Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Richard Taylor is a little busy right now, with The Hobbit in full swing, but I was able to lock him down for a half an hour of lightning-round reminiscing about the making of BRAINDEAD, known stateside as DEAD ALIVE, an early and incredibly gory film from one Mr. Peter Jackson.
Braindead is my personal favorite Peter Jackson movie, but I saw it at the perfect age and it was like a lightning bolt out of nowhere. I had no idea what to expect when I rented the VHS and was blown away by the sheer level of ingenuity on display.
There’s a lot of information packed into these 4500 or so words, including a bit about the previous, much more expensive version of the film, how Richard Taylor met Peter Jackson, a great story about a Baby Selwyn costume actually fitted onto a 2 year old, the awkwardness of sharing Braindead studio space with a game show and much, much more.
Richard Taylor, his wife and partner-in-crime Tania Rodger and assistant Ri Streeter really went above and beyond helping me get this interview. They also supplied me with a ton of rare behind the scenes pics. So, many thanks to them. Hope you enjoy!
Quint: I first saw the movie as DEAD ALIVE. Most people in the states know it as DEAD ALIVE. So yeah, was it called BRAINDEAD when you joined on?
Richard Taylor: A detail that very few people realize is we actually started on BRAINDEAD before we made MEET THE FEEBLES. Peter had received great success for BAD TASTE and Jim Booth, Peter’s producer, had managed to raise I think about four and a half million dollars to make the movie BRAINDEAD. Tania and I were working on a satirical New Zealand TV television show called PUBLIC EYE which was similar to SPITTING IMAGE from the UK and Peter and I had met through a mutual friend, Cameron Chittock, a few months earlier and hit it off well and he kindly rang us up and invited us to come and join the BRAINDEAD team and hired Tania and I as the model makers on that team.
We started work, but first thing that I built was a life-size Napoleonic style cannon. We in fact made two of them and they were going to be used on the parapets of a castle, this old abandoned fort, overlooking the sea where I think there was the ship that came to shore in pursuit of the Sumatran rat monkey, this old abandoned fort.
At the time four and half million dollars in New Zealand was a significant budget and it was going to be a very large scale big art department extravaganza. A crew was hired to do the effects work on it, John Cox, a very dear friend of mine who is probably most well known for his Oscar winning work on the sheep in BABE, but has done a phenomenal amount of really amazing animatronics and creature work. He was hired to do the physical effects, puppetry, and such like and Bob McCarron, a great Australian makeup artist was going to do all of the makeup.
Sadly the money fell through and the film collapsed six weeks after we joined the production. It was heartbreaking. We had finally gotten onto our first feature film in the industry and the whole thing collapsed and it was all over, so Tania and I went home dejected and miserable only to receiver a phone call from Peter asking us to come back down to the studio. The studio was an abandoned railway shed. The last occupants other than the flea-infested cats and the pigeons was in fact The Mongrel Mob, a motorbike gang here in New Zealand who had had their convention there and we had found multiple pairs of broken sunglasses and an old bathtub with a considerable amount of dried vomit in the bottom of it. (laughs)
Peter said, “If you are up for it, come back down, because we are starting on another movie. I’ve managed to get a little film I wanted to make called MEET THE FEEBLES off of the ground” and for $750,000 Peter got the finances for MEET THE FEEBLES, him and Jim, and we all started on that and what followed is what I identify as one of the most enjoyable periods in my career, working in that railway shed building puppets with Peter and Cameron and Shayne Radford and others, Tania and myself. When we started filming I swapped on to miniature building and Tania did puppet wrangling. It was an amazing time.
But coming out of the backend of that Peter once again managed to get a much more lean version of BRAINDEAD off the ground. I think it was two and a half million dollars. John I guess had moved on to other things. Bob McCarron was invited back and Tania and I were offered the opportunity to look after creature and gore effects, which was an amazing opportunity. We also went on and looked after models and miniatures on the show too, which was great.
Quint: But even though MEET THE FEEBLES was the first movies that you guys did together, if it wasn’t for BRAINDEAD you might not have been brought in on FEEBLES.
