of his siblings?

JB: Yes, we are actually going to talk to his brother, Henry, tomorrow. Henry is his oldest brother and I believe he is eighty and we’re trying to get a hold of his sister. Tom’s children… We’re hopefully going to go out and talk to his oldest son, Lon, pretty soon. His daughter, Lia, is an absolute saint. If it wasn’t for Lia we literally wouldn’t have gotten the interview with Jerry Only (Misfits’ bassist). Luckily, Lia knew Jerry Only from doing conventions with her dad. They were playing here in Pittsburgh and she was like, “Oh, yeah… I’ll take you guys up to see him.” She took us backstage and we interviewed him.

DC: Going back a little bit… How did the project come about? You kind of alluded to the idea that you were going to shoot this film and you had access to Tom, but how did the initial funding come together?

JB: It really was that we have been scraping by being true guerilla filmmakers. Tom’s helped us… Tom has been very generous, but he’s been like, “You guys need to learn how to fly by yourselves.” He’s just been supportive, but everything we’ve needed to do, we’ve done on our own. It’s kind of like that whole, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for the rest of his life.” I feel that’s what Tom has been doing with us… showing us how to go about being independent and being true filmmakers. When we talked to George Romero in Jersey City, it was like three guys piled into the car with a camera and some equipment, stayed in a crappy hotel, and went and talked to him. It’s what we plan to do when we talk to Taso Stavrakis, hopefully.

DC: Has Tom pretty much opened up his Rolodex to you?

JB: It wasn’t like that straight of the gate because Tom has told us that a couple of people have tried to do this before and have done two interviews and Tom would never hear from them again. So, it was a big evolutionary process. I just told myself that I wanted to make this film and I don’t feel like I should really have to rely on Tom to make this film happen. It was me who contacted like George Romero, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and everybody else. I would let them know and then they’d contact Tom to ask, “Who are these guys?” and Tom would say, “Yeah, they’re legit.” Tom was more about confirming everything.

DC: How long has the film’s production schedule been? How long have you been at it and how much longer do you have to go?

JB: I think our first interview was in November of 2009. It was with Howard Berger. Then, pretty much through all of 2010, we collected a lot of interviews with Tom and everyone else. We’re at a rough assembly right now. After we interview Tom’s brother, we’ve got a couple of more things with Tom. I’d like to get a couple of pick-up shots with him. The Monroeville Mall where they filmed DAWN OF THE DEAD is like twenty minutes from here. The house where they shot NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is only forty-five minutes from here. There are just a couple of things for cut-aways and stuff like that. After that, it’s essentially just trying to get Taso, Tom’s son, and – god willing – Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

DC: So, the Kickstarter page… You have a couple of more weeks of that being available. Had you known about Kickstarter before hand?

JB: A couple of buddies of mine – fellow independent filmmakers – have used it, so I contacted them first about whether it was legit and not an internet scam. They filled me in and said it was pretty legit and we went from there. We’re just trying to do whatever we can to get the film done. [laughs] There’s been points where we’ve literally gone to pawn shops and hocked stuff just so we could go get an interview, but it’s worth it. I love filmmaking. I was a Fed Ex driver for almost four years and I hated it. I don’t want to do anything else now.

DC: How much impact did the posting of the trailer online have?

JB: A lot more than we expected. Honestly, the reason we cut the trailer together was to show Tom that we were very serious about this film and this is the direction we wanted to take it. Just to show him that this is what we wanted to do.

DC: It’s amazing just looking at Facebook and Twitter and how many people are disseminating the link and getting the word out.

JB: I’ve been ecstatic… It’s been blowin’ up all over the pace. If people are happy and they want to watch it, then that’s really all we want, to show people that Tom is not some psycho who sleeps with zombies. [laughs]

DC: Is there a tentative plan for releasing the film? Has there been any interest expressed?

JB: Not really… There have been a couple of people who have talked about it, but nothing is absolutely set in stone. Idealistically, I would like to have it done by – at the very latest – by Fall of this year. We’re very close.

DC: So, once the film is done, are there any plans for what you’re going to do after that?

JB: Actually, a couple of the other fellow graduate students… We’ve been doing a second feature length film. It’s a comedy called CAPTAIN HAPPY SUN. There are about four of us and we’ve been doubling crews on these two films. It’s just a crazy comedy that’s essentially like A CHRISTMAS CAROL meets WONDER SHOWZEN [laughs] Tom has even expressed interest in playing one of the characters in it!

DC: So, when these two films are done… you’re launched. It’s just continuing to make films from there on?

JB: I think it’s going to be a very long time before I do another documentary. Honestly, I never really had a desire to be a documentary filmmaker. I mean, I love it. This film has been more of a mission statement than a film. Tom has just been so nice to all of us. To me personally… He’s been nicer to me than most people have in my entire life. If I can show just one person that he’s not what they think he is, then we’ve done our job.

You can donate to SMOKE AND MIRRORS Kickstarter page by going here.

Filmmaker Jason Baker Talks Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini

Thom Carnell

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