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The Nuts and Bolts of “Hereditary”: An Interview with SFX Artist Steve Newburn (Caution: Many Spoilers Ahead!)

Wednesday, July 4, 2018 | Interviews

By: Carolyn Mauricette

By now you’ve heard plenty about Hereditary, the latest flick to make horror cinephiles stand up and take notice. This supernatural family drama holds no punches with plenty of emotional turmoil, resentment and creepy vibes. There’s been so much written on the countless themes in the film, but there’s a nuts and bolts side too, namely the practical effects that were key in the film’s storytelling. And if you’ve already seen it, you’ll have definitely taken notice of the telling dioramas that main character Annie Leigh (played brilliantly by Toni Collette) creates throughout the film, as well as the skin-crawling prosthetics. The person behind these effects is Steve Newburn, a Toronto based makeup and prosthetic designer who works with his team at Applied Arts FX Studio. He’s got a long list of credentials from The Dark Night Rises to Pacific Rim to the 12 Monkeys series, and I got a chance to chat with this humble and diverse special effects artist and designer about his work on Hereditary. (Final warning: chock full of spoilers ahead!)

I was actually really excited to talk to you because you have a huge resume behind you.  You’ve done all my favourites like The Strain and Pacific Rim, so you’re talking to a major fangirl here! Before I get into Hereditary, I wanted to ask you being an ex-makeup artist myself, what got you into SFX?

I kind of fell into it. I’m from Los Angeles originally and my wife is Canadian so we’ve been up here for 13 or 14 years now, but I grew up in the right time, you know, the 70s with the Star Wars boom and all that. I was at the perfect age for all that kind of stuff.  I was always interested in the Universal Monster movies and Planet of the Apes and all that which was huge back then. When Star Wars popped up at that time it was mind blowing; especially for a 5 year old kid in ’77. I was really interested in the space ships more than anything. My dad worked for NASA as the head of Halley Watch as well as other projects, so he was a big sci-fi fan as well.   I grew up around sci-fi stuff so that more of what I was more interested in.

When I went to college I ended up getting connected in Los Angeles where you bump into somebody who is almost assuredly in the film industry somewhere, so I crossed paths with some guys who were in the prosthetics side of things.  [It] was never something I had actually seriously considered, it was more fascination.  I was connected to producer Jeff Geoffray who had given Steve Johnson (The Abyss, Blade II) his first solo job which was Night of the Demons (1988). Shortly thereafter I connected with Tom Woodruff Jr. at ADI (Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.) who’s done the Aliens movies (and more recently It and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and it kind of fell into place. I was more interested in the model and miniature side and the space ships and thought, this is kind of really neat! I was still in school at the time so I hung around the ADI shop helping out just for fun really, and it snowballed into an actual job and then a career.

Me: I feel like it’s a passion and it takes you to a career…

I never set out to do any of this stuff.  I went to school for business and it’s just one of those things where it was just a hobby really, for lack of a better thing to call it, you know, and it turned into a paying job and now almost 25 years later…it’s a career.

Me: How did you get the gig on Hereditary?

Hereditary was supposed to shoot in Toronto originally. The original screenplay was set in the middle of a winter blizzard.  I’m assuming you’ve seen the movie-

I’ve seen it twice and I want to see it again!

Yeah, so you know how unsettling the whole thing is, kind of bleak and the atmosphere of the whole thing. Take away sunny Utah and throw in desolate winter and it would be that much bleaker and that was originally the way it was written.  I was contacted about the prosthetics side of it and in October of 2016 maybe, and they sent me the script, the usual thing… and the director Ari Aster and I spoke over the phone about all the prosthetics and what his thoughts were for the movie; how he saw the characters; the usual conversations you have when you’re planning out all the details. Of course, he was super passionate about it because he also wrote the script, so he had all the answers.  So, we were talking and I kind of casually mentioned at one point the miniatures and asked who was building all his stuff out of curiosity, and he said he had no idea, that was one of their big struggles and they hadn’t figured that out because it wasn’t a common thing. I was like, well, hey, funny you should mention that! I suggested that I would be interested in it and I said, hey look, I’ve done a lot of Chris Nolan stuff (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception) and Scorsese stuff (The Aviator) when I was in L.A. and it’s not something I do regularly in Toronto, but I’d love to at least talk to you about it. He almost forgot the prosthetics part of it at that point.

I can only imagine!  You have the one talent he’s looking for and you love to do it and don’t get to do it that often.

