"Hot, closed sets and raw brain don't mesh very well."
Bubba Ho-Tep was released on DVD yesterday, May 25th, 2004. I was lucky enough to talk to Art Director Justin Zaharczuk about the production late last year...
The American Cinematheque has long been the supportive backbone of cinematic artistry and its imperative creators. Over the years, many inspired individuals have graced the area in front of that precious silver screen, passionate in their thematic discussions. Great directors of every common type have personally dragged their collective history to this Hollywood landmark, set to share in their own personal and professional struggles with the film industry. Every week sees a new festival of sorts, celebrating any given artist and their work. Just recently, George Lucas sat in front of a gathered audience to show clips of his past achievements in revolutionary special effect techniques. Jerry Bruckheimer dragged his previous efforts inside and showed them off to an enthusiastic crowd. Even Matt Dillon made a resent, rare appearance. If they've stamped their name on the film-going conscience of America, they've played the Egyptian Theater. The place is an amazing showcase of talent. Despite all that, do you want to know what the most popular film in the history of the American Cinematheque Egyptian Theater is? The undisputed Bubba Ho-Tep!
This is a movie that doesn't even have a distribution deal yet. The "why not" is a hard nut to crack. Every fanboy, film lover, B cinema enthusiast, geek, art aficionado, and Brisco County Jr. club devotee knows of its existence, and only a fraction of them have been able to see it. Bubba Ho-Tep is a beautifully constructed take on the Elvis mythos. A mere sentence sets up its glorious charm without retribution: Elvis Presley (played by Bruce Campbell) and JFK (portrayed to curious perfection by Ossie Davis, oddly enough) battle a Mummy in an old folk's home. That's all you really need to say. The fact that this Don Coscarelli film is also a thoughtful glimpse at growing old and losing your eternal soul to the banalities of life makes Bubba Ho-Tep that rare, special find in the annals of Midnight-worthy trash cinema. It's a B movie with a beating heart, and it takes funcore to a whole new level.
Helping to up the ante on the originality and uniqueness of this truly Independent feature is its essence in artistic atmosphere. Bubba Ho-Tep has been carefully crafted and defined by its overall enthusiastic look and feel. The retirement village that now acts as home to both Elvis and JFK is a place of shadows and dark, creepy hallways. There is a distinct palate at work here, and the visionary genius on spec is quite exceptional in appearance. Out of sheer generosity on his part, I was able to correspond with the Art Director of this inimitable project. Via email, I had what could be called a wonderful electronic conversation with Justin Zaharczuk. He was also nice enough to send some of his production artwork along, which I have included throughout the course of our little Q&A session...
(From the Dealey Plaza set prop in JFK's bedroom; notice the Dann Rent-A-Car sign, and Justin's nod to film professor A. Koss.)
O: Can you tell me about your background and history as an art designer?
JZ: Before we get started, I'd like to thank you for having me here. It's a pleasure. I've always had an interest in painting and film. My early influences include the elevated "L" train stations and the Philadelphia subway system. I attended Tyler Art School in Elkins Park, Pa. And I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Fine Arts. Sometime after my sophomore year in college, it became clear that I was going to be working in film. I came into contact with Don Coscarelli and Roger Avary through a friend. They were developing a Phantasm sequel: "Phantasm: 1999." Don was kind enough to give me a break and hired me as a storyboard and concept artist. I made the move to Los Angeles in late 1997. My first "on-set" film was "Phantasm: Oblivion." Money for the crew was tight, so I became a Camera Assistant/Art Assistant. That was a tough shoot, but in hindsight, it really came together. Other films I've done include Fred Olan Ray's The Invisible Mom 2, Gary Graver's Black Widow Escort, and Deadly Delusions starring Dee Wallace. I remember "Deadly Delusions" in particular because I was told by the production designer to stay up all night and make a beautiful painting, which was to appear in the film. What an honor, right? The next day they filmed it and then lit it on fire! It was for an insert shot of a burning building.
O: In discussing Bubba Ho-Tep, how important was the color scheme, especially inside the convalescent home, to Bubba's story? Did you play up any particular colors for specific reasons, or play down any certain colors?
