Swamp Thing 3.16: Suiting Up

I suppose that now is as good a time as any to start assigning blame.

We’re currently thirty minutes into a ninety-minute Swamp Thing movie, which means it’s time for them to stop dicking around with opossums and go ahead and show us Swamp Thing. So here he is in long shot, emerging from the mire to bang on a boat, and save the day.

You don’t see a lot of him, right away. A muscular green arm grabs the bad guy’s head, and throws him off the boat. Then there’s a shot of the monster hitting the boat and turning it over, and then we see him from behind, carrying an unconscious Cable out of the danger zone.

So you know how sometimes in monster movies you only get to see little pieces of the monster — a fang, a claw, a tentacle or two — because they want to save the thrilling reveal for later in the film? Yeah, that’s not what’s happening right now.

This isn’t whetting our appetite. It’s managing our expectations.

The behind-the-scenes story of the miscreation of the Swamp Thing movie is a comedy of errors, in the sense that comedy is tragedy plus it happened to someone else, and there’s nothing more tragicomic than the way they made the monster suits.

The story begins with Dick Smith, one of the legends of special-effects makeup. Smith began his career in the early days of television, developing the art of modern prosthetics more or less on his own. While makeup artists at the time would typically cast their masks as one full piece, Smith used several foam latex pieces that he would attach to an actor’s face, giving them the ability to use natural facial expressions through the makeup.

Smith worked for more than a decade on television, including some memorable old-age makeup for vampire Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows. He moved into film in 1970, constructing a career-defining old-age mask for Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man. In 1972, Smith created an old-age Don Corleone for Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and he designed the practical special-effects makeup for The Exorcist in 1973. Over the next decade, Smith contributed to dramatic films like Taxi Driver, Marathon Man and The Deer Hunter, as well as the sci-fi/horror films Altered States and Scanners.

So when producers Michael Uslan and Ben Melniker were looking for someone to create the Swamp Thing costume for their film, naturally they went to Dick Smith. He said no.

So then Uslan and Melniker got a book called Making a Monster: The Creation of Screen Characters by the Great Makeup Artists, and they went through the book and called up everybody in it who was still alive. None of them wanted to work on Swamp Thing either, so eventually Uslan and Melniker ended up with Bill Munns.

Munns’ resume was basically the reverse of Dick Smith’s. He’d been “active in makeup” since the late 1960s, but not anything you’d notice. He had two big film credits: the 1973 blaxploitation film Blackenstein, and the 1981 horror film The Boogens. See above for a picture of Bill Munns with a Boogen, which did not take the film world by storm.

But Munns had several things working in his favor: a) he was available, b) he was interested, and c) his quote was $80,000, considerably lower than everybody else’s.

Preparing his proposal, Munns went out and got some old Swamp Thing comics, and he was especially inspired by this splash page in issue #1.

“As soon as I saw the pictures of Swamp Thing,” he told Cinefantastique, “I knew exactly what they were looking for. I had a feeling that it was potentially a classic character, and it had to be created as faithfully as possible. The pictures in the original comic books were abundant enough and detailed enough — especially a full-page shot of the head that ran in the first issue — that I felt I could work perfectly from that.”

Which is great, and I love his respect for the source material, although it occurs to me that when you’re designing something to be worn on screen, it might help to start with a human face and build up, rather than start with a drawing of a monster and try to fit a human in there somewhere. But maybe that’s just me.

The other thing that impressed itself on Bill Munns was that in the comics, the character’s head seemed to be in front of his body, rather than on top — kind of a lumbering, hunchbacked look.

So Munns’ idea was to build up an actor’s shoulders with four to six inches of padding, and then construct an animatronic head, which would be positioned on top of the actor’s head, pushed forward. The actor would be looking out of the suit through some mossy areas around the throat, and the mask would be operated by a complex servo-motor system.

This was a terrible idea, completely unfeasible on the face of it. They chose him anyway. It really was a terrifically low bid.

Munns made a prototype out of latex and polyfoam, using taxidermy eyes and model railroad landscape material, which looks really nice and could never be successfully replicated on an actual human body.

The skull is too small, and it’s the wrong shape, so you couldn’t actually make a person’s head look like this, much less grow it straight out of their torso. It just wouldn’t work. It’s a gorgeous sculpture of a comic book character, but it’s not a workable plan for an impending low-budget movie shoot.

So Munns’ pitch was based on building a magical mechanical Swamp Thing head, which would be operated by servo-motor control, on location in the middle of a swamp, by people who had never done anything remotely like that ever before.

