Known for his comedic turns in such features as Romancing the Stone and Throw Momma from the Train (among others) and on television for his roles in “Taxi” and the currently airing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, it may come as a surprise to some that actor, comedian and Oscar-nominated producer Danny DeVito relishes in cinematic gore with the same vigor as he does laughter.
Speaking with the diminutive-in-size yet statuesque-in-personality DeVito early this March, the sixty-six-year-old actor chatted with Dread regarding his just wrapped Skin Deep, a Splatter Cut short film (as he refers to them) which will serve as the fifteenth entry in his ever-growing library of personally produced and directed horror shorts (which are streamed digitally via his The Blood Factory website.
“I work with John Albo, who has been a friend of mine for many years,” said DeVito of the core creative team behind The Blood Factory. “I met him actually when I met Rhea (Perlman, DeVito’s wife) in 1970 in New York. John likes all kinds of movies, but his main desire is to watch and to write and to talk about horror movies – anything from Nosferatu to the present day, and anything in between. Many years ago we were talking about ways to have fun, and it came up that we should make some short films.”
Having hatched this plan, DeVito and Albo were soon joined by cinematographer Anastas Michos (who previously worked with DeVito on Death to Smoochy) on their bloody cinematic journey, and following their collaboration with various effects artists on their previous Splatter Cuts shorts, “We brought Frank (Ippolito of Syfy’s “Face Off”) into the fold,” conveyed DeVito, “and have recognized his expertise.” Nick Bonamy rounds out the team as production designer.
At the time hot on the heels of wrapping Skin Deep (which he filmed at the Lampoon Mansion in West Hollywood, CA – see our report from that set here) and in the process of editing his previous effort Nest of Vipers, the New Jersey-born artist said of the inspiration for the short’s lurid narratives, “They mainly come from John and his story sensibilities, and then we collaborate on everything else and riff off one another. It’s kind of a cool collaborative thing, and we do the same thing visually and the same thing with Frank and the effects.”
“Most of the movies that we make are movies of comeuppance or revenge or obsession,” continued DeVito of the bonding themes of The Blood Factory shorts. “We have one called ‘Tattoo’ where a young, pious girl becomes obsessed with a tattoo, and her obsession with it forces her into certain types of behavior. We also have the husband and wife ones, where one or the other is aggravating the hell out of the other spouse, and we have others that are cautionary tales. ‘Skin Deep’ was one of the cautionary tales we spoke about doing for a long time, and it’s about a contract with the devil.”
Of that production which filmed over the course of three days, “Erica (Taylor) and Tim Durham’s place was just perfect for ‘Skin Deep’,” said DeVito of the Lampoon location, “and Erica is a really talented young woman, and she fit the bill (of our lead). Dave Margulies (Ghostbusters), who has been my buddy for many years and used to direct me on the stage, portrayed the devil, and he’s a solid, solid actor. Anyone that has worked with him can attest to how connected he is with the characters that he plays, but he also has a great whimsy to him. He’ll boldly go where others may not want to tread, and it’s a lot of fun that way.”
With the narrative of Skin Deep focusing on Taylor’s character, who sixty-six years after striking a deal with Ol’ Scratch finds him returning to claim her gambled beauty in the most ironic of ways, we commented on the obvious thematic similarities between DeVito’s Splatter Cuts and the iconic EC Comics’ title Tales from the Crypt, among others.
“From the time I was a little boy I was a fan of comics,” said DeVito, “starting out with Baby Huey and the funny ones, and with my generation – I’m a little bit older than you are – my big thing was the Superman and Batman comics, and I was into Green Lantern and into all of the superheroes, too. I think the two things that got me through my early days in New Jersey were comic books and movies. My mom and dad were really pretty good about taking me to this great newsstand on Main Street in Asbury Park where they would buy cigarettes, because that was their thing, and they had a rack of comics that were just to die for, and I think that they were ten cents each, and I would wind up with a half dozen really cool comics every time. I didn’t get into the horrific stuff at all, though. I was aware of the EC comics. Those (comic) covers were great, over-the-top, colorful, drippy and scary, but my main thrust was the superhero comics.”
