Monday, January 31, 2011

Memoir Chapter 1

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET THREE: DREAM WARRIORS"My first storyboard job on a monster movie was VAMP, starring Grace Jones as the queen of a group of female vampires who run a strip club! It was great fun, involving makeup effects and lots of vampire slayings (not to mention some strip club...ah, research). More on VAMP elsewhere, but Lisa Hollingshead, the perky young Production Coordinator on VAMP (God bless her!) liked the work I did on that film and recommended me to New Line where she was now the Production Manager on My Demon Lover, an early example of someone moving from one company to another and passing my name along- a fortuitous break in many cases, and certainly in this one. Funny how one thing leads to another...
New Line Cinema was a small hands-on kind of company back then, back when low budget movies could still be made and when things seemed much simpler in general. The executives, even Bob Shaye, head of the company, who had a reputation for being rather stern and intimidating, were around and fairly accessible, even friendly when not too busy. And there weren't a ton of storyboard artists around, in fact the term was not even familiar outside the film and animation industry so it was a great time to learn to be one.

I was interviewed by Gerald Olson and promptly hired. Olson was New Line Exec who also played rock music and had an array of beautiful electric guitars and a home studio although you would never know it from his natty dress and cool professional demeanor. He surprised the hell out of everyone a year later rocking out at the wrap party for THE HIDDEN with a band recruited from the ranks of the film's production, called Hidden Talent! But My Demon Lover would have to wait: Olson called the next day and suddenly switched me from My Demon Lover to Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (think that's a long enough title???) I was then interviewed for that job by director Chuck Russell and we set to work. Chuck was an aggressive and agreeable (if he liked you) young talent who loved to act out the scenes and would often strike a pose for me to sketch when he wanted to convey a specific moment or action. I had seen Wes Craven's original Nightmare on Elm Street and thought it had some great visuals- my favorite being the one where Freddy's arms elongated as he came toward you in silhouette- a truly nightmarish image (which I later found out was difficult to do and almost didn't make it into the movie! I didn't see the sequel but was told it was quite bad and did not do well at the box office so the third one was going to be make-or-break for the franchise. The first step once the script was ready was for me and Chuck to sit down together and figure out what was needed in visual terms, the camera angles, the staging and so forth.

The great thing about storyboarding is that you usually focus on all the coolest parts of any given movie- the stunts and special effects. Chuck Russell was very particular and specific about what he wanted, which was great for me. I like it when I either have total freedom (rare) or when the director knows exactly what he wants (also rare!) and I can put it down on paper for him- the essence of the job to me- getting the director's vision down where everybody who needs to can see it.This is crucial for budgeting, effects, art direction, location finding and even set building at times. The process was quite simple: Chuck and I would meet and take the movie sequence by sequence, usually based on a list of priorities. He would describe the shots, one by one, and I would make quick rough sketches of each as he talked which he could immediately look at and either approve or revise on the spot- a process which would usually last an hour or two for sequence, or per meeting. Chuck has some drawing skill and could sometimes make his own sketches to show me what he meant when I wasn't getting it. (I love a director who can draw a little- but not too much or who needs me?) Then I would go home and tighten up the drawings for the rest of that day and the next. Then we would meet again on the following one so he could review them and make changes and/or move on to the next sequence.

While working with Chuck, we mostly met at his apartment which was, strangely enough, on ELM street in Beverly Hills. His writing partner, a very pleasant and dedicated young man named Frank Darabont, would sometimes be there, wrapping up a script meeting when I arrived. Frank and I bonded over monster models and sought the amazing Japanese garage kits of the day, from Billiken and Kaiyodo mostly. FINALLY someone was making models out of the monsters that we always wanted! But THAT is another story; for now what matters is we became friends and worked together many times in the years to come.

