The next time you find yourself impatiently waiting out the end credits of a film, eager for that post-credits slice of fried gold, take a moment to have a gander at the extensive list of names required to create the cinematic experience we all love so much. There is plenty of love for heroes and villains, but far too often those who bring monsters to life — movement choreographers, motion capture artists, makeup and costume departments — fail to garner much, if any recognition.
Horror fans understand perhaps better than anyone that the men and women behind the masks deserve credit for their sorcery, and one of those magicians is Mark Steger. You may not be able to recognize him, but from I Am Legend to Men in Black II, you know his work, and 2016 was a particularly special year for the veteran actor. Steger surged from the Upside Down into our collective consciousness in the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things and forever changed the way we perceive the Easter Bunny in the Holidays anthology.
Mark Steger took a few moments to chat with HorrorGeekLife to discuss the fine line between creepy and cheesy, being part of the beloved Stranger Things universe and why practical effects will always win the day because things that are “heavily CGI” aren’t that interesting to him.
HorrorGeekLife: With Easter in the rear view, we’ve got to ask about your Bunny Man role in the Holidays anthology, which is easily the creepiest rabbit we’ve ever seen. How excited were you when you read the script and realized you’d have the opportunity to sink your teeth into something that hadn’t been seen before — Easter Bunny as risen Jesus?
Mark Steger: That’s actually one of my favorite things that I’ve done recently. I really enjoy working with (director) Nicholas McCarthy, I’ve done a couple of other films with him, The Pact and At the Devil’s Door, and I’ve grown to expect a certain level of creepiness from Nick at this point, especially now that I’ve gotten to know him and how he perks, but that was a special one for sure (laughs). When I read it, I thought this is a pretty awesome part, just in concept for a character. The thing about Nick, too is that I really like him, not just as a director but as a writer, I appreciate his writing. I actually enjoy reading his scripts, which I can’t say about a lot of scripts, obviously. Even with things, the end product, maybe I like it, but a lot of times it’s just really schematic, but Nick seems to be able to get it sold, hewing to the form of script-writing, he still manages to instill a tone into what he’s doing on the written page. As odd as it was as a read, it was even creepier working on it because some of the direction that Nick gave me, I probably couldn’t really talk about some of it (chuckles), but there’s something unique about it. The novelty, but also the execution and knowing the intelligence behind it, and when I’m working with Nick, too I feel like I’m collaborating a little bit more because he’s a really strong director. He has really clear ideas but he also wants to hear your ideas, he wants you to help create the character. I really enjoyed that one, I think Nick feels really good about that one, as well, so it’s kind of like a special one.
(“Easter”) came up recently in some internet searches, I guess because Easter came up there were a number of articles that were written about it. One was actually on a religious website, which I thought it would be a lot more critical than it was. It was critical in the sense that it really dove into what the film was trying to do, what was going on in the film, acknowledging to its readers some of the iconography, some of this imagery is going to be very offensive, but (the writer) actually really like(d) this movie. It’s actually one of the better reviews of the film, actually, but I don’t remember what it’s called. The one you did, too, I really appreciated that one, but it was kind of nice to see that stuff come up because we shot that film probably a couple of years ago now and it was released last year, and you move on and forget about things, but that was really pleasing to me that people were kind of singling that one (“Easter”) out from that anthology. So that was a good one, I feel good about that one.
HGL: Can you expand on the development of that character? You’d talked about the collaboration with McCarthy, but after the concept and script, what came from you so far as input that maybe the director wasn’t thinking about?
Mark Steger: The fact that (Bunny Man) is actually a cross between a man and a Lagomorph, a rabbit, was interesting just from a movement perspective. There are certain characteristics, behaviors that a rabbit has but I’m also, you know, the Savior (laughs). It was a very interesting juxtaposition because I did some things with my legs, bumping it like a rabbit would and near the end I do this little thing with my nose where I kind of twitch it around, and I have the metrics of a human but I figured I could get in some of these behaviors that will sell bunny. I presented these ideas to Nick and we did a rehearsal and I thought it came out pretty well, but it’s also kind of a tortured character so that’s part of the performance, as well. Jesus is the guy who was tortured to death on a cross, so I have the side wound, I have stigmata and a crown of thorns, so there’s pain in it as well, so it was really interesting to bring all of that together. It was a very juicy part (laughs).
