Halloween is almost here, so as a special treat, we sat down with Jordu Schell, one of the greatest creature creators since Dr. Frankenstein. Schell began his career as a sculptor and Halloween mask maker, and has been designing for film and television for over 20 years.
His work has helped spawn monsters and aliens featured in blockbusters including Avatar, Hellboy, 300, Men in Black, Edward Scissorhands, Dawn of the Dead, and the critically acclaimed new Ryan Murphy TV series Scream Queens. Read on to find out what scary films nourished Schell’s raw talent and helped him produce some of Hollywood’s most frightening and memorable characters. You may even discover a last-minute costume idea or two.
Design for 300 © Schell Sculpture Studio
You’re one of the greatest practical creature creators of our time. Why the obsession with monsters?
From a very early age, I remember my mother telling me that she thought that monster movies were a lot of fun. She liked the Hammer horror movies that starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. She liked the campy Godzilla movies and the classics, like the original Frankenstein. She was very interested in horror anthologies, collections of horror stories, and short horror stories. She also fired my imagination by reading me Greek mythology. She was fascinated with ancient Egypt, so I became fascinated with mummies.
Sounds like a very cool lady! So, you were fed the right formula at an impressionable age?
Well, I was born during the Vietnam War, so I think that on some level, a lot of what was going on in the world was filtering down to me somehow. I know that there was a scroll every evening of all the people that had been killed. It was the first war that had ever been televised. I think a lot of the angst and the zeitgeist of that era affected me. I drew a lot of violent imagery. Nowadays, they probably would have thought, “My gosh, he’s going to shoot up the school.” It was a less fearful time. I was probably five or six. It had more to do not so much with wanting to enact violence as much as being kind of afraid of it.
Do you recall your first scary movie?
I remember having a babysitter when I was seven, who probably hadn’t even seen the film herself, but she was telling me all the spooky things that were in the The Exorcist. When our parents got home, I said, “Kimmy told me all about The Exorcist. There are monsters in it. There are bees and there are…” They were like, “What? We’re never hiring her again!” I remember seeing the ads for it on TV and thinking that it looked like the kind of thing that would make me go insane if I saw it. So I saw it and loved it!
Design for Avatar © Schell Sculpture Studio
So, was it Linda Blair that really got you?
Well, at some point, I guess this was 1974 or ’75, a family friend took me to see a revival of a 1958 film called The 7th Voyage of Sinbad“, which had stop-motion creature effects done by a guy named Ray Harryhausen, who died last year. That movie really did something to me. First of all, it wasn’t scary. It was fantasy, but it had monsters and a lot of them. That was it. I knew what I wanted to do. I was probably eight and it was absolute that I wanted to be involved in whatever magic that was on the screen. I didn’t know how it was done. I didn’t have any inkling about the people who did it or who had brought that stuff to the screen. I just knew I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to make monsters.
You’re lucky you were at the right age during a huge horror revival.
I was born the year before the first true modern horror film was made, which was Night of the Living Dead. Then Jaws came out, which, while not necessarily a horror film, was definitely a scary film. Then, in 1977, it all changed when Star Wars came out. It has become such an ingrained part of our culture, it’s like the The Wizard of Oz. Did you know that the conical hat that witches have and the big brim was from The Wizard of Oz? That was a design that a costume designer came up with and it became such canon. I mean, there were different kinds of hats the witches wore, but not quite like that with the tall, pointed thing and the green face and the long hooked nose. That became canon for what witches look like now because it’s so ingrained in our culture. Same thing for Star Wars — it’s inextricably linked to science fiction. No matter what science fiction does post-Star Wars, it’s going to have some effect.
Design for Legion © Schell Sculpture Studio
I take it you’re a big sci-fi and fantasy fan as well?
Absolutely! 1968 actually saw three major fantasy films come out: Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, which launched a number of makeup artists who were older than me into this passion, and most importantly and my favorite film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was the first film ever to take space seriously and still one of the only three or something that really understands the way space works: a vacuum, no fire, no sound.
What creatures from film do you revere?
Obviously, I love classics like Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Fiend Without a Face, the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth, aliens from Star Trek and Dr. Who, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, and The Exorcist. Alien introduced so many elements to creature design. It had the element of surprise, which is something you see constantly in films. I don’t mean like jumping out at you; it had opened its mouth and then there’s a little mouth inside that would come out and grab. That’s something that’s used all the time now. Something opens up and reveals something else inside, or it’s not what it appears to be, or it seems cute but then turns into a monster. Jurassic Park even has it with a Spitter and the little bottleneck thing. But I’m not finished — there’s Dawn of the Dead, An American Werewolf from London, The Howling, Harry and the Hendersons, The Fly, The Brood, The Thing, E.T. and Poltergeist.
Design for Alien vs. Predator: Requiem © Schell Sculpture Studio
That’s quite a list, and great Halloween costume inspiration! Of the creatures you created, do you have a favorite?
In terms of the projects that I had the most fun working on, of big films, probably Galaxy Quest, because not only was it fun to work on, but I was working independently out of my studio and then I went to Stan Winston Studios to sculpt. I was just having a lot of fun with the guys working on it. Then there’s the cherry on top of being a really good film. When I finally saw it in the theater, I was like, “I worked on this and it’s good.” That’s a great feeling.
What are you into today? Any great inspiration for horror/fantasy artists out there now?
Television has become a burgeoning market. The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones — all of these shows started proving that the action was on the little screen. In terms of special makeup effects and creatures and stuff like that, The Walking Dead has been an enormous boost. It’s more important, I think, than people realize. First of all, almost everything is practical. Obviously, there are a lot of CG effects where they cut off heads and blood sprays out in ways that it would be very difficult to rig. But it’s interesting that these shows, particularly The Walking Dead, have such an unbelievable following because, yes, people love their zombies, but it’s very well-written and it’s something that’s not happening in the cinema as much these days.
Design for War of the Worlds © Schell Sculpture Studio