Film

Rob Bottin Rocks!

As our month-long tribute to terror ends, SE&L celebrates one of the missing in action icons of practical special effects - Mr. Rob Bottin.

On the Mt. Rushmore of Cinematic Repugnance he’s Teddy friggin’ Roosevelt, his brooding, bearded façade figuring prominently along with those of Dick Smith, Tom Savini, and Rick Baker (substitute Stan Winston where appropriate). His cartoonish, slightly surreal take on creature F/X was marked by a disturbing level of invention, and when asked to recreate more human horrors, his autopsy like efficiency reveled in the body’s more noxious humors. Yet after giving David Fincher a tour de force performance for his serial killer spectacle Se7en, he more or less disappeared, showing up sporadically for a few high profile projects (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club) before fading away. Since 2002 however, he’s been more or less MIA, a once brilliant madman lost in the exile of his own increasing reputation.

A California boy, Rob Bottin was born in 1959. He grew up loving monster movies and started creating his own characters while in his teens. A few of his sketches caught the eye of fellow fright lover Baker, and at age 14, he was hired on to work for the in-demand artist. After assisting on the ’76 version of King Kong and that space opera blockbuster Star Wars, his big break came when John Carpenter was looking for someone to realize the menacing pirate ghosts for the filmmaker’s much publicized Halloween follow-up, The Fog. Bottin, an imposing kid at 6’2”, not only designed and executed the F/X, but he played the lead spirit – Capt. Blake – at the end of the film. After a brief stint supporting Tom Savini on the sickening slasher sleazefest Maniac, Bottin began working with Baker on the pair’s next secret project.

Buried in myth and clouded by contradictory innuendo, the falling out between the men over the creation of a realistic werewolf transformation remains an incomplete motion picture legend. At the time, Baker accused Bottin of stealing his ideas, while the young gun threw the same accusation back at his onetime mentor. Watching The Howling and An American Werewolf in London side by side, the mutual influence is obvious. Yet were Baker reverted to a bloodless, full body metamorphosis for director John Landis, Bottin used the inherent limits of individual physicality to create a more brutal, bloody change. With Joe Dante’s Howling beating Werewolf into theaters, it looked like the student got the last laugh. However, when Oscar rolled around, it was Baker who walked away with the newly created award for make-up effects.

Undaunted, Bottin literally threw himself into his next project. The remake of The Thing was a technical nightmare, but assigned director Carpenter could think of no one better than the gifted 23 year old to realize the creature concepts he had in mind. The original ‘50s classic had actor James Arness dressed as something resembling a human carrot. The Thing’s reinvention would be more along the lines of the source material short story “Who Goes There?”. Carpenter wanted the ultimate shapeshifter, a being that could literally take the form of anything it came in contact with. In these pre-CGI days, it was an epic undertaking, but Bottin was up for the challenge. He worked seven days a week, sleeping in his shop, for over a year to make the horrific entities the director wanted. By the end of production, Bottin was so spent he had to be hospitalized for extreme exhaustion.

All the hard work paid off, though. For many, The Thing remains the last word in advanced physical effects. It’s a gruesome, gore-filled cavalcade of bleakness and cruelty. From the ultra realistic dog death sequences to the finale which finds Kurt Russell’s McReady battling a 30 foot amalgamation of everything the extraterrestrial’s emulated over the course of the film, Bottin filled the frame with as many innovative atrocities as possible. When it hit theaters in 1982, fright fans heralded the movie’s sluice drenched spectacle. Critics were not so kind, often referring to Bottin as the cinematic equivalent of a geek show barker. Of course, time has only cemented The Thing’s status as a classic. Today, Bottin is idolized, not marginalized, for what he created.

Luckily, his next project would help broaden his appeal. When Joe Dante was looking for someone to visualize the wild – and frequently wicked – imaginary threats forged in the brain of that famous little despot Anthony as part of a big screen remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode, he turned to Bottin. Like Looney Tunes on acid, the F/X expert turned rabbits into oversized demons, and manufactured a collection of corrupt cartoon effigies who recalled the Warner Brothers icons gone gangrenous. Dante loved what Bottin did so much that he brought him on to realize the goofball aliens of Explorers. During this same time, Ridley Scott was actively seeking someone to help him lift the fantasy film out of its sword and sorcery doldrums. Overwhelmed by what he had seen of his work, he asked Bottin to assist in bringing the main villain of his latest film, Legend, to life.

