I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over – and the insect is awake.
Screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue first approached producer Stuart Cornfield to produce a remake of The Fly, one of the most influential science-fiction films of the 1950s. The core concept the two agreed on was to have a progressive transformation, as opposed to a sudden one. Cornfield told Cinefex: “when Chuck Pogue came into my office and said he wanted to remake The Fly, we screened the original film and decided a straight remake wouldn’t be as interesting as a change of the basic premise from a head-switching to a metamorphosis.” From there, Pogue’s pitch evolved around an introvert scientist having to deal with the progressive corruption and transformation of his body into that of a monstrous hybrid of man and fly. This idea was influenced by David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, as well as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, two films that dealt with the contrast between the ‘inner man’ and the ‘outer appearance’.
While the script changed pertaining to certain aspects — such as character names and careers — its core, turns and twists remained consistent throughout its development. The duo presented the story to David Cronenberg — a choice based on his earlier films (The Brood,Videodrome and Scanners) which shared the common theme of body horror: the mutation and distortion of the human form. “I had always admired David’s work,” Cornfield recalled, “but found it lacking a certain linear quality, which The Fly had. I thought it would be a good project that would enable him to go from A to Z, rather than from A to 10.”
Expectedly, Cronenberg immediately connected with Pogue’s script; at the same time, however, he wanted to apply certain changes. He said: “there were some brilliant things in Pogue’s script, things I could relate to, things that felt like me. But I felt the characters and dialogue were rather 1950s. There was a lot of extraneous detail I wasn’t interest in, but there was also a core of wonderful details — basically the rethinking of the transformatins, the things that happen to the character, the concept of the chromosomal fusion of man and fly. All the little details that people think o as uniquely mine were already there.” Cronenberg agreed with Pogue on the need to overhaul the original film’s story, labeling the 1958 The Fly as “stiff and melodramatic,” as well as “a B-movie, despite the fact that it was in widescreen and stereophonic sound.”
However enthusiastic about the project, Cronenberg at the time was committed to Total Recall; Cornfield thus proceeded with the project without him, hiring British director Robert Bierman for the film, based on his horror short film The Dumb Waiter. The project, with a 9 million budget (to which Mel Brooks contributed) was to have effects provided by Christopher Tucker. Pre-production came to a halt when Bierman received the notice that his daughter had been killed in an industrial accident. Some time afterwards, Cronenberg — whose work on Total Recall had been terminated — was actually hired for the project; his only request was to rewrite the characters and dialogue of the film.
The director’s first choice to helm the film’s wide array of special effects demands was Rick Baker, who had already collaborated with the director for Videodrome‘s visceral transformation and gore effects. Baker was already committed to Sondra Locke’s Ratboy and had to refuse. It was then that the director offered the special effects work of the film to Chris Walas, who not only had worked on Cronenberg’s own Scanners, but had also created highly successful creature effects for other films such as Gremlins and Enemy Mine. With a tight preparation time of less than two months, Walas and Cronenberg began brainstorming on the transformation process and stages, as well as what the final ‘Brundlefly’ would look like. The two settled on five progressive make-up stages (from facial discoloration to full-body latex appliances) which would culminate in a final stage hybrid creature, represented by a series of animatronic elements.
Walas established that in order to design all the make-up phases the project first needed a foundation in the design of the final-stage Brundlefly. Design work was assigned to Walas’s coworkers of Chris Walas Inc.. The concept artists involved in the creative process delivered a wide array of ideas, ranging from Stephan Dupuis’s more conservative concepts, reminiscent of the 1958 original, to Kelly Lepkowsky’s chitinous concepts, to Harold Weed’s more human-like designs. Cronenberg did not want a creature that steered in either direction, but rather something absolutely unseen. “At one time the drawings tended to be very insectlike,” Walas said, “which was too far in one specific direction. David insisted that the evolution was not human or insect, but that the two entities were headed toward some new reality.”
