When I began my research for Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition and was looking for local industry people to interview, one of my biggest priorities was to find a special effects person to speak with. Lucky for me, I was able to find one of the best in the business, John Milinac.
Born and raised in rural McHenry county in Northeastern Illinois, John was always interested in making home movies and “little story lines” with the neighborhood kids using his parent’s 8mm camera. He got super 8 sound camera when he graduated from High School in 1978 and “it ratcheted up a little more.” All the while, he was trying to figure out an entree to the real film industry.
He and his brother tracked down the production crew of the Blues Brothers (1980), which was filming a stunt scene in Wauconda, and visited the set. “We managed to infiltrate the set close enough to start talking to people and figure out how to approach getting into the film industry, and it seemed like a pretty big task at the time.” Milinac never gave up on his dream, however, and the itch to make movies just grew too intense. This led to him moving out to Los Angeles several years later, “I knew there was a ‘Stunts Unlimited’ company and just guessing I thought there’d be a ‘Special Effects Unlimited’ Company and there was. That turned out to be owned by legendary Hollywood effects man Joe Lombardi (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather).
“I started making a contact with that company and talking to their general manager and over the next few years just became one of their nuisance phone calls.” They finally relented and hired John as an entry level employee and he moved out to Los Angeles in 1985. He worked for Special Effects Unlimited until his son was born in 1989. John and his wife decided that LA wouldn’t be the best place to raise a family, so they moved back to Northern Illinois and bought a home. Illinois was still an infrequent site for movie making, however, and John had resigned himself to the fact that his career in film production might be coming to an end.
That all changed when Ron Howard’s multi-million dollar special effects laden production, Backdraft (1991), started filming in several locations around Chicago. Milinac knew the special effects crew, and was hired immediately. Backdraft was the first of a new wave of films to be shot in Chicago, and John soon realized he might be able to return home to his rural roots, yet still work in the movie business. “I just had to approach the industry a little bit differently than if we’d stayed in Los Angeles.”
The experience that he gained working out west proved invaluable to Milinac as he was able to work his way into the local film unions and become a mainstay of the Chicago/Midwest crew scene. He’s now a top tier special effects coordinator, having worked in various capacities on over 50 films in the last 25 plus years; including Next Of Kin (1989), Dennis The Menace (1993), The Relic (1997), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), The Negotiator (1998), A Simple Plan (1998), Stir Of Echoes (1999), Road To Perdition (2002), 8 Mile (2002), The Last Samurai (2003), The Weather Man (2005), The Break Up (2006), The Lake House (2006), The Express (2008), Wanted (2008), and The Unborn (2009). He also worked on several television shows, including Prison Break (1994) and The Beast (2009).
The fluttering feathers at the end of Stir of Echoes, the frosty with the spoon on Nicholas Cage’s jacket in The Weatherman, the intense battle scenes in The Last Samurai (he assisted on that film), the driving rainstorm during the climactic shootout in Road To Perdition, the big cemetery shootout in Next Of Kin, and untold scenes of terror and mayhem in a slew of horror pictures; John’s work (both big and subtle effects) has been an integral part of many of the coolest films of the last three decades.
He graciously has given several hours of his time to discuss his work and career with me over the last year, but you’ll have to get a copy of Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition to find out more! We’re only here to talk about his most recent work, particularly on The Unborn. [Yeah, I know I'm a tease. But I've got to move some units and I can't be giving it all away.]
Much of the work of a mechanical special effects coordinator is preparation for contingencies that never occur; certain effects may be called for in the script that turn out to be too expensive for the budget, or the script changes and the effect is eliminated, or the effect itself is changed. On the other hand, John always has to be prepared to efficiently, safely, and inexpensively create effects on the fly which were never discussed. Perhaps the location where the scene occurs changes and they have to scramble to replicate the original effect under totally new conditions, or a new scene is written that calls for something completely different, or one of the other departments needs a rig made for one of their effects (John’s department also functions as the on set mechanics for anything that breaks down and “R and D” for any new devices or rigging needed by the lighting, electrical or any other crew on set). It is a constant process of improvisation and creative problem solving.
For The Unborn there was much preparation for more slime effects in an attempt to create an otherworldly feeling, “We had spent a lot of our earliest pre-production time coming up with a lot of interesting slime effects- oozing from the floor, coming up from the toilet, or cracks in the walls– there were several pages in the script where it was a torrent of this stuff coming down stairwells, going backwards up walls-things of that nature. We did a lot of test shooting, some of it worked well, some of it didn’t.” Unfortunately, all of the nightmarish scenes featuring Odette Yustman (who played the protagonist of the film) wandering endless hallways oozing with slime “like the bowels of hell” had to be cut for budgetary reasons and the slime was really only brought out in one scene.
