Total Film Magazine Interviews Howard Berger
“The Monster Master” Total Film no. 141, June 2008. Article: Jonathan Crocker; Portraits: Jay Brooks
From chainsaws to centaurs. How the Oscar-winning effects wizard Howard Berger birthed Prince Caspian’s incredible beasts .
Funny thing: we shot Hostel II on the same stage as we shot the Stone Table sequence in Prince Caspian. I just walked on the set and thought, “You know, it’s kinda strange. Yesterday we chainsawed [body parts] here. Crazy how it all works, huh?”
It certainly is. We blame the parents. Every night, Mrs Berger read to little Howard from Where The Wild Things Are. And every night, he would drift off into dreams of terrifying, fantastic creatures from other worlds. When he grew up, he trained with special effects legends Stan Winston and Rick Baker on Predator and Aliens. Today, Berger is Hollywood’s leading creature creator – getting paid to unleash those beastly dreams and nightmares up onscreen.
For the last 20 years, Berger – along with his FX studio KNB – has been go-to guy for anything from hydraulic buffaloes (Dances With Wolves) and alien monsters (Men In Black) to butcher-shop splatter (anything by Tarantino, Rodriquez and Eli Roth). But it was his rampaging creature effects for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe that bagged Berger a much-deserved Oscar. Now, with follow-up Prince Caspian, he’s back. And so are his monsters: bigger, better and badder.
Happily, the beefy, eloquent gent who greets Total Film inside London’s Soho Hotel cuts a winning contrast to the hulking fiends that have crawled off his brainpan. Shrugging off a double-whammy of jetlag and man-flu, Berger pauses only to shovel down throat pastilles as he bubbles with enthusiasm about Caspian’s fauns, minotaurs, dwarves and werewolves.
“Yeah, I was lucky enough to win the Bafta and the Oscar for the first one, which was super-cool,” says Berger. “But we’re also like, ‘OK, we’ve gotta go one-up.'” Meaning? More monsters, of course. “A lot more,” he grins. “We had to make-up 150 creatures every morning for 150 days of shooting.”
Some change, surely, for a man used to being revered by horror-geeks and gore-hounds?
“Well, is a little bit different for me,” admits Berger. “Now I have a six-year-old fanbase who recognise me in toy stores. My kids’ friends are like, ‘Oh my gosh, your dad is Howard Berger!’ But I’m more used to the convention crowd. Y’know, ‘Dude, I loved it when you chainsawed [body parts]!'”
WEREWOLF – “The digital werewolf was being handled by Weta Digital in New Zealand, but we also had a full suit with mechanical head, pretty messed up and scarred and everything, which was great. Really cool. But I showed my young son and he went, ‘Well, the ears are too big. It looks silly.’ I said, ‘I think you’re right!’ So I told the sculptors to try a smaller pair of ears. Andrew [Adamson, director] came in and said, ‘I really like those ears!'”
DWARF – “I wasn’t real happy with the dwarves that I did for the first film. We ended up just casting little people. They weren’t actors. They kind of ran around like crazy. No, they were literally running around like crazy. They were mad! And we did what we could on ’em. Their heads were the size of grapefruits so there was barely anything we could do! [Laughs]. This time around we found some really great little people in the Czech Republic, male and female. They were great – they had very expressive faces and, thankfully, they were all actors! And the thing is – this sounds crazy being a Disney movie – we only had seven dwarves, but we had to make it look like we had hundreds. We had hundreds of hairpieces, beards, wigs, moustaches, ears, noses, foreheads and chins, and we would alter them every day. Maybe one little actor would be 30 different dwarves during the course of the film.”
TRUMPKIN AND NIKABRIK – “Right away Andrew started pursuing Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis for Trumpkin and Nikabrik. Peter is just wearing a nose, gelatine ears, hairpieces and paint. But Warwick is completely covered! Even his lips are covered. I’d say his eyelids are the only thing that are his actual skin in that make-up, because Warwick Davis is very recognisable and I was absolutely frank with him about that. We sat down and I said, ‘Listen, my feeling is that everyone knows who Warwick is. He’s the Willow guy! We don’t want that – let me go to town.’ I looked at the make-ups that disguised him in other films, but I felt they always looked stiff and didn’t allow him to perform. There’s one make-up in particular in the first Harry Potter where it looked 10in thick. We did 20 different designs from young to old and Andrew went for the most gnarly, old, messed-up one.”
FAUN (Even though the title says “faun”, the pictures in the article were of Satyrs . go figure) – “The fauns have to do all the battle stuff, so we’ve got these buff Czech stunt guys. One of them was a free-runner in Casino Royale. So he was bouncing all over the place and Andrew went with that concept. It’s really cool! They’re like mountain goats, just leaping off these crevices and bouncing off castle walls. They’re amazing.”
