This was my 2003 interview with make-up and special effects genius Tom Savini at WonderFest.
I went to “Wonderfest 2003” to meet and interview the legendary Ray Harryhausen. However, “Wonderfest 2003” will always be a memorable experience for me because of actor/writer/director/special effects master Tom Savini. In fact, much of my interview with Mr. Savini can’t even be published. After writing this article, I erased the tape. No, he didn’t admit that he was really the killer of OJ’s wife. It was nothing like that. Mr. Savini just sat around with me and talked. We both were able to vent about things in our lives. I realized that except for Tom’s talent, good looks and money, he and I have a lot in common. Pretty cool. He realized later that the tape recorder was going. I offered to turn it off. “No, you said you wouldn’t print it.” Talk about disarming. If I were a greedy bottom-feeder from one of the tabloids, I’d be laughing to myself and counting the dollars. Mr. Savini didn’t reveal anything earth-shattering, he just opened up on a human level. Don’t be disheartened that I’m keeping a lot of this to myself; later, I will share with you the story of Tom Savini and my daughter’s underwear.
Horror film fans revere Tom Savini as one of the master’s of make-up and special effects. Savini’s work has been on display in numerous genre films from “Friday the 13th” to “Maniac” and “From Dusk Til Dawn.” In addition to his behind the scenes work, Mr. Savini has turned in a number of memorable performance, most notably in the aforementioned “From Dusk Til Dawn.” Mr. Savini was a combat photographer in Vietnam. Through his artistry, Mr. Savini has been able to recreate much of the real life horror he witnessed into the type of make-believe carnage so many people (myself included) crave.
In between the times our conversation detoured into the personal, Mr. Savini shared some of his thoughts on the craft of moviemaking.
Rusty White: Movies have had a profound effect on my life. Whether it is just because of the pure magic of the film or on a deeper level, like say “Billy Jack” effected me.
Tom Savini: The one scene in “Billy Jack” with the sheriff, you know I used to have my video tape of it wound to that spot so I that when ever I wanted to I could just go to it. Now that I have the DVD I just go right to it. You know that scene where he smacks the sheriff on the side of the head.
RW:: “I’m going to take my right foot, and wop you on that side of your face, and you want to know something, there’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it.”
TS: And then what they did, they didn’t just keep the camera on the sheriff and him, they went to an overhead shot for the impact, which jolted you, just like it jolted him. Brilliant filmmaking. It’s like in “ET,” if you ever see “ET” again, notice that almost every single camera angle is about this high. (Mr. Savini holds his hand about three and a half feet off of the ground. You know, you’re looking at the dangling keys straight ahead. That’s how tall you are when you are twelve years old. So, Spielberg made you feel and become one of the kids. Because your point of view is from the height you were when you were twelve.
RW: I never noticed that.
TS: Yeah. It’s brilliant. I mean, you don’t learn that in directing school. That’s Spielberg. So, it’s moments like that if you’re an ardent movie watcher, you can’t help but learn from shit like that, man!
A fan walks up with several DVDs.
TS: What did you buy there?
Fan: I got a couple of Vincent Price movies for my son. He likes Vincent Price.
TS: Isn’t that amazing. Vincent Price does not miss a generation.
One thing leads to another and the conversation veers off into unexpected territory. A little while later, another craftsman comes up to talk with Tom. Tom mentions that one of his students might be interested in working on a project. I steer the conversation back to the movies.
RW: Where do you teach?
TS: I don’t really teach. I’ve been approached several times by lawyers about starting a school. They never called back. This guy came up to me. He owned a business school in Pittsburgh. The school has been around since 1904. He rolled the dice. He put a lot of…a quarter of a million dollars behind it, he bought the building and everything. It’s going gangbusters. People come from all over the world to go there. Our teachers are from LA, guys like Greg, who used to work for me and came back. They have a lot of credentials. I just do seminars for the new semester when they come in. When I’m in town, I’ll go up there a couple times a week to make sure their portfolios are up to snuff. It cost $25,000 for 16 months. They get their degree. We have 150 students now and 56 more coming in. This is my retirement plan.
RW: What are the job prospects for the graduates.
TS: Well some of them get jobs like that (snaps his fingers). It depends on your portfolio. The portfolio is what you are. You can be standing in a room with no portfolio and that guy over there has a portfolio, he gets the job. You can be a hundred times more talented than the other guy, but you are just talking. He has something to show. So we make sure that when they leave, they have a portfolio that will get them work. And some of them don’t! Some of them, after 16 months, one guy had like three sketches. ‘That’s all you did in 16 months?!’ Some guys have 50 pages of superior stuff. The last graduating class, two guys got jobs when they drove into Hollywood.
RW: I was watching “Maniac,” there was a lot of disturbing stuff in that movie. I thought the highlight was your work. Especially the scene where you got shot through the car windshield.
TS: Yeah, where I blew my own head off! (Mr. Savini doubled for star Joe Spinell in a scene in which Spinell’s character murdered Savini’s character!) We had six cameras on that. I sat on the hood of the car with a double-barreled shotgun loaded with magnum pellets. I had goggles on because I had never fired through a windshield before. And my fake head was in their filled with rubbers filled with blood and shrimp dip and apple cores and anything we could find we threw in that head. We had six cameras. We did this in New York. Now, you’re not allowed to fire a gun in New York. We had an off duty cop who was a friend of ours. After I shot my head, within a minute and a half, there was nobody there. We were gone. I threw the rifle to the cop who drove it away. They threw me in a car and drove me away. The crew jumped in the car and drove it away. The camera and lights were all gone. So, we just stole that shot. But when I shot my head, I flew off the car into somebody’s arms. The impact was so strong. But even after I threw the gun to the cop, I had to come around and see what the damage was to the head. And it was just spectacular. And there were six cameras in slo-mo, so it was a gorgeous shot.
