Let’s face it… Special Makeup FX are the backbone of the horror genre. As engaging as storylines can be, as believable as acting is, and as competent as directing and cinematography are, fans pay money and put their asses in those seats or buy those DVDs and Blu-rays because they love the creatures.
Back in the 1980s FX artists were like rock stars. Names like Savini, Bottin, and Baker were spoken in revered tones. People went to see films because of who was doing the FX. As the years progressed, FX artists refined techniques, CG was introduced, new materials were brought into play, and what was once a discipline soon became an art form.
One FX artist who’s recently been helping elevate that art form to new heights is Vincent J. Guastini. His contributions to such films as Requiem for a Dream, Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima, Dogma, and Last of the Mohicans were marked, and he continues to push the limits of the art form to the next level.
Dread Central recently spoke with Vincent about his career, the creation of Special Makeup FX, and some new projects coming to a theater or video store near you.
Dread Central: What can you tell me about where you grew up?
Vincent Guastini: I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. That’s where I was born and raised and did most of my early FX work. I had a small studio in New Jersey and then opened up a bigger place in New York City.
DC: Growing up, were you like a “monster kid?”
VG: Definitely! When I was very, very young, I watched a lot of Ray Harryhausen movie like 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, CLASH OF THE TITANS, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and then graduated from there to STAR WARS. After STAR WARS came out in the ’80s, there were movies like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE THING, and THE HOWLING. Some nightmares came when I watched THE EXORCIST for the first time. So, yeah… definitely.
DC: Did you attend FX school, or did you learn the old fashioned way, figuring it all out for yourself?
VG: Pretty much self-taught, yeah. At a young age – around twelve or thirteen years old – just doing sculptures. Like I say, after I first saw STAR WARS, I said I wanted to be a director or producer and started making my own versions of STAR WARS like a lot of other people did when they saw that film. I got side-tracked when I started learning about Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. After seeing THE THING, I made up my mind that I was going to be a Special Makeup FX Artist.
DC: So those were the guys you first latched onto?
VG: Pretty much. I gravitated more towards Bottin because of the types of movies he was doing FX for. Of course, Rick Baker was “The Man” as well with AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but for some reason, the more movies I saw of Bottin doing FX for like LEGEND, THE HOWLING, THE THING, and EXPLORERS I latched on to him more and became a Bottin fanatic. I sought out his work, and that was what made me really go for it.
DC: I read that you once worked with Dick Smith.
VG: Yeah, I did. When I was starting to progress and open my own studio. I started sending stuff to Dick Smith at a very, very young age, and he was actually critiquing my work. Eventually there was this TV series called MONSTERS which I was already working on, assisting John Dods on the East Coast, and through that association Dick Smith (who was the Makeup FX Supervisor) started giving me my own episodes to do. From there, I was recommended by Dick Smith to work with Nick Dudman, who did the Batman, the Joker, all the Harry Potter movies, and was heading up MOHICANS at the time. When I was on that, Nick left and I took over the FX and brought on my own crew. So, yeah… Dick Smith was huge as far as getting me my first big gigs and recommending me for jobs as well as being a huge influence on me from the work he’s done.
DC: Do you find that your game gets elevated when you’re working with people of that caliber?
VG: Oh, yeah! After working on the East Coast for so long, I wanted to see what it was like to work on the West Coast, and on a honeymoon with my ex-wife, I went on an interview with Kevin Yagher and was hired by him to do CHILD’S PLAY and BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY and some other projects he had going. So from that experience I left California and went back to the East Coast, headed up MOHICANS and started doing my own shows. I got called by Greg Cannom to supervise FX with another artist on the East Coast named Bob Laden on THINNER. So, yeah… Dick Smith, Greg Cannom for sure… as well as, for animatronics, Kevin Yagher… it definitely improved my knowledge of what I do. So for sure I’ve learned from all of these people.
DC: Was this around the time you were starting your own FX company?
VG: I had my own FX company before I ever worked for anybody. Basically, I was on the East Coast and I’d read about FX people and I said, “Well, to do this, you have to open up your own shop.” So, I put in my own money and opened up my own studio. Occasionally I’d “co-star” for people. I co-starred for Greg Cannom supervising his FX for THINNER. Then, when I wanted to check out California just to see what it was like in the mid to late-80s was when I got tapped – just before I took over for MOHICANS – I worked for Kevin Yagher on CHILD’S PLAY 3 and BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY as one of his crew. I also found out then that I wasn’t much of a cog-in-the-wheel type guy. I was more of a guy who wanted to be in charge. I learned greatly from them and that’s when I came back.
