Cinefear: Tell us a little about your background, and how and why you developed an interest in makeup and effects?
Rodd Matsui: I starting doing makeup, like a lot of people, as a child for Halloween. I very much enjoyed scaring people with monster makeups, and the Halloween holiday gave me license to do that. So I would plan for it, and when October 31st came I would go nuts, running around trying to cause as much chaos as possible. Actually, I still do that.
I used to read anything I could find about Dick Smith and Rick Baker; there was something so compellingly real about their work. I had always loved fantasy and science fiction films, and I loved the monster stuff, so I practiced a lot, and by the time I was fifteen or so the makeup effects "boom" had just started, so I went around Hollywood looking for jobs.
Are you trained by a professional or are you self taught?
At the beginning I was self-taught, but when I started working with other people in make-up labs, I discovered a million techniques that other people had invented. People try to keep secrets about how they do things, but it's not really possible. There is a great sharing of knowledge in the makeup field--you can't work next to someone without absorbing what they are doing, and vice-versa. It improves everyone's work. And it definitely keeps your brain busy.
What are some of your chief influences as well as favorite films?
When I was seven I got a book about horror movies for Christmas--"A Pictorial History of Horror Movies" by Denis Gifford--and that was a startling book. I couldn't read most of the text at that time, but it was full of the most gruesome pictures--I mean, sick. I don't think the relative that gave it to me really looked at it before buying it, because if she had, I'm sure, she wouldn't have bought it!
Movies were like a constant pastime when I was a kid. I liked Walt Disney films a lot as a kid, still do, and Ray Harryhausen's pictures...and in 1975 I saw a film on TV that really affected me, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things --it just scared the freaking hell out of me. I can't convey how terrifying it was to me at that age. This was rated "GP" when it came out, and I'm sure it would practically get an X today, just for content. I saw it not too long after reading Alan Ormsby's book "Movie Monsters" for the first time, and this was a dangerous book for a kid to have, because the first half of it was designed to teach you all about the classic movie monsters and to get you hooked on them, while the second half was all about how to build monsters and put on your own show. A volatile combination. I've run into other people since who were also heavily influenced by that book, which cost 75 cents in 1975, as I recall. Ormsby is one of the people who established the template of the artist/filmmaker who could do more than one thing--he could write, direct, do artwork, act. People like that were very inspiring in the 70's--their presence in the film world suggested that you really could do anything you wanted if you set your mind to it--and maybe everything you wanted!
I started developing a taste for two kinds of movies--movies that were comfortable and reinforcing, and movies that were disturbing and unpleasant. Oh yeah, I was ten when Star Wars came out, and, well, you know...I became a real Star Wars fan really quick. Oh, and Godzilla films. I mean the original ones, preferably the ones made before 1970. That's good stuff.
I don't like many non-fantasy movies, because I think they're often boring, but certain ones I find intense...Keith Gordon's movie The Chocolate War, based on the Robert Cormier book, is a good one...that's a really fucked up movie.
I figure that film and literature are fantasy mediums anyway, like, all fiction is fantasy, so people really shouldn't wimp out. They should bond with the nature of fantasy. Fantasy has this idiotic stigma that it's "not real"--people don't see that symbols, metaphors, can bash you over the head more efficiently and painfully, because your brain has fewer defenses against them. They go right into the subconscious and start working. Actually, maybe it's better that people don't see that.
Can a person, in this day and age, actually make a living off doing makeup effects?
It's possible for a certain number of people to make a living off of it; but the number is much smaller than in the 80's, when rubber effects were "the rage"--at that point the market was wide open, with many jobs. The market has been changing, as part of the onward march of special effects technology--everything is going very digital nowadays, and we are in a process of re-inventing the concept of what makeup is, in the digital age. Various kinds of artists are adapting to these neat new tools.
Tell us a little about your makeup studio and how you go about promoting yourself?
The Hollywood fishbowl is very small--everyone knows everyone, so jobs sort of come in through word of mouth, most of the time. There isn't as much of a need for advertising. I do a lot of promotion to the public as a filmmaker, though, which is actually the area I'm more interested in, because filmmaking is where the core storytelling goes on. In addition to doing my own makeup jobs, I freelance a lot, work for other people on their shows, so my makeup studio is very portable--I can grab my stuff and move it wherever it needs to be.
