The film industry surprised many critics in 2003 with the rehabilitation and revitalization of swashbuckling genres that had been thought entirely played out. Peter Jackson’s stunning conclusion to the Lord of the Rings trilogy gave proof that the cinematic epic is alive and well. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean managed to resuscitate the pirate movie, followed in turn by Master and Commander for those who prefer police action to vigilante justice.
However, the most surprising aspect of 2003 was the return of the ghostly horde to Hollywood films. With star turns in both Pirates of the Caribbean and The Return of the King, not to mention the obvious homage in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the legions of the undead have never appeared so inescapably cool.
The Glob spoke recently with Victor Tennybrass, the warden of Hollywood’s Local 322 of the Union of Post-Life Artists and Technical Workers (OFB-DIS), on the improving fortunes of Spectral-Americans in the film industry. The interview took place over a smoldering brazier heaped with funerary incense at Mr. Tennybrass’ luxury columbarium in Beverly Hills.
After a few minutes of chanting, Mr. Tennybrass materialized in a vintage tuxedo jacket from 1913, casually worn with an open collar shirt and black silk trousers that terminated vaguely in a greenish haze at floor level. He apologized for the gaping wound in his left breast, a memorial of the fatal accident that ended his stage career.
The Glob: Mr. Tennybrass, I think our readers would be fascinated to learn how much the dead contribute to modern films such as Pirates of the Caribbean.
The Spook: Well, it’s not so much the dead, you know. I mean, the dead are simply dead. The members of our union are properly speaking Spectral-Americans, soulless things damned to walk the earth until they are released from their tormented travesty of life.
The Glob: Good Lord!
The Spook: Language, mister! Mind your language.
The Glob: My apologies. How is it that you and your colleagues are not, as you put it, simply dead?
The Spook: Ah, well, that’s business for you. Most of the members of Local 322 are products of the old studio system who didn’t live long enough to be released from their contracts. You see, at the time when studios really started to value their talent as investments, you had guys like Errol Flynn who were absolute terrors in their private lives. To keep from encouraging the party lifestyle, a few studios experimented with contracts that impignorated the soul of the performer for a certain number of pictures against a balloon bonus payment for good behavior. The problem is that one of these contracts did not terminate upon the death of the performer, so when an accident happened, you all of a sudden had another spectre haunting the studio lot, trying to get work. It was a tricky situation.
The Glob: How did the studios react?
The Spook: To tell the truth, they were somewhat embarrassed by the fact that they held liens on all these souls. The papers would have had a field day if word got out, so they worked hard to keep things quiet, and for the most part they succeeded. Every major back lot had an exorcist on call, and so the ghosts had to hit the streets, waiting for a break. Those were hard days for all of us.
The Glob: So the studios refused to employ you?
The Spook: It was prejudice pure and simple. Every producer you would talk to over punch at a Sabbat would swear up and down that of course you’re perfect for the part, it’s a mummy, or a skeleton god, or a walking corpse, or whatever, but the studio couldn’t afford to do all the shooting at night, and of course all the rain machines were designed to run on holy water, that was just the technology you know, and anyway the public was just not going to buy a real ghost as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. They wanted a familiar face on the battlements that they could maybe run into at the Brown Derby.
The Glob: I see. When did things start to change for you?
The Spook: First, we had to develop a business sense. The studios didn’t see that they had a moral obligation to release these souls, because the people that run the studios are businessmen, not ethicists. So, we took a page from their book and organized all the local spooks under the biggest entertainment trade union in Hell, which is pretty much the 900lb. gorilla down there. They want entertainment in Hell even more than they want icewater. That got the producers’ attention.
The Glob: Why is that, exactly?
The Spook: Well, to put it bluntly, they know where they’re going. It’s insanely easy to be damned in Hollywood, especially if you’re working on the money side of things. By establishing ourselves as the topside representatives of the U.P.L.A.T.W., we could negotiate with the studios from a position of strength. Sure, they didn’t have to hire actual undead for their pictures, but locking out the union here would guarantee excruciating negotiations with the central executive on the other side. Most producers didn’t want to risk that. Besides, with the development of special effects technologies, it was becoming more cost-effective to employ us.
The Glob: That’s an interesting assertion. Most of our readers naturally assume that all of the scenes in Pirates with the skeletal pirate crew were purely computer-generated animation.
The Spook: It is CGI, and it’s CGI that has allowed us to obtain such great billing recently. In the old days, it was a real pain to get us to show up on film. (Not all the whining by the producers was bogus, I suppose.) If you shot us under normal lighting, we would pretty much disappear. Shooting in low light required special emulsions that really raised the production costs, and most of us were lousy at impressing ourselves on the film directly. A lot of the footage that did get shot looked so badly faked that it ended up on the cutting room floor. So, they just used to call in Karloff and a makeup guy instead. Instant mummy, even though he’s breathing in every frame.
The Glob: If that’s the case, then how does computer-generated imagery give you more opportunities?
The Spook: Well, we figured out how to haunt virtual spaces created by a computer like they were actual locations. So, you have your server farm crank out the backgrounds, and then we do our stuff, which becomes the raw footage for the animations. We can create better choreography than physical-modeling software, in a fraction of the time. It’s a win-win situation.
The Glob: So I take it that you never spend any time with the rest of the cast?
The Spook: No, not really. All of our work is done in the effects shop, or in post. We never have to visit the principal locations, which is good for us, since we can’t travel very far from our final resting places. I have to get exhumed and reburied somewhere else if I want to take a vacation, for example.
The Glob: Will we be seeing more of the ghostly horde in 2004?
The Spook: I certainly hope so. We managed a record 83% average employment rate for the local last year, thanks to Pirates, and especially Return of the King, requiring so many damned souls for the battle scenes. Working with Peter Jackson and the WETA team was a dream– they really let us shine. We’re generally nimble performers, light on our feet, as you saw in our battle scene. For Pirates, they had us lumbering around too much for my taste. I understand the choice, though- we would have made Depp and Rush look like hippos if we were fighting full speed.
The Glob: 2003 was obviously a fantastic year for you. Has there been any downside?
The Spook: Like every other actor, I worry about typecasting. I can’t tell you how many people somehow assume that I and my colleagues were in Pirates because we were really pirates once. The jokes I hear- it’s terrible. How come there are no pirate novelists? Because pirates can only write ARRH-ticles. What’s a pirate’s favorite holiday? ARRH-bor Day. Why did the pirates invade Half Moon Bay? For the ARRH-tichokes. I am sick of pirates, frankly, but I wouldn’t say no to a sequel. I have only a few more pictures to fulfill in my contract, and I can’t afford to be picky.
The Glob: Do you have any definite plans for your retirement?
The Spook: I haven’t thought much about what comes next. If there’s anything my years in the business have taught me, it’s to focus on the process rather than the goal. That being said, the goal is a consummation devoutly to be wished. The old boy had it right, there.
The Glob: Thank you for your time Mr. Tennybrass.
The Spook: You’re very welcome. See you around.