The Tank centers on a young family and transports us to their newly inherited remote (and long abandoned) coastal property in Oregon circa the 1970s. Property inheritance sounds like a dream, regardless of how decrepit that property may be, but everything comes with a cost. Naturally, there's a reason this property has been left for nature to reclaim, and the unsuspecting family awakens a horde of ferocious, deadly creatures beneath their new home. Practical FX fans are in for a treat, with the work of Academy Award-winning special effects supervisor and creative director Richard Taylor and his team at Peter Jackson’s VFX studio Weta Workshop creating the creature effects for this one. Taylor and The Tank director Scott Walker joined us to chat about creating creatures, sub-genre hopping, and more.
Some of the tension-building moments in this were reminiscent of Jurassic Park, what are some of your favorite creature designs of all time, and were any of those in conversation when you were making these monsters?
SW: Oh, I'm so glad you said that because we talked Jurassic Park a lot, mostly in terms of tone. Obviously, Jurassic Park's not low-budget, but we were in the low-budget realm, relying on a lot of tricks. And how do you hide the creature for as long as possible before the audience just says, "Okay, show it to me?" You need to build the suspense and the tension through imagination rather than, "Here's the creature." You can't make it bigger and bigger and bigger as you go through the film with CGI. It was almost like I thought of it like a haunted house film for the first half, and then we finally start to see the creature, and then it's an all-out kind of action. Will anyone survive and get out of here alive?
RT: We both love the movie, The Descent, and we talked a lot about the incredible creature work, how controlled the director is, and the use of those creatures, but how terrifying they actually are. I watched that movie on an airplane and still got scared. So that's an effective horror movie.
You're drawing from so many inspirations. And Scott wrote a compelling and almost university thesis-level paper on his inception story for this creature and its biology. That's a rare thing to receive something like that. You normally start designing from only the description within the script. That's as deep as some directors have thought through their creatures. So to receive a complex, detailed package of design such as this to inspire the first drawings was really, really unusual and really special.
Do you prefer it that way? I imagine your jumping-off point is so much further along than a vague description in the script when you're presented with the biology of this mythological creature.
RT: Yeah, for us, it connects you immediately with the director's vision. We love it when we are designing in a vacuum as well, but in the case of this film, where we had a short period of time to build it and needed to make it work on an actor, the more inspiration that can come from the director, the better it's going to harmonize with their thought process. And in the case of Scott being a writer-director, his ability to then write this incredibly rich backstory to the creature was incredibly valuable for us.
Scott, you definitely played with different sub-genres in this. You're able to effectively play within these different genres and touch upon different tropes, but then you kind of pull it back and flip the audience around. Did you go into it with that intention?
SW: I think I had so many things I was trying to fit into it, nods to things that I just loved growing up. The tank itself is directly out of Dracula's castle crypt with Christopher Lee. And I just wanted those slight-curved and big-stoned and a cave system, nowhere near as extensive as in The Descent, but something that was a nod to the claustrophobia and the wetness. That's not a place you'd want to be. Tonally, I wanted it to sort of feel scary and building tension in some places, violent and aggressive in the attacks, and shoot the whole thing with the characters as we followed them on this journey, not observing them. And then I wanted it to sort of have a family vibe, some light moments and some humor. And overall, being a real rollercoaster of fun, and just once it starts halfway through, it doesn't relent.
What made you want to set this in the '70s?
SW: I like periods, and especially during COVID... the '70s were a simpler time. There's no technology, you can be truly isolated, and I just like it as a period. A lot of the films that I loved growing up were from the '70s, '80s, and early '90s. It kind of felt like this needed to be a period film, and then I just wanted to have two periods. So we lost quite a lot in the edit, which was the 1946 storyline. But I liked this idea of two generations not learning the lesson, but could be contained in one house and dress it completely differently. One's new, and it's their dream home. And the other is this derelict kind of nightmare emerging. It's just more interesting than today, I felt.
It's visually interesting as well whenever you do that, and a shame that you lost a lot of the '46 in the edit because so much goes into creating a period on screen. I'm sure it's difficult to kill your darlings in the edit, that has to sting a little.
SW: I mean, we shot the 1946 scenes with a tilt-shift lens, in 48 frames, and it was a totally different look. So we kept the snippets of it but focus on the now. I like this idea of the grandfather probably going to a place where he shouldn't have gone. It was a pristine, untouched environment, and he bought a huge hole, and he dug it and built a house and did all this stuff, which is kind of like what mankind does. And then I liked this idea of, obviously, they all died except the mother, and she tried to keep it a secret, and the son finds out about it and returns and basically repeats what the father did.
It is that man-versus-nature kind of thing. Nature always prevails in the end, and we don't really quite learn the lesson.
SW: Yeah, it's funny because when they read the history of the place by the fire, if you go back to the pet store, the axolotl aquarium has a lot of nods to the history of the place. I had all these little things in my mind if there was a prequel, it would be in the 1800s. There's a sunken ship there, and if there's a sequel, it would probably be an Area 51-type thing. So that's in there. I don't know if those will happen, but it's more about building out the world.
Richard, do you already have the gears turning as far as what the monsters might look like in that?
RT: We would love to do a sequel to this one, that's for sure. It's such a lovely thing to get a phone call today from someone who wants to do a practical effects monster movie. Most directors default immediately to CGI as the solution because it gives them a greater level of freedom. They can break free of the anatomical restrictions of the human body, which a suit obviously causes. But there's an immediacy, there's a physicality. Scott needed his actors to be physically fighting something underwater, and that something needed to be the creature. So it's just magnificent to get to work on things like this. It obviously harkens back to the origins of our company, and we're just very thankful that Scott phoned us up that day and started a conversation about putting a poor actor inside a silicon suit and shoving them in a bathtub. It doesn't get better than that.