It boiled down to where the most economical place to use the “ectoplasmic” effects was in the scene in the nightclub bathroom. That’s where a full onslaught of slime and bugs and creatures coming through the walls occurred. John and cohorts designed and created a special set which contained breakaway walls and hidden slime faucets and drains. “That was a pretty interactive set for a couple days; with sliming, and oozing, and mopping it up, and resetting it, recovering it. It [the slime] was basically just water and Methocel (a food additive used in shakes and a disturbing array of other food products) and caramel color, just trying to go for a putrid look, but something we could create a lot of. We probably had about 50 or 60 gallons and we just pumped it wherever we needed it.”
Some Other Effects On The Unborn:
Upside-Down-Headed Crab Crawling Guy- John and the mechanical effects department were able to sit this one out. They had made tentative preparations for a trolley rig in case the person hired for the effect needed the support, but he was a professional contortionist and proved to be so talented that nothing was needed. Just a mask made to give the upside down head illusion and him crab crawling in various ways- reversed and speed altered. Turned out to be a very creepy effect for little money. “The less you see it the more upsetting it is, because you don’t really know what is up with that guy.”
Demon Possessed Kid Gets Thwunked By Car: Was staged in reverse order, “with the car and the kid right next to each other” and then the film was run backwards with an immediate cut to a stunt player (with a very slight build) bouncing off the breakaway glass windshield. Ended up looking very realistic and really gave a nice quick scare.
Demon Boy In The Medicine Cabinet Effect- It’s a staple of horror films, but is always effective if done properly (as it was here). A special medicine cabinet was made and fitted with the twisted writhing limbs and other creepy stuff, along with a small place for the kid who plays the demon boy to put his face, “kind of like those placards where you stick your face through the cardboard and have your picture taken.” Odette opens the cabinet, and PRESTO!!! Mutilated demon boy! Now where did those Band Aids get to?
Bug In The Egg Effect: This was perhaps my favorite effect in the film (it made me jump out of my skin) although it was very quick and kind of low key for a horror film. Odette is cooking breakfast and cracks an egg into a skillet when a large and creepy bug emerges from the burbling egg and races away. “I had a lot of fun with that trick,” recalls Milinac. Basically, he took an egg, drilled a hole in it and blew it out so it was hollow, “like you did in grade school,” then carefully cracked it open, inserted the bug with a bit of egg white, and sealed it up with a temporary patch and a little bit of wax. The actress was then instructed how to hold and crack the egg into the pan for maximum effect.
For the “cooking” part, he got a skillet and modified it by drilling tiny invisible holes in it, then ran air through those holes to give the illusion of cooking when the egg hits it. They did several takes with the egg being cracked into the pan and the bug scurrying around. Then the insect wrangler would grab the bug and clean it off (with the ever-present Humane Society observer to make sure the bug wasn’t mistreated) and they would start again with a new egg.
The bug itself was called a Potato Bug. “It didn’t bite, but was very obnoxious, thorny and prickly and difficult to handle, kind of like an aggressive grasshopper.” There is an entire industry of people who provide various critters for movie scenes. Since bugs can’t really be trained, the wrangler will have an entire array of various insects for each task required “this one’s a good runner, this one likes to stay still, this one crawls real slow” and use them accordingly.
All-in-all the effects went extremely well on The Unborn and the movie was well received by audiences. There has been no official talk of a sequel to the film, but as John mentions “it does have the classic ending that could move into a sequel.” If the amount of searches I see on my web stats for this site that ask “will there be an Unborn 2?” (not to mention all the searches for “Odette Yustman in her underwear”) are any indication, we should definitely be seeing a sequel in the near future.
While I had John on the line, I questioned him about a few other things; the first one being his thoughts on the remake of Nightmare On Elm Street which had recently wrapped shooting. There wasn’t a lot he could say about it, there being a rather strict understanding of confidentiality about unreleased films in the FX code of ethics (often enforced by legal documents signed by the crew beforehand); but he did volunteer that, from his perspective, this re-imagining of the Freddy Krueger mythos will be much more dark and serious than the original franchise, without the tongue-in-cheek campyness that Robert Englund brought to the role. This darker version has apparently gone over quite well in some early tests and the filmmakers are “very excited” about its prospects.
I also asked John about any memories or impressions of the recently and untimely departed John Hughes, since Milinac had worked on several films that Hughes had produced and/or written (Baby’s Day Out, Dennis The Menace, Miracle On 34th Street, Home Alone 3). While Milinac had very little personal interaction with Hughes, the impression that he got from the reclusive producer was that his favorite thing in the world was to be on a movie set (which makes his retreat from directing even more curious).
John and I discussed a few other items, but this post just passed 2000 words and needs to be brought to a merciful end. Look for other posts about him in the future, as he is very forthcoming about his craft and is generous with his time (when he has any, that is).
Learn more about John Milinac (and several other Chicago film production luminaries) in Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition, which is now available for preorder on Amazon.com and is slated for a November release (just in time for Holiday giving!).