Interview with Tom Savini
Not since Lon Chaney has one person been so successful at performing a variety of roles in the horror industry as Tom Savini. Savini is probably best known for his astounding makeup and creature creation work. His amazing attention to detail and eye for the visceral is largely attributed to his time spent as a combat photographer in Vietnam. He is responsible for the blood and gore on iconic horror movies such as Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II just to name a few. He has worked with such horror greats as George Romero, Sean S. Cunningham, and Joseph Zito. Savini has also been a stuntman, director, and actor. In the realm of acting, he is probably best known for his role as "Sex Machine" in From Dusk Till Dawn. As if all of this wasn't enough, he also runs his own special effects school, the Tom Savini Special Make-Up Effects program out of the Douglass Education Center in Monessen, PA. I was fortunate to be able to get a few minutes with Mr. Savini at a convention in November 2011 and talk about his trade and horror in general.
Ira Gansler: Mr. Savini, I guess the big question is, how do you define horror?
Tom Savini: (Laughs). Well I've never actually looked it up in the dictionary, although that might be interesting. Maybe my picture is there, I don't know. Horror, horror, horror. Fear, scare, I mean when you think of horror movies that's what you think of don't you? Of being afraid, being scared. When I was a kid, I loved horror movies just for that fact. It was a feeling that you didn't get often, being terrified like that, because we're pretty secure in life. But because it scared me so bad, I decided that I wanted to be the one to create horror, to scare people.
IG: So would you say that's what you think draws most people to horror is the safe scare or do you think that there's another piece to that?
TS: No, I think it is the safe scare. You know, nobody wants to be scared for their life, when you don't know what the outcome. When you're sitting there being scared of a horror movie, for me "The Exorcist," "Alien" scared me on a really deep, dark subliminal level. But I always knew that if I waited long enough, the movie would be over. Yeah, its the same reason you go to an amusement park and have them strap you to some machine and shoot you sky high, because in general those are safe. And you know you will survive. Its the thrill, that momentary thrill, where the thrill is, why you pay to have somebody do that to you. Pay to go to a movie and have that done, pay to go to an amusement park and have that done. I don't know of any place where you can pay to have real life scares happen to you, but we'll wait on that one.
IG: So do you think there's a big reason, or a good cause, for why horror always seems to ask how do we push the envelope now? That factor of it?
TS: Yeah, there's no formula for success, but I mean if you are just an observer then the unique things, the new things, are the one's that get a lot of attention. "Blair Witch" is an example of a $30,000 movie that made over $129 million, its those new takes on things that are the successful ones it seems. And I guess that is people trying to push the envelope. But that is the definition of people being unique, being different. Doing something out of the box. While there's no formula for success that does work. And I think that's why you see so many remakes and sequels. They're trying to capitalize on something that did work. I was reading an interview, I forget who it was now, that was talking about why don't they take something that was made badly and remake that, better. That's what I'd like to see. Although, there have been some great remakes. The recent "Thing" I thought that was great. Some of them are a success and some of them aren't.
IG: So as a man who has created so many great scares and visuals that have terrorized audiences over the years, where do you see that line between what is scary and what is just disgusting?
TS: Well, to me the line is drawn between me and the torture porn movies that are out there. I own "Saw," all of them, still haven't watched them. I own "Hostel" haven't watched it. I heard "Saw" has got some cool, redeeming things in it, but I just don't find any entertainment in torture porn. Although, I've killed a lot of people, but I deal with fantasy people. Jason, people who don't really exist. Except "Maniac," "Maniac" is a guy that could really exist out there. I'm scared of those people. What scares me is spiders, razors, and people. Crazy people. But disgusting? I think that is disgusting and I don't need to see that. And the most disgusting thing to me is the news. I haven't watched the news in seven years and my life is better.
IG: It seems that you would say, based on what you're saying, would you say that horror has gone too far? And if so, do you see a redemption back to the earlier scare generation of horror in the future?
TS: Well, its tough to, you know I grew up with the old horror because, it may sound strange to me, but the less you show, the more effective it is. Again, "Blair Witch" is a perfect example of that. Another example is the old scary radio shows. Its just people standing in front of microphones, but what they were saying and how you imagined the scenery was very dream like. Just like when you dream you're creating everything you see. You're not plunked into a set. You're creating everything that's in your dream and we have that power. And that was the power of radio. And it was still very scary. But even movies like "The Haunting," there's not a monster, there's not a scary thing in there, but it was one of the scariest movies ever made. So, going back, is it ever going to go back? No, because we are spoiling and training the audiences to expect the blood and the gore. Even big budget movies have all of that in there. Television series like "Boardwalk Empire" every episode is a blood bath. Movies like "Goodfellas," "Casino," "Total Recall," these are big budget movies that are full of gore, because if the kids, and that's the audience, the kids, don't see it then they are disappointed. So will it ever go back to the old style? I don't know. Someone would have to create something so scary and unique that doesn't incorporate that and maybe we will see a trend towards it, but I doubt it.
IG: If I can just ask you one final question. Talking to a master of special effects, do you think there is something being lost in the art of horror with all this CGI and all the new techniques?
TS: Not really. I love CGI when its done well. I wish I had CGI when I was incorporating stuff. When I grew up what you were seeing was happening right in front of you. I think the best makeup effects today are the combination of CGI and makeup, but its worthless without a great story. Its the story that gets you involved. I mean, I've seen movies that its just an effects fest and I don't give a shit about any of it because there wasn't anybody to identify with, no people to care about. I mean if you're just going to see an exhibit of special effects, movies like "GI Joe," great. But I grew up caring about characters, reading them in books first, then hearing them on the radio, then seeing them on the screen. I was trained to expect and want a story to identify with. I think that's why reality shows, as dumb as they are and as pathetic as they are, are popular. Because its people watching people. Whether you're making fun of them. I think most of them are the producers purposely putting together a bunch of losers just so we can laugh at these losers or make fun of them or think how pathetic they are. None of them are inspiring, its just that we love to see reality. And to me, they're showing reality in its basest form.