As the mutation would be an allegory for a cancer-like disease, Brundlefly would also have to appear deformed, withered and asymmetrical. “A lot of the original designs were based on the uniform evolution of a specific creature,” Walas continues, “so many of the developments that everyone did were symmetrical, balanced designs. David initially thought that might be the way to go, but then Stuart described the story as ‘the ultimate cancer movie’ and that this process was actually a horrible disease. David liked that, so we went out and got some very graphic books on disease. We did some designs along those lines as well, but they went a little too much the other way.”
Eventually, the crew steered towards what began to be called the “Space Bug” approach: a creature reminiscent in vibe to the bug-like aliens of old, and whose physical traits would be an abhorrent halfway point between man and insect. Yet another idea was that the laboratory computer’s supposedly “logical” fusion of Brundle and the fly results in a new species that has no purpose, nor can survive, in the natural order. Walas elaborated: “although man and fly are headed toward a specific genetic end, it is not a balanced or viable end. It’s basically a deformed thing that we’re seeing, not the robust organism that would spring from a naturally ordained genetic development.”
Another requirement were human-like eyes with eyelids. “The fusion creature definitely does not have the eyes of an insect,” Cronenberg commented. “Maybe if I were a kid among the audience this would be what I’d be complaining about, but I wanted it to have some human expressiveness.” This especially comes into play in the final moments of the film, where it is through sheer body language that Brundle finally begs to be killed.
Once the final design of the “Space Bug” was established, all of the make-up designs representing the preceding stages of Brundle’s transformation were “reverse-engineered” starting from it. Brundle’s body becomes progressively more distorted and diseased, with a developing Brundlefly inside of it. The filmmakers based this concept on an insect metamorphosis, with Brundle’s outer body acting as a cocoon for the monster inside.
Thick fly hairs grow out of a wound on Brundle’s back. This is the beginning of the transformation: it would progress based on cell turnover, and thus takes a long time to complete. The hairs were made of nylon monofilament fishline. They were trimmed and tapered at their extremities and tinted with black ink to create a translucent effect.
The Stage I make-up seen early in the film was designed after an allergic rash and consisted mostly of dabs of varying colours applied to discolour Goldblum’s face. Fly hairs represented a subtle final touch to the face.
The Stage II make-up is seen when Brundle tries to cut off the fly hairs on his back, and ends up biting off one of his fingernails. The face sported further discolouration and more fly hairs. The appliance included plastic warts and pimples. For the scene where one of Brundle’s fingers spurts fluid onto the mirror, Dupuis devised three fingertip urethane appliances, which were moulded in two layers and included small canals through which two syringes could pump the fluid (dubbed ‘fly-juice’ by the crew). The fingertips were made of dental acrylic and inserted into precut grooves. The fluid was a mixture of glycerine, zinc oxide, methycel, and yellow food colouring. The fluid would squirt out of holes directly below the appliances’ false nail areas. The structure of the appliance, its fragility and the necessity of hiding it from camera restricted Goldblum’s range of movement, and dictated that the scene had to be shot out of sequence.
After a month of separation, Quaife visits Brundle again and finds him in the Stage III configuration. The facial appliances were sculpted by Stephan Dupuis. A trigger system unhooked a false ear (moulded in translucent plastisol) to fall off a mask positioned on the actor’s head. Since a cast of Goldblum’s actual ears proved unfeasible, a cast of Michael Jobe’s ears was used instead.
Stage IV-A was the phase that bridged the singular make-up appliances of the previous stages with the full body-suit appliance of the next stage. Stave IV-A was characterized by the hernia-like bulge which would later be revealed (in a deleted scene) to house the development of one of Brundle’s new insect-like limbs. There were two failed attempts — which included new arm and head appliances. “For the third try, we made him a new set of arms and put bulges on his back,” Dupuis said, “distorted his body by gluing other pieces of foam onto his leotard and, on the left side of his pelvic area, the bulge.” The final head make-up for the stage was a slightly altered version of the Stage III head, which covered the top of the actor’s head and went around the ears. Dupuis replaced the face with Stage IV-A’s and blended the edges.
