FX legend Tony Gardner has been involved with countless iconic horror properties and films throughout his amazing career that includes well over 200 credits and began back when he was invited to help out on Michael Jackson's Thriller as a part of Rick Baker's crew, nearly forty years ago now. For his latest effects project, the horror comedy Studio 666 which features Dave Grohl and the rest of the Foo Fighters battling evil forces as they record their latest album, Tony and his team at Alterian, Inc. got to go old school and deliver up some of the best practical kills this writer has seen in some time.
Prior to Studio 666, Gardner had previously collaborated with Grohl and the Foo Fighters on several music video projects. But teaming up for a full-blown horror movie provided both the legendary FX artist and the band with the opportunity to push themselves in some new and exciting ways.
"Dave was at our shop one day, and he told me how they were currently recording over at this old house," Gardner explained. "Dave had this idea about making a movie where this house would be haunted, someone in the band would get possessed, and all this crazy stuff would happen. He showed me a few pictures of the house for inspiration, and then I went and looked at it to figure out what sort of setups could happen with what was available there. He asked me, 'Do you have any ways that you have ever wanted to kill people that you've never had an opportunity to do?' I said, 'Yeah, I actually do.' His response was, 'Well, I think it would be fun to incorporate those kills into this haunted house idea.'"
"So, Dave put together this story treatment that was a page and a half, and then I put together two pages worth of different scenarios on how people could die in or around the house. My list included chainsawing two people in half while they were having sex - I just thought it would be a funny riff on those classic over-the-top '80s type of kill scenes, where the promiscuous people die a horrible death. I just wanted to push it way over the top. And after I gave Dave and his two producers my breakdown, they hired screenwriters to put the two documents together and incorporate the death scenes into the script. So it was a totally backward way of doing things, but it was fun to be there from the very beginning."
Even though Gardner has worked on hundreds of projects throughout his career, Studio 666 stood out as a chance to experience something he doesn't often get to in his work: total creative freedom. In most cases, when effects teams are brought onto a project, they are working with an existing list of goals and ideas to achieve through the FX, but on Studio 666, Gardner got to push himself creatively in ways he hadn't really ever experienced before.
"Truth be told, I have never had as much freedom on a film as I had with this one. It was fantastic. We were literally the first people hired on Studio 666, and I had come up with the death scenes, so we were really in control of our stuff and some other elements of production early on, too. We storyboarded several of the scenes and did mockups of ideas at Alterian as well. It was super great to feel trusted like we were here, and then to be given creative free rein on top of that was just a dream come true kind of experience for myself and everyone else on my team."
"The other thing that stood out about Studio 666 was that everyone who worked on that film was so nice, and that the Foo Fighters themselves were all up for anything and everything. I remember when we first started talking about the Chainsaw death and the question was, "Well, who in the band would he be able to tolerate all of the lifecasting required?" as opposed to it already being delineated in the script. I had already done lifecasts on all of the band members for the Run music video for old age makeups, and some of the guys enjoyed the experience and some people, not so much. But Rami was really cool about all of it, so that was another case where we were coming at this from a reverse engineering type of way, and figuring out the best person to support the effects and then writing that person into the scene. We were just figuring stuff out along those lines throughout Studio 666 because time was limited. They self-financed the movie and there was only so much time to get everything done. So when we were on set, it really felt like the clock was always ticking."
Despite the time limitations they might have faced, Gardner and his team were able to achieve so many mind-blowing effects sequences throughout Studio 666. Their work undoubtedly gives all upcoming movies with ten times the budget of this indie horror-comedy a real run for their money. And while the proper resources are always something that can make or break the FX work in a project, time is another crucial element that can really help an effects team be more than prepared to take on the number of ambitious gore gags, kills, and other fun elements that make Studio 666 such a memorable cinematic endeavor.
"We always wanted to be super organized on this," Tony recalled. "Because we were hired so early on, we had the chance to do multiple video tests of almost every single gag we did, which we never have the time or freedom to do these days. So that was really nice, too. For example, when we did Rami's death scene, we had time to experiment, and built a giant rig under a fake bed that puts a spinning chainsaw blade up three feet on a platform and moves it from A to B. As a result, production was able to build a set elevated off the floor so that we could get our rig in to do what it needed to do. Besides the pneumatic rigs, there were also these 55-gallon drums of blood pumping under the floor, too, and based on our tests, we knew our rig would ruin the entire room – so a fake one was built outside and tented off for the blood.
"The goal whenever you're doing a scene like this is to have it be easy going on set because we only have a day to ruin that room, and the cleanup of the room between takes would be hellacious because the blood's hitting the ceiling and then dripping down. So we mapped out how we wanted to do all of it to go in, and in one take or two takes, hopefully give them what we know works. And it couldn't have gone any smoother, to be honest with you. For all these things that could have gone wrong, we were very fortunate."