Is that what that pitch was? How did you guys team up on this? Scott just said, "You know what I would really love to do, shove an actor in a silicone suit"?
RT: We bonded over water tank stories, actually, on this particular film. Scott was already talking to me about an amazing werewolf movie he wrote. He phoned me up and said, "Hey, I've had this nightmare and it involves a water tank." and I said, "Oh God, Scott, let me just stop you there and let me tell you my nightmare." Because I had a water tank horror story from my childhood so I immediately got what he was alluding to. I've just actually seen the poster art, and it's almost exactly the image of my father hanging over the opening in this rusty old water tank at the back of our rural property, which I had to climb into to get rid of a bird that had turned our water rancid. They're scary places. I had nightmares that night of creatures oozing out of taps and forming in the bath and then coming in and eating all my family and I was like, "Oh, okay, maybe there's something in this."
Richard, you've worked on so many cool things. You made this amazing, wonderful lady monster for The Tank. You've also worked on King Kong, Lord of the Rings, X, Krampus. But I have to admit, one of my all-time favorites is Dead Alive.
RT: Yay. Thank you.
"I kick ass for the Lord!" That is just an all-timer for me.
RT: Yeah, well that harkens back to the very early part of our career, and we are still very, very proud of hat's known as Brain Dead everywhere else in the world, but Dead Alive in America, especially the uncut version. America didn't get the uncut version, but I think seven minutes was cut out. But obviously, there's a joy in creating rubber monsters and practical effects, and there's just not enough of it in the world. We've just done a very low-budget Australian creature feature as well, which was great fun. And it's nice to have directors that are still inspired to keep it in-camera, make it immediate, control it in real time, and not feel that they have to default to push the "creature" button on the keyboard. And not that that's a bad thing, but it's lovely to have the chance to work with directors like Scott, and still do things like this today, which we dream about.
Scott, I'm guessing you would agree since you went practical for this.
SW: Yeah. What was really fantastic was that Regina Hegemann, the performer in the suit, is tiny, super strong, and so brave. I don't know if many actors would go through what she did. She's basically 99% blind in the suit. She has no hands that she can use, and feet that don't really grip. Then she's underwater in a dark cave fighting someone, being pulled and pushed and thrown. It just takes an enormous amount of emotional and psychological control not to freak out in those sorts of situations.
But the huge benefit is the actors actually had something physical to fight. Especially in water, that becomes an enormously bigger undertaking if it's going to be a CGI creature. I kind of was like, how close could we get to shooting this fight like something out of a Bond film, underwater in a dark tank? And that was as handheld and close and visceral as we could make it with each take, where she would end up underwater and come up, and she'd have to put her head up and let all the water drain out of the suit before she could take a breath.
She couldn't see, so she'd come up going, "I have no idea where I am," and the roof is very low. So it was fun, but a real challenge. Certainly, when you are working at a low budget, it's the way to go because you get so much more that you can do and use, it's faster and you can adapt, "That's not working, let's change it." We can try these sorts of things instead. We didn't have the luxury of time, so it was terrific, and we got to work with Richard and his team, the suit's super cool, and I'm thrilled with how it turned out.
RT: Regina so deserves to be acknowledged by the readers of FANGORIA. There have been so many great creature suit-wearers acknowledged throughout the history of FANGORIA, and I just genuinely don't think we could have found someone better. She's a contortionist in the theater, but as you almost certainly will appreciate, very few movies actually use the contortionist capabilities of a contortionist. We've seen it in a few movies, but what it gives her is the muscular control and the power inside such a tiny frame that almost no powerful male body-builder could ever dream of having. So it's really quite extraordinary.
And then the psychological capability of just zenning out and controlling your emotions when you are so claustrophobic. We had to make the suit in silicon, which means it's really tight. We couldn't make it out of foam latex because of the water issue, the suit would've got saturated instantly, and it would've been too heavy, et cetera. So the whole suit was made in silicon, and we did it through 3D printing, which we undersized so that the suit would suck onto her body and then 3D-printed the molds just because of the fast turnaround.
We were very careful to comply with her anatomy, but you are swaddled in multiple KGs of silicon, and just the sheer weight alone, nevermind the claustrophobia caused by the head, et cetera on any mere mortal, would've been taxing. We actually did try a male who came in, but his limbs were too thick, and he was too lumbering. He didn't have the agility, the femininity, and the movement, or rather the feline quality that we wanted and the nimbleness that Regina was able to achieve. She was almost tarantula-like in the way she could move her body. So we were just so incredibly lucky because it can go no matter how good the suit is, if you don't find the right actor, it can go so wrong.
SW: I think Richard, from memory, the suit itself was something like 56 pounds. It was quite extraordinary. I mean, this is the puppet head, and I think this with the neck piece is 30 pounds. I'm shaking trying to hold it up. The skeleton, the skull, and the amount of texture in it all adds up. So for someone who was what, 4'11" or something, and she's wearing a suit like that was quite amazing.
Hell yeah. Shout out to Regina (find her on Instagram right here). We'll make sure to acknowledge her, but I also have to say, I love that you both made it a point to acknowledge her and her work. I think that is very cool.
The Tank is now in theaters and available on Digital.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]