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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

An Interview With Special Effects Makeup Artist, Jill Rockow

Jill Rockow and sculptor/makeup artist Nick Marra; Jill and Ed French turn LeVar Burton into an alien on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. Photo at left courtesy of Jill Rockow.

Jill and THE CAT IN THE HAT (2003);photo courtesy Jill Rockow
When genre fans think of special effects makeup artists, some of the names that come to mind are guys like Dick Smith, Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, and the KNB EFX Group (Robert Kurtzman [1988-2002], Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger). There are many more you could add to this list of SPX and creature creators in the vast spectrum of the all important special effects and makeup departments. A mostly male-dominated profession, there are women who have shown they can make monsters and decapitate heads as good as the next guy. One such personality is New Jersey born Jill Rockow. She has lent her talents to a number of productions on both the big and small screen; beginning in the burgeoning horror genre (BEYOND EVIL, GRADUATION DAY) that exploded in the early 80s, and carrying on into high-profile studio films (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series; THOR) and television (LA LAW; STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE) of today. With over 30 years experience in her field, Rockow's work has paid off with not one, but two Primetime Emmy's for her work on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993) and THE SHINING (1997) miniseries. Ms. Rockow was kind enough to consent to an interview via email to discuss her varied career working in Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.

VENOMS5: How did you get into the makeup FX field and was there anything in particular that was your inspiration?

JILL ROCKOW: I've wanted to be a makeup artist since I went to the circus with my mother when I was 7. For whatever reason, the clown at the circus was fascinating to me. Not the slapstick, what I thought was so mean was the face!! The face that you couldn't tell who it was!! I was hooked.

V5: Was BEYOND EVIL (1980) your first job? If so, how was that experience?

JR: Yes, BEYOND EVIL was my first real job. I was offered a "furlough" program at my high school that offered me to attend a trade school instead of high school, but still receive high school credits. So, one of the trade school options was Cosmetology School. I figured that could only help in my makeup career to learn hair as well. I began Cosmetology School at 15 years old. After completing over a year there, at 17 I enrolled in Joe Blasco Makeup Academy. This was in 1979, and Mr. Blasco taught most of the classes himself. Shortly after graduating there, I got a very early phone call from Mr. Blasco saying, "Hi, Jill. Sometimes I receive phone calls from productions needing makeup artists. This is one of those times. A producer called and woke me up. It seems as though they are filming, and had to fire their makeup artist and hairstylist this morning. You need to get up now, get your ass down there within an hour. Oh yeah, the only way they will hire you is you need to do hair AND makeup, so go do it!!" I ended up staying on and finishing the whole film. I did mostly beauty makeup, but one night, they killed off a character and they needed a huge gash on his face. I packed every item I owned to bring it with me, and I completed my first effect that I did out of mortician's wax. How did it turn out?? That image of the actor hanging upside down with the wax gash? It was what was used for a version of the movie poster!! My first movie I did when I was 17 years old.

V5: You worked with director Herb Freed again on GRADUATION DAY (1981). What FX did you do on this shoot?

JR: This was the second film for the production company. This time they hired me as department head for the whole film. During this time, I was so lucky to meet Dick Smith while he was on a job in LA. MANY of the effects I had no clue how to do. He spent hours on the phone with me discussing full-head decapitations, stabbings, knife slits and others. I did every effect in this film, including a very complicated stabbing that shows the entrance of the knife, and the exit while the camera dollies, all in one shot!! Only a few people know this, but when I did my full head and upper body casting of Billy Hufsey (who gets decapitated in the film), Dick Smith volunteered and came over and helped me do the casting. It was an amazing time!!

V5: How did you come to work on DEADLY EYES (1982), the Canadian-Golden Harvest produced killer rat movie?

JR: After doing so much lab work on my own during GRADUATION DAY, I started going out to shops interviewing to get shop work, or as it was more commonly called then, "lab work". I found out what lab work was doing it, and I went over, showed my portfolio, and got a job!! I ran all the foam latex for that show. All the rat "masks" were foam rubber and some of the foot coverings were too. The giant rats in the movie were dachshund dogs wearing rat suits!! I ran something like 100 rat masks on that. I only did lab work, no set work on that film. The effects were done by Makeup Effects Lab that is still in operation today!!

V5: FRIGHTMARE (1983) was a bit different from the usual slasher type horror film. Was this a pleasant experience?

JR: I had worked with director Norman Vane before briefly, and he REALLY wanted me to work on this film. It was VERY low budget, and had very similar effects as GRADUATION DAY. I think EVERY horror in the 1980s had a decapitation. LOL! Anyhow, I reused the head and body parts for FRIGHTMARE, and just shot it... "creatively". They couldn't afford to have things made, so I just recycled things from before. The actor that starred in this, Ferdy Mayne, was a wonderful old-school theater actor whom I remember was fabulous. We shot most of it in a big old house in Los Angeles.