RT: That’s correct. At the end of MEET THE FEEBLES we had a wonderful wrap party and they had a number of awards that Peter and Jim had dreamed up and the Oscars on this night, the awards, were the golden penises that lined the stairs from the Sebastian The Fox’s sodomy song and Tania and I were awarded one of these. (laughs) In fact I had actually made these golden penises… This was a long time before GOLDMEMBER of course and Tania and I were given one of these as “Most Enthusiastic Couple” on the film.
I guess that Peter very kindly watched and identified our unabashed enthusiasm to really build, make, do anything necessary to get our part of MEET THE FEEBLES done and very kindly gave this inexperienced couple the opportunity to look after a huge department on BRAINDEAD.
Quint: It’s a massive job. People still refer to it as “the goriest movie ever made.”
RT: Yeah, Tania and I ultimately hired a group of mainly young people. There were nine of us in the crew. Our total workshop space was only twice as big as our sculpting room is today and we had an amazing group of young people come together, very little experience between any of us, but what benefited the project massively was that while Peter dreamed of making BRAINDEAD during the period after MEET THE FEEBLES he would invite me around to his home and we would sit and discuss gags, come up with ideas for just silly crazy nutty gags that we could do to kill zombies and then we would plan them out. We would come up with ideas. We would look at other people’s movies… Steve Johnson was an endless source of inspiration for me and in fact I think we directly crib off one of Steve’s great gags, but we tried to come up with ideas of our own.
I started to draw these ideas as techniques and we had the great benefit of having Christian Rivers with us, which Christian had joined us as a school leaver just after MEET THE FEEBLES and started storyboarding for Peter and he drew my crude sketches into this amazing bible. We called it the “Effects Bible” on BRAINDEAD, this amazing bible of techniques and ideas of how to make this movie.
So when we actually started on the film when the money came through and it all happened, I had a very solid idea of how I wanted to do everything and we basically just stuck to that bible and it meant that we had a running plan I guess and over the year that worked on it we were able to knock these things off and get them ready for the first day of shoot each time.
So the name: BRAINDEAD… When we started on BRAINDEAD pre-MEET THE FEEBLES no one would call their movie “BRAINDEAD.” During MEET THE FEEBLES, Roger Corman went and made a movie, unbeknownst to him that we had a movie in production called BRAINDEAD.
When Peter found this out, Jim and Peter, they realized they could no longer call their movie BRAINDEAD and asked everyone to try and come up with new names and we mucked around for a couple of weeks with all sorts of different names and we ultimately settled on the name “UNSTOPPABLE ROT.” We printed T-shirts, we made a sign for outside our effects room, which was Baby Selwyn vomiting the words “UNSTOPPABLE ROT” onto the floor, which was a three dimensional sign that we painted up and we locked into this name.
In fact my security pass said “UNSTOPPABLE ROT” on it, but as the movie developed I think Peter, but maybe Jim, phoned Roger Corman and said, “Look we love the name BRAINDEAD so much are you alright if we still use it?” He said, “Of course” and this is what I think happened, I might have this wrong, because I’ve never had this confirmed by anyone, but I believe Roger said “Of course, just as long as you don’t use it in America you can use it anywhere you like. My movie has come and gone.” And that’s why the name DEAD ALIVE was used in America.
Quint: Interesting. Not a lot of US people know the movie as BRAINDEAD…
RT: And it had a huge amount cut out of it, the original print in America.
Quint: Yeah, it’s odd. I first picked it up when I was very young off of the VHS shelf of a small town video store. It was the cover, which is a really cool cover, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie.
RT: Yeah, I guess they were trying to suggest the scene where baby Selwyn pops out of the head of the girl.
Quint: Yeah, well we need to talk about some of the effects because what I love about the movie and what kind of grabbed me even as a young man watching it was that it wasn’t just a gore effects movie. I mean you had stop motion with the rat monkey and you had the model work with the trolleys and all of that stuff, so it was a massive job just on the gore side, but you had so much more to do.
