As someone who grew up on a steady diet of monster movies and Fangoria magazine, it was only natural that my general interest in the filmmaking process would eventually gravitate towards the special FX world and the magicians who made the impossible seem probable. Thankfully for me while growing up, there was a bevy of amazing and incredibly talented artists all striving to deliver the stuff that only nightmares were made of. And while I was of course in awe of everything that Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Rick Baker and Stan Winston were all doing, the one artist that stood out for me personally as the biggest rock star of the bunch was Steve Johnson.
If you look over his resume of work - everything from The Abyss to Ghostbusters to Fright Night, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Blade 2, and so on and so forth, I don't even need to justify the reasons why he stands out. His work clearly speaks for itself. But I do have fond memories of Steve's instructional FX segment show Scare Tactics with his then-wife (and scream queen) Linnea Quigley mainly because he was showing us, the young FX hungry audience how to pull off these awesomely gruesome gags with basic household items. In other words, he was this open, friendly and fun personality that was teaching me that if he could do it, I could do it too, as long as I was willing to get creative with what I had. So from those early Scare Tactics episodes and on, I became a life long fan.
While trying to track down Steve, I stumbled upon this introduction video to his You Tube channel, which launched almost 2 years ago now:
And after skimming the several other videos on that channel, I felt that both his videos and career warranted further discussion. I arranged a lunch with him and his current girlfriend Heather Murphy at a local diner in between both of our current stomping grounds and while he didn't initially expect the get together to be an interview, I ordered us some drinks (a wine for him, a Heineken for me) and let the tape recorder role and we were off and running. Here are the results:
What was the motivation behind doing the You Tube videos? You and a lot of really talented people worked hard on the stuff that's in those videos that up until now had never been seen before. So was that part of the reason for sharing it now, to give due credit to all those artists?
It absolutely was, but here's the thing. When I worked at Boss Film for so long doing Big Trouble In Little China, Fright Night, Ghostbusters – I did a lot of movies with them, a lot of commercials. And I learned from Richard Edlund who ran that company, what we were doing now was going to be worth a lot more in the future. He treated it like a business and he was like a real estate agent and by that I mean what might not be worth much now might be worth more in 20-30 years. So Richard Edlund hired a videographer to tape video and take photographs of every step in the process whether it was done optically, in the water tank or in our model shop, etc. When I opened my own company, I thought ‘Richard was right.' This stuff is going to be a gold mine one day so why let it go? So way back in the mid 80's, I hired and put a budget together for a guy that would be my archivist. Someone who would literally takes photos, film video tests and he would be the guy that would keep it all organized so that if we needed to reference something years later and we needed to figure out exactly how we did it, we'd just pull video up of it! But also, the bonus to that is that 20-30 years later, it's all still there. And so I looked at all this stuff, tens of thousands of hours of video tests, hundreds of thousands of photos, thousands of designs and I thought now that I've closed my business, what am I going to do with this stuff? I thought I had a responsibility to share this stuff, so it turns out these guys in Tennessee wanted to do this thing called Rubber Rules, which I thought was fantastic. Because I could just get drunk and I didn't have to do anything but talk! Aim the camera at me and produce these shows and we'll finally be sharing this stuff to the world and there's a lot of people that want to see it. All joking aside there is a responsibility and that stuff shouldn't be lost forever. Because a lot of this stuff was shot on VHS, these guys in Tennessee are still digitizing all of it and organizing it all into a huge database, a digital asset management base so that we can catalog it all. We're not quite sure what we're going to do with all of it yet, but as the film gets more and more brittle and it'll be gone in 5 years, we'll have it all digitized and it's all going to be there. It's really, really cool. Regarding the Rubber Rules episodes, these guys decided after about a year of producing these that maybe they shouldn't be working for free. I thought it'd be great to offer these things to the public for free because it wasn't any skin off my back. You produce it; I'll just stand here and do my interviews. But a year later they just said, we got a 7 person team, they've been working hundreds of hours on this, maybe we should make some money, so we've come up with a couple of ideas to present this stuff to the public that these guys will actually get paid for, but still it will present all this stuff and preserve all this stuff forever.
Didn't you start producing a line of DVD's with this stuff?
It's Eon Entertainment, actually. They're producing these. They're the people behind Rubber Rules and they're producing the new projects we're working on. They did the Ghostbusters DVD and The Abyss and I believe Fright Night is about to come out. It takes time to build a business and a brand, right?
