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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview With Special Effects Makeup Artist, Steve Neill

Steve Neill with his gun he built for LASERBLAST (1978); on set of THE STUFF (1985)

Neill wearing his Kong suit in TV ad
Steve Neill has been in the special effects, makeup and modeling field for over 30 years; and in that time he has worked on many cult film favorites and high profile major studio productions. He comes from a long line of elder statesmen--some of which have left us--and others who have continued their professions in makeup and special effects. Steve Neill's resume is an eclectic mix of movies, television (THE A TEAM) and commercials (McDonald's Mac Tonight moon man; the King Kong Transamerica ad [see insert]). He has collaborated with a variety of equally talented SPX artists like Jim Danforth, Dave Allen, Randy Cook (Randall William Cook), Peter Kuran and Rick Stratton. Further, a tenure at Francis Ford Coppola's and George Lucas's American Zoetrope film studio gifted Neill with a passion for filmmaking that complemented his talent for makeup design and creature creations. Additionally, a lifelong interest in aircraft and models has served him well over the years, and on the projects he undertakes today at the SNG studios, a filmmaking facility he runs with his partner, Mary Cacciapaglia.

Mr. Neill was kind enough to agree to an interview via email to discuss his lengthy career in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

Venoms5: Can you tell me a bit about yourself growing up and where your interest in modeling and makeup came from? Were you a Famous Monsters kid like many of your colleagues?

Steve Neill: Yes I was. I grew up watching Science Fiction and Horror movies. Later on I started making my own monsters and models. While in high school I saw the film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), which greatly influenced me in becoming a Science Fiction filmmaker. I also saw PLANET OF THE APES (1968) which inspired me to recreate the makeup prosthetics which later led to my pursuing prosthetic makeup effects.

V5: You met both Francis Ford Coppola and Rick Baker in the early 70s. In what ways were they influential on your career path?

SN: Francis was a great mentor in developing my filmmaking skills while working at the American Zoetrope. Later I moved to LA and met and became friends with Rick Baker. We lived in the same neighborhood and spent a lot of time together. I learned a great deal from him and later he started referring me to jobs which started my career in makeup effects. I very much appreciate Rick's helping me get my start in the business.

V5: Was Larry Cohen's GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) your first project; and if so, how did you get the job?

SN: Yes, that was my first project. Rick Baker referred me to Larry on that one.

V5: Can you tell me anything about the Bigfoot project you were attached to and how it morphed into THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER?

SN: Yes, originally Rick Baker referred me to William Stromberg to build a Bigfoot suit in 1975. Later the script was changed and it became THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER (1977). I built the big dinosaur and other makeup effects for that movie.

Steve Neill photo of his Crater Lake Monster head
V5: Can you describe the process of building that monster head?

SN: I sculpted the head out of clay on my apartment's kitchen floor in Toluca Lake. Then I made a huge bathtub size mold in plaster. To get it out of the kitchen we had to pass it through the kitchen window which was wider than the door. Working in the back alley, I poured the head up in latex and made a fiberglass under-skull for it to support the latex. The rest of the dinosaur head was composed out of foam and latex construction. Later it was painted. Solid latex teeth were added and the mouth was constructed from foam rubber and coated with latex. The eyes were created from plastic hemispheres painted from the inside.

V5: What was your reaction when you learned your Crater Lake monster head ended up being used in the film HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 (1981) without your knowledge? What became of it?

SN: I thought it was great because without doing anything I got to add that movie to my resume. I have no idea what happened to the head after that, though.

David Allen doing stop-motion animation on his unrealized project, THE PRIMEVALS.

V5: When did you meet David Allen and is there a story you could share about him? You worked with him a number of times throughout your career.

SN: I met David through Randy Cook. We became friends. I liked his script, 'The Primevals' very much. When I was doing LASERBLAST (1978) for Charlie Band I took David's script to Charlie because I thought he'd be able to make David's project into a movie. This instead led to a long career of David Allen doing visual effects work for Charlie Band. From that point on, David and I worked numerous times on projects for Charlie. David was a wonderful man and a good friend whom I miss to this day.

V5: What would you say was the reason Allen's ambitious project was never completed?

SN: Well it was simply Empire Pictures not following through and finishing it. 

Steve Neill photo of his prop gun seen in LASERBLAST (1978).

V5: You built the alien gun in LASERBLAST (1978). What parts went into its construction? Did you design multiple guns or just the one seen in the movie?