HGL: You touched a bit on the creepiness you expect from McCarthy, but with regard to dialogue, situation and performance for a part like Bunny Man, how thin is that line between achieving creepiness and overstepping to where intended effect is lost and it comes off as comedic?
Mark Steger: I do what I can with the part, but the makeup is an inspiration, too. It was Jason Collins’ shop, Autonomous F/X did the makeup for that and I thought it was a really great design, and once I see that it inspires me, as well. And that was really creepy makeup, that was just, it’s so wrong (laughs). It’s really ugly, it’s like seeing one of those pictures of a dog in a kennel that’s been abused and it’s all mangy and it looks really sad, it kind of had that feel to it. Basically it’s all the elements and the choices the director makes, you’re right, it is really difficult to not fall into obvious camp or just cheesy and bad.
To some degree it really plays with that line a little bit because it’s one of those things, when it premiered at Tribeca with an audience, there was that kind of fun, nervous laughter because it was just so weird and creepy. To be able to nail that, it takes a lot of skill, and something that Nick’s really good at. I do my part, I come in and try to meet that, and of course he gives me direction, but especially with somebody like Nick, there’s a certain kinship, I’ve gotten to know him a bit over the few years that we’ve worked together that we kind of get each other, and that helps a lot, the rapport that you have with the person that you’re working with. Sometimes you work on something and you’re just sort of a hired gun and you do your best to bring your A-game, but the sensibilities may not match up or it may just be that somewhere in the chain of command somebody doesn’t really know how to get to that. Which in really big commercial film, they would love to find that disturbing element, but often it’s so by-the-numbers and schematic that they don’t have that in them.
HGL: You’ve been in other successful projects, but Stranger Things was, and remains a phenomenon. What’s it like to be a part of something that’s almost universally adored?
Mark Steger: It’s pretty interesting and it’s awesome. It’s odd, for me it’s different because nobody recognizes me. I go to conventions and stuff and it takes people a minute to figure out who I am if they know I’m associated with the project. We went to the SAG Awards recently and I recognized most of the actors who were there even if I didn’t have any scenes with them or get to really meet them, I knew who they were after I saw the show, but a lot of people didn’t know who I was unless I actually worked directly with them and they saw me without the animantronic head on. It’s interesting for me because I can still be a little aloof from it, but it’s been really cool just to see the affection that’s come out of people towards the show. The other day I got this really beautiful piece of fan art, they did a drawing of the Demogorgon and it was actually a really nice drawing, so it’s just nice having that connection with the fans which you don’t always get.
The other day this old friend of mine, whom I’ve known for like 30 years or something, she came with her daughter who’s a big fan of the show, and I wouldn’t say she was starstruck, but it was special for her to be in the presence of somebody who actually participated in the making of this show. It was very sweet, it was very charming. I haven’t been around things that have been unpleasant although I imagine some of the kids have, maybe Millie (Bobby Brown) or Gaten (Matarazzo) or somebody, but I think generally it’s sort of remarkable and I’m in the moment right now so it’s hard to analyze it. Over time, I’m sure I’ll have more cogent things to say about it.
HGL: Have you ever been in that situation where you went out for a drink one night and someone started chatting you up about a movie they’d just seen like I Am Legend or Stranger Things or Holidays, and touched on the role that you played? Do you let them in on the secret or just listen with devilish delight that they have no idea that it was you?
Mark Steger: I like to listen for a while. That actually happened to me recently in San Francisco, I was there hanging out and talking to a couple people and what was going on about this show, this amazing show that they just saw and I kind of let them go. I said a few things about it, just enough to keep them going but I was wasn’t letting on what I knew about the show and then I would tell them. At first they’re often in disbelief, “Well anybody could say they were the monster because nobody knows what that person looks like,” so I’d pull out my phone and show them behind the scenes shots of me in the suit and with the crew. I usually let people know because it’s delightful for them and people like to say “Hey, I met this person. The monster, the Demogorgon!” I get a little kick out of it, it’s fun for me. I like the idea of being kind of stealth about it, but maybe if I had a more recognizable part and somebody didn’t recognize me that would be more interesting, but I guess I have a little ego attached to it, “I’m the Demogorgon.”
