It's exceedingly rare for motion picture makeup effects artists to cross over into the world of theater, but Bill Condon's reimagining of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's musical SIDE SHOW is a rare kind of production. Based on the lives of conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton, the show features a company of old-school circus freaks, many of whom are drawn from Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic FREAKS (in which the Hilton sisters appeared). In a typical stage production, their hideous physical afflictions would be more suggested than captured, primarily because the actors playing these characters have been tasked with multiple roles; they don't have time to don elaborate makeup or appliances. But in Condon's production, currently running at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, these bizarre creatures have been brought to gloriously hideous life via the makeup effects wizardry of Dave and Lou Elsey.
Designing for the stage is something entirely new for the husband-and-wife duo, who, over the last three decades, have established themselves as masters in the realm of practical visual effects. From the animatronic menace of Audrey II in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS to Dave's Academy Award winning work with Rick Baker on 2009's THE WOLFMAN, the Elsey's filmography is a litany of memorable monsters. HELLRAISER, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, ALIEN 3, FARSCAPE, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (for which Dave was also nominated for an Academy Award)... this is just a sampling of their genius. And then there's Chris Cunningham's classic video for Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy". Yes, this.
But the Elseys have been asked to do something entirely different on SIDE SHOW. In a short period of time, they've collaborated with costume designer Paul Tazewell by building a variety of outfits and makeups that the actors can quickly shed the second they walk offstage (and it really is a matter of seconds in many cases). And yet they've refused to "dumb down" the look of their freaks. Last week, I shared Tazewell's character sketches of The Geek and Reptile Man with you. Today, I give you Dave Elsey's designs based on these sketches.
These would be unusually elaborate for a play. For a musical? For an actor to have to sing under these masks? I can't imagine how you pull that off.
Fortunately, I was able to hop on the phone with the Elseys last week and ask them how they were able to design film-quality creatures for a live stage musical. Our conversation generally centers on SIDE SHOW, but we did manage to touch on LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS near the end. This was a delight.
Mr. Beaks: How were you approached for this job?
Dave Elsey: We knew Bill Condon's partner Jack Morrissey privately, and he was telling us about this play, and we were interested obviously. Initially, he was talking to us about other things, and then we started talking more and more about this project, and I got more and more interested as soon as I heard more of what it was about. It was going to be about Daisy and Violet Hilton, and the movie FREAKS was featured in it. He kept emphasizing again and again, "This is a theater budget. It's not a movie. It's not even a TV show budget. It's going to be very, very quick, and you probably won't be interested." But we were! (Laughs) So we kept talking about it. At one point we were even talking about it as something Rick Baker and ourselves could do together, because we all love the area that [SIDE SHOW] is in. It just happened to come at the time of Rick doing that Schlitzie head, which is amazing. We thought maybe we'd do it together, but Rick had commitments with the [MAC Cosmetics] launch and the new makeup line he's bringing out for Halloween. In the end, it was just Lou and I talking about this project. We just wanted to try to find a way to do it, so we had lots of meetings and tried to figure out what we could do and what was necessary. We managed to find a formula that worked for all of us, where we could fit this in and do it and have some fun. And they were good enough to help clear the path for that.
Beaks: I have to imagine "Tod Browning" was the magic word that got you excited about doing this.
Dave: Absolutely. The idea that Tod Browning is part of this play... it's a real dark little musical. I love the original FREAKS. We lit up as soon as we heard about it.
Lou Elsey: And getting the opportunity to work with Bill Condon as well was exciting. That combination for both of us was just like "This could be really good, and really fun and something different."
Beaks: You've done music videos, but a stage musical is something new for you.
Elsey: It is actually. One of the first things I ever did was LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, but it was the film version. That was a completely different deal to the way we're working at the moment. It's been a real learning curve. One of the big things for us to learn is you don't just cast all the roles. What you do is you have a bunch of stock actors who play multiple roles, so getting them in and out of their various looks is the key. If this was a movie, we'd be spending three or four hours making them up for the various freaks and geeks that we're featuring. It's just simply impossible to do that on this. In fact, some of our characters walk off stage and ten seconds later have to walk back on stage as a perfectly normal human being. That's been really exciting to try and crack that. So far, it's working pretty good!