You know when I scalped the girl’s head. We shot that at the St. James Hotel in New York City. A week later, a hooker was decapitated at that same hotel. I mean, the movie hadn’t even been out yet, but the coincidence was amazing.
RW: Tell me about Joe Spinell.
TS: Very nice man. Alcoholic. Died of emphysema, but he fell and hit his head in his apartment.
RW: Kind of like William Holden?
TS: Exactly, exactly. He fell feet toward the door of his apartment and his head away. Now, when “Maniac” was over, I gave him his fake head. He kept it on his television. When he fell, he bled a lot. So when the cops get into the apartment, they saw his body there and the fake head on the TV and they though he had been decapitated. It took them a minute to figure what really happened.
RW: I thought the documentary about Joe Spinell on the “Maniac” DVD was the best thing about the disk. It was a nice tribute.
TS: I haven’t watched it yet. I own it, but I haven’t watched it. We were talking at dinner the other night, and would you believe that Caroline Munro would go on a date with Joe Spinell? (laughs)
RW: I was surprised by that subplot. To me, it gave the movie what little depth it had. It’s kind of like “Red Dragon” or better yet, “Manhunter.” When Tom Noonan is in bed with the blind lady, he gets this tortured look on his face as he realizes what a monster he is, yet he is sharing such a tender moment with this woman.
TS: Exactly. Tom Noonan was great. I like “Manhunter” better than “Red Dragon.”
RW: Spinell’s moment with Caroline Munro was like that.
TS: Her casting was an accident. Daria Argento was originally cast in that role. She begged off for some reason. There was a convention in New York that Caroline was at. I knew that Joe had done “Starcrash” with her. So, I told Joe, ‘Hey, there’s a convention. Caroline Munro is here.’ So he went to say hello and gave her the part right away.
Joe was great. He took me to the set of “Night Hawks” ‘cause he was in that. I got to meet Sylvester Stallone. He was a very generous man, Joe Spinell, but some of the stuff he wanted to do in that movie we had to say ‘No.’ I know he wants an exploitation film, but biting the clitoris off of a woman, I mean…I could build it for you, but do you really want to show that?!
I only got $5,000 for all of the effects in that movie. I just came from the first “Friday the 13th.” For me it was two months of living in New York, getting my name on another film. I’m glad I did it. But there’s a misconception about that movie. I still get it. The rumor is that I hated the people I worked with on that movie. I made a comment once in a magazine that the movie was ‘trash.’ Because the director Bill Lustig was saying that in interviews all the time. “This is crap, this is trash.” Now they thought I was talking about the people. I wasn’t. I love Bill Lustig. Now, I’m doing “Tales From the Darkside” and Joe Spinell is doing a cameo. He stops me and starts screaming at me “What are you saying all that shit about us for?” I didn’t know what he was talking about because I hadn’t heard it yet. Later on, at conventions I hear it again. I didn’t say that! What the fuck is going on? So now I realize what Spinell is talking about. So every chance I get, in front of convention crowds, I tell them what a mistake that was. I tell them that I said the movie is ‘Trash,’ and I say that because the director himself says that. The subject matter is trash, not the people. On the DVD I did the audio commentary with Bill Lustig and I made a point of clearing that up once and for all. Those rumors come out, and no matter what you do, you can’t fight them.
RW: I read Bruce Campbell’s book “If Chins Could Talk,” and was struck by how much fun those guys have making movies. Was that your impression of working with them.
TS: That was a good book. I’m shopping my book to the same publisher. But, yeah. Lots of fun. The nature of what we do makes it fun. You are in different circumstances all the time. The opportunities are not just at work. I was dating a girl once. I loved to scare her. I had a fake head of myself. She got up from the bed to go to the kitchen. I jumped up and got my fake head. I put it in the bed and then fluffed up the covers to make it look like I was still there. I hide in the closet to watch. Now she was the same way. She sneaks in real slow to try and scare me! She jumps on the bed to scare me and the head rolls down the pillow into her lap. She screams and jumps out of bed heading for the door. I jump out of the closet and get her again! Two scares for the price of one.
TALES FROM THE BACKSIDE
On the first morning of “Wonderfest 2003,” I took my daughter to the dealer room to meet the celebrities. I decided to take a picture of her with the actors so EI’s readers would have something other than my bald, fat face to look at with the interviews. We went up to Ken Foree first. Next came Tom Savini. I introduced myself and then Christy, my almost 17 year-old daughter. Tom made her feel at ease with a few jokes. He then broke out some magic tricks. The first consisted of a metal die and a round metal box. Christy placed the die in the box, covered it and Mr. Savini told her which number was facing up. His next trick involved a deck of cards and some homemade animation. It too, was very cool. Finally he asked for my daughter’s hand. “I am going to guess the color of your underwear. After a couple of second’s he declared “Red.” Christy was amazed. How did you do that! I butted in, “Easy, everyone in the room knows, because your underwear is about two inches higher than your pants!”
The next morning, I told Chris to wear a belt. I went downstairs to the convention. On the way out of the door I noticed an orange line at Christy’s waist. I went up to Mr. Savini. “It’s orange today.” “Don’t tell her you told me,” he replied. Later, Christy went up to Tom and asked if he had seen me. Tom extended his hand. Christy thought he wanted to shake hands so she fell for it. Tom squinted. “Orange!” In the middle of my interview with Ken Foree, Christy walked up and interrupted, “Did you tell him?” “Tell him what?” I replied, “Not me!”
Thanks for making my daughter’s weekend Mr. Savini. Good luck in the future.