To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.
Howard Berger is co-owner of makeup effects company KNB EFX Group, which specializes in character prosthetics, animatronics and creatures. Howard’s film credits number in the hundreds and include The Chronicles of Narnia, Kill Bill, Lone Survivor, Hitchcock, Oz the Great and Powerful and Army of Darkness.
CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Howard?
HOWARD BERGER: I grew up in LA and loved monsters and movies, and knowing that someone made them, I wanted to be one of them too. I stalked my idols – Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Dick Smith – at 12 years old. My break came when Stan hired me fresh out of high school at 18 years old.
CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?
HOWARD BERGER: When I see the audience reaction.
CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?
HOWARD BERGER: Watching The Thing and An American Werewolf in London.
CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?
HOWARD BERGER: The first “Narnia” film was unbelievably difficult. Eight months of prep in LA at KNB EFX. Then eight months of filming in New Zealand. The hours were monstrous, and the turnaround would sometimes be as little as three hours. It kicked my ass – but it was the greatest experience professionally for me.
CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?
HOWARD BERGER: The film The Cell, which I hate and had a terrible time on. They were filming a scene where Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays the killer, hooks himself up over his naked, bleached-skin female victim and masturbates. I looked at my set mate, Garrett Immel, and asked “What the f*** are we doing here?!”
CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?
HOWARD BERGER: The partnership of practical special makeup and visual effects working together. I love when we do it. I love the visual effects teams as there are things we can’t do and things they can’t do, and together we accomplish amazing magic.
CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?
HOWARD BERGER: Better training in my union. And a different criteria as to how to become a union member. The qualifications now are passé and no art is required to become a member. It’s about days, and that is not enough. There are great people out there that should be members and are kept out due to rules that don’t apply anymore.
CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
HOWARD BERGER: Do your best always. Listen more and talk less. Crawl before you walk. Learn from everyone as no one knows everything. I don’t know it all and I learn every day. Use good judgement in the way you present yourself and be ready, because not everyone gets a trophy for participating in the game.
CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?
HOWARD BERGER: The Thing – it still amazes me. I think it’s so inventive and brilliant. The Howling – my favorite werewolf, very Bernie Wrightson. So badass! Creature from the Black Lagoon – my favorite monster of all time, and the most perfect creature suit ever.
CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?
HOWARD BERGER: Vodka.
CINEFEX: Howard, thanks for your time!
Adam Savage’s Tested crew visited Howard Berger at KNB EFX – watch the video: