David Miller: Fred Krueger’s Main Man!

Posted on: May 1, 1985 at 12:01 AM

With guest appearances by Rip Torn, Mick Jagger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ace Frehley and Jason!!!
By R. H. Martin

Published in Fangoria #44.


January 22, 1985, was the late Sam Cooke’s 50th birthday. Where were the digitally remixed re-releases? The golden boxed sets of his worst recordings? What radio station had a Sam Cooke weekend? Geez, not even a painted commemorative plate!?! Elvis Presley got all that stuff and more for his 50th. Let’s face it, I felt pretty bummed out. In order to cheer myself up, I decided to pursue my favorite activity—interview a makeup artist. Who’s hot, I asked myself. Naturally, the only possible answer was—David Miller!

Miller was born in Florida, but from the age of four has spent most of his youth in the San Francisco area. First influences: “I used to watch a horror movie series, Creature Features; a newsstand nearby had all the monster magazines, like Famous Monsters. The one that really got me started was The Monster Times. That had a little article by Paul Blaisdell on how he did the aliens for Invasion of the Saucermen, and it gave some basic instructions about maskmaking. So I started with that, and it’s been onward & upward ever since.”

“At first it was a hobby, just something neat to do. Around high school, when Star Wars came out and I started doing masks based on the creatures in that, I started thinking about it as a possible career. When I was 16 or so, I went to a comic book convention in San Diego, and met some other people who were involved in makeup and maskmaking. One thing I had that a lot of other makeup artists didn’t have, was a lot of encouragement from my parents.”

Then came the fateful day that the young makeup fiend took the famous Universal Studios tour. “I brought a few little things I had made—Planet of the Apes appliances, things like that, and showed them to Vern Langdon, who thought they were pretty nice. We kept up a correspondence for quite a while after that, and when I was 19, he called me up to ask, ‘Kid, do you want to break into makeup?'”

Since that call, about six years ago, Miller has been working pretty steadily. At first, most of his assignments were in beauty makeup for television-daytime shows like You Asked for It and The Cross Hits, and evening sitcoms like Hello Larry, One Day at a Time and Diff’rent Strokes. “It was only regular makeup work, but it kept me employed,” Miller says in an apologetic tone. As you may already know, such TV work is strictly off-limits for non-union members. When asked how he got around the union obstacle Miller offers a simple answer, “I lied!” “I guess it’s okay to talk about, since it was so long ago, and I’m not doing that anymore. Once in a while, someone would come by and ask, ‘You in the union?’ and I’d say, ‘yeah, local 706, blah blah blah…’ ‘You sure of that?’ ‘Hey look—call up and ask… you want me to dial it for you?’ And then they’d leave me alone.” All the while, Miller’s primary goal was special makeup. His first real opportunities in that direction came with a string of low budget films—the type of film that is typically understaffed in the makeup department. In most of these instances, Miller was called in after the film was underway, and the last-minute crunch required additional help. “Usually, they’d call and say, ‘Dave you’ve gotta save the picture!!!'” Miller modestly claims.

Miller worked in this manner with such makeup luminaries as Greg Cannom (on The Sword and the Sorcerer), Bill Munns (Swamp Thing, Beastmaster, Dance of the Dwarves) and Doug White (Demon Shock). On The Beastmaster, Miller and Munns joined the crew after Mike McCracken left, with Miller heading the makeup department while Munns handled makeup effects—which leads to the logical question, was Rip Tom’s filmic nose a makeup or an effect?

“Oh, there’s a story behind that nose,” Miller replies. “Torn is a stage actor, and had no knowledge or faith in the use of foam prosthetics. We initially did a test-nose out of derma-wax, and then, overnight, I made a foam rubber nose that looked exactly like the wax nose. I put it on him the next day, made it up, blended it in real nice, and he says, ‘Nah—what is this stuff? This won’t work—where’s that wax nose?’ and he pulled the damn thing off! So he wore the wax nose for the whole shoot, which just about made me sick. And of course, no matter what they promised me, they always shot the close-ups at the end of a day’s shooting under the sun, when that wax nose was not looking its best.”

