Science Fiction Film.) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I know you are really busy, so it is my privilege that you answer them. I could count tons of great movies you were involved like GHOSTBUSTERS (1984), SPECIES (1995), THE ABYSS (1989),LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995)or BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986). But why do you choose of being into special effects?
Steve Johnson) Hey Till how are you. Instead of writing my answers, this is the way we gonna do it because I don´t have time to write everything down. So, I might have to be interrupted. I got a call coming in but I´m gonna pick you up later and make a second part. So let´s see question number one. Well when I was a kid, I had jobs. I work at a grocery store, I was a cook in a restaurant and immediately when I turned 18 I drove to California because I know I want to be in the film industry. I was always fascinated by Universal Horror movies and the Hammer Movies from England. And I want to make stuff like this as a kid and I thought: “Wow, if I could be a living of that wouldn´t that be amazing?” So and it was kind of I couldn´t not do it. It was nothing else that I want to do. So I drove to California when I was 18, meet Rick Baker and starting working with him first. No, actually I didn´t start working with him first. I wasn´t good enough yet so he refer me to Greg Cannom and Rob Bottin which leads to your next question.
SFF) Your first experience with films was THE FOG (1980) by John Carpenter, right?
S.J.) Not my first experience at all. My first experience was with Greg Cannom in a little low budget movie, or “micro”- budget called GALACTIC CONNECTION. A horrible movie that was never released. We made eight ape suits and it was an absolute disaster and a trialback fire for me. My very first movie was a disaster. But after that, Rick Baker called me again and he said that Rob Bottin was looking for assistants for a movie called TANYA´S ISLAND (1980). Which you should look up because it´s kind of a softcore porn film which was shoot in Puerto Rico with a big ape suit that Rick designed and Rob Bottin made. And I was helping Rob and after that we did THE FOG and started on THE HOWLING (1981).
SFF) You are a big monster junkie, a grandmaster of creatures right now. Future artists can learn by your practical technic. Do you have any personal idols or films in your business?
S.J.) Absolutely, it was and it is LITTLE BIG MAN (1969), a western film starring Dustin Hoffman. And Dick Smith, the godfather of our industry, makes an old man make-up of Dustin Hoffman and it blew me away. He plays a 120-year old man and I was really young when I saw this in the theatre and I thought: “That´s it! That´s exactly what I´m going to do!” So therefore Dick, and everyone who came from the “Dick-Smith-kind-of-school” like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin…..(it rings) my other call is coming in. I´m gonna cut this of which means I´gonna send you two videos, okay? Thanks.
SFF) You´re also working for television-series like MONSTERS or CHARMED. What exactly is the difference between working on television and movies for the cinematic world?
S.J.) Okay, we´re rolling back to it. Well it´s very, very, very different with television. I´ve done tons for television shows like seasons for OUTER LIMITS in Canada. A lot of episodic television. The thing about cinema is that you gonna set up a large group of people who just meet each other and helped to get to know each other and then have to work together in a very short period of time and then you finished the movie in a few months and you started the next movie. On television you were working with the same people. Over and over again. So you developed a short hand. And it makes things go much more easily. Not only with budgets but with the communication with all the other departments like production designs, wardrobe, make-up. That type of thing. Also television is very, very faster. Obviously faster then the movie world and there is almost a lot of less money.
SFF.) How did you get into Boss Films?
S.J.) Easy. I got into boss films on the recommendation of Rick Baker. We have been in England doing THE LEGEND OF GREYSTOKE (1984), a tarzan movie. And we´ve been there for a year and when we come back Rick got a call from Richard Edlund who runs Boss Films, to head up a Go-Job for GHOSTBUSTERS (1984). And Rick was tired and he has his own business anyway. So he wasn´t interested so he referred me and that´s how it started. And it started there with GHOSTBUSTERS and it was my first film. I was very young, 23 maybe, and then we did FRIGNT NIGHT (1985), BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), POLTERGEIST II (1986) and commercials.
SFF.) Why did you choose starting an own company?
S.J.) Easy, because I worked with all the greatest people in the business from Dick Smith to Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Greg Cannom, Richard Edlund, Randy Cook. I was doing it under their banner, under their umbrella with their companys and I wasn´t getting the credit that I felt that I deserved and I wasn´t able to get complete autonomy. I wasn´t able to make things the way I wanted to and I didn´t make that much money so I thought it will be a great idea to open my own company in 1986 for a movie called NIGHT OF THE DEMONS.
SFF.) You are an inventor for several special effects like a special kind of contact lenses. Could you please tell us about this lenses.
S.J.) Yeah, the contact lenses was for the John Landis movie called INNOCENT BLOOD (1992). The vampires in this movies didn´t have teeth. So John and I figured out how to look them evil, recognizable as vampires. John said: “Let´s try contact lenses.” And I said: “Well, this has been overused.” So let me see if I can come up with something amazing. And what I additionally try was making holographic contact lenses. I worked very, very close to scientist. And we could project out of their eyes or we can see inside of the eyes, remember that was before it was digital. And at was about at the time where they first staring laminating holograms on credit cards. And I thought, if you can put it on a credit card you can also put it on contact lenses. And we got it that it works. The problem was, the moisture in the eye made the lenses work for a week and I didn´t trust it so I came up with the idea of glowing contact lenses instead which is much more better I think.
SFF) What do you think about CGI comparing to “old school”- films back in the days?
S.J.) CGI…oh god. That´s a huge question. I love CGI. You know obviously it has his place. I think what’s happening these days is that the filmmakers are having a kind of a throwback for handmade, practical creating and it happened a lot more often these days which is very exciting. But, you know, there is a lot of stuff that you can´t do it physically. So, a couple of time I was working with digital departments like the first SPECIES movie (1995). Digital technology was at the beginning. The digital character doesn´t look like the practical character. However by the time I make Dr. Octopus for Sam Ramis SPIDERMAN 2 (2004) the digital technology got much more better. That’s even for me difficult to tell what’s digital and what´s practical in the film. So it´s good stuff.
SFF.) I held up with one of the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
S.J.) The most difficult effect? Well if you read some interviews or see some videos from me it was the Aliens for Jim Camerons THE ABYSS (1989). It was very difficult. He wanted them to be glass clear, to change color, to pulse and light up like a Las Vegas Casino Sign and he want them to shoot under water. That was very difficult. The only time which I cry and I want to commit suicide. It was virtually impossible. Jim Cameron was asking Stan Winston to do it, and Stan said: “That´s impossible.” Then Jim ask me and I said: “OF COURSE I´LL DO IT” not having any idea how to do it. But we made it and it work. Quiet memorable.
SFF) Please tell us something about your project “Rubberhead”. What is it all about and how do you started this whole thing? Did we get it here in germany too?
S.J.) Yes, RUBBERHEAD is a series of five books. Volume One is sold out now. It´s half memoir, half art books. There are a lot of photos in it. It´s basically about my trials and tribulations about the film industry and it´s a love note to the effects particularly in the 80s and 90s. And I thought it is my responsibility for the future generation to get it out, to see what is going on before digital. Because in a hundred years people will not remember if there is no books like this. Book Two is done now, it´s not quiet printed and shipped yet but there are three more to come. Each book is 250 pages, full color and it’s about my whole career and it´s avaible in germany. You can order it on my webside www.stevejohnsonfx.com.
SFF) Dear Mr. Johnson. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
S.J.) So that´s it. I´m sorry it takes six months to get back to you. I have so many requests for interviews and I thought I have to answer your questions per video because it is much faster. So thank you and have a good day.