From WISHMASTER to Schoolmaster: An Interview with Robert Kurtzman

By Michael Varrati

If you’re an ardent fan of horror cinema, there’s absolutely no question that you’ve run across the work of Robert Kurtzman.

A veritable legend of the genre with an exhaustive list of credits, Kurtzman is a definitive horror icon that has truly done it all.

Moving to Los Angeles in the mid-80s, the Ohio native slowly gained a reputation for remarkable work in make-up effects, putting a personal touch on many low-budget horror masterpieces. Then, in 1988, he joined together with effects impresarios Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger to form KNB EFX Group, a company that would emerge over the next decade as the most significant effects house in Hollywood.

Working on hundreds of titles (some of the Elm Street and Evil Dead films amongst them), Kurtzman and his crew at KNB reshaped the face of horror cinema, putting a bloody stamp on the films that defined a generation.

However, Kurtzman proved to be more than just a skilled make-up artist.

Also an accomplished filmmaker, Kurtzman has helmed such acclaimed horror classics as Wishmaster and Buried Alive, generating as much praise for his work in the director’s chair as he has garnered for his work in the effects lab.

In recent years, Kurtzman has returned to his home state of Ohio and opened his own company, Precinct 13. Despite his distance from Hollywood, the effects guru and filmmaker is busier than ever, still nabbing many high-profile gigs and creating movie magic.

Furthermore, Kurtzman’s latest project has him looking beyond the set to the most unlikely of locations: The classroom.

Poised to open his own school for effects and film art, Kurtzman took some time to sit down with me to discuss his new creepy curriculum. Naturally, I also took the opportunity to pick the icon’s mind about his storied career. From tales of giving Tarantino his first break, to the moment when Kurtzman gave Andrew Divoff’s head a bloody wallop, we covered a lot of ground.

Truly a legend to be revered, I present Robert Kurtzman: Wishmaster, schoolmaster, and icon.

For modern horror fans, the name Robert Kurtzman is an institution. You’ve worked on so many iconic horror films, it feels like you’ve always been there. For those who may not be familiar, could you share a little bit about how you got started?

I grew up in Ohio, and I was always into art. I grew up painting and sculpting, I initially thought that I wanted to be a professional artist. But, I was always in love with horror films, and I was especially intrigued with the effects and the make-up people behind them. People like John Chambers (Planet of the Apes), Dick Smith, Roy Ashton (he did all the Hammer movies), and Jack Pierce (who did most of the Universal Monsters) really inspired me.

I was always a geek from the time I was really young. I was just glued to late night horror host shows, trying to stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights to see as much as I could. My parents thought I was a freak. But, my mom was an artist, so she also pushed to give me as much exposure and training to stuff as she could.

When I got out of high school, I went to art school for about a year, and then dropped out. I really wanted to get into make-up effects, so I went to LA. I started working on effects in the business when I was 19. I took a make-up course while I was out there, it was only about 12 weeks, and  what I learned, I really learned on the job. I was working on all these low-budget horror films like Re-Animator, Ghoulies, and Troll for this company called Empire Pictures.

At the time, Empire was being run by this filmmaker named Charlie Band. Charlie is one of those Roger Corman style producers in the “we have a poster, let’s make a movie” respect. –laughs-  I worked with them and others as a freelance artist for several years before starting my own company in 1988. That’s when I started K.N.B EFX Group (with Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger), and for the next fifteen years built that company up. Right now, I’d say it’s the biggest effects company in the world.

…and the rest, they say, is history.

Yeah, we used to do everything. We started out doing all the horror movie sequels- Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw, Halloween- we became known as the “gore guys” early on, and then broke out into more mainstream stuff like Misery and Dances with Wolves. Those movies helped separate us from being just the “blood & guts” guys, and we kept building the company from those films.

In 2003, I moved back to Ohio, where I grew up, and built my own studio back here: Precinct 13. I was doing a lot more directing and stuff by that point too, so I wanted to be able to focus on that. I was getting into new aspects of film, including CGI, so I wanted to be able to explore those on my own.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve read that Night of the Creeps was one of your first movies. As an unabashed fan of the film, I was wondering if you had any stories from the set.

Well, it wasn’t the first. I had done the Empire Pictures movies before Night of the Creeps, and I had even done some uncredited (because I wasn’t in the union) work on The Color Purple.

