One of the unsung Canadian filmmaking heroes, Gordon Smith is a make up effects pioneer with dozens of credits to his name from old Canxploitation movies to groundbreaking work in Hollywood blockbusters. He’s had close relationships with filmmakers like Oliver Stone, was the man responsible for turning a naked Rebecca Romijn into the blue mutant Mystique, and also put dogs in giant rat costumes for the VHS trash classic Deadly Eyes.
Over his storied career, the man has designed countless beloved prosthetic creations and experienced every conceivable high and low the lovably unpredictable film industry has to offer. This week (Wednesday June 27 at 7:00pm and in advance of an upcoming exhibition showcasing his work), Smith will be making an appearance at the Bell Lightbox alongside a screening of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 vampire/Western romp Near Dark to discuss his work on the cult film and making up Bill Paxton to look like chewed hamburger.
We recently got a chance to chat with the surprisingly hilarious and painfully honest Smith about his long career, his unique creative relationship with Oliver Stone, the joyous highs of Near Dark, and the unfortunate Hollywood gossip factory that led him to choose early retirement. Smith is a bit of a character, an infectious storyteller, and certainly not a man afraid of diving into messy Hollywood adventures, so buckle up. It’s a bit of a wild ride.
Dork Shelf: How did you get into the make up effects world?
Gordon Smith: I have a classical education in the theater and really the only reason that I got into visual make up effects was to deal with a serious fear of blood. I had to face it and that particular genre [horror] allowed me to deal with my phobia and get paid handsomely for it as opposed to working in a little cubical in a hospital some place having people trying to freak me out all day. (laughs)
DS: So, your first film is Deadly Eyes. Not a great movie, but one that features dogs in overrsized rat costumes. I’ve got to ask what that experience was like?
GS: On that one my studio hosted a California make-up group that managed to believe the logic that if they brought 60 dogs from California up to Toronto in certainly the coldest winter I’ve ever experienced and dress them all up like rats, that it would turn out ok. They didn’t seem to think that the dogs wouldn’t see the other dogs as giant rats. So, that was the most chaotic, idiotic film experience I ever had. I remember sitting behind some theater seats with my hands up a rat’s ass operating a puppet and the guy from California looked at me, and I guess I must have had some sort of ridiculous look on my face because he said, “Boy this is as good as it gets.” I knew right then that I had an incredible career in the business if that’s what he that was as good as it gets because that was as bad as I’ve ever experienced it. But all those guys are probably dead now.
DS: Your first major projects with Oliver Stone on Salvador and Platoon and you continued working with him for many years. How did you meet Stone and what was that collaboration like for you?
GS: I met him through Bruno Rubeo, he just past away last year but was one of Hollywood’s best production designers and did much of Oliver’s original films before going off and doing his own thing. But I knew him here in Toronto and we were both starving to death and went to see E.T,, which had been done by an artist Carlo Rambaldi. Bruno had apprenticed with him when he was 16 in Italy. So to make a long story short, Bruno took off to Hollywood to meet up with the great Carlo Rambaldi and got a job supervising the special effects on Dune, which was a huge job. He ended up in Mexico and met Oliver who had the script for Salvador, but no money. The quality of the script and the lack of money together meant that Bruno immediately thought of me. I was ready to quit the industry by then, but reading that script and meeting Oliver certainly changed my life dramatically and kept me in the business. He was the first person who ever looked at my portfolio and criticized it from an educated point of view that proved he was actually looking. I liked him right away. I made I think 6 or 7 pictures with him from then on and every other film experience I’ve have to a second seat to my work with him.
DS: JFK must have been particularly difficult together because you had to recreate that assassination that everyone has seen so many times.