V5: What was the extent of your involvement on the short-lived 1983 TV series WIZARDS & WARRIORS (GREYSTONE'S ODYSSEY)?

JR: At best, I worked on one episode with the special effects department. They built some sort of armature, and the production could only afford a draped "skin" over the armature. It was like a rubber blanket. I tried to paint and slime it up, but it was really too silly; like Jeff Conaway with his 1980s hair in a medieval setting. I didn't do much, all I remember is working on a "cave set" and trying to make a blanketed armature scary.

V5: Which effects did you work on in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984)?

JR: When I was hired by Reel Effects on this, I was hired with Greg Cannom. We were going to split the effects between us. Believe it or not, the great Alec Gillis of ADI was my assistant back then. Greg had a parting with the production, and the director had a previous relationship with Tom Savini, so Tom then became our boss. I was mainly referred to as "Jason's Wrangler". Jason needed someone full-time just for his injuries. He had so many cuts, hammers, knives, blood all the time? Continuity back and forth during shooting was quite a task to keep it all correct!! I don't think I made any continuity mistakes, which is nothing short of a miracle.

V5: Do you recall any memories of working with Tom Savini?

JR: The director, Joe Zito had worked with Tom before, and really liked him. By the time Tom came on, we were already working. I always thought it must have been hard for Tom to come onto a project with it already having a crew, and him not knowing any of us. After filming began, I left the lab, and did work on set with Jason, and I would assist Tom on some effects, and the "puppeteering" of the mechanical Jason body at the end.

V5: By this point in your career, what was your impression on slasher films, and would you have continued doing them?

JR: I was so blessed to have had the opportunity to work in films of the 1980s. Every era has its "thing". I was so lucky to have worked on slasher films, I would have continued, but for the most part, they just went away. In 1988, I had the dream of a lifetime working on DICK TRACY for six months!

V5: Were there many women working behind the scenes in special makeup effects back then? Outside of yourself, I can only think of Jennifer Aspinall. What was the general atmosphere working in a field made up primarily by men?

JR: I had heard about Jennifer, but never met her until the early 2000s. Her work was mostly in the East, I think? While I was in the West. I did work mainly with men. I had met Ve Neill on THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER in 1982. She was the department head for makeup on that show. I was doing blood effects for the special effects department on that. I was SO blessed to later work for Ve in the early 1990s on PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE (3 seasons), three BATMAN films, many other films and TV. Ve was always quite an inspiration to me.

V5: You've worked on a lot of other films you're not credited for. Can you discuss some of these and the extent of your contributions?

JR: I worked for Knott Limited Special Effects and Special Effects Unlimited. In between makeup opportunities, I was able to secure work with either of these two companies. I made an exploding toilet for CRITTERS (1986). Making molds and fabrication is the same for makeup stuff. I knew how to make some molds, and how to pour stuff up. I wasn't too proud to take work that was non-makeup. I had fun making that wax toilet, my first and last!! It was very interesting to do, but I'm sure I'd be bored if I did it all the time. WIZARDS & WARRIORS (1983) was the "slime monster", SUPER DAVE was various "break-away" props I made; THE SWORD & THE SORCERER (1982) was battle sequences that had knife and sword blood effects, and when the main character had a sword fight, it sparked. We did that with a welder, but the wires and such needed to be skin tone and affixed to his flesh, since Lee Horsley barely wore a loin cloth.  LOL If you watch that scene closely, you can see "odd lumps" as he moved. For CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) I made an exploding Thoth Amon monster out of wax. I had nothing to do with any makeups in any of the above films.

V5: How did the job on CREATURE (1985) come about?

JR: Dick Smith had recommended me to the company making the prosthetics. They needed someone to do prosthetic application, so there I was!

V5: Do you have any interesting stories on working with Klaus Kinski on that picture?

JR: Klaus was QUITE a character. Everyone acted like they were walking on broken glass around him. He was just like a big spoiled kid. There were several times he didn't want to come into makeup, so several times I would go to get him, and a few times I clearly remember literally carrying him to the makeup room, telling him, "Oh no, you will not be making me late!!" I think he got a kick out of me, and I was one of the few people on that film that could make him get going. I KNOW there are many pictures out there--somewhere--of me carrying Klaus. I saw it once in a magazine! How I wished I took more photos during those years!!

Jill and Mike McCracken, Sr.; photo courtesy Jill Rockow
V5: You worked on SILVER BULLET (1985) for Dino De Laurentiis, which apparently had some problems with the werewolf design. What did your work entail and how was working for him? 

