Horror movie fans know the answer to the question: “Who is Tom Savini?” For the rest of you, here’s a quick summation: he’s one of the most well-known and highly respected special effects make-up artists in the movie industry. His filmography of effects work is impressive, including the original Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, Friday the 13th, Creepshow, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Trauma, and many others.
The Douglas Education Center in Pittsburgh, PA even boasts the Tom Savini Special Make-up Effects Program, a 16-month training course which focuses on four key areas: Make-up Application, Mold Making and Casting, Animation Fabrication, and Exhibit and Display Design. Savini has also been a stuntman, and more recently, an actor and director. You’ve probably seen him in From Dusk Till Dawn, Grindhouse, Machete, and even The Simpsons.
At the 2011 Festival Of Fear, Rue Morgue‘s April Snellings moderated a Q&A session featuring Tom Savini, where he talked about his career and answered fans’ questions.
Tom Savini got his start as a kid. His first job was actually as a part of traveling fright shows in the early ’60s. He learned his craft by experimenting and by bugging Dick Smith, who he calls “the greatest living make-up artist on the planet.” In fact, he says, he used to call him on the phone and annoy him. Finally, Smith told him, “make a list of your questions.” So he typed one up and mailed it to him.
This was why Savini, after he’d established himself in the industry, wrote his own books: to share secrets. He commented that the blood in Dawn of the Dead looked like “melted crayons.” Now, he marveled, we have “mouth blood” and “eye blood.”
In fact, Savini was supposed to be involved in the making of George Romero’s breakthrough movie, the zombie-genre-redefining Night Of the Living Dead, but was called into active duty in Vietnam, where he served as a combat photographer. His “safety” amidst the horror and carnage was trying to figure out how he could recreate what he saw using special effects.
So as fate dictated, his first movie with Romero was 1977′s Martin. He’d auditioned for the title role, but ended up doing the special effects . . . and playing a character named Arthur. However, Savini’s entrance into the special effects world was actually a few years earlier, in 1974′s chilling, memorable Deathdream, directed by Bob Clark (Black Christmas).
Another career highlight was Savini’s work in the original Friday the 13th film, for which he did stunts and special effects make-up for the iconic Jason Voorhees. Savini mentioned that the sequels of the franchise make little sense. Since Voorhees is revealed to be dead at the end of the first movie, the sequel—which brought him back as the killer—is ridiculous. As a result he went on do the effects for The Burning, instead of Friday the 13th Part 2.
Savini mentioned that there have been effects he didn’t want to do, such as some of those suggested for 1980′s Maniac: “We’re not biting THAT off.” In terms of what he could have taken further? “Everything!” Specifically he mentioned the troubles he encountered with the plants that overtake Stephen King’s character in the Creepshow segment, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” He would love to redo them using a combination of make-up effects and CGI.
And how does Savini feel about CGI? He acknowledges that today’s films use more of it than special effects make-up, but that the two methods work well together. Affirming that HBO’s CGI-heavy Spartacus and the Rise Of The Planet of the Apes film are both spectacular, he added that CGI is “training” audiences to “accept it as real.” He feels that you have to pretend that it’s happening whereas with his work and that of Rick Baker (An American Werewolf In London, Hellboy, The Wolfman), “it IS happening.” That being said, Savini was clear that special effects are like “magic tricks.”
As far as technology goes, Savini loves it, saying “I love living today and all the gadgets,” adding “when I was little I was lucky to have a can with string attached to it.” He did confess that bad effects in big budget movies do annoy him: “They don’t know hw to add green to the fake blood when it’s shot on a white background.” He also doesn’t like effects that don’t have structure underneath, specifically older episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation where “Worf looks like he’s wearing pudding on his head.”
And although he’s frequently referred to as “The Sultan of Splatter” or “The Godfather of Gore,” there are limits. Savini doesn’t find the “torture porn” genre entertaining, emphatically stating: “I will never watch Hostel.” And he’ll never watch Dario Argento’s Stendahl Syndrome again because “that stuff stays in your head.” He also feels that “the less you show, the better it is” and reads every script he’s offered to make sure that it doesn’t involve hurting children. If it does, he will pass on the project.
Even when pressed, Savini couldn’t pick a favorite of all the work he’s done (“you can’t pick a favorite of your kids”), although he’s particularly proud of Fluffy from Creepshow and the helicopter zombie in Dawn of the Dead. He’s clearly proud of his career accomplishments but admits that he would have liked to be involved with Pet Sematary. He also discussed his dream project, one for which he’s already written a screenplay: an updated version of The Most Dangerous Game. Interestingly he revealed that suspending disbelief when watching horror movies is a challenge: “Once you get behind the scenes, the magic of believing is gone.”
Savini was affable, witty, and answered lots of questions, even the one from the person who wanted to know what were some of the most annoying questions he’s ever been asked. He had a couple of examples. One occurs when someone is looking at the photos of him on his convention booth table and asks, “Is that you?” Another pet peeve is the passerby who seemingly ignores the three-foot high sign stating “Tom Savini: Make-up Effects” and wants to know, “who are you?”
He was quick to address the whole reputation he seems to have developed for being an “asshole at conventions.” One example that flooded Internet message boards occurred when a friend behind him at his booth was talking on the phone to another friend who asked if Tom wanted to talk. Just as a fan in line was approaching the table, Savini said, in response, “I don’t wanna talk to him.” The fan misinterpreted the remark and left in a tizzy. Savini said he chased after the fan to apologize but the crowd was too thick.
Although he has essentially retired from effects work, Savini is still acting and directing. He’s continually tried to play roles in films that would lead to more acting and directing. He had “great fun” in From Dusk Till Dawn and acknowledged that “I would have paid them to be in Grindhouse.” In this case, “them” refers to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (who contacted him as a fan). Another fan who contacted him was Simpsons creator Matt Groening and as a result, Savini appeared in “Worst Episode Ever” from the series’ twelfth season.
What advice did Tom Savini have for aspiring special effects artists? “Learn how to do effects, take photos of your work, and keep it on a flash drive with you at all times.” So many people he meets ask him to take a look at their portfolios but don’t have them handy Another method is his own: “annoying people who can help or hire you.” In terms of the hiring process, Savini says one should “never give a figure” but instead say, “make me an offer.”
My favorite aspects of the panel were all of Tom Savini’s great stories, which frequently came up in tangent form. I was also impressed by his candor, down-to-earth demeanor, and graciousness. But it was his affirmations of positivity that impressed me most. “I have fun no matter what,” he enthused, saying that “you can’t choose what comes at you, but you can choose how you react to it.”
And what about Halloween at the Savini house? Is it as outrageous as everyone imagines? “I’m not there,” he laughed, “so no one ever comes.”
Be sure to keep an eye out for filmmaker Jason Baker’s upcoming documentary on Tom Savini, Smoke and Mirrors. For more, read DreadCentral‘s interview with Baker and check out the film’s Kickstarter and Facebook pages.