Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse – Exclusive Interview from the Set: Tony Gardner
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is the first zom-com renowned makeup effects designer Tony Gardner has worked on since 2009’s Zombieland. Five years later, Gardner’s appetite for destruction hasn’t lessened one bit – and he’s got even more to play with this time around. From setting an especially gory scene in a strip-club called “Lawrence of Alabia” (which is also the location of this interview), to a lonely road littered with the carcass of an undead deer, Gardner had his toil more than cut out for him.
Gardner’s body of work is impressive, to say the least. He’s been in demand steadily since the 1980s (his first show was with Rick Baker on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”), into the ‘90s (Army of Darkness), up to right this minute with the Marlon Wayans parody Fifty Shades of Black.
We caught up with Gardner in a Los Angeles parking lot in the middle of night, while he was in the middle of preparing for the shooting of a zombie attack scene with tons of oozing extras.
Dread Central: Just how much of this is practical effects, and what do the zombies look like?
Tony Gardner: There was a decision early on to try to achieve as many of the effects practically as possible, with digital assistance only “as needed” per specific character designs, so most all of it is practical. As far as their appearance, the idea was to base the zombie design in some sort of believable medical reality, so that the comedy comes from the situations the characters are in as opposed to the appearance of the zombies. Trying to base their look on real medical concepts has been a challenge, especially given that the transformations all occur within one night, but in the end our starting point for each zombie was the concept of blood poisoning. Something I saw as a kid that scarred me for life was a graphic illustration of a person getting bit by a venomous snake, which showed the speed of the poison spreading out through the person’s veins as a darker color than their blood, illustrating that fast action was required to stop the spread of the venom, or the person that was bit would die. The design aesthetic with the zombies is the same: The zombie infection is spreading rapidly through the person’s body, and there’s a sense of discoloration taking place throughout their veins as they’re infected.
With that concept as our foundation, the question then was: How can we make each one of these zombie characters interesting in their own right? The description of the shopkeeper’s death is described in the script as essentially “the shopkeeper is attacked and one of his arms is chewed down to the bone.” I liked the image it implied, so I asked the director if we could literally go down to the bone on a good length of that arm. I wanted to make that one arm completely shredded, but still functional, knowing that we would require hiring an amputee or need a digital assist in order to make it happen. My idea was to mount a false arm that was “chewed to the bone” on a shoulder harness the actor would wear, so that the skeletal arm sits in front of the actor’s real arm, and then put the actor’s real arm in a green screen sleeve and have the actor puppeteer his own torn up arm from behind. Fortunately we had time to do a few designs that illustrated the concept of a puppeteered false arm and were able to show Chris something visual so that the idea made sense. I thought it would be more interesting if the torn up arm did more than just hang at his side and was more engaged. In a lot of these zombie films you might have the prosthetic make-up zombie characters and then perhaps some zombies that are more skeletal and achieved as puppets, like The Return of the Living Dead. The goal here was to marry those two worlds and then use computer graphics to enhance the effect and make it more interesting. The core idea was that these zombie attacks were more like animal attacks, with the resulting carnage being a lot more “violent” and a lot more torn apart. Being able to enhance the makeup effects digitally made it possible for the bites to be deeper and more graphic in nature, as opposed to the more superficial and “on the surface” look than an additive prosthetic makeup usually has.
DC: And we heard there is a crazy cat attack?
TG: Yes, there’s a house full of zombified cats that attack our main characters. The scene is a bit humorous from the start and harkens back to old 80’s horror films, so the idea for this particular scene was to present the animatronic cats in a style that we could have fun with. The scares are legit, but I think with that one we were able to have a bit of fun with the cat design. The cats attack [their master, played by Cloris Leachman] first, and it’s not the speediest of attacks; with all of these little mouths biting her, she ends up bloodied all over. There are some deep scratches to her hands, her face, the tip of her nose, her ears, her legs. There are some deep wounds as well based on the stories you hear about somebody dying and their cat eating them to survive…
DC: Are the zombies in different states of the disease?
TG: Yes. Based on the time frame of when they’ve been bitten or attacked, the disease is at a different level of progress in different characters. And there were story points that factored into the appearance of some of the characters as well, like the director not wanting to “tip his hand” that Patient Zero or the Stripper are already dead when you first see them. The idea with this film was to try not to do a zombie look that you’ve already seen before – to make the look of these zombies unique to this specific film. I really wanted you to be able to go through a flip book of different zombie films and be able to say, “Okay, that’s a Zombieland zombie” and “This is a Scouts zombie,” and just know what film you were looking at a photo from based just on the look of the zombie.