Now, there were people in the industry who were doing roughly similar things at the time with puppets — Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, the Skekses in The Dark Crystal and the alien in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial — but the difference is that those films were being made by adults, with more than a month or two to prepare. Also, those movies were filmed indoors on actual sets by people who were very good at making movies, a cohort that did not include Bill Munns.

My advice for any young person starting out in the film industry is to figure out whether you’re Bill Munns or not. If you are, then you probably shouldn’t be sketching complex servo-motor mechanisms.

“They were still very leery of the mechanical head,” Munns told Cinefantastique, “largely because I couldn’t show them one that I, or anyone else, had done that was fully operable. Wes wanted something that could walk from a long shot to a close-up, which would have prohibited the use of cables. I felt that servo-motor control would be better. But it seemed the more they thought about it, the more they built up a resistance to it. It was vetoed by the producers as untried, and by the director as not potentially expressive enough. They kept on asking, ‘Can’t you do it on an actor’s face?'”

As it turned out, they couldn’t, so instead they just made a big rubber monster suit, and stuck it in the water with a boat on top of it.

And then there was the monster’s dick, which was an actual concern that I am not making up.

Craven wanted to get away from the “sexless, neutered style” of monster suits, especially because the film had a romantic subplot. The creature used to be a man, and Craven wanted that manhood to still be present in the monster costume.

So Munns made a full-body sculpture of the creature…

which included a short, thick root meant to represent exactly what it looks like.

“When all concerned met to view the sculpture,” Munns said, “the consensus was that it was simply too conspicuous. The offending root was removed, and it was reluctantly agreed that if there was ever to be a Son of Swamp Thing, he’d have to be adopted.”

So that’s the shape of things, at this point in the production. Most of Munns’ ideas were either unfeasible or profane, but the producers had made their choice and it was too late to change course. All Munns needed was twelve weeks of prep work, and he’d be ready to go. They gave him six.

Tomorrow:
The costume saga continues in
3.17: People Make Choices


Footnotes:

The pictures of the prototype head come from John Boylan’s website Roots of the Swamp Thing, which collects information and commentary on every aspect of the Swamp Thing franchise, including the comics, movies, TV shows and merchandise, and  the ways that the story has been represented in popular culture.

Tomorrow:
The costume saga continues in
3.17: People Make Choices

Chapters

— Danny Horn

20 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.16: Suiting Up

  1. Dick Smith’s Little Big Man old age make up for prosthetics on Dustin Hoffman is basically the same as the 1 he did for the TV Series Soap Opera Dark Shadows on Jonathan Frid as Old Man Barnabas Collins.
    Almost indistinguishable!
    But DS on HODS Movie made a different prosthetics makeup for Old Man Barnabas on that production. Although you can see the seem lines on Frid’s neck when he bites Maggie.
    And 1 more connection between Little Big Man and Dark Shadows…Julia Hoffman and Dustin Hoffman! Cosmic Coincidence? I think not!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Another cosmic coincidence: Decades is showing the Old Barnabas episodes today and tomorrow.
      It’s interesting that Smith was fine with aging a soap opera vampire but drew the line at a movie swamp monster.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Smith was the kind of pro that knows, just from hearing the proposal, if something is feasible in this plane of existence. Since the worlds “Swamp. No, not just the monster’s name we’re filming in a real, actual swamp” were used, I’m guessing he didn’t get past the first couple paragraphs of the memo.

        Liked by 4 people

  2. “The offending root was removed…”

    Thus depriving us of years of Giant-Size Swamp Thing jokes.

    But good for Wes for actually wanting to go there in the first place. Decades and decades of monsters and aliens wanting to mate with human women and none of them had apparent equipment to do so. And this continued even for another thirty-some years until The Shape of Water. Or was there a monster penis in a mainstream movie before it?

    That really is a beautiful sculpt of the head. Too bad Munns just didn’t have the skill to make it work as an actual mask.

    Welcome back, Danny. I hope you had a good vacation!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. To be fair, The Shape of Water monster does have one. It apparently emerges when needed for immediate use and is tucked back the rest of the time. Makes sense for a streamlined always swimming “fish around me like to nibble” monster, really.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “…which included a short, thick root meant to represent exactly what it looks like.”

    Fortunately Cable carries a little spray bottle of defoliant in her purse for just this sort of thing.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Great you’re back, Danny!

    Thanks for the recommendation of Michael Uslan’s memoir THE BOY WHO LOVED BATMAN in an earlier post. I read it a couple of days ago. Turns out Uslan went to college with my sister. I shouldn’t be surprised, she knows everyone.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Sci Fi/Monster films, among so many other things, really are the physical embodiment of the boundary between what a creator dreams could be and what is actually able to happen meet; the clash and shatter of two irreconcilable states.