JZ: Color scheme was a key factor in our design plan. Dan Vecchione, our Production designer, knew what he wanted from day one. His "color theme" consisted of Burnt Umber, Thalo Blue, Pea Green, Yellow Ochre, and every degree of brown. That palette was used for the Mud Creek Shady Rest Convalescent Home. Don approved of this, calling the colors "oppressive" and "depressing." We avoided most bright, bold coloring. There is one scene, though. I'll let the viewer search it out. Dan Vecchione was a stickler for detail and wanted a mud and grease look worked into the nooks and crannies of all the sets with exception to one area...JFK's bedroom. At one point, a crewmember came up to me and asked, "Why is JFK's room so clean, and everyone else's so dirty?" JFK's bedroom is the opposite of Elvis's pigpen. We wanted that contrast.
O: Did you guys shoot this in a real convalescent home? Can you give me a little bit of the history on the building that was used in the movie?
JZ: Rancho Los Alamigos housed most of our locations. It's a creepy abandoned hospital complex in the middle of Downey, Ca. There's been a misconception that we sorta just filmed some pre-existing hallways of a real home. This is not true. There was a veteran's rehab center nearby, but we didn't use it for our Shady Rest Retirement Home. Many of the buildings we made our sets on were gutted out. Most of the actors and many of the crewmembers didn't realize that the art department had to make the walls and build the doorways. We started a good two months before the majority of the crew arrived. Sometimes we would have the Downey Police Department come and visit the sets. They told us stories of suicide and proceeded to let us know the exact rooms where bodies had been found. Dan Vecchione and I would just look at each other like, "What are they telling us this for?"
(Below is a picture taken at this location where many of these suicides occurred. Notice the image in the upper part of the frame. At first, this looks like some sort of smoke, but upon further inspection; you'll notice the angle of the zigzagging lines. There is no other trace of smoke in the picture, and there is no trace of sawdust to be found on the floor. The image resembles what some experts claim to be ectoplasmic energy. Did Justin snap a picture of a Ghost? Was the Bubba Ho-Tep set haunted? There is speculation, and the image is too three-dimensional to be a flare or smudge on the lens of the camera.)
(About this picture, Justin says, "This should put an end to the assumption that the "hallways" were just there.)
O: While working at this location, were there certain things you wanted to change but weren't allowed to?
JZ: One of the first things that the production designer and I mapped out was the floor plan of the retirement home. We wanted a black and white checkered tile floor. This stayed on our agenda right up until one week prior to filming. Unfortunately, we just couldn't make it happen budget wise. We toyed with the idea of painting the B+W tile on by hand, but time was not on our side. We opted instead for a simple black/gray polished look.
O: There's a terrific scene inside the community restroom where Elvis and JFK discover some Hieroglyphics written on the stall wall. Did you do any research into the actual bathrooms and toilets used in Ancient Egypt? If so, can you give me the details?
JZ: We did not research Egyptian bathrooms, but we wanted the glyphs to look dirty and ragged, like Bubba himself. The hieroglyphic graffiti was originally to be written in simple black ink. Instead, I designed and carved the glyphs into the wall. We used an old rusty knife to etch the graffiti into the stall wall and then smudged it up with black "fullers earth." Big thanks to Mark Nelson, who provided the original East Texas Hieroglyphics in the novella.
O: How important did you find each character's bedroom to their specific persona? Can you tell me how you went about looking at each character and what went into designing their rooms?
JZ: For designing the lead character's bedrooms, we turned to the original Novella. Dan Vecchione was clear on what he wanted in regards to props and furniture that would suit each character. For example, Elvis' room consisted of browning, grime covered walls, a rusty old fan, and yellow, smoky lampshades. It was dark, brooding, and covered in a film of aged tobacco smoke...It's always been cut and dried to me. Elvis was really whom he claimed to be, but JFK was really just a sick old man. The scar on Ossie's head is where he had major surgery, causing his paranoid delusions. We play this up by making Ossie's room a copy of a White House office, but with strange things as well. Like the mug shots of the conspirators in the assassination. Ossie has all of these little props to help himself believe and try to convince others of his "true" identity. While Elvis is just Elvis. He doesn't try to prove anything by making his room into a mini-Graceland or a Viva Las Vegas shrine. He knows who he is, and is depressed at his state of health. That's what we try to reflect on with his bedroom set.
O: Are there any hidden treats we should search for in Bubba Ho-Tep? Did you hide anything that the hardcore fans should keep an eye out for?
JZ: This is a great question. We did a scale model of Dealey Plaza that sits on Jack's desk. Instead of the historically accurate "Hertz Rent-A-Car" sign, I put "Dann Rent-A-Car." Next to that, I wrote, "A. Koss." In memory of my college film professor that passed away. There is also a Lee Harvey Oswald Depository Playset, complete with Sniper's Nest. We did several items like this during the precious few hours that we were supposed to be sleeping. Look close or you will definitely miss them. For the Egyptian flashback scene, I got to make a nasty "onyx" hook that impales young Bubba Ho-Tep's brain. As an on-set surprise, I thought it would be more realistic to use actual calf brains. I don't think Don was too thrilled with that idea. Especially since hot, closed sets and raw brain don't mesh very well. The actor that portrayed Bubba was a real trooper, though. Somehow he lived through the stench. Another interesting treat was Don's idea. For the "Everyday Man or Woman's Book of the Soul," there is a big section we had to write and illustrate with pictures of monsters and creatures throughout history. Coscarelli ended up getting pretty specific with the characteristics and backgrounds of each entity. I had exact instructions to have a special section with drawings and a complete biography of "The Tall Man." It looked fantastic, but you don't really see it in the final cut. Maybe Don will have a shot of it when Bubba hits DVD. ATTENTION ALL HARD CORE FANS: After you've watched the film a few times, start keeping an eye out on the extreme left and right sides of the screen. You will find other very interesting things.
(Here is a picture of the Lee Harvey Oswald Playset, which includes a "Sniper's Nest.")
O: How closely did you work with the wardrobe department in creating a certain atmosphere for this project? Was it always a given exactly what these characters would look like?
JZ: Our Wardrobe Designer, Shelley Kay, would brief us at the production meetings as to whom would be wearing what on each set. Shelley was also somewhat of a nice set dresser. She found the delicate lace curtains for Elvis' room, as well as the curtains and bedspreads for Jack's room. Her wardrobe assistant, DeeDee Hopkins, came up with some great styles for Elvis' "Good Ol' Boys." Make sure to check out their duds next time you see the infamous slow-motion walk from the limousine. One of the nice things about doing a film like Bubba Ho-Tep is that I was surrounded by so many creative, artistic people, everyday. It was the perfect atmosphere for developing and making such an offbeat, hopefully memorable, film.
O: How tough of a decision was it to decide which to use for JFK: An electric wheelchair or a manual, hand-push wheelchair? Why did you eventually go with the electric wheelchair?
JZ: Once again, we turned to the original Bubba Ho-Tep story for our ideas of Jack's wheelchair. Don knew that the film called for a mobile, rugged, and fast "set of wheels." It was to be used in battle against the Mummy. It had to be able to handle thick grass, as well as sharp corners and dirt. Dan Vecchione ordered the fastest, strongest, sleekest black wheelchair we could afford and had a battery souped-up for maximum power. Ossie Davis made maneuvering the chair look easy. When someone else would try to round a corner in that thing, it would practically throw them off. A nice feature of the chair not shown in the film is the device we used to strap the flame-thrower tank and gun to the back. It looked like something out of Ghostbusters.
O: How much input did you have in constructing the appearance of both the Mummy and the Beetle? Can you give me some of the history on the look of these two important elements of the film?
JZ: Early on, back in 1996, Don sent me a copy of the original Joe R. Lansdale Novella, "Writers of the Purple Rage." I was commissioned to do some pen and ink renderings of the Egyptian cowboy hat-wearing Mummy. My first concern was making sure he didn't look hokey or like something out of the Power Rangers. I chose an elongated, totally emaciated look without the traditional bandaged wrap. My research included ancient Egyptian Mummies, Aztec mummified remains, and a few vintage Marlboro ads for good measure. Don was content with my mummy designs, so he sent me his screenplay of the story. I was impressed by the subtle Coscarelli touches added to the screenplay and I began fleshing out another one of his additions, the Scarab Beetle. My designs had more of an iridescent look with Hieroglyphics scratched into the shell. I envisioned Bubba as a compulsive graffiti artist. Kerry Prior and KNB FX's had there own vision, however. The final product of Bubba and the Scarabs look great.
