The Brain (1988) Retrospective

Dr. Blakely runs a TV show called Independent Thinkers, which is a Scientology-like self-help/religion program. But he’s not making his audience think any more independently – with the help of an alien organism he calls The Brain, he’s using brainwashing and mind control. The only thing that stands between them and world domination is a brilliant but troubled high school student with a penchant for pranks.

Ed Hunt

Interview with director Ed Hunt
Ed, in a few words, what exactly is The Brain about?
Ed Hunt: Well, The Brain is about a The Brain number of things. It’s about phony psychologists, hidden causes to bigger problems, media manipulation and giant rubber brains. True. But you know, one thing I’ve noticed about audiences is that they generally need big arrows to indicate if a film has “artistic” merit. As soon as they see the title and the brain himself, they short circuit, they can’t allow themselves to see deeper. But I think below The Brain’s surface there is a lot to think about.

So, is The Brain a satire, then?
Ed Hunt: No, but it definitely has satirical elements. think I was ahead of time with the whole criticism of pop psychology

Well, The Brain is ahead of its time and certainly stands alone. As far as actors go, what was the late great David Gale like to work with?
Ed Ed Hunt: Very professional. Gale was a very good actor and very quick to pick up exactly what I wanted from him. I had worked with Christopher Lee when I did Starship Invasions and both were charismatic actors that happened to be working in B-movies.

Are you aware of the little cult that has quietly sprung up around The Brain?
Ed Hunt: I’m somewhat aware. There’s a public access channel in Whittier that showed The Brain several times recently and people went nuts.

Are you proud of The Brain?
Ed Hunt: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I wish it had a bigger budget, I wish it went further and I wish I had understood horror better back then, like I do now. But for what it is, I think it’s very good and I have yet to see another low-budget exploitation film better than the Brain. And it’s certainly not boring. The human element sells it, I think. I always use acting coach Constantine Stanislavsky’s “Magic IF” in my films if the characters feel natural, no matter how absurd the situation, then I’m happy.

Ken Gord

Interview with co-producer Ken Gord
How did you end up on The Brain? What was your first thought when you heard the premise?
Ken Gord: It was just a job. I had done two movies with Ed before. He called and said, “You want to work on a little horror film?” I said yes.

What was the budget, and how much of it was spent on goo?
Ken Gord: I don’t remember, but I want to say since we spent 90 minutes of our lives watching it yesterday—very expensive. Under a million, actually.

Can you remember any budget limitations? Did you have to come up with any creative solutions to get ‘er done?
Ken Gord: Apart from the last 12-hour day being a 36 hour day, followed by the wrap party, it was mostly smooth sailing. That was one damn good crew.

What were the biggest trials on the production? Were there any clashes?
Ken Gord: The only clash was when Ed got mad at me because of a caricature of him with a tentacle for a tongue from the art department that I hung up in my office. I was shocked, because Ed had a good sense of humor, but it really upset him, and we got into a fight.

Talk about the differences between high- and low-budget filmmaking. Is low-budget more fun, and high-budget more satisfying?
Ken Gord: It really depends on who you’re working with and the end product. I’ve worked on great low-budget flicks.

You’d include a film about an alien brain in the “great” category?
Ken Gord: Well, after just seeing it again, I didn’t think it was so bad. That was, of course, before we went to see Pacific Rim right afterward. So the feeling was short-lived.

Let’s talk about the similarities. For one, they’re both movies.
Ken Gord: And they both have a doctor “drifting” with an alien brain.

Do you remember having any weird existential moments when the world stopped and you suddenly paused to think, “My job is to work my ass off to tell a story about a giant alien brain?”
Ken Gord: Everyone does that just wonder sometimes why they’re there, what’re they doing and the meaning of life. Don’t they?

Despite the fact that much of The Brain seems to be running up and down stairs, David Gale’s appearances actually come off as somewhat iconic. Did Ed know Gale was the man for the job from the get-go?
Ken Gord: He was one of the first choices, only worked for about a day. He was a total pro and very nice. He died four years after The Brain. How’d you go from stairs to David Gale?

Was making The Brain a better or worse experience than Deadly Eyes, where you had to put dachshunds in rat costumes?
Ken Gord: That was insane, and I never want to go through that again. When I think about that… it was just… There are no words.

How was your experience with Ed on The Brain compared to your prior film together, Starship Invasions? Did you feel that you were all movin’ on up?
Ken Gord: Sideways, if not a little down.

Why do you think The Brain became a bit of a cult film?
Ken Gord: That’s a mystery. It’s watchable—not bad enough to be good, but not good. Although I must say, I actually enjoyed it just now, which is kind of sad.

Why would someone voluntarily watch The Brain?
Ken Gord: That’s a good question, because I don’t see any redeeming qualities. The message, that TV can brainwash you, is hardly profound. Mundane, really. There aren’t any ideas there’s an alien brain that’s controlling people to do…what exactly?

