ROBERT KURTZMAN: HORROR LIVES IN OHIO

Hey. All those horror movies you loved in the ‘80s and early ‘90s? “Evil Dead II”, “Phantasm II”, “Bride of Reanimator”, “From Beyond”, “Army of Darkness”, etc., know what they all have in common? Robert Kurtzman had a hand in the special effects. And in the late ‘80s, he and his partners, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, formed KNB Effects Group and went on to work on nearly every major genre movie for the next twenty years.

In 2004, Kurtzman left LA and KNB and moved back to Ohio. He formed Precinct 13 Entertainment and set to work creating new movies and special effects for the current and upcoming generations of horror freaks. There was no earthshaking reason for Kurtzman’s move cross-country; rest-assured, Kurtzman, Nicotero and Berger are all still buddies. (In fact, when I ran into Kurtzman in Chicago for the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors, the last thing he said to me was, “I’m heading home to watch Howard win his Oscar.” Which is what happened, for his make-up work on “The Chronicles of Narnia”; and Berger thanked Nicotero and Kurtzman in his speech.)

“Basically, I got sick of L.A. That was the main impetus,” Kurtzman says. “You can waste years doing meeting after meeting which go nowhere. I sold, optioned, and was attached to half a dozen projects since ‘Wishmaster’, but none of them made it through the studio process and actually got filmed. I really felt like I wanted to be more involved in the filmmaking process, and not just an effects guy. So in starting my own company, where we kind of do it all, I can juggle around from department to department and still concentrate on my career as a director and a producer.”

Kurtzman made his directorial debut in 1995 with “The Demolitionist”, a direct-to-video action film for the now-defunct APIX Studios. He followed that in 1997 with the superior cult-favorite, “The Wishmaster”. Neither experience was overly satisfying. “[Those movies] had a lot of studio influence and ten producers. I just wanted the experience of doing something where we had total control. We come up with a lot of ideas and as long as we haven’t locked ourselves in, we’re constantly shifting what the movie is becoming. Which is really cool! We’re not locked into the script right now, so there’s a lot of ‘what if we did this? What if we threw a midget in there?’ That kind of thing. We’re constantly changing it. It’s really been a fun experience doing this.”

As we speak, Precinct 13 is working hard on their first production, “The Rage”. Starring his “Wishmaster”, Andrew Divoff, Carmella DeCesare and another fan favorite, Reggie Bannister, the movie promises to be a throw-back to the classic gore-and-thrill-fests of the late ‘80s. “Once I moved back here and started a new company, we started to look around for a new project and raise funding for it back here. Basically, we had a couple of ideas. Some of the budgets were higher, some were lower. We found one that we could do for the price, so we set out, wrote the treatment, put the package together, started raising funding and working on the picture. It’s a hybrid of a lot of different movies that we grew up on. It’s kind of a ‘Re-Animator’ feel, about a scientist who’s more of a terrorist. He feels that he’s been wronged by his government and American capitalism in squashing his cure for cancer. It was worth more to pharmaceutical companies to [not have] a cure. It basically drives him insane. He gets to a point where he decides to take it out on our society. He creates this rage formula which drives you insane and is infectious. Once it’s unleashed, it’ll knock out city after city and he’s the only one with a cure.

Well, what happens is that the experiment goes wrong, one of his experiment escapes and is eaten by a bunch of vultures after it dies. And they transform. Then everything starts to spread, through the animal kingdom and the human element. We’ve got a third of the film in the can. And we’re building all the creature stuff now. I’m directing it and producing it with John Bisson, Matt Jarrems and my wife, Ann. I’m cinematographer on it. Shooting HD. We bought these new cameras, went out and tested them, had them up-rezzed to film and then went over to the theater to watch the footage. And it looked really sweet. With ‘The Rage’ we’ve had months to work so we’re taking our time. We’re building our bird puppets and using a combination of puppets and digital. Blood hits and things. It’s really just the difference in design on a lot of it because we’re going back to the old days, making some Fulci-esque looking things. You know? Kind of that insane, bloody, over the top shit.”

