A Conversation With Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr.
They don’t make creature features like they used to, that’s for sure – movies where an amazingly complex and detailed monster appeared from some unknown origin to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting city or town or group of people.
But if you’re going to try and reinvigorate the genre, you want the best possible people on your side to help conceive and design something both fantastically original and terrifying.
That’s likely why writer-director Bryan Bertino turned to Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., when he first began putting together his latest film, The Monster.
Gillis and Woodruff have an impeccable pedigree. They both worked with James Cameron on 1984’s The Terminator and 1986’s Aliens. They both worked for FX legend Stan Winston. And together they have helped bring some of the most iconic creatures to cinematic life, from the sand worms of Tremors to the alien bugs of Starship Troopers to the collective carnage of AVP: Alien vs. Predator. In 1993, Woodruff and Gillis even won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for his work on Death Becomes Her.
What the duo achieved with The Monster, though, is something unrivaled in recent cinema. They created a beast that defies description and explanation, a pitch-black embodiment of literal fear and pain and suffering, which propels Bertino’s extraordinary story of a mother and daughter battling to save their own failed relationship and fighting for survival against an unimaginable terror.
BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Gillis and Woodruff by phone recently to discuss their design process, their creative exchange with Bertino and the finished product that they are unleashing on unsuspecting horror fans now that The Monster is available on most streaming Video-on-Demand platforms and in limited theatrical release.
BVB: Thank you so much for talking to me. I have a website called Blood, Violence and Babes that I run out of Tampa, Florida, and it’s just so cool to be able to get a chance to see films like The Monster before they actually come out and to let people know if this is indeed a new horror movie that needs to be on their radar. And with The Monster, it absolutely is. It’s a phenomenal film. It’s one of the best creature features I think I’ve seen in quite some time. I just want to kind of start from that place. I was looking on IMDb and I actually didn’t see either of you listed with The Monster, but I’m assuming obviously you were. What did you guys do exactly for the film?
AG: We created the monster.
BVB: That’s what I thought.
AG: We designed and created him. That’s what we do. We make practical, animatronic makeup suit characters without the use of computer generated imagery.
BVB: Thank God. Thank you so much. (Laughing) Because I still believe that’s the best that you can get is practical.
AG: Thank you.
BVB: What conceptual ideas did Bryan Bertino share with you guys when you first got together? I’m really curious how he pitched this to see how you came up with what you did.
TW: A lot of the design actually came from Bryan. He had some sketches he had done himself. He had some pretty cool conceptual ideas, like the monster should be completely black and almost appear as a silhouette, although there are forms and it’s a three-dimensional creature, and it’s very shiny and wet and slick. The idea that the light would pick up islands all along the form so it would help give the impression of a complete, a full creature, that’s shrouded in so much mystery that the audience would be able to kind of adapt their own fears and their own terror to what they’re seeing to help fill in the picture. In a way, it’s something that we’ve always loved, the idea of being able to show an audience a little less at first so they can kind of invest themselves in the story by fine-tuning that creature element to whatever scares them most.
BVB: Absolutely, and I think that fully came across because there are times – because this is such, it’s a film of multiple dynamics and with the relationship between the mother and daughter and the toxicity of that relationship, there are moments where you almost feel as if this creature is almost like an extension of that toxic relationship. It’s something that’s been born from their attempts to have a normal mother-daughter connection and failing at every turn. And I love that you never find out much, if anything, about the monster’s origin. You don’t find anything out that really gives you a sense of where this creature came from, what it is, what it’s about. Does that make it easier or more difficult when you’re designing a creature from scratch? When you kind of have this wide open palette to work from?
AG: I think the creatures that are sort of like biologically evolved, they’re supposed to look like real, live, believable organisms, you have more to do in those cases. If you look at our work in Tremors, for instance, the worms in Tremors, our goal there was to make something that looked like it could evolve or it could possibly have been a creature that came from outer space or it’s been around, frozen in time. It still had to look like it worked in that environment. When you design something that is psychological and is a metaphor for something else, you have more freedom but in a way there are still parameters because you want to avoid certain aspects. Like you don’t want it to look like a werewolf or a dinosaur or something like that. We had to be careful we didn’t tread into too familiar territory. One of the ways we look at it is – Bryan’s idea was you should see very little of it. You should never really get a handle on what the whole thing looks like. He was OK if it appeared humanoid but he wanted to make sure it wasn’t too detailed. It wasn’t the Alien where there were going to be close-ups, extreme close-ups, where you got to see that detail. It’s sort of like a Rorschach inkblot, you know, where you will project your fears into that black shape. So we took advantage of that. One of the fun things that Bryan came to us with was he said, it’s always going to be raining so the creature is always going to be wet. That was a great way to say, all right, it’s going to be a totally black color scheme. We’re really not going to do much nuancing on blacks. Maybe some greys, a few highlights here and there, but really what it was, it was defined by its oily, wet look in the rain and at night and that’s what – you know, that’s pretty damn scary.