It was around the time of Beastmaster that Miller noticed one of our articles about the career of Craig Reardon, and decided to look him up. It just so happened that Reardon had just been contacted about doing a close-up head, and other incidental effects for Dance of the Dwarves, then in post production.

Since Miller had worked on the earlier Bill Munns creatures for the film, Miller was a logical choice as an assistant. Dance of the Dwarves never made it to theatrical release (when I saw it on cable, it seemed that cast and script were a greater obstacle to success than the creatures), but Miller rejoined Reardon on another assignment a few months later, Dreamscape. Before that, however, he was tapped to work with Jim Doyle, devising a mechanical nightingale to co-star with Mick Jagger in the Faerie Tale Theatre production of The Nightingale. Given two weeks and a scant budget to produce a nightingale that was supposed to look real, the team managed to come up a cute little bird that would have looked real, if only it didn’t have to move. “Gee, thanks,” Miller says on hearing my appraisal.

“What about Mick Jagger?” I ask. “What’s he really like?” “He was a surprise. I was expecting some kind of flamboyant rock star. He’s a real nice, regular guy.” “Did you go out for a few brews?” “We all went out to dinner, once.” “What did you talk about? Jerry? Bianca? Marianne Faithful?” “No, we didn’t talk about that.” “C’mon, this is hot stuff, this is what people want to read about. Did you talk about baseball?” “Okay, we talked about baseball. And you can add ‘the early days of the Rolling Stones,’ if you want some juicy stuff.” “Hey, you’re a pretty good interview. I can do a lot with this kind of copy.”

After The Nightingale, Reardon contacted Miller about Dreamscape. “The film had already started,” Miller says, “but Craig had his hands full with the replacement animation effect he’d devised for a snakeman transformation, so he contacted me.” One of the things that Reardon handed to Miller were the radiation-scarred kids appearing in the post-holocaust dream sequence. “They were needed rather quickly, so I took a bunch of life masks that I had and sculpted a few scar pieces on them. When it came time to go on set, I took a few bald caps, some crepe hair, and those scar pieces and put’em on the kids. Then I threw’em in front of the camera—they were on for at least a tenth of a second, but they were there. I’d done my job. I collected my money and went out and partied, on Hollywood Boulevard. On the corner of Las Palmas and Hollywood, in front of Swenson’s.”

Of course he’s joking. Actually, Miller continued working on Dreamscape for about five months. “I also worked on a snakeman head, the one that was originally going to be in the elevator sequence, emerging from the head of Dennis Quaid. But then, they had some kind of quibble over Craig’s head of Quaid—they said it didn’t look like him, or some such garbage—and they hired Greg Cannom to do that sequence over. Greg did another head of Quaid, which they wound up not even showing, though it looked perfect, and another snakeman, which—sorry, Greg—I didn’t care for too much. It didn’t seem to have much definition; it was hard to tell what it was. Plus, it was pretty badly edited.”

Then. Then. Then! Yes—the inside story you’ve waited to read about in Fango for so long! The makeups of Night Shadows/Mutant, probably the best Edward L. Montoro production of 1984. “The original director was Mark Rothman, who did House on Sorority Row,” Miller recalls. ‘We got together and worked up a design for the mutants, which looked pretty good, a swollen-faced thing. I flew down to Georgia, got casts on the actors, and came back here to make appliances. While I was in the lab, Mark got replaced by John “Bud” Cardos, who changed all the stuff around—he had the makeup artist down there doing up people in solid white clown-colored pancake, with black—black in a color film!—makeup around the eyes, and little strawberry-shaped things on their faces. This was his zombie mutant. So, because they’d already shot a lot of that, I had to paint my appliances to match that! That was the biggest letdown of my life!” Miller’s Mutant miseries seemed to melt like April snow when he was next contacted by Rick Baker to work on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

“Really?” I ask. ‘What was Michael Jackson really like? Did you talk to him about baseball?” “He was pretty quiet,” Miller recalls. “At least at first. Later, he started to open up a little; he’d come up to us while we were sculpting and say, ‘That looks really scary,’ and later he started asking questions about things. He liked to listen to KISS-FM, which is the station that plays his music a lot. If we changed the station, he’d ask us to change it back.”

