Cinefantastique, Volume 22, Number 5, April 1992, p. 15-17
The designers, craftsmen and puppeteers of CWI brought Cronenberg´s vision to life.
By Lawrence French
To bring to life the surrealistic creatures imagined by David Cronenberg for his version of William S. Burroughs´ Naked Lunch, Cronenberg turned, once again, to Chris Walas, Inc., the San Rafael-based company responsible for creating the Oscar-winning makeup for Cronenberg´s THE FLY. James Isaac, the talented, yound associate of Walas on GREMLINS and THE FLY, assumed the role of creature supervisor. The film´s menagerie of bizarre creatures were designed by Stephen Dupuis and Walas.
"They talked with Cronenberg to get a general sense of what he wanted," said Isaac. "When we finished the designs, we went up to Toronto, and sat down with David in a hotel room. We put out all our drawings and models, one by one, and David would say, 'Yes, I love that,' or 'No, let´s change this.' Out of that meeting we pretty much nailed down our main creature designs."
With the design phase complete, Walas left the project to go off and direct his own movie for 20th Century-Fox, THE VAGRANT, to open in February, while Isaac supervised creature construction for NAKED LUNCH. "I would talk to David [Cronenberg] almost daily," said Isaac. "I´d sent him pictures of what was evolving, and David would give me his input. He was alway very clear about what he wanted."
The location of the keyboard on The Clark Nova, a fusion of a beetle and a typewriter, designed by Walas, was originally underneath the creature´s wings. Cronenberg switched the keyboard to the insect´s head, positioning its mouth on its lower abdomen. "Because it´s in the movie so much," said Isaac, "you get a real feeling of its character. It´s Weller´s typewriter, but it talks to him, giving him advice, telling him what to do. It becomes his buddy. We had to give it a consistency of movement. We had to make sure the puppeteers did the wings, the mandibles, the same way every time. It had to be imbued with its own little quirks. We wanted to get more into it than simple movement."
The same character-drive design approach was used for the main Mugwump, conceived by Dupuis. In three major scenes with Peter Weller, the creature was given extensive dialogue. "David and I discussed indepth the Mugwump´s pattern of speech, and how he´d move," said Isaac. "He´s got very deliberate movements, and through his lack of movement becomes very powerful."
The creature´s dialogue in the bar scene with Weller was lip-synced by puppeteers operating the mouth and face from underneath the set floor.
"We had an actor who would read the Mugwump´s lines on the set, into a microphone," said Isaac. "The puppeteers below could hear it and try and match it the best way they could. I was on the set, with headset on, so I could tell the puppeteers what to do. It took us five or six takes before we actually got it. Our goal was to get at least one moment in each section down perfect. We didn´t want David to be forced to cut away from the Mugwump just because he wasn´t in sync."
Having actors on set read dialogue for the various creatures was a help for Peter Weller. "It made him much more comfortable," said Isaac. "Peter never had any problems acting with the puppets. He embraced them just like they were actors."
Isaac´s goal was to be able to give Cronenberg the freedom to treat the creatures as if they were performers. "Part of the fear when you´re doing this many effects is that the film could really bog down," said Isaac. "Filmmakers think it´s going to delay the shooting, that nothing is going to work right. We made doubly sure that nothing ever broke down and that there would be few problems in dealing with the puppets. Before each scene, David and I would discuss how the creature should act, what it would be doing, just like he would with an actor. Then we´de block the scene and do an actual take. I´d be in contact with the puppeteers below, while David was able to focus on directing, without worrying about the creature. Afterwards, David would add refinements like, 'Let´s make sure the Mugwump starts this line looking at Peter Weller,' or 'Turn his head a little quicker on that line.'"
As an aid to Cronenberg and Weller, CWI designed the effects and refined their techniques to allow lengthy dialogue scenes to be shot in sequence. "Peter had four-page dialogue scenes with the Clark Nova," said Isaac. "If you had to shoot those scenes out of sequence, due to effects requirements, it would be a problem for any actor to sustain a performance. We rigged the creature so we could come on to the set quickly, and got it so we could change from one rig to another in only 10 minutes."