GS: Well, the only way I can describe that particular experience is that it kicked the hippy out of me. I say that as a positive thinking person thinking that there are only a few rotten apples in the box that ruin it for everybody. But while making that particular film and learning the extent of how naïve and stupid people were across the whole country frightened me to my core. I realized that you’re lucky if you meet some nice people in your life, but most people will follow the wrong path for whatever reason. It was very, very frightening. I mean, I’m the only person who has done a full forensic study on the assassination of an American president and I did it to make a movie. How absurd is that? That’s just completely ridiculous. How is that even possible? Only a goof from southern Ontario did it. Going into that particular film, I had no particular interest in the assassination. I couldn’t give a crap who shot him. I only had to deal with the research because I had to produce that assassination in front of the camera, so there couldn’t be any ifs or buts about it. Everyone in the world knew what this guy looked like and what the assassination looked like. You couldn’t fake any of it.
DS: So, Near Dark—
GS: Near Dark was probably the only other picture on which my experience was similar to Oliver. Kathryn Bigelow knew Oliver and she wanted the feeling that I was creating on his pictures. I kind of had my own category when I worked at that time. People called me a special make up effects artist, but it was a little more than that. My major job in those days was problem solving for both the camera and the artist. It involved everything from costumes to set dressing. Everything that went in front of the camera, I was the last person to work on in. It’s hard to explain.
DS: Were you almost like a production designer or art director then?
GS: Yeah a bit, but a little more hands on. I dealt with dirt. On our first two international pictures we were considered for Academy Awards and we were like, “what are they talking about?” All we did was dirt. In those days, people didn’t do dirt. Everyone was John Wayne. Everyone’s pants were creased and their hair was combed like they were going to do a cover shoot for Sixteen magazine regardless of subject matter. So me coming out of the theatre and being naïve, all I was doing was trying to design the movies to look as realistic as possible and doing whatever it took to accomplish that. And my responsibility was figuring out how to accomplish those illusions. Then gradually we became a special effects shop and focused on designing illusions. Near Dark is a perfect example. It was before the computer world and we had to figure out how to make people smoke and burst into flames. Today if I walked into a meeting and said, “I’ll do that live and make that actor who you’re paying $1 million to burst into flames,” they’d probably physically throw me out of the room. Those are things that you just do in post today. But then we actually did it.
DS: What I always admired about the design of Near Dark was how it ditches so many of the traditional vampire tropes. Was that discussed between you and Kathryn Bigelow from the beginning?
GS: Well, it was a critical part of the whole point of view and purpose of the film. It was to take all of the disbelief crap away so that the audience could have some honest empathy with the characters. Today they all seem to have a superpower to get them out of every situation. Our vampires were just as vulnerable as we were. We had to create our own parameters of what was dangerous and what wasn’t. How harsh light could be, that sort of thing. We tried to treat them like real people. Having a cast like that was spectacular and ideal because the camera department and the cast and Kathryn we all…you know, when I watch the film now it’s almost anticlimactic. That’s nothing compared to the experience we had shooting the film. Because we were shooting those scenes right there in front of the camera and unfortunately when you shoot it you only get to see it in bits of pieces instead of the whole scenes we got to see play out on the set. Those actors LOVED doing that movie and I loved doing it with them. Like I said, my background is in the theatre and one of the great pleasures that I’ve had in my career is getting to be in the room with so many incredible actors and watching them work. It’s been a great honor. I’ve had an opportunity to work with some of the best actors in the world and it’s so rewarding.
DS: Were Bigelow and Stone the only filmmakers who allowed you to have that much input on the visual design?
GS: Well, in those days if it wasn’t looked after in the movie, I kind of took it on just because that’s what I do. Some people didn’t like that, I mean there are unions. I remember when we were shooting a hospital scene for Born on the Fourth Of July. Tom Cruise was in a bed, he was supposed to have been there for six months and hadn’t moved. Rats were running around. This was supposedly in the Bronx. So I walk in and everything is set up like a lovely set without any dirt anywhere. So I walked in to do my prosthetic effects and started setting up the surgical pieces and putting saliva on the pillows and body stains on the sheets and all of that stuff. All of a sudden the lights go out on the set and Oliver walks over to me and says, “The crew just walked out and it’s your fault. Deal with it.” So, I walk in and there’s the whole crew stern faced with all of the union reps saying, “What kind of an asshole is this guy.” And I said, “Listen, Oliver hired me to come down here and make sure that every single frame is perfect. If something needs to be soapy, it’s soapy. If something needs to be clean, it’s clean. There’s a wound there and it looks like wound it doesn’t look a goddamn prosthetic. That’s why he hired me, now if you the make up people do your job completely and you the wardrobe people do your job completely and you the props people do your job completely, I have no job. So all you have to do is do your job and my job disappears.” The relief in the room was palpable.
