Special: The Plant Conquered the World
In the theatrical cut of Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II is electrocuted; the electricity triggers a reaction that makes the plant explode. At the very end of the film, with Seymour and Audrey married, the camera zooms on their garden — revealing a little smiling plant. The original ending of the film reflects that of the musical — and ends the story in a considerably bleak note. Conway said: “this ending was to be the cinematic equivalent of the stage ending; a total catastrophe in which the plant basically takes over the world. Mike Ploog did great storyboards for the sequence that were reminiscent of early-sixties horror movies, which I love.” After Seymour saves Audrey from the plant’s jaws, she reveals her love for him — but in a death wish she tells her lover to feed her to Audrey II, fulfilling her wish to be “somewhere that’s green.” Wishing Seymour the success he deserves, she dies in his arms. Seymour then brings her corpse to the plant — in a scene that Oz compared to “a ritual sacrifice” — and does what he was told. He even tries to touch Audrey’s hand as she descends in the plant’s maw but fails to do so; the scene is too much to stand for him, and he quickly evades the shop. He climbs a ladder to reach the top of a nearby building — attempting to suicide. As he is about to jump, he is stopped by Patrick Martin, who shows him a newborn Audrey II, obtained from harvested clippings of the original plant.
Martin’s plan is to produce and sell the plants on a global scale, to the point where “every household in America” could have one. Seymour looks at the plant, which smiles at him. The newborn Audrey II animatronic was reused for this sequence and slightly repainted to give the impression of a new individual. Seymour realizes the sheer scale of the threat and returns to the shop with the intent to finally destroy Audrey II. Martin reminds him that his consent for selling the plants is not necessary, “because a Goddamn Vegetable is public domain.”
Seymour returns to the shop and tries to defeat the plant once and for all; Audrey II, after singing Mean Green Mother from outer Space, tears down the place and plucks him out of the ruins. As he screams in terror, he is slowly devoured alive by the plant. As narrated by Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon, spawns of Audrey II are produced and sold worldwide. The various owners, having been “sweet-talked into feeding them blood,” nourish the plants, unaware of the threat. The Monsters eventually grow to gargantuan sizes, wreaking havoc in major cities (such as New York) and consuming whatever comes in their way, as a choir sings the final song of the film: Don’t Feed the Plants.
The visually complex finale was achieved with a wide array of miniature models and animatronics by Richard Conway (who is not a relative of Lyle), as well as additional composite and matte work by Bran Ferren. “The sequence shows the destruction in its wake,” Conway said, “but we shot the whole thing looking up at the plant. As the plant stomps down the street it is throwing things right and left, so you see all this stuff flying up from the floor — dustbins and taxis and lampposts and debris. We tried to make it as humorous as possible, but it turned out to be quite realistic and pretty heavy.”
The miniature sets were mostly at a twenty-fourth scale, with some sections at a twelfth scale. The miniature buildings were “about a dozen all together,” and were reassembled in different configurations for specific shots of the finale, combined with different foregrounds or camera angles in order to differentiate each sequence. “Shooting at a different camera speed,” Conway recalled, “we’d wind up with a completely different cut. In this way, we were able to use the sets to their greatest advantage. We really spent a lot of time trying to make it perfect.”
Certain sequences of the finale featured the Mean Green Mother plant — such as when it bursts through the disco wall. To portray the gargantuan alien plants, however, miniature animatronics had to be built. Lyle Conway’s team provided the foam rubber castings, whereas the mechanics were assigned to Richard Conway’s. The models were four feet tall, with their heads “about two-and-a-half feet long and approximately eighteen inches high. It was just a scaled down version of the twelve-foot plant they had used in the live-action.” Whilst the other versions of Audrey II were entirely (or mostly) cable-controlled, the plants shown in the finale employed hydraulic and electronic systems to be puppeteered.
Richard Conway explained: “because the plant had to move so fast, we didn’t use any cables or wires to operate it. The torque on something that fast-moving would have been too much for a cable system, so everything was controlled electronically and hydraulically. We used electric servo motors to operate the mouth and lips. The servos were relayed back through and computed so all the moves were preprogrammed. Then the neck movements were controlled with microhydraulics. There were rams inside the neck of the plant, and the valves that operated them were also electronic so that they could be computed.”
The puppets were filmed in differently-sized sets in order to present plants of different sizes, whilst still using the same models. Conway explained: “the scale of the plant was determined by the scale of the set we put it into. If we put it next to a twelfth scale set, the plant became twelfth scale. If we put it next to a thirty-second scale set — the Brooklyn bridge set, for example — then it became thirty-second scale. We were able to take it from twenty feet high to one hundred and twenty feet high using the same plant.” The plants were also filmed at different speeds, something that also enhanced the illusion of scale. “We shot from 48 frames per second to 360 frames per second to make it whatever size we decided it should be for a particular shot.”
The plants’ movements, despite being shot in high speed, needed to be synchronized with the live-action elements. Specialized computers were employed, “so that we could sync the plant’s mouth and neck and lips at normal speed and then accelerate the whole thing up to five times speed to match the high-speed camera. There were certain things that the plant had to say or do that were scripted — for instance, it had to laugh and say, ‘here I come for you.’ So we used that program to record the movements at normal speed — and then modified it to work at high-speed so that we could fit it into our model effects and model action. The technology was quite complicated.”