As for Night of the Creeps, I started working on that movie around the same time I was doing work on Predator and Aliens. I don’t have a credit on Aliens, but I happened to be at the lab at the same time as Predator. That’s how effects tend to work. When you’re working in an effects lab, you may have four or five different projects you’re all working on at the same time, but there are only so many people who can get credited for a particular movie.

I was working at Stan Winston’s at the time when I got the call to work on Night of the Creeps with Dave Miller. I ended up in the movie too, as one of the frat guys. That came about because they had very little prep time on the film, and instead of putting a casting call out to get actors in for make-up, head casts, and everything, Fred Dekker, the director, said, “You guys are all young guys, why don’t you just do the make up on yourselves?” So, all of use effects guys in the lab started working on ourselves.

I’ve read in prior interviews that, of all the films you’ve done effects work on, The Evil Dead films were your favorite. Is that true?

Yeah, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness were two of my favorite experiences, mainly because we were a group of young guys at the time. We didn’t have a care in the world, other than just loving what we were doing. I had loved the first Evil Dead. So when the sequel came around, Mark Shostrom, who I was working for at the time, brought me onboard. I was one of the key artists in the shop and supervising a lot for the film, so it was a great experience, because I was in charge of a lot. That kind of led to us opening our own shop. Greg had been supervising various shops around town, too.

We had lived together, and we called our place “The home of wayward make-up artists,” because anyone who came in from out of town always flopped on our couch. You’d be surprised how many industry people and notable names stayed on our couch, because when they first came to LA they needed a place to crash…sometimes for months!

We had a little shop in our garage that we would work on in the evenings when we got home from our day jobs. We’d be sculpting all night trying to build our portfolios, hoping to get our own gigs.

Which, of course, we started to do.

To riff off the original question, if The Evil Dead films are your favorite among the films you’ve done effects work on, could you maybe select a favorite from the films you’ve directed?

As a director? I’d have to say Wishmaster, because it has such an iconic character. It’s one of my favorite films.

I also really loved Deadly Impact, although it’s not in the horror genre. It was nice to break away from horror and do something different. I’m also a huge fan of action movies, so Deadly Impact was really a lot of fun for me.

…and, of course, From Dusk till Dawn, effects-wise, because it was a ten year labor of love to get off the ground. It’s a classic now. It’s always on TV, it’s always playing somewhere. So, it’s really cool to see that one have such a huge fan base.

…and since you mentioned the film, I wanted to point out that some casual fans may not know that you’re the one who gave Quentin Tarantino his first official screenwriting gig with From Dusk till Dawn. The script that eventually became the film was based on a short story of yours. For someone who, at that point, had so many connections in genre cinema, what made you choose this guy who was an unknown to adapt your story?

What had happened was my partner at the time, John Esposito, had written the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Graveyard Shift. He had sold it, and while that was gestating in production, I had talked to him about writing From Dusk till Dawn for me. But, suddenly Graveyard Shift happened, John was called off to location, and we decided to find someone else to write a first draft. We figured we’d go back and clean it up later, you know? I just wanted to find some young kid who could knock out a script for me.

We found Quentin through a friend of ours, and he had a bunch of spec scripts that he was trying to sell. Those scripts, by the way, were Natural Born Killers, True Romance, and Reservoir Dogs. So, we were like, “Holy shit! This is perfect!” We met with him, and he understood what we were trying to make, and we instantly clicked. He knew were trying to make The Getaway with vampires.

With Quentin, Robert, and those guys, they all grew up on the same stuff. There was just an understanding as far as the movies we liked. We could make reference to things and everyone instantly knew what we meant without explanation. It was perfect.

At the time, Quentin was working in a video store. We only paid him $1500, but that was all we had! He was just happy to get a job that enabled him to leave to start writing.

So, despite all the Elm Streets, Evil Deads, and other iconic films you’ve worked on, I’m sure there’s a project or two that you were involved with that didn’t get the attention you felt it deserved. Are there any underdogs in your back catalogue that you’d like to encourage audiences to revisit?

Oh god, I’d have to go through them all! To revisit? I don’t even know! I’d have to go through the list of films, I can’t even remember half of the ones I’ve worked on. People always ask, “You’ve worked on so many movies, what are your favorites?” and I always have to say, “I don’t know!” In some cases, it was just a gig or a job, and sometimes there were just so many going at once.

