The first half of director Quentin Tarantino’s hyperkinetic revenge fantasy, Kill Bill, appeared in cinemas six months before its sequel, Vol. 2, and predated the Cinefex Weekly Update online articles. That is why we covered only the latter half of this affair, back in 2004, and now present it here as a bloody orphan aperitif to the 247-minute running time. Tarantino has since flirted with rumors that a third installment would flesh out his epic, in the manner of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. By any measure, the film stands as an insane tribute to the heyday of 1970s martial arts action epics. Brace yourself.
Sweet Revenge – article by Estelle Shay
It took more than 400 gallons of fake blood and hundreds of severed limb and decapitation gags to supply the grist for Quentin Tarantino’s stylish revenge tale Kill Bill Vol. 1 and its sequel Kill Bill Vol. 2. KNB EFX Group, frequent contributors to Tarantino’s films, accepted the grisly assignment with enthusiasm and delight.
Though six months separated the releases of the original Kill Bill and its sequel, both movies were shot simultaneously – Tarantino having initially envisioned them as one before deciding, in the eleventh hour, to split the story into two parts. For KNB, that translated into a monumental effort, begun in June 2002 after just a few weeks of prep, when KNB supervisor and co-founder Howard Berger, along with Chris Nelson and Jake McKinnon, joined the production in Beijing, China. The five-week location shoot soon turned into fourteen, followed by six months of filming on soundstages in Los Angeles, during which time Berger found himself on set nearly every day. “We handled all of the gore and body chops in the first film, which involved hundreds and hundreds of gags – and none of them were digital,” Berger recalled. “Quentin said: ‘I don’t want to do any computer animation stuff. I want it all to be live, in-camera.’ That was a huge task for us. We’d walk on the set, and the stunt team, the actors and Quentin would run through the action for that morning. We’d watch it, and from that learn what we had to do. ‘OK, this guy gets his arm cut off, these five guys get their legs cut off, and there’s a decapitation.’ Then we would have to chop-chop and put together whatever we could.”
Electromagnet technology, adapted by Berger, proved especially useful whenever the action called for limbs and heads to be severed during the bloody swordfights. Berger and his crew made fiberglass cup sections that attached to the actors. These held magnets that were hooked to a power source, with a battery and trigger switch. They then fashioned fake limbs containing metal pieces that would bond to the magnets when the electricity was turned on. When the crew killed the power, the limbs would fall off. “We did a lot of those gags,” recalled Berger. “Everything was a magnet – legs, arms, head, torso. We even did some full standing bodies with electromagnets – we’d hit the button, and the thing would collapse realistically.”
Tarantino insisted on a practical approach even in instances where CG seemed the logical choice. For a sequence in Vol. 1, where Viper assassin O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu) loses the top of her head to Uma Thurman’s saber-wielding Bride, Berger and his crew took a casting of Liu’s head, then sculpted an appliance that took advantage of forced perspective. “It was tapered from the front, almost like a pyramid, then fanned out as it went farther back on her head,” explained Berger. “It was a very slim piece, because we didn’t want to make it look like Lucy had a Frankenstein head.” KNB rigged the appliance with blood and applied it to the actress’ head. Specific camera angles on the appliance further sold the illusion.
While Kill Bill Vol. 1 was all gore and gruesome battle scenes, Kill Bill Vol. 2 – different in tone and style – offered a variety of makeup design challenges for KNB. “There’s a sequence in the second film,” Berger explained, “where the Bride gets buried alive and takes on a look we called ‘dirt girl.’ She had to look beautiful, yet filthy. Quentin kept going back to the green dancing girl from the Star Trek TV show, saying: ‘She was green, but still sexy. That’s what I want – something that’s sci-fi, but real.'” After numerous tests, KNB finally hit upon a look that involved a combination of creams to protect Thurman’s skin, mixed with fuller’s earth and chocolate Rice Krispies, painted on with tattoo colors to heighten certain areas. The makeup was applied initially by Berger, then later by Thurman’s makeup artist, Ilona Herman.
KNB also designed makeups for Gordon Liu as kung fu master Pai Mei, and for Michael Parks, who switches roles in the second film to play an 80-year-old whorehouse pimp. For Michael Madsen – whose character, Budd, is bitten in the face by a deadly black mamba – KNB built and puppeteered several mechanical snakes on set, then devised three stages of makeup for the actor, depicting the grisly effects of the venom.
For Vol. 2‘s action centerpiece – an all-out catfight between the Bride and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) – KNB had to do some quick thinking when Tarantino decided to alter the sequence just before it was due to be shot. “Originally,” said Berger, “there was going to be this whole big swordfight outside a trailer, sort of Samurai Lone Wolf fashion. One of the two characters gets sliced in the neck, and you see the blood spraying out, almost like you were holding down a can of red spray paint. Then the camera pulls back, and we see that it’s Daryl.
“We were prepped and ready to shoot; but then, Quentin came in the next day and said: ‘I had a dream last night, and I want to change the whole sequence. Daryl’s not going to get it that way.’ When you’re working with Quentin, you have to be on point the whole time. It makes you work that much harder.”
Despite the occasional surprises, Berger wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. “This was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever been on,” Berger concluded. “Working with Quentin is really an amazing experience because he pushes and pushes you. It’s not out of ego, or not knowing what he wants. He pushes you because he wants you to do your best — to do as good a job as he’s doing.”
Photos copyright © 2004 by Miramax.