Phil Tippett is the special effects genius responsible for some of the most spectacular sequences in cinema history. After creating the chess game in the original Star Wars, he brought us AT-ATs and Tauntauns for The Empire Strikes Back and the Rancor for Return of the Jedi, which – as head of the creature shop – saw him win his first Oscar. He’d win a second for Jurassic Park, as well as creating other classic sequences, including Robocop’s ED-209 and the alien bugs in Starship Troopers.
Throughout much of this period, Tippett has been working on his passion project, Mad God – a stunning, hellish stop-motion tour de force that he first conceived around the time of Jurassic Park. After that film’s stunning animatronic and CG dinosaurs, Tippett became pessimistic about the future of stop-motion, abandoning the project for years. He was finally persuaded by colleagues and friends to resurrect and complete his magnum opus.
Mad God took its toll on Tippett, which he also wrote and directed. Speaking to STARBURST as the film is released on Blu-ray, the astonishingly frank Tippett told us how the film nearly destroyed him.
STARBURST: Congratulations on the film. It’s genuinely unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. How does it feel to have it out there finally?
Phil Tippett: The people that I showed it to, who were friends, liked it. But, you know, they’d always have an addendum, which was like: “this is not a movie for everyone”. And the first two film festivals that I put it in rejected Mad God – Berlin was one – which sent me into a depression. That was like, okay, I wondered if it was going to go in this direction. And then we were invited to Locarno for the premiere of Mad God, and it just took off from there. It really surprised me, because I set myself up after Berlin for failure, of not being able to reach an audience. It gradually gained a momentum that is still gaining, and it’s about to open in Japan. And they’re doing a huge bunch of publicity. Mad God was really made for Japan.
Why do you say that?
They like weird stuff!
You started working on Mad God 30 years ago. Did your conception of the project change much over that period?
Yes, and no. I mean, it was all very much like a religious vision that really came all at once. There was a star that I was following. It was a classic Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey where you go down without an objective. I mean, there’s no holy grail that you were seeking. But you will go down a path that will lead to another path that will lead to a gate that would lead to a forest where you get lost, and then there’s a talking crow… and then at some point, the hero dies and has to be reborn.
And that was literally my journey. Because at the end of this 12-year period when we rebooted, I just wore myself out and got exhausted and had some kind of synaptic snap. I had to go into the psych ward for a few days and it took me a few months to recover. It was just an overwhelming experience. Towards the end of it, I just hated working on it. My friends would afterwards let me know that I was disintegrating. I wouldn’t wash my hair; my clothes were all ripped and covered with paint. My hands had all been banged up from making sets and covered with bandages. I didn’t shower, and I went down that path, and it was kind of mentally disintegrating. It just took it all out of me.
It took a while to get over that, but that was the death. There was a rebirth. I think the real resurrection really came when Mad God took off. I was just so relieved that people didn’t hate it.
We’re sorry to hear you went through that. We’d heard you had some problems while you were making it but didn’t realise they were that severe. We hope you’re feeling a lot better now. We feel you’ve half-answered the next question. There’s some very disturbing imagery in the film. Where did that come from?
Well, when I was doing the research during that 20-year hiatus, Dante’s Inferno was an initial guide. And so structurally I knew I was going in a certain direction, which was down. And when I was a kid, maybe 10 or 12 years old, my dad was an artist. And he saw that I was drawing and sculpting all the time. I was friendly and had friends in high school and around that time, but there was nobody that was interested in what I was interested in. So, I just would close myself off in my room. And I was either practising animating on 8mm film or drawing or sculpting, and that’s what I did. I didn’t go to parties or dances and didn’t want to invest in girlfriends. Everything was a time suck for me. And that’s still the way it is today.
You don’t have much time in this life, and there’s a shitload of stuff to do. And so, you have to be very selfish to be an artist sometimes. And the whole disintegration process, you hear that time and time again with artists. Beethoven was a famous one who would just totally get lost in his work, became an alcoholic, and look like a homeless guy. The work owns you at that point in time, and you’re just doing what you’re told to do to complete the vision.
Mad God in some ways feels like a very deliberate throwback to cinema’s past with stop-motion, and there’s no dialogue in it. Was it an intentional throwback? And do you think that with the technology available to filmmakers nowadays, films have lost something?
Well, I’ve always admired silent film, and when sound came in, it destroyed a certain beauty that cinema had in terms of body acting and how one projected as opposed to, you know, blabbing a lot. So, when I set off to make Mad God, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, essentially make a silent film with sound and music.
You also challenged yourself because the film’s plot is deliberately vague. It definitely challenges the audience to think, doesn’t it?
Well, it always made sense to me. One thing leads to the next, which leads to the next, so you’re following a narrative arc, but it’s oblique, with a lot of hard right turns, and hard left turns. The structure’s Dante’s Inferno, where you just go down, down, down, down, down.
During the period that I was working on Mad God, I dreamt prolifically. Every night I would wake up, and the dreams were clear as a bell. Every morning I would write the dreams down in a large journal. And I could do six to ten pages in the morning, which took a few hours to do sometimes. That was really interesting to me, in that if you sit down at the table for breakfast with your family and say, “I had a really weird dream last night, it was about blah, blah, blah,” then you just forget, because it’s put in the category of that was a weird dream. But as I was writing this down, after a few months I went back and was rereading some of the dreams. And many of them have an innate structure, which was that there was a proposition at the beginning, and then in the second act, there was a great deal of uncertainty, and it was like a diversion. And then the third act, there would be a resolution to the first act’s proposition.
Although oblique, it was a cycle very much like the creative process, where there’s something that starts almost out of nowhere, like the creation of matter out of nothing. And then there’s a long period of unconscious thinking, where you’re just processing the first part. But it’s very abstract and doesn’t make a great deal of sense. And then in the third part, that unconscious period informs the third act, and what the proposition was in the first act. And that led me to agree with the concept that storytelling is innate in our DNA. That gave me strength and confidence, to know that even though this project was very oblique, it was in the same tradition of human storytelling that I’m sure was there pretty much at the inception of language.
Mad God is available on Blu-ray from December 5th.
Images: © 2021 Tippett Sudios Inc. https://madgodmovie.com