Though, the best stuff, or rather the most fun, was the stuff from the late 80s and early 90s. It was just a different era at that time. But off the top of my head, I just can’t tell you!

That’s understandable, though. There’s something like 400 credits to your name.

Well yeah, and to be honest, people will ask me, “Hey, tell me a little bit about your experience on…” and I usually have to say, “I don’t know!” –laughs-

Earlier you mentioned that when you moved to Ohio you started working with CGI more. Despite the advent of digital effects, it seems practical effects are more in vogue now than ever. What’s your take on shows like Face/Off that have make-up artists competing in a reality show-type format?

I think it’s a great show. Becky, from last season, is one of our people here at my studio. I’ve also become friends with a lot of those kids. I like it because it brings attention to the industry. To be creative in today’s market, you have to have a whole mix of skills.

For example, I started using CGI in effects because I was using it as a director. On The Demolitionist, my first directed film, we used CGI and matte paintings. In Wishmaster, we had a lot of CGI work, and those both were in the early years of it, especially for low budget films.

As a director I started using it more and more, and as things changed, with shorter film schedules and things, it just became more practical. My last two movies I shot in 24 days. So, I had to learn how to use those tools to pull a movie off on schedule with the budget we had. It was important to learn the balance between the two realms, having digital effects and practical, and what portions of each to use to pull something off. There are great things and bad things about both, and neither is always utilized perfectly. But, you learn how to do things.

For example, I was doing Buried Alive, and only had 20 days to shoot. There were a couple car hits in the movie where they hit the witch with a vehicle. I didn’t have time to make a full body cast, so I did a modified gag. It’s the same way we did the scene in The Devil’s Rejects where the girl gets hit by the truck. We shot the things several times, and mixed the CGI. So then, it becomes a pivotal scene where someone gets whacked with the car, but the practical effects were low.

There are certain things you learn to do because of stunt safety issues too, that’s the great thing about digital. I had an issue on Wishmaster where we had a squib on the back of Andrew Divoff’s head when we were supposed to blow his head off. That whole thing became a great sequence, but the reason it was great was because they paid extra for me to fix the effect. The first time we did the shot, the pyrotechnics guys put the blood bag on Andrew’s head and they shot the squib off…and it gave him a concussion.

Oh my god!

They wanted to reshoot it and we did it as a green screen shot. So, we did the scene where the top of his head explodes, which was practical, and did a composite with what we shot on green screen. It ended up looking great, and it was all a bonus. Because, really, the only reason we got that opportunity was because the insurance paid off the reshoot because of Andrew’s concussion!

So, now I look at stuff like that and think, “Why do I need a guy to drop off a five story building into a bag, when I can have a digital guy do it and not risk the real guy ripping the bag and getting killed.” It makes sense.

With all of your experience, I understand that you’re opening up a school of sorts to lend these talents to the teaching of a future generation of artists. What can you tell me about this project?

We’re doing a three semester, 16 month program. It’s lengthy, because when I started, I did a 12 week program, and I don’t think you can learn everything you need to break into the business on a short schedule.

I wanted a 16 month program, with the hope to eventually make a 2 year program, to help provide students those skills. I had so many people asking me over the years if I taught this stuff, and because I also had done some things with local schools and their internships, I said, “You know what, I need to start teaching this.”

…and with shows like Face/Off and Monster Man, there’s a lot of interest building in this line of work. I really want to teach the next generation of kids work ethics. This current generation has this entitlement thing going on, where they just think everything should happen overnight. I want to instill the opposite and let them know that you only get where you want to go through hard work. I mean, we pretty much spent every possible moment working on building our portfolios. There really wasn’t a time of day when we were starting that we weren’t working on some sort of make-up to prove ourselves in the industry. Those are the kind of students we’re looking for, and that’s why we have a portfolio process. We don’t want to take just anybody; we want to make sure they have some sort of talent. We’re also not just looking for solely make-up people. If someone brought in a badass landscape painting in oil, I would notice the talent in that, and we’d want them. Whether they work in the medium I work in or another medium, the point is whether they are talented and we can work with them.