Besides the zombie look, we were trying to come up with a unique look for specific zombie characters as well. There were characters that had been zombified by a major attack , and we wanted to take the opportunity to maul those characters up a bit more than the rest. Some of those ideas, like the Broken Back zombie, were a bit extreme; and we also had the added challenge of trying to cast actors or performers able to do the required physical action for that character, who would also be cool with wearing contact lenses that were fogged and veined to the point where they were basically blind but still willing to run after other people.
DC: Chris [Landon; director] said he actually wanted to experience that.
TG: Yeah, Chris was clear on wanting to know what it would be like to be in one of these makeups from the actor’s perspective. I think he experienced things up to the point of going through a full-blown makeup test. Having him know and experience the limitations that the actors were working with really helped in regards to how he worked with the actors on set. Once your vision is that impaired, it puts you in your own little world, and then several of the main characters had a lot of other physical challenges to work with. The actor playing the shopkeeper, John Kreng, besides his torn apart arm, also has a really torn up face and is missing one of his eyes. We masked that torn up eye socket area, with the idea being that we’d digitally deepen that socket area in post. So now we have an actor blind in one eye, and then he’s got a fogged contact lens in the other, one of his arm’s behind his back, and he’s puppeteering a fake version of that arm while he’s walking towards you and also taking a squib hit and falling backward all at the same time. It’s a lot to ask someone to do, and we’ve been very fortunate that everybody has been so cool. The guy who’s going to work tonight is our Broken Back zombie, and the challenge with this character is: How far can you push the concept of a broken spine to make it look realistic, but still have it be able to visually register on camera, but not push it so far that it appears cartoony?
DC: Is that a performance by specific zombie character, or is it an extra?
TG: This actor has actually been in some of those competitive events where you’re racing on all fours; there are apparently hand-running events where there are cash prizes and trophies and the whole deal. This guy can run after you and fall to the ground while he’s running, and you think he’s fallen and he’s going to lie there, but instead he takes off on all fours after you and is able to pick up an amazing amount of speed, and it’s the freakiest thing in the world. We talked about having him running on grass (where he’d be his fastest), but I think it’s going to come down to where he’s running around on his hands through this graveled parking lot tonight. We’re trying to do something stylized with his design so that when he’s down on the ground on all fours, we can really read the broken spine from a distance while he’s moving. So his spinal column is literally jacked out of his back through broken skin, essentially broken in two halves but connected by muscle. We’re hoping for some cool sound effects with all the bones cracking and banging against each other and making a lot of noise when this guy runs on all fours. Regardless, he comes across as really scary when he runs right at you, pretty intimidating actually.
The makeup and the lenses have been a little intimidating for some of the actors, and it’s been interesting seeing how each of them deal with the challenges. Elle Evans, the actress who plays the character of Amber the Stripper, comes from the world of modeling, where looking attractive and your best is your livelihood. Then she comes here and it’s like, “Hi, nice to meet you; we’re going to make you look all veiny and gross and we’re going to put these fogged lenses in your eyes and bump up your veins, and then we want you to go over there and pole dance. Part way into your dance your neck’s going to get torn out, and you’re going to spray at least 5 gallons of blood on a guy, and then you’re going to fight him on the ground, he’s going to take a broken bottle and jam it into your forehead, and you’re going to leak probably another 3 or 4 gallons of blood out of your forehead onto him before you fall over on your side on the floor.” Her response? “Okay, that’ll be great!” And she was great. She was very much a last-minute casting decision and we were worried that she walked into this not knowing what was involved and it would be a nightmare, and instead she’s been the most fun of all of them.
DC: You’ve got a greater sense of design freedom, knowing that the movie is definitely going to get a hard R-rating?
TG: Yeah, I did because we wanted to make it bloodier but, again, trying to be realistically bloody. I was literally thinking about how much pressure is in the body and how far is it actually going to spray and going for it. Because it’s a hard R, somebody could get cut where an artery is and spray 20 feet away — and it’s legitimate, so we’re trying to push all that kind of stuff . The reality thing has been the real trick. I have a friend who is the head of an ER [and I got some advice from him].
DC: Chris talked about not just doing generic zombies, but that each one is a character.
TG: Yeah, and we’re trying to have some fun with a lot of the zombies being specific characters but not turning them into caricatures or making them cartoony. Keeping the overall look of them specific within the same design universe has definitely been the biggest challenge, really. When you’re hiring talented artists, everybody brings their own tricks of the trade with them in regards to how they are going to do a makeup, and sometimes that means they might lean towards their favorite color choices or the materials that they prefer, but those might not be the color palette for this movie or the technique that gives the specific look we’re after on this film. One way to maintain continuity on each character (whether we had to change makeup artists on a specific character or just recreate the same character for several days in a row), and just to make sure the zombies all looked the same in general, was to actually design their makeups as tattoo transfers.
