Mark Shostrom Interview

by Cliff Holverson

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Mark Shostrom, the Emmy Award winning makeup artist that brought Evil Dead 2, along with many other excellent films, to life. We spoke on a Sunday afternoon, he in sunny LA, myself in dreadfully hot Houston, Texas. As an indie effects artist myself I was really chomping at the bit to find out a little bit about what went on behind the scenes on some of my favorite films and gain a little insight into the world of professional makeup effects. This is what he had to say:

Cliff: I know we all have our influences and our heroes. I myself got into special effects by watching Tom Savini as a kid and it’s well known that Lon Chaney in turn influenced him to pursue his career. Who or what influenced you and made you want to get into special effects?

Mark: I think the first major influence was when I saw Bride of Frankenstein and I didn’t know even that a makeup artist had done that and it got me into monster movies. I started reading Famous Monsters and it had photographs of Jack Pierce. I also read about a guy, a younger man named Dick Smith. Then Planet of the Apes came out and of course they had a huge article on John Chambers. So that’s Dick Smith, John Chambers, and Jack Pierce and of course Lon Chaney. How can he not influence any makeup artist? He’s the granddaddy of them all, so to speak.

Cliff: Yeah, I think that’s the core four guys that have influenced most makeup artists.

Mark: Yeah, when I saw Lon Chaney’s makeup kit at the Science Museum in LA, I was amazed. I was just like, “Wow” you know?

Cliff: Yeah I know the Museum of the Moving Image in New York as a large collection of things. Some of Rick Baker’s work and a lot of Dick Smith’s stuff is on display there as well.

Mark: Right, right. I knew a guy named Hanks Edds at Paramount who was a good friend of Jack Pierce right before he died and he got Jack Pierce’s make up kit. He brought it in to the Dick Tracy sculpting lab one day and we all actually got to pick up the brushes and hold them and that was movie history, make up history. It was pretty cool.

Cliff: Those old kits are incredible, I have the famous picture of Lon Chaney holding out his kit to the camera, wearing the Phantom teeth hanging on the wall in my shop.

Mark: Yeah, when I was a little kid and watching Frankenstein at 9 years old I totally got bitten by the monster bug and I remember in our art class we had a project with a linoleum cutout where you had to do, almost like a photographic negative, to do a black and white print. My linoleum cut out was the Lon Chaney/Phantom of the Opera. Wish I still had it. I wonder if my mom does? Haha.

Cliff: Speaking of being a kid, your biography on IMDB mentions that you grew up in Hong Kong. What was that like and when did you come back to the States? Did that experience shape your career in any way?

Mark: Well, I moved to Hong Kong when I was 13 because my dad was transferred there and worked at the U.S. Consulate there. I was doing makeup at the time, by myself and I was really into it. I was exposed to different movies there; I was exposed to a lot of the Chinese cinema. They had a lot of European movies, so I got to see Spaghetti Westerns. Movies are huge in Hong Kong, from everywhere so sometimes I’d see 3 or 4 films on a weekend.

And you know, it was always about the makeup. When I was 13, just barely moved there, I got a chance to meet Boris Karloff’s widow, Evelyn Karloff. In a nutshell, I read in the newspaper that Mrs. Karloff was staying at a hotel which was next door to our block of flats. I didn’t know what to do so my Dad suggested I drop off flowers and a note.

So I wrote a little note in my 13 year old handwriting and lo and behold Mrs. Karloff called a few hours later. I got to meet her twice and we became friends for 18 years. It was pretty cool to hear all her stories about Peter Lorre and Vincent Price. Then I asked her my burning question of course, “What was Jack Pierce like?” And she said “I don’t know – I never met him!”

Cliff: Aw no!

Mark: Yeah, but it was very cool, so that was neat. We came back to the States in late 1976. About 4 years later I moved to California and started my career so to speak…

Cliff: I’ve heard that John Chambers, FX legend known for his work on the Planet of the Apes gave you your first big break.

Mark: Well, I wouldn’t say it was a big break, it was a series of small breaks. What happened was, I didn’t know anybody in LA. I had the address of my brother’s old friend to stay with. But I didn’t know anybody at all, no friends, no movie contacts. But I had started to writing to John Chambers in 1975 and I found his address in the back of a makeup book where it listed him a source for bald caps. I decided to try it and wrote to him and he wrote to me some very wonderful handwritten, very long letters back. When I moved to California of course I called him up and he remembered me and invited me by his little garage.

Cliff: Oh yes, I’ve heard stories about his famed garage where at any time you might find some famous movie star in for a life cast for their next role.

