I understand from Jake West that before Doghouse you pitched to work on Pumpkinhead 3 with him.
"I wanted to do a coincidence of two things. One of which was to work with Jake. I’d wanted to work with Jake for a while and I wanted to work with him because creatively we are very similar. Pumpkinhead came up and we talked about it. You know Jake: in the end he’s not going to give you the job, he’s going to pitch for it because he doesn’t believe in favouritism. That’s one of the good things about him. As an aside, if you work for Jake, even if you’re a friend of his, you don’t get any quarter whatsoever which is the way I like it. I think it’s a good way to be because it keeps everybody on top of their game. He wants what he wants - and the Platinum Prince will be served.
“Getting back to Pumpkinhead, they really couldn’t afford me, that was what it came down to. They had a micro-budget, it was very much a TV budget, and I think Gary Tunnicliffe ended up doing it. It’s very easy to criticise things but we don’t know what sort of pressure he was under to produce the stuff. I know the budget was very, very small. Doghouse was a small budget but this was a micro-micro-budget. I just don’t think it was meant to be. Maybe it was a good thing and Doghouse was the thing where Jake and I were supposed to work together - and Dan Schaffer. There was a confluence of three people who happened in the same place and it felt like more of a fated thing."
So how did you get to know Jake originally?
"I met Jake through a comic artist I know called Bill Sinkiewicz who's been around for a long, long time. He did Elektra Assassin and he did a book on Jimi Hendrix, he’s a very well-known comic artist. We were introduced through him and we hit it off straightaway. I can always tell when I’ll get on with someone because I basically end up laughing a lot and I spent a lot of time laughing around Jake. It was one of those things where we decided that we should work together.
“I think at that point I was still doing the Potters and that sort of thing. It was just one of those things that seemed a very natural partnership. I do feel it’s a partnership with Jake. He has a tremendous respect for the work and for the artistry that goes into doing it. And the techniques of time management, things that directors don’t normally consider, because he’s a fan of the work."
With Doghouse, what did he present you with as a brief? Presumably you were given the concept drawings.
"The first word out of his mouth was ‘zombird’! He had me at zombird! It was one of those things and we had a chat early on. Jake was very open to ideas and he wanted to know what we could do for the budget. What we did was ambitious. I think on the last day of the shoot we had 41 zombirds on set. It was a huge, huge thing. We had no fewer than four hero make-ups per day, each of which took about three hours to put on. I had an on-set crew of 14 make-up artists and technicians and the build crew on Doghouse was 33 people. It’s a blockbuster-type crew for a not-blockbuster-type budget.
“So Jake wanted to handle this in a way which hadn’t been done before, which was nice, but to get back to where all of us fanboys live which is about 1986. Try to do everything in camera but keeping the quality threshold as high as possible. We determined very, very early on that the comedy - and this is working with Dan as well - that the comedy is what happens to the guys, the comedy isn’t that the effects are crap. We can’t have people laughing at this stuff. They can laugh at what happens but they shouldn’t be laughing at the make-up or anything like that. So we were very careful to keep the quality as high as possible."
With the zombirds all having a distinctive character...
"The Bash Street Kids!"
...Did you have to wait until the roles were cast so you could design the make-up around the actors?
"I was really lucky in that early on, a really talented conceptual artist named James Ryman was involved. Dan knew James and I think had something to do with him getting involved in the project. James did the brilliant sort of stream-of-consciousness artwork of what the make-ups of the creatures would look like in an ideal world. We had a lovely one: Bubbles was fantastic but there was no way we could do Bubbles on that budget, it would have been impossible. Bubbles stage two ended up being a full-face mask and a big neck piece that had a condom full of silicone oil in the neck so that it would flop about when she wobbled around.
“It was just thinking what could we do with the budget we had. It was a real challenge, it was great. It took me back to rubber monster movies which is why I got into the business. It was really nice, almost nostalgic. When we were there we realised it was something special. The film was really good to make, it was great fun and I think that because of that it will be great fun to watch."
Did you have enough time to get everything prepared?
"Ah, wrong question! There’s never enough time. I don’t think there’s a damn thing that I’ve done that I wouldn’t go back and do better. And I think that’s good because that’s a growth thing; looking back at stuff and realising you could do better. I will go out on a limb and say I don’t think anyone could have done a better job on the budget and the time that we had. We are all rightfully proud of Doghouse, however well it does at the cinema; we don’t know yet. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to do very well in the long term on DVD. I think it’s going to be one of those ‘kebab in one hand, six-pack in the other, come on lads let’s watch this movie’ kind of things! It’s made by the people it’s intended for: I think Jake and I and Dan will sit down and watch it!