MINOTAUR – “We did a whole slew of minotaurs, but there’s one hero minotaur whose name is Asterius. He’s this old, old minotaur who’s been around for a long time. He’s all beaten up and grey. He’s like an old-aged minotaur . ”
CENTAUR – “We have African-Narnian centaurs this time out. They’re black in the movie and there’s a whole family of them. There’s this really great actor names Cornell S John – Andrew found him in [Gershwin Opera] Porgy and Bess in London – and he has this great face, this really long face. His character has three sons and a wife, so we had to design make-ups for a family of centaurs that are genetically tied. We even have baby centaurs!”
HAG – “I like the hags a lot – they’re these weird witch/bird/reptile things. We had them around the stone table in the first movie and the witch’s camp. They’re trying to resurrect the White Witch at the broken stone table. We cast this crazy Czech actress [Klara Issova]. The Czechs were pretty wacky, you know? She was really wacky but she did a great job! It was a headpiece with all this plumage going on and crazy hands and feet and all. I really liked that make-up a lot.”
RIVER GOD – “At the end of the movie there’s this huge River God sequence. The Telmarines are crossing a giant bridge they’ve been building and Aslan summons the Water God. It’s animated, of course. And it’s funny, we were shooting that scene in Slovenia and this enormous river isn’t actually very deep. So we were going, ‘Well, why don’t they just walk across it?’ Andrew was like, ‘Don’t ask, please, don’t ask . They have to build the bridge and that’s all you need to know, OK?’ [Laughs]. ‘But we could just walk across . ‘ ‘No, no, no, no!'”
REEPICHEEP – “He’s our mouse and he’s entirely digital. He’s a pretty big mouse – standing at around 21in tall. We made a full stand-in of him to help the actors react. I think he’s gonna steal the movie. His dialogue is very clever and the delivery is quick. It’s perfect for Eddie Izzard . ”
Eddie Izzard (Voice of Reepicheep) – “He’s like Mad Max crossed with a guy like William the Conqueror. He just goes around slashing and killing. His sole interest in life is to pile up dead bodies. Mad Max’s wife and child were killed in the first film and I can only assume that’s what happened to Reepicheep, because he’s so driven by rage and revenge. But he also has the code of honour which limits him. In previous versions he’s played in a camp way – everyone does him in a high-pitched squeaky voice. I wanted to dump that. He’s basically Mad Max as a mouse.”
Padded cycling shorts, 7ft cage fighters, invisible creatures and really nice hair. Ben Barnes is Prince Caspian .
There was a massive auditioning process for Prince Caspian, right?
Right, but not for me. I think they’d been looking for about a year and I auditioned in about the last three weeks. One of the casting directors had seen me on stage in The History Boys and asked me to come in and do one scene. And Andrew just liked the way I said one line.
What was the line?
I’ve no idea! I need to work that out . He said, “You’re the only person I’ve seen in a year who’s done that with that line.”
Did they train you up to swing swords and ride horses?
Literally, as soon as I got to New Zealand I drove to a horse riding centre before I even met the cast. I had six hours a day of horse riding and sword fighting for a few weeks. But Caspian isn’t actually a gung-ho character. He’s anxious about growing up and fighting this cathartic fight against his own people. He’s actually quite vulnerable in that way. He’s deeper than that. [Pauses]. Not that I don’t look cool on the poster, ‘cos I do! [Laughs].
How hard is it to ride a horse while swinging a sword around?
I never actually fell off, but it’s tricky. Well, for the fellas, anyway! I had some uncomfortable incidents in the first few weeks until I bought my padded cycling shorts . But by the end of it I was riding through rivers, running down ramps with flaming torches, swinging swords . A little boy’s dream.
What do you think of the monsters?
They really individualise them all. You see how the different creatures fight. The minotaurs barrel in with these big clubs, the centaurs swing these huge swords. And the fauns do a bit of parkour, because they’ve got goat-legs so they can spring about and jump on stuff. That looks really cool.
Is it weird acting with CG characters like Reepicheep who aren’t actually there?
Usually you can get an actor on his knees to play a badger or something. But Reepicheep is so small that you just have to talk to a wire with a little dot on top. That was a big challenge for me.
But the centaurs and the minotaurs are real .
Yeah. They are big, hard blokes. All the minotaurs were like 7ft tall. Two of them were cage fighters. The centaurs had three hours of make-up and the minotaurs had big animatronic heads. After filming they looked like they’d been swimming!
What was an average day’s filming like?
It was literally like being put in a different world and nothing surprises you after a while. You’re out on a field surrounded by 7ft guys in green lycra tights. And it’s normal. I mean, that’s weird .
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian opens on 26 June [in the UK] and will be reviewed in a future issue of Total Film.
Check out the scans in our Image Gallery!
Thanks to AJAiken for the transcript and the scans!