Mark: Yeah, it was just a one-car garage but it was converted into a very efficient, neat lab. He sort of let me hang out whenever I wanted to. He was always there on the phone or in person for advice and support. He gave me Tom Burman’s number and I had my first sort of formal interview with Tom. I had maybe a few photographs in my portfolio and a hell of a lot of enthusiasm and it was that passion that opened doors.

I do remember John Chambers lived about a 15 minute drive from my house and he called me one day and he said was in talks to do a TV movie about Father Damien in Hawaii. It was the true story of a priest who helped the lepers in a leper colony and ended up getting leprosy himself. John kept me up to date and he said he wanted to bring me on as the lab guy or the mold maker and I was very excited. But unfortunately the project did not fall to John or went south and somebody else made it years later. But you know, the fact that he thought of me was flattering and amazing.

John did one cool thing I’ll always remember: I was going to be doing a movie, I ended up doing it with Bart Mixon in New Mexico in White Sands National Monument in the middle of July when it’s 120 degrees there. And the production wouldn’t give me an air conditioned makeup trailer. It happened to be a Sandy Howard production and Sandy really liked me a lot – and John Chambers of course had done a couple of movies with Sandy Howard including the Island of Dr. Moreau.

So I called John, explained my dilemma and he kind of said , “Let me see what I can do.” The next week I walked into the production office for a meeting and everybody’s moaning and groaning “How come makeup gets an air conditioned trailer and we don’t?” It turned out that the actors and makeup got air conditioned makeup trailers and that was, I strongly suspect, because there had probably been a phone call that John Chambers made to Sandy Howard to say “Give this guy what he needs!” There’s no other way it would have occurred. So John was very, very helpful in so many ways.

Cliff: Did you learn any big life lessons for those first gigs that helped you early on in your career?

Mark: Oh, how can you not? Every first project is a learning experience. Every project even at my age, 55 now, is a learning experience. Of course when you’re starting out, especially in the film business, you don’t know things like how to handle yourself on set, how to stand up to a production manager who’s trying to not give you the money you need. Different stuff like that, basically how to stand up for yourself.

I got a lot of that from John Chambers because although he was a very giving, generous, warm man — he didn’t take shit from people. If he thought you were… you know, he would stand up to people in a very sort of hot blooded, Irish way, and he knew that and he admitted it. I guess that would be a life lesson. It’s all about how you conduct yourself. I had to budget a film one time and I didn’t know what the hell a budget looked like! I ended up getting a US government military guideline for doing budgets in a used bookstore and that became my template when I was starting out!

But it was a point of reference. It was a point of reference. I did get some bounced checks by an unscrupulous producer who is now legendary for that. So you know, you learn the hard way by going to the bank and they say, this producer has no money, and my crew has just worked a week for me. Well guess what? I’ve got to write them their paychecks out of my personal account. So you learn lessons about how to conduct yourself in business, because it is an art but it’s also a business. A lot of artists are not great businessmen and vice versa.

Cliff: I read an article about a makeshift foam latex oven you and Shannon Shea built when creating the effects for the film “The Supernaturals.” As an up and coming FX artist myself I feel the same pain as you guys felt then when it comes to cooking foam latex. I have often thought of building a foam latex oven myself. Tell me a little about the process, which seems especially interesting since it seems you guys had to rebuild the thing each night?

Mark: Ah yeah, that was on Shannon’s blog right? In fact I emailed with Shannon a lot the night before he put that up to remind him of things. What happened was I had a little shop which was a two room art studio above an antique store. I think I had maybe a total of 400 square feet and there were four of us: Myself, Bart Mixon, Ed Ferrell, and Shannon Shea making six head-to-toe ghost costumes, including molds for everybody’s hands, heads, bodies. We had other effects to do so as well.

Space was at a premium. After the body molding of the actors, we started putting spandex on the body forms and spatulating the foam on and then we said, “Where the fuck do we bake them?!” I don’t know who came up with the idea but I noticed that about 5 or 6 pm all the other graphic artists and marriage counselors in the building next door to me, down the hall and across the hall, would leave for the day as they were pretty much 9 to 5ers.

We were the opposite, we were 5 to 9. So what we did was, we saw that one room had been vacant for a while, a completely empty room down the hall. We didn’t want anybody to be wise to what we were doing so we started working later. And sometime after 5 or 6 when the foam was run, usually later like 8 or 9 at night, we would go into this vacant room with a couple of Makita drills and our premade plywood oven pieces and we would screw the whole thing together in about 15 minutes, put in our space heaters, bring in the bodies down the hall with the foam on them put them in there and check our watches.