It is in this stage that Brundle is first seen walking on ceilings like a fly — an iconic sequence which was achieved with a complex rotating set (a giant chain-driven drum of culvert steel, 25 feet in height and 24 feet in diameter) combined with a fixed camera. The first was aptly dubbed the fly wheel. Cronenberg himself first tested the set, wearing fake fly wings and antennae and improvising a comical monologue about his failed amorous relationship with a praying mantis. For the sequence, Dupuis — under Walas’s instructions — devised hand and feet prosthetics that featured heavy coating of 407-type latex, giving them the necessary traction for the scene, and that were also able to withstand multiple takes.
The body suits of the following Stage IV-B were sculpted by Howie Weed, Keith Admire, Bill Stoneham, Mark Williams, Conrad Itchener, and Stephan Dupuis, based on moulds of Jeff Goldblum’s body. They were painted by Margaret Bessara, and the construction process was supervised by Jonathan Horton. Intense activity in the shop dictated that its members had to switch tasks depending on the timetable. Walas explained: “a team of sculptors worked on the body suits because there was an incredible amount of pressure to get them together as soon as possible and because they had to be done in numerous pieces to move correctly. I think we had a week-and-a-half to sculpt, mould and go through every stage. We were limiting ourselves to half a day to sculpt a forearm or the neckpiece. When we actually put the suit together, we began to notice subtle differences in sculpting style. Some pieces worked together great and others were just different. These pieces had to be redressed and recoloured to adjust the differences — most of which had to be done on location because we didn’t have a chance to suit Jeff until we got there.”
The body suits displayed further levels of deformation in the skin, as well as vestigial fingers and toes, warts, and various protuberances an cancerous growths. They were moulded in separate foam latex pieces which required at least four hours of application and blending on the actor. Stage IV-B also featured preludes to webbed fingers and clustering feet.
The suits were composed of a leg section, two torso sections (one for the upper torso, one for the lower torso and crotch), hands and feet sections, a neck section, and a head section. The joining points were blanded with thin strips of latex. Dupuis said: “when we started out, we glued the bottom pants section and the torso together with Kreyton, because the stress and strain was so great around the crotch and pelvic area, along with the problem of foam shrinkage, that it came undone right away. If we had done it that way, he would’ve spent more time in the make-up room than on the set!” Initially, the sheen was achieved with spritzing, a method that was replaced later in production with SD-89 (a clear and flexible lacquer). Stage IV-B also included a wig with bald spots, created by Bob Kelly, as well as prosthetic crooked teeth with receding gums and a cleft in the lower gum area.
Stage IV-B is only seen in the deleted Baboon-Cat sequence, as well as another deleted scene that follows it. It is in the latter scene that Brundle’s hernia bulge splits open, unvealing a new, withered fly leg, which Brundle bites off and spits out, letting it fall off the iron awning he is on and onto the street below. This sequence was achieved by positioning the actor on a platform below the awning, with only his head, shoulders and arms rising through a hidden opening which was blended with a false foam latex torso. The fly leg was cable-controlled, and it was pushed out by Guy Hudson through a precut area of the torso. To suggest the grisly fleshy bits that Goldblum bites off with his prosthetic teeth, stripes and shreds of latex were twisted under the leg, completed with Walas’ own ‘Ultraslime’. The severed leg twitches thanks to cable controls fed through a hole of the set floor. The scene’s deletion from the final cut of the film explains why the final Brundlefly creature only has one withered fly leg instead of two.
Stage V‘s face was designed by Walas himself. This phase, the last to be represented by Goldblum himself, had cancerous growths and bulges, and a prominent head — all suggesting the creature inside the outer body progressively growing and pushing its exterior features out. Much like Stage IV-B, it included wigs (with increased bald spots) and prosthetic gums (initially with few remaining teeth, and then devoid of teeth; a special ‘dislodging tooth’ set of dentures was considered, but never constructed).