How did you come into contact with Andy Milligan?
An actor I met at EZTV Studios, Joel Weiss (who eventually played "Angelo" in Monstrosity), had mentioned that Milligan was doing a movie nearby, and gave me his phone number. I went over to his house to meet him, brought my gory portfolio and stuff; and apparently Joel had already convinced him that he should hire me. In fact I'm sure that was the case, so I'm very indebted to Joel. It was really nice of him to do that. I had heard very little about Milligan up until that time, and then after I met him I read up on him a little. He seemed to me kind of like an H. G. Lewis type of fellow, and I liked the idea of working with someone who was already popular with a cult audience. The effects budget on Monstrosity was small, I think $1000 was allotted for everything, it definitely wasn't much more than that, but for me at the time, it was enough to get everything done.
Tell us your impressions of Milligan, and how did you get on with him personally?
I liked him a lot--he was very friendly and extremely pleasant to work with. Part of it was that he came off as kind of a demented Wilford Brimley; he was this older fellow who had been doing his thing for a while, making these frightful, violent films, but it was so second-nature to him. "Okay, now we're gonna slash the guy's neck open, now we're gonna pull the girl's intestines out..." He made horror films like people make apple pies. It was all very casual, and that made working with him a lot of fun.
Tell us about the experience of working on Weirdo and Monstrosity.
Weirdo was the other film I did with him, the second film--and that was largely shot at a house in Topanga Canyon, so my memories of Weirdo are not so specific--the days sort of turned into a blur. At that time, on Weirdo, I was working on two other movies at the same time, and had little time to sleep--so I would sleep on set, and they would wake me up an hour or two before they needed an effect. I remember that house, and ended up working there again years later on a Charles Band picture called Seedpeople.
Most of the first film we shot, Monstrosity, was shot in Hollywood, at two houses he lived in. One was on Orange Street off Santa Monica Blvd., and the other house was situated on a hill above his Sunset Blvd. studio, which had previously been a bar. Some scenes were shot inside the studio, too. And for certain scenes we used the studio as "guerrilla headquarters" --we would drag the stuff across the street and steal some shots and then run back inside the studio before anyone knew what was happening. I think Andy had this guerrilla thing down. That sort of stuff, the running out into the street stuff, was usually done at night. I remember we shot a scene at a car wash, smearing blood all over the place, and ran back into the studio.
When you watch Monstrosity, you actually see the places where he lived and worked a lot at that time. If you see a grocery store in that movie, that's probably where he bought groceries. This seems important, because I've found many people on the net who are fascinated by his work and are curious about those little details.
There is the story that I always tell about the time we were shooting in Andy's garage on Orange Street. This was the "lab" where the kids put the monster together. It was raining, and he had snaked all these electrical cords through the rain, from the house to the garage. I was worried that something might happen if we stepped in a puddle, right? So I got nervous and asked Andy if he was sure that was a good idea--and he looked at me like I was crazy, and said, "I've been doing this for years--trust me, kid, I've done this, I know!" And I thought about it, and figured, "Hmm, maybe he DOES know..." And of course, nothing ever, ever happened; no one got electrocuted. This was the kind of thing that would disturb me, normally, but I thought his attitude was amusing, sort of funny, like, "I've done this before and nothing happened, so it must be safe!"
I remember on that rainy day I had decaffeinated coffee for the first time--we were sort of rained in, and no one could go and get real coffee, and I really wanted some. And there was lots of instant coffee in the house, but it was all decaf...I made myself a cup of it, but it tasted like water, and I didn't understand it...decaffeinated coffee is wrong.
Andy's shoots were mostly predictable, but sometimes not. He would keep to the schedule rigidly--he always got every shot on the list each day, without fail--but would sometimes ask for very unexpected things. I tried to have lots of extra stuff ready in the kit.
