“So what were your feelings about the film, once it was finished?” the friendly voice on the DVD asks director Wes Craven. “Did you have any, you know… expectations?”
“No,” Wes sighs. “And, you know, I didn’t work for two years after that. I felt like I’d had my chance and kind of blown it, and would probably never work again.”
Now, this is my third time approaching a movie like this, and what I’ve learned so far is that the DVD commentary helps me to define what the genre of this story is going to be. When I was talking about the making of Superman and Superman II, the story was a true crime podcast. For Swamp Thing, it’s a comedy of errors.
Wes Craven, as I’m sure you’re aware, is an actual famous person who’s known as one of the masters of American horror films, but not for this one. He started out with The Last House on the Left in 1972, a violent and strange exploitation horror film about how much you can kill somebody before they die.
Five years later, in 1977, he wrote and directed The Hills Have Eyes, about a suburban family who get stalked and eaten by a gang of savage cannibals. It was a surprise hit, earning $25 million off a $500,000 budget, and it got Wes invited to direct this crazy rubber monster film called Swamp Thing.
After this, once the shame wears off, he’s going to go and make A Nightmare on Elm Street, which will make him justifiably famous, and then he’ll make The People Under the Stairs and four Scream movies and a bunch of other stuff. He’s not super proud of this one.
“We had a very tough completion bond company on this film,” Wes explains. “They were not friendly, and they were not helpful. They just played the tough guys all the time.”
If you’re not aware, and I wasn’t before I listened to this commentary, a completion bond is a kind of insurance for distributors of an independently-financed film, which guarantees that the producer will deliver a completed film within the allotted budget.
“That was probably the most difficult part of the shoot,” Wes continues, “constantly having them looking over our shoulders — towards the end of the film especially, just demanding that we cut scenes so that we could stay on the schedule. The third act especially was just cut, savagely. Having two inexperienced producers that signed the papers that they would bring it in on budget, they were no help. We were all, kind of, okay, I guess that’s what we have to do or else you’re fired, sort of thing.”
The budget was $2.5 million, which would have bought you about six and a half minutes of Superman. And the thing that you don’t do, when you have a super tight budget, is go and film the entire movie on location in an environment that really does not want to be filmed in.
“The swamps were very difficult to shoot in,” says Wes. “We were in South Carolina, and it was during a ferociously hot summer, with very high humidity, and there was a black caterpillar plague. So they were in the trees in big clumps, and would drop down onto your head, or down the back of your neck and sting you. There were alligators everywhere; people in South Carolina just sort of treat them like New Yorkers would treat pigeons. And there were a lot of snakes.”
The funny thing is that in the original comic books, the character doesn’t actually spend that much time in the swamp. He starts out there, sure, but at the beginning of issue #2, Swamp Thing is kidnapped by a wizard and brought to a quaint old castle in the Balkans. He spends a couple issues there, and then he goes to Scotland, and then he ends up in Maine, and Vermont, and Gotham City. He’s all over the place. But these people had to go and film in the swamp.
And besides all the unfriendly fauna, whenever they wanted to set up a shot where a boat drifts across the screen, the art department had to go out and saw off all the little knobbly bits of cypress trees that poked up everywhere, like a thousand wooden middle fingers. I don’t know if art departments like doing that sort of thing, but it sounds like a pain in the ass to me. The swamp really could not be more clear about whether you should be making a movie in it.
“The most difficult thing about it proved to be the costume itself,” Wes says, to no one’s surprise. “I was not terribly experienced with that kind of special effects makeup. Because of the heat, and because the costume covered every square inch of the body of the actor, you had to be very, very careful of heat exhaustion. There would be times when Dick Durock would just suddenly sit down in the swamp, and kind of fall over, you know? And the guys would have to run out and rip that mask off their face, which was, like, three hours to put on, and just revive them. So it was very tricky.”
There’s a whole story that we’ll get into later about why the costume was not especially effective. It involves budget cuts and deadlines and making the mold for the wrong stuntman, and maybe the makeup effects designer not being as good at making rubber monster costumes as you might hope.
And then there was the water.
“Because of very limited budget,” Wes explains, “we had enough to make maybe two suits — and what we found out is, as soon as the suit was in the water, the tannic acid in the water would start to eat away the suit. So we were dismayed to watch the suit start crumbling apart almost as soon as we started using them, and they were being held together with lots of baling wire and gaffer’s tape. It was constantly falling off.”
You see, when the designer did the costume test, they did it in a lake in Los Angeles, with a normal pH balance. In the South Carolina swamps, the cypress trees release large quantities of tannic acid, which is what makes the swamp water so murky… and it immediately started to break down the glue that held the costume together.
“I mean, look at the suit,” Wes chuckles, during a scene that was shot after principal photography was over. “It’s literally falling off of him, at this point.”
Now, one thing that really was Wes’ fault was that they tried to film all of the scenes with both Ray Wise (who plays Alec Holland, in the early part of the film) and Dick Durock (who plays the monster). The idea was that Durock, the huge stuntman, would film all of the long shots and action scenes, and for close-ups, Wise would have a partial suit, and do all of the dialogue.
This was a bad idea that they kept doing all the way through the shoot, even after it was obvious that it just wasn’t working.
“Having never done a film where somebody plays a human and then turns into this huge hulking monster, I tried all the way through the film to keep Ray in the costume for the key dialogue scenes. But it proved to be impossible, because they looked physically so different. So Ray did the entire film in costume for all the places where Swamp Thing was walking around, and none of that was used, because he just looked so incredibly different from the giant stuntman that played him. We used his voice, of course, but he was disappointed. I was disappointed.”
Now, for pure entertainment value, the key moment in the commentary is when Wes is asked about the Arcane monster suit.
“Let’s talk a little bit about the design of what [Arcane’s] going to turn into,” the host says. “Was that originally supposed to be something else, or was it close to what you envisioned? What was your reaction, when you saw that?”
And then Wes just gives a huge sigh, and tries to think of something to say.
“I think that’s enough,” the host shrugs. “You said it.”
“Yeah, the sigh says it all,” Wes says. “It was, like, okay, that’s what we have to shoot? All right…”
“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings on this, because everyone was working very hard, but given the budgets that we didn’t give to them, basically, they had very little to work with. It was kind of a chaotic thing from the beginning, I think. There probably should have been five times more money for this costume, and more time to develop and test, and everything else, and there just wasn’t.”
“There wasn’t even much input on my part,” Wes admits. “They were dealing with the Swamp Thing costume all the time before we started shooting, and then the Arcane monster, that was being done back in LA while we were shooting, so… it kind of showed up, and that’s what we had. You know?”
“So you didn’t really see the costume?”
“We saw drawings of it, but… y’know, it just didn’t… I mean, I’m not saying it didn’t look like the drawings, but it, just… I don’t know. We were kind of struggling to figure out what Arcane would look like, if he turned into a monster.”
“So that wasn’t taken from the comic, then?”
“No. Can’t blame those guys.”
Wes shakes his head. “It was one of those films that just had so many problems,” he says. “I thought especially the special effects just got cheated by lack of money. It’s sort of painful to look at, in some ways.”
So that’s the movie that we’re all going to be looking at for the next couple months, and if we find it painful, then at least we know that Wes is on our side. That’s got to count for something, right?
We arrive at the swamp, which is the worst
3.4: Love and Death
— Danny Horn