SN: I only made the one gun and that was loosely based on a concept sketch. Parts of the gun were sculpted and molded. Other parts were Star Trek tricorder parts, surplus electronic parts and a 35mm film can.

V5: You acted in this picture too, playing the humanoid alien we see at the beginning with the laser gun arm attachment. Did you enjoy the acting experience?

SN: Yes, very much. I worked that day in the Lancaster desert with my good friends, David Allen, Ve Neill, and Paul Gentry. The four of us alone made the opening sequence.

V5: What was the budget on LASERBLAST?

SN: I don't remember the budget for the movie but my budget was about $3,500 which was pretty good for back then.

Steve Neill photo behind the scenes on the King Kong Transamerica Insurance commercial.

V5: Going back to your acting, you've played a gorilla on a few occasions in film, TV and commercials. What was it like being a suit actor and how many suits did you build?

SN: I loved doing gorilla suit work. Rick Baker gave me the inspiration for doing that. He also referred me to jobs requiring gorilla suit acting, which I also loved! I built about four gorilla suits total.

V5: I'm assuming working on THE DAY TIME ENDED (1979) wasn't a very pleasant experience. Can you elaborate on this film's production and the difficulties you encountered?

SN: That picture was my concept alone. I created it. I sold the idea to Charlie based on a page and a half synopsis. I wrote the screenplay with my friend Wayne Schmidt. The script was quite strong and the story explained quite well the science behind the experiences the characters were having. So far so good. Later, after Bud Cardos was hired by Charlie to direct the film, he hired a TV writer to rewrite our script and he proceeded to destroy it. After the movie was made, it was handed back to Dwayne, David Allen, Randy Cook, me and a few other greats to fix it and add more visual effects. It ended up being a watered-down, mediocre movie loosely based on my original story idea, 'Vortex'.

V5: What work did you do on THE DARK (1979), and could you elaborate on Tobe Hooper's involvement on that picture before John Bud Cardos came aboard?

SN: That was the first time I met Tobe Hooper, whom I later became friends with, and did a motion picture with called SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (1990). I don't know why he didn't remain director. Needless to say I was disappointed when Bud Cardos came on as director. I did the prosthetic makeup effects for the creature on that movie.

V5: Did you ever have any interaction with Edward L. Montoro, and if so, what sort of person was he?

SN: I don't remember Ed very well at all. 

Steve Neill photo of his DR. HECKYL & MR. HYPE (1980) makeup for Oliver Reed.

V5: Do you have any memories of applying Oliver Reed's makeup in DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE (1980)?

SN: I got a call one day from Rob Bottin who said he had a job for me working on an Oliver Reed movie. He told me it would be a wild ride working with Oliver but he thought I could handle it. I later met with Charles Griffith, the writer of the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) and his wonderful wife Jill. My first meeting with Oliver Reed was to make a life mask and my old good friend Rick Stratton assisted me that day. Oliver Reed was a wonderfully charming, intelligent, talented and professional man. Through the entire shoot of the movie I never once encountered an unpleasant experience working with this consummate professional. We became friends while working together and spent many a wild evening painting the town red, drinking and pillaging while having the time of our lives. I will always cherish the experience with him as one of the shining moments of my life. 

Building the cocoon for the Mutant in FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982); photo from Fangoria #24

V5: You worked for Roger Corman on a handful of pictures, including his New World outer space movies. How did working at New World compare to your time with Charles Band?

SN: In a lot of ways working for Roger Corman was much better than working for Charles Band. Roger was charming and treated me very well while giving me many opportunities to be creative. He was very organized and consistent. I always knew what to expect from him (including being paid on time).

*Photo from Fangoria #24
V5: One of my favorite New World movies for Corman you worked on is GALAXY OF TERROR (1981). Do you have any memories of this production?

SN: Not really because one of my masks for one of the aliens was merely adapted to the movie. It was a creature head that Rick Stratton and I had built for another movie that was never used. In fact, I have never seen GALAXY OF TERROR (1981). *Fango #24 states this mask was originally intended for THE CREATURE WASN'T NICE (1983).

V5: In an old Fangoria magazine I read about a film you were attached to, possibly as a producer, titled LAB 23. What was that about and what became of it?

SN: It was a script I wrote with my friend Mike Hoover about unlocking future DNA evolutionary trends in human beings. We were never able to get it financed.

Steve Neill photo of his FULL MOON HIGH (1981) wolfman
V5: You worked with Larry Cohen a number of times on films like Q (1982) and IT'S ALIVE 3: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987). Do you have a favorite effect or effects from your films you did with him?