So you don’t think Tom’s speech at the end about it being the doctor and not him who did it, because we’re all brainwashed sheep who watch too much TV, missed the mark like a greased sledgehammer?
Ken Gord: He was still a likable character. It was good when he was vindicated in the end, and punched the doctor’s head off. I liked that. I didn’t expect it, because I forgot about it.

I’m not saying I do, but do you think The Brain is a very poor man’s They Live?
Ken Gord: They Live had charisma and charm. I worked with Roddy Piper on the Highlander series. He’s a nice guy, and a tough guy. He and Adrian Paul had a sword fight, and Roddy broke Adrian’s sword!

What’s your favorite horror movie that also involves an evil brain?
Ken Gord: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die! Although that was more of a head than a brain.

Where was the building that was used for the Independent Thinking headquarters?
Ken Gord: The Xerox building in Mississauga. It was amazing! We were a bunch of young filmmakers and they just said, “Yeah, go ahead.” Nowadays, it would probably be 15 pages of applications and lawyers.

Did any of the crew go on to make bigger films?
Ken Gord: Well, speaking of Pacific Rim again, that movie’s Steadicam guy, Gilles Corbeil, was 1st or 2nd camera assistant on The Brain.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers to get their own movies about giant brains going?
Ken Gord: Nowadays, you don’t even need advice, because you can just do it! All you need is the imagination and drive. Back then, most of the budget went to film stock and developing. You don’t have to worry about that now.

A big trend in Hollywood is “reimaginings.” Do you think a remake of The Brain should happen?
Ken Gord: I think they should bury it.

Interview with FX artisit Kevin Danzey
Any background information on “The Brain”?
Kevin Danzey: “The Brain” movie was made in 1987-88 by my friend, Ed Hunt. It was his “brainchild” if you’ll forgive the pun. Ed and I had become friends a few years earlier, when I was writing for a couple of small-press film making magazines. He had made “Starship Invasions (1977)” with Robert Vaughn and Christopher Lee, as well as an amazing little thriller called “Plague (1979)” that I sat down and wrote to the production company seeking correspondence with Ed, and I soon heard back from him. So began our friendship. That was probably back around 1978 or so. Anyway, to fast-forward a bit, in 1986 or ’87, Ed sent me the first draft screenplay for “The Brain” for my feedback. He and I had a wonderful (to me) correspondence going, and he seemed to really respect my thoughts, which was quite an honor to me. I mean, here was a guy who had made already several feature films, and he was looking for feedback from me! At this time, I was still living with my folks, since my dad was very ill and I wanted to be with him. We were in San Jose, CA, and Ed lived near L.A. I was writing for some film making magazines. He sent me the first draft script, which I liked, except that in the first draft, the Brain talked! Other than that, I liked the script. I’m glad Ed left out the talking later. I liked the fact that Ed had written a pretty cool sci-fi horror story with some subtle ideas about society and culture. I always liked that in his work.

Anyway, as work progressed on The Brain, Ed needed to find a special effects chief who could work on his budget, which as I recall was something like $750,000. Now, I happened to have a friend named Mark Williams, a San Jose guy also, a very talented and energetic artist and sculptor, who worked on the special effects crew of “Aliens” and “The Fly” in the early 1980’s. Mark had worked with me on some of my short films, and he was just fresh off working on those two big films, and was basically relaxing by the pool in his apartment complex, wondering what his next job would be. So I introduced Ed Hunt and Mark Williams. Mark was able to “brainstorm” with Ed, and come up with sketches and ideas as to what the Brain would actually look like, especially in it’s large, final form. Then in order to sell the film to investors, Ed took Mark to a meeting (or so the story was related to me) and at the right moment, Mark unveiled a small clay or plasticene tabletop model of The Brain monster, and that, along with his experience of working on big films like Cameron’s “Aliens” and Cronenberg’s “The Fly” apparently convinced the investors to back “The Brain.”

You helped create those things! Well, thing, but it does seem to evolve during the movie’s course. Was the monster pretty much cast in stone and you just had to put it together or did you brainstorm the way it looked?
Kevin Danzey: Well no, I didn’t create the Brains, I only had a small hand in the physical labor in the special effects shop. I have some photos of The Brain (in it’s various forms) under construction in the shop in North Hollywood. Mark Williams, again, was the sculptor and the one who cast the Brains, he had made very large plaster molds which the latex and polyfoam was put into later. Mark, with input on design from Ed and a lot of help from a wonderful guy named Ray Greer, put the Brain together. There were a couple of other people in the shop working, but I can’t remember their names. There was a sweet lady named Cathy Mullamphy, who did a good amount of work too. But Ray Greer did all of the dirty work, as I recall. He was an extremely hard worker. Mark was a lot of fun, and very talented, but he was like a big kid, and it was all a party to him. Which was okay, because it kept the atmosphere light. The main thing I did when I worked in the shop was to create some of the tentacles, which you see in The Brain shooting out of the mouth of the big monster. I also painted a few coats of latex over the big Brain, the final one.