One of the sequences involved giant plants wreaking havoc on the Brooklyn bridge — which was built as a thirty-second scale set, with a length of 25 feet (it was also built as an actual suspension bridge). The plant that looms over the bridge was actually positioned on a steel arm that ran along the off-camera side of the structure. Conway commented on the sequence, saying that it was “supposed to present the idea that the plant was really enjoying itself, like a naughty little boy jumping up and down a bed. We shot it at 360 frames per second — which is about fifteen times speed — and it worked very well. The shot also had water in it — in fact, an entire harbor. We added little cars going through and explosions and fire to bring the whole set alive. Because we were using fire, we had the skyline buildings made out of tin.” Certain buildings were built with a primitive 3D-stamping program.
One of the most challenging sequences in the film shows one of the plants bursting through the wall of a movie theater (which, interestingly, is playing Jason and the Argonauts). Conway recalled: “the problem with that shot was that we had to blend it into a blue-backing foreground action of people running around. When you have foreground people and a model background action, there is always a terrible visual divorce between the two images. So we put a road in between the two and added some pretty intricate things to marry them together.” Miniature motorcycle and bicycle riders were built and attached to chains on chain wheels, and then moved through slots in the floor of the set. Another puppet was built to shake his fist at the plant as it emerges. These elements, combined with other miniatures (such as a truck) made the shot more visually complex and thus “sort of overcrowded so that no one could really see what was going on. That pretty much solved the problem of mixing the live-action with model work. Actually bursting through the theater was very complicated, but nothing out of the ordinary. We rigged the wall with pyrotechnics and then moved the Monster forward on a track with a lot of contact switches to blow the charges.”
In another sequence, a train is swallowed whole by one of the giant plants, as two other plants watch in laughter. An elevated railway section and train miniatures were built in twenty-fourth scale and combined with the twelfth scale buildings, which were positioned far from the train to adjust the scale discrepancy.
The final shot of the film symbolizes the conquest of the plants — when the invaders envelop the Statue of Liberty in their tendrils, and one of them ascends to the top of it — always in dire laughter. The sequence used a twelfth scale Statue miniature (a bust section) cast in fiberglass, shot against a blue screen. It was fitted with iron wires, in order to maneuver vines with magnets that could “cling to it.” The vines were filmed whilst being pulled off the model — the sequence was then printed in reverse, giving the illusion that they were coiling around the statue. Explosions and wire-rigged helicopters were the finishing touches of the scene, which culminates in Audrey II breaking through the screen (and the fourth wall) to laugh at the audience as the film ends.
Despite remaining true to the original ending of the musical, the film was met with hostile reactions in test screenings. The film had managed, too successfully, to make the leads relatable to — and the audiences wanted them to live. Oz recalled in an interview: “For every musical number there was applause, they loved it, it was just fantastic…until we killed our two leads. And then the theater became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful and the cards were just awful. They were saying that they hated us killing them. You have to have a 55 percent ‘recommend’ to really be released and we got a 13. It was a complete disaster. After that San Jose screening, I said, ‘Can we just try one more time in L.A. to see if the reaction is different?’ David supported me and we did it, and we got exactly the same reaction, like 16 percent or something.” The fundamental reason for that, as Oz discovered, was the difference between the presentation of a musical and that of a film. In another interview, he said: “I learned a lesson: in a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow — in a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive. They loved those people, and they hated us for it.”
The ending was then re-shot, with Audrey and Seymour surviving, defeating the plant and fulfilling their love. This proved favourable, as “when we did re-shoot the ending,” Oz said, “the crowd reaction went over 50 percent in our favour. Before it was a point where they hated it so much, Warner probably wouldn’t even release the movie.” Quite obviously, the reaction was not the same for Conway and his crew — who spent a total of 11 months working on the finale. “It’s a black comedy, but now it doesn’t end as a black comedy,” he said.
Oz elaborated further: “It was wonderful work, but sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war. I had to make a decision and I believe it was the right one. The whole audience had loved the first preview — until Audrey and Seymour died. It was a compliment in a way because I had really tried to make the audience care about those characters. But they cared for them so much that they got very angry with us for killing them off. I was in the audience, too, and I agreed with them. I didn’t want them to die either. it just didn’t translate. In the play, you know that the puppet is felt and it’s not real. And you know when Audrey and Seymour go into the plant, they’re going to come out in a few minutes for a curtain call. It’s all very artificial. But movies have much greater power because of the form — the form makes you get involved in the story in a much more subjective way. So we reshot it with a happy ending and let them live and I’m very happy we did it.”
The 1998 DVD of the film featured the original ending (in its black and white print) as a special feature, but was quickly retired from store shelves — as David Geffen wanted to re-release the film with the intended finale, but in colour. “I got a call from David Geffen,” Oz said. “And David said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Why did you give them the black-and-white version?’ I said, ‘That’s all I had, I thought you were fine with that. I figured you and Warner were working together.’ He said, ‘No, no, no — I have a color version.’ ‘You have a color version?!’ He said, ‘I have a color version. I don’t want the black-and-white version out, I want the color version out.’ And so, you know, he’s the producer, so ‘Okay fine, it’s okay by me if you have the color.'” In reality, “I think he thought he had the color version,” Oz continues, “but he probably didn’t understand the work print aspect of it. He probably assumed that there was a color ending somewhere.”
The original version of the film was eventually restored for the 2012 Blu-ray release of Little Shop of Horrors, featuring most of Richard Conway and his crew’s work — giving their effort, at last, Justice.
For more pictures of Audrey II, visit the Monster Gallery.
For all the previous stages of the plant, visit Mean Green Mother from Outer Space.