Howard Berger: Escape to Narnia

Special-effects wizard Howard Berger escaped the bloody world of horror features to breathe life into the fantasy fauna of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

For special-effects artist Howard Berger, working on Andrew Adamson’s child-friendly The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was like a dream come true. A fan of monsters ever since his mother read him Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are (a film version is being prepped by Spike Jonze), Berger was now called upon to design, build and breathe life into a vast menagerie of mythological and fantastical beasties to populate CS Lewis’s parallel universe.

As the man who had helped Quentin Tarantino realise his gruesome riff on Hong Kong martial arts movies in Kill Bill, and George A. Romero resurrect his decaying hordes in Land of the Dead, Berger says it was a relief not to find himself up to his armpits in fake blood for a change. “I think I brought a bottle that big of blood,” he says, suggesting a tiny vial with his thumb and forefinger, “which is the smallest amount I’ve ever had on set. I’m used to 400 gallons or whatever. It was nice not to hear on the radio, ‘Howard, we need more blood on the set.’”

Despite the high gore quotient on Kill Bill, Berger still loved working with Tarantino. “He forces you to look outside the box,” he enthuses. “In fact you’re so outside the box, you don’t even know where the box is. But I never want to do another blood effect. I’m sick of it. I hate the feel of fake blood all over me.”

He is also sick of Hollywood, to some extent, and tries to work outside LA whenever he can. The filmmaking ethos in Hollywood has changed, he claims, and it is no longer a team effort. When Berger got the call from Adamson to work on The Chronicles, he was languishing on the set of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. “I really disliked that movie,” he says candidly. “It was a great example of a director letting an actor do whatever he wanted, with no regard to the enjoyment, I guess, that the book gave me or my kids. We just sat in the theatre and went, ‘That was painful. I’ll never see that again.’”

If the film disappointed him, the set experience was even worse. “Because there’s such a strong delineation between departments now in Hollywood, we basically just sat on set for months, waiting,” says Berger. By the time his team were asked to bring on the deadly viper, they were bored stiff. “We had more fun playing Frisbee on the Paramount lot,” he snipes.

Worst of all, in his view, was the way the child actors were treated. On Chronicles, he says, Adamson worked in a way that took the emotional welfare of his young cast into consideration. For example, he broke the traumatic scene where Lucy and Susan, played by little Georgie Henley and Anna Popplewell, weep over the lion Aslan’s dead body, into small chunks of time rather than shoot for entire days. “We would shoot for a couple of hours,” explains Berger, “and then Andrew would say, ‘You know what? That’s enough for today’, which was a magnificent change. Because if we were shooting in Hollywood, it would be like, ‘Just keep shooting, they’re fine.' And then off to the mental ward they go.”

Is that how the children were treated on Lemony Snicket? Berger will not be working on the sequel, so he lets rip. “I thought the kids were treated atrociously,” he spits. “I was offended. The way they seem in the movie, which to me is bored beyond belief, they were bored beyond belief on set. They were going out of their skins, as I was too. You had a director who was yelling in front of children, who was taking six hours for a set up, and just letting the children sit around on set. It was mind numbing. Really terrible.”

Turning his fire on the studios, Berger believes that part of the problem is that they will often hire directors who are “child-like” to direct their family films. “That, to me, means that they’re immature, have no attention span, and don’t have a clue. And it’s true. It’s like I was sat on set and this guy’s ‘childlike’: he’s sat in the corner playing Game Boy and you’ll go, ‘What about the next shot?’ and he’ll go, ‘Hold on, I’m almost at level 10.’”

No one has a bad word to say about Adamson. The laid back New Zealander, and recent father of two, won the hearts of everyone around him, including the kids, who were impressed by how much he mucked in with everything. “To say Andrew got his hands dirty is a total understatement,” says newcomer William Moseley, who plays Peter, "because he was doing everything.” He even “crouched down and became a beaver for a while,” remembers Popplewell, laughing.

Berger cannot wait to get back to Narnia. If this adaptation of the first of CS Lewis’s seven Chronicles takes off, then Adamson et al will reunite for Prince Caspian. For Berger it will be another chance to spend time among the monsters and make his childhood fantasies a reality. But does this hankering for family fare really mean that the man whose recent credits include the make up effects on Frank Miller’s Sin City, Serenity and Cursed is done with gore for good?

“Well, you know,” sighs Berger. “I just did this thing called Masters of Horror and there was a lot of blood, and I just sat there and went, ‘I told myself I wasn’t going to do this. I just did Chronicles of Narnia. Why am I covered in blood again?’”

Old habits die hard, it seems; especially when they’re in your blood.
First published in The Scotsman

© Stephen Applebaum, 2007

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