    Every silly, cheap, slapdash monster suit in every silly, cheap, slapdash movie? Represents the fantasy of some creator out there, the actual manifestation of some form of life and intelligence so utterly alien to us, yet woven into the same fabric of existence that supports our wretched, limited understanding. That they come out more often than not looking like “nailed it” posts on Cake Failures is simply the price we pay for our reach exceeding our grasp.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I honestly think the Boogen in the photo looks scarier than the screenshots of Dr. Strange’s squid monster which reminded me of Kang and Kodos without their helmets, except for one screenshot where it reminded me of an angry Mike from Monsters Inc. Spending a lot of time and money doesn’t always assure you’ll have an effective creature. Of course, spending little time and even less money pretty much assures you won’t.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. We missed you, Danny! Don’t ever go away again!

    My first reaction, when I hear about one of these barely possible challenges in movie making, is to ask why they didn’t go with animation. It’s especially suitable for comics-based stories, and it’s got to be less expensive. I guess animation is still associated with Saturday morning cartoons for children.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I fully agree here. I’ve spent the past 15 years viewing and studying Japanese animation, and I’ve seen how since the 1960s, the Japanese have made considerable inroads in a number of challenging topics when it comes to anime, long before USA animators did, and while it’s not like I agree with everything they do, unlike most modern American cartoons nowadays, Japan’s offerings were anything but politically/agenda driven. And Japan’s mangakas and animators actually made serious efforts to market and encourage adult audiences to consider cartoons a medium worth watching.

      I once thought it could be possible to film Swamp Thing as a cartoon for older audiences, along with various other notable comics creations, and it’s a shame that unlike Japan, Hollywood’s only willing to do a lot of this stuff as live action. On which note, even today, most US animation is still largely marketed to younger audiences only, and even Japanese anime making its way to US cinemas is kept at that level. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see anime is still far from mainstream in popularity, contrary to what some op-ed writers in the news may want us to think. A real shame. I’d certainly look forward to the idea of famous DC/Marvel creations produced as major cartoons for older crowds if it weren’t for the fact they’re still owned by conglomerates that don’t really respect the source material, or any of the visions past creators built them on. Unfortunately, political correctness in modern moviemaking is exactly why even animated adaptations of classic superhero fare is not something I look forward to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. US theatrical animation was in a sad state in 1982, not much better than superhero movies. Even Disney’s output wasn’t so hot (THE FOX IN THE HOUND came out the year before). Ralph Bakshi was still doing Bakshi stuff. Warner Bros. was doing ultra cheap Bugs Bunny “features” cobbling together old shorts with new footage and the voice of an increasingly smoker’s rasped Mel Blanc. Hanna-Barbera did HEIDI’S SONG which bombed hard and barely looked better than CHARLOTTE’S WEB almost a decade prior and was definitely worse as a movie. PLAGUE DOGS was partly made in San Francisco and partly in the UK but overall (with a British voice cast) is gorgeous to look at but deeply depressing as a narrative, and still fairly limited movements (just better overall drawing and animation) and lots of arty shots for atmosphere, closeups of the forest settings, foggy or misty scenes with vague VOS over or not showing the faces of most of the humans.

        But the biggest problem is the same one that affected SWAMP THING, outside of purely physical factors like the swamp and latex. Time and money. SECRET OF NIMH, easily the best US animated film released in 1982 and still kind of muddy looking in parts, cost seven million, and took years. PLAGUE DOGS evidently ran a mere 1 million and change but a lot of that was likely overseas cost adjustments, and it took three years. Computer animation doesn’t play into it and physical ink and paint departments and cel costs etc. all come into it. And none of this is even considering whether to hire name voice talent or the usual Saturday Morning people or minor actors with little to no real experience in voice-over or movies.

        By 19*92* maybe, an animated SWAMP THING feature would have been practical. 1982, the only plus is the cocaine and mosquitos would have been way down, unless Bakshi was involved.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Telling us about Dick Smith before switching go Bill Munns and then to Swamp Things’ stamin; Ye olde switcheroo!

    Interesting that they wanted the best but had to settle for the cheapest.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The head sticking out beyond the shoulders with animatronics… seems like something Disneyland could make work to entertain boat passengers for a minute. Not like something that could work for a movie.

    “the consensus was that it was simply too conspicuous”
    The costume that gives a whole new meaning to the question, “grow-er vs. show-er.”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. If IMDb can be believed, Bill Munn came out of retirement in 2019 for a movie caller Hoax, his first credit in 34 years.

    Of course, that could be a hoax, who knows?

    (I’m back on the ol’ Superheroes Every Day train, so expect a lot of comments on old posts.)

    Like

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