The conversation transitioned accordingly to his portrayal of the Penguin in Tim Burton’s 1991 feature film Batman Returns, a role which given DeVito’s childhood obsession with DC’s Batman proved rather surreal, as well as to the prosthetic transformation required of him in order to physically breathe life into the wings of the caped crusader’s squat nemesis.
“I was really pleased to get that part,” DeVito reflected. “It was a gift to work with Tim (Burton), who is totally into his art. (The conceptual drawings which) he did for the Penguin were almost to a ‘T’ what the costume became. We collaborated and made some little alterations, but his operatic style was right up my alley. I love that stuff. I had a great time doing that.”
As for the makeup process, “I actually worked on that film with Ve Neill, who is one of Frank Ippolito’s mentors (writer’s note: she appeared with Frank on “Face Off” as one of that show’s makeup judges), and she is a master of design makeup, and we spent a lot of time together on that movie,” said DeVito.
“In fact, I spent sixty-six days in makeup on Batman Returns!” he continued. “I would have to get to set three or four hours before everyone else, and it would still be dark, and I’d go to the trailer and Ve would be set up and ready to go, and I would have my cup of tea, and she’d be standing there with this brush and a beaker in her hands. The signal would be that the moment I put down my tea, she would start. There’s something about the makeup. She had to put this glue on my face and it had to be cold for it to set, and I would be burying my head in the tea and take my last sip and then set it down, and then I was hers for almost three hours. She would take that first cold brush over my nose and nostrils and lip, but as soon as she put that prosthetic on and pressed it and powdered it, then that was the turning point. The rest of the process was a piece of cake. I’d lay there and watch films while she worked.”
Conversation turned to DeVito’s embracing of the Internet and its inherent ability to allow him to digitally distribute his Splatter Cuts, and also to his one of his other Generation Z interests, San Diego’s annual Comic-Con.
“Releasing The Blood Factory series as a DVD or Blu-ray compilation has been pitched, and we do talk about it, but we don’t have any immediate plans to do that,” said DeVito. “I am looking forward to Comic-Con though. The Blood Factory has gone a couple of years in a row now, and we look forward to going down there and partying and having a good time at our booth. Nick (Bonamy) is always drawing new Blood Factory comic books that are really cool, and he’s a really wonderful artist, so we’ll have those there. Frank is going to work on some gags for us, too, and we also always shoot a promo there. Two years ago I did one where my head explodes, and then last year’s we did with the same reporter, who is one of The Blood Factory’s resident actors, where she is doing an interview where we are having lunch.” (The twist being that DeVito was the lunch, and you can check out both promos below).
“So, we are focusing now a bit on Comic-Con, and I’m going to be editing ‘Nest of Vipers’ and then I’ll tackle editing ‘Skin Deep,’ which looks beautiful,” DeVito offered of his Blood Factory plans. “We have a couple of other shorts we’d like to do, but that of course is predicated on everyone’s availability, where if I’m in a spot where I have time to shoot and put together a weekend or a day or two, and so do the actors and crew, then we do it. I also start the seventh season of ‘It’s Always Sunny’, thank goodness, in April, and I’ve been having a lot of fun over there.”
Having worked for so many years within the studio system, we queried DeVito on the satisfaction he receives in personally funding and overseeing The Blood Factory’s shorts and his approach to independent filmmaking.
“Collaboration is one thing, but creative control is another,” he reflected. “Collaboration is with the artists that make the shorts – the costumers and set designers and DP and effects and actors, which for me is exciting and a lot of fun. I guess in this sense I would be the one considered ‘the studio,’ and I’ve always wanted the main focus to be on the execution, and to make that experience as much fun as possible, so that everyone comes back and wants to do it again. At some point we’ll have enough that maybe we’ll do a screening and invite folks to come and see them in a theatre. I mean, the ‘Splatter Cuts’ look great on the web, which is what they are made for, but they look great on the big screen, too. With technology they get nicer and nicer looking!”
Visit DeVito’s The Blood Factory online.
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