JR: I worked for Mike McCracken, Sr. on that. We did all the people turning into werewolves. There was a big church scene with the makeups we did, and Carlo Rambaldi made the priest's werewolf. We jokingly called the werewolf a "werebear", because it looked more like a bear. Oh well.

V5: In those early years, was working in special makeup effects a satisfying job financially, and was there ever a time you thought of doing something else? 

JR: I never wanted to do anything else. Being part of a makeup team to create effects for film and TV was the most fun a person can have going to work. My rent at that time was only $225 a month, and I averaged $300 a week in the early 80s. So, with everything being relative, I made enough to live on. I started making much better money with health benefits years later, after I got into the Union during the filming of THE DREAMER OF OZ (1990), which Craig Reardon hired me on.

V5: PROGRAMMED TO KILL (1987) is an obscure SciFi actioner starring Robert Ginty and Sandahl Bergman. You remember anything about this one?

JR: I love Bob (Robert) Ginty. I wonder what he's up to these days? I worked for Bob Short who directed this, and I worked for Bob a year later doing Howie Mandel for LITTLE MONSTERS (1989). Chris Biggs' effects shop made all the prosthetics for the movie. Sandahl played sort of a female terminator character, and I ended up doing the wigs as well for this one. I applied Sandahl's "robotic" prosthetic when they were called for.

Jill, John Caglione, Janna Phillips; photo courtesy Jill Rockow
V5: What types of makeup effects were the most challenging and is there a particular favorite effect(s) you did in your 80s works?

JR: First, when I was 19, I got to meet the A-MAZING Craig Reardon. I used to go to his house almost every day and watch him work. I got to watch him paint ET!! When he got POLTERGEIST (1982), I got to be a "corpse wrangler" when all those corpses worked. That was the COOLEST thing at the time, I remember. I couldn't sleep for days!! I guess technically 1989 is still the 80s. I got to work on the most incredible movie EVER. DICK TRACY (1989). The most challenging for sure was CHAPLIN (1992). Robert Downey, Jr. was an INCREDIBLE person, but whatever was in his saliva, or sweat, or both, would DESTROY the age makeups. OMG. I was in a panic most of that film.

V5: Was time and money always an obstacle in doing your best work or were there other factors involved, such as disagreeable actors, directors, etc.?

JR: Sure, I think time and money are always a factor. As far as actors I worked with, I was always pretty lucky in that department, I guess. On CHAPLIN, Robert Downey, Jr. was the most amazing person on the planet, and was so good and kind to the makeup and me. He was my most favorite actor. There was only one film I worked on where the lead actor was the biggest jerk. But, other than that, I've been very lucky and have worked with AMAZING people!!

V5: How did you and Lynn Redgrave meet? I see you worked with her on MIDNIGHT (1989) and again on the Made For TV version of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1991).

JR: MIDNIGHT (1989) was directed by FRIGHTMARE's Norman Vane. He called on me again to head up his makeup department. The makeups on Lynn were very fun. She was a TRUE professional, very rare these days. I loved her, she would invite me to her home to have dinner with her family, and I did a book tour with her, and she would do PSA commercials. I worked with her on all those too. When Lynn traveled to NYC, to work in theater, I never saw her again, sadly.

V5: For the bulk of your career from the 90s to the present, you've worked mostly in SciFi, fantasy, action, and more kid friendly films and TV. Do you prefer these to your earlier horror works?

JR: All we can do is "roll with the trends". Whatever is popular during that time period. I LOVED working (on and off) on STAR TREK for 12 years. I proudly won an Emmy for my work there for Michael Westmore, Sr. I LOVED working (on and off) on BUFFY. Vampires were REALLY popular during that time, and I worked a lot on Buffy's offspring, Angel. To keep a paycheck rolling in, in my opinion? I always accepted whatever was offered and went with it. Sometimes it was good, sometimes not as good.

Jill Rockow with Dick Smith at 2012 Governor's Awards Ceremony; photo courtesy Jill Rockow

V5: What was that feeling like when you won your first of two Primetime Emmy's?

JR: Funny question. I think everybody that has been on stage accepting an award or speaking, it's sort of all a blur. I could never see anybody up there, only shapes, and I don't remember anything anyone said. Again, I have to say it was a blur.

V5:  Looking back on your career is there anything you'd do different or not at all?