Kurtzman’s move from L.A. to Ohio may seem like a strange decision to someone outside the entertainment industry, but the truth is, with the advances in technology, Hollywood being the final-word in the movie world may soon be a thing of the past. “Obviously, Robert Rodriguez and other people have already proven that [you don’t have to work in LA to work in the industry] but they have huge machines behind them. We’re a real small independent studio. We have just enough equipment and computer power to do small pictures and then do effects on bigger ones. But it’s more contained. It’s a small crew who are doing a little bit of everything. We have Gary Jones who is basically running my set for me. And at the same time he’s rigging effects stuff. Everyone’s juggling around, you know? Which is cool. You’re not just DP’ing on the picture, you’re doing a little bit of everything.”

And there’s an odd financial freedom to shooting out East as well, as he soon found out. “Believe it or not, I can find more stuff out here and I’m not paying an arm and a leg for it. Building our own sets and finding everything to dress it with. Camera rigs we’re building on our own, using materials we find at surplus houses, like big ball-bearing rings and stuff… you find that all in LA but you pay for it. They know the film industry is coming their way and they charge an arm and a leg for stuff that looks like LED readout computer crap from prop houses. So we’re better off building it on our own.”

Like his partners, Kurtzman moved to L.A. in the early ‘80s to work in the movies. Growing up a fan of monster movies, he had dreams of not only creating new monsters and scaring new audiences, but creating the movie-lands for those monsters to live in. He landed a job with veteran John Buechler, who was the lead on all of Charles Band’s movies at Empire Pictures. That’s where he met Howard Berger. Then, he explains, “Howard went [out to Pittsburgh] to work on ‘Day of the Dead’ and that’s where he met Greg. While they were doing that, I was going around working at various shops. There were a few years there where we were working at Stan [Winston’s] or Kevin Yeager’s. And then on ‘Evil Dead 2’—that was kinda the first time we worked together. After that we started about starting our own thing, because at that time Howard was supervising at Kevin Yeager’s and I was supervising at Mark Shostrum’s. Greg was running Mark’s business stuff, doing his day-to-day bookkeeping. And so we were all like ‘why don’t we just do this for ourselves?’”

He continues, “Prior to that, I had come back to Ohio after ‘Evil Dead 2’, I went to the bank, took out a loan and then went back to L.A. and started this little thousand-square-feet shop. For two years, we were doing dummies there for ‘Action Jackson’ and doing a lot of Stan Winston’s hand-me-downs. And then we rented that space out to the ‘Deep Star Six’ mechanical shop. Then it was just about after that when we started trying to pull in some small shows. And then Howard and Greg took on the business with me—they took on the loan and we formed KNB. And it kept growing, we kept moving from shop to shop, getting bigger spaces.”

Nicotero has said that KNB was started at the exact right time—any earlier or later and they may have missed the horror cusp completely, a sentiment Kurtzman agrees with completely. “We were right on that bend where [horror] was becoming popular. Fango was getting big and covering everything. It was the early years where we were sort of horror film rock stars. We were the new band in town when we started KNB. We were doing a bunch of gore shows and we became known as the gore guys. Obviously, things had been around for years, in terms of effects, but it was really the mid-80s when everyone was doing those types of movies where they needed a monster and some blood. It was all rubber at the time and it was non-stop shows out there.”

But at the same time, even with the boom in the dark genre, horror was still the bastard entertainment. “We’re just a notch up from porn, basically,” Kurtzman agrees, laughing. “It’s funny—most of your major directors started out in horror. Richard Donner, Joe Dante—some of them stayed in horror and some of them left. But it’s where everyone gets their start, whether it’s a low budget horror movie or a vigilante ‘Ms. .45’-type movie. They always start out with these types of movies and they’re fun! They’re actually more fun working on a small budget than when you’re sitting on a big movie set and you’ve got so many people working and you’re moving so slow because you’ve got these enormous set-ups and you just want to keep moving! So, in a lot of ways it’s more fun to work on the smaller budget shows than these $20 million-plus movies. You don’t get bored on the set.”