A new element in this stage was represented by the contact lenses put on Goldblum’s eyes, in order to decrease their humanity. Dupuis recalled: “we were thinking about lenses at the beginning, but Jeff was leery about them. Chris sculpted the Stage V appliance and gave it a drooping eye, a bit more closed, with the eyelid puffed up. One thing that really bothered people about the make-up was that the eyes still looked completely human. The eyes are the thing you look at in the face, and they were a dead giveaway. We tested old large lenses at first, but they made Jeff look like a cartoon character — like Mickey Mouse with those big black dots for eyes. There aren’t many people making special coloured lenses in soft form, but Marc-ami Boyman, an associate producer on the picture, knew a contact lens specialist — Peter Weickoff, our saviour — ho could do soft prescription lenses. Because the head was sculpted on a slant, what we needed was a larger-than-human-sized lens for one eye and a normal-sized lens for the other, giving a lopsided, irregular effect. Peter did a real nice job. They’re very dark brown and have a black marble look to them.”
Stage V was also represented by a series of purpose-specific insert animatronics. A ‘flex-o-jaw’ head and torso puppet was used for the scene where Brundle inhumanly unhinges his jaw and vomits his digestive acid on Borans’s ankle and hand (the effects of the acid were represented by a layered gelatin model for the hand, and a collapsing insert animatronic for the leg).
Another animatronic, not seen in the final film, was used for a deleted scene of Brundle consuming the remains of Borans’s foot through a fly-like proboscis, which was built by Donald Bies with clear urethane (dictated by its transparency) and brass components. Only the exterior of the proboscis was moulded, whereas the interior was fabricated. The inner mechanism that operated it was covered with flexible plastic. The animatronic’s jaw, which opened down and outward to unveal the proboscis, was devised by Blair Clark, whereas the eyes and lips were cable-controlled. The puppet was maneuvered through an operating rod from behind, whereas Chris Walas — beneath the camera — held a prop shoe with his arms, dressed with the Stage V arm appliances.
A third full-bust puppet was identical to the first bust animatronic, save for a release mechanism in place of the flexing jaw feature. It was used for the key sequence where Quaife accidentally tears Brundle’s lower jaw off, beginning his final transformation.
Brundle finally moults into the Brundlefly creature. Much like most insects, Brundlefly pushes the outer layers off by pumping itself with air. In devising the transformation effects, Walas attempted to avoid the cliches of previous films. “There is a transformation scene in The Fly, but we consciously tried to avoid the standard cliche of stretching rubber by trying something new,” Walas said. “One of my concerns — which I expressed to David early on — was not wanting Brundle’s final transformation to be a Howling-style transformation in which the story stops to admire the effects, because that’s not what this film is about. In many respects, The Fly is a special effects movie, but first and foremost it’s a story of a person and what happens to him.”
The transformation was conveyed through a series of insert puppets shown in close-ups. Brundle’s hand, tightly grasping Quaife’s, is first focused upon. It grows two long insect claws. The transformation arm was cable-controlled, and was built with an aluminium understructure. The stretching claws were operated through a master-slave system with a small hydraulic cylinder.
The legs and feet shed their skins and emit fluid. The secretion, which is released with the shedding during the entire transformation, was devised by Bob Hall. It was a combination of methycel, food colourings, acrylic tints, and water thickened with binders and disintegrators. The transformation feet were devised by Kelly Lepkowsky, Jim Isaac, Keith Edmire, and Guy Hudson. The feet had an internal rod structure bent at a 90-degree angle which, after the bend, went nelow the set floor where puppeteers maneuvered the transformation. The feet had precut foam latex skin combined with urethane foam skin for specific texturized areas. For the shot where Brundle’s right clawed foot ‘steps out’ of its outer skin layer, a separate set-up was operated with rods pulling apart to tear the skin from the foot.
Brundle’s legs change shape — an effect achieved with a waist-down puppet, suspended from a wooden brace. The legs were internally supported by wooden rods. The right leg was hinged with a reversible knee joint, which snapped back into a backward-bent position by pushing a pole from beneath the set floor. The left leg was instead devised to portray the formation of a fourth joint. Another close-up briefly glimpsed at shows Brundlefly’s other withered fly leg bursting from a bulge — an effect that used a set-up similar to the one devised for the earlier deleted rooftop sequence.
