My big take-away advice from working on this film: As soon as you are hired, find out who really has the power. Usually, it’s the director — but not always.
A screenwriter friend of mine got his first chance to direct a film. The producer (who had also worked as a director on several films) reassured him.
“Don’t worry…You’re new to directing. I’ll put together a great crew for you.”
Whenever there was a conflict in vision or any other creative decision, guess who the crew went with? Not the director, but the producer — the guy that hired them. They knew where their bread was buttered. My pal was pretty much left powerless on his own film.
On The Return of the Living Dead, I was being ground up between the desires of the director (Dan O’Bannon) and the orders of the line producer (Graham Henderson). Often during the making of the film, each guy would give me directions that would directly conflict with what the other guy was demanding.
The most frustrating thing for me was not being allowed to hire who I wanted for the special effects make-up jobs. All of my earliest friends in The Biz were special effects and special make-up effects guys, guys like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. I could have had incredible make-up guys working throughout the film.
But I was saddled with Bill Munns. He was a decent enough guy, but I was not happy with almost anything he was doing makeke-up-wise. He just didn’t seem to get it. He complained that he was not given the budget to do what I wanted. My attitude has always been, once everything has been negotiated between you and the production, you set aside all contractual terms and payments and you do the very best job possible. This did not seem to be Bill’s philosophy. I understand; if Bill was given $100 to do something, you received a creation that was worth exactly what it cost: $100. Not $125 or $150 or $200, but $100. That’s not what I expected of myself, however, or anyone who worked for me.
Why saddle me with this guy when I knew I could get someone so much better? I figured it came down to Graham owing Bill a favor for something Bill had done for Graham on another film. I ran into that same situation on Masters of the Universe, except in that case I think kickbacks were involved.
There were a few things that were not under Munns’ domain. I called my pal Rick Baker.
“Rick! Have you got any great up-and-coming guys working for you that you can spare?”
“I’ve got this really promising kid who has been doing some great work for me. I’ll let him moonlight for you. His name is Tony Gardner.”
I met with Tony. He looked like he was fourteen years old. I liked him and, especially with Rick Baker’s endorsement, wanted to give him a chance to work with us. I assigned him the task of creating the Half Corpse and the Split Dog. I sent Tony in to see our line producer, Graham Henderson. Graham uttered the classic words that struck and terrified Tony to his very core.
“You fuck up on this and I’ll see that you never work in this town again.”
Tony was good and he was fast. The producer, director and I were all there when Tony brought in his work-in-progress:
It was beautiful and extremely functional. Tony demonstrated all the moves his puppet could make. We were ecstatic.
After the demonstration, Graham called Tony into his office. The man who had previously threatened Tony’s future in film asked him a question.
“How would you like your credit to read?”
In the film, the Half Corpse was puppeteered by Tony, Brian Peck and me. Tony manipulated the arms and hands; actor Brian Peck (who played Scuzz in the film) operated her head and spoke the Half Corpse’s lines (his readings later replaced by a female); I was under the gurney making her severed spinal cord flop around and ooze spinal fluid.
Tony’s Split Dog, based upon something I found in a Carolina Biological Supply company catalogue, was just as wonderful. I ended up hiring Tony on every film I could. He went on to become one of the greatest special effects make-up guys in the history of film.