Jill & Ron Ely, LA LAW in '93; photo courtesy Jill Rockow
JR: I liked doing TV series mainly because it was comfortable. You get to sleep at home every night, and you really get to know people you work with since most TV (well it was then) works a 10-month year together. I was offered the whole last season of LA LAW, and it being all straight/beauty makeups, I thought it might be a relief, or regrouping for 10 months, and I accepted the position. I made a deal with myself -- in the beginining -- to show good character and never break a promise for a better opportunity. If people who hire you cannot count on you? I don't think I'd work for the same people over and over. With that said, Ve Neill called me AFTER I accepted LA LAW. She was gearing up for ED WOOD (1994) and asked me to join her as her 2nd. I even went down to the set and saw all the Rick Baker prosthetics, and met actors. I LOVED the whole idea of this movie; plus in 1979 I took a few makeup lessons from makeup artist Harry Thomas, who was Ed Wood's makeup artist for all his films. I decided to stay with LA LAW, because I accepted that first. I often wonder what would be today if I chose ED WOOD.

V5: What would you say is the biggest difference between your job in the 1980s and now?

JR: The very first word to come to mind, sorry to say, is RESPECT. There was a bond between people you worked with in the 1980s. You depended on each other. It's very hard to watch people getting treated badly, or replaced without a second thought. Also, CGI and the like have the ability to fix or change anybody's makeup. I think that is where the industry for makeup is going.

V5: Are there any additional funny, or memorable stories you'd like to share?

JR: My whole career I've been so lucky and truly blessed to work with wonderful people, honestly. Even though RDJ from CHAPLIN was my favorite actor to work with, my favorite job ever working for seven years for Kevin Haney on a traveling live show with an impersonator/comedian. His name is Steve Bridges. We would travel across the country a few times a week to the convention circuits. Filling halls of 1,000 or more, they were live shows. Steve wore disguise makeups of famous people. Kevin Haney truly demonstrated his genius in creating these makeups.

V5: What are you working on now?

JR: I am actually in between projects right now, and I am enjoying catching my breath for a while.

V5: Last question, do you have any advice for aspiring makeup artists-male or female--interested in working in show business?

Front row: Jill Rockow, Linda Blair, Stephen Lack, Greg Cannom, Craig Reardon. Back row: Kevin Haney, Todd Masters, Andrew Clement, Tom Woodruff Jr., Alex Gillis, Scott Essman. Monsterpalooza 2015, Dick Smith Tribute panel; photo courtesy Jill Rockow
JR: My #1 thing I tell young people today? LEARN THE COMPUTER. And sorry, I don't mean Facebook. LOL. Learn Z-Brush, and 3D printers, and animation programs, and Photoshop. That IS the future. Good or bad, that is the direction of films. Other than that? Move to Atlanta, Georgia. There are three HUGE studios there now, producing TONS of movies and TV and they hire locals!! There are cities being built around the studios there. GA is a "right to work state" and offers filmmakers enticing tax incentives. And it's a LOT less costly to live than in Los Angeles.

An enormous thanks to Ms. Rockow for taking time to answer questions about her lengthy, and very successful career.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I knew Jill in the early days of her career. In fact we hung around intimately for several months, but then there was a fork in the road (as there often is in life) and I was called one way and she another. But to show her the affection I passionately felt for her, I left a bouquet of red roses and a vinyl copy of The Rose movie soundtrack featuring Bette Midler on the roof of her car. I know, a rather futile gesture to show someone a sublime loving sentiment, but that song had assumed a transformative power over my life then and for all the days and years since. Love, true love, had finally been born in my soul--for Jill, of course, but for myself also and all the other living souls in my life from that time forward. My time with Jill was a difficult one for me as I felt like my very soul were being taken from me and possessed by her, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. But that kind of life was not meant for me. Instead, after a long travail, I sought out a true friend and,having no where else to go, totally and completely shared my pain, sorrow, and despair which poured out in a torrent. And really, for he first time in my life I felt real peace. Later that night, as I lie in bed in a borrowed room in my friends house, I felt a sudden and powerful surge of energy sweep over my body and instantly felt a wave of affirmation, an instant knowledge of something powerful and even holy, of Godliness somehow miraculously redeeming me from the region of lost souls. This was what people who really know refer to as being reborn--of knowing then and forever forward the power of the Holy Ghost and reality of God. And the meaning and mystery of that moment propels me forever forward on a new path--to seek, but not always fulfilling, a life of truth and faith in freedom and love. There are still hard days,days of desolation and loneliness when faith wanes and feelings of glory are nowhere to be found. So you trudge on until faith is found again. The valley of the shadow of death often rears up in our lives and you just need to keep going. God redeems mysteriously, and who can know His purposes, but devotion and worship must be freely given in spirit. God is spirit and, as is written, must be sought in spirit. After the former days of despair, love was reborn--for Jill, of course,(who said "I will marry you" but then hid away to this very day--understandingly fearful of a love which may prove faithless, and thus utterly terrifying--there is always risk), for myself especially (for otherwise there can be no love for others), and then family and friends and total strangers too. So as the poet says to his dark lady of love, I have been more faithful than I had thought.

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