RT: I think everything that you note; all of it has to be attributed back to Peter Jackson. We built it and we were part of the creation of it and the operating of it, but all of it is acknowledgement of Peter’s (talent). Even at that early age, two low budget movies under his belt, his consummate skill, knowledge, experience, ability to do in camera effects… I mean he’s always been his own visual effects supervisor all the way up to the most complex 3D digital shot. Obviously that’s not to be disingenuous to the supervisors on set, but he knows his skill and what’s needed. He conceived of these ideas and then implemented us making them with respect to the in camera miniature work and so on.
It was fantastic and it’s really interesting, Eric, because when that movie came out I knew it was a great movie, from a filmic directorial level, but it’s only in my later life… it’s only after I’ve become more experienced as a moviegoer and critic of movie skill that I’ve actually really appreciated how incredibly skilled BRAINDEAD is as a piece of storytelling and character development. When you think about it’s a romping comedy about zombie mutilation with rat-monkeys and mad mothers, but interwoven into it is great pathos around his father’s death, sexual innuendo with Uncle Les, sexual impropriety with his father’s affairs, a historical setting perfectly pulled off. I mean you would never question that you were not in the 1950’s of post war New Zealand and all of this done on a shoestring budget. The fact that the house was completely built as a set and all of that set had to be floating off the ground by four feet so we could get underneath it to puppeteer and every room had to be considered from a puppeteering perspective… all of these things.
So it is interesting, now I view BRAINDEAD today how much more I can see it as a great piece of filmmaking by Peter Jackson and you know obviously the first signs of what was going to be an incredible career.
Quint: I love the tone of the film. From the opening of the movie it just rockets to the big showdown with mum on the roof. It’s just such a fast-paced, energetic movie with just the way Peter uses the camera and it’s always so fluid with his handheld feeling.
RT: Yeah, it’s lovely isn’t it? I just really enjoy it as a film and I’ve watched it many, many times. I’m waiting for the day I can show it to my son, because he’s not quite there yet, but it was a joy to work on and something I’m incredibly proud of.
A lot of amusing and crazy scenarios unfolded over the months that we built that film. We actually got to make it in the National Television Studio, a place called Avalon of all names and it’s out in The Hutt, which is a suburban district about 25 miles north of Wellington center and each day we would drive out there and it’s this huge rambling wonderful collection of soundstages and office block. From a distance it looks like some huge robot walking across the landscape with this one skyscraper in the middle of suburbia, a skyscraper I think of only about seven or eight floors, but that’s still a skyscraper in our language.
So we turned up at this place and it was a pristine, beautiful clean building and we turned it into a veritable bloodbath of apple pulp and maple syrup. We quickly made the corridors red with blood. The problem with apple pulp… we didn’t actually use apple pulp, we used apple slices. They are boiled apple slices that you get in a can, pre-boiled that you put into pies, but it’s the perfect material for making offal. (laughs) Because when you soak it in blood just the first millimeter or so becomes red and the rest remains white, so when it gets smashed up by a lawnmower or something it looks like pulped flesh! The problem though of course being apple, being organic, is it ferments and it goes from apple to cider to rot very, very quickly! (laughs)
The corridors got so bad that the production had to lay sheets of thin MDF all the way through the corridors, because every time the crew would drapes up to the cafeteria, their feet would leave bloody footprints through these wonderful clean corridors where they are making game shows, WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE-type game shows.
As I was telling you the other day one of our team did a drawing by lying on the custom board, on the MDF and someone drew around them with a black felt tip marker and instantly people started drawing absurd and crazy silhouettes of themselves all the way up the corridors. My one was I had a shotgun in my hands and the back of my head had been blown out all up the corridor! And one of our staff was riding his bicycle in silhouette up the corridor and anyway on and on and on it went and this was the way they managed to preserve the building to some degree.
We used to test our gelatin heads and our wax heads by throwing them down the stairwells and the skyscrapers section when everyone had gone home and watching them splat at the bottom of the skyscraper staircase to check whether they had the right viscosity and pulpiness. One day we cleaned the buckets of blood out outside in the storm water drain and sure enough three ours later there’s a knock on the door and it’s the counsel and we had turn the Hutt River pink with Cochineal (dye) and they traced up way up the overflow pipes, but it was lovely.
