Don’t Even Mention Ketchup to Movies’ Mr. FX-It Special Effects Wizard for X-Men, JFK & Alive! battles lifelong fear of blood
BY LAURA GOLDSTEIN
EXCLUSIVE TO THE TORONTO STAR
He has stood among the dead, even perpetrated the atrocities of war but never fought the battle. He has performed open heart surgery and dissected John F. Kennedy’s brain but has no medical qualifications. Concerned about the abuse of the environment, he chuckles over a disfigured face ravaged by toxic waste.
Gordon “FX” Smith is a benign Dr. Frankenstein. A graying pony-tailed special effects ‘prosthetics’ wizard who prefers leather to lab coat, he is as enigmatic and controversial as the illusions he creates.
When Hollywood renegade director Oliver Stone wants gushing wounds and severed limbs for such movies as Born On The 4th of July, Platoon and Salvador, he calls Toronto-based Smith, who it seems will go anywhere to get the job done. Smith was flown by helicopter to the top of a remote glacier in British Columbia for six weeks, to recreate the victims of a plane crash and the toll on its survivors for the film Alive!
Ironically, Smith, 43, suffered from a near paralyzing blood phobia as a young man but exorcised his demons by forcing himself into his present career as a form of self-help therapy.
“My father died of leukemia when I was born. It absolutely ruled my life to the point where I could pass out cold just talking about it. Even now I’m repulsed by horror films and will not go to see them.”
Smith who self-mockingly calls himself a “hippy entrepreneur” was alternately acting, directing, running a small theatre company and building props as favors to friends. Thirteen years ago, one such favor changed his life. He created 16 decomposed bodies for a movie called Vile. That project led to a phone call from director, Richard Pearce in California and work on Threshold starring Donald Sutherland, about the first artificial heart transplant.
“I said to myself, if this allows me to deal with my phobia, I’ll be more than happy to do it. This way I even get paid for my therapy!”
In Threshold, Smith had to reproduce five stages of open heart surgery working with doctors at Toronto general Hospital.
“It was impossible to reproduce the heart as sculpture without seeing, feeling or touching it so we went directly into the operating room. Then we went to the morgue and made castings from actual heart tissue,” Smith explains.
Gordon Smith is both visionary and pariah. His obsession with research and authenticity (medical texts on reconstructive surgery, gunshot wounds and burns line his office bookshelves), has made his company, FXSmith one of the most sought-after design studios in the industry. He has been investigated by the CIA twice for his work on the film, JFK.
“Oh yes, they have a file on me,” he says casually sitting in his west-end studio, the size of a small airplane hangar. “Because I recreated the head of JFK for the autopsy scenes and the work was incredibly detailed, they thought I probably had the strongest evidence about the shooting! That frightened the hell out of me!”
Smith defends his craft against those who might equate his work with horror or slasher films.
“First of all, I’m not pre-occupied with mutilation. I work in the realm of high realism and I hire the finest sculptors in the industry to portray it. Effects such as those in Platoon, are quite horrific but not for horror’s sake. I’ve always maintained that if we were forced to see the full consequences of what a weapon is capable of, there would be no wars. Ask any soldier.”
Smith’s opinion on this subject have cost him work but he says he doesn’t hesitate to tell directors and producers that their scripts show a “lack of respect for the subject” and to alter them if they want his co-operation.
He also loves to poke fun at his detractors. With a sardonic smile he relates the story of how he was asked to be one of the subjects on CBS television’s 48 Hours newsmagazine show.
“They were doing a show on phobias and were looking for somebody who did blood, guts and gore in the motion picture industry so that they could point a finger at me as someone who creates images to agitate people with phobias. Well, were they surprised that not only did I have a blood phobia, but that my line of work contributed to my recovery. And, I was the only person on their program that had actually managed to deal with their phobia—everyone else was still in therapy!”
Smith often works on several projects simultaneously, first designing and sculpting in his studio and then out on location to apply the prosthetics.
He worked on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, shot in the U.S. Midwest; Dieppe, that aired on CBC Television (for which props woman and Smith’s wife Ginny Stolee supervised the prosthetics for more than 200 war-wounded extras) and the film epic, Legends Of The Fall, starring Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn, shot in Alberta.
The complexity of a project and Smith’s seemingly boundless imagination inspires him to compete with himself – his harshest critic. And so, when he is bluntly self-confident about a new silicone gel prosthetic he has invented that feels and moves just like real skin, you know he must be onto something. The technique, Smith assures, will revolutionize the aging of characters in film and television and is far superior to the old school of gluing opaque foam to a face.
“This opens up a whole new dimension for us. In Legends Of The Fall we aged a 45-year-old Indian man to about 110 and the results were amazing. Because all of the color is matched right into the silicone, makeup is minimal and the camera gets to see into the prosthetic, rather than have light bounce right off of it.”
“We are also using a silicone mask on RoboCop’s face, shown whenever he removes his helmet and for another character in the series, Pudface Morgan. This character’s mask is a pock-marked result of toxic waste and he must move his nose aside to drink out of a cup,” explains Smith.
But the man most responsible for one of the most sinister scars on the screen (actor, Tom Berenger in Platoon remarked that ‘it was more painful that acquiring a real one’), seeks a more gentle future.
“I just want to do children’s films,” Smith says in all sincerity. “In fact, I’ve already written the screenplay.”