Monday, June 17, 2024

Oh, the horror! ‘Halloween Kills,’ ‘The Black Phone’ and ‘Scream’ highlight talent of local special effects group

Jason Willis paints a cascade of urethane foam sausages at Bearded Skulls Make Up and Fx Group studio in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

[This piece is a 2021-2022 N.C. Press Association award winner in the feature writing category.]

WILMINGTON — Filmed in the Port City in the fall of 2019, “Halloween Kills” was released Friday in theaters and on the streaming platform Peacock, after the pandemic pushed it a year. Front and center, within its opening scenes, Michael Myers walks out of his house, an exact replica of the white, two-story dwelling that first made its debut in John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher classic.

“We had to make, basically, half a city block,” Tony Rosen described. A quiet creative, Rosen talked about working on the Blumhouse film while sketching his next creation for Bearded Skulls Make Up and Fx Group. He is a partner in the Wilmington business with four other industry colleagues and friends: Rick Pour, Jason Willis, Jeff Goodwin, and Sean Beck.

In bringing authenticity to Michael Myers’ world, Rosen had to create prop fabrications for six houses, as well as the street and surroundings, all built mere months before the pandemic shut down the industry. 

“Two trees right in front of the Myers house and its front façade, we had to match pretty exact,” he said.

A few others from the Fx group also helped give life to director David Gordon Green’s film. Willis worked on the firefighter scene, which has garnered controversy as of late from a petition circulating asking for its removal. The petitioner stated it’s offensive to the first responders, as Myers kills them with their own equipment.

“Halloween Kills” picks up where 2018’s “Halloween” stops: Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) house is in flames as she has barely escaped the grip of Michael Myers yet again. She wants the house to burn with Myers inside, yet firemen appear to put out the blaze and face their own mortality against the psychopathic killer who once again goes on a killing spree in Haddonfield.

“It was cool to watch a house burn for an hour and a half,” said Willis, who worked on the special effects makeup team. The scene was filmed somewhere off Highway 17, he noted, “definitely the biggest bonfire I’ve ever been to.”

Pour was pulled onto the film as another set of hands for Academy Award-winning makeup effects designer Christopher Allen Nelson (“Suicide Squad,” “American Horror Story: Freak Show”). A lifelong fan of the John Carpenter flick, Pour said holding Michael Myers’ famed white mask for the first time was overwhelming.

“My first day, Chris had to go do something else, like prep something, for the next day,” Pour remembered, “and he was like, ‘Hey, come here. I’ll show you exactly how the mask goes on.’ And I teared up a little.”

Pour also had to age the pumpkin, skull and witch masks, now in mass production from the original “Halloween.” 

“I’m just checking off all my childhood bucket-list items,” he said.  

Rick Pour demonstrates how a fragment of a bone piece fits into a prosthetic leg the Bearded Skulls team made. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)

Building a team

It was on the locally filmed series “Surface” in 2005 that Pour and Willis met and worked together for the first time. Pour was doing effects under Dave Beavis (“Mission: Impossible,” “The Sinner”).

“He called me up and said, ‘Hey, I have to make a great white shark’s head that looks like it’s been bitten off behind the gills by a giant sea creature. Can you do that?’” Pour recalled. “But there were a couple of times where I had to make prosthetics that were being applied to actors, and Jason was working in the makeup department then.”

Sixteen years later, Willis and Pour have worked on 20 or more productions together. One of the toughest, Willis said, was a show called “Banshee” in Charlotte. It mandated 75, sometimes 80-hour work weeks.

“It was brutal,” Willis said. “I remember one teamster said he logged almost 100 hours in one week.”

The long hours have traditionally been a part of the film industry, as productions set up with finite timelines to shoot and strict budgets that must be managed by multiple departments. A part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union, the Bearded Skulls team supports the threatened strike, which could take place Monday if better working conditions aren’t negotiated with Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

“The hours aren’t easy,” Pour said. “But it never gets old to see your work on the big screen — that’s why we do it. Well, that and masochism.”

Pour has been in the industry for 30 years, something he knew was ingrained in him at a very young age — as proven, he said, by pictures his mom often pulls out that show her 6-year-old playing with a “Making Faces” makeup kit. Pour said he often would make over his sister into different creatures during childhood, but it wasn’t until his dad took him to see “Star Wars” did it dawn on Pour the full scope of the industry.