"What helped was that we also had the chance to test everything with the blood rigs and everything well ahead of time so that we could finesse the pressure and take care of all these things that sometimes you'd be dealing with on set and in the moment instead of ahead of time. We were also able to get feedback from Dave and BJ [director BJ McDonnell] and everybody right off the bat, and then dial things in for set. It was really fun," added Gardner.
Even though Gardner and his team at Alterian are no strangers to modern effects techniques and applications, Studio 666 provided them with the opportunity to go old school in a lot of ways, which Tony said helped everyone out on set during the film's production.
"The goal when you're in FX is to do the film and not have to use CG for anything other than maybe some wire removal. But with Studio 666, we didn't even have to do that. We were burying hoses in the dirt, and building sets three feet off the ground, and doing what needed to be done in advance in order to make things work, and work well practically. That made all the difference in the world to us. It was fun to do what we grew up doing with new people too. Some of the crew were half our age, and they were saying, 'Hey, this practical stuff is cool.' It doesn't have to all look like a video game; it can actually exist in front of you. And all the actors really appreciated being able to see and interact with all this stuff. Which makes all of us look really good in the end."
"I also have to say that making a horror-comedy is always really fun, because part of what you're doing is figuring out how far you can push everything within those boundaries, and with a horror-comedy, you can push the gore really far because things are supposed to be funny. So it opens up the opportunity to get really crazy with everything, like Taylor's sudden death or Will Forte's head getting shot off, where there's just so much blood shooting out of his neck stump and at such a high pressure. It was literally vaporizing as it was going up into the air. At the same time, creating elements like Chris Shiflett's severed head where we had to match his eyeballs and hair patterns, and making something where the detail needed to hold up in an extreme close-up is just as rewarding. Looking back on it now, Studio 666 was an experience that you know you're not going to have very often, and you appreciate everyone and everything that's happening that much more because of how special it feels. And then, when you get to see the crew responding to it and enjoying it, that's the best," added Gardner.
Another crucial element to the success of Studio 666 was having a seasoned director in the form of BJ McDonnell at the helm who not only had a knack for working in the genre, but also enthusiastically embraced the FX process. And for as much as Tony helped guide so many moments in the story of Studio 666 early on, he was also one of the first who originally thought McDonnell would be the best filmmaker to take on the indie horror-comedy.
According to Tony, "I was one of the first to recommend BJ to direct this, and it was for that very reason - he knows effects. He knows how to light them. He knows how to make stuff that's not real actually look real. He gets the genre. We've worked with him on a lot of different shows as a camera operator and steady cam operator. He had been a camera operator on the "Run" music video, so the band and the producers already knew who he was as well and liked him, too. He had directed a few music videos for Slayer that Alterian had done makeup effects for, and we always thought that he had such a great understanding of everything we were doing from so many different perspectives, so it felt like he would be a perfect fit for us because he knows and understands what we're doing. He gets how to cut from this angle to that angle to make an effect work better, instead of lingering on one angle for so long, and how to light makeup effects elements, so having him come on board for Studio 666 was a huge relief for us because we knew we could have solid conversations with a director that would understand what we were talking about. It was great not to have to spend time explaining what we were doing; instead, we could get right into it. He's an amazing guy, he is super articulate, and he is very creative. I'm really glad that it all worked out and that he was the one directing this."
"Honestly, there was a genuine love of the film from everyone on set for Studio 666. Everyone on the crew was there because they wanted to be there. None of us were being paid our regular rates because it was a low-budget movie. But everybody was so very passionate about what they were doing and really great to work with such a great attitude, and I think all that shows up on screen in the film. I think a lot of that attitude came from the top down, and Dave and BJ and producers Jim Rota and John Ramsey all had such a great attitude and sense of humor about everything."
"Something else that ended up being so cool about this was how Dave managed to get John Carpenter to not only write original music for the movie but get him to show up for a day to shoot with us, too," Tony continued. "Things were just happening very organically like that on this film, beyond what you would normally expect. But when John came down, he was totally into it. My daughter, Kyra, was shooting behind-the-scenes video on this, documenting from the first meetings and table read all the way through to the premiere last night. And John Carpenter sat down with her on camera and just talked forever, and she had the best time with him. After it was over, I was like, 'Okay Kyra, you need to know the pedigree of a guy that you were just talking to because he's a legend to all of us.'"
"On a totally selfish level, besides getting to come up with the kills, I also got to play one of the zombies that tears Dave up during his nightmare. And for Kyra's behind-the-scenes interview with me, she picked the day I was in full makeup and contacts to do the interview, so that was fun. You barely see us zombies in the movie, but I always have a good time playing a zombie – how can you not? I just felt like, with this one, it was my responsibility to myself to either kill someone or be killed."