If you were wincing during the moments when James Franco’s character Aron Ralston was cutting into his arm in 127 Hours, you have makeup and special effects artist Tony Gardner to thank—or blame.
“Everybody knows the story. Everybody knows how it ends. Everybody knows what happened,” Gardner told the Straight during a phone interview. “So the goal is to be as real as possible so that you don’t lose the audience with shoddy work and have the audience fall out of the story.”
Gardner—who also worked on Beastly, which opens in theatres on Friday (March 4)—got his first taste of the film industry by making movies around his neighbourhood in Cleveland, Ohio, as a child. After entering college as a theatre major, he transferred to the University of Southern California as an arts major and used the school paper to meet veteran movie makeup artist Rick Baker.
It wasn’t before long that Baker invited Gardner onto the set of one of his projects so that he could see if a career in the film industry was something he was interested in. That project happened to be Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
“I dropped out of school,” Gardner said. “For me, it was sort of that defining moment where I thought, ”˜I’m still involved in the filmmaking process but I’m making stuff, I’m building stuff, and it’s part of the creative process.’”
Gardner continued to work with Baker for four years and picked up freelance projects along the side. Early credits included Aliens, Harry and the Hendersons, Dark Angel, and Sleepwalkers. But it wasn’t just monsters that Gardner was interested in creating.
“Over time, I wrote a short film, and we were doing helmets for Daft Punk, and they really liked the concept of my film and offered to score it for free,” Gardner said. “So I ended up writing and directing a music video for them about five years ago.”
When it comes to choosing projects, Gardner has always gone with his gut. He remembers reading the script for There’s Something About Mary and laughing out loud all four times he read it.
“I tend to gravitate towards the odd stuff, but a lot of times, we’ll get a script, and I’ll just really connect to a story or be very entertained by it,” he said. “You don’t get immersed in a story that often where you relate to it, so the scripts that you do get become part of the process for the whole project. If you’re in from the beginning, you’re part of the whole team that defines what it looks like and help shape elements of the story as a result of that. For me, it’s a personal, immediate response. I’ve been really fortunate that anything people come to me with, I’ve always really liked.”
For Danny Boyle’s award-winning 127 Hours, Gardner saw it as a technical challenge, so he contacted his friend in emergency medicine, Dr. Stephen Corbett, who had previously helped him with Three Kings. “He’s the guy who’ll take pictures inside somebody’s body if I’m really curious about something and say, ”˜This is what it looks like when they’re still alive,’” Gardner said.
Gardner and his team went on to construct the notorious arm, making two copies of the interior, complete with the skeleton, muscles, tendons, nerves, and veins pumping blood, and three arm skins for Franco to cut through. Making the arm look real was the easy part; making it feel real was a whole other story.
“The materials we use can look like real stuff, but they don’t necessarily have the same density or texture,” Gardner said. “You cut into a silicone muscle that we’d make and it would cut like a block of Jell-O, and real muscle is very fibrous. So we’d have to figure out how to literally embed fibres into a silicone muscle so that when we cast them, they would cut like real muscle.”
Another challenge was fulfilling Boyle’s request to have a shot from the inside of the arm. “He [Boyle] said, ”˜I’d love to be able to get inside his [Franco’s] arm just for a flash, just for an instance, so you can feel the pain.’ So we started researching optically clear electrical silicone at $100 a pound to try and do what the director wanted to see,” Gardner said. He notes that these shots could have more easily been achieved by using computer graphics, but that his approach has always been to do things practically.
In Beastly, he wanted to design something for Alex Pettyfer’s character Kyle that would make the movie stand out from other werewolf-centred projects out there. He started out by going to the other extreme—asking Pettyfer to go bald—and then developing an intricate swirling pattern of silver and black that looked like it was tattooed onto Pettyfer’s face and body. From there, he added stud piercings, scars, and open cuts lodged with tiny flecks of mirrors.
“The challenge was that on one hand, the character had to be monstrous and frightening, and on the other hand, you wanted people to be sympathetic and empathetic,” Gardner said.
“All of the designs really grew from one rose-bush tattoo,” he continued, referring to the ominous rose bush tattooed on Pettyfer’s forearm to constantly remind his character about time. “That sort of defined what we were going to do on his body. We wanted to do things growing and swirling and wrapping around things, and looking a little more organic. The piercings actually came from that theme. There was a conscious style that came out of having a lot of time to do research and development.”
Beastly is a modern take on the story of Beauty and the Beast and also stars Vanessa Hudgens, Mary-Kate Olsen, and Neil Patrick Harris. While it was important for Gardner to get a full grasp of Rolsten’s book for 127 Hours, he chose not rely on the book for Beastly. “I try not to read the book because I know I’m going to skew towards the book description or something. I’ll read it and I’ll literally just see it in my head,” he said. “A lot of times I just try to read things with an open mind but I’m very visual so I’ll literally see the things played out.”
Instead, Gardner prefers playing around with original ideas in Photoshop and collaborating with others on the project, even turning to his biggest critics, his two daughters, for honest feedback. “My older daughter Brianna helped balance what was ugly and what was sympathetic. It’s good to have an outside opinion that’s brutally honest because you’re their dad and they could care less,” he said. “One person isn’t going to think of everything.”
When he overheard that audience members watching 127 Hours were fainting in theatres, Gardner immediately wondered if he had gone too far. He felt responsible for creating something that looked very realistic, but then he realized that this responsibility was shared with Franco and Boyle. “James is the one presenting it as real, and we see it through his eyes and investing in him,” he said. “I’m just giving him the stuff to mess with, and Danny’s presenting it. So it always comes down to this collaborative process, whether it’s the designing of it, or filming of it, or what you experience on screen.”
Gardner’s next projects include 30 Minutes or Less with the Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg; The Motel Life starring Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, and Stephen Dorff; and Jack and Jill with Adam Sandler. Whether he’s making gory open wounds feel lifelike from both sides of a camera lens, designing fantasy-driven costumes, or making someone in a fat suit actually look fat, Gardner wants audiences to believe and sees his role as someone who helps maintain the integrity of the story being told.
“When you have to go right out there and make something 100-percent believable, like 127 Hours, and you have everyone saying if the arm doesn’t work, the whole movie doesn’t work, you’re stomach’s churning, and sadly, that’s what excites me,” he said. “It’s that challenge to try and do something that will make people believe. When someone says something isn’t possible, I’m the first one in line for a project like that.”
You can follow Michelle da Silva on Twitter at twitter.com/michdas.