SN: Yes, I did seven pictures for Larry Cohen and my favorite was FULL MOON HIGH (1981) with Adam Arkin. I made a werewolf suit that I wore at the beginning of the movie when I attack Adam and bite him. I am still friends with Larry Cohen to this day. We talk often and it looks like we will be working together again soon on more films. 

Steve Neill at left behind chair with clawed arm over Sigourney's mouth on set of GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

V5: You were part of the Entertainment Effects Group on GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) and FRIGHT NIGHT (1985). What did you do on these two productions?

SN: On GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) I created the arms and creature hands for the chair sequence and I was the puppeteer for the hand that bursts out of the chair to grab Sigourney's face. Additionally, I was master puppeteer for the Terror Dog and worked onstage with Ivan Reitman to communicate his direction via headset and microphone to my puppeteers under the stage. I also puppeteered the Terror Dog feet breaking out of the statues, wore the Terror Dog suit once, helped sculpt the full-size Terror Dog and did some of the mechanics on Stay Puft.

For FRIGHT NIGHT (1985) I did Chris Sarandon's vampire makeup prosthetics, Evil Ed's forehead appliances for the cross burning, some of the hands; and Chris Sarandon's pencil through-the-hand prosthetic were mine and some of the teeth.

V5: With GHOSTBUSTERS being remade and a reliance on CGI, do you think practical effects will become dominant again?

SN: I think CGI has its place. I think practical effects will reclaim its popularity in the dwindling love affair with CGI. Practical is the key word. 

Steve Neill's baby Quetzalcoatl for Larry Cohen's Q (1982);Fangoria #24 photo

V5: You worked on both low and big budget movies. Do you have a preference, or do you think both have their advantages as well as their disadvantages?

SN: I have no preference. If a project is interesting and fun, no matter what the budget is, I want to do it.

V5: You got a chance to work on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979). Can you discuss your experience there, and your later work on STAR TREK: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)?

SN: I was friends with Fred Phillips and one day I got a call from him asking if I would help him work on the new STAR TREK movie. Nearly fainting on the floor, I said yes. I was the first one to work with Fred in the old makeup room at the Paramount back-lot. My first assignment was to do Leonard Nimoy's Spock ears. They had to replicate the original ears exactly. I later brought in my friends, Rick Stratton, Mark Siegel and Ve Neill to work with us as the amount of work increased for the makeup effects. I later met with Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry to design a bridge alien with a domed head that I made the prosthetics for and Ve Neill applied it. It was another one of those shining moments in my career. Years later on STAR TREK VI (1991) I only made Klingon forehead appliances for Richard Snell.

V5: I'm a huge fan of the original series. Is there an episode, or even a makeup job on the show you're particularly fond of?

SN: 'Balance of Terror' is my favorite episode of the original series. Spock's makeup will always be my favorite.

Steve Neill photo with his Enterprise.

V5: You also built an enormous replica of the Starship Enterprise. Can you explain the genesis of this project? It's in the Smithsonian as well, correct?

SN: One replica resides in my office. One with the Museum of Science Fiction in Washington DC and a third is currently being built for a collector. The original inspiration for building such a large model came from a childhood dream while watching the original show in high school. I swore that one day I would have such a model.

Neill's RETURN OF SWAMP THING creature
V5: Out of everything you've done is there one film/TV show/commercial you're particularly proud of and why?

SN: STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) because it fulfilled my dream of coming to Hollywood, working with Gene Roddenberry and the cast of STAR TREK.

V5: If you could go back and do something different or not at all what would it be and why?

SN: I would have stuck to my filmmaking career as I am doing today.

V5: What are you currently working on now, and have you ever thought of writing or producing again; or even sitting in the directors chair?

SN: Currently I am doing all those things on a TV series I created that we are in production on titled BUT SOMETHING IS THERE.

Steve Neill photo on set of THE STUFF (1985).

Neill (middle) with Mac Tonight; Steve Neill photo
V5: Last question, what advice would you give to artists with an interest in modeling and makeup design?

SN: The best advice I can give to anyone who has a passion for these things is to pursue it at all costs and never listen to anyone telling them they can't do it. MAKE IT SO. 

I would like to thank Mr. Neill for consenting to this interview. CAC wishes him continued success in all his future endeavors. *All behind the scenes photos property of Steve Neill unless otherwise noted*.

You can see more of Steve Neill's work at the links below:





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