“The thing about ‘Star Wars’ is, it’s one of the first movies that had make-up stuff, costumes, books, and magazines sold from it — and that was the first time I realized people do this for a living,” Pour said.

He got his education under an apprenticeship with Bearded Skulls business partner Jeff Goodwin. The industry veteran is well-known for the severed ear prosthetic he made for the neo-noir classic “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch, filmed in Wilmington in the ‘80s. Some years later, Pour came face-to-face with Goodwin in a local video store.

“He used to come in all the time because he’s a big film buff,” Pour said, who worked at the shop. “I knew what he did for a living, and I knew it was something I wanted to do. I kept bugging him and bugging him about it. One day, he just said, ‘I tell you what, just save up enough money to live off of for six months, and I’ll show you what you need to know. And then you can go on your merry way.’ And I did.”

Pour studied under Goodwin, who then helped him get his first couple of jobs in the industry — the first was a “no-budget” indie movie made by some locals. By the early ‘90s,  Goodwin was calling Pour to join him on movies-of-the-week, films often made by television networks, which were the bread and butter of the industry back then in Wilmington. Pour would do makeup for background talent and extras.

“The movies of the week would literally come in one after another, shoot like 20 to 30 days, you’d have a couple of weeks off, and a new one started,” he said. 

Goodwin was the department head and Pour was his key for 10 or 15 years before Goodwin moved to Italy.

“I got so used to a team dynamic when I met Jeff,” Pour said. “I was out there by myself for a while after he moved and I was like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ Then I met him.”

Pour pointed to Jason Willis, who was putting final touches on a cascade of urethane foam sausages hanging in the back of the Bearded Skulls warehouse. The sausages would be shipped to Georgia for one of many productions the team is working on currently.   

“It takes place in a restaurant all in one day, so they need fake food, so it doesn’t rot over weeks of shooting,” Pour said. He was shaping green goo in a coup glass and pulled out a picture of an upscale seafood cocktail he was mimicking. Fake shrimp were strewn nearby, awaiting to be dunked into the glass.

Rick Pour shapes silicone in a glass to make a fake shrimp cocktail prop. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)

The special effects studio is a playground of props, many horror-filled: a bag of styrofoam heads hung on one side of the room, a severed hand sat on a box filled with brain molds, bald caps, and fish guts. A bruised leg dangled from the rafters as fragments of a bloody bone were only a few feet away. 

Hundreds of boxes aligned the shelves along the warehouse walls. The cardboard and plastic stowaways marked relics of Wilmington’s film history, specifically from movies Goodwin worked on: a crocodile man mold from “Super Mario Bros.,” a severed head from “Black Knight,” April’s knee molds from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” 

“The ‘Blue Velvet’ ear is at Jeff’s house,” Pour said. “It used to be a tourist attraction at our old studio before he moved to Italy.”

Pour picked up a “rotted” torso with missing limbs: “This is a poor fellow that was discovered inside a sewer. Completely dismembered, missing his head.”

Tubs and handles of various products — translucent silicone rubber, brushable urethane, isopropanol, barbicide, wacker fumed silica, and essential oils — are packed between the limbs.

Though props are a big part of the company’s portfolio, special effects makeup is the team’s forte. 

“Jeff always says some of the best makeups that you ever see on screen, you don’t realize it’s makeup,” Willis said — such as ageing people, or creating a scar, blemish or freckles. “It makes the actor human versus just a character they’re trying to portray.”

Willis’ passion for the craft also started in childhood. When he and his pals weren’t dressing up like KISS and performing concerts in the mirror, they were going door-to-door, scaring neighbors with fake wounds.

“We’d get in big trouble,” Willis said.

He went on to attend Auburn University, 30 minutes from where he grew up, and majored in fine arts. After graduation, Willis moved to Toronto.

“I did a six-month program, learning everything from basic hair-cutting and wig-making, lace-knotting, to theater makeup, and then film and television makeup and special effects,” Willis said.

He stayed in Canada a year before moving back stateside in 2000 and landed his first union gig in 2004 on “Idlewild” — the film Outkast produced and acted in locally. Willis hasn’t stopped working since; each member of the team has been a part of multiple productions each year.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate with the amount of work our team has done together,” he said.