While we were making BRAINDEAD they were filming numerous game shows, primarily one called SALE OF THE CENTURY and this was hosted by a guy called Steve and every night he would run up to his podium and skid on the carpet and turn to the audience and he had some catch phrase and this gorgeous female presenter would host the guests of the night who were members of the general public. Of course they needed a live audience, so they therefore got anyone that was in the local district that was keen to come and clap on cue, including a great number of people from retirement villages around the suburban area of the Hutt Valley. So we encountered numerous occasions when as part of an enticement to come and sit through hours of SALE OF THE CENTURY anyone that visited would also get a cup of tea and a scone in the cafeteria and on the off chance they might get to see a celebrity like a news reader or a children’s television presenter and so there was always large numbers of elderly people sitting having their scone and tea in the cafeteria, which was all fine until we started filming.
As we started filming of course we couldn’t take our zombie actors out of costume for lunch, so we would have Uncle Les with his spine ripped out of his back with his head bobbing on the end of the spine as the actor would sit and eat his bacon and eggs and Jed Brophy who is playing one of the dwarves in THE HOBBIT who played Void…
Quint: The greaser.
RT: Yeah, the greaser zombie. He would carry his guts up and put them on the side of the table while he would eat his meal. (Laughs) Oh God, it was unbelievable.
Quint: So the old ladies got quite an eyeful?
RT: Yeah. The looks, the comedy, the shock value… Dannii Minogue was filming something at Avalon once and she was in the cafeteria when our guys all turned up covered in blood and being the bloodiest movie ever made at the time, I don’t know if it still has that reputation, but at the time it meant that myself, Tania, and our crew of effects guys were constantly red with blood. My arms were stained red at times. You would go home at eleven at night and call in at the local service station, the petrol station and get fuel for the car and sure enough your arms would be red and you would be splattered with blood and it was cause a few dismayed looks around the petrol pump, but I think the crew would still remember it as one of the most enjoyable amazing times, the film crew and everyone, the actors would still remember it.
Quint: Can you talk a little bit about designing baby Selwyn and where the design for the little asshole zombie baby came from?
RT: (laughs) Well, that’s all Peter’s invention of course. He wanted an asshole zombie baby! God, you hated that little prick. I sculpted the first baby Selwyn on the dining room table at home. I was taking work home and then the other guys helping me sculpt did the rest of them and we wanted it as small as possible, so we could only get one puppeteer with a hand small enough that it would fit inside its head.
It was a cable controlled puppet and we built three different faces, a passive face, a screaming face, and a happy face and they were Velcro interchangeable. Then we built, to our failing, a large suit that fitted over a two year old! We built this suit in a crazy short time and we found a mum that was willing to have us put their two year old child in this suit and we test fitted it into the body first of all and we mucked around with that for a few days and she was fine and then it was time to try the head on and we tried the head on and she giggled and laughed and loved it and ran around the corridors, the head bumping into things. Hilarious stuff!
Then it was the day of the shoot we put her on set, she’s all excited and we put the head on, we carry her to the point where she is going to start running and for the first time ever since she’s been in the suit, the actor playing Uncle Les stands behind her and lifts this meat cleaver and begins chasing her. (Laughs) This little two-year-old girl looks over her shoulder, sees this crazed manic adult male with a meat cleaver and that was it. (laughs) She freaked and understandably so. The rest of the day was very painful.
I’ve wondered from time to time “what on earth ever happened to that little girl?” I wonder where she is now.
Quint: Lot’s of therapy.
RT: Yeah, I guess so. That baby was great fun and I loved making baby Selwyn. I had one of the first of what would become many gut sinking moments where you have forgotten to do something. There are so many details in filmmaking and you are trying to remember all of them and thankfully we haven’t done it very often, but every now and then, very rarely, but every now and then you go “Oh God, I’ve forgotten something” and I had that moment on the first day of filming baby Selwyn.
I had to go to Peter that night and come clean, because we filmed all morning with baby Selwyn and he had his umbilical cord attached and then we went to film the scene of him climbing out of Nurse McTavish and climbing over the top of her belly and I forgot to reattach the umbilical cord.