“I have high hopes for it. It’s a brilliant script, it’s certainly more intelligent than your average horror movie. In many ways the zombirds are incidental to what’s going on, it’s about the guys and how they deal with this thing. I like its unapologetic nature. It’s a bt like Dusk Till Dawn in that way: there’s vampires, nobody knows how or why but it doesn’t really matter. The fact is they’re here and that’s your biggest problem. But it’s really how the guys deal with things and the comedy is playing off the creatures so you’ll find in the final cut it’s not a creature feature, they’re not the point of it. The point of it is the guys."
You have impressive credits on Harry Potter films and so but on those you were part of a bigger crew. Have you had overall responsibility on something this size before?
"I did Brothers Grimm for Terry Gilliam and I was working for a company called Artem who do basically everything but their knowledge and experience in the prosthetics field wasn’t as good as it could have been so I kind of took hold of that. I think I had a crew of 120 people on that. I don’t have a problem with crew size. It tends to be broken up into groups who do certain things. For example, at any time we had two dedicated contact lens technicians on set.
“We were very careful to keep things as safe as possible for our performers. Each make up was put on by at least one application artist. So quite often you would see, round the room, there were four make-up stations and each one would be occupied by one of the performers. They would have a make-up artist and an assistant in most cases putting the make-up on them. These would be phased in and out of the make-up room.
“Deborah Hyde, my co-ordinator, who ended up playing Stella the zombird barmaid because she’s quite an experienced creature performer, she would co-ordinate the in and out of the make-up room while in make-up, which was hilarious. Quite often you’d come in and she would be typing with three-inch claw nails. Very, very funny."
How long on average did it take to do a full hero make-up?
"A full hero stage two is about three and a half hours. In order to get the make-up out we did things like: normally you would take a big make-up like a full-face hero stage two and you’d knock it down to three or four different parts. In order to get the appliances out in the volume that we needed, we had to think of ways of saving time. One of these was that the stage twos were one piece for the most part; they went from the hairline to blended off under the jaw. It was a one-piece make-up so that’s a three-hour make-up as opposed to a seven-hour make-up."
When you say ‘stage two’, did the make-up develop over the course of the film?
"Yes, the zombirds go to stage two and they become a very different thing. From this sort of feral animal, almost opportunistic, they’re very stupid, their brains haven’t survived very well and they’re still going through the motions of their daily life. Then when they see a guy they all go mental and run over and try and eat him. Then in stage two they become more pack-like and communicative and co-operative. It’s a whole different thing and the whole flavour of the chase changes."
Were you based on set in the village?
"Yes, I was next to Jake for the whole shoot. I think it’s important say that the buck stops with me really: good things and bad things, I get all the credit and all the blame. All of the gags, every time we had an axe hit or a blood gag or a knife wound or a stabbing or anything like that, I operated the gag myself. That’s always been a policy with me, I’m a very hands-on sort of designer.
“But my background is being on set. That’s where I live really. I like the film-making process. It really is ground zero, right there with the camera turning over. There was one time I had to put a real axe into the ground next to Keith-Lee Castle’s head. He was being chased by the Bride and I had to do this. And somebody, I think it was Rocky Taylor the stunt supervisor, said to him, ‘Are you sure you’re okay with Karl doing this?’ He went, ‘Oh yeah, sure!’ It was a nice little bonding moment!
“It wasn’t as close as it looked; it looked closer than it was because it was on quite a long lens so it foreshortened the action quite a bit. But it’s that sort of thing, being willing to do it. I couldn’t ask anybody to do that because if it went wrong then there’s a lot of blame flying around. It’s very important that if I’m responsible then I’m responsible. I’ve got quite broad shoulders, I don’t mind that."
Was there any pressure from the producers to make it either suitably gory or not too gory?
"It’s reining Jake in that’s the problem! Whatever you’ve got, he’ll want it bigger and better. And that’s the director’s job. It’s our job to tell him no in a nice way. I did always try and give him what he wants but I have to look at it from an audience viewpoint. For example, if you’ve got a major character getting killed you’ve got to think about what he’s playing that for and how the audience will perceive it. You don’t want it to be a bloodbath because it won’t be tragic if it is.
“You’ve got to think from an audience perspective and I think it’s very important to gauge the amount of blood and the amount of gore - Jake will totally disagree with this by the way! - gauge the amount of blood and gore according to what’s appropriate for that particular scene. In many ways it’s quite interpretative, working with the director - and the writer as well. It was nice having Dan there for a lot of the time too."
Have you seen the finished film yet?
"I haven’t seen all of it. I haven’t seen it with the music and sound effects yet but I’ve seen quite a bit of the cut and I think it’s very good. It’s a shame in a way that it was cut so short but then there is always pressure to trim it and trim it and trim it. I think Jake’s pretty happy with it and Dan’s pretty happy with it and ultimately what matters is the punters like it. It really is all about them. That’s why we do this. It’s a dream job really. It’s the sort of thing that all us fanboys wanted to do and some of us are fortunate enough to be able to do it."
