Special effects artist and documentarian Jason Baker is truly living his best life right now. He’s the “Robin to Tom Savini’s Batman” (as he puts it), he recently celebrated the release of his documentary Smoke & Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini on Shudder, and Baker has also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with WWE Superstar Bray Wyatt over the last year or so. Oh, and it was just announced yesterday that Baker and Savini will be working with Slipknot’s Corey Taylor on his upcoming horror movie project to boot.
With all of his achievements, Daily Dead decided it was time to sit down and speak with Baker about his experiences working alongside the greatest legends in the FX world, the journey of putting together Smoke & Mirrors, and how he became involved with the creation of Bray Wyatt’s wildly popular character, The Fiend, as well as the wonderfully weird “Firefly Funhouse” segments on WWE.
So, had you always known that your path would lead you here, working in special effects and being a part of Tom Savini Studios?
Jason Baker: Growing up, I was always a big horror fan. My birthday is in October, I love monsters, so I spent all my birthday money on Halloween masks and effects and stuff. It was funny, because I was a fan of Tom's, but I didn't realize it, if that makes any sense. When you're a kid, you don't pay attention to credits, and not to date myself, but I grew up before the internet, so I didn't really ever put two and two together.
And it was funny because three of my favorite movies growing up were From Dusk Till Dawn, Creepshow, and 1990's Night of the Living Dead, and I had no idea that Tom had been involved in all three of them in different ways. It wasn't until years later I was like, "Wait, he directed Night of the Living Dead? That's f--king awesome." I was a slow learner [laughs].
But then, I came out here to Tom's school. I grew up in Seattle, and I had no plans of ever trying to work for him or anything. Tom had a small studio and when Pittsburgh got gentrified about 10 years ago, the area that he was renting a studio in, because the economy boomed, they sold the building out from underneath him. He had his effects studio there for 20 years, and all of a sudden he had 30 days to vacate the premises.
So when I started hanging out with Tom, he had a small little studio in his house and over the last couple of years we've been able to grow and get some pretty cool clients and go from there. But we try to keep it small, try to keep it personal and not do the whole sweatshop assembly line thing. It's fun. I think what we do now would be best described as “less quantity, more quality.” It's been great. Tom's just been amazing in letting me spearhead everything and go from there, especially with all the WWE stuff. But I'm always going to involve Tom and pick his brain every moment I get, because he’s Tom f--king Savini, which is awesome.
But the funny thing about Tom is that he’s extremely humble. He's so sweet and kind. Someone like Guillermo del Toro will tweet about Tom and he'll be like, "Oh my God, Guillermo del Toro just tweeted about me about this amazing thing.” And I'm like, “Yeah, because you're Tom Savini, dude. Did you forget that?" He's so unaware of how inspiring he's been to an entire generation of people. That was one of the catalysts for the documentary.
Well, let’s talk about the documentary, Smoke & Mirrors. Was there a specific catalyst that kicked this whole thing off?
Jason Baker: Tom had hired me to do special effects for a short film he was doing. I heard things and saw stuff online that Tom was a dick and all this other crap. When he hired me I was like, "Of course I want to work for Tom Savini," but I was a little wary. Then I got to set and I met him and I'm like, "There's no way in hell this is the same guy that they're talking about." He was so wonderful and patient with me.
We were shooting night shoots. Tom and I were the only two people who couldn't fall asleep right away, so it would be Tom and I shooting the shit until noon. I just couldn't stop thinking about all these wonderful stories he told me about Vietnam and marriage and careers and working with George [Romero] and I was like, "Man, somebody just needs to put this on film.”
But when I sat down with Tom and I pitched it to him, I told him that my idea was that I didn't want to tell a story about a guy who just went and threw a bunch of fake blood all over the middle of the Monroeville mall. I want to tell a story about the guy who went and threw a bunch of blood all over the Monroeville mall and then went home and made sure his daughter was off to school in time. That was the story that intrigued me. That's been, I guess, the biggest criticism I've seen about the documentary is that people are, for lack of a better word, upset that there's not more film stuff in there. And I'm like, "This wasn't a film about making Dawn of the Dead or From Dusk Till Dawn. This is a film about Tom. This is a film about one man's journey from Pittsburgh to essentially redesigning an entire genre of film with effects.
Throughout the process, was there anything that came up that was off limits? Or was Tom a totally open book with you?
Jason Baker: Nothing really ever came up that was super taboo or anything like that. We really didn't end up cutting a lot. The funny thing about this project were the challenges. This film took us almost seven and a half years to make and a lot of it was hunting down everybody else; people like Alice Cooper. We'd get a hold of Alice Cooper's manager and he would get back to us and be like, "Alice has to be in your film. He loves Tom. They've been friends for 30 years. Alice is available in August," and you're like, "Well, it's January." But you're not not going to interview Alice Cooper. So you're like, "Well, I guess we’re going to have to put everything on hold for eight months then.”
