Nearly anyone can do something once. Repeating an experience for a second time, in some ways, is more daunting than the first time. When you are new to a situation, everything is potential. Possibilities. Every result is either positive or a “learning experience.” However, shouldering an experience for a second time, it is easy to let negative questions and self-doubt wander into your psyche, especially when that second experience, in comparison to the first, appears grander and more demanding.
Confused? Let me explain.
The Supernaturals was a “friendly experience.” Mark Shostorm and his small crew bonded quickly over a challenging but manageable amount of work. We all parted friends and remain in touch (except Ed Ferrell – Where are you Ed?).
After the wrap of the show, I had returned home to New Orleans to spend the holidays with my (then) girlfriend Tracy and my family. I had no idea when fortune would take me back out to California to work on another film, but somehow, I knew it was going to happen. I knew so positively that I didn’t run out and get a job. As fate would have it, I was correct.
James Cummins called in mid-January to tell me he was about to do a show for producer Sean Cunningham and director Steven Miner entitled House. Unlike some of their earlier horror efforts, this would be more of a “creature” film and less of a “slasher” film. James won them over by presenting them with impressive watercolor illustrations of the creatures including a portly witch, a “monster-stew” war-demon, monster-children, and a zombie-Viet Nam soldier, “Big Ben.”
Knowing that I would need a place to stay if I were to come out and work on the film, James offered to let me crash at his house until I could save enough money to move out and get my own place. That sounded like a plan. A solid plan. When I presented it to Tracy, however, she had an amendment. She was coming with me. Tired of the long-distance relationship, she was now over 20 and was ready to leave home. I just didn’t see how that was going to work; however, James presented the solution. Tracy would move out with me, and she, too would work on House.
Eventually the team was assembled from local people, as well as some transplants from Chris Walas’s northern California studio. We went to work in an old office space in the decrepit Golden Mall in Burbank. The upstairs facility was carpeted from front to back, it certainly wasn’t zoned for any kind of “manufacturing” work. However, it was conveniently located above a liquor store.
The duties were divided up quickly. The better sculptors, Brian Wade, Larry Odien, and Earl Ellis, joined James in sculpting key hero pieces. Eric Fiedler, who I had met once at the Burman’s Studio while visiting the shop during Space Hunter, was in charge of sculpting, molding, mechanizing, and skinning the marlin trophy that came to life. The rest of us worked on demonic children masks and monster gloves. Even Tracy was given to task of helping rough out the tentacle that emerged from the medicine cabinet.
When it came time to go to set with the creatures, shop employees were divided and sent in teams. Although I didn’t get to go to set with performer, Peter Pitofsky, who played the witch, I did participate in the demonic children, the monster arms, and Big Ben.
Actor, Richard Moll, renown for his portrayal of “Bull” on Night Court played “Big Ben” the American soldier, and friend of the protagonist, Roger Cobb (played by William Katt). However once Big Ben returned from the grave to haunt Roger, he was played by Curt Wilmont. My understanding was that Curt’s regular paying job was tennis pro at a club that director Steve Miner frequented, but whether that is completely true or not, who knows? During the shooting, Steve did have his tennis racquet in hand, practicing his back swing, but that could just be a coincidence, right? Whatever the case, Curt was tall, thin, and athletic, three attributes necessary to endure and perform inside of an uncomfortable foam-latex suit effectively.
I’m not sure how the decision was arrived at, but James Cummins only came to set for Big Ben’s debut. No doubt that the looming War Demon shoot was enough to send him back to his house where construction had moved after we had been kicked out of the Golden Mall in Burbank (big surprise there, he writes sarcastically). The result was that Lauren Vogt, a former Chris Walas employee, foam-runner and seamer; Tony (Anton) Rupprecht, former Make Up Effects Labs worker and well-rounded technician; and yours truly were left on set to put Curt into his costume for the shoot.
The suit was in pieces: a pair of foam-latex feet and legs that were covered in tattered army fatigues, a torso piece that included a rigid rib cage and soft foam shoulders and upper arms, a pair of foam-latex gloves, a foam-latex neck piece, and a mask that ended at the back of the head and under the jaw. The head was foam-latex over a custom fiberglass under-skull that was made for Curt. Bill Sturgeon, the chief mechanic on Big Ben, fastened the radio-controlled servos to the under-skull and then, the entire thing was covered by an army helmet.
It was uncomfortable for sure, AND, since Ben had been designed with a “blind” eye, Curt would only be able to see out of one eye and that one was to be covered with a soft, milky contact lens. Here’s a tip for up-and-coming actors: Wearing monster suits is not a way to break into the acting game, it is a way to break into the monster-suit wearing game. Curt had no problem with getting into his suit but would begin to stall when it was time to put the mask on. He would sit in his set chair and tell us that he wanted as much “face time” on set as possible. You know, to be “discovered.”
Of all of the discomfort that Curt had to endure, I think the head was the worst for him. He complained frequently about the under-skull cutting into his nose, even though the under-skull was custom manufactured to fit Curt exactly. We padded the offending, indicated, areas with soft moleskin, but he would make a huge production, every time we put it on his head. Finally, Tony Rupprecht, having enough of the dramatics, left to see the on-set medic for something to kill the pain, and returned with a wax cup with a little clear fluid on the bottom.
He brushed this onto the bridge of Curt’s nose, where it seamed to be bothering him the most, and everything worked out fine. Tony had fixed the problem but had created a new task for himself. Before we could put the head on, Tony would have to run to the medic, get the pain-relief and then we could finish putting the head on Curt. All was well until the last day.
We were preparing Curt, suiting him up for the scene where Roger is hanging off the edge of the house as it appears to be floating in a strange dimension while Big Ben steps on Roger’s fingers. It was time to put the mask on and Curt asked Tony to get the pain medication. Tony stalled. Something wasn’t right. Production had been waiting all day to make sure that the big blue screen behind the House façade was perfect and the optical effects guys had spent a long, long time making sure that everything was right.
We needed to start getting Curt in his mask and, yet, Tony is dragging his feet. Finally, I pulled Tony aside and asked him who he spoke to, so I could just get this pain killer myself. Tony looked at me with a mix of fear and disappointment in his eyes and told me, “I’m all out of coke.”
It turned out that Tony was taking his own, personal, cocaine, mixing it with a little water, and putting it on Curt’s nose every day before we put the mask on. “Are you CRAZY?!” I asked Tony. “You put COKE on an actor’s nose without telling them, or me, or anybody!”
We ended up pulling the placebo card and just put plain water on Curt’s nose. It was only for one shot so he didn’t complain too much, and Big Ben was wrapped.
James Cummins and Tony Rupprecht are no longer with us. Tony went nearly ten years ago; James died just last year. Both were funny, hard-working, assets to the motion picture industry that were taken too young.
As for Curt Wilmont, judging by his IMDB entry, I think he stuck to the tennis game.
…And Last Time on Blood, Sweat and Latex…: “The Journey of 1000 Miles…”
Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.
Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.