DC: Walk me a little bit through your creative process. Obviously you start from what’s written in the script, but how do you go from the idea stage to the finished product?
VG: A lot of times what I do is I’ll take the idea and I’ll add to it if the director is cool enough and confident enough to let me do what I need to do as far as taking the idea and adding to it or saying, “Listen, this would be cool if we could do this.” So I kind of subtract ideas that aren’t so hot and I’ll try to develop them to give them more than what they’re asking for. I basically start with a creative conversation where we’ll go back and forth about ideas and designs on the look of things, what can we do that hasn’t been done before, given the money and time that I’m allotted. From there, we’ll take those ideas and get the director’s approval. The design is the whole thing. You’ve gotta have a strong design. From there, when we have concepts in the computer or traditional sketches and fully rendered color paintings, we make sculptures from the designs and construct our rubber or silicone creatures, whether they be prosthetic or animatronic.
DC: What design programs do you use? ZBrush?
VG: I have a lot of really talented artists who do stuff in that field. I’m a traditionalist, but I always try to keep a fresh, new perspective, so I’ll take my ideas a lot of times and translate them to the artists who will use ZBrush, black and white sketches, acrylic paintings… all mediums. I don’t have any rules… whatever gets us there and gets the idea clearly across to the director, producers, and the studio I’m working for.
DC: And all of that is predicated on their approval…
VG: The director is like God. He’s created his world, he’s created his characters, and I’m a visual agent trying to get those ideas and concepts that he wants across; and if I can help make them better and he gives me that freedom, then that makes for a better relationship.
DC: Is it ever frustrating when you’re bringing designs in that you think are good and these people say, “No… that ain’t it. That ain’t it.”?
VG: I’ve had a high success rate as far as that. I don’t get much of, “Oh… we don’t like this.” There have been some jobs where I’ll have an idea and they’ll come in with some ideas that I really don’t think are… well, being polite… are all that great. When that happens, you have to walk a political tightrope and try to be professional. You have to appreciate the director’s idea as best you can and try and translate whatever weak idea you may think they may have and try to make it a strong one. Even though it might not be your favorite, you kind of try and pick and choose the strong point of the idea and see what you can do to make it better and always try to be as positive as possible no matter what the situation is whether you like it or not.
DC: While you’re creating these images, are you conscious of the difference between whether you’re shooting on film or shooting on, say, high-def video? I mean, FX tend to look different depending on which format is used, correct?
VG: Yeah, it does. I try to figure on what it is that we’re going to do, how quickly it’s going to be on camera, how it’s going to be lit… I am a purist in the way that nothing looks better than film, and I know that’s changing. I worked on the RED so much now on so many films that I’m not against digital. I used to be a little more hard-nosed about it, but not anymore because the technology is getting better with all of the software which makes this stuff look more and more cinematic even with digital. The thing is you don’t have the filters that they used to, things don’t look as pretty as they do on film, but they’re starting to get better. I think they’ve got that down now. It’s getting pretty damned good.
To answer your question, I always ask that because I like to know the medium of what the FX are going to look like and I try to know where I’m at. If the thing is seen for more than a few seconds, then I know digital is going to have this specific look so we have to add a lot more detail in a sculpture because the high definition picks up a lot more as far as detail, depth of field, etc. It affects things, but everything I work on, I try to make as real and detail-oriented as I possibly can no matter what format we’re shooting in.
DC: And colors can be different as well, right?
VG: Very much so.
DC: As I’m looking over your filmography, you’ve worked on a wide variety of films with an even wider variety of budgets. Do you approach those two things differently as well?
VG: Of course, yeah. If I say yes and the money is really low or if the money is what I would call “the norm” and is commercially acceptable as a fee, it doesn’t matter. I make sure that the work looks as great as possible. I get frustrated when we do a really good job, when we get some great stuff, and the director uses a particular shot of a puppet I didn’t like and he makes it look kind of “puppety” or he puts it in a lighting situation that I’m not really happy with and later on I look at the movie and I think, “Y’know… it’s a real shame.” But you don’t get that type of freedom a lot of times. Sometimes you do, but other times you don’t.