We’d come back a couple hours later, pull the bodies out, pull out the Makitas, unscrew the whole thing and bring all the pieces back to my studio. Nobody ever found out. Surprising, considering the room reeked of baking rubber.

Cliff: Very Mcguyver-y.

Mark: Yeah! This was before McGuyver!

Cliff: So the space heaters were actually the heating element in the oven?

Mark: Yeah, and I don’t remember who turned me on to the different ways of baking foam but, I knew already from destroying my Mom’s oven when I was 17, that you should not bake foam latex in your home oven because your Thanksgiving turkey will smell and taste of sulfur! Luckily my parents forgave me for that! And of course you can’t fit 6 human sized body molds in a home oven. I think it was early on that a bunch of people in the effects business all discussed ways of doing it cheaply. Plywood with a little aluminum foil or insulation is a very workable source. Basically you make a large box. It can be plywood, it can be metal or ceramic. You’re not baking at incredibly high temperatures, maybe 170-180 degrees.

I found that by putting in a few clip lights or a space heater you can control the temperature; of course you need a thermometer in there as well. It’s a little bit of a fire hazard but honestly, at my studio for 12 years I had a really nice oven that Bob Kurtzman made for me that was plywood with doors, with a thermostat and everything and Celotex insulation about an inch thick from the industrial supply. The fire department would come by and give me inspections and they’d always give it the OK. It was jerry rigged but it was safe and it worked. The alternative was spending anywhere from 12 to 30 thousand on an industrial oven. So there you go!

Cliff: Ok this is a long one, for the Evil Dead 2 fans: You wrote a great article for Fangoria detailing the work you did for the Evil Henrietta suit for Ted Raimi. I think most effects artists dream of the day when they get to create a full-on creature suit. This was definitely the case for Ted whose entire body was covered from head to foot. How do you go about the process of sculpting an entire body suit? How long did it take to sculpt?

Mark: Well, I had just completed “From Beyond” which had the Pretorius creature, the big pretzel shaped creature, and that was HUGE. It was about 2,000 pounds of wet clay, and a very complicated mold. The sculpture, once you got it fine tuned, would get dried out over night so you had to keep it wet which meant putting damp sheets on it and wrapping it in plastic bags every night. When I was faced with Henrietta I really didn’t want to have to cover the damn thing all the time and pull it off because it ruins your detail. So I decided to sculpt Henrietta out of Roma Plastilina #2 which is a pretty firm plastiline, a non-drying clay. Basically when I put it on Ted’s body form I was smashing big chunks on that had been heated up, bashing them on with a 2×4 just to rough it out. To answer the next part of your question, sculpting just the body took me about six days, or I’d say six evenings, because usually at the shop I’d be so busy with other stuff I really didn’t get one-on-one sculpting time until after everybody was gone. So I’d be there 6 pm until midnight or so working on it, so it took about a week just for the body.

Cliff: What was the casting process like? I think I read you molded it out of fiberglass?

Mark: Yeah, mostly for weight. It was a very lightweight fiberglass mold.

Cliff: Now you didn’t make the suit out of foam latex I assume because of the difficulty involved with cooking it so you instead opted for other materials that didn’t rely on heat to cure. How did that material stand up to the punishment I’m sure it was forced to endure?

Mark: Really the reason I didn’t do it out of foam latex was because of strength and tearing and all that. I’d worked with Poly Tech urethanes, I think it was 10-14 F.R. we used on From Beyond, we did the whole Pretorius body, the main torso with that foam. It was a very resilient, soft polyurethane foam. For Henrietta, we sprayed a skin in the mold so it would have a surface skin for the detail and we’d close the mold and literally mix a few large cups by hand of the polyfoam, pour it in and rotate the body mold and we were done. We could pour two or three in an afternoon. But we really just made two hero suits that could be painted and reinforced and what not, so if one tore, one was always ready to be worn and filmed while the other was being repaired. So really for the whole film, we only had two suits.

Cliff: How many times did Ted have to wear that suit and go through the makeup?

Mark: I don’t remember exactly because it’s been 25 years, but I would say maybe six or seven times. And we would alternate days because not only was it very hot there, even with air conditioning it was in those days probably 90 or 85. It was very hot, Ted was often on wires. We tried a bean bag suit under the polyfoam suit at one point to give it the movement of real fat, but gave it up when it didn’t read well at all and only added more weight and discomfort for Ted. There was a lot of physical activity and Ted was very healthy, you know, a martial-arts-work-out kind of guy and he would show up in the makeup chair at 2 am with great energy. By the end of the night after twelve hours in the makeup and suit, he could barely walk down the hallway to the showers because he was so exhausted. So we made sure never to do that two days in a row because it was too much for him.