BVB: Oh yeah. Oh absolutely. It was terrifying. I mean, it was such a good job that you did. How long did it take from the initial meeting with Bryan to ready to go on camera? How long was the process?
TW: If I remember right, it was quick. I think it was somewhere around four weeks, five weeks?
AG: It may have been around nine weeks.
TW: That’s what I meant, John, not five weeks (Laughing) to put it all together and that was kind of defining a little bit more than just what Bryan’s concept was once we started bringing some actual cast pieces and all of our materials into play.
BVB: Sure. Did you guys look at specific, real-life organisms to kind of draw inspiration from in the design?
AG: We come to everything with a basis of knowledge of life forms and organic shapes. It’s what we live and breathe. But the fun thing about this project is it’s not the kind of thing where you open up a nature book and start paging through it to see what kind of cool creatures are out there, you know? It’s a little more subjective than that, and that’s OK, so we can have gnarled, twisted flesh and tendons and things. Clashing forms. Part of Bryan’s idea here was that this – this is all sub textual, it doesn’t necessarily show in the movie – but he wanted the creature to be in pain itself…
BVB: Oh wow!
AG: …as part of the metaphor of this being their dysfunctional relationship. The creature itself is not healthy. You can argue that’s why its tooth comes out. But one of the most interesting things he said, he wanted as the creature walked and crawled and maneuvered, he wanted it to sound as if his bones were breaking, like it’s breaking apart and re-healing, and it’s always in pain. We actually went so far as to plumb tear ducts so the creature could cry.
BVB: Oh wow…
AG: When I watched the film, I heard crunching and breaking, but it sounded more to me like twigs breaking as it walked, but I would like to see it again to see if he cleverly has that in there. But even if none of that shows up on screen, those are good little hooks and good little backstory tidbits to help us design. So he came to us with a very complete vision, which was very refreshing.
BVB: That’s awesome because you guys have worked with some of the all-time greats when it comes to directors who love creature effects. People like James Cameron. Was it refreshing when you met with Bryan to see a director – because creature features aren’t as prevalent anymore, as they were in years past – was it refreshing to see a director who had kind of a unique vision and new take on this genre?
TW: Absolutely. We’re very much drawn to directors who have something new to offer. Not just us for the creature build, but certainly the audience. There’s something nice about – I mean, I love working on the big movies because it gives us the time and the funding to really explore things artistically – but there’s also something really energetic and exciting about working on a smaller movie because so much more sort of hinges on saying more with less. It’s not like you can get away with that in a big picture. You’ve got to deliver the goods to the audience, but in something like this, where the film itself defines how large of a picture it is, it’s really exciting to be given that task of having to tell a complete story with the creature aspect just like Bryan has to with the dramatic aspect, but tell it in a very quick and very efficient manner.
BVB: That’s exactly right. It’s an economy of vision in a way because you have to, everything has to be very specific for the moments where there are some clear scenes. But then in the rest of the film it’s just the – like you said – the audience is kind of projecting onto it its own fears and seeing this black shape that’s moving and stalking and all that. It just works so well. You both have seen – I know Alec just said he had the film. Tom, have you seen it as well? The finished film?
TW: Oh yeah, we both got to see a premiere here in Hollywood with a film festival.
BVB: I’m sure there are times where you go to see films and you see your work on the screen – as a writer, I do it all the time, I pick at the way I twist a phrase or constructed a sentence. What did you think when you actually saw it in a darkened theater with an audience? Were you pleased with how it turned out?
TW: Yeah, I can say we’re both very pleased because, here’s the thing with a tighter film like this, basically everything we shot and everything that was built and conceived of is up there on screen and put to full use. It’s more disheartening for me to go see bigger movies and see things that we sort of came to love in terms of how things were shot, how things performed, and see those things cut short or completely cut out or, in worst case scenario, completely replaced by some completely other entity’s idea of what the creature should be as a post-production visual effect. When there’s no overlap, there’s no cohesion of concept, in spite of what the director brings to us, they can work with us in pre-production and work with us in production and then hopefully that director is still involved in post-production when the visual aspect is brought in, but there is something lost in that through-line of concept and that through-line of what the guts are of this creature in looks and performance. That’s definitely the worst thing. But a film like this, it was just a completely pleasant experience to see everything about the monster up there and see it working with the audience.