Five Frames with Body Parts writer/director Eric Red
I turned 13 in the winter of 1990. It’s not a touchstone of youth with many official perks. There’s no driver’s license. No right to vote. No bars. Just skin blemishes, hormones and general awkwardness. However, my entry into teendom came with one important fringe benefit – my parents declared me mature enough to partake in horror movies in the theater. And partake I did. From Misery and The Silence of the Lambs to Candyman and Dr. Giggles, if a horror film hit theaters, I was there.
That era is now viewed as a time of relative dormancy for the genre between cresting slasher movie cycles, but I still hold great affection for those films. That includes 1991’s Body Parts. A variation on The Hands of Orlac, Body Parts stars Jeff Fahey as a criminal psychologist who has the arm of a murderer transplanted onto his body with predictably grisly results.
Body Parts writer/director Eric Red – the scribe of The Hitcher and Near Dark – revisited the film with me nearly 25 years after its initial release.
Body Parts is based on the novel Choice Cuts, which was penned by the writing duo behind the books that inspired Diabolique, Vertigo, and Eyes Without a Face. The film’s credits also list three other screenwriters in addition to yourself. Were you familiar with the original novel and what changes did you make to the early scripts once you came aboard?
Eric Red (ER): Yes, I read the original novel, Choice Cuts. It was a long out-of-print book I tracked down, and after reading it I immediately wanted to direct it. When I set it up at Paramount, we learned the book had a twenty-five year development history at Warners, and fifteen writers had written drafts, including some prominent screenwriters. I think the final Writer’s Guild credit arbitration was the largest in history. None of the other writers cracked it, because none addressed the obvious issues with filming it.
The book had two problems as I saw it—not as a novel but as a film. The main problem was a POV issue. Since the book’s main character was a detective investigating the crimes, he wasn’t emotionally connected to the horror. I changed the main character to a transplant recipient who lost his arm and received the killer’s arm, so the audience had a first person POV of the mystery and horror. The second problem in the novel was when the killer is put back together, he’s just a body on an operating table in a last chapter twist reveal. Obviously, the film demanded the killer with his head on another body running around and ripping his parts off the people who got his grafted limbs to get himself put back together. Adding that third act storyline was my contribution. The cinematic potential I saw in the novel was a film that could be a cool blend of classic psychological horror and contemporary gore. Think that’s what we ended up with.
Were there any films, photos, paintings, etc. that ended up in your “look book” for Body Parts? The movie has a classical style that we haven’t seen enough of in the last few years of found footage horror – long takes, smooth camera moves, careful framing.
ER: The visual concept I gave the crew was “Modern Gothic Horror Film.” In our set lingo, that meant contemporary high tech visuals mixed with classical horror imagery. A lot of that look came naturally out of the new-meets-old urban architecture of Toronto in winter, when we filmed. I decided to shoot in anamorphic in the 2:35 aspect ratio and loved using that format for the first time. It’s so “big” and lends itself to long, uninterrupted takes. The style of the film is obviously very operatic, full of set pieces, with lots of elaborate moving camera shots that seemed to fit the material. Basically, I just had a lot of fun filming it and went hog wild visually.
What can you remember about the tools you used to make the film? Do you recall your camera, lenses, or film stocks?
ER: We shot in 35mm scope, used Panavision cameras and lenses, and filmed on Eastman stock—96 I recall. Anamorphic I chose because it was the premier widescreen format at the time, before Super 35. Eastman stock was the fastest film available during that period, and there were going to be a lot of low-key night scenes and darkness. I just like Eastman stock and it’s the only stock I’ve ever used. Back then, it was grittier and more realistic than Fuji stock, which tended to oversaturate the colors, so was a better fit for the film regardless. A lot of the practical and set lighting was achieved with Kino Flos to provide a cold, antiseptic, medical look to the faces. As far as special equipment, there wasn’t a lot. We generally used Fisher dollies, only two shots were Stedicam, we had a crane for a few scenes, and we used an insert camera car for the multi-camera mounts during the vehicular action sequences. Otherwise, by today’s standards, there were very few “toys.” I filmed with one camera (except for during the) the action scenes.
I still prefer anamorphic over Super 35mm as a widescreen format because of the dynamic characteristics of the lens optics [Ed. note – Super 35mm employs spherical rather than anamorphic lenses]. And it does cool things with backlight and headlights, i.e., those famous streaks. Historically, most of the best widescreen films have been shot using scope, in my view. I love that anamorphic is enjoying a resurgence now in the digital realm, because people have discovered that using scope lenses on digital cameras like the Red provides a film look, taking (away) the curse of the digital look—it’s the scope optics.
Eric walks us through a few shots from Body Parts.
The Shot: Fahey’s elongated POV after a car accident renders him in need of a new arm.
ER: Jeff’s POV shots during the (operating room) scene were shot using spherical lenses on the anamorphic format, which gives an elastic stretch to the image. Scope lenses squeeze a 2:35 frame into a 1:85 aperture that the projection lens (at the movie theater) unsqueezes—so when you use a spherical lens, the projector stretches it out. Most of those spherical wide shots were filmed with an 18mm lens, but there was some spherical 100mm shots in that scene too, which also benefit from that eerie stretched look. We also used spherical lenses during those whirlpool visions Jeff has later in the film, putting the lens on a motorized rotating mount called a Mesmerizer.
The O.R. was a set, but the hospital equipment I brought in on loan from St. John’s hospital in Toronto, after I attended a transplant operation there for research. That huge two-station microscope tower you see in that scene is actually used by surgeons to sew nerves during real-life procedures.
