While attending the Bizarre AC II in Atlantic City, we had a chance to chat three-on-one with Killer Klowns from Outer Space creators, the Chiodo Brothers, and the subjects ranged from their most famous film to contemporary genre cinema and lots more.
Settle in because the three of them, Stephen, Edward and Charlie, covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. They have thick Bronx accents and talk very fast with great excitement and enthusiasm but without the hand gesticulation you would expect from a bunch of New Yorkers. Or perhaps the space in the booth was too tight to really see that kind of display in action.
Each brother built upon the other’s remarks, fast from topic to topic. Stephen added pointed conversation when necessary, but he, much like me, sat back while Edward and Charlie took center stage. Along with Killer Clowns from Outer Space of course, they also touched on the traps directors fall into when trying to capture FX on-screen and the Brothers’ other monster friends, the Crites (aka Critters).
It all started with monsters and the “Million Dollar Movie” on New York’s WOR-TV Channel 9, said Stephen. “King Kong, Godzilla, IT! The Terror From Beyond Space, and The Thing, and we were bitten by the monster bug.” So much so, Edward said, he thought what he was seeing was true to life. “We lived by the elevated train tracks and when I saw King Kong busting our trains in our neighborhood, I thought it was absolutely real. Then we asked our parents to take us to the Empire State Building, so we could see the crack he made in the cement when he hit the ground.”
This monster kid obsession lead the Brothers to start making mini-monster movies with their Super 8. Charlie told us, “We would buy little rubber characters and little rubber stretchy worms and bats, string ‘em with fishing line, and actually rehearse monster films with miniatures of the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty…”
Stephen then added, “Yeah, we would take our toys and start play-acting it and start moving them around, our action figures and dinosaurs and soldiers, and that playing eventually became stop-motion animation. When we got the camera, we shot frame by frame, y’know, manipulating those figures”
With no mentors or books to look at, the Brothers progressed on their own short The Beast From The Egg. Stephen relayed, “We just practiced on our own, we made our own little movies in our basement.” Then Charlie recalled they did have a kind of mentor in “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine. “They used to have their amateur film competitions, and we used to look at the photographs of that and be inspired, because you’d have the young filmmakers describing their techniques, of photographing things in forced perspective, and we copied them and started making our animated films in forced perspective, of having people small in the background, and our monsters large in the foreground.” Stephen added, “It’s funny, you talked about little rubber things we made when we were kids. We just moved from when we were little kids making little rubber things to where we’re adults. We’re STILL making little rubber things!”
But how did the infamous Killer Klowns from Outer Space come along? Charlie stated, “We were lucky. We did get our first feature film. We did a lot of shorts, we did a lot of small things. We did a demo for the Chiodo Brothers reel that was the segue to get us into filmmaking. That led to an [ABC-TV] After-School Special… we came up an idea for Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and we pitched it to one company, TransWorld Entertainment, through a friend of ours, and it was really kind of magical, just being at the right place at the right time with the right project. And they bought it, right out of the gate. One pitch, one meeting, and they said, ‘Let’s do this!’’”
And they were up for the challenge; after 4 years in Hollywood, the Brothers had the budget they wanted to make their very first creature feature. But making films is always a “collaborative dance,” Charlie told us. Edward added, “The reality is, we had a pretty decent budget for a late-‘80s genre movie: It was like 1.8 million dollars. But the mechanics of making a motion picture ate up most of that budget. The unique part, the genre part, what we brought to the table, was the least-budgeted amount of that movie.” But, the Brothers were able to call in favors, Edward continued. “The fact that we had been working as effects artists, we had built up quite a lot of goodwill in our industry, so we called in every favor from every company: Mark Sullivan for matte paintings. Fantasy II for visual effects. Joe Viscoso for pyrotechnics. It was goodwill that made that movie happen on, from an effects point of view, a very low-budget movie.”
But who were these masters that were brought in to help with Killer Klowns? Charlie laid it down. “Fantasy II won the Academy Award for the effects on Terminator 2. They worked with Jim Cameron. Joe Viscoso was the pyrotechnic guy on the first Star Wars movie, and Team America (ed: which the Brothers also did the puppetry on). Mark Sullivan’s an award-winning matte painter, worked at ILM. What we did is, our friends and co-workers were geniuses in the effects field and have proven themselves.” And now the big reveal. “[All our special effects friends are] waiting for us to do Killer Clowns 2. The only people that aren’t letting us do it is the studio —MGM and Sony— to have the rights to Killer Klowns 2.”
Killer Klowns from Outer Space 2? But that’s what the world needs. Why can’t we get these Klowns off the ground? Charlie replied, “Because studios are being run by businessmen. There’s absolutely no aesthetic vision in the industry any longer. They’re just looking at the bottom line, looking at numbers. They’re greenlighting films based on some kind of formula they created based on box office — domestic and international.”
And because films today rely so heavily on overseas sales, Killers Klowns has one problem—Stephen continued, “Back in 1987, international wasn’t important. The U.S. was 60–80 percent of the marketplace, so overseas didn’t matter… So now when you bring that to a distributor today, and they see “Overseas: ZERO”… well, there’s no track-record…” The studios also want stars and bankability. Charlie said if it’s not a well-known universal brand, or doesn’t have a billion dollar track record, the studios won’t take risks.
