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Hitchhiking to Arrakis: Exclusive Interview with Hollywood Effects Designer Bill Bryan

Bill Bryan designed the stillsuits for the movie David Lynch’s film adaptation of “Dune.” Image courtesy of xataka.com.

 

With his grandfatherly beard and relaxed disposition, Bill Bryan could be anyone you’d meet on a park bench. But you wouldn’t imagine that he’s the designer of effects for some well-known movies such as “The Village,” worked as the puppeteer behind the killer doll Chucky in “Child’s Play,” and wore the suit of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in “Ghostbusters.” Bryan is a natural storyteller, and his experiences make for riveting listening. Fortunately, you don’t have to chance a meeting with him on a park bench to hear some of his stories. He agreed to an interview with Legendarium Media at Mad Monster Party 2017 in Rock Hill, SC.

Legendarium: I was struck by your artistic background growing up, and it sounds like you had quite an adventure trekking from the East Coast to LA.

Bill Bryan: Oh, yeah, my bicentennial rocket thump? Across the country and up in freights to get all the way.

When you get to the desert, nobody wants to pick you up, so I thought I was going to have to take a bus out of Grand Junction, and somebody said, “Hey, just come with us to the freight yard.’ So, we went on down there and they said, “Yeah, we’ll show you how!” So, we hopped onto a boxcar and [it] took us across the desert.

I tell ya, that’s the way to travel. Really, it goes though the best, the most beautiful country. You’ve got a wide open-picture window, the wind’s just blowing through and blowing by, there were storms on the desert, lightning, it was gorgeous. They put the tracks where they can’t put highways—you know it only takes a certain width and so, yeah, it’s really very cool.”

Legendarium: So you hooked up with Elton John’s show as one of your earliest gigs?

Bill Bryan: Well, I was working my first job, it was a company called Fantasy Fair, where they were making Woodsy the Owl and just various walk-around characters, you know Smokey the Bear, things with that in the middle. . . .Elton John, contacted them, wanted a banana costume for his show, and so that was one of the first jobs I did when I got to LA: I built a banana costume.

Bill Bryan in the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man suit on the set of Ghostbusters. Image courtesy of beyondthemarquee.com.

Legendarium: Eventually you worked with “Dune,” could you elaborate on what you did with that and did you meet David Lynch?

Bill Bryan: I did meet David Lynch several times. I was at Sid and Marty Crawford, making some puppets for them, and one of the guys they hired was a sculptor who got hired by the Don Post Company. . .the mask company. He was trying to foray into some film biz, and so he was hired to sculpt the stillsuits, and he said, “No, no, that’s not the right way, they should be fabricated—and I know just the guy.” So, he recommended I go in and I talked with them, I showed them how it ought to be, and so first we built a half suit. Bob Ringwood was the designer on that and he designed this leather-looking outfit, the suit without legs. Then we put it on the screen test. We had met David a couple of times, talking about what he wanted. So, we were in the screening room, watching our screen test, which was also the screen test for Michael Biehn, Val Kilmer, and Kyle MacLachlan, and they were all trying out for Paul on “Dune.” So we’re in the screening room and David Lynch and Raffaella De Laurentiis are talking behind us back and forth and David said, “What do you guys think?” I said, “Well, Michael’s too American. Val’s too pretty. Kyle’s got something different, you know?” And I wasn’t sure if it was good or not, you [know when you] get that hair standing up on the back of your neck? Something’s going on. It’s affecting you somehow, and I wasn’t sure what. So I said, “He’s got something different.” And [David said,] “OK, thanks.”

Years later, Val Kilmer came into XFX where I was working and it was for “Mars: Red Planet,” I guess, and I walked up—it was in the break room before his body cast or after—anyway, I said, “So, did you ever wear a stillsuit?” And you know how when Homer chokes Bart [on “The Simpsons”]? He did that to me. He said, “YOU COST ME THAT JOB!” He was all jokey of course. Then he laughed and said, “Kyle and I, we always laugh about that when we get together,” because you know, obviously, his career took off anyway. I didn’t really destroy him or his career.

Legendarium: Well, the rest is history: Kyle and Lynch have done several projects together, like “Twin Peaks.”

Bill Bryan: Yes, yeah, yeah, “Twin Peaks,” [and] what was it, “Blue Velvet?” So many, yeah.

Legendarium: Do you have any advice for any upcoming effects designers?

Bill Bryan: First of all, make a lot of your own stuff! Prepare [a portfolio]. Don’t do it to make a portfolio, do it because you love it, and then take pictures and put it in your portfolio. And make ’em great! I remember recently I saw something that Steve Martin had said about [that] when asked, “How do you get into show biz?” And he said, “You just gotta be so good that they can’t ignore you.”

About Andy Poole

Some say that the pen is mightier than the sword, but Andy Poole brandishes both. He lives in Raleigh, NC where he writes fantasy stories from a second-story room doubling as a library and Medieval armory. His writing style is inspired from influences as varied as Victorian Gothic literature and 80s thrillers like Miami Vice. When he’s not building new worlds or saving our own, he likes to interact with his followers through Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/andypoolethewriter and Twitter at @andypoolewriter. You can also reach him at by email at [email protected]