(This is one of Justin's original "Bubba" illustrations)
O: Looking at these creatures, they're very tangible on screen; something that CGI is often not. But CGI seems to be the norm nowadays. It was nice to see actual puppets and make-up being done. Which medium do you prefer? Do you think the look of the film would have been affected had Don used CGI?
JZ: When you see an animatronic or puppet, it's great because you can tell that it's really there and that the actors are actually interacting with something. CGI tends to look like a cartoon, or like it's floating. Sort of one-dimensional. I like CGI if done well, but I'd love to see more highly articulated animatronic puppets. There's more weight to them, more character. Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. Bubba Ho-Tep would have a different feel if computer graphics were used, not as much fun.
O: Is it easier or harder for you to work on such an enclosed, one setting film such as this?
JZ: For "Phantasm: Oblivion," we shot in the desert for two weeks, then on the street for two days, then at the beach, and then back at the warehouse, ect. There was a lot of commotion and stress from always being in a new place. On Bubba, we did 90% of our shoot in Downey, Ca. This was not a hindrance. It was cost effective and a real convenience since we didn't have to drive to too many different locations. Production also rented us a motor scooter to get from one building to another. Thanks, Jason.
O: What was the most difficult thing about putting together such a unique movie?
JZ: It's always easy to say that the budget was low, therefore everything was hindered. After being in the business for a couple of years now, blaming a low budget seems like a copout sometimes. Ingenuity and creativity can overcome lack of funds if you are willing to be totally committed to a project. The crew on Bubba Ho-Tep was exceptional. They were real hard working people who knew that the script was above average. Most of us had a hunch that something special was being made.
O: Do you like what has been done with the posters at this point? How will these images change once Bubba is picked up by a distributor, and will you have a hand in helping with that aspect of the marketing campaign?
JZ: The posters I've seen for Bubba Ho-Tep look pretty sharp, so far. There's a new one out there that I saw for the first time at the Egyptian Theatre screening. It's Orange and explosive. A simple composition consisting of only the mummy and the film's logo, but effective to say the least. I have a couple of Bubba poster concepts floating around as well. Remember those hand-drawn and airbrushed posters? Like the ones for Star Wars and Indiana Jones? Check out an artist named Drew Struzen. He's one of my favorites. Whichever company distributes our film will undoubtedly do their own poster designs. For better or worse.
(This illustration depicts one of Justin's early poster concepts)
O: What is your history with Don? How did you land this particular film?
JZ: The first thing I did for Don was several comic strip style pen and inks. As well as a fully poseable Dwarf action figure. Those ended up on the Phantasm Special Edition Laser Disc. In December of 2000, Don and I met for lunch at the Yardhouse in Long Beach, California. That's when the unexpected news broke that Bubba was now officially in pre-production. Don got this big smile on his face when he asked me to be the film's Art Director. I was honored to be asked to work with Don again, and I couldn't say no. A week or two later, I found out some more good news. Dan Vecchione (a fellow Phantasm: Oblivion vet) was now onboard as Bubba Ho-Tep's Production Designer.
O: Which aspect of this film did you find most appealing?
JZ: The interactions between Elvis and Jack are what lured me into the story. Going into a bathroom stall to see hieroglyphic graffiti written by a mummy didn't hurt either. I'm attracted to things that are offbeat. I also saw the potential of making an interesting new environment (the retirement home). Don has made four Phantasm films, each with a unique mausoleum set. With the Mud Creek Shady Rest Convalescence Home, we got to put a new spin on the "long dark hallway."
O: What was your reaction to the news that Bubba Ho-Tep was the most popular film in the history of the Egyptian Theater?
JZ: I wonder if that's true? The first showing sold out almost a month in advance. The second showing also sold out pretty fast. I even saw a "stand-by" line of people for both shows. I told a girl sitting in front of me that Kerry Prior (special bug effects) came six hours early to create the gold scarab beetle that was on the ceiling of the theater.
O: Do you know if there are any current screenings scheduled for Bubba Ho-Tep? Where might we next look for the film?