If you notice in the film, Tom changes. His hair is long, his hair is short, and it was fun. It was cool because I don't care who you are, you're not going to just tell your whole life story to some first-time filmmaker. Every time we interviewed Tom, it was almost like therapy sessions, where we'd sit down and we'd talk about something. We'd do a two-hour filming session and then an hour later Tom would remember something and he'd be like, "Oh my God, I totally forgot to mention this thing that happened." We're like, "Yeah, that's really important," and he'd be like, "Okay, let's set up an interview." And I'm like, "Great. When are you available?" He's like, "Well, I've got to go shoot Machete Kills, so I'll be back in four months, but once I'm back, you guys, we can do it." And that was that. I love the phrase that in Hollywood, everything costs either time or money. We didn't have a lot of money, so we just spent the time.
One of the things I will always be forever grateful for is not only getting to sit around and talk to Tom and hear his countless stories, but getting to do it with George [A. Romero] as well. George would tell me these wonderful stories about how when he was a kid growing up in New York, there was only one place that would rent a Super 8 projector and George was always renting it. The only time it would ever get rented out was by this other kid named Martin Scorsese. And so, growing up, George and Martin Scorsese would potentially fight over this projector from this rental house to watch movies.
Was there a particular aspect of making Smoke & Mirrors that ended up being your favorite part of the process?
Jason Baker: My personally favorite thing that I don't think a lot of people actually realize is that shit just always worked out for him in an impossible way. Like, you watch the film and he tells the story about how he became Sex Machine, and they didn't even want him for Sex Machine. They wanted him to play Frost. And he was like, "Well, f--k that. I don't want to do that. I want to do Sex Machine." And here it is, in the mid-'90s with two of the most prolific directors working at the time, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. And Tom's like, "I don't care. I'm going to do what I want." And they just saw his tape and were like, "Yeah, that works."
It's just beautiful that he just does whatever he wants in the best possible way. That's very inspiring to me in such an odd way, and I owe so much of my success to Tom. He’s done so much for me. We've done some wonderful things together, and we have some really fun, interesting things coming up, too.
Something else that I think is pretty cool is that these days, you and Tom have been collaborating a lot with several WWE Superstars, including Bray Wyatt. How did that all come about?
Jason Baker: It all started with Tom. It was Tom and Gino Crognale, who is one of the best working special effects makeup artists in the world right now. They [did] Triple H's crown for WrestleMania XXVII—the big gray skull headpiece with all the chain mail and everything. Cut to a few years later for WrestleMania 30, they call up Tom again because Triple H wants a gold crown this time. Tom calls Gino, but he was busy on The Walking Dead in Atlanta, so Tom hired me to help him make that gold crown.
Apparently, a bunch of the wrestlers liked it, and out of the blue, one day I got a call from Erick Rowan. He wanted a new mask. He was sick of the plastic cheap sheep mask he had been wearing, so we started collaborating with Erick Rowan. And it was Erick Rowan and Triple H who really got us going with various wrestlers in WWE. The next thing you know, we're doing stuff for Kalisto and Luke Harper, we're turning Sasha Banks and Kevin Owens into zombies for the WWE action figure line, and we’re building the Bludgeon Brothers' hammers and everything.
Over the years, that's how I got to meet Bray Wyatt. Bray is a huge horror fan. I'd go backstage, take a new mask to Rowan, and we’d shoot the shit. He was always hinting at wanting to do something with a mask. He's like, "Man, I want to do a mask, I want to do something cool like that." I told him, "You got my phone number, man. Just let me know." Cut to the summer of 2018, and Bray calls me just out of the blue. We start talking about stuff and he's like, "Yeah, I want to do some puppets, and I want to do a mask," and we just nerdily obsessed over everything for the next couple of months. That slowly turned into the Firefly Funhouse and his character of The Fiend.
So, Bray and I and a few other people would spin ideas back and forth. Bray would take it to Vince [McMahon], and Vince would volley it back, and we would just bounce back and forth until we came up with what is now The Fiend look. It was a big group effort, and I'm just lucky enough that I got to come in and play with the cool kids.
I know that as an artist, you always want to do a good job and have it appreciated by others, but did you guys get a sense that the Firefly Funhouse and The Fiend would end up being as wildly popular as they have become?
Jason Baker: Nobody really had an idea that it was going to blow up like this. We shot all of that here in Pittsburgh, actually. We shot it at Tom's school. We have a little soundstage here, and they just sent Bray and a producer and a writer over and we just shot the first couple episodes guerrilla-style. I don't think anybody really thought much of it. But then, the first episode got over a million hits on YouTube in less than 12 hours, and I think that’s when everyone at WWE realized that we might be on to something here.
It's crazy seeing people with tattoos of our mask, or seeing people dress up as The Fiend for Halloween was really cool. But this has been a team effort, with Bray and the head writer at WWE being the brains behind all of it. Tom and I have just gotten lucky enough to bring all their twisted creations to life. But to have this kind of working relationship with WWE is amazing. It's absolutely a dream come true.
But again, it's all because of Bray. I was telling him a couple of weeks ago that he is the closest thing I've ever seen to a legitimate Phoenix. To watch him take his career and evolve from nothing into something so popular is awesome. When we were initially talking to him, he was like, "I haven't been on TV in three months, and I need to find a way to change that.” He's just so smart about creating these characters, and I tell him all the time, "Dude, when you're done with this wrestling thing, you've got a career in writing horror movies just waiting for you."
[Photo Credit: Above photo from Jason Baker's Facebook page.]