That technique has really helped with characters like David Koechner’s Scoutmaster, too, because he’s in shorts and showing a lot of skin, and he’s on camera a lot. It’s funny… everybody seemed to end up with less clothing on than what we talked about originally. There’s the naked old man at the window, Patient Zero, Cloris Leachman, and the zombie with the broken back… they were like, “Wow, his back’s broken so let’s take his clothes off so we can see it!” The Koechner zombie goes up in flames and ends up charred. There is half burn makeup on him, but he’s a little less medically accurate in the perspective of how someone would burn; since he’s already dead, you’re getting more of a barbecued chicken look with the skin blistering up on half of his head and one side of his body. We didn’t know what to expect with David in regards to all of the makeup he would have to wear, and he’s been phenomenal. Now that he’s burnt on one side, the lens that goes into that eye is more extreme and more opaque so he’s got even less vision than usual, but the dude is so funny and so nice and he comes on set with so much energy. I feel like you could pile a ton of stuff on this guy and he would still make it work. He’s so impressive – it’s been great.
We have an animatronic deer that has been zombified that attacks Koechner and tears his throat out. It’s like, “How do you make a deer scary?” If you look at the facial anatomy of a deer and how its mouth opens and what teeth are visible, there’s not much to work with in regards to making it scary. It’s like Mr. Ed… never scary; no matter how much teeth he’s showin’, it always looks goofy. So we went with the idea that some of the deer’s teeth are broken so that we can get some sharp points on some of them and also went with the idea that the deer’s been a little beat up and bloodied by what he’s been through… anything to make it look scarier. The deer has whited-out eyes as well, but we are trying very consciously not to go down the Evil Dead deer trophy-on-the-wall route because even subconsciously getting that concept into somebody’s head, automatically there’s a “fun factor” to the deer. It’s still inherently funny regardless, but we’re trying to be creepy, and it’s got to be scary, too, because it’s an important scene. So, finding the balance for us has been interesting. I know that in the end we’ll have sound effects added, and it’ll be the editor who really pulls the scenes together, but on set it’s a bit humorous, so we’re trying to make sure we get everything on camera that he might need.
If you were here the first day we shot any of the effects stuff – it was the dead deer on the road – you’d see that there’s been a progression in the approach to the gore. The deer gets hit by a car, the kids get out of the car to check it out, and you see the entire animal laid out with its stomach split open and its intestines hanging out, and there’s some blood and liquid on the road. After dressing the blood and guts for the scene, I remember Chris and Samson saying maybe we should back it up a bit and have less blood and keep the guts more inside the body. Now that we’re a few weeks into it, the call on set is “More blood!” because they realize when they see the blood on screen that you really need more to register the horror.
You need to read the violence in the zombie attacks in general, and Marylou Lim, the costume designer, is really up for getting everyone’s wardrobe as torn up and bloody as the characters are. So often on a film like this where we will do makeup that’s really extreme, the costume design team is still very hesitant to tear the wardrobe up. But with Marylou it’s, “Yeah, let’s tear it up, let’s go for it. We need more blood!” We need to really be able to register the carnage from a distance at night, so Marylou’s attitude has been really refreshing… it really feels like we’re all part of the same team.
This film really is a team effort, from top to bottom: There’s the actor who has to wear the effects makeup and has to “sell it,” as well as another actor who needs to respond to it on camera and make it believable. It needs to be lit dramatically, and then the visual effects team might be on set as well to line things up for digital enhancement, so we all really work as a cohesive team in order to pull these effects off.
From a makeup effects perspective, altering the eyes and mouth of a character is always an effective change, and it’s an easy thing for people to register right away, as we seem to talk to people’s eyes and mouths when we communicate with them. Messing up those two areas of the face goes a long way right off the bat… then to gouge up their faces and add raised veins, discoloration, and blood and have the actor change their posture and movement makes for an effective zombie from a distance as well as up close.
Hopefully we’re bringing something new to the mix on this film, and this won’t be the same old, same old. It’s a “zombie movie” so it will exist within a specific type of reality, really… the challenge is trying to put something that’s a little fresh on the map.
Directed by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), the film stars Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse), Patrick Schwarzenegger, Logan Miller (The Stanford Prison Experiment), Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont (Don John), Halston Sage (Neighbors), one of our all time favorites – Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein), and David Koechner (Anchorman).
Look for it in theatres on October 30, 2015.
Three Scouts and lifelong friends join forces with one bad-ass cocktail waitress to become the world’s most unlikely team of heroes. When their peaceful town is ravaged by a zombie invasion, they’ll fight for the badge of a lifetime and put their scouting skills to the test to save mankind from the undead.