The Monster Maker

Interview with Howard Berger

You worked with the greatest contemporary American film directors such as Michael Mann, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, Frank Darabont, Sam Raimi, etc., and in 2005 you won an Oscar for Chronicles of Narnia. Your name can be associated to high quality cinema make up. What is your secret?!

My secret is to always be invested in what I do. To be the best I can and to treat others the way you wish to be treated. It’s about karma and if you are a nice person good things will come to you. I have been very fortunate in this business to be where I am today and I wake up every morning and I am grateful for it!

The first movie you worked for is George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. Romero is one of the most important film directors in the American horror scene. What about this first important experience?

Actually I worked on another classic called GHOULIES for John Carl Beuchler before DOTD, but I would say DAY OF THE DEAD was my first experience in “real” film making. I was 19 and this was like going away to university for me. I had never been on location and BOOM, there i was off to Pittsburgh, home of the zombies, working for Tom Savini. It was unreal! It was a great experience as out of that I became great friends with my future KNB partners Bob Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero.

On the film set of Day of the Dead you also met Greg Nicotero who would become your partner in founding the KNB EFX. What about your first meeting?

I hopped off a plane, was driven to the mine where we filmed, and the first person I met was Greg, who was chasing Savini around trying to get him to make a decision about something. Again is was surreal as there I was in Zombieland with Savini and Romero and I was 19 and could not believe it.

Howard Berger. With Nicotero e Kurtzman he founded in 1988 the KNB FX.

How do you usually carry out your work? Do you usually put forward proposals about possible make-ups after having read the movie script, or is it the film director who gives you guidelines?

We are very fortunate as we receive scripts all the time and Greg and I read them and find ones we like and feel we would be challenged by. Grant it we need to also take a few films that might not be the best, but we have a big crew and it takes a lot to keep this shop running, so we are constantly busy, we have to.

 Once we get a script we like, we break it down, figure out a rough budget, meet with the director, refind the budget and then see what happens. Productions these days care most about the bottom line, which is the money. I understand that, but hate that. To me it is about the work, art and the end product being the best it can. So many times I ask if anyone cares if this will be good, which is met with silence and stares as they don’t know how to answer that. Typical.

John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madnessis one of my favourite movies. I consider it one of your most successful works also from a technical point of view. Where did you find inspirations to create the characters of Hobb’s End which are so “normal” and so frightful at the same time?

Greg supervised that one as he has a close relationship with John.  When we got the job we certaintly used HP Lovecraft as our main point of reference. This is very heavily influenced by his work. We had a great team on that film, everyone was in 100% and wanted to do their best for John, as always.

How is it working with John Carpenter?

He’s the greatest. Very smart, funny, brilliant. I am a huge fan, always have been! Any chance to work with John is a great time! Sadly we have not done anything with him lately, the last thing I did with him was an episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, which was a blast!

Your cooperation with Quentin Tarantino is long-lasting and continuous as well. How is it working with him?

He too is one of my most favorite directors. We have been friends with QT before he was QT! We all went to the same BBQ’s on sundays, movies together, dinner, everything. Bob Kurtzman had written a 20 page outline for this vampire film called FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and he wanted to hire QT to write it, who at that point had not ever been paid to write a script.  QT was still working at the video store. So Bob approached him to write the script and the deal was he pays him $1,500.00 and KNB will do the effects for free if he ever gets his film going. We had no idea if he would ever make a film or not, so we took the deal and well, the rest is history.

In From dusk till dawn you made up Tom Savini as a vampire. Has the pupil surpassed the master?

It was great fun. Norman Cabera sculpted the makeup and Wayne Toth and I applied it. I loved  doing the makeup as I knew it would be one of the stand out makeups in the film and plus it was on Tom, so i got to torture him a bit as he hates glue and feeling sticky and gross, and I took advantage of that.

Tom Savini in From Dusk till Dawn

Some of the movies that make up your filmography are not at all “fantastic” – Boogie Nights, The green mile, Very bad things, etc. -. How is it working on “normality”? Is it easier than working on monsters?

We mix it up at KNB and that is why we have been around for the past 25 years as we do everything. When we first started we were known as the “gore guys”, that has changed quite a bit through the years with all the many films and genres we have been involved with. It’s a great challenge to be able to mix it up. To do Walking Dead and then leap to Hitchcock are two very different approaches. I personally love the fantasy and character films. Greg is king of the zombies and loves the gore. I could live without fake blood, yuck!

Tagline from The Walking Dead

Your latest creatures – The walking Dead‘s zombies – are famous all over the world, even more famous than those by Romero. How would you explain this great success? Is it because TV series are so fashionable nowadays or because  The walking Dead is the first real TV series about the living dead?

Walking Dead is all Greg. That is his baby. I wish I had more to do with that show, but that is all Greg’s baby. I think the success of that show is all about character and story telling, which is the most important thing. The zombies are one of the vehicles that help motivate the story lines, but they are not the main focus and that is what makes the show so special and unique.

Yours is still a handmade work that reminds of Méliès persistence. What is your opinion about digital make up? Do you think that computer graphics is essential to cinema nowadays?

The digital revolution is now part of film making, like it or not. I enjoy working hand in hand with my digital brothers as we are all at a point where we want what is best for the film and sometimes it is a combination of both techniques to make the effect work. There are some things that work better with practical and some things that should be digital, so it all depends on what is the best approach for the shot. I feel it is the wave of the future.


Click here for italian version

(Thanks to Howard Berger for his kindness. Thanks to Krocodylus for contacting him and Rosalita for translating)

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