Though the job mandates travel sometimes — “Mr. Mercedes,” “Outer Banks,” The Hunger Games” — lately they’ve remained local, especially with the uptick in productions flocking to town. The Fx group has worked on “The Black Phone,” “One Summer,” “Florida Man,” and “Scream” since last fall. The latter was a big get for the crew who are also horror fans at heart.

“Jason and I were standing on the ‘Scream’ set,” Pour said, “and the first day, the tent opens up, and Ghostface walks out and goes into the house. We’re like, ‘Oh, shit!’”

“It was a little unnerving at times,” Willis added. “We would be doing our effects’ touch-ups and there’s Ghostface, standing there holding the blade, just waiting. And we have no idea what he’s looking at with that mask on.”

Willis said it’s not uncommon for the team to hide behind couches or in corners during shoots. They have to be nearby to pop in between scenes and repair wounds or rework body paint and tattoos, handmade props or blood splatter. Pour has sheets of silicone blood pools and splashes to place on locations, specifically when filming in someone’s house as to not ruin floors or walls with the liquid fake stuff. 

The special effects makeup is what challenges and excites the team members nost.

A mold of Kelly Lynch from the show “Mr. Mercedes,” which members from the Bearded Skull group worked on from 2017-2019. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)

“There’s a kill scene in ‘Scream’ that I lost sleep over,” Pour said. Though he can’t reveal the full range of the effect, since the movie isn’t out yet, he said it required a little magic — and not just movie magic, literal magic. 

“It’s all smoke and mirrors, a sleight-of-hand thing, basically,” Pour said. “Jeff did it when he filmed ‘Rambo 3,’ so we recreated the technique, but there were so many moving parts to make it work.” 

They’re hoping to build their arsenal of tools as a collective to continuously excel at the craft. Specifically, Willis wants a paint booth with an exhaust to help filter fumes when they’re “​​spraying these crazy chemicals.” 

Pour wants a 3D printer. He saw Russell Crowe’s makeup artist use one on “The Georgetown Project,” which filmed in Wilmington in 2019.

“It was eye-opening,” Pour said. From a 10-minute scan, sent to a 3D printer in Canada, came a mold delivered within a week. Currently, the Bearded Skulls team make molds the old-fashioned way, with silicone or alginate, covered with plaster bandages. 

“It’s not good if you’re claustrophobic,” Pour said. “Most actors, once they know that 3D printing is a possibility, are not going to sit for a live cast anymore. They’d rather just come in and get scanned.”

Computer-generated imagery is also advancing their department in the film industry. The group sees it as another tool to enhance their work — when used the right way, it can heighten effects.

“We’ve got the gashes to put on people, with blood and everything, but the CGI team can come in and erase it, and then when the blade goes across where the wound is, they reveal it with what we’ve already established,” Willis explained.

On “Halloween Kills,” Pour spent a day in front of a blue screen squirting and pouring blood all over the place for the CGI team to use, in order to replicate its authentic look. The end-goal for every production is authenticity; whether it’s burned skin or a bruise, the viewer has to believe it’s real. 

Pour made Lili Taylor’s bruises in “The Conjuring,” which also were a major plot point indicating demons were possessing her. Filmed in Wilmington in 2012, James Wan’s supernatural thriller took home numerous horror film awards. Pour said 90% of the effects seen in the film were created on set.

“The overwhelming lack of the blood and gore from ‘The Conjuring’ made it even more scary, like Hitchcockian,” Willis said.

Its famed doll, Annabelle, was the brainchild of Rosen. 

Always a “Fangoria” subscriber, Rosen went through Tom Savini’s special makeup effects program a decade ago, and then chose to move to Wilmington rather than L.A. or New York: “I don’t like big cities,” he said. 

Tony Rosen sketches in the Bearded Skulls Group studio, located off northern Kerr Avenue. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)

His first major film in the industry was “The Conjuring,” which Rosen joined after shooting had already begun. He wasn’t even aware Annabelle would be a central part of the film while he was making her, he said: “She wasn’t supposed to be — originally, it was just a doll in the movie. That got a little bigger than I expected.” 

He began sketching ideas, playing around with images floating in his head. 

“The only real direction I got from James Wan was don’t do what other artists had been giving him,” Rosen said. “He didn’t like their drawings.”

