Interview With Ed French (2006)
What can I say about Ed French to do him justice? He created the FX for the original Sleepaway Camp, and his work - a mixture of magician-like trickery (the arrow in the neck) and grisley aftermath (Watersnake Kenny) - was inventive enough to be the bright spot for even the nastiest critics. Much of the secrets behind the FX have been shrouded in mystery for years - but I for one wanted to know about the "movie magic", so who better to provide answers than Ed himself?
I had to be a total fanboy and start by stating that Ed's FX in Sleepaway Camp was awesome, to which he commented "Thank you for kind words for the neophyte effects artist I was back in the last century." Also bringing him up to speed on Sleepaway Camp's modern cultdom, I asked him if he knew of his work on the final scene being spoofed on Seth Green's show Robot Chicken: "I wonder if Seth Green knew or would care that I did this nasty little movie. I worked on Seth's face for Buffy at times and even did his makeup on re-shoots of Idle Hands... I'm never displeased when people notice me. I like to think I'm an entertainer in show business even if my work has more in common with the auteur who bites the head off a chicken in a sideshow."
I briefly bandied about his early films like bleak 1982 flick Smithereens (of which the header image on this page of Ed being jabbed in the eye is from): "That's the first movie I ever worked on. I just got a DVD copy a few months ago. When I started that movie I was an "extra"... still trying to be an actor... by the time it finished I'd done the "horror movie sequence" and was contributing "character make-up". I could have waxed poetic about his other work in the golden age of the 80's on faves like Nightmare In A Damaged Brain, Amityville 2, Geek Maggot Bingo, C.H.U.D., The Stuff & Deadtime Stories but we're here for facts on Sleepaway Camp, so I went straight for the obvious - how did he get involved with the film and how did it go? "By 1982 making a summer camp slasher film was a very unoriginal idea. Friday The 13th was the original thing that struck paydirt and Tom Savini was the "Goremeister"... or "Splatter King" if you prefer."
He continues: "Sleepaway Camp was the first film I worked on doing make-up effects where I designed (in my apartment workshop) and applied my own work on set. I was in the right place at the right time and if you like this movie more credit should be given to the crew. Most of the crew were from Pittsburgh and had worked on Romero's Creepshow. The art director was Bill Bilowitt. I'd like to find out what happened to him. He designed the look of the film and he helped me a great deal in terms of planning and nailing down exactly what to prepare for my effects. (I remember Bill was painting the leaves on the trees outside one day. It was Autumn and the leaves were turning gold and red... he was painting them green. That's a professional. Here was the art director trying to change the seasons... The shot at the beginning of the film with all the beautiful fall foliage was probably that last shot made before the film wrapped.) Back to effects... He got the data from Robert Hiltzik and relayed it to me and then I would do storyboards and drawings. Carl Clifford was a great production manager... I've never worked with a Unit Production Manager like him. He made sure I had the right amount of time to prepare everything. Nobody cares about your prep time these days. Few producers I work with care or understand the time it takes to create make-up effects. These guys really helped me do my work."
I first quizzed Ed about jock Billy's death scene in Sleepaway Camp because photos exist (like the one above) of the character's naked upper body after the bee sting attack, whereas in the film only the during part of the attack is shown - Billy completely covered in bees. Of this Ed said: "That was a plaster head covered with stage make-up and hair... I don't think we even used it in the final cut. The bee stung head is also plaster covered with gelatine... I don't think we knew how the effect was going to work. You make a lot of things for these movies that never get used. It's a lot of work and a lot of hours for things no one even sees. Back then I did it all... now you have huge lab crews to take the 24 hour punishment and the short deadlines." Moving onto the kiddie sleeping bag bodies which were so brief and hard to see (yet kind of memorable that way) therefore seemed to be another suspected source of missing footage. Ed simply replied "Never prepared anything expicit for that. I think our director was going the Val Lewton route that night."