That’s one of the problems in the film industry and even though it’s a good idea it’s also a bad idea. Make up does this and you’re only allowed to touch their face and their hands. Unless the wardrobe people are working close in hand with the make up people, they don’t get better. If someone crawls out of a swamp he needs to look like that in a way that tells the story of how long he’s been in the swamp. And it’s hard when that’s several different departments job trying to work together. Anyways, that movie went on and I had very little to do after that because everyone got into it. They were just afraid to touch each other’s departments and in that fear there’s a separation made. “Oh I should do that but it’s wardrobe’s job. Then if they don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.” That’s where I would step in. If none of you fucking assholes are going to do it, I’m going to do it because someone has to do. How you can’t find that logic within yourselves and be a professional and allow that to happen, I don’t understand.
DS: How did you find working on something like the X-Men where so many effects were done digitally and you wouldn’t get the opportunity to see the entire scene on the set?
GS: Well, I had pretty serious control there on what I was doing and I had my hands full with just those make up illusions. All of them were a product of my own technology that we at the studio had developed over 10-15 years. Those characters weren’t possible unless we applied our technology to it from a design point of view. For us, it was staggering what we were able to do. It was probably one of the easiest jobs we ever had by a long shot mostly because stuff that we normally do is not supposed to be seen or the audience isn’t supposed to be aware of it. In this particular case, it’s hard to ignore a six foot tall naked blue woman covered in scales. It’s not as if you could put her up next to another six foot tall naked blue woman covered in scales and say, “which one looks better?” There was a tremendous amount of life there and in all of the characters. It was actually relative to what we normally did, fairly easy. But the accomplishments from a technical point of view, really blew us away. That was the first time self-sticking prosthetics were ever used. We introduced a lot of techniques into the industry. It was a big deal.
DS: Because your work those X-Men films in particular were so well received, what led to you retiring shortly after that? Did it just seem like a good peak to go out on?
GS: (Long sigh) Well, there’s a number of ways of looking at that. I certainly had accomplished everything that I wanted to accomplish and I couldn’t think of anything more we could possibly do. I had given my technology away to the industry and now virtually every studio in the world uses that technology and I’m very proud of that. But you know, I’ve got lots of fans and also a small army of enemies who affected things I know not how. There are some colleagues of mine in the unions in Hollywood, who would cause problems for me. We were up for an Academy Award for X2 and things got so out of hand. So many people were involved in creating these fictitious images of who I was and it got so bizarre that we just packed it in. I just thought, “I don’t have time and life’s too short. We’ve accomplished everything we wanted. I don’t have time to battle against these idiots.” So myself and my crew just decided one day that we were finished. We didn’t need to go through that anymore. You know, it wasn’t a painful thing or anything like that. It was just too big a battle with no ammunition. It was a very silly thing. But I’m so used to that in the industry, especially in the special effects industry, and particularly in the make up effects industry. Dick Smith told me years and years ago, “Gord, you’re going to invent this technology, I know you are. Nobody is going to care and you’re going to get a lot of enemies. They’re all so anal and they don’t want to share information and they won’t even give it credit for you when you do it.” That was almost 20 years ago and then sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, but only with a certain part of the industry. The lion’s share of the industry are big fans and are very grateful. When I teach in Europe, it’s a big deal. When I teach here, nobody gives a rat’s ass. It’s sort of illustrative of the whole Hollywood thing, I guess.