The itch to direct never went away, of course. While he and the ‘N’ and the ‘B’ worked on other projects, Kurtzman continued to keep his eye out for the project that he could direct. “It started out in the early years—you know, you always want to do your own films. Then for the first so many years being out there, learning the effects business and how that works, you can’t just jump into making a film because there’s so much to learn. I was just a kid out of high school, basically, out in California trying to make it as an effects guy. As the years went on and I started doing more and more on shows, like storyboarding and designing entire sequences on something—transformations or whatever, effects sequences—I was given more and more responsibility on shows. Then I started getting some second-unit gigs. And then I just had to do something to pitch out there on my own. And that, of course, was [‘From Dusk ‘til Dawn’], and my producing partner John Esposito and I spent ten years trying to get that off the ground.”

Finally, it found a home—with upstart super-directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (with whom KNB had worked on “Reservoir Dogs”). But getting the movie produced came with a price. “In order to do that, I had to give up the directing. You kind of do that—actually, after all that time, we were so sick of it! I didn’t care how I got my money back on that one. I’d spent so much developing it, putting money into boarding it, doing all the creature designs, I was just like ‘God, I just gotta get a return on this thing.’ Then the opportunity came to set it up with Robert and we went ‘well, he’s the hot new thing! Might not be a bad idea. Let’s go ahead and get this made’.”

In terms of fairness, there was little deviation between Kurtzman’s original concept and the final production, so the whole experience could have been a disaster, but wasn’t. “It’s pretty much the whole movie. The original 24-page story I wrote—the only difference is that the hotel sequence isn’t in there. They pick up the brothers on the road hitching after their car breaks down. I still opened with the liquor store shoot-out. And everything in there is pretty much how I originally boarded it—the guy being lit on fire, the lighter going through the air, everything. And then it went to the family, introducing them, picking up the brothers. And then they sneak across the border, they get to the bar and then the rest is all the action sequences. The idea was always to do ‘Race with the Devil’ meets ‘Vampires’—that’s why the motor home. It was always an ‘Assault on Precinct 13’-style movie, which is why we were so quick to isolate the family and then just do battle all night. It was really geared for a million dollar picture, you know? And then that just ballooned once it started attracting bigger name talent. It became $17 million dollar movie and like $9 million below the line. I always thought Dusk could have really spawned some cool sequels but I’m not really happy with the direction they went with them.

While “Dusk” was underway with a new director, Kurtzman wound at the helm of “The Demolitionist”, then later, “The Wishmaster”, written by Peter Atkins, which horror fans liked but critics weren’t so kind to. “I took a lot of hits with ‘Wishmaster’ [from the critics]. People either love it or hate it,” he says. “The ones that got it were the ones who loved the genre. The ones that didn’t will bash on anything. I really don’t care; I kinda shut it out. Sometimes it gets to you but you just kinda go ‘whatever’. You wanna be a critic or you want to make movies. You get out there and make a movie. It ain’t that easy!”

Like the “Dusk” sequels, Kurtzman wasn’t happy with the ongoing “Wishmaster” franchise. “In my opinion, once they started the sequels they lost sight of the rules. They have him swordfighting—he’s getting physical and he was never meant to get physical. He had to trick you with the wordplay. He can’t do anything unless it’s in service of a wish. We really played that up in the first film, with him having to leave rooms when asked to and trying to trick them into a wish. In the second and third one it was stuff like a guy saying ‘Go fuck yourself’ and cut to a guy fucking himself. There was no lead-up or baiting of it. Then in the third one, it was more like ‘Highlander vs. Wishmaster’, with him swordfighting some guy from the past or something.”