Right, exactly, and it’s also in this day and age it’s even more specialized than prosthetics. The miniature side of things really has been almost wiped out by CG. He got really excited about that not just because ok, now I’ve found somebody but also because, as he saw it, the miniatures in the movie are almost a character and a lot more important than the violence in a lot of ways. We started talking about that, and then he comes into town a few days later and at the time Dan Beckerman, a local producer, was set to produce a movie here, so I was talking to them and they found a local production designer and all their main people in Toronto. We all went to dinner one night and sat around for a couple of hours talking about everything and that was my in-person job interview for it.

During the dinner, Ari said he wanted me to do the miniatures and to do the prosthetics as well, and I didn’t know if I wanted to take that much on for the timeline he had. He of pushed me and pushed me and finally it was just like you know what? Ok, fine. If it seemed like it was going to be too much, because I didn’t want to compromise anything…but he was very reassuring. This was like November maybe and he wanted to get prepped for [the film] after the holidays in January (2017). 

Over the 6 or 7 weeks, between then and the holidays, they uprooted and moved to Utah. It honestly came down to a money decision.  The movie was super ambitious for the budget they had, and they just felt they could stretch their dollars further down there. They could basically double their money in that respect. So, they moved down to Utah and that was all set, and towards middle to late January, I got a call from Michael Peterman who was a producer that had been brought on board by the financier Kevin Frakes and his intermediary. I’d worked with Michael before on Flatliners that had been done up here in Toronto. I guess they had mentioned to Michael that they were talking to me and Ari really want to get me involved if not for the prosthetics now that we’re down in Utah, certainly for the miniatures side of it. Michael asked who, they mentioned [my name], and he said he had just worked with me last summer! It was basically a done deal on the miniature side of it, and then for financial reasons of course they looked around to see if they could find anyone local in Utah that they felt could handle the prosthetic side of it and nothing was grabbing Ari. He really went to bat for me and pushed for me to do the whole thing since I was doing the miniatures anyway, and yeah, there it is!

So, you had a whole team with you at your Applied Arts FX Studio that worked with you on the prosthetics but you did the miniatures yourself?

It’s a pretty diverse group the guys that do what we do.  I have a core group of people that I work with, we’re all basically best friends and we all work together on practically everything. There’s about half a dozen of us so when this thing came up, we were actually in the middle of another show for Nickelodeon at the time, which is a kid’s show (laughs)-opposite genre- and it was like, hey, yeah, this thing is going work out and then we didn’t hear anything for a while over the holidays. We were on set one day [at Nickelodeon]and the phone rings out of the blue. There’s Michael saying we’re up and running again, we’re in Utah now but we’re still doing it and so we just rolled right into that one.

We had about ten weeks to start prepping everything. We attacked a good chunk of the models initially and then started getting actors available, Toni Collette for example and Alex Wolff. We went down to New York to cast them, and Milly Shapiro who plays Charlie, she lives in New York, came up to us and started getting the life cast in place, and of course we added a few more people to the team so we got up to 10 or 12. It was a very small crew but we work so well together and we all kind know how each other thinks so it was a real streamline process and it just worked out really well.

It’s always nice that when you know each other and can support each other and you have your own kind of shorthand.

I don’t have any delusions of grandeur myself.  I’ve been bringing in the jobs, generally, but I mean, I’ve never taken the attitude that it’s my job. We’re all kind of equal in the shop, really and we’ve had the same group of people for almost 3 years and we’ve done maybe 25 projects together back to back. It’s worked out pretty well.

I read that Ari Aster wanted the front of the dollhouse removed for the opening shot, when it wasn’t built with that intention.  That was a bit of a shock I’m sure, but you have to roll with the punches, right?

Yeah, there’s a bit of a story to that.  The first shot is of the house that they live in and the whole façade is removed.  Originally the movie was going to be shot on location completely and they’d found an exterior location and they found another location that was going to be the main floor and another that was going to be the second floor and another that was going to be the attic. These were all over Salt Lake City basically and parts of Utah.  It just became impractical to shoot at these places because the look they wanted-by that time Grace Yun the production designer had come on board-was a lot more retro; very creepy and moody, and the house location for the first floor for example, was very light and airy with a lot of windows and white walls. It was completely the opposite of what they ended up going with and they went in talking about how they were going to repaint the walls and refinish all the cabinets in the kitchen and put down new floors. It became this thing of like, if we’re going to rebuild the whole place anyway why don’t we just build it on a sound stage? Then we would have that control of removable walls and doing exactly what we need to make it right. So that became the general consensus and they went on stage and built everything on sets.

