Before tackling the Spider-Man trilogy, Master of Horror Sam Raimi gave the world his own unique brand of superhero storytelling with his 1990 neo-noir/horror/romance mash-up, Darkman, which paid homage to the larger-than-life characters and worlds of comic properties like Dick Tracy and Batman, as well as the tortured titular character in The Phantom of the Opera. A wildly hyperkinetic tale of revenge and loss, Darkman may not be Raimi’s most polished work, but I truly feel that given where he was at that time in his career, and the budget he had to play with, Darkman is easily one of Raimi’s most ambitious efforts (certainly right up there with the first two Evil Dead films).
One of my favorite aspects to Darkman (besides Larry Drake as the absolutely despicable crime boss Durant) has always been the film’s incredible effects, which were designed and created by Tony Gardner of Alterian, Inc. And so, I thought for this installment of Practical-ly Perfect, it was the perfect time to talk with Gardner about the incredible efforts that he and his team put into Darkman, which transformed a then up-and-coming Liam Neeson into a reluctant hero and gave the cinematic evil-doers of the world a new face to fear (so to speak).
“Sam had tried to set up The Shadow as a movie, but he couldn’t get the rights, so he basically said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to go do my own thing.’ He took Phantom of the Opera, The Shadow, and a couple of other things, and came up with something totally new.”
“In the beginning, Sam came to us with some designs for the main character that had already been done elsewhere, but he wasn’t happy with them. He thought they were ‘too gooey,’ as I remember him saying. He wanted to see if we could come up with another look for the character, something a bit more ‘dried out,’ so we started out just doing character designs for him. It turned out that what he really wanted to do for Darkman was to have a character that was a living version of the poster art from Evil Dead II—which was basically a skull with regular human eyes in it. I thought it was the coolest idea ever.”
“We were doing the designs of Darkman in the pre-Photoshop era, so we were creating these colored pencil designs of the character with different looks, but just couldn’t quite nail the image the way Sam had described it—colored pencils tend to soften things a bit. One night at home, I just felt really inspired and I sculpted out this bust of the character and put some glass eyes in it. It was mostly a skull, with bits of burned skin and muscle here and there. I put shoulders on it and sculpted a trench coat with a high collar at the last minute, with just a rough form for the coat. I don’t remember if I sent over a picture, or if I showed the sculpture to him, but Sam saw that and he immediately asked me to do the movie. He went to bat for me with Universal.”
“I got sat down by Universal before we started and they asked me if I had ever done a makeup of this kind of complexity before. I told them I had, but I hadn’t really. I just knew that I knew what I was doing, and I really wanted the opportunity. That’s really the story of how all of these jobs went back then—you were solving a problem and doing something that nobody had ever done or seen before, sometimes with no precedent. And Universal just let me go at it.”
“Honestly, I had assumed Bruce Campbell was going to be Darkman. I remember thinking that Bruce’s angular face would totally match up with the aesthetics of the sculpture that I had done, and we could adapt that makeup design to his face with no problem at all. But while they were in the process of casting the film, Sam came to me and told me that the studio had someone else in mind, and he said I would love him. That’s when I found out it was Liam Neeson, and I remember at the time, when I was doing my research and looking him up, thinking, ‘Oh my God, this guy has way more of a square head and jawline, and a broken nose. What are we going to do, because he’s totally the opposite of the design?’ I thought we were going to have to do a complete do-over of the design from the beginning.”
“In the end, of course, what I thought were ‘issues’ were the character traits that make him recognizable for who he is, so I realized that everything that I thought might be a handicap actually turned out to be a major asset to the look of Darkman. It was obviously a learning experience from that perspective, but it was really challenging, too. Prosthetic makeup is obviously an additive process, so I had to figure out how to keep that makeup as thin as possible and really dig into the skin and make it look like there was depth to the burned areas. That’s when I decided that I was going to build up his entire head proportionately so that the good side looked balanced with the burned side. He ended up wearing a good half-inch of foam on the good side of his head.”
“That allowed us to carve into the face enough to give a sense of depth, and then use dark colors and even black around the areas where you wanted it to look deeper in the corners of the mouth and stuff like that. It was all about figuring out proportions all the time so that he looked balanced out, and not like a giant Q-tip head wearing shoulder pads. Liam also has really big hands, and I wanted to make gloves for him so he could take the hands off and on, and we could change the stages of the dirt and bandages just by changing his gloves.”
“Liam was really conscious of not keeping his hands up by his face a lot because his hands were disproportionate. We also built animatronic hands and forearms, so that when Darkman fought Smiley in the warehouse, and Dan [Bell] got punched by Darkman, it looked proportionate and didn’t look like he was getting punched by somebody wearing a boxing glove. Liam actually puppeteered quite often, too, so that anything with the animatronic hands would also have a sense of his performance in it.”
“It was one of those shows where I had a performer who I was going to literally slowly torture every day, and I just had to hope we would get along, and we did—we got along great, in fact. Liam and I still call each other and mess with each other every once in a while. You learn very early on in this business that it’s trust more than anything. An actor walks into your studio and has to put their trust in you that you’re not going to kill him while doing a full headcast, so that becomes your icebreaker right off the bat. And because Sam, Liam, and I were all on the same page from the very beginning, it just made the whole process of making Darkman move forward very smoothly, because we all had each other’s backs.”
“And the whole experience all the way through the end was truly great. Liam had to wear that full makeup 20-something times and he never complained once. We always made sure we had smoothies or something with protein in it for him to drink so he could look after his health. During breaks, you would see him take a muffin from craft services and pound it flat with his fist to feed it in through his teeth, because he could only open his mouth so far. He always told us, ‘It’s not a problem. It’s a challenge.’ I took that positive mindset with me for the rest of my career. I thought he was pretty brilliant in that way.”
“Darkman was kind of a funny experience, too, because at times things took some weird turns that you weren’t really expecting. One day, at the very beginning, we were doing a makeup test and Julia Roberts came into the trailer. She had just finished shooting Pretty Woman, I think, and it turned out that her and Liam had been going out. That day, Liam says to me, ‘Yeah, I’m suggesting Julia for the part of Julie in the movie, because we have really good chemistry, and it’s the height difference that Sam wants, plus she’s a really good actress.’ What was funny was that Julia really couldn’t look at Liam in the makeup, so I was like ‘Oh, this will be interesting then [laughs].’ But, you know, different things work out for different reasons in different ways, and Julia being in the film didn’t happen, obviously.”
“But Sam was someone with a really specific vision for Darkman, and he was fearless with a lot of his choices. Larry Drake would have been anyone else’s last choice for the villain, because at the time, he had played a mentally handicapped guy on L.A. Law for multiple seasons. Larry was so brilliant that I thought he was handicapped in real life, so to have him walk in the door on Darkman, where everybody had just been seeing him as this character on L.A. Law, I could immediately see that Sam was making an interesting film.”
“With Darkman, there were a lot of new problems to solve, and challenges that made that whole thing really fun, so it didn’t matter if it was 4:00am in the morning, and you were going on your 20th hour, because you were having a good time. Sam was always there and he respected the crew, and he was an active participant in all of it. You felt like you were on a team project from the get-go, and it stayed that way all through the show. He’s a really great guy to work with, and you don’t say ‘work for,’ because you’re working with him. Sam’s like an enthusiastic little kid, which made Darkman a fun show to be a part of. It was really hard, but it’s still one of my favorites to this day.”
[Photo Credits: Second and fourth photos courtesy of Tony Gardner/Alterian, Inc.]Next: Practical-ly Perfect: Celebrating the Creature Effects of ATTACK THE BLOCK with Spectral Motion’s Mike Elizalde