Lou: It is. It's been a real challenge to produce something that essentially on a movie would've been a prosthetic makeup. Make it almost like a mask in a way, but still come across as being as sophisticated as a prosthetic makeup that the actor can move in and sing in and perform in and emote all of the emotions that he needs to. But these massive quick changes... it's challenging, but very exciting.
Dave: Some of our quick changes are like seventeen seconds.
Lou: We were having some fittings, and the costume manager was like, "You know, this is going to be a pretty long quick-change." And we said, "How long is it?" And she said, "Oh, about two-and-half minutes." And we were like, "What???" As far as a costume or suit goes, the quickest time we've gotten somebody in it would've been twenty minutes or a half-hour. Two-and-a-half minutes is a bit of a stretch, but the good thing is that all of the people at the La Jolla Playhouse are just so amazing and so good at their job that they make it so much more easier for us to do our job.
Dave: Working with them has been fantastic. They're such old hands at all of this. They've seen everything. But we also didn't want to dumb down the designs that we were doing. We didn't want them to be compromised in any way, especially when we saw the costumes that were being made. They were so beautiful and amazing, it would've been a shame if suddenly the characters we were doing got broad. We sort of wanted them to be movie-quality creatures as far is as humanly possible in a play, so that's what we've been trying to achieve.
Lou: I think that we were really lucky that when we first saw the designs for the costumes that Paul Tazewell did, both Dave and myself loved them. We thought they had such a wonderful feeling about them. It was easy to sort of slip right into the whole look of it, and have some fun with it.
Dave: I've worked on things before where you look at the costume pictures, and you can see perfectly what it's going to be, and then there's just a scribble for the head and hands. But Paul's captured the spirit of what I think these things should be completely, so our job was to take his original drawings and try to make our versions of those drawings come to life.
Beaks: How much trial-and-error was involved in learning what you can get away with on stage as opposed to film?
Dave: We worried and fretted about every skin pore as usual, and then we got down there and saw these things on stage and were like, "Wow!" All the things that we were worried about just looked ten times better. It's the opposite going on stage and seeing these things on stage for us. Normally, we stare at these makeups for hours worrying about every skin pore and every hair follicle, then we get on set and you can barely get near the makeup. You look at the monitor, and the monitor's not great quality. You can't really see what's going on, and there's a crowd of people in front of you. Here, we kind of pull the characters together as best as we possibly can, and when we go to have a look at them from the audience, it's amazing. We have the best views of any of our characters that we've ever had. You get to see giant portions of the play being acted out for you live. It's been a wonderful experience.
Lou: It's actually been really funny. We were at the tech rehearsals a few days ago, and they were running the opening number of the show. After two days, Dave and I were humming the tune and singing the lyrics. You become a little obsessed with it after a while. (Laughs)
Dave: I definitely want the soundtrack.
Beaks: I saw the original production back in 1997, and I'm very excited to hear the new songs. It seems like an entirely new show.
Dave: If anything, I think the show has gotten much richer in every possible way. I think what Bill's brought to it is amazing. He has a good eye for this sort of thing. He's keeping it kind of dark, but the characters are very appealing. Like in the film FREAKS, our freaks are very appealing, and that's what I like about it. I'm more on the side of the freaks and geeks and monsters usually. I just like that whole area. So it was wonderful to go down there, meet the actors, and the next minute they're wearing all of our stuff and they are those characters. If anything, I think there's more of that stuff in this show. One of the first things we said was that we wanted to get a lot of the original characters from FREAKS in it. In the one that we're doing now, I would say that there is a good amount of them in, but I hope we get to add to them [in the Kennedy Center production next year]. It would be nice to get Johnny Eck in there and Prince Randian and the Stork Woman and all of those sorts of things. I'm hoping that we get to add to our menagerie of freaks as time goes on.
Beaks: Was there one freak that was difficult to crack?