Three months before they went to camera, I had gone down to Utah to take photos and measurements and everything for the models. Suddenly, all that went out the window. They had to basically start from scratch. We built everything else, the body prosthetics and all of the other models but that one house which was supposed to be the centrepiece of everything we couldn’t start because the sets hadn’t been designed. They were slowly bringing in pieces of furniture they knew they’d use, so they sent us photos and measurements for that stuff and we’d start building all the furniture and then we started building everything on the inside. We were duplicating everything as fast as they could send it to us.

Ultimately, they figured out and built all the sets, but just because of the volume of work, they couldn’t manage to stay on top of everything. The first floor of the set and the second floor were built independently of each other. And they didn’t actually stack as a house. Those didn’t sit within the walls of the exterior, so when your shooting, it doesn’t matter, but suddenly I have to build this nine-foot dollhouse where they’re stacked to fit into the exterior, so that became a huge question mark. They were so busy getting sets ready because they had to go to camera it was just one of those things that couldn’t be addressed quickly. There was a lot of thought that went into how we could make this happen. We ended actually up building that house in the last 10 days before it had to be on set. And then it still had to ship to Utah. In all that designing of trying to figure out how all this works, we knew that the upstairs wall to Peter’s bedroom was removable but there was an oversight with the front of the house also needing to be removable. 

Going back to your question about cutting the front of the house off, we got down there, we set it all up, Peter’s front wall comes off, so we can do that opening shot where the camera zooms into it and comp it in with the live plate, but the rest of the house didn’t come off (laughs). And it didn’t have that removable wall, so like, what do we do here?  And this thing was built solid, it was the once piece out of all of them that wasn’t meant to be smashed so it became [ a question of] can we just cut it (the front wall) off? And I was like I don’t know how to do that, [it might] destroy the whole thing.  There were overhanging parts of the second floor, so I went in early like 5 am one morning-they had a 10 am crew call-and got a handsaw, a reciprocating saw I think, and really slowly cut the front wall off the house and got through it! It needed a little bit of spackle and paint, but it survived!

Well it worked and that opening scene really draws you in.  I’m sure you’ve heard this before where everyone was so enthralled with the miniatures, so you and your team did an amazing job.

Aw, thanks! It’s funny because, you know, they’re selling it as this scary movie and no one has really mentioned any of the prosthetics stuff and like Ari said to me early on, the miniatures are almost a character in the film.

Oh, they are, absolutely!

I’ve never seen such so much interest in something that to me is just set dressing in some respects. I mean I understand where Ari’s coming from and that idea of it but and he always said it was going to be a highly featured thing, but myself and everybody here (the studio) were like “oh yeah, I’m sure it will be! ”, (laughs) and here it is front and centre.  I was honestly truly surprised by how much it really is there. And strangely I don’t even remember him shooting half of it and half the scenes in the movie!

Well rest assured there’s a lot fodder for PhD students to dissect with all the themes, especially with Annie trying to recreate her life through her art.

Yeah it really is like what you just said, she is actually trying to recreate her life and she’s building these things. It’s her escapism and her mechanism of like, if I can’t control my life at least I can control what I’m doing here.

And on that point, when I first saw the film, I was with a really good audience. The accident diorama made everyone gasp.  I thought it was the best reaction, because no one expected her to be doing that miniature!

Oh, it’s messed up! (laughs)

What did you think when you read that part of the script?

I’ve got to say honestly, and Ari has said it in a lot of interviews, and actors always say this, and I’m not talking about this movie, but they say ‘Oh, it’s all there in the script.’ Three out of four times that’s not true.  But in this case, it really was true. Everything was there, it was all thought out. In fact, you may have heard they cut an hour out of the movie. It’s true. There’s so much stuff taken out of the movie and it’s all just more family chaos and development of these characters. It made it that much bleaker and disturbing about what was going on. It’s one of those things you read in the script and it’s like, she’s working on this thing and she painting a little Charlie head, Gabriel (Byrne) walks in, says ‘I can’t believe you’re doing that!’, it’s this heated moment, but it didn’t seem messed up. You didn’t dwell on it [while] reading the script and it says so much about the editing [by Lucian Johnston and Jennifer Lame].

And that’s another thing, Charlie’s decapitation. They cut out about 80 percent of our prosthetic work on the show I would say, but, I’m the first person who will say it was for the better of the film. I think [Ari] has such a strong cast, and going back to the decapitation, Peter’s reaction of just sitting there for like 40 seconds in silence is just – I think anybody can relate to that-it’s pure shock. [For the] audience, and even with me knowing what had to happen, I mean we shot everything, we shot the decapitation, we shot him actually looking back and seeing his headless sister spewed all over the back seat, but they took all that out and just left his reaction. For me that’s way more visceral when you look at that and you think, oh my God I can almost relate, what would I do? And I think it was totally to the benefit of the film to do that. As much as you don’t want to see your work get cut out, with this movie, I’m kind of glad they did!