So with the frustrations of L.A. and Hollywoodland bearing down on Kurtzman at every turn, the decision to move was basically made for him. Returning to Ohio and opening up Precinct 13 was deemed the smartest choice. And Kurtzman has no doubts it was the right choice. Since opening P13 he’s produced and directed 2 commercial spots which have garnered 6 International Davey Awards and the studios produced creature and visual effects for over a dozen projects over the past two years. Devils Rejects, Hostel, Mad –TV etc. He has more feature film directing offers coming his way since leaving LA. I think I’m being taken more sereiously as a filmmaker now that I’ve decided to raise my own funding for a film. There is way to much talking about making films in Hollywood and not enough of actually making them.

He’s now working with both veterans like Gary Jones (“Spiders and Crocodile 2”), Gino Crognale, Al Tuskes, Brian Demski, Sean Rodgers, Connie Cadwell, John Bisson( all former KNB artists who moved back to the midwest) and brand new talent. “We have a lot of guys who joined the company when we first started—camera guys, guys who just got out of school that run the sound equipment—they’re all newbies. They’d never done a movie before they came here. So, it’s kind of a trial-by-error deal with everybody, but it’s working out okay.”

Precinct 13 is a fully-functional studio, housing a practical effects shop as well as a bank of CGI and Creature Effects artists. For someone with a background in latex-and-gelatin, the invasion of CGI may seem like an encroachment, but to Kurtzman, it’s just another tool. “I love working with both elements. You build what you can build and use make-up for, puppets and stuff, but there are times when CG comes into play. Why build a whole puppet-rig when I can just put a greenscreen glove on him, do a quick shot. And then we can have one guy work on it for a week. Instead of five guys building a mechanical torso-rig or whatever to do the gag. You’re looking at spending fifteen grand on something that you could get done for a couple of grand. On a low-budget sense, it makes a lot of sense to do it this way. We didn’t have a two-hundred foot crane, for instance, but we were able to do a two-hundred-foot crane shot. We shot ten feet of it, then extended the shot by building a digital environment and going and going until we were above the trees. That kind of stuff, I couldn’t afford to do. So now we do portions of things and then add on in CG.”

And now, “The Rage” is moving on, with new projects on the horizon coming fast. “We are shooting the rest [of “The Rage”] in August, mainly because of the actors availability, so I’m directing another film in June called ‘Buried Alive’. It’s part of this set of four pictures that we’re shooting in New Mexico called ‘The Horror Chronicles’. It’s kind of a creepy hot kid’s ghost story thing. It’s a sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll teenager thing. P13 is handling all the Creature and CGI effects on all four films. ‘Living Hell’, ‘Undead or Alive’, ‘Buried Alive’, ‘Zero Dark 30’, which shoot back to back from April through July. I’m VIFX and Creature FX Producing and David Matherly is CG supervisor and Gary Jones is supervising the creature effects. These four separate films [are being] produced by Dave Greathouse and DarkLot Entertainment.”

As far as the bastard genre goes, Kurtzman is happy with the work and the prospects. “It’s just the studios that think that. They get a couple of executives who sit up in their offices and dictate things like ‘we only want ghost stories because ‘The Sixth Sense’ made a lot of money’. Or whatever. Now it’s ‘Hostel’. We’ll see how ‘Slither’ does, because [that’s] a little bit of a retro movie that’s got some humor in it. If it flies, you’re going to see a ton of those next. Everyone will be dusting off their ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ scripts. Or the thing with the hand running around—‘Idle Hands’—we’ll get a bunch of those next. They’ll be like ‘we gotta get some humor in there!’ And then people will get sick of that and they’ll want their hardcore horror back again. I think you can have a good mix of both. ‘Re-Animator’s one of those movies where it’s played straight but it’s got some really funny shit in it because it’s so over the top. Those are the fun ones. I would love to just do these types of genre pictures. I’m up for anything that’s fun and interesting. The horror genre is fun because it’s not just a walk ‘n talk thing. You have fun days where you get to play with the gags and fight scenes and that kinda shit!”

Check out the official site for Precinct 13.




Posted on May 4, 2006 in Interviews by
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