For some, turning the rather unimpressive Tim Curry into the stunning mangoat known as The Lord of Darkness remains Bottin’s latex and appliance masterpiece. In form and figure, the characterization is flawless, from the elongated and hoofed legs to the massive horned headpiece. Even more astonishing, Darkness has a massive musculature that hides its actor’s own flabby physique. When combined with Curry’s inspired performance and Scott’s stylized approach, the domineering demon became the film’s signature visual, surpassing stars Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, and a wealth of impish supporting players. For all its flaws as a film, Legend still stands as a stunning triumph for the artistic technician.

After working on another Dante film (Innerspace) and turning Jack Nicholson into the Devil for The Witches of Eastwick, Bottin returned to splatter with Paul Verhoven’s terrifically vicious Robocop. The violence he created was so nasty in fact that the movie received an initial X rating. When the MPAA finally came up with the NC-17 in 1990, Robocop was often cited as an example of a film that suffered at the hands of the board’s implied censorship. With its exploding limbs, melting bodies, and ultra-realistic gunshot wounds, Bottin definitely pushed the limits. Yet when he and Verhoven regrouped to take on the long dormant sci-fi project Total Recall, the ratings results were the same. Like The Thing before, the make-up maestro expanded the possibilities of his craft, turning the Mars madness into a primer on various techniques and approaches (the film would be recognized by the Academy with a Special Achievement Award).

While he was working all kinds of movie magic to turn Arnold Schwarzenegger into an interstellar hero, a little something called computer generated imagery was slowly seeping into the fabric of film. The Abyss became one of the first films to use the new technical tool to realize a F/X sequence – in this case, the watery alien probe – and as studios saw the potential in motherboards for their outsized visuals, experts like Bottin suddenly saw their talents devalued. While he continued pressing forward, helping Warren Beatty and Barry Levinson realize the gangster brutality of Bugsy, and giving Basic Instinct its ice picked pulse, it would be three years before he stepped onto a set again. By that time, digital was destroying manmade dexterity, and as if in direct response to such shortsightedness, Bottin set out to break the benchmark once again.

Initially, it’s hard to see how Se7en does this. Many of the murders occur off screen, and when we witness the repulsive results of John Doe’s unhinged “preaching”, the ratings mandated cuts removed much of Bottin’s brilliance. Still, he researched every aspect of the film, taking in a real autopsy and studying obesity’s affect on the body. He reviewed crime scene photos and the creation of police evidence files. When the cast and crew saw the results of Sloth’s visualization, the effect was so disturbing it made more than a few sick to their stomach. When added to director Fincher’s already dark vision and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s bleak ideas, Bottin’s genius generated the kind of psychological terror that has since made the film infamous.

And then – nothing. Well, not really. Bottin did work on Mission: Impossible, Fear and Loathing, Fight Club, Charlie’s Angels, and the Adam Sandler flop Mr. Deeds. According to the IMDb, his last legitimate credit was for “special animatronic cow and bull effects” in Serving Sara. A scan of the World Wide Web turns up very little current information. When Special Edition DVDs are put together, his participation is typically reduced to archival interviews or older featurettes ported over from previous packages. His absence from the current cultural landscape is confusing at best, especially when you consider how influential and important his work has become. There are people who literally obsess over everything Bottin has ever done, from his uncredited turns as a teen to the missing footage excised at the hands of the MPAA. For many fright fans, he’s an unseen God, a man whose disturbing dominion has suffered without his input.

Perhaps Bottin feels he can’t compete with the scan and spatter concept of post-millennial makeup. Maybe’s he’s earned all the money and respect he could ever want and simply needs a rest after four decades in the industry. At 47, he’s still a very young man, and could easily make a comeback should the right project strike his fancy, and with the retro renaissance currently feeding the fright film, a Bottin helmed Saw or Friday the 13th would seem like a gore nerds dream come true (he wrote an unused script for Freddy vs. Jason back before the project ended up with Ronny Yu). Whatever the reason for his vanishing act, here’s hoping he recognizes how much he’s missed. A sketch artist with a stylus can only do so much when it comes to creature effects, and Bottin could be a wonderful guide to those unfamiliar with hand on latex practicality.

Besides, horror needs him desperately. Bottin believed in using imagination and innovation as a means of achieving his frequently gruesome goals. He never let the limits of a budget or a medium get in the way. Sure, he obsessed over things, often to his detriment, but the results stand as archetypes for the artform. As a makeup artist and special effect technician, Bottin managed the seemingly impossible. Even as technology transformed the industry, his gear and greasepaint efforts stand as timeless. Sure, they can remake The Thing (as currently planned), using CGI to realize what almost killed the craftsman, but it won’t be the same. Indeed, no carefully rendered and realized monster can match what Bottin did with blood, sweat, and a lot of bladder F/X tears. This is why, even absent from the scene, Rob Bottin rocks. He’s the standard no hard drive can replicate – or replace.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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