We’re also trying to do something different here than the other schools are doing, in that we’re having the students work on projects here at the shop that are part of the internship program. So, when they leave here, whatever we’re working on at the time, whether it’s movies, television, music videos, etc., that’ll be in their portfolio of work. They get a chance to not only work on those projects, but learn what it’s like to work on real deadlines with real budgets.

We also will have quite a list of guest speakers coming to talk to the students, giving speeches about their work. Speakers will include many individuals I’ve worked with over the years like Don Coscarelli, Robert Englund, Andrew Divoff, and more.

(For a full list of guest speakers, click here –MV)

They’ll talk about their experiences with the kids. Whether it’s about wearing make-up or onset effects, it’s all about teaching them to interact with the other departments. We want them to know how a movie set works.

A lot of schools don’t really prepare them for the interconnectedness of a shoot, but I can tell you, there are many times when I was doing effects on a film that I had to bounce between all the departments to understand what everything meant. You’ll read in the script, “The monster transforms,” so you have to go talk to the writer to see exactly what that means, and they you have to talk to the director to see if the transformation has to be done to suit a scene. It’s a lot of communication.

That’s what helped me become a director.  I was already doing a lot of that balancing on other productions. I was storyboarding scenes, doing the pitch. The effects guy already has to be a bit of a filmmaker to understand what’s going on. That’s what I want to instill in the students, that ability to interact.

In summation, would you say that while the school is based around the teaching of effects, you ultimately are seeking to give students a fully rounded experience in making film, because they need to know that going onto a set?

Yes. Ultimately, I’d like to have a filmmaking program. We’re starting with effects, because I have that, and I’m ready to go. But, every couple years I want to add new courses. The next one I’m going to do is filmmaking and digital arts. That’ll be teaching digital arts and compositing. The idea is that I’ll build everything around the school, so eventually we can do a whole project here that crosses all the courses over, forcing that interaction. They can all learn what goes on in the different departments.

When I went to school, I got dumped out and went to my first day on the job, and was crapping myself. I came out of this beauty salon-type school, which I can’t stand. It was like going to Barbizon. I won’t say what school I went to, but I went to interviews with seemingly no experience. I went to Stan Winston for an interview, and they didn’t hire me right away. I had to build my portfolio before they took me on. But, that first time I went in, I didn’t know anything. They’ve got the Terminator and all this shit there, and I walk in a three-piece suit, because school told us we had to wear a suit and a tie. Meanwhile, everybody there is wearing torn rock ‘n roll t-shirts. They’re all long-haired, head-banging dudes who are looking at me like, “Who’s this fucking idiot?”

I learned right away that an effects lab is not that environment. It is worlds apart from going to a beauty school. What I’m trying to teach them is what it is like to work in a real, functioning studio. It’s an art studio, and it’s not pristine. It’s never that way, even when you’re on location. Movies always make the make-up trailers look pristine, but the truth is, every time you’re in one of those trailers, there’s blood on the sink, blood on the mirror, it’s on the floor. It’s never clean. You do make-up effects on the fly, even if it’s in the bathroom at a gas station. Which, by the way, I did! It was for John Carpenter’s Body Bags.

Well, in addition to higher learning, I know you are still maintaining a very active career in film. So, as a final question, I simply ask: What’s next? What new Kurtzman creation can we look forward to?

Well, we’ve got a movie called I, Alex Cross coming out this fall with Tyler Perry. It’s the Alex Cross character that Morgan Freeman played in Kiss The Girls and Along Came a Spider. We worked on that one. There’s a movie called Fun Size that we built these giant mechanical chickens for, and I just did three months on The Wizard of Oz with my old company, KNB EFX, for Sam Raimi. That was a blast, it’s a huge movie.

Oh, and Texas Chainsaw 3D! I worked with KNB on the effects for that, applying the “Grandpa” make-up. Last year we did a movie with Lucky McKee called The Woman, and we just wrapped work on his newest one.  I like to juggle between big movies and independent films, especially if I dig the filmmakers and the scripts, and Lucky’s new movie had a really good script. It’s what I call “Kentucky Lovecraft,” as it’s backwoods Lovecraftian horror.

Basically, what I’m hearing is that you don’t take many breaks.

I can’t! I own my own business, I can never take breaks! Just have to keep on moving forward!

For more information on Robert Kurtzman, his studio, and school, please visit his website here.

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