Do you have any other interesting projects lined up?
"Yes, I’m working with a guy called Zeb Lamb developing a project called Tanner’s Walk which is a variation on the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack which is a great creature, great fun. It’s nice to be able to get in on the ground floor with that. Also I was approached because he’d heard about what I’d done on Doghouse, which was nice. I’ve worked with him over the past few months to develop the creature which we’re really happy with this. I really like Jack in this, I think he’s going to be good. So watch out for that one. That will be a truly independent British creature feature so it will be great.
“Jake and Dan and I are working on various things in the background. I’m writing a screenplay at the moment; I also write. I think it’s an interesting time for British independent film. I think corporate film is suffering. But if you’re putting out British features at about two million quid then this is a good time. This is the time when independent productions will truly flourish and bloom."
British indie feature production, especially horror, certainly is booming at the moment. I still keep reading things about ‘Is it time for a British horror revival?’. But that actually has been going on since 2002!
"This is nice because what will happen hopefully is that, in the way that Lesbian Vampire Killers sadly wasn’t, what Dan and Jake have done with Doghouse as a team - and we had a small part with that but it’s mostly the writing and direction - is to be a sort of genre kick-starter. I hope it will encourage people to make more films. You know, the whole budget for Doghouse was under two million quid. What we’ve achieved with that looks like five or six because we had a brilliant DP in Ali Asad. We had Dan who wrote us an amazing script. We had Jake.
“You know, people think of him as uncompromising; he isn’t, he’s extremely compromising. He will get the most that he can get out of a given thing and I think people misunderstand that about Jake. If you say no he’ll say fine, what can I have? Rather than, ‘I want it, I want it, I want it’ and stamp his foot. He’s not like that. He’s a very, very creative film-maker. Well, you can hear I’m a fan. I love Jake’s work, always have. Would you like some technical things, just fun things to drop in the article?"
If you’ve got fun things to drop in, sure.
"Just bits and bobs, in no particular order. It’s things like: we had 38 sets of contact lenses which were stage one and stage two lenses. Stage one were 15mm corneal lenses and stage two were 22mm scleral lenses that cover the whole eye. Those were done by a company called 9mm Special Effects, a guy called Kevin Carter - in Oregon. We made over 400 make-up appliances. And on top of all the make-up effects work we did, we also built some props.
“We built the monster trucks, the Dog’s Bollocks monster trucks, all of which did different things. One of which banged on the door, another one which we fully engined up, a remote control job which ran around the yard crashing into the zombirds, which was quite fun. That was a good day. We did body parts, we did a huge pile of bodies for the nest. We did arms, legs, heads, torsos, hands, all sorts of stuff.
“We did a gag I was particularly proud of which is we put a knife in Danny Dyer’s hand which looked very good. I was very happy with that. Sony were there that day; it just happened to be the day we were doing that gag and we got it right the first take, which was nice. It looked fabulous. All sorts of stuff: the hero and stunt weapons as well which was unusual for this. I wanted to get creative control of the weaponry largely because I knew what Jake would like to see and I think he’s very happy with the weapons."
When you say weapons, we’re talking golf clubs and water pistols?
"Well, we didn’t do water pistols, that was props, but we did the swords, the axes, the broken bottle for the barmaid. Anything that interacted with a zombird and/or a victim. Banksy’s death, Neil Maskell playing Banksy, I will go out on a limb and say it’s a first. I don’t think anyone’s been killed in that way in a film before. It was hilarious, it was very funny because Neil’s so good, he played it so well.
“That was Deb Hyde my co-ordinator who is also a creature performer. She was one of the puppeteers on Potter and she played the 500-year-old corpse queen in The Brothers Grimm. Jake likes the way that she portrays creatures so she ended up as the barmaid Stella - and finally got to use that broken bottle she carried round for the whole film. We did rubber and fibreglass lightweight versions of all the props. We did retractables, we did chopping axes for when people get chopped in the legs and things so there’s a lot of little gags to look out for. It’s very full, the film is full of stuff."
Were these all variants of things that you’ve done before or was there anything innovative?
"Everything’s a kind of a variant because there’s only so many ways to do so many things. We did a thing when Bubbles gets killed which was hilarious and we hadn't done anything like that before. We didn’t have the budget to do a full standing hero body that gets killed. We ended up doing it another way and I think people will be very surprised and it should get a good laugh! I’ve not done anything quite like that before. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it but Bubbles’ death we are very proud of.”
interview originally posted 11th October 2009