The interesting thing about you sharing your video archives is that it's inspired other FX artists to do the same thing…
You think so?
Oh, I know so for a fact. I interviewed the guys from ADI about their work on The Thing –
ADI, they've been putting up videos, yeah.
And they said your videos were the inspiration for sharing their stuff too.
[Surprised.] Oh wow, I can't even believe how cool that is to hear! Something I did actually mattered! (Laughs) I have to go on record saying I loved that new THING movie. I loved their work in it and I thought it was a good digital blend and people are angry at me for liking it, but I thought it was a blast! I loved the movie. These days if I go to a movie and I'm not bored and the lights go up and I go, "what? It's over?" That's what happened with that movie.
A lot of guys that have done practical FX over the years have embraced and come to work hand in hand with digital FX. Did you yourself ever dabble with the digital world?
I dabbled. It's this simple – adapt or die, that's the law, right? But I don't want to push buttons. That wasn't fun for me. I want to roll in the dirt with plaster and with great people that I understand and I can talk to. I did dabble. I was awarded many digital jobs and I opened a digital facility in my company but it's not the same mindset. It's just not. It's so different that I would rather do something diametrically opposed than be forced into something I don't want to do, and I didn't want to do digital FX so I got out. I don't care if there's money in it. I'd rather live under a bridge and write a book. Sheltered from the pouring rain with a pencil and the scrap of an old garbage bag rather then do digital FX. Not that I hate them, it's just not my thing.
For you, what's one of the pieces of work that you are most proud of? One of the things that was a huge challenge that you didn't know how you were going to accomplish, but managed to do just that?
That's easy. The Abyss. James Cameron called me down; he wouldn't let me leave his office until I read the script. I had to read the script there because he wasn't giving it out. I read it and he was there with the storyboards and his art director John Bruno whom I worked with on Ghostbusters and Predator. He said, "Steve, what I want these things to be is the single most beautiful image any audience anywhere, anytime has ever seen and ever will see for the next 30 years. I want it to be glass clear. I want them to self illuminate. I want them to change color. And I want to shoot them under water, for real. Can you do this?" And I said, "Yeah!" Having no idea how the hell I was going to do this. And also on the long drive home, I remember thinking ‘why did I agree to that?' Rick Baker taught me that if there's one way to do something, there's got to be a second way. And if there's two ways, there's got to be three. So you just have to stand at the edge of the cliff and jump and trust that the safety net will appear. Why would I possibly turn down James Cameron's next big picture after The Terminator? I thought hang on, hang on. Stan Winston? Why didn't Jim ask Stan? Well, he probably did ask Stan and Stan told him it was impossible! (Laughs) No way is this possible. This is my first big job with my own big studio, and it'll probably end my career. I got the job; got the first check and we started experimenting. Whatever was clear did not work under water, it would murk up. This was 30 years ago. We did not have clear flexible materials back then like silicones. Whatever self illuminated wouldn't work under water. It's like whatever combination of anything, I'd get two of them right but the third one would fail miserably. I'm laying there on the sofa in my studio thinking ‘I've lost my entire career. I literally can't do this. I'm never going to make it work.' I would sit there almost to the point of tears and go ‘I'm so young and it's all over right as it begins'. And then, guess what? We did it. We kept pushing forward. We ran out of money, we had to go back to Gale Anne Hurd and say "Gale, we start shooting these aliens in San Pedro in a 5 billion gallon tank and we don't have any aliens! We don't have any money. Something's got to give here." So it was this huge fight, but we got more money and we powered though. Jim really, really helped. A lot of people give Jim a really bad rep, but I would not necessarily say that I like or dislike the man, but I will say this about him – he made me do my best work. He pushed me to the brink of insanity where I thought I was going to die because I couldn't do what he was asking, but somehow I did it. Certainly that movie now would've been done digitally, but the fact remains he made me do something that I didn't think I could do because he was in a way a misogynistic cheerleader. He made me want to please him by insulting me and tearing me down and stripping the flesh from my bones like a military sergeant. But, all that said we did it. And that's something I'm really, really proud of because back in 1989, what we did was virtually impossible and I did learn later that Jim absolutely did go to Stan Winston and asked for the same things – "I want them to be glass clear, I want them to self illuminate and I want them to work under water". And Stan said no. So yeah, I'm really proud of that one because I didn't say no, and that's what Rick Baker taught me was to never ever say no. You can do it.
Check back tomorrow for PART TWO of our epic chat with FX legend Steve Johnson!