It turned out that we were all Ray Harryhausen fans and Chuck wanted some stop-motion moments in this film reminiscent of the classic SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD! Harryhausen was of course a legendary pioneer in the art of stop-motion, having mentored with the great Willis O'Brien whose work on KING KONG shaped Ray's career. The stop-motion process is the arduous and time-consuming process of moving articulated puppets one frame at a time, swhile shooting photographs of them each time. The images are then married with live action footage. sometimes rear-projected behind the puppets to create the illusion that the puppets are living creatures who exist on the same picture plane and in the same world as actual human beings- usually to the chagrin of those human beings since they tend to be monsters or dinosaurs! One such animated set piece that made it into this film was the Freddy Krueger skeleton fight, animated by Doug Beswick, an energetic young effects man and stop-motion animator who was one of Harryausen's many enthusiastic disciples. The difference between "our" skeleton and Ray's, in design terms, was that ours needed to be charred and dirty and covered here and there in "beef jerky" as Chuck put it as opposed to Sinbad's nice clean smooth swordsman. If you watch the scene you can almost see the Harryhausen spirit at work! There was also a little clay Freddy puppet that came to life via stop-motion. The stop-motion process is not much used anymore (except for fantasies which are ALL stop motion like Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline). Since the 1920's it was the closest we could get to see creatures come to life and move convincingly on screen and remained that way until computer generated effects appeared and wiped all that away. But when I started that was still a few years away and everything had to be done the old-fashioned way.You must remember that this was exciting as hell to me- I grew up reading monster magazines and watching monster movies with no real thought I would or could ever be involved in them- the whole movie world being so mysterious and far away as to be almost on another planet. And here I was storyboarding an honest to god monster movie with a stop motion skeleton battle and all kind of other makeup and mechanical effects- I was in monster heaven.

Kevin Yagher, the makeup genius who transformed Robert England into Freddy Krueger many times (done by Dave Miller in the original but refined and honed by Kevin thereafter) is one of the funniest men in movies. It's too bad he's behind the camera because his high spirits, loose frame and wacky off the cuff antics make you think of Jim Carrey- but he was that way long before Carrey was a star. I got to know and like Kevin (and also worked with him over the years including his directing stint of HELLRAISER BLOODLINE which featured Clive Barker's kinky cenobites in outer space!) and used to crack up watching him try to get Robert England to sit still and quite clowning while he glued the latex Freddy Flesh to Robert's face. England was another surprise, the fine actor who made an indelible mark as Elm Street's boogeyman is also a live wire, constantly joking and entertaining one and all, brandishing his Freddy glove claws freely over the storyboards as he reviewed them just for fun one afternoon. Krueger had imagination and a fiendish sense of humor, something that set him apart from Friday the Thirteenth's Jason and most of the other slasher monsters and I believe a lot of that came from Robert and his quick wit and mischievous nature. One rather surreal scene I storyboarded with Chuck involved Freddy sticking his head up through the top of a tv set (with the "rabbit ears" antennae sticking out of his temples) and Robert was a madman, making jokes and having a ball while Kevin worked. It was great fun and I could see there was good chemistry between them. Kevin made a huge Freddy Snake to swallow a pretty young Patricia Arquette and of course the monstrous prop was painted in Freddy flesh-tones, i.e. red and pink, to match Freddy's own appearance. At the last second, somebody opined that the thing looked incredibly phallic, especially in those colors- and there was no time to re-paint so the creature was covered with green slime to kill the ruddy tone and went to the set to be shot that way with not a moment to lose.


MAD Magazine's Sergio Aragones was doing a satiric take of the Nightmare series and asked me if I could get him next to some Freddy props to shoot a photo for his spread. Kevin graciously allowed us to come to the shot and Sergio posed with his elbow in Freddy's jaws and a giant prop drawing pen in his hand. The spread appears with some great cartoons in MAD #274. Nightmare had "arrived" after the third film, Dream Warriors, and the MAD spread was the official proof of that fact!

The movie is about a group of teens who are being stalked by Freddy and band together to use the abilities they find in their own nocturnal fantasies as a sort of super-powered dream team in order to fight him, led by Heather Langenkamp, the heroine of the original film. One of them was into "Wizard Master" cards and role-playing games and his dream power enabled him to do magic- so we had him yell "SHAPE CHANGE" when confronted by Freddy and transform into a stop-motion armored CYCLOPS only to be crisped by the fiery breath of the Freddy Dragon. But one day, after boarding the scene, Chuck told me the kid would be better off yelling "SCRIPT CHANGE!" because the whole sequence was being altered, all of Harryhausenesque fun being too expensive and the sequence became a shadow of what we hoped it would be. We tried, though.

One approach Chuck had which I always thought was interesting and valid was that he used the storyboarding process to get the effects scene down in the very best way he could imagine them- before consulting with the makeup guys and effects houses. He didn't want them to default to things they might have already done and use tricks they already knew and possibly undercut the quest to find the very best way to do something, in terms of cinematic wallop. He wanted to work out the shots with me and then take the drawings to the guys and say "this is what I want, figure out how to do it". And if you look at the boards we did and the movies you will see that he got what he wanted.

The only negative thing about working on movies and seeing the sets, designing the shots and so forth is that you can never really enjoy the movie the way a real audience can. When I watch something I storyboard it's always like "well, there's that and this comes next, yep, just like we figured it would look and just like we wanted it to". Some movies I would rather NOT work on in order to see them for the first time at the theatre.

Sunday, January 16, 2011