In 2002 a big budget B-movie called Eight Legged Freaks became the surprise hit of the summer. The film marked the feature debut of Ellory Elkayem, who had cut his teeth directing a series of acclaimed short films in New Zealand, before coming to the attention of Hollywood filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin with his monster movie homage Larger Than Life.
Starring David Arquette, fresh from his success with the Scream trilogy, Eight Legged Freaks was a tongue-in-cheek big screen adaptation of Larger Than Life that impressed audiences and critics alike.
Elkayem first starting making home movies in the 1980s when his parents bought him a Hitachi camcorder to shoot footage of his family. Eventually experimenting with in-camera editing, Elkayem made his first professional short film The Fifth Chair in 1990. Over the next few years he shot several more shorts before approaching the New Zealand Film Commission to develop a more ambitious project. The result was Larger Than Life, which saw Elkayem drawing inspiration from such classic B-movies as Them!.
Following his feature debut They Nest in 2000, Elkayem was approached by Emmerich and Devlin, the successful director/producer duo whose Hollywood partnership had begun in 1992 with Universal Soldier, its box office takings leading to the blockbusters Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla. Eight Legged Freaks was a full-colour expansion of Larger Than Life and proved a modest success for Elkayem, prompting Roger Ebert to declare, ‘Eight Legged Freaks is clever and funny, is amused by its special effects, and leaves you feeling like you’ve seen a movie instead of an endless trailer.’
Ellory Elkayem looks back on the making of Larger Than Life and how it helped launch his Hollywood career.
Larger Than Life was shot in black-and-white and was an homage to the B-movies of the 1950s. Was this an era of cinema you have a special interest in and have you considered making a feature-length movie in this style?
It was really just a case of one thing leading to another. I’d made quite a few short films before Larger Than Life and they were okay but didn’t really grab people like I’d hoped they would. I went to see Jurassic Park in 1993 and it made huge impact on me. I thought, ‘Why not do a creature feature as a short film?’ After that, I watched a lot of the old black and white horror movies of the 1950s (Tarantula, Them! and The Incredible Shrinking Man) and I thought it would be cool to do it in black-and-white with a lot of suspense and very little dialogue.
I knew it would travel well that way and I also knew I could hide the effects easier too, so it kind of served two purposes, practically and stylistically. I also put a lot of effort into the musical score. We hired a composer and a sixty-piece orchestra. Bernard Herrmann was a big influence here. I just saw the trailer for The Artist and it looks fantastic. I haven’t ever considered making a feature length movie in black-and-white but maybe now’s a good time to start thinking about it.
How did your earlier shorts differ from Larger Than Life and what do you recall of them?
I was twenty when I made my first officially funded short. It was funded by the QEII Arts Council (now called Creative New Zealand) and was called The Fifth Chair. It was about a guy who goes to church every Sunday but his life sucks, so he feels let down by God and joins a Satanic cult. It was designed as a black comedy and was quite ambitious for a first short. After that, I made a little fantasy film called The Trade that was inspired by an Isaac Asimov story about two boys from different periods in time.
Right after that I made a simple little road movie called The Passenger. I guess I was trying different things and learning by doing. I knew that there was an opportunity to apply for a large budget short through the New Zealand Film Commission, but I didn’t want to do that until I felt I’d gained enough experience to really knock it out of the park.
What came first; the idea to make a tribute to old creature features or the basic story?
The basic story. The idea of being alone in a house and having a regular spider problem that escalates into something crazy and horrifying where the spiders just keep getting bigger and bigger. It was kind of like taking your worst nightmare and putting it on the screen.
How much research did you do regarding the methods filmmakers used during the 1950s and did you study old movies in order to re-create a specific visual style?
I didn’t really do a lot of research because I watch so many movies and the good ones I watch over and over again. I didn’t really limit myself to the 1950s period either. Hitchcock was a huge influence, always has been. When the spider attacks the girl in the shower, we wrote the violin screeches from Psycho into the score just for that moment. Citizen Kane, of course, is the ultimate in terms of visual style for a black-and-white film. I guess the best ones stick in your subconscious.
Was the concept a relatively easy sell with regards to gaining funding or did you have to do a lot of convincing that there would be an audience for this kind of film?
I had a good script so it was a relatively easy sell but it took me almost a year to finally get approved. First, I had to convince them that I could pull off the special effects. I shot a test that achieved this but then there wasn’t enough money available for the next go around, so I had to apply again before I was approved. I remember being very excited when I was finally approved.