The transformation reaches its climax when Brundlefly’s head swells by pumping itself with air, and pushes the outer layers of Brundle’s head out, revealing at last the ‘Space Bug”s monstrous appearance within a chaos of falling flesh and secreted fluid. The transformation head, dubbed the ‘extend-o-head’ was supervised by Lepkowsky, and was devised as a full-bust animatronic with an inner structure built in aluminium, and an outer structure constructed in fiberglass. It was maneuvered with cables combined with a master-slave system that connected two hydraulic cylinders. The skin was moulded in foam latex and latex.
Lepkowsky recalled: “this was the first time we’d ever used anything other than cable pulls, actually. We needed to have more pushing than pulling, not only on the transformation head, but on several of the rigs. The head was very challenging because we needed something that compressed to fit inside the basic dimensions of a human head, which we pushed to the extreme. It’s slightly distorted, but we were able to fit most of the forms of the Space Bug’s head inside a facsimile of Jeff’s Stage V make-up.” The portion of the transformation animatronic that went from the neck to the mid-head pushed forward hydraulically whilst the eyes and the top portion of the head — a cable-pulled hemisphere — performed another forward movement. The combined, simultaneous movements pushed the outer flesh and skin (moulded again in latex) out, causing it to fall off. Two syringes pumped another version of the fly fluid (this time an iridescent compound of microencapsulated liquid crystals in an oil solution).
Perhaps the most gruesome detail in the entire transformation was represented by the tearing of Brundle’s human eyes. The peculiar effect was achieved with condoms filled with thinned KY Jelly, torn shreds of latex portraying the broken sclera, food colouring and thread. The condoms were stretched to a point of tension, and painted like Brundle’s distorted Stage V eyes. The reverse sides were joined with three taps that connected to portions of monofilament fishline which attached to different points of the head: when the head expanded, the tabs pulled and tore the condoms apart.
With the transformation complete, Stage VI — the ‘Space Bug’ — is unvealed. Construction of both this creature and the following stage were supervised by Jon Berg. The Space Bug was a full-size animatronic creature, combined with a set of insert animatronic legs. A small working model was first built to foresee what issues the puppet might meet in the confines of the set; a suit was briefly considered, and a mock-up version was also built, but to unfeasible results. Cronenberg was adamant about using an inhumanly-proportioned puppet.
The full-size Space Bug was sculpted in clay by Chris Walas, Jon Berg, Mark Williams, Michael Smithson, Valerie Sofranko, and Zandra Platzek. Platzek and Williams roughed out the basic forms; Walas sculpted the head, right leg, and parts of the body, and applied the final touches to the overall sculpture; Smithson sculpted the left leg; Williams and Platzek worked on the arms and body.
The Space Bug featured an inner armature built in fiberglass and steel, and skin moulded in foam latex, latex, or urethane, depending on the specific section; this expedient decreased the overall weight of the puppet, easing the puppeteers’ work. “If we had made the entire skin out of foam latex, it would have weighed three times as much and taken three times the effort to move,” Walas explained. “The technique was borrowed from a method I employed on Dragonslayer, which was to use flexible skins only in areas that moved as opposed to giving everything a general movement. That approach, in fact, is much more in line with insects, which have joint areas with moving skin and membranes, unlike the general overall movement of a human subject.” The creature was painted by Peter Babakitas and Zandra Platzek, and finally covered with a thin layer of Ultraslime and the iridescent fly fluid.
Berg collaborated with Guy Hudson and Donald Bies to devise the mechanisms of the puppet. Jim Isaac and Kelly Lepkowsky also collaborated in its construction. Brundlefly was puppeteered with an operator-guided counterbalance system: the puppet moved in a direction that was opposite to the movements imparted by the puppeteer. Berg himself was harnessed behind the animatronic’s tubular steel support structure. When Berg shifted his weight, the puppet emulated his motion. Mechanical connections inside the puppet were devised to change relationship with the primary lever — thus altering the position of the puppet’s body. Eyes, head parts, arms, and hands were cable-controlled.
