So, a totally different type of post than what you’re used from me. A few months ago I was able to actually spent a day on the set of a horror movie called ‘Family Matters’, something I’ve always had wanted to do.
Family Matters is a short film directed by Steve De Roover and part of Deathcember (A collection of 24 films that take a look at the dark side of the festive season), which was successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign. When you watch the segment called “Family Matters” and see any creepy stuff happening it might be me controlling parts of it 😉 So read on to discover “a day on the set of a horror movie”. Note: The movie itself is released by the time you read this, but I wrote this in March 2019.
Ever since I saw the AT-ATs walking on the cold Hoth snow old in The Empire Strikes Back as an 8-year old, I was enamoured by the “art of film-making”. I’ve watched and read countless making-ofs and behind the scenes (The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb is supreme in this) and have always dreamed of watching that process up close. There’s something extremely valuable in a world were artists and technicians have to collaborate in order to create the vision of the writer and director. For me, the perfect movie is one were story and audio-visual highlights are entwined to strengthen one another (if this sounds cheesy, it is, but that’s me, cheesy) which explains why my preferred genres are SF, Horror and big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.
And so, when a good friend, Saskia Verreycken, asked me if I could lend her assistance on the set of an upcoming movie, I didn’t need to think twice. She warned me though “it’s might a bit what we call rock-n-roll” , meaning low budget, fast work and improvisation if needed. To me, that didn’t sound like a warning but more like an extra reason to be there. My inner MacGyver was psyched up and ready to go. Read on and discovered what happened.
It all starts with a call sheet
The movie required several so-called ‘special make-up’ effects, things that are Saskia’s main job. If a movie needs believable wounds on actors, life-like babies or nightmarish props, she’s the one to call. For family matters she created very convincing latex scars, fake blood and pus, and a very nasty “thing” that needed to be controlled by 2 or three people in unison. Enter, me!
I tagged along as her assistant. Beforehand, she knew I’d needed to help control the “thing”, other than that we would discover where help was needed. As the day went along I more and more found ways on how to make her life more easy while she did her job.
The day before, we received the call sheet, a document that summarizes who’s who, the overall planning of the scenes that would be filmed when and where, and when each person needed to be present at the set (in this case the house of a horror-movie aficionado).
When I received this sheet in my e-mail, I got a bit anxious. Until then I imagined me being a shadow of Saskia and be someone who would try not to hinder anyone doing their job on the set. Instead, I rapidly discovered I was part of the crew. Most people around me had no idea I was a teacher who just wanted to be a fly on the wall for a day.
When we arrived on set (me nervous as hell, carrying part of Saskias boxes filled with her tools and props) people greeted us in a very friendly, casual manner and I only needed a few minutes to get accustomed to the professional, yet open spirit that everyone exhibited.
After being shown around, we could make our base of operations in a bedroom, where the make-up/costume lady was putting the last touches to one of the actors. Throughout the day, one by one, the actors passed by to receive their scars from Saskia (hey it’s a horror movie, remember). The more scars she applied, the more I also was able to contribute, including putting the actors at ease – who were so friendly, but also sometimes afraid to do anything wrong with the things we pasted to their naked torsos. (I would also like to state for the record: this is the first time in my entire life that I was able to work with glue without having more glue on my fingers than on the subject. Hooray for me)
I understood the ‘fear’ of those actors. I felt the same way: fear that I might do something wrong to an essential scar, prop or equipment. At one point I forgot that a marker we used was actually an essential prop that needed to be on the table onscreen and not in our toolbox (whoops) . Another time I was reminded to not make any stains on that same table… while I was working with slime. Luckily there’s also the “script” person who carries a map with her that details all…details. She makes sure that there are no continuity errors such as moving objects in between shot. Luckily, I made up for the marker-mistake (no harm was done, just some delay I guess): at a certain point we needed an actors pants to fit over a replica of his body. We discovered he was left-handed and asked how he put on his belt. It was the other way around, and so we quickly changed the belt on the replica. It would’ve been extremely embarrassing if that error would’ve been in the final version.
As the day passed I noticed more and more that part of movie-making is always working with one core rule ‘everything should and can be solved’: Saskia had extras for all the scars, the camera could be re-positioned to hide faults, etc. What impressed me was how everyone behaved throughout everything that happened: there was a lot of respect for each other and the job each person represented, people would help out were possible and everyone together pursued one goal: trying to approach the director’s vision as close as was possible given limiting conditions.
After helping Saskia for an hour or so (including bringing coffee, cleaning up and other menial tasks I think would help her keep focused on her main job) I was able to watch the first rehearsal of the day and the actual recording that followed.
What was interesting to see was how the rehearsal started a bit silly and almost awkward. The actors made little jokes and asked the director what he needed. My first reaction was “mmm, how in the hell is this ragtag group of actors going to create a believable scene”, but then, after a few minutes, the assistant director called out for silence. Suddenly, the whole atmosphere changed. All the actors started, well, acting, and since the scene was very intense, they put a lot of energy in what at that time still was a rehearsal. After two or three tries, in which several people gave pointers to each other (e.g., camera to light, director to actor, etc), it was time for the real deal. The two main actors of this scene became focused and after 2 or 3 takes the director was satisfied. It was very cool to watch how these actors gave performances in a scene where they needed to do stuff a normal person never does in real life #nospoiler. I was very convinced in what they did, so that’s already one person who is!