Real FX artists… I feel like you’re hiring us because of what our work looks like and our knowledge, so why don’t you have us in on that process as well? They should say, “Look, I’ve got a rough cut of the creature FX, would you like to look at this stuff so it not only best represents me as a director, but also best represents what you’ve done for us on a low budget or in a quick amount of time or on a quick turnaround.” Then, we could suggest, “Hey, this doesn’t look so hot. We have some other cuts or some other lighting situations that make the work look even better.” Those are the times when you work really, really hard and you try to give them ALIEN or THE THING on a catering budget and then they wind up making the mistake sometimes because they’re doing their movie and can’t necessarily have you come in all the time and look at stuff. It frustrates me when it’s a lower budget and the director makes decisions that makes my work look less than spectacular and I know it’s cool. I know the stuff looks great and I know that, for the money and time, if we used a certain cut or a certain way of lighting it, that it could be much better even than what it was.
DC: Years ago Robert Kurtzman said during an interview that he was frustrated with the creation and shooting of FX that looked really good on set, but somehow they never made it into the finished film because of ratings or whatever. Do you worry yourself much with the MPAA?
VG: Not really. It’s kind of funny because – maybe more than it was in the ’80s – there was a time when you weren’t seeing as much gore stuff, but now, that’s kind of passed. With the making of films like HOSTEL… HOSTEL’s kind of taken over where FRIDAY THE 13Th left off. When FRIDAY THE 13Th came out back in the ’80s, when you saw someone getting an axe in the head, that was when that whole craze started and you saw all these gore movies. I think HOSTEL has taken over for that type of film to come back. Now, when people see heads getting chopped off and getting ripped apart, it’s kind of the norm. Sometimes when it’s not in a movie that’s exploitative or low budget horror or something of a serial killer type of film, it’s not in there, a lot of people will say, “Oh, man… that movie wasn’t so good. We didn’t see anybody get ripped apart.”
The ratings board – unless it’s for a big studio film – I don’t see ratings affecting anything. I think people just want to see more stuff, and I think we’re not having a problem showing that. When I’m not doing creature movies, I’m not a gore-hound, but – because I have to live and eat and pay my bills – we do gore movies and it’s always a joy when I’m doing gore movies not just for the gore’s sake, but the director’s doing it because it either helps the story along or it’s not just for exploitative reasons, but it’s for some visual impact or some story impact. When you sit there and do it just to do it because you want to get a shock out of the audience because the script sucks or you know that the movie isn’t so good, that’s when it’s a bit disappointing. It really used to get to me, but I look at it like it’s great to be lucky enough to be working and doing what you love and being paid for it. So I try to make it the best I can. If you’re going to do gore, you try to make it the best gore possible. You try to make it realistic. I’m not doing it because I’m getting off on it some way psychologically. I’m not going, “Oh, my god… I can’t wait to see the guy bleed!” It’s not about that. I’ve done creative gore on a big budget level with films like LAST OF THE MOHICANS and Clint Eastwood’s movies like FLAGS OF OUR FATHER and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA and doing it for a lower budget, I’m always going to bring quality for the time, budget, and money that I have.
DC: But then again… you’re not signing onto “extreme gore films” either.
VG: Oh, no… no. I think that when you get to that level… I’ve seen stuff on websites that looks like someone took a video camera and went into mom’s backyard and started filming and these are trying to come off like legitimate movies. I think there is kind of a line. When something looks like a twelve-year-old shot it and they try to come off like, “We’re serious directors,” that’s where I think, “Oh, my god… what’s goin’ on here?” There are websites pushing this stuff and putting trailers out. But “underground underground…” we haven’t done films with budgets like five or six thousand dollars so I don’t know. “Extreme underground…” I’ve done gory movies. I think with the goriest thing I ever did, I tried to make it at least some stuff that you’ve never seen before, and whether people loved the movie, liked the movie, disliked the movie… that’s where the director has to come in and do his job. But, no… I don’t do those types of films.
DC: But you are doing a lot of work with After Dark Films. How did that come about, and was there something specific about working with them that enticed you or has it been just luck of the draw?
