Swamp Thing 3.17: People Make Choices

“The film couldn’t and doesn’t rely on its special effects,” said director Wes Craven, erroneously. “As the producers went for the person who did the effects on the basis of who gave the lowest quote, you can understand why I had to make the film more of a human experience.”

Which is all very well — I like a human experience as much as the next guy — but the fact is that Swamp Thing absolutely does rely on its special effects, because the non-human is the lead character. This is a superhero movie about a big green monster who saves a beautiful woman from a mean wizard, which means you’re going to need, at minimum, a credible monster, woman and wizard. A story like that can’t just skate by on insights into the human condition, especially since I don’t think Swamp Thing has any of those, either.

So as you’ll recall, we talked yesterday about the Swamp Thing producers’ decision to hire Bill Munns to design the Swamp Thing costume, based entirely on Munns’ bargain-basement price tag of $80,000. He began the process with high hopes and good intentions, but his early suggestions were obviously unworkable, given the time and talents available.

It gradually dawned on Craven that maybe Munns wasn’t the best choice for the job, but it was too late to choose a different make-up artist. In fact, it was too late to work with this make-up artist, and technically it was too late to make a decent movie in the first place. This is one of those Hollywood stories about everyone in the project reaching just beyond their ability to grasp, and missing it by several Rotten Tomatoes percentage points.

Once they’d vaguely agreed on a direction, and dropped the idea that Swamp Thing would sport a noticeable cockroot in the south central area, Munns said that he needed twelve weeks to build and test the costumes. He ended up with six weeks, which was not enough weeks.

Partly, the problem was that they didn’t have enough financing yet for Munns to start working. They agreed on the approach by mid-February 1981, but then Munns had to sit idle for more than a month, waiting for the producers to finalize the deal. Then they decided that they had to start filming in late April, because of a threatened directors’ strike that was supposed to happen in June, and Munns had to deliver on his half-baked ideas right away.

I’m not sure why the producers behaved in this eccentric way. Sometimes I wonder if they were working for the opposition.

In March, with the clock ticking, Munns started to work with actor Bob Minor, who was cast as Swamp Thing. Minor was a muscular stuntman who spent the early 1970s working on blaxploitation films like Cleopatra Jones, Scream Blacula Scream and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, and he had recently graduated into more mainstream roles in Smokey and the Bandit II and the Buck Rogers TV show.

Munns took a full-body plaster cast of Minor…

and then used that cast to start sculpting Swamp Thing’s body in clay. Once they had that design, they started to produce the latex pieces that would make up the suit.

And then, for some reason that I have not been able to ferret out, the producers decided three weeks later to remove Bob Minor from the role, and cast Dick Durock in his place. I don’t know if there was a problem with Minor and he needed to be replaced, or if he had a better opportunity and bowed out. But at this point, with three weeks before the shoot, Munns needed to adjust the costume to fit Durock.

Like Minor, Dick Durock was an experienced stuntman, who spent the 1970s working on some Planet of the Apes movies, a Doc Savage movie, B.J. and the Bear, and Chu Chu and the Philly Flash. Coincidentally, he’d recently played a green-skinned comic-book monster on a two-part episode of the Incredible Hulk series, which aired in 1981. Playing the lead in Swamp Thing was his first real break as an actor.

So hiring Durock was a decent casting decision, but the problem for Bill Munns was that Durock had an entirely different shape than the man he was replacing. Bob Minor was 6’2″, broad-chested and muscular. Dick Durock was 6’5″, and much leaner.

The producers asked Munns if it was possible to convert his 6’2″ Swamp Thing costume to fit the 6’5″ actor, and Munns — aware that if he said no, then the whole movie would fall apart — said yes.

And then the exact same thing happened again, with the Arcane creature. The producers didn’t have a stuntman to play the villain, so Munns’ team had to use Bob Minor’s 6’2″ body form as the base for the second creature as well. A few weeks later, the producers cast Ben Bates, who — like Durock — was 6’5″.

They didn’t have time to make new castings, so Munns’ team used a process called “slushing” — filling the Bob Minor mold with a thin layer of latex, and pulling the 3/8″ latex pieces out of the mold to use as raw materials for the new suit. They chopped up the latex pieces and glued them together around Durock’s body, and that’s the costume that we see in the film.

To make the process even more difficult, they then cast Ray Wise to play Alec Holland, and Wise insisted that he would play Swamp Thing in the close-ups, and deliver all of the dialogue. So Munns made another set of costumes, just from the waist-up, to fit Wise.

Everyone was aware that this idea might not work in practice. Munns’ work was inspired by the original character design from the comic book, and Swamp Thing in the comics doesn’t have much of a nose. This worked fine for Durock, whose nose is pretty flat, but Wise’s face was different.

Munns explained, “They sent [Wise] over to me to take a mold of his face. As soon as he left, I got on the phone and called the production offices in New York, and told them that he had the worst possible nose in the world to try to hide under a Swamp Thing mask.But the provision was already in Wise’s contract, so Munns made a second set of half-size costumes.

Craven knew that it was likely that splitting the scenes between the two actors wouldn’t work, so he filmed all of the close-up shots twice — once with Wise, and once with Durock — to make sure that he had coverage, if they decided to use Durock for all of the scenes.

Now, usually in a situation like this, the make-up and effects departments could save time and money by having a small number of “hero suits” — higher-quality costumes or props that are seen in all of the close-ups — and a set of lower-quality costumes for the background actors, since nobody’s going to see them clearly anyway.

So if Dick Durock was just going to appear in the long shots, and Ray Wise was going to do all of the close-ups, then Munns would have been able to economize, by making just two or three masks for Durock that would last for the entire shoot. But Craven decided to film both actors in close-up, so Munns needed to give both of them new faces every three days.

As it turned out, Craven didn’t think that Wise’s footage blended well with Durock’s, so he decided to just use Durock’s takes for the entire movie.

At least, I think so. It’s generally understood that Durock is the guy in the Swamp Thing suit through the entire movie, but it’s possible that there are some takes with Wise that ended up in the final product. In Craven’s DVD commentary, during the scene where Swamp Thing resurrects Jude, Craven says, “See that? His face there looks very sharp. That’s probably Ray, I would guess.”

Munns also said in Cinefantastique that late in the filming, Craven decided to reshoot the big Cable/Swamp Thing encounter on the riverbank, using Wise in the costume. But he also said that he wasn’t sure which take would be used, and honestly I can’t tell the difference.

I wish that I could say that I can easily tell the difference between Durock’s footage and Wise’s footage, like I can with Lois Lane’s changing hairstyle in Superman II, but it all looks the same to me. I’ve tried comparing the close-ups in several sequences, and if there’s a difference, it escapes me. I don’t know why anybody thought it would be a big deal, considering the generally slapdash nature of the entire production.

So for today, I’m going to leave poor Bill Munns at his oven, frantically cooking up latex pieces that don’t even fit the actor who’s going to wear the costume, and desperately hoping that everything will be okay, once they start filming. It will absolutely not be okay — you can’t even see okay, from where they’re standing — but I’ll let him dream, for another day.

Tomorrow:
3.18: The Rubber Meets the Road

Chapters

— Danny Horn

13 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.17: People Make Choices

  1. That villain from The Incredible Hulk just took me back in time.

    Recently received that series on Blu-ray and rewatched the pilot. What a good show that was.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Maybe Minor learned they were filming in a real swamp and realized he’d be sweating his cockroot off in this latex monstrosity for umpteen hours a day. The joke is that Black people would be smart enough to leave a haunted house after the first spooky occurrence, so maybe this is the same sort of common sense kicking in, leading him to say Hell no and walking out.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Everyone was aware that this idea might not work in practice.”

    That’s like the theme song for this whole production, isn’t it?

    “he filmed all of the close-up shots twice — once with Wise, and once with Durock — to make sure that he had coverage”

    Too bad it was so far before Tommy Wiseau’s big breakthrough. He could have had them shoot in film and video all at once.

    Glad you’re back, Danny. Looks like your visit to museums and stuff made by artists who knew what they were doing, got you refreshed to talk about this film. Where none of that was true!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The worst part is they knew what they wanted to do, even what they could do if given the chance, but instead had to scramble and scratch and make seat of the pants decisions in the middle of a swamp.

      It’s like finally being given the chance to make the gourmet meal of your dreams but you’re told you can only use your feet and an E-Z Bake oven.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Isn’t this just a metaphor for life, though? We all want to project an air of strength and confidence, but what we have is a rubbery, ill-fitting visage that could be anybody.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Yet another fascinating post, for which I thank you very much. But why in earth do you think Swamp Thing is the lead character? Alice Cable drives every scene- the few she isn’t in consist entirely of the villains setting up problems she will have to solve. And every character is defined in relation to her. Granted, Swamp Thing is in the title and he shows up at the end and rescues her, but that’s like a movie where the title is a natural disaster and the protagonist is the one who’s savvy enough to make it out of the disaster alive.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. You can’t have a GIRL be the hero/lead, you silly! Women are there to scream and be rescued, no matter how competent she is and how ridiculous the title character.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Well, that doesn’t sound like Danny- I’m sure something else is on his mind.

        I think of Swamp Thing in this movie in the way that I think of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Each is in the title, each shows up at the end to rescue the main character, and each is borrowed from a text that is sacred to some people. Neither one has the makings of a protagonist, though, and each is last seen on the way to cold storage.

        Liked by 4 people

  6. It always amazes me how producers, whose entire job is to invest/raise money for the film and presumably have actual fiducial stakes in its success, manage to cane said film in the knees and take its wallet at every opportunity. If you’re making a monster movie you should have at least a vague interest in making the monster workable and visually interesting.

    Liked by 5 people

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