Did you make any deliberate references to classic movies in your film?
Musically, with Psycho in the shower scene as I mentioned earlier, and also near the end when she stabs the giant spider with a fire poker. That was a nod to The Incredible Shrinking Man when he stabs the spider with a giant sewing needle. They used a real spider for that movie and it looked great. Really terrifying.
How long did it take for you to complete your script and did the final draft differ to your original concept?
I wrote it pretty fast. In a couple of weeks I think, but they were very focused weeks. I put a sign on my door that said ‘Writing! Do not disturb!’ I also had a note pinned up on my wall that said KISS (Keep it simple stupid), i.e.; choose a simple premise and do it really, really well. I like to put the entire script up on the wall no matter how long it is. You get a nice overview of the entire story and you can quickly see where things need editing or moving or whatever.
I did have a dream sequence in the original draft where she goes into the bathroom and sees all these little spiders on the wall. The spiders move to form the word ‘murderer,’ then suddenly scatter before she wakes up terrified. I ended up cutting the scene from the script for budgetary reasons and because I thought it was better to keep everything grounded in that particular reality.
What kind of budget were you allocated and how was this divided around the production?
$135,000 New Zealand dollars or $111,000 US dollars at today’s rate. Yes, a good-size budget, especially by today’s standards. I wanted to make a really polished production so I hired a DP who’d made a lot of commercials. He’d done some very nice work in black-and-white and it caught my eye. I guess, when you consider that some sixty-second commercials cost a million dollars, it’s not such a big budget.
It’s just that people usually tend to make shorts on a shoestring. In this case, I had some rope to play with and that was nice. Cast and crew were paid and all of the money went on the screen. I think we spent about $30k on the FX, about $7k on the score and a lot on lighting, production design and post. It all gets eaten up surprisingly fast.
How were the spiders created and how involved were you with the designing of them?
I based the design of the spider on the Katipo. One of the few, or perhaps the only, poisonous spider in New Zealand. You never hear anything about it because I don’t think its bite is fatal. I was friends with a model maker at the time and he designed a puppet version of the big spider for close-up shots. The puppet spider was controlled by wires and levers and needed several puppeteers to operate. The complex moves could only be achieved using a CGI model. This was created in 3D Studio Max which I think was fairly new back in 1996.
Were you very specific about how you wanted the film to look and did you create detailed storyboards?
Yes. Very specific. I had storyboards and a shot list. The DP insisted on a specific black-and-white Kodak film stock from the 1960s with a very low ASA, so we had to pump a lot of light into the set. That’s what gives the film its clean, high contrast look. It would’ve looked even better if we had done the sound digitally. Printing the sound onto a colour optical sound negative kind of washed out the contrast. The DP almost walked out of the first screening because of this.
For the DVD release on Eight Legged Freaks this wasn’t an issue, so it actually looks better on DVD. I also read about the making of Schindler’s List in an American cinematographer magazine. The production designer did a lot of film tests with his colours and shades to make sure they would turn out the way he wanted them to in black-and-white. I insisted that we do the same for Larger Than Life and it definitely helped the look of the film.
Was Larger Than Life shot on film or digital and were you proud of the results?
It was shot on Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm. Super 16 has a slightly wider aspect ratio than regular 16 which is nice. The effects plates were shot on 35mm with a Mitchell camera that holds the film very steady so the background doesn’t jiggle around behind the animation. I was pleased at how well the Super 16 and 35 blended together. It’s hard to tell the difference.
Do you wish that Eight Legged Freaks had been closer in tone to Larger Than Life and have you considered adapting it into a feature once again?
Some people like the short more than the feature but people love Eight Legged Freaks too. It really comes down to personal taste. The producers on Eight Legged Freaks were very clear from the beginning that they wanted a funny/scary spider movie in the vein of Tremors and I was cool with that. I also think it helped make the film easier to stomach for a lot of people. Sometimes it’s nice to have a laugh after you’ve wet your seat.
But yes, it would definitely be fun to make a feature length creature feature that was truly terrifying. I think Ridley Scott achieved this with Alien. I also really liked Monsters by Gareth Edwards. A very fresh take on the genre. One of my favourite classic creature features would have to be Creature from the Black Lagoon. Now there’s a movie that would be fun to remake!