To me it was a world-shattering crisis. I thought I might get fired off the job and I had to go and beg forgiveness, but Pete was like “Oh well, don’t worry we will cut around it.” (Laugh) I had been sweating bricks all afternoon. I was almost sick with it I was so anxious about this mistake I had made, but to him it was frustrating, but he was very gracious and laughed it off and could see that I had aged ten years and all for a bloody umbilical cord on a zombie baby!
So, baby Selwyn was a joy. All of the effects were, like when baby Selwyn bursts out of the face of the girl at the party, that’s actually Liz Mullane who was the casting agent on all of Peter’s films.
One of the gags I loved doing was the replacement animation of the frying pan and that was great fun sculpting that and creating that gag. And The Gremlin Mix Master or whatever it was called, the blender that (Baby Selwyn’s) bum lands in… Testing the limbs, because of course both the lawnmower and the blender, that’s a real machine spinning at 8,000 revolutions a minute and the only way I could think to achieve those gags and ultimately I was the only idiot that would operate those, was to build wax limbs filled with apple pulp and golden syrup and push them into the flying blades. (Laughs) Because Pete wanted the shot to last as long as possible, my fingers could actually feel the wind of the blades whizzing past them and of course Tim Balme who played the lead actor is on a slippery floor holding onto a lawnmower that’s moving in three dimensional space while I’m pushing wax limbs into this bloody lawn mower! All of the team working with us thought I was absolutely mad and only a couple of them gave it a tentative go before refusing and leaving me to it, but I hadn’t come up with any other solution so that was it!
Quint: So the lawnmower was real, with real blades. That’s crazy. What about the great Rat Monkey?
RT: That was fun. Peter had done a little bit of stop animation of his own as a kid, but other than some plasticine animation that Tania and I had done in our lounge we had never done anything like that before.
We built the stop animation puppet. It was one of the very first things that we built. Dominic Taylor, our mechanist, built this beautiful stop animation armature, but it had sat for nearly a year waiting to be filmed. We cast the skin, but of course the ammonia in the foam had rusted the balls and locked the whole thing up, so the first time we went to move it we snapped the first joint and Peter’s like “Oh God…” In preparation for stop animating that scene we went out the back of the Henson Street office where Mr. Chopper, the edit suite owned by Jaime Selkirk who ultimately became our partner in Weta used to have his editing equipment and I used Peter’s Bolex camera and I filmed him being the Rat Monkey and he actually acted out all of the scenes of the rat-monkey…
Quint: Who? Jaime or Peter?
RT: Peter! Bouncing around the garden like a Rat Monkey.
Quint: So your reference wasn’t any sort of real animal, it was just Peter Jackson?
RT: Yeah, it was hysterical and yeah there’s no real animal reference. We didn’t go to the zoo and study a monkey, Peter just acted it out and then he had it transferred, very clever idea, he had it transferred to video and then we watched it on a frame grabber computer and we were able to play it down frame by frame which at the time was quite snazzy technology and so when we came to animate, it was the very last thing that we filmed and we filmed it in a photographic studio that was above the workshop that we moved into after BRAINDEAD and Peter and I alternated days where he would animate one day and I would animate the next day and we spent four days animating this rat-monkey doing these stop animation shots, I had never stop animated anything before in my life but after I had the wise thought of squirting CRC oil into the joints and lubricating and getting it working, it went surprisingly well. We just copied Peter’s performance and it was great. That was so much fun.
Quint: That’s awesome.
RT: It was at the same time that we shot the big street miniatures which a bunch of friends from Polytech came and helped and built them all in cardboard with me and ultimately Peter came up and we filmed the shots. Peter actually built the trams himself.
Quint: That’s cool.
RT: Yeah, he did these beautiful Fiducia trams that used to wrap around the city of Wellington back in the 60’s and yeah, so that was great.
Sorry for the abrupt ending to the chat, but Richard was pulled away to help make some awesome movie magic, I’m sure.
I hope you guys enjoyed the chat. I love this film and there were a ton of great little nuggets of information in there. A little birdy told me I may be talking to someone else associated with this movie while I’m in New Zealand, somebody who might be able to shed some light on the early epic $4.5 million version (which I’m told was actually set in the 19th Century).
Happy Halloween everybody!