Cliff: I also remember from some of the behind the scenes footage that there was an issue with Ted sweating and having no holes in the suit to allow the sweat to drain out. I would have never thought to make drainage holes in that suit, is that something that was simply overlooked of was this a learning experience for those on set?

Mark: It was a learning experience! I knew enough that when it was starting to get really hot and I went on the sound stages to check things out. I found out that they weren’t planning to have any air conditioning. I went to the production manager and I said “We need to get some air conditioning in there” and he turned me down. I went to Sam and I said very seriously, “Your brother is probably going to drop dead if we don’t get some A/C.” The long story short – all of a sudden production was able to cough up, I think 8 or 10 thousand dollars for this air conditioning unit.

Cliff: This is a running thing with you and A/C!

Mark: Yeah exactly, well it’s me looking out for the actors basically. I think as I recall it was kind of a big portable a/c unit that had two big hoses, I don’t know, two feet wide like a giant sandworm from Dune. One hose would go to set but one hose was reserved for Ted Raimi because when he finished a take we would sit him down and unzip the back and stick that hose right up to him and blast in the cool air. He was grateful for that. The sweat issue was also a total learning experience.

There’s actually one shot where he’s on the wire and he turns and screams and you can see this unbroken stream of sweat coming from by his ear. The thing was, he sweated so much, and unlike foam latex which might have absorbed the moisture, the polyfoam, even though it had tiny bubbles, had a slick surface. It would not absorb the sweat. And the sweat had to go somewhere which was down and that down meant into his latex booties, you know? So at the end of the day he’d get in the makeup chair for removal and the first thing we’d take off were his rubber boots, well not boots but his rubber feet. The first time we did this, about a quart of sweat mixed with baby powder literally poured all over the floor. After that we always had a bucket standing by because we would take off his latex foot and it would be half full of sweat and we’d just turn it upside down and drain it out. That was a learning experience! If I had to do it all over again I’d figure out different materials, or some sort of drainage system. Of course today we’d use a Cool Suit but that had not been invented at the time, or a drainage system, something like that.

Cliff: whose job was it to disinfect that suit every day?

Mark: Usually Bob Kurtzman or myself because we were doing Henrietta together to save application time. Of course if I could get away with pawning it off to someone else, I would!

Cliff: You’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of other talented artists during your career, Rick Baker and Kevin Yagher just to name a few. What’s it like working on set with so many other talented artists? How do you decide on who does what? Is it a collaborative effort or does everyone just kind of work on their own projects?

Mark: Well, in the case of Evil Dead 2 I was in charge of the whole show. So I hired the crew, I hired Greg, Bob, Howard, Aaron Sims, Mike Trcic, Shannon so that was my baby, I supervised everything. So that was a different deal, but say on Elm Street 3 the effects were divided by Kevin Yagher, Greg Cannom and myself. It’s all decided beforehand. I remember at the Nightmare production meeting we had, we did a script read through with everybody there and we’d come to an effect and Chuck Russell would go “Who’s doing this?” And Kevin, Greg, and I would kind of look at each other or maybe somebody would raise a hand and “Sure, Greg you can do that one.” It was all decided beforehand or maybe the director thought a particular effect would be geared towards an artist. In fact Chuck Russell wanted me to do the Freddy Snake because he’d seen From Beyond but I just didn’t want to get into another huge mechanical creature so Kevin ended up doing that one.

Cliff: Cool, so it’s kind of decided upon collaboratively but then everyone works on their own deals unless the director wants it another way.
Mark: Yeah, it’s a bit of both, the director’s influence, but then it’s also the FX guys sitting around shooting out ideas. In the case of Evil Dead 2 there were very clear effects that were makeup effects that were my domain, but there were also some effects that overlapped with stop-motion and makeup effects or something like that . That was a case where I would go to Sam and say “Hey, I know a couple of great stop motion guys, Doug Beswick and Rick Catizone” and contacts were made with those guys, Doug ended up doing the dancing Linda and Rick Catizone animated Henrietta.

Cliff: Pretty interesting. Well there are so many places nowadays where you can go and learn to do makeup, Savini has a school, Joe Blasco has a school, and of course there’s Dick Smith’s Advanced Professional Makeup Course. What did you do to learn everything you know in a time when there weren’t all these avenues?

Mark: It’s all about passion and drive. The best way to learn, and the way I learned, is just to get out there and do it. I taught myself to play piano by buying a songbook and learning how to play.

Cliff: So practice just makes perfect.