This was the second and last day of filming. The first day involved (I think) the less technical scenes. Today was the one where Saskia and her specific skill set was needed. And so, around noon, it was time for the first “special effects” that required stuff that involved cutting in flesh and having oozing blood.
I’m trying to write this without spoilers, so bare with me. There we were, standing behind the actor, holding a silicon torso, trying to have it look like a real torso and simultaneously hiding from the camera. Luckily there was a monitor on which we could see what was being filmed and so we could hide by bending in not so comfortable positions.
If there’s one main keyword to filming, it is ‘waiting’, lots of waiting. To actually record a take, all the ‘moving parts’ on the set needed to be ready, obviously. Everyone around was clearly used to waiting, which for me was a new experience (ok, I might also not be the most patient man around anyway). And so, while Saskia tried to find the optimal way to perform the ‘stunt’, people simply waited. No awkward sighing or stressed out “are we there yet’s”, just polite, professionals that knew that speeding up things only end in more delays if things go wrong. I’ve been to other environments where people could become very annoyed for each minute someone delays the whole operation.
Improve, adapt, overcome…but ask the correct people
When we finally recorded the first take, we noticed afterwards that the knife the actor used to cut in the silicon torso was broken and couldn’t be used a second time. The spare knife was accidentally left at home, so it was time to improve, something which I especially enjoyed that day.
We had a small utility knife with us which had basically the same dimensions and, since the actor held it in such a way that the camera didn’t even see it, I thought this would do (because the knife still needed to be pointy in order to be able to cut in the latex and hidden blood bag behind it we needed a real knife).
My first reflex was to discuss this option with both actors involved. Their response was friendly and down to earth: “we are the actors and can’t decide on those things”. There I was, thinking the actors were the first ones to approve or disapprove of an idea that involved them in a very direct way. Think again, Tim. The more the day passed, the more I discovered that actors are, no offence here, utensils who, in this stage, simply undergo what needs to be done.
They follow the director’s orders, have to stand still while people fiddle on their bodies to apply or remove makeup, they have to keep nasty gooey stuff in their mouth and pretend to puke blood and so forth. The actors just do it, plain simple. From time to time they jokingly complain, but they foremost show incredible respect for the people around them that help them create an even more believable scene. And so, after talking to the person that could decide on the knife subject we were able to solve this case of the broken knife (for the record, it was the first assistant director who checked with the cameraman if the replacement knife would be indistinguishable from the original one).
There be monsters
Once that scene was done we went back to the makeup/bedroom to apply more scars. A phase in which I, by now, was able to add more input other than caffeine and dustbin/cleanup-duty. Again I was confronted with the ‘hospitality’ of the actors that allowed me to poke with an ear stick in their lower belly parts. Those poor people. From time to time the assistant director would come in to check how much time was needed and so, while we were doing our job, lots of people again were waiting. Did I mention waiting was an important part of the day?
Finally, it was time for “the thing”. Again, no spoilers here, but now was the time for us to actually do stuff while the filming happened (the previous scene we just had to hide while holding the silicon suit in the correct place on top of the actor). This was a tense hour or so, where we tried to recreate the director’s vision with the things at hand. Not easy, to say the least. We had to manipulate several parts in a ‘realistic’ manner, again while hiding from the camera. We got some cues from time to time and only Saskia could see the monitor. We did the best we could to create a real horror-scene, including lots of slime and nasty things.
I’m very anxious to see how this part will look in the finale movie and sincerely hope it won’t look cheap. The budget of the movie didn’t allow for any expensive CGI so it was the real “magic of movie-making” at work. It was interesting to discover that several actors didn’t like horror movies at all and even got goosebumps when they felt the slimy things on their bodies.
Pretty fast after this scene it was time for the movie’s finale, that involved tentacles, slime and some rather disturbing pg-16 action happening. Saskia, luckily, did this part (it required a rather intimate position with two actors that I wouldn’t feel very comfortable with on my ‘first day on a set’) and I was promoted to “Tim with the puss-bus”. I simply needed to apply slime, lots of slime, where needed. I felt like Slimer from the Ghostbusters!
It was past 6 or 7 in the evening when we had to “perform” our second to last scene where we again had to control the “thing”. I have no idea how this scene worked out because again I couldn’t see a thing and had to hide behind the couch and an actor (my knees still hurt).
That’s a wrap
During all this, every time a scene was wrapped up and it was the last one involving an actor, this was called out and resulted in short applause (something they also did for Saskia and me after our final scene).
And so, after a long, intense but wonderful day it was all over. We cleaned up, said goodbyes to everyone and drove home. I was tired, hungry and filthy (slime, so much slime) but oh so awed by what I had seen and felt this day, I wouldn’t need to think twice if I was asked to do this again.
A big thanks to Saskia Verreycken, Steve De Roover and everybody else involved!