In the “Thriller” video, Miller can be seen directly to Jackson’s left in the last zombie scene, when the undead dancers surround the girl. “I wasn’t in the video very much,” Miller says, “because during most of the shoot I was busy doing makeup. It was a very strange shoot, because there were a lot of union guys employed, and they kinda looked askance at us young, non-union guys who were there, making just as much money as they were making.” Next up for Miller was Night of the Comet. “That one was a lot of fun,” says Miller. “They pretty much let me do things as I wanted. I was recommended for the job by the fellow who built the miniatures. When I met the producers, they were very concerned about the look of the zombies’ eyes-they wanted milky white eyes. I happened to have some white contact lenses with me, so I ducked into the bathroom and put these on. It freaked ’em out, and I got the job. The whole job was a total of about five makeups.” Zombie mavens have complained that the undead in Night are too few and far between. “The zombie cop goes by pretty fast,” Miller concedes. “But I was very pleased with the way things were shot.” “But what is Geoffrey Lewis really like?” we had to ask.

“He likes baseball. He’s a really nice guy. When he came over for his life cast, he was wearing a really nice pair of pants, and I spilled alginate all over them. I still feel bad about that; he was very nice about it, though. He has a young son who’s into horror, makes his own little movies.”

Miller subsequently joined Stan Winston’s team, sculpting, molding and casting parts for the full-scale skeletal robot in Terminator—watch out for that scapula! Miller says that Arnold Schwarzenegger was very quiet on the set.

“So you didn’t talk about baseball?” “Nope. It was funny, ’cause on those talk shows, he’s always pretty talkative.” “Maybe that’s why they call them ‘talk’ shows.” By the time the rod-puppet robot went onto the set for filming, Miller had been tapped for the effects in Nightmare on Elm Street. Miller came into the picture on the suggestion of Jim Doyle, the mechanical effects man who had worked with Miller previously on Faerie Tale Theatre and the KISS video “I Love It Loud”—their last video in makeup, filmed during the light days of Ace Frehley (“I tried to talk to him about baseball, but he spit upon my shoes,” says Miller); for the video, Miller gave a bunch of video-watching kids zombified glowing eyes.

The major challenge of Nightmare was in creating the proper nightmare image for Fred Krueger, played by Robert Englund. “All Wes told me was that he wanted something really, really hideous—an older-looking guy with pus and slime just dripping from his face, something monstrous.”

“I did two test heads, based on Englund’s life cast I particularly liked the first one, which featured white, translucent skin, through which you could see the musculature of his face-unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of that one. But Wes wanted something deeper—and to go deeper with that design I would have had to expose his teeth, which you just can’t do with a live actor. So I did a second test head, which Wes approved.

“Englund was absolutely great. Not only is he a good actor. you can see him with his real face as Willy, one of the good aliens in the TV series V—but he never, never had a word of complaint, and he went through the mill. I’ve never had a better makeup subject. He’d go through a makeup session, two and a half hours, and sometimes have to stand by for six hours in makeup, just in case he was needed. He was just great.” Nightmare has proven a winner at the box office, and among Fango’s general readership; still, some have expressed a certain wonderment at the film’s ending, in which everything goes gonzo. “Yeah, some ending, huh?” is Miller’s reaction to our comment “There were a lot of different things shot for the ending. When they took a dummy, put a Ronee Blakley mask on it, and pulled it through the hole, I thought it was for some kind of blooper reel or something—everybody on set was laughing—and then they actually put it in!”

Of course, Miller also had to come up with a variety of splatter effects, many done in conjunction with mechanical effects wizard Jim Doyle. “I don’t want to be famous for blood’n’guts,” Miller claims, so we’ll skip all that. At least for the moment. But Miller may not have any choice about blood’n’guts fame. At the time we spoke, he was up to his elbow in gore for Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning as head of the Reel Effects makeup lab, replacing Larry Carr, who began work on that project. Be here next issue and find out—is Jason dead? And does he like baseball?