VG: Actually, it was kind of luck of the draw. The more recent stuff is because of a guy I really love collaborating with because a) the guy really knows how to direct and b) knows how to shoot FX because he’s a fan of FX and is always trying to light them correctly and make me look good. I hope to continue that relationship with Steven C. Miller, who is not only a fan but knows FX. A lot of time when I’m onset, I’m like, “Aw, man… I really hope we’re going to shoot this like this because this is going to be the best angle.” Steven would always say, “Listen, it’s going to look great. I’m going to make you look great. I know exactly how to shoot this.” And he’s always right. That’s why I have such a great respect for him. He knows how to shoot my stuff and so he makes me look good. He can also take something that is good and make it look great.
As far as After Dark goes, before I met Steven, I did After Dark movies indirectly either with a film I was working with like… a friend of mine Tim Sullivan produced a movie called SNOOP DOGG’S HOOD OF HORROR and then I did another film called UNEARTHED, and those films at the time weren’t directed specifically to be for After Dark or Eight Films To Die For. They eventually just wound up there. So that’s how I got involved with that. That was just luck of the draw. Then Steven C. Miller was doing a film called SCREAM OF THE BANSHEE and that’s when… I guess he was having some problems with the FX that were being done on the film and he couldn’t hire me because there were certain restrictions – either budgetary or location-wise – that they had to hire locals down in New Orleans. So when he got into trouble, he said, “Listen… I talked it over with the producers, and we can have you do some of the FX like the key effect of a head I need done and also this shield that turns into a box. This stuff I can get you to do, and if you can do me a favor and give me a friend price, I can get you down here and we can get these done.” So, we did that and we started building this stuff for that sequence. When we were in the middle of building that, the key FX they needed for Lance Henrikson and Lauren Holly wasn’t working out, so I got an emergency call saying, “Vince, I talked it over with After Dark, and they’re willing to hire you to do all of the FX and take over the whole show. If you can get me out of this problem and save my butt because we have Lance Henrikson coming in here and we may not even have a monster to shoot with.” So I went down there basically by myself and got to know some of the After Dark people and they basically said, “Can you get us out of this situation and solve this problem?” I think within two or three days I took the existing FX team and the locals that were down there and took their FX and had them redone. We got it there just in the nick of time. I had no sleep for three days straight. We did this big marathon and got everything to set on time. And that’s how I got baptized again with After Dark and got to know the actual producers and the people who were integral to that company.
DC: Obviously the budget for something like Scream of the Banshee is not as large as it was on like an Eastwood movie. Are you doing a lot of that, “This is what I need to do to get the job done even though it’s not as lucrative as it could be.”
VG: Oh, definitely, because a lot of time, people have a certain budget in mind and they try to sometimes – not so much with BANSHEE but there were certain budgetary constraints, but something like 51 which I did for them (which I didn’t know at the time was going to go to the Syfy channel) – have a certain number in mind. They’ll say, “You’ve got three weeks and you’ve got this much money and that’s the job.” [laughs] And you just kind of sit there and go, “Whoa… time to dig in! This is going to be one hell of a ride here.” [laughs] A lot of times that can be really fun because even when you don’t have what you would call the proper amount of money to do certain things, it’s kind of a challenge creatively to sit there and go, “What can I do to make this as cool as possible on what they’re giving me?” I think it keeps you sharp so that when you do movies with money, you’re on your game. You’re the best you can be because you’ve done the craziest stuff time and time again and you’ve come out a winner on it.
DC: I’m looking at a loose list of some of the things you’re working on. I wanted to run some titles by you and get your impressions on them. What can you tell me about Sushi Girl?
VG: I’m working on that currently and it’s a film with Tony Todd, who I believe is Executive Producer. It has Mark Hamill, Danny Trejo, and Sonny Chiba in it. So far I love those producers, and the director is really awesome. Actually, my first day on set with them is next week sometime. We’re currently building the FX for that.
DC: You mentioned 51, which is a part of the After Dark Horrorfest.