The Shot: Fahey bathed in neon in a hotel room after his rogue appendage forces him from his family’s home.
ER: Very Noir. Since Jeff’s character is breaking down, it seemed like the lurid neon and seedy hotel ambiance out of an old private eye flick was the right setting for the scene. We laid it on pretty thick, I guess.
The Shot: A long take (60 seconds to be exact) in which Fahey finds the body of another transplant “beneficiary.” The shot begins with a pan that carries Fahey from the door to a window in the apartment, passing through pools of light as he goes. Fahey then doubles back to the bedroom (the middle frame grab of the bottom row in the picture above) and the camera pushes past him as Fahey flicks on the light to reveal the body. Is the body itself a prosthetic or is it the old trick of having half the actor’s real body underneath the bed?
ER: When you use an extended uninterrupted take in a suspense sequence, it heightens the tension for the audience because you don’t cut away when they expect you to. It’s like holding your breath visually, so this was a good opportunity for that. We lit just slightly Mark’s body in the other room so we just see it out of the corner of our eye when Jeff (first) walks past.
The makeup effect was in fact the old trick—the lower legless trunk was a urethane prosthetic, and we stuck Mark’s head and arms through a hole in the bed.
The Shot: The great character actor Brad Dourif (or more specifically, Dourif’s stuntman) is hurled through a window as the camera watches from a bird’s eye perch.
ER: The stuntman was heavily cabled by his left arm so when he jumped through the window backwards over the three story drop, the cable broke his fall and held him fast to the ledge, giving the illusion he caught hold with his left hand. It was totally safe. You can spot the cable by his left hand if you look carefully, but most people are too distracted to notice. The window stunt was shot three stories up with no air bag, so the audience can see the broken glass rain down the side of the building and hit the ground so it looked like it was really happening. I shot it at 120 (frames per second) to heighten the action. This shot is a good example of why it’s always better to shoot a stunt or action scene practically, instead of with CGI or green screen—the reality! Coming up with a safe way to do a practical stunt that looks badass is half the fun.
The Shot: The beginning of Body Part’s signature car chase. The shot opens static on a red traffic signal (top left in the trio of images above) and then the camera booms down as Fahey and cop Zakes Mokae pull up to the light (center). As Fahey dangles his right arm out the window, the camera drifts left as another car driven by the killer approaches the light.
ER: The shot from the traffic light to the windshield as the car pulls up with Jeff and Zakes was a crane shot playing on the emptiness of the street, so when Jeff sticks his hand out the window as we see the headlights behind them in the windshield, we knows something’s up. It was a good opportunity to use a long lens so that the killer’s car is soft as it appears, then comes into focus as he approaches, upping the tension. I believe long lenses’ selective focus and shallow depth of field, especially at night, provide wonderful opportunities for visual suspense in thrillers. It’s a Thriller Lens. There’s a menace to things the audience can’t fully see. Long lenses also more closely approximate human vision—especially when you rack—because we see in selective focus, not deep focus.
Another favorite shot of mine from that sequence (shown in frame grabs below) is the next shot of the neck brace killer’s reveal—the one where the camera passes through the driver’s window past the cop’s face, then past Jeff’s face, goes out the passenger window and across the cars into a close up of the killer as he hooks Jeff’s wrist with handcuffs. We did that shot on a stage with a little Eyemo camera on a jib arm.
We used everything for (that) car chase. Two cars hooked together for the coverage of Jeff, Zakes and (John Walsh, who played the killer). Two stunt driven cars with the stunt people (wearing) Velcro handcuffs for the precision stunt driving. Multiple cameras shooting off insert cars chasing or following the two cars with the handcuffed stuntpeople. Cameras in the backseats. Hood mounts. Camera platforms. You name it. Shot the scene from every conceivable angle, I think. We closed off Lakeshore Drive in Toronto and filmed the whole sequence in two nights, shooting wide open. It was fifty degrees below zero with the wind chill factor and very cold during filming. I storyboarded the whole sequence in advance, walked through everything many times with the stunt and camera teams, then we shot it methodically, set up by set up, until we got all the pieces. The key to an intricate sequence like that is preparation.
Below: A few more frame grabs from Body Parts’ car crash sequence.
The Shot: A push in to the shotgun-wielding killer in a neck brace reminiscent of the one worn by Peter Lorre in the Hands of Orlac remake Mad Love.
ER: Yes, very Mad Love. I had the effects guys recreate Peter Lorre’s neck brace from that film for our guy, so it was a blatant Rimage—rip off/homage. Did a lot of quick, tight push in or pull back shots like that one in the film.
The Shot: Body Parts’ final shot – a pullback on a telephoto lens. It should be a serene moment – Fahey and family in the park, the danger apparently passed – but there’s something unsettling that undercuts that happy ending. Something about the way the long lens compresses the background that makes this shot feel slightly off.
ER: Exactly the hoped for effect! A happy ending but a little, like, who knows what that arm’s going to do? We used a 600mm lens and did the pull back on a twenty-five foot dolly track, I believe. Throughout the film, it was a stylistic approach to always have things a little off kilter in the scenes, to unsettle the audience.
Thanks for taking the time Eric. Do you have anything coming up that you want people to know about?
ER: Just finished directing a killer dog TV movie for SyFy Channel called Night of the Wild starring Kelly Rutherford, Rob Morrow, and Tristan Mays. It’s The Birds with dogs, and has thrilling canine attack sequences. I shot it in Louisiana and the show was my first time shooting digitally, on the Red Epic. I was very impressed with the quality of the image, and it changed my mind about digital. The film airs this October.