The Clark Nova consisted of nine different effects rigs, each with different capabilities. "We had two hero puppets," said Isaac. "They were both fully mechanical, but one had more leg movement than the other. The abdomen was a hand puppet that talked. We used them the most. The others were made for specific scenes. One was made to jump off the table, another to run across the fllor, one had to hit the door."
Isaac maintained that he was delighted with the work of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky who shot Cronenberg´s DEAD RINGERS, as well as THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. "We were very lucky to do film tests for all of the creatures," said Isaac. "Peter did a phenomenal job of capturing the creatures, and enriching the colors we used for them. It was difficult because Peter uses very precise lighting, with pockets of shadow and light. If we moved the creature, it throws off his lighting. The Mugwump was difficult for Peter to light. We had to do it a couple of times, because he wasn´t happy with the color or his lighting. It´s very dark and moody lighting, with actors´ faces half in shadow."
While working on NAKED LUNCH, Isaac had the chance to renew professional ties with production designer Carol Spier. "We worked with Carol before, on THE FLY," said Isaac. "Carol wants to design something that is visually pleasing, but at the same time she has to think of what is practical. She knows there´s going to be a crew of ten puppeteers underneath whatever she designs. She ended up making about 15 matching tabletops for the scenes that had creatures on them. I could cut holes wherever I needed them, and bring them on and off the set. For the bar scene we needed to have a four-foot square trap door underneath the Mugwump, which meant they had to build the set to our specifications. Everyone worked together to make sure things worked right."
One of the most difficult scenes for the actors involved Weller´s scene with Judy Davis, as his wife, when the typewriter they are typing pornography together on transforms itself into a creature dubbed by the crew as "the Sex Blob." "That was one of the few times we had to allow the effects work to overrule the drama of the scene," said Isaac. "It was difficult for the actors because they had to really interact with this thing, and have it fall on them, while they´re on the floor. We had to pull it off the table with a wire so it falls on top of them at just the right time. Then the humping battery had to be turned on, so as it lands on them it starts humping. I think the actors may have thought they were just stunt people for that scene, which makes it harder for them, because they really have to give a performance, as well as worry about the technical requirement engendered by the effects."
Although most of the film´s effects are creature-oriented, one expensive prosthetic makeup involved Fadela (Monique Mercure) ripping open her chest, to reveal she is actually the villainous Dr. Benway (Roy Schneider). "Schneider had to be put in this face and chest appliance," said Isaac. "The whole thing covered him up, and was split down the middle so it would break open on cue. It took almost two hours to apply, and he was totally blind with it on. I had to walk him to the set, get him in position, and then when it came off, he had to start acting. It wasn´t easy for Roy. If he had flubbed a line or done anything wrong it would gave ruined the scene, and a half-day´s work. We did three takes of it, and he got it right on the first take. He was really terrific. He had this flamboyant swashbuckler look, wearing Fadela´s riding boots, with her cigar in his mouth, fake breasts, and hair."
Isaac termed NAKED LUNCH the best experience he´s had working on an effects film. "David is so patient with this stuff, we never felt pressured or rushed, " said Isaac. "He wanted it done right, so after every take on any of the creatures, he´d ask me if I liked it, and if I didn´t we did it over. Another director might say, 'Look, I said I liked it, let´s move on!' He trusted my judgment a great deal. He knows the important thing is that when he´s in the editing room, he has to have the footage.
"He really is an expert at getting the most out of these creatures," said Isaac of Cronenberg. "He knows how to shoot them, and he knows their limits. David listens to people. He´s not at all insecure. He knows this is his vision, so if I make a suggestion for a shot that might be interesting, or something a creature should do, he knows I´m not pushing into his territory. I´m just trying to help make the movie better. It was really a great pleasure to work with him."