Interview with Tom Woodruff Jr.

The movie industry has very few titans who work in the special effects and make-up departments, but Tom Woodruff Jr. is such an accomplished veteran of films with an incredible body of work that it’s difficult to not consider him one of the best in his field. Amongst the projects he’s worked on are Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, The Terminator, Aliens, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Tremors, Pumpkinhead, and even next year’s highly anticipated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Along with his colleague Alex Gillis, the two of them took to Kickstarter to finance two different films to launch their directing careers, with Gillis directing the sci-fi horror film Harbinger Down, and Woodruff Jr. helming Fire City: End of Days, a highly unusual noir film with demon characters in central roles.

Fire City defies any kind of description as it follows a group of demons living in a low-rent tenement complex, and their leader is a disillusioned fallen angel named Vine who contemplates his purpose in life while the human misery he’s been feeding off of begins to wane. Filled with stunning looking practical make-up effects and scores of unique molds and masks, the film marks Woodruff Jr.’s impressive directorial debut. The film arrives on DVD this week, courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment. 


You have some great credits, Tom. The list goes on and on. What made you want to finally transition from special effects to directing? 

This was a personal project. It’s nice that you recognize and have taken into account my history, where I’ve been and what I’ve come through. Fire City is a personal project. I wanted to make sure that what I was bringing into it in terms of the make-up wasn’t going to be the main focus. Anybody who knows me and knows of my background … the reviews I’ve seen of it are really amazing. They all focus on the directing, and I could not have hoped for more.


Anybody can make a horror movie, but this isn’t just a horror movie. This is a very complex genre film. It kind of reminded me of a couple of things, but there’s nothing I can really tie it to. It’s that unusual. Nightbreed comes to mind because of the vast array of creatures in the film, with all the different molds and masks that are featured, but it’s something totally different. It’s a character study, it’s a story about human nature, it’s a very serious movie. 

I’m glad to hear you say that and that you recognize that. The negative way of the movie appearing that way is “Oh, he didn’t do his job – he didn’t make a horror movie.” I never set out to make a horror movie. I kind of feel like I’m out of my element when it comes to what horror means today. I think horror has co-opted so many tragic elements into what used to be a genre about scary movies. If that makes sense. I remember horror was … as a kid, I would try to get the movies I saw on T.V. when I was eight or nine years old on Chiller Theater, and I would talk about what I saw at school and give it some dignity and refer to it as a horror movie. That’s how I described Frankenstein and Dracula. Today horror is so different.

[quote]I look at what passes for horror today, and I won’t make judgments, but for me it’s just not my thing.


Horror is things like Hostel and Wrong Turn 5 and any movie where someone gets butchered or slashed. I almost have this point of view where I remember adults who would look at the innocuous Frankenstein and say, “Those things aren’t good for you,” and I think now, “Wow, when did I grow up all of a sudden?” I look at what passes for horror today, and I won’t make judgments, but for me it’s just not my thing. I don’t get how to make that enjoyable. To me, when I first saw the script for Fire City it was exactly what I wanted. The producers and writers came to me and said, “We see this as a noir movie with demons.” I was already in, tell me where to sign. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to do a movie about these characters in this environment and in this predicament. Half the time they’re monsters. That’s what made the story cool.


It’s actually a complex script. There’s a lot of communication in it between the characters. It’s not an action-oriented script. Did you have any involvement with shaping the script? 

Just minor fine-tuning of some dialogue. Just tracking the way certain characters were interacting with other characters. The other thing was really wanting to make the death of the demon Cornelia at the end … the idea had to be that she really had to kill herself at the end so that it became her own heart that’s thrust in the path of the knife. It’s a very melodramatic thing, but that was the point of the movie where we’re really bending the audience’s trust. If I don’t have it by the end of the movie then there’s nothing to be lost. It was almost romantically perfect to have that aspect happen. I think the audience gives it a lot of leeway.

You’ve been involved in the make-up and special effects departments for decades, since the early 80’s, and I’m sure you were pushing your way forward even before that, but what took you so long to make the transition to directing? 