VG: I did all the creature FX and all of the Special Makeup FX for that. We ended up opening a company down in Louisiana and did all the FX for that. While we were doing 51 – and all of this was thanks, by the way, to Steven C Miller, who was the one who recommended us and connected us down there – we were recommended to do the FX for a movie called RE-KILL, which is a zombie movie. It’s like BLACK HAWK DOWN meets DAWN OF THE DEAD, and it’s really cool. Right after we got done with 51, we didn’t even get a chance to rest; not even two days later we were on RE-KILL. Then we went and did some additional FX for Greg Cannom’s company for SECONDS APART. They were under-manned, and After Dark came to me and asked if we could help them out for a day and apply a makeup that’s already been established. Then the director said, “We have this death at the end of the movie. Do you have something we can use to stab a woman’s face or whatever and do a blood effect?” So we did something little for them.
DC: What about Brutal?
VG: I’m excited about that one! That’s with Peter Green and some of the guys from THE SOPRANOS. I had a real blast on that because I went to Little Italy in New York City and got to go back to my old stomping grounds. That film is going to be like A BRONX TALE – real hardcore. It’s about acting and character development. I’m really excited about how that film is going to turn out because I’m hearing about dailies from the director and how excited he is about the performances. He thinks it’s Peter Green’s best movie since PULP FICTION except here he has more of a character than he did in PULP FICTION.
DC: And is there anything you can say about the creature design work you did on Battlestar Galactica?
VG: I was involved with Bryan Singer (X-MEN, USUAL SUSPECTS) and Tom DeSanto (X-MEN, TRANFORMERS) a while back on GALACTICA. At the time, we were trying to get the FX done for that show, just getting some concepts and other ideas going, and Bryan Singer ended up doing X-MEN 2 and the whole thing kind of closed down, but then went to Canada and became what the show is now. As far as what’s going on with the new one, right now Bryan Singer is concentrating on a movie called JACK THE GIANT KILLER, and I really don’t know when or if I’ll be involved in the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA or when it will come about. I heard he might concentrate on that after the JACK THE GIANT KILLER movie, but I really don’t know. I did do a lot of concept stuff and designs. One that’s been circulating around the Internet for a while is of The Cylon which everybody seems to like. The fans are always talking about that Cylon, but that has not seen the light of day. It would be great to make that happen.
DC: You also did some creature concepts for Preacher?
VG: That’s correct, yeah. This was when I was involved with Kevin Smith and then it went from there to Rachel Talalay and we did a makeup test. It was another one of those things where I did two images for a movie that didn’t get made and they circulated around the Internet and all the fans always talk about them. One was for GALACTICA and the other was Arseface for PREACHER. Every time you see an article on PREACHER, they put my makeup up. Now that the new one is happening, I am in touch with one of the producers, but it’s still a long way off. I want to see what comes of that and if the director chooses me.
A lot of times what happens is – and it’s happened to me on DOOM (which I was in development on for a while) and the prequel/remake of THE THING – that you’ll do a lot of the work on this stuff or you’ll get called in as one of the first guys and you’ll do a lot of work for it and the director will have their own choices and loyalties to certain FX houses. So a lot of times what happens is that when the movie finally does start to get moving again or it changes hands to new people, they’ll hire the people they want to hire, so even though you’ve built the road, you weren’t there to see where the road went. That can be like, “Oh, man… This sucks,” It’s like you paved the way and someone comes in later on and gets to do the whole movie. It still remains to be seen if I’m going to be attached to some of these projects. When the studio heads get in and the directors finally get hired, that’s when it becomes, “Are we going to stick with what Vincent has done, or are we going to go with somebody else?”
DC: So much of FX work has elements of directing in it. Are you interesting in ever directing your own film?
VG: Right now I’m co-producing a movie that stars Malcolm McDowell and Billy Zane called DEATH METHOD. I’m also doing the FX for it and the script is really good. Since I have Malcolm McDowell and Billy Zane attached to it, too… I’m really excited about it. As far as directing… It’s definitely something I’m going to do, but I don’t want to talk too much about it until I make an announcement. I have ideas and a script that I’m starting to get going, but anybody can talk about directing. It’s another thing to actually be doing it and having something out there that you’re really proud of. I want to make sure I’m not going to do some sort of low budget, direct to video, crappy-looking movie. If I’m going to do something low budget and it does go to DVD, I want it to be excellent. Hopefully, one day I’ll get to show everybody that desire.
Our thanks to Vincent for taking the time to speak with us. Check out the After Dark Originals website for more!
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