Can you give some information on the different incarnations? First there was the roughly beanbag-chair-sized monster that attacked the young girl and consumed Vivian. Then later the Brain seemed to evolve into a cart mounted beast, what were both made of and were there any sort of controls inside?
Kevin Danzey: Actually, I think there was an earlier version, the smaller one in the tank, but I don’t remember if I saw that one in the shop or not. The beanbag-chair-sized one, there were actually two of them, one of which had a face on it, and one which had a big mouth at the end, so that it could later swallow Vivian. I remember those sitting on the worktables in the effects shop, and I probably have some photos of those. As I recall, the various Brains were all made of sheet foam rubber, then polyfoam and latex. Lots of latex. We had buckets and buckets of it, and man, that stuff stinks. Polyfoam is scary. You mix it up, pour it into a mold, and it kinda “magically” expands before your eyes, blows up like the foam going over the top in a shaken soda bottle, but then it freezes in place and hardens. It’s hot at first, as I recall. I didn’t mess with the chemicals much, myself.

Now, the big Brain was created, I think, on a framework of PVC pipe, and it was meant to be moved by two strong guys in harnesses. There were motocross harnesses built into the Brain’s framework. But the big Brain itself was made of so many things, including chicken wire, plastic shower curtains, sheet foam rubber, etc., that once it was shipped up to Canada for filming, between the shipping and the reality of two guys in harnesses, they couldn’t go anywhere. I think it fell over, I think they told me that. So the big Brain ended up being mounted on a camera dolly, and pushed around. The two guys inside were supposed to be able to get “in-synch” and walk the beast, since it had legs, but it was so big and unwieldy that they couldn’t do it. And the only controls inside of the big Brain were for the eyes, a little rig that Mark made, which allowed the eyes to look back and forth in unison. I have a photo of the eye rig. He did a great job with the eyes, which were cast in resin. Too bad the whole thing didn’t quite work, but still, it was okay. The main thing I remember being disappointed about were the wiggly teeth on the big Brain. They were just foam rubber teeth and I can remember suggesting putting coat hanger wires or something inside them to stiffen them, so they wouldn’t wiggle, but I think by that time there was too much time pressure. Ed was already up in Toronto shooting (the film was shot in Canada to keep the budget down) and this was in late November or early December of 1987. So the film was basically shot over the holidays. I asked to go along, but due to the budget, I had to stay in California.

How long did it take you to create the different versions?
Kevin Danzey: The Brains were made pretty quickly, you know. This was a low-budget picture, and a pretty ambitious one at that. The work in the shop was done in a couple of months, something like that.

This doesn’t look to have had a very large budget, can you tell us what the total cost was to make the movie? What part of the production cost the most?
Kevin Danzey: It was under a million bucks for the picture, that much I know. I seem to recall the figures of $700,000 or so for the whole film. I think the effects budget was something like $50, 000. And by the way, I never got a dime. Nothing. Not even a free tape. But I did get my name on the end credits under “special effects technicians” I think, and a wonderful personal letter from Ed Hunt saying that if not for my help, “The Brain” would never have gotten made. I was able to get Ed together with Mark, which convinced the investors to put up the money. And later, Mark tried to keep my name off the credits, but Ed made sure my name was on there. That was because Mark and I had a falling out about six months later, when The Brain was in post-production, and I was working with him on his crew for Larry Cohen’s “Wicked Stepmother” which was a mess. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

You commented on creating several tentacles for the monster, they should have used more of them, the only one I can remember shoots out to grab Janet. (Which Jim attacks with a tube of caulk.) In the script were there more scenes with people getting dragged in and eaten?
Kevin Danzey: The tentacles appeared in several scenes, especially at the beginning of the film in Becky’s room, coming out of the walls, attacking her and her mother. Also one comes out of the steering column of Jim’s car, just before he loses control and crashes it. Ray and I must have made something like a half-dozen tentacles, which were made of sheet foam rubber, curled up tightly and wrapped in duct tape, then painted with several coats of latex. I think I have a photo of me, sitting on the floor winding up the foam rubber sheets. Now, Mark had made a “tip” for the tentacles, a section about two feet long, which had little “suckers” on it, and those tips were then attached to the rolled-up foam and duct tape. Those tentacles, or parts of them, or at least the same type of thing, ended up some months later in Larry Cohen’s “Wicked Stepmother” where they became monster tree roots. And as for what was different in the script, I can’t remember, dude, I lost my copies of Ed’s script years ago, unfortunately. The main difference I remember, as I said, was that in the first draft, the big Brain talked.

Edward Hunt

Don Haig

Barry Pearson

David Gale as Dr. Anthony Blakely
Tom Bresnahan as Jim Majelewski
Cynthia Preston as Janet
George Buza as Varna

Rue Morgue#061

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