The director also asked Rosen to refrain from researching other dolls. 

“He wanted it to look creepy, but unintentionally creepy,” Rosen clarified. 

Rosen had to change the size from 2-and-a-half-feet to 3-feet tall from the original sculpture. He said he didn’t even know how she would be dressed or the color of her hair until minutes before her first scene was filmed.

“The day she was going to the case at the Warren’s house to get shot for that scene, we still hadn’t decided on wardrobe or anything,” Rosen said. “So me and James are sitting up in a room, putting on different dresses and wigs, trying to pick out which one we liked the best.”

Even though the team is making the monsters under the bed, so to speak, they still have their own moments of goosebump-raising fright on set. Pour specifically pointed to a scene in “The Conjuring” when a young Joey King told her sister a witch was behind the door.

“All of us were standing out in the hallway while they were shooting in the bedroom,” Pour remembered. “And it’s like all these burly, bearded grips and prop guys and all that. And when she delivered her line, everybody’s hair stood up on their arms. That was the first time I’d ever actually felt freaked out on set.”

One of the biggest projects the team has done to date also was one that got cut short — one of the larger disappointments in their careers thus far. In 2019, DC Comics’ “Swamp Thing” was slated to be 13 episodes for season one but was cut to 10.

“It was, like, building to this crescendo in the last handful of episodes,” Pour said. “But they had to figure out how to just wrap everything up.”

The team had to create a “massive piece of artwork” on stage 10 at Screen Gems — an entire swamp. They made 200 trees, four John boats, and other scenic images. To not be able to see it through its full conceptualization was a let-down. Yet, it did lead them to Sean Beck, a local tattoo artist by trade, but who is a part of Bearded Skulls now.

“He does a lot of our concept art and storyboarding,” Pour said. “He actually got hired by ‘Swamp Thing’ to do some concept art, one of which was a tree. Unbeknownst to us, Tony actually sculpted the tree after Sean drew it.” 

As rewarding as it is to gel with people on a set, it can sometimes be challenging to readjust on each new film to various working habits. For instance, Pour said it took a beat to realize Scott Derrickson, the director of “The Black Phone,” is a visual guy. It didn’t work for Pour to merely describe to the director some of the special effects makeup planned for the movie; Pour had to dress up a few background actors to get forward movement on the action plan.

“That’s when I realized Scott has to see it, and once that clicked, our whole relationship changed,” Pour said. “The whole vibe of the movie changed. I had so much fun working on it.” 

It’s part of the nuance in film: Varied departments — set design, art, wardrobe, hair, makeup and of course talent — breathe life into every frame. Each different from the last, a film set has pockets of nuclear teams that can make up to 400 crew members — all whose creative talents are warranted to satisfy a director’s vision. 

“And having our team in place allows me as a department head to be able to figure out how to make everything else work — because everybody on the movie side has a different agenda and a different ego and all that,” Pour said. 

Willis credited Bearded Skulls’ “beautiful shorthand,” sharing similar skill sets and thought processes, as one of the most beneficial aspects of the crew. “We can read each other and anticipate what the other needs,” he said.

That’s something that can’t be taught but must be built upon through the throes of production. 

“That’s why I love keeping my team together,” Pour said.

“Halloween Kills” is out now, with “Scream” slated for release on Jan. 14, 2022 and “The Black Phone” on Feb. 4, 2022.

The mold of a gunshot wound at Bearded Skulls studio. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
Rick Pour demonstrates the final gunshot wound created from mold. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
Head molds and fake wound shirts from previous productions. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
A brain mold created for a surgery scene, which Jason Willis of Bearded Skulls said was operated on by a real-life surgeon in a production. The surgeon informed the team about the anatomical makeup of the brain so the mold would be as close to being as authentic as possible. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
A severed hand from the show “Six,” filmed in Wilmington from 2017-2018. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
Sheets of burned skin are stowed away in one of many bins lying around the Bearded Skulls studio. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
Various limbs are strewn throughout the working space of Bearded Skulls. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
Pools and puddles of blood splatter can be placed in delicate filming locations, such as people’s homes, so as not to ruin floors or walls with the liquid fake stuff. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)
A severed head that Jeff Goodwin made on “Black Knight” from 2001 is on display in the front office of Bearded Skulls warehouse. (Port City Daily photo/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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