(Laughing.) It’s something we used to refer to as our Oscar-winning day job. We got so busy doing movies. In the really busy years we were working on three, four, five movies at a time, one after the other, and we were all over the world shooting. At the exact same time Alec Gillis has the exact same MO as I do, which is that on our free time we’re writing the scripts, we’re studying, so when things finally slowed down – not by our choice – but the jobs started to slow down, and we decided that now is the time to do really low budget movies. We won’t make any money, but we won’t lose money either. The idea was to help some young director if we see that he’s got a real spark, but we thought, “Why are we investing in people’s futures when this could be good for us?” Alec was the one who came up with the notion of saying we should start on Kickstarter. Right around the time we started the Kickstarter for his movie Harbinger Down, the producers came to me with Fire City, and that was that.


You’ve worked with James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Stan Winston, Paul Verhoeven, and some of the greatest filmmakers and special effects creators of all time. Talk about what you were able to glean from your times working with them as you took on your first directing assignment. 

You can learn stuff from people who have achieved great things and great success, but I think I learned more from people who weren’t that good because I would learn more about what not to do as a director, and I know that sounds kind of snotty and not really the point, but the way I really should phrase it is I’ve been on set with people like Cameron, and Bob Zemeckis, and even non-genre, but great directors like Mike Nichols and Nora Ephron. I’m constantly watching. It’s like osmosis. It just gets absorbed into my awareness. How they’re dealing with – not just with effectsbut with everyone on set.


You’ve worked on some massive productions, but Fire City is almost the antithesis of that, as it’s mostly set in contained rooms. Say something about working in these tight spaces on such a small budget. 

Well, I will say that there are advantages to be had from not having absolutely everything you want. A standout example of that is Steven Spielberg on Jaws. The shark didn’t work and they had to shoot around it. That was a limitation, but the limitation actually made it better. Same thing with Ridley Scott on Alien. The alien suit looked great, but it was built by an artist, not by a guy who builds suits for a man to move around in, so it didn’t move much. They had to absorb that limitation and that’s what happened on Fire City. We didn’t have money for multiple locations. We shot in basically one building with the exception of a diner scene across the street. We had an art director who had a handful of pocket change to dress these rooms and dress the hallways. He did an amazing job. We did what we had to in the shadows. I think even if we’d had a bigger budget, I don’t know that I would have spent it in terms of making a bigger environment. I love the claustrophobic environment, and for this particular story, it was appropriate. I don’t know that I would have wanted to go any more on the street than I did in the confines of this story.


This movie is full of interesting creatures. You’ve got all kinds of great looking molds and masks. Talk a little bit about creating some of that stuff. Were you all hands-on in terms of the creatures? 

Well, it was great because the cast that we got … nobody is a big star in it, but it worked out really well to make it work. I’ve put make-up on Tim Allen and Sharon Stone and big name actors who don’t want to deal with it, but these people were all very up for it. The idea of having actors who were willing to work with the make-ups was so refreshing. It gave us a lot of options. When we started, we had a very small crew, which included my son David. I thought it was great that I could turn it over to someone else and focus on the big picture. At least I thought I could! When we first started, I got my hands on the first life-cast of a character. I sculpted out the face for her, and I handed it off to someone else to finish. I then roughed out a few more sculptures. Then I realized that I had storyboards to draw and I finally wisely turned it over to David and the crew that he assembled. The other crew was comprised of make-up and appliance artists that I’d worked with before who’d won Academy Awards for The Wolf Man a couple years ago.


It’s great that you and Alec have gotten your little indie movies out there. I hope that they can propel you both to do more. One right after the other, you know what I mean? 

That’s definitely the goal.


Since Fire City is such a radically different movie, who do you think the audience is? 

I definitely wanted to make it for the fans. That was the whole premise of Kickstarter. You go after the fans. You say, “This is the kind of thing I’m doing, so if this is the kind of thing you love, then let’s make a movie.” But I wanted to have broader appeal. Since it’s something that I want to continue to do, and because I want to continue on a much more professional level – even to the point of working on larger, studio films – I didn’t want my first movie to be, “Oh, here’s what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years,” and throw it up on screen. It was more important to me to deal with a story that had real subject matter to it, and yet still give the fans the monsters that they wanted, but surround them in a real framework of a story that had good characters and a good story. If I’d seen it as an eight year old I probably would have been impatient with it. I would have just wanted to get back to the monsters.