Stan Winston: The Michelangelo of Monsters

Special effects maestro Stan Winston discusses the special artistry of bringing horrible images to the big screen and the special challenge of keeping Tom Cruise from looking silly in Interview With the Vampire.


"I defy someone to look at the art we've sculpted and tell me that Michelangelo is any better," asserts special effects conjurer Stan Winston, waving his hand around the studios in which he and his team created the butt-kicking robotics, mechanical characters and special effects makeup for Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park and the upcoming Interview With the Vampire. Apparently unfazed by the way my gaze narrows at such a grandiose statement, the four-time Oscar/two-time Emmy winner continues, "I would put the talent that is under this roof up against the finest painters, sculptors and artists of the Renaissance. Brilliant painting, brilliant sculpture, brilliant artwork that comes together here, then has got to go out there and act--that deserves ultimate respect from the artistic community."

Surrounded by various life-size artifacts of Winston's craft, his Pietas, Davids and Sistine Chapels--fevered, edgy creations that suggest the hell-spawn of Edgar Allan Poe, Gustave Dore and H.P. Lovecraft--I can say that his stuff, even when it sits immobile, is jaw-dropping. Over there stands a chromium, scarred, blood-spattered Arnold-size Terminator endoskeleton. Close-by hulks a raging, man-gnashing Predator. Beyond are the face-sucking arachnid-like creatures and looming killer queen from Aliens. To the other side is white-faced Edward Scissorhands, equipped with stiletto digits, electroshocked black hair and punk Edwardian leather. Then there's a mummy. A werewolf. A Frankenstein monster. Photographs of Cicely Tyson's 110-year-old, peach-pit face for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Tucked away in a side suite--part makeup room and part mad-doctor lab--sit a row of astonishingly varied, expressive primate designs for Congo, the Michael Crichton story that Frank Marshall will soon direct. One can even catch a sneak preview of such stuff as the project-in-the-works Tank Girl.

What I don't see is any hint of the process by which Winston and his merry pranksters defile the winsome face of Tom Cruise in a particularly horrific vampiric disintegration we'll soon see on the big screen. Which is undoubtedly the way the prime movers behind Interview With the Vampire want it. But that's all right, because Winston has plenty to say about Cruise, about director Neil Jordan and about the movie. And what Winston has to say on the subject--in fact, on almost any subject--is refreshingly accessible, opinionated and ornery.

But first, let's clear the air on the subject of those fabulous Jurassic Park dinosaurs. Does it bother Winston that so many people are oblivious to his contribution to this mega-dino-pic and believe that most of the effects were computer-generated by the famous Industrial Light and Magic? "I hear this all the time, and of course it bothers me, because of the two years of work that we put into it," Winston declares with a sigh.

"There's a reason why I now own Digital Domain with Jim Cameron and Scott Ross, the second largest computer effects company next to ILM. I don't want to become extinct like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. I want to say that everyone at ILM did for that movie the most incredible, ground-breaking computer animation that has been done to date on the screen. To the audiences who saw the movie and said, 'I think the whole thing is animation or all computer-generated images,' I say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, approximately 65 percent of all dinosaur footage in Jurassic Park is full-size, live, right there in your face.' Every dinosaur was designed-- dramatically, dynamically and paleontologically correct--under this roof at Stan Winston's studio, from a baby Velociraptor popping out of an egg to a 9,000-pound T. rex. It looks so real, like you can reach and touch them, because you can touch them."

So, we're clear now on the matter of Stan Winston's hankering for respect. But the serious aesthetic respect he seeks does not come all that easily to one whose creations radiate so much flat-out weirdness. "There's a lot of shit that comes out of me in my creatures," Winston admits. "I mean, I'm a family man, been married for 25 years to one person and to whom I will be married for the rest of my life. My son, a well-balanced, good person is a Yale graduate and a phenomenal actor. My daughter, who just graduated from the University of Arizona, is a healthy, good human being."

Nevertheless, Winston's visions are strange. Has he ever gotten so entangled with one of his creations-- like Michael Redgrave's ventriloquist in Dead of Night, who thinks his wood dummy is alive--that it invaded his psyche? "Nightmares? I don't. Dark thoughts? Absolutely. I have less than pleasant things going on in there. There is an evil side that arises and is allowed to come out in my work. In my head, I see these faces. I have these emotions. I can imagine the most incredible things. And that's sort of cool, you know, because it's all fantasy."

Winston turns quiet, then continues after a moment. "If you want let-ting-it-all-hang-out-with-Stan-Winston, let's talk about one of the easiest examples: Pumpkinhead, the first film that I directed." Being a horror junkie, I've seen Pumpkinhead. But for the legions who haven't, Winston's 1988 directorial debut was incredibly bizarre stuff about a backwoods pappy who unleashes a fiend on city slickers he blames for his young son's death. "I thought the most horrendous thoughts I could possibly think. It was the most evil-thinking fucker anybody had ever seen. I would sit back and think, 'If I really wanted to hurt somebody, what would I do?' I ended up thinking, 'I'm going to find out who you love and fuck them up right in front of you.' That's pretty sick. Every time Pumpkinhead hurt somebody, he kept them alive just to show them to the person they meant the most to. How do you let thoughts like that go? Make a movie and it becomes like, 'Been there, done that.'"

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