This is an interview conducted with Robert Kurtzman over one phonecall; on June 13, 2012. Robert was the 'K' in 'KNB' EFX Group's title, along with Howard Berger ('B') and Greg Nicotero ('N'), and worked on the make-up effects of both Evil Dead II and Army Of Darkness. You can listen to the raw audio recording of the interview below, or read the edited & formatted transcription further down.
Working freelance on a number of feature films in his early career, since Robert, Howard & Greg formed KNB EFX Group in 1988, they worked on a huge list of movies & TV shows, including many subsequent Sam Raimi films. In 2004, he left KNB EFX Group, relocating from LA to his home state of Ohio, and forming his own company; Precinct 13 Entertainment, along with Creature Corps, and the Kurtzman Instititute of Art, which now has a Special Make-up and Character Design Academy.
Robert posing with Denise Bixler in the workshed set in Evil Dead II (1986)
Can you tell us what you were doing before you started on Evil Dead II, and a brief outline of what you did on the production?
I was over in Italy working for Mark Shostrom on From Beyond with Stuart Gordon. Mark kept telling me about this secret project which he'd tell me about later once the deal was done. I had no idea it was Evil Dead II, but I had seen the first film and was a big fan. They started prep several weeks before I got back from Italy, and when I returned I just jumped straight in.
Everyone in the shop had a little bit of everything. I was in charge of Linda's make-ups. I also did a lot of sculpting, such as portions of the Ted Raimi/Henrietta make up, as well as a lot of other sculpting & mould making. Shannon Shea created the Evil Ed monster, but helped him out with some tests and applied that make-up once we went to the location. Mark was in charge of Henrietta, that was his baby. He did all the appliance work on that, and then the three of us made the Polyfoam suits after we'd moulded it. Once on set, everybody was juggling day-to-day duties, whether it be putting a stump on Greg's hand to double the evil hand, or doing a possession make up. Greg would deal with the white contact lenses, and then myself and Howard would be back and forth applying make-ups in the lab, which we'd then run to the set with.
Was the shooting script finalised by that point, or were there still changes being made?
Yes it was finalised, but you know Sam's Evil Dead movies, there is always a lot of organic stuff going on. We built the monsters during prep, but when we got to set there would be some particular shot that Sam would want to do which wasn't really scripted, something we would have to pull out of our ass. We had a little workshop there, and we would run in; "okay, we'll have a piece of this, and a piece of that", but and that also made it fun.
Robert Kurtzman on set
Why did Sam opt for a porcelain doll look for possessed Linda's head?
Something about dolls was creeping Sam out of the time, so he said "can you guys make her look like she's a china doll?". We did eyebrow blocks on her to hide her own eyebrows, and painted doll eyebrows on over that, and gave her a white and pinkish make-up. It looked quite effective. We also had the whole gag where Linda's head falls in Ash's lap, we did that with Denise kneeling on the floor on a slanted board, with her head sticking through a pair of fake legs while wearing the neck stump appliance, opposite Bruce also on his knees holding the fake legs, which made it look like Linda's disembodied head was alive in Ash's lap.
Robert making up Denise Bixler as possessed Linda (1986)
Possessed Linda's fake head (1986)
Why did Linda's body so quickly appear to decompose after it was buried?
Because basically they live in the world of Evil Dead and the demonic forces can do anything they want. Sam thought it would just be creepier to have her rotted away and pop up as a corpse, but with a china doll head.
Bruce Campbell as Ash, battling possessed Linda's head's tongue (1986)
The sequence in which Linda's tongue shoots into Ash's is mouth is cut from the film, was that just down to Sam's criticism of Bruce's reverse motion acting, or something beyond that?
To me, Bruce is the greatest reverse actor. He's one of the only guys who can actually act in reverse. I think when it came down to it, there were several gags that happened in that sequence and when Sam got in the edit room he thought "it's one too many, it's quicker to go right to the bite", it just seemed like one too many schticky gags in my opinion. You have all these great ideas, but when you get in the edit room you realise you've also got pace your movie.
There is a later shot which was also removed, in which Linda's severed head projectile vomits bile onto Ash during the workshed sequence. Was that taken out for any reason?
Well the way Sam cut it, it makes it seem like it still happens. There were probably a couple of reasons; the fake head in the vice probably didn't intercut with the actress perfectly, and that was down to how we had to cheat the actress to make the shot work. Denise was actually on her knees with her shoulders behind the vice. We had to try and cheat her shoulders/torso out of the shots to create the illusion of a severed head, which was very difficult to do without an entirely fake cut-out vice created to fit around her. We also did shots with the fake head in the vice. In that we had a giant syringe type plunger rig which would allow us to shoot green blood out of it's mouth. Sam really had to pick his angles to sell that, and when he cut to the wide shot with the head, it just didn't look the same.
Possessed Linda's fake head rigged to spew bile on to Ash in the workshed set (1986)
We made all the blood out of Karo syrup and food colouring; the Dick Smith formula. Because the ratings board had us so paranoid about using red blood, that we had all these different coloured bloods, and we didn't know which day we were going to use which blood. To be honest, they were up against The Evil Dead and the ratings board had it out for them, but we were trying to make it more of a fantasy and not so bloody-gory.
Can you tell us a little about Cassie Wesley's make up, and creating facial the vine-attack shots?
Cassie had a full facial appliance with little slits in, and for the first take we had to thread the vines underneath her make-up which took a while. Each vine had a piece of monofilament on the end, which was hidden up through her hair. It then took us about 20 minutes to reset it each time, as we just pulled on the mono-filament which would pull the vines back into her face.