JZ: Don and Bubba Ho-Tep are on tour all through March. Right after the Egyptian, it's off to Texas for the SXSW Film Festival (every screening is sold out). Then to the Orlando Florida Film Festival (again, every screening is sold out). Immediately followed by the Brussels, Belgium Film Festival. Don told me he was on two television shows in Texas. Appearing with both author Joe R. Lansdale and Bubba himself; Bob Ivy.
O: At the Egyptian screening, Bruce Campbell said that you guys didn't have any "Taco Bell" tie-ins, or any product sponsorship. That this was a truly independent film. Then I saw someone (@Aintitcool) mention the fact that the Baby Ruth candy bar does play a rather integral part in bringing the two main characters together. Is having the Baby Ruth a form of product placement, or is this some sort of historical reference? Is it a known fact that either Elvis or JFK loved the Baby Ruth? Are you guys huge fans of The Goonies? Can you tell me a little bit about the motivation behind using this particular brand of candy bar?
JZ: This shows you how faithful Don Coscarelli was to the original story. He really treated it like the bible. The Baby Ruth bars are in the original Novella. That's why Don sought out their use. There is no conclusive evidence that John F. Kennedy or Elvis A. Presley loved Baby Ruth candy bars. I am a huge fan of the Goonies movie, and even more so of the video games. FunFact: I still have the whole drawer of candy from JFK's desk (Ruths intact).
O: Is there really a plan to make Bubba Nosferatu, or is this just an end-title in-joke to get the fanboys foaming at the mouth?
JZ: A sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep is probably floating around in the minds of Joe R. Lansdale and Don Coscarelli as we speak. Just speculation, of course...
O: Were there any particular movies that you went back and looked at prior to going into production? How close an eye did you keep on Elvis Presley's own body of film work? Did you periodically watch the Zapruder film for inspiration?
JZ: The Production Designer and I studied both "Se7en" and "The Shining" to garner inspiration for the set layouts. Don, Dan, and myself are all big fans of Kubrick. I'd have to say that Danny came up with most of the big ideas, though. I was more of the detail guy. We also had a guy named Damon Caruso who was pretty much our lead carpenter. He must have cut a good 5, 000 pieces of "wainscoting." I had one hundred or so reference photos of Dealey Plaza, the Lincoln Limousine, Lee Harvey and gang, and even a few stills from the Zapruder film.
O: What is your favorite Elvis movie?
JZ: My favorite Elvis film is the Kurt Russell biopic. It's hard to get enough of Elvis shooting at televisions.
O: There are rumors: How big of an offer did Don actually make Elvis to come out of hiding and star in this film himself?
JZ: No comment :}]-
(Illustration by Justin Zaharczuk)
O: In fighting the paranormal, do you think Elvis would have a better working relationship with Biggie or Tupac?
JZ: That's something to ponder...
O: How were the living conditions on set?
JZ: We would spend several days straight in a row, on location in Downey. It was intense working late at night because we were in the middle of a deserted town, basically. It would start to get very cold and silent. Producer Jason Savage would have to hire people to come overnight and sleep on-set when the Art Department would go home. This overnight security had the same uneasy feeling that we did once it hit 1 or 2 in the morning. I remember sleeping with a bat just in case. One night stands out in particular. This is because I was alone. Being by myself late at night in a long, dark, vacant building is not at the top of my "things to do" list. I had just finished putting the finishing touches on the flamethrower prop and was supposed to complete some last minute detailing on the Shady Rest hallway set. It must have been four in the morning. While I was painting I heard the sound of something crashing down on the second floor of the building. It happened several times through the night but I kept working. When Dan Vecchione arrived that morning, I cursed him for leaving me there.
O: Can you tell me about your plans for the future?
JZ: I just bought an Apple G4, so I think I'll be going back to school for a while. I'm looking forward to learning such programs as AfterEffects and Final Cut Pro. Then, when the time is right, I'll continue working on film.
O: One last question; has Lisa Marie Presley seen Bubba Ho-Tep yet? Elvis' emotional lose regarding his daughter, I felt, was one of the strong points of the film.
JZ: I wondered the same thing and talked to Mr. Coscarelli about this. The Presley Estate has not seen the film as of yet. They are aware of its presence. No other comments are available.
O: Thank you, and best of luck!
JZ: Thank you.
Dont't forget to also check out: Bubba Ho-tep [Collector's Edition]