There is always the DYI route. And they have some ideas, Charlie told us, “We’ve got a project called Channel 8 from Outer Space, about a pirate TV station out somewhere in the universe, and they steal signals from all these other alien civilizations from around the galaxy, and they kind of mash it up for their own unique form of entertainment. It’s also a web series that we hope to get some crowdfunding for to start producing a Chiodo Brothers brand of sci-fi comedy again.” Charlie then defined their brand for us, “A character edge we always give to all of our creations. No matter how hideous it is, it’s always got some kind of a personality to it, that makes it kind of lovable and scary at the same time.”
As a combined creative team Charlie noted, “I do the art direction and 2D design and the conceptual stuff. Stephen’s a sculptor and director, and Edward’s the production coordinator and the electronic guy, involved in the editing and post-production, the digital stuff. So we all participate with our individual pieces, and we all overlap. In terms of the creative, we’re basically on the same page…”
Then there was Critters talk. Charlie relayed, “The same audience that loves the Killer Klowns loves the stuff that we did in Critters, and it’s perfect for a reboot.” For a bit of a genre history lesson, Charlie mentioned it was Kevin Yagher (Child’s Play) that recommended the Brothers for the job and that it was just loads of fun to make. “They were great because they’re just hand-puppets… And that enabled us to really make them come to life in a variety of situations. The Critter balls were a blast! All the technology we tried to throw into the Critter balls to make them move—At the end of the day they were just bowling balls! We just kind of rolled them around.”
It had been discussed, even by likes of Rick Baker, that EFX is not always shot as best as it could be. Directors often struggle with making time and accommodations necessary when working with practical monsters. Charlie had some tips, “It’s important for the director to have…some familiarity with special effects; lets him to block it out in a more reasonable fashion so it can be produced. You have a lot of guys who have a vision of what they want and it’s kind of contrary to how the effects are being manipulated, and it just causes a lot of schedule problems and cost overruns.”
And that’s when storyboards come in handy. To know what you are building, how much of it, and ultimately what “it” is going to do—to save time and mitigate risk on set when time is literally money. Charlie mentioned, “Storyboarding in an effects movie is very important to get everybody on-board. Like I said, it takes three or four people to bring a character to life. It’s just too intimidating for some directors.” Charlie, who directed Killer Klowns, told us working with puppets adds another layer of difficulty. “A lot of directors don’t understand that, they’re working with puppets, that the guy underneath the table is your actor… They say, “Okay, I want him to do this—!” Well, how do you want it? Do you want him to move fast? Do you want him to move slow? We had a guy in a suit who came out like the Kool-Aid Kid in the Critters movie, he just blasted through the door and went, ‘Hey hey hey! Hey! OH YEEEEAHHH!’ And we said, ‘You didn’t tell him how to, you didn’t tell him how to walk!’ The thing is, they’re unfamiliar with special effects, so these directors don’t direct the special effects performers…We spent a lot of time [as special effects artists]…making these things really sing, really be great, and then the performance—you get one take out of it, and the director says, ‘Okay, we got it.’ You say, ‘No no no no, we can do a lot more! And we don’t think you got it!’ ‘No no, I got it, believe me!’ And—They really don’t. They haven’t really pushed the performance like they might when they’re with live action.”
The Brothers also embrace computer-enhanced VFX, and Charlie felt it could have helped with both Killer Klowns and Critters. “The digital, what it does, is it enhances the practical. What we had to do, by hiding people underneath, and by sticking, drilling holes in the walls so the puppeteer could get limited movement from underneath. Now we can have rods against green, we can rod-manipulate the thing, give more life and realistic movement to the puppets quicker, and then digitally remove the puppeteers. So we can get the best of both worlds now.”
Now that storyboarding has gone the way of pre-visualizations (pre-viz), which are done by CGI artists, the Brothers feel it starts to add to the “first person shooter” video game quality of genre films today. Charlie had a great time watching Pacific Rim, only to ask his son what did he just watched. The images, specifically the monsters, had little screen time to really become affective due to the rapid cutting pace. Charlie stated, “Nowadays it’s a roller coaster ride. If I wanted a roller-coaster ride, I’d go to an amusement park. I go to the movies to see a story.”
To keep up with these changing times, the special effect artist needs know their audience, and there are some out here blending practical and VFX perfectly—Edward continued, “A director like Jon Favreau embraces both. Zathura is a perfect blend of practical effects and digital effects. He was able to get guys in costumes that use human legs but then he put green-screen suits on the top of them that hung out of the costumes. Then he would erase them digitally. Then he would supplement them with fully CG characters.”
When it comes to studio versus a film that is independently funded, it might make sense to stay away from the studios if a director wants authorship. Charlie stated, “I know Tim Burton said he likes his smaller pictures, like Ed Wood, because when he did Planet of the Apes and larger pictures, there were too many hands in there telling him, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that.’ You have the toy company: ‘You have to do this.’ You have the studio execs saying it, and the test screenings, and stuff like that, and you’re going, ‘You know what? I’ll never get to see my vision if I’m asking everyone else what I should do.’ I think what happens with larger budget pictures is that the director becomes a traffic cop, he just organizes the shoot. Then, when he’s finished shooting, they let him have his cut, they kick him off the film, and they do what they want with it, so it’s really a corporate filmmaking process.”
In the end, nothing is going to stop the Chiodos Brothers. Charlie said “We will be able to solicit the funds that we need to do our films our way. We’ve always made films, since we were little kids, and we want to continue doing that. That’s all it’s about: character and story. We’re gonna do that until someone tries to kill us.” Oh, and always films with monsters Edward chimed in. And much like John Ford directing with an oxygen mask on… ” That’s the thing about it though; if, as filmmakers, we’re ninety years old, somebody gives us a chance to make a movie, we’re gonna do it!”
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