The arrow that flies and punctures Mel's neck in the climax of the film has had fans and FX-savvy folks puzzled for years, due to the arrow shooting through the front and out the back of Mike Kellin's throat, except it was clearly the real Mike in the shot not a dummy, and it all happens without a cutaway! Popular theories have ranged from reverse photography to intricate mattes, but the answer is neither: "The other guy I hit it off with was in the art department... That was Ed Fountain. He built the huge cauldron that the cook takes the tumble with and gets scalded. That was a lightweight prop. Fountain told me he had built mechanical gags for Creepshow and that's when the light went on in my head about the arrow in the neck gag. Most of the effects were pretty remedial. I wanted this effect to look completely realistic without a cutaway and without any blood. I don't think giving away the secret lessens it's impact... Mike wore a prosthetic neck. Under it was a mechanical rig that I had Fountain build to my specifications. A hollow collapsible arrow with no arrow head slid down piano wire and imbedded in the phony neck. When the hollow arrow hit the neck it triggered an electrical connection that made an arrowhead (behind Mike's neck) spring up (like a door on a hinge). It took a long time to set up that shot. Kellin was uneasy about it. His friend Vic Morrow had been killed in an effects tragedy on The Twilight Zone Movie. I put the rig on myself and demonstrated to him how safe it was. I was in awe of this guy. I remembered him from a lot of things I'd seen on TV as a kid including Twilight Zone, Combat and Don Siegel's Hell Is For Heroes. This was not his finest hour but he was a pro."
The final scene where Angela is revealed to be a boy in all his/her naked glory was the defining moment in the film, and Ed French was there that special night and was responsible for making it all happen, so what did he have to say about the sequence? "One reason some of the effects in Sleepaway Camp worked well was that they were made with materials that photographed realistically. The mask at the end was worn by a boy... a story in itself. He waited around all night and started to have second thoughts about standing nude holding a carving knife while wearing a girl's mask. As I recall he was given access to a six pack of beer from some thoughtful person and was quite calm by the time we rolled. I remember the poor guy was freezing... In the dailies I kept running in between takes to throw a blanket over him... I wonder if the guy remembers that evening... or thinks it's a bad dream. That mask was a last minute inspiration. It was as thin as a potato chip and made with dental acrylics so it had translucency like skin. The eyes were blown glass from Germany. I spent many hours carefully cutting and shaping the eyes to fit in the mask without shattering them. The teeth in the mask were made from impressions of Felissa's teeth and the face itself was based on a lifecast I took of her. She was a pro a that age. Her mother was terrified when I covered her daughter's face in alginate. The tableau at the end was absolutely made to work by the D.P., the tracking shot and just the right amount of lighting. I think I gave it to Robert H. It could still exist. The other heads in the film were made of Gelatine and painted with water colors. Very realistic to the naked eye. They deteriorated long ago."
With the important stuff out of the way, I was curious about Ed's post-Sleepaway Camp work, specifically Nightmare At Shadow Woods (shot as Blood Rage) - a slasher released in 1987 about a childhood trauma involving twins, a death and a switcheroo (sound familiar?) that results in a present-day bloodbath. Ed not only did FX but got an acting role in the film. "I worked on it and in it. I cut off my own head for this role. I was very disappointed by the DVD of this. The effects were cut way down. Mary Ann Kanter (the producer) didn't get the humor (eg. a dismembered hand spasmodically crushing a beer can that the victim was chugging a moment earlier, etc.), Louise Lasser cleaning the apartment while her psycho son runs amok. This had potential... There must be another version of this somewhere with everything left in it."
Though the users of IMDB have erroneously listed him for years as being part of Return To Sleepaway Camp, he wasn't. Well, that was the original plan - in fact in 2001 I passed his contact numbers onto the powers that be for that purpose. The official story is that they couldn't get him due to scheduling difficulties. However, as is to be expected from much of the spin doctor-like PR coming out of the production, the truth tells a different story: "The last time I spoke with Robert Hiltzik was shortly before September 2001. I thought we were going to do another Sleepaway Camp movie. He had been phoning me every other day for months, we had meetings in L.A. and I believed I was going to start preparing special effects for this sequel when the communication completely ceased. Haven't heard from him since." Well, I for one am saddened, and with more then one potential SC sequel in the planning stages, let's all hope Ed is invited back one day!
You can learn more about Ed's continued career in the field of FX for TV, film and commercials (which have garnered him high industry praise and awards) at www.edwardfrench.com.
Above: Ed French (left) and Art Director Bill Bilowitt on location. "Me, Bill Bilowitt and "Angela" rehearsing with a "stand in" head for [Chris Collet]... it's undetailed so she won't mess up the good head when we shoot."