Dave: All of them! (Laughs) I mean, we've got things like the Hottentot, which is a full bodysuit. That was very difficult to get done in the time we had. Basically, a month ago we weren't working on this, and now it's all done practically. It's been a very quick build, and it's all been in the run-up to Halloween, so it's been a wonderful thing to be doing during that time. We've got the elegant Geek, and he's been very tricky because there's nowhere to hide any seams on him. You instantly sort of take to him. Most geeks in real circuses tended to be drunks and drug addicts; they were people who were willing to do disgusting things to draw the audiences in. I had some of that in my mind, but I also knew he wasn't a a scruffy geek. He really is, as the song says, an "elegant geek". So we tried to create a face for the actor, who's also playing other roles, that would be completely different to his face when he comes back on stage in his other parts. I'm really happy with the way it's turned out. I really like that he's distinctly different. He's bald, too, so there's nowhere to hide. We can't do bald caps because there just isn't time. So it's a complete look that we've found for him. The actor that plays him has such incredible physicality, and such an amazing body shape.
Lou: I think he's 6'7". He's very, very thin, and very tall. He really has an elegant way about the way he moves, and when he puts the mask on with the costume it completely transforms him.
Dave: Even backstage he's a completely different person in the costume than he is when he's himself. Everyone kind of treats him differently and really likes him. Not that they don't like the actor before, but they really like him distinctly for his other persona. We've also got a lizard man, and he's basically a guy with a skin complaint called Icthyosis. It's a disease that hardens the skin; it scabs over and forms things that look very much like scales on the body. It's very symmetrical, too, which is another thing that adds to that illusion. Again, he's an actor who plays many roles in the show; one minute he's a lizard man in a complete body suit and lizard man head, and the next minute he's Tod Browning. We have to be able to transition that very, very quickly, and we're happy to say we've succeeded. We haven't compromised on his look. His look is still a very strong look. I'm very curious to hear what you think when you see the play, that these are all the same actors.
Beaks: I can't wait. Is working in the theater something you'd like to do again?
Dave: I think I would actually. It's a completely different discipline. If this works as well as I hope it's going to I think it's something that we could repeat. But also, by contrast, watching the play, I can't help but notice how cinematic it is, and what a great film it would make, too. Maybe in the future it could become a film. It would be wonderful to think what we're building here could have a movie version of it done one day. That would be neat.
Beaks: Then you can augment the work. It would be a completely different build, right?
Dave: Yeah. That would be great. To think what we could do with Johnny Eck and Prince Randian and characters like that. Oh, and the Dog-Faced Boy! I mustn't forget the Dog-Faced Boy! Jo-Jo is in it. That's something that I've always really liked, that look. I'm very excited that we're doing him because he's influenced a lot of makeups. I know Jo-Jo [aka Fedor Jeftichew] influenced Disney when they were doing BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I think there's a little Chewbacca in him, and all sorts of things. That's been fun, too.
Beaks: How much different is this from doing a film musical like LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and building Audrey II?
Dave: It was different because there was an awful lot more rehearsal than we normally get on a film. There were times when there were fifty people playing Audrey II. I was lucky enough that I got to work with Lyle Conway, who I think is a genius. I think the puppetry work on that is probably the last time you'll ever see work of that kind of caliber now that CG has taken over. It was wonderful. We rehearsed for six months or more, and a lot of the puppeteers that we worked with are puppeteers that we've worked with since on different things. A lot of them were ex-GREYSTOKE apes. It was such a coordinated effort to make that stuff come to life. We had so many little gags. I think that was the first movie where I realized that special effects and magic actually cross over a little bit. We used a lot of magic tricks. We had all of these different vines. We had one vine that could palm a coin. It was pure old-fashioned magic. We used a lot of trick perspective, and did stuff back-to-front at half-speed and played backwards. It was a real interesting first movie for me to work on. We tried almost every possible technique that we could think of. The only thing we didn't do, actually, was prosthetic makeup. I loved it. It was a real experience for me. I loved that we heard the music over and over again. It didn't bother me. We all knew all the tunes, and played the songs in the workshop, and it's amazing what having the show tunes playing in the workshop does for the work that you're doing, and the atmosphere for the work that you're doing. That was a wonderful experience from beginning to end.
To see the Elseys' amazing work for yourself, head to the La Jolla Playhouse's official website and purchase your tickets. And if you live on the other side of the country, don't fret. Bill Condon's SIDE SHOW will run next July at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. (with an even larger collection of freaks and geeks).