He’s a director (Night of the Living Dead 1990), a special effects and makeup genius (Creepshow, Maniac), an actor (From Dusk Till Dawn), and even a stuntman (Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead). If you watch horror movies, chances are you’ve seen something connected to Tom Savini, either directly or something inspired by him and his work. While the man and his work have been in the genre for years, little was known about his life. Now, his story is available to the masses with the wide release of the documentary, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini (2015). Originally on the subscription-based Shudder, Smoke and Mirrors opened on VOD last month. To celebrate, I chatted with Tom via Zoom, and we discussed his love of movie theaters, starting Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program, and his dream project.
PopHorror: Your documentary is fantastic!
Tom Savini: So you did watch it?
PopHorror: I did! How did you and [director] Jason Baker connect on this deep dive into your life?
Tom Savini: Jason was a student at my special makeup effects school, and he went from there to the George A. Romero’s Filmmaking Program. It was while he was there that we did a short movie for the school, and that’s when he came up with the idea. He wanted to show the personal side of me because that’s what he got to know. Everyone knows the movies and my career and all that. In fact, I showed this documentary in Montreal. When it was over, I got up in front of the crowd, and I apologized for all of the personal stuff, and they said, “No, no! That’s what we want. We love that.” So, it has a lot of heart.
PopHorror: I like the personal stuff. That’s why I watch a documentary, so I agree. A lot of the stuff that’s not personal you can sometimes read in other places. I want the stuff that I’m not going to find anywhere, so I like that.
Tom Savini: I don’t think anyone knows the personal stuff that’s in this. Well, now they do.
PopHorror: After a very successful run on the horror streaming platform, Shudder, Smoke and Mirrors will now have a wide release on VOD. Some curious kid could stumble upon your story and ignite a love for effects and monsters. How does that make you feel, knowing that you could inspire someone like that?
Tom Savini: Well, that’s been happening for years and years. My school has been there 21 years, and that has inspired so many. If you’ve seen a movie in the last 15-20 years, one of my students has worked on it. Their training allows them to work in toy companies, mask companies, haunted attractions, theater, and especially movies. I have a list. It used to be in my pocket but it’s not here now. But there’s so many movies they’ve worked on that I had to make a list and carry it with me. Fifty four students just came in two weeks ago, and I read that list to them. I tell them, “What’s the difference between you sitting here where these students were sitting, and what’s the difference between you and them? Quite obviously, they showed their portfolio to somebody.”
PopHorror: I know of your school. I’ve seen it pop up quite a bit on social media. I like that this film is going to open it up to people that may not have heard of the school and who are just starting in the horror genre. Someone who just doesn’t know. I really like that this is going to open it up to more people and the younger generation too.
Tom Savini: There’s a question in their minds of, “Where can I learn this?” When I was growing up, you couldn’t learn it because makeup artists kept their secrets. They didn’t share their secrets. But as you know from watching it, Dick Smith did and that’s one of the reasons for making it. I wished the school was around when I was trying to get my start.
PopHorror: Is that what made you start the school, because it was something that you wished you had had, and you wanted to share your expertise?
Tom Savini: Well, that was certainly part of it. I had been hounded by people to start a school.
PopHorror: I bet!
Tom Savini: For a long time, The Art Institute wanted me to put my name on their program. A couple of lawyers contacted me once. “Hey, we own a warehouse. We’re thinking about starting a school.” And then these people don’t answer your calls, and then they don’t call back. So when Jeff Imbrescia, the guy who did start the school, did contact me, I ignored him. I kept putting him off. He sent me a form that showed me what I would make if 100 students showed up, and I said, “Jeff, I spend more than this on cigars.” He said, “Are you sure you’re reading this right?” So I met him in person, and he showed me I was misreading the decimal point, so I signed. Certainly, financial independence had a lot to do with it, but I’m very happy to be sharing the knowledge, because it comes back to you vastly improved. Dick Smith, who I talked about in the documentary, shared all his secrets. He invented everything we do. Here’s Rick Baker, here’s Stan Winston, here’s Rob Bottin, and we’re all using those things and improving them, enhancing them, and giving it all back to him. It raises the bar in the field of play, so to speak.
PopHorror: You’ve worked with some really incredible directors, and you’ve worked on some of the most iconic films in the genre. Is there someone out there that you would love to work with or maybe a project that you would still wish to come to fruition?
Tom Savini: Well, sure. Who doesn’t want to work with Spielberg or James Cameron? I’ve worked with Quentin Tarantino, George Romero, and Robert Rodriguez. I mean, that’s pretty close. But yeah, who wouldn’t want to work for those guys? Cameron and Wes Anderson. I would love to work with Wes Anderson.
Tom Savini: Yeah, I love his movies.
PopHorror: That’s interesting. You seem to have a special place in your heart for movie theaters, because you spoke of your hometown plaza theater in Smoke and Mirrors. You referred to them as houses of magic. What are your feelings with the number of theaters that are continuing to shut down because of the pandemic and streaming growing so much?
Tom Savini: I am always heartbroken when that happens, especially when my neighborhood theater closed down. It’s now a Starbucks.
PopHorror: I saw that in the documentary.
Tom Savini: These were houses of magic because when I first started going to them, I believed everything I saw. Frankenstein was real. The Wolfman was real. I loved the musicals and the love stories. They were very real to me until I saw that movie, Man of a Thousand Faces. And as you know, that’s what showed me that somebody creates that stuff. So you give up a sense of magic when you get behind the scenes of something like that. But a new magic is created. It’s the magic of creativity and the joy of creativity. Giving life to something that never existed before until you decided to give it life. My students come in, and some of them have never sculpted before. You put a blob of clay in front of them and suddenly, they’re like Dr. Frankenstein pulled a switch on their talent, and they didn’t realize what they had in them, rising from the operating table. They’re giving life to something.
PopHorror: That’s so awesome!
Tom Savini: That’s the joy of creativity. I love that joy. And that’s the new magic.
PopHorror: I love that so much. That has to be so awesome to see, to help them tap into so much of their potential. That has to be phenomenal to feel.
Tom Savini: It’s like they’ve had a baby.
PopHorror: What’s up next for you, Tom? Is there something that you’re currently working on?
Tom Savini: I have a movie opening February 1, 2022. It’s called The Black Phone. It stars Ethan Hawke. It’s from Blumhouse and Universal Pictures is putting it out. I’m not allowed to say too much, but I designed… His look constantly changes, and I designed his look. I can say that much about it.
PopHorror: I saw the trailer for that before Halloween Kills, and it looks amazing. Someone I know saw it at Fantastic Fest and said it was fabulous. I’m very excited to see it.
Tom Savini: Good, good!
PopHorror: One last question for you today. What is your favorite scary movie?
Tom Savini: Favorite scary movie… It’s kind of hard to beat The Exorcist. I would say I have two. Alien and The Exorcist. Both of them scared the hell out of me. I didn’t have time to analyze anything because normally that’s what you do. I didn’t think of it as a movie. It was really happening. I felt like a kid again.
Thank you so much, Tom, for taking the time to speak with us. You can watch Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini on VOD now!