The thing that has fascinated me for years is that Milligan's assistant, who worked as a security guard watching the Sunset Blvd. studio at night, mentioned that the studio building was haunted by something. Yeah. He said every once in a while, very late at night, a glowing cloud would appear and slowly move around the perimeter of the room, keeping close to the walls as it moved. I grilled him about this, for specific details. He said it made a weird sound like sandpaper being rubbed on the wall, or maybe like maracas being shaken, and he said it moved very mechanically, first along one wall to the corner, where it would pause, then along the next wall to the next corner, and so on. This sounded kind of scary, but I was intrigued, too, so I asked him, "Hey, do you think I could come down here some night and see this thing, maybe?" But he got real nervous and clammed up, saying that Andy didn't like him to talk about the thing, or the ghost, or whatever it was. So I assume that Andy must have seen it once or twice, since it was his studio! I always wonder about that when I drive past the studio, which I think has been deserted for a while now. (I forget this fellow's name, but he plays a criminal in the film and gets his throat slashed open by the monster. There's a funny continuity error when it cuts to the gore closeup.)
Are you happy with your work in both films and would you have ever traded in the experience?
Some of the effects in both films didn't look as good as I had hoped, but some of the effects look much better than I had hoped...in the case of "Frankie," the monster in Monstrosity, he wanted the makeup done in 45 minutes most of the time, and at the outset he gave me a bag of stuff he wanted me to use for that, a wig and a rubber ape glove and stuff. He actually didn't want me to create anything complicated for the monster, he wouldn't allow it, so I spent much more time on the gore effects. I think this makes the film look very weird. It's certainly unusual. I recently visited an Italian website that has video clips of gore scenes from that film, and this blew my mind because copies of Monstrosity are really hard to find in Los Angeles. The clips appear to be from an extremely uncut Italian print, and they're gory as hell! I haven't seen that stuff in almost fifteen years!
He had some instructions, suggestions, that I sort of had to go the other way on, stuff I just didn't want to do...like for the disembowelment, he wanted me to go to the butcher shop and get a bunch of guts, and I had a bag of rubber guts already, so I said, "You know, I'd like to use the rubber guts I have here..." And he seemed disappointed, but he perked up when he saw the gelatin body we were going to stuff with the guts and then cut open. He liked that. I've never seen any of his older films, but I understand he did all the effects himself, and had never had a real makeup technician. He had used painted plasticene clay and stuff, so having someone oversee the gore effects and pump blood for him must have been a treat.
Apparently he got more coverage than I remember of the guts being pulled out--he did a take of the guts where the actor playing the killer tosses the guts casually over his shoulder, and the "shoulder" action was a little impromptu bit he asked the actor for while the camera was rolling...something about it really disgusted and horrified me. I'm sure that sounds funny considering that I built that stuff. But anyway, the take they used didn't feature that, which I'm kind of glad about, because it was beyond gory, it pushed it into obscenity.
Also, on a couple of occasions, on both Monstrosity and Weirdo, he did some gore effects himself, things I think he came up with at the last minute, on days when I wasn't there--so you may see a couple of effects that just don't look like they were done by the same person, and that's because Andy did them.
Working on Milligan's films in the late 80's gave me many good memories. I have worked on all kinds of things since then, films with much larger budgets that paid far more money, but which were nowhere near as enjoyable. No, I'd never trade that experience. To call it unique would be an understatement.
What's up for the future, and are you working on anything currently?
I work with some other filmmakers, and we have a website called Progressive Cinema. We're very excited about the opportunities presented by the Internet, because the dialogue with our audience is allowing us to get to know them much better, so we can deliver the off-beat things they want to see. We want to be accessible to people, and we want them to be accessible to us.
We have a number of projects in the works, and one of them is the digital restoration of our 1987 feature Zombie Party. This is a project that was done on a shoestring, and our lack of equipment, and lack of funds generally, made the overall technical quality of the video lower than we wanted. Originally, we all just assumed that we were stuck with what we had, but that has changed drastically because of digital technology--we can now go back and re-assemble it, remix the sound in stereo, add more effects, all kinds of stuff. It'll be a completely different animal when we're finished--much more expensive-looking.
We also have newer stuff, horror projects and such, which we keep in development. Establishing an internet presence has been the big thing for the past couple of years, but now that we have a foothold there, we can start getting crazy again. We hope to shock a lot of people. We love our audience, but ideally, we really want to destroy their minds.
NEW AS OF MARCH 19, 2002!!!! Rodd was kind enough to dig up pages of the real Monstrosity script. CLICK HERE to feast your eyes on Milligan's work, replete with notes and stains.