Mark: Hell, yeah. When I got bitten by the makeup bug at 9 years old, I read a little bit about it in library books. My mother brought me Corson’s “Stage Makeup” and I read about grease paint and nose putty, and thought “Oh, this is cool!” My dad helped me find a little pharmacy in Denver where we were living that sold pharmacy stuff but also had a little section for Max Factor theatrical makeup. That’s back when Max Factor didn’t just have makeup for fashion models.

I went there with my dad and for 5 bucks got a quart of Max Factor movie blood, nose putty, two colors of greasepaint, and a tin of Stein’s Liquid Latex, that was my first makeup purchase, for 5 bucks! You know, it was a matter of, “Ok, I open Corson’s book,” and I would read how to put the little greasepaint dabs on somebody’s face and then blend it with wet fingertips and I tried it on my Mom. And you know, tried nose putty on my brother and a lot on myself and it was just practice all the time.

I had a lot of support from my parents, and my uncle was a retired dentist so he gave me wax and dental tools and I learned how to make teeth and scars and stuff like that. So it was just constant practice. These days you’ve got some great makeup forums on the internet, if you need to find out something you just type in a question. It’s funny, I’ve got Dick Smith’s Monster Makeup Handbook, I have a couple of copies, but I haven’t looked at them in a while and I needed to get Dick Smith’s gelatin formula from it, I think it was last week.

I couldn’t find my Dick Smith handbook so I went on Facebook and said “Hey, any makeup FX friends, what’s Dick’s formula from the Monster Makeup Handbook for gelatin?” Within five minutes I had three replies giving me the formula, it’s amazing! So with the internet today you can find any information you need: If you need a gelatin formula, or want to know how glue works, or how to do a zombie arm, people have YouTube demos! So if you’re passionate at this point you don’t even need a book – you need a computer and you can find out anything from there.

Cliff: It’s funny you mention Dick’s book. I was probably 10 when I got that book and I remember reading in there how you can get all these supplies from the local pharmacy like you said as well. Of course by then that stuff was no longer available in pharmacies unless it was Halloween but I remember scouring the local Eckerd’s and not finding anything and thinking “Damn you Dick Smith you’ve led me astray!!”

Mark: Here’s how it went for me: When I got Dick Smith’s Handbook I was reading Famous Monsters in Hong Kong and I read about the Monster Makeup Handbook and I talked my dad into ordering it for me. Well, when you order it from America it would take about two months to get to Hong Kong. And then Dick Smith’s writing about “Oh, you can get this and this from your local pharmacy!” Well having a local pharmacy in Hong Kong is a little bit different!

I could go to a Chinese pharmacy and find snake wine but I can’t find a Stein’s makeup pencil there or face powder. So finding stuff to practice the make-ups in Dick’s handbook was a challenge for me. I ended up finding plaster in little 1lb. boxes at a local English pharmacy called Watson’s and I somehow tracked down Max Factor Pan-Stik from a supplier who supplied the Hong Kong TV stations with their makeup. But then I had to find Mortician’s Wax!

I remember that was an afternoon of me going through the Hong Kong phone book and calling for hours and hours and I actually was able to find Naturo Plasto in Hong Kong, I couldn’t believe it. It was challenge to find those materials! Dick’s Handbook talks about Stein’s grease paints so I, in Hong Kong, couldn’t find Stein’s makeup that’s a New York makeup firm that deals with Broadway. But I got the next best thing which was an English brand of makeup called Leichner and they also had greasepaint sticks!

So if Stein’s number such and such were yellow, it might be a different number for Leichner but I could go to the Watson’s pharmacy and they had a whole section of Leichner greasepaint sticks. So I started with those and those were very cool, very good stuff. And I got my Leichner face powder and cold cream and all that, so I was set.

Mark: I spent a lot of the summer of 1970 or 71 trying makeups or techniques from Dick’s handbook, as well as those from Corson’s “Stage Makeup” and Kehoe’s “Technique of Film and Television Makeup.” I would do a makeup and my mother would photograph each one with an Instamatic camera. I even made my own sideburns on latex so I could re-use them. I made sculptures of bullet holes and a tiny plaster mold and made my first prosthetics out of slip latex. I could get perhaps two small molds from that one pound box of plaster from Watson’s Chemists!

Cliff: It’s definitely is a challenge finding supplies locally, even more so now since pharmacy’s just don’t carry stuff like that. I am lucky enough to live close by 1 of only a few costume shops in Houston that carry theatrical makeup.

Mark: The funny thing was that I had such a good time when I was a little kid learning all this stuff, that the smells of the different make-ups still bring back memories. Today if I open up a Max Factor pancake it smells exactly the same as the ones I bought back in 1969. It brings back memories of all those fun times as a kid.