Can I ask you about the idol figure at the end of the movie?

The mannequin with Charlie’s head on it?

Yes!  That gave me shivers and it was what I like to call a “70s ending”, when it’s completely bizarre but it fits. What did you draw on for that?  Was that broken down as well in the script or did Ari give you some leeway with that?

Yes and no. I mean in the script it was always described as “a mannequin with Charlie’s rotting head on it” and nothing too specific as far as details, so I got online and sourced out a lot of photos of mannequins and was sending those to Ari. He finally said, no, like those little artist mannequins, those little posable things just bigger, a 7-foot tall one. You can find tons of antique ones. They were a big thing in the early 1900s but since they’re antiques they cost a fortune, so I thought we could make something and I just happened to come across a place in China of all places that you could buy them from for a few hundred dollars. I was all set to order it and I can’t remember why but they needed it early for some reason so I had to think about it.

I think Ari wasn’t exactly sure of what he wanted as far as the body, we just knew it would have Charlie’s head on it. If you go to my Instagram (@AAFXStudio) there’s some spoiler collages but there’s some photoshop artwork that myself and Danny Carrasco, a Photoshop conceptual artist who does all del Toro’s stuff, put together-story board images of some of the key scenes, like Charlie’s head on the road and Toni taking her head off. One image was of this mannequin with Charlie’s head. We whipped that out as sort of a frame of reference and that was exactly what Ari wanted. We ended up making the head and the props guy I believe who did Charlie’s figures did the body part of it. He just took an actual mannequin that he found somewhere and stretched all the limbs.

The scene was described well in the script but it was vague as well if that makes any sense. All the components were there but none of the detail. We based everything on the Photoshop image.  Ari did his homework on the whole Paimon thing, getting into the lore of all that. He knew he wanted to have Charlie’s head there, he wanted a crown on it, he wanted it holding a sceptre, and people bowing down to it. All the details like those were in the script so we just filled in the blanks.

Annie sawing her head off was another shocker. The entire film was a series of dread then shock. It was so well done.

Now let me ask you-was it clear that she was using a piano wire? That was a huge part of the script that she knocked the piano over, pulled wires out of it and is actually using one of the piano wires to cut off her head.  You can see the top of the piano is open and the wires are all messed up but I found a lot of people saying they didn’t make that connection.

I didn’t make that connection at first and then I was reading an article and wondered what they were talking about with the piano. I did hear the sound of the piano and I was listening to a podcast where someone talked about a metronome as well. I don’t recall that.

Yeah, there’s a lot of subtle stuff there. And they did have the sound effect of the piano crashing over and I think you hear the wires snapping or being pulled but a lot of people didn’t make the connections.

That makes it even more horrifying!

We had a lot of fun with that and Toni told us it was the first time she’d ever been in a prosthetic makeup. We pumped 3 gallons of blood out of her neck. But she was having a good time and she told us she didn’t feel like it was same movie because we were getting into almost a slasher film kind of effect in this movie of all things!

It’s so true!  I know this was a bleak film and no one really comes out on top in this family, but did you have a favourite thing, something you really enjoyed working on with the film?

It was a weird one. From the administrative standpoint for me, personally, I’m sure I lost hair and went grey over it. The last-minute elements of…looking at the calendar 24/7, thinking we only have 20 days left and we haven’t started that house or whatever, so it was pretty stressful, but from the prep side it was probably one of the most fun jobs I’ve done in years. The build went really smooth and going down to Utah with the small crew, everybody was super cool and really friendly.

It’s always just really nice to work with directors that truly are passionate about the project.  I can’t tell you-I won’t name names-how many times I’ve worked with directors who are like, I’m such a fan, and then they don’t seem to get the first thing about what the fans really care about. And you just kind of go “You’re so full of it!”, but Guillermo del Toro is the perfect example of someone who is the exact opposite of that.  He’s the world’s biggest fanboy. He’s so passionate about things and Ari exuded a lot of the same things. He was so into this and he had such an established vision for the film and there was never really a question mark. If you had suggestions he was completely open to it he wasn’t stubborn about things.  He wasn’t so committed to his view that you couldn’t talk to him. But he was committed enough to always have an answer. And that’s an ideal situation, of course. I think the entire working experience was just really good.