Robert making up Cassie Wesley for the vine attack scene (1986)
Cassie Wesley in-place filming the vine attack (1986)
For the shot itself, Cassie and the camera were locked off, over the top of a 50 foot piece of fabric dressed with dirt & leaves which we could quickly pull away to give the illusion of the ground moving under her head, while she was actually stationary. That was then shot in reverse so we were really pulling the vines out of her face; in reverse they appear to be going in.
Can you explain the Evil Ash/Sid Caesar reference for the benefit of people outside the USA reading this interview?
Sam wanted the mirror-Ash to be slightly evil, and he kept referencing Sid Caesar; "give me the Sid Caesar, evil Sid Caesar!", so that's what we did. Sid Caesar was a TV comedy pioneer, from the heyday of television here in the US, so we all instantly knew who he was, but most people reading this won't know who he is.
Who built the Rotten Apple Head creature, and how it was operated?
That was Tony Gardner, his company built all the big puppets, and they worked and Army Of Darkness as well. Tony created this big foam fabricated head, with sculpted pop-out human heads in it. The head was on a scissor action rig hooked it up to a dolly which they could roll in through the door, with people behind operating it, puppeteering the jaw and the other various elements. Sam named it the Rotten Apple Head, which is now the name everyone uses.
Sid Caesar Portrait photo taken for Grease 2 (1982)
How much of the outside of the cabin was built on the set. Was it just literally the inside or was there any of the outside built as well?
It was pretty much the entire interior of the cabin built as a two-story set in the gymnasium of this abandoned school called the J.R. Faison High School. Off to the side they built the workshed set too. From the outside, they built a portion of the front door area and porch, so they could shoot through the doorway. When shooting from inside they would put up the fake trees and blacken it out so you wouldn't be able to tell that it didn't go anywhere, you know, the standard cheats you make when you're shooting on an interior set.
A lightweight stunt version of Ash's chainsaw created by Ellis 'Sonny' Burman at Cosmekinetics in Northridge, California (1986)
Howard mentioned in the past, being on-set holding Linda's torso and having the chainsaw smoke trip down onto him. Are you able to tell us about how the chainsaws worked?
Sonny Burman built those chainsaws, he's Tom Berman's brother, and he had a mechanical effects shop right near Stan Winston's. They were basically lightweight plastic chainsaws made from moulds, with motors that would run the fake chain around the bar. Bruce's fist could fit inside and there was a little handle for him to hold on to. For the smoke they had a tube which was connected to one of those old-style oil cracker smoker machines, I think even at that time it might have been cigar smoke smoke before they outlawed it. Smoke was just pumping through there all day so eventually you would get this build-up of liquidy tar which would drip start to drip out.
Robert as Linda With Bruce as Ash, acting out a scene from The Evil Dead (1986)
What did you do in your spare time off set?
We pretty much screwed around! We all lived together in a house, and when we weren't working, we were shooting stupid little videos, some of which which you see on the documentaries. We just ran around with the video camera screwing with people. we were so bored that some days we would just shoot our own thing; I would put a wig and make up on pretending to be Linda, and Bruce and I would recreate scenes from the first movie, just for goof-offs. We would also work on effects tests with Tom Sullivan and Vern Hyde, like blowing up the miniature Pee-Wee head; creating a gelatin head and packing it with blood, then figuring out how to blow it up.
One of the cool stories was when we were down there, we were only a couple of hours away from Wilmington. De Laurentiis had a film studios there in Wilmington; really just four giant soundstage metal buildings. We went to visit Kevin Yeager over a weekend, who was doing a movie called Trick Or Treat there at the time, with Ozzy Osbourne as a radio host. They were also shooting King Kong Lives there too, and we actually got to go in and walk above the big King Kong open heart surgery stage. I remember thinking "wow, this is so cool, we're in this big factory on a catwalk standing over King Kong", even though that movie is really cheesy.
The catwalk over King Kong just before open heart surgery in King Kong Lives (1986)
We were just so isolated. Evil Dead was shot over three months, and that was a long schedule. Most movies in that budget range today would shoot for 20 days or so. The make-up effects crew all lived in a farmhouse that they rented for us back off the main road, kind of like a Texas Chain Saw Massacre house with a big front porch, and a creepy Friday The 13th barn behind it. We were sleeping in the beds, and on the floors in sleeping bags, this was back when we were young, we can't do that any more but we had a great time. The location production house was The Color Purple set, with the cabin location on the same property. There is even a video of us carving names into the tree, then panning round to see Celie and Nettie carved there too. The main production office was at the J.R. Faison High School. Classrooms were divided up between departments, and we had a room off the main stage which was our effects lab, but then everybody else was scattered throughout the school building.
Sam would always keep us on our toes coming up with new gags, such as creating a rig to attach Linda's biting severed head to Bruce's hand. Sam would say "hey guys, I want Bruce slamming the head all over the place", and we just thought "how are we going to keep that from ripping apart?". So we shoved a piece of metal down the dummy head's throat and made a brace rig which we duct taped to Bruce's hand, underneath his clothing, so it looked like she was biting his hand. I think you see some footage of me on the documentaries, where I am testing it and banging it around into the wall. A lot of our time there was just spent screwing around, and we were a bunch of young kids and all we did was eat, sleep and the effects. Evil Dead II and Army Of Darkness are probably the best times I've had while shooting.
Robert testing the Linda severed head bite rig (1986)