Despite its complexity, the animatronic could not perform everything that was required by the sequences Brundlefly was shown in. “There were things that it couldn’t do,” Berg recalled, “but it could give certain broad movements and the illusion that it could do more which, for me, is one of the best essences of a good effect — giving the audience the assumption that they could have seen more.” Regardless of that, Walas was extremely satisfied with the Space Bug, and referred to it as his favourite special effect in the film. “Even though the principles are very basic — it’s a big puppet in the truest sense of the word,” he said, “the actual intricacy of its design is quite innovative. There are a lot of standard cable-controlled techniques applied to the close-up movements of its face and fingers, but the specifics of Jon’s slave system are unique and it has a beauty of simplicity and effectiveness. I wish its scene had been longer so that we could’ve given it more to do.”
The puppet was only filmed from the waist up; for shots of its moving legs, insert animatronic legs, whose construction was supervised by Mark Walas, were built. They were puppeteered through a cart suspended on a track above them; their motion was puppeteered with a series of levers and linkages.
The overall performance of the puppet was based on Jeff Goldblum’s own movements as the progressively mutating Brundle, as well as actual insects. The seldom stiff movements, Cronenberg found, actually rendered it more realistic. He said in his commentary of the film: “if you watch an insect, you know that they do move like little puppets — they can have a little puppet-like motion. […] So it was possible to replicate that with the motion you see with the puppet.”
The film’s final moments portray Brundle’s ultimate decay, as his monstrous form is fused with part of one of his own telepods — creator merging with creation. The almost biomechanical monstrosity (Stage VII) that results from the process was labeled as Brundlebooth, or Brundlething by the special effects crew, and was designed by Chris Walas. Construction of the full-size puppet was supervised by Howie Weed and Jonathan Horton; newly cast pieces of the Space Bug sculpt, as well as leftovers, were used.
Weed explained: “we took the head, arms and stomach section and put them all together to resemble something basically like the Space Bug, then fabricated a completely new back section which was made out of everything but the kitchen sink. We had latex, garbage bags, rubber tubing, bits and pieces of stuff that the production sent us from the set; so we had some continuity going on. I think almost everyone in the shop had something to do with it, but the bits and pieces fell down to Jonathan and me. The whole thing was thrown together in about two weeks, from Chris handing us the maquette to us packing it into a box.”
Much like the Space Bug puppet, the Brundlething had cable-controlled eyes, mouth appendages, and fingers. Its crawling motion was operated from below the elevated set floor by a crew of nine puppeteers. The head, hands, elbows and torso were connected to rods lowered through groove tracks cut in the floor, which were concealed by a layer of vapour and smoke coming from the telepod. The puppeteers controlling the right and left arm movements coordinated to create an alternated forward motion; others maneuvered the cable-controlled face.
Berg commented on the final moments of the film: “I like to think of these puppets as being condensers for the human element behind them. No matter if they’re pulled by a cable, a string or a stick, it’s the essence of people putting their energy and sympathy into the thing, based on sculptural aesthetic which embodies that potential. Keeping that in mind while you’re building something can produce an effect on the audience that’s more than just a bunch of mechanics moving rubber around. My perception of a good effect is that it’s a strange distillation of technological skill and emotional aesthetics that blend together where it shows, but also somewhere inside the people who are working it. If you need six people to operate a puppet that’s supposed to [have] a personality, it’s like a little baroque orchestra coming together and having a good enough instrument that all of their energies can harmonize on it.”
“In some respects, this is a nature film I’ve made,” Cronenberg concluded. “We are seeing various larval and pupal stages of a Brundlefly. It’s a documentary of the creature — how it comes to exist, how it evolves, how it dies. Some of the stuff people see here as being horrific, well, if they saw a science documentary on real flies they would be just as horrified. I was a junior entomologist and loved reading insect books deep into the night and catching butterflies in Toronto’s ravines. The film’s attention to detail is me playing the role of a naturalist, and it pleases me to have invented an insect and shown people in detail how it works.”
For more images of Brundlefly, visit the Monster Gallery.
Like father, like son: Martinfly