Q&A: Director Jacob Vaughan on Good Puppetry and “BAD MILO”
In BAD MILO, director Jacob Vaughan implicitly understands that our highest enjoyment of this tale of the titular intestinal demon and the havoc he wreaks would come with strings—or rods—attached. That is to say, BAD MILO works on a level of madcap horror/comedy thanks to all of the arguments we’ve seen in support of old school practical FX. Milo the demon is there, and so are his puppeteers Frank Langley and Bob Mano, bringing him in and out of Ken Marino’s butt to alternately bite dicks and cuddle close. FANGORIA spoke with Vaughan about the process of bringing Bad, and Good, Milo to life.
FANGORIA: What were the beginnings of the design? What had you initially wanted?
JACOB VAUGHAN: From the very beginning, I thought the most compelling choice would be to make a movie with an actual puppet, using all practical FX. For a long time I’ve felt CG is great and does what it does really well, but we all know when we’re watching CG. We seem to have a subconscious feeling that the object is not real, that there’s not a real object being photographed and I think when there is a real object being photographed, people kind of know it. There’s just something about a model, or a miniature or a real puppet and I wanted that quality. I felt like we hadn’t seen that in a long time.
FANG: There’s something funny in horror movies that use puppets for devious acts because there’s something inherently adorable in the puppet. Did you make any decisions to play into that in Milo’s design, that despite what Milo does he’ll still read on some level as endearing?
VAUGHAN: Absolutely. Part of the reason I love GREMLINS and movies around that time so much is because it’s a puppet and I grew up loving THE MUPPETS. I think we all really love puppets. There’s something inherently flawed or human about a puppet. A CG creature, you kind of refine its movement over and over again. For a puppet, it’s got a human in it making human mistakes, which are very organic. To me, that’s something we can fall in love with really easily. There’s a performance behind it that you kind of don’t get with a CG character. I don’t want to knock CG, because I think it’s amazing stuff these artists are doing, but I just think there’s a different quality you get with a puppet.
FANG: Especially in genre, you need that homemade quality.
VAUGHAN: Yea, there’s just something very endearing about a puppet. I can’t put my finger on it, but there were these moments where we had Ralph, the father’s creature, or Milo too—we called it Muppet-ing across the room—is such that you can’t see the bottom of the puppet. The puppeteer is just below the camera and he’s just bouncing the figure across. We called that Muppet-ing and it’s ridiculous. Obviously, in a perfect world we’d show his feet running across the room, but because it’s a puppet, we can’t do that and he’s got this Muppet quality to him. I think we all found that really, really charming and funny and sort of just go with it.
FANG: So how many iterations of Milo were there? There’s an early scene with him trying to crawl back into Ken Marino’s ass, and we do see his feet.
VAUGHAN: There was an angry Milo and a gentle Milo, and the angry Milo had sort of a terrifying look on its face and then the gentle Milo was all cute, and then his body was different a little bit. When he was angry, he was a little more inflamed and red. Then we had a third iteration, which was a stunt Milo, which didn’t have any sort of those in his face. The stunt Milo was the puppet that we could throw through the window, or throw across the room and not damage. We could do whatever we wanted with him, and hit him, and he wouldn’t get hurt.
So the first two Milo’s are rod puppets. They had attachments for these rods on his arms and then on his feet. There were two main puppeteers, Frank Langley and Bob Mano. Frank would manipulate the actual puppet, like hold him up, move his arms, move his feet. But he was just one guy, so he only had one hand to hold him up and the other hand to hold both rods. And then Bob Mano had a remote control console and he controlled facial features of Milo. Together, they brought Milo to life and they thought as one person, they were able to communicate with each other in such a way to bring Milo to life. They did an excellent job.
So on that particular shot of Milo crawling up Ken’s leg, we took Bob off of the remote control that controlled his face and if you notice, Milo’s face isn’t really doing much. He’s blinking his eyes a couple of times, but that’s a digital art effect that we just added in. Bob went over and he took the rods for the feet and Frank took the rods for the arms and they each manipulated his limbs, as he crawled up. To do that kind of a shot, we have to sacrifice Milo’s face, and Milo’s face had to be sort of neutral. So it was compromises on how we get Milo to do the things we wanted him to do on a limited budget. Ideally, if I had to do it over, I’d say let’s add two more puppeteers to the mix and be able to do even more. But I think for what we had, I think we tried to stretch our dollar and it looked pretty fun.
FANG: It looks great, and it doesn’t look less. It feels as if people are operating it and it’s all tangible.
VAUGHAN: Right. Every shot you see Milo in the movie, the original footage has Frank standing behind him dressed all in black. What we would do is shoot the shot of Milo, lock down the camera and then shoot a plate; remove Milo and the puppeteer and shoot a plate of the background. Then we rotoscoped the outline of Milo’s figure and replaced the background. We used a combination of old technology and new. We’ve got puppeteers manipulating the puppet, yet we’re using new technology—not that new—to take the puppeteer out of the background. It’s not quite green screen, but its background replacement.
FANG: Had Frank and Bob worked together before? Do you want a pair that’s always a pair?
VAUGHAN: Oh yea, they worked on TEAM AMERICA… This is my only experience, but the way it worked was at the very beginning I worked with Aaron Sims to come up with the concept. He read the script and really liked it and we put together some concept art so we could try to raise money for the movie. So, I gave him some reference of what I wanted him to look like and my main reference point was I wanted skin to be like the lining of your intestine: slimy and yellowy. I wanted to have it fold and double up on itself, and I wanted him to be cute on one hand, but terrifying and ferocious on the other. And so he made his eyes really big and black, I wanted one eye to be a little bit smaller than the other because I felt like that would be really cute and adorable. He did a sketch, he’s just so talented. He did a sketch that was right on the money. It was perfect, so cute and so adorable. And he did a gentle version and a terrifying version, and it was just so compelling. We put that in the package with the script and we went to financers with that.
Once we got the funding in place, we went to Fractured FX. They did the special makeup FX. We went to them and they made a sculpture of Milo and I gave them notes. They made a couple of changes to the concept—extended his arms and legs a bit so he could run—and created the actual puppet. They put us in contact with Frank and Bob. They were a team that obviously worked together really well and came to the table with a wealth of experience in this area.
FANG: Because Milo has these little intricacies and details that make him cuter, did that make you feel you could go farther with the gorier stuff he did?
VAUGHAN: Yea, yea. He represents Duncan’s id, his emotions, his dark side, but also his really gentle side. Sometimes, I can be really understanding and gentle and fun and charming, and other times my dark side comes out even though I try to keep it hidden most of the time. So I wanted Milo to do these horrible things and then in the next scene just be so adorable. He’s so cute, how could be possibly bite off a head? I wanted him to swing back and forth. My goal was that this would be a descendant of the type of puppet that we saw in GREMLINS.
BAD MILO is now On Demand and in limited theatrical release from Magnolia Pictures/Magnet Releasing. For playdates and theaters, see here.