HGL: The art of motion capture has come a long way, and not just in technical execution. Performers receive far more credit than they had in the past thanks in no small part to Andy Serkis, but shed more light on the idea of motion capture. How challenging and exciting is it to create a character whose primary means of communicating thought and emotion to the audience is through body language? In a way it’s like a blank canvas, isn’t it?
Mark Steger: Yeah, obviously I have mixed feelings about it. I haven’t done a lot of motion capture, most of the stuff I’ve done is practical, but personally I feel what really pays off is the combination of the two when it’s done right. When you look at Pan’s Labyrinth for instance, there was heavy use of practical effects but they also did things with Doug Jones’ legs where they greened him out and had given him these bird-like legs for one of the characters, I believe, and I think the sensible use of that is what really is interesting to me. I still feel like having something physical there on set that obeys the demands of gravity, there’s something that you can do with digital, with compositing and that is really remarkable and I think it can actually make the practical stuff look better, but something that’s just heavily, heavily, heavily CGI to me isn’t interesting. Of course they’re just tools and I know it can be done right and it can be done well, I just think that it’s so ubiquitous now that it’s become the convention and it looks the same to me.
I was an animator for a while, as well, so I know that when somebody’s doing animation they can do this cool trick that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise if it was a person or a guy in a suit or a real mountain falling down or something like that (chuckles). You go through your life looking at things in 3D in real life and you just have this innate sense of what looks right and what doesn’t, and a lot of times it doesn’t matter if the story’s compelling, if the effects are used in an intelligent way, obviously people don’t care a lot of times. If you saw The Babadook for instance, all that stuff with the drawings, that stuff’s beautiful but it’s not trying to be naturalistic for those parts, but it works and makes sense in the way that it’s executed and I really appreciate stuff like that.
I’m digressing a bit because you’re asking about motion capture, but I think there are people who are going to use it really well. It’s a remarkable technology and there’s no reason not to explore it, but when it’s just used for the sake of it because it’s a cool toy or cool trick, that’s not interesting to me and I generally don’t like CGI characters that much. I remember, for instance Zoe Saldana’s performance in Avatar, which was a film I wasn’t really that bowled over by, but I remember watching that and thinking she was really good in it. I didn’t really like her design very much, but I could see her performance coming through and I thought this technology’s really come to a point where you can really capture a performance. It’s a tool, like anything. Like any type of effect, it’s what you do with it.
HGL: You’d noted that Holidays was one of your more enjoyable projects of late, but from all of your roles, which have you found the most gratifying?
Mark Steger: I really enjoyed the first film that I did with Nick McCarthy, The Pact, that one felt kind of liberating because I’d been doing a lot of heavy prosthetic stuff, which I enjoy doing but to actually be liberated from that on a film and be able to express my body the way it is, my real body and my real face, of this crazy guy who lives in a crawlspace under a house, it was super fun. I was working with this great actress, Caity Lotz, who’s doing really well right now, she’s one of the stars of that Legends of Tomorrow show. That’s the thing, too, that was the first film that I did with Nick and I had a great time working with him. And a lot of it’s about that, who you’re working with that determines how much you enjoy the role and how much you can actually put into it. When you’re working with a great actress like that and a really awesome director, you enjoy the process that’s really special because this kind of work it intense, it’s really difficult, especially if I’m in a monster suit or something, those are some of the hardest things I’ve ever done. If it’s the right situation, those times when everything matches up, everything is working together, those are really special.
I really enjoyed working on Stranger Things. Again that was an amazing crew and cast, I really appreciate those directors a lot (Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy, Andrew Stanton, Rebecca Thomas) and Spectral Motion, who built the animatronic creature suit, they were great, they were really awesome to work with. That was a really good experience. And then seeing all the people’s reaction to it, it was very unexpected, I don’t think anybody working on it saw that coming.
HGL: What are you working on now? Where can we catch you next?
Mark Steger: I’m pitching myself for something that I can’t really talk about right now, but I would be actually pitching myself as a movement director / choreographer, which I do as well. I did that on American Horror Story and I Am Legend and a couple of other features, but some of these things that I’m working on I can’t really talk about because they make you sign non-disclosures, it’s sort of a perceived no-no. It’s a big feature, it’s a big thing that I think they’re going to want to turn into a franchise, but that’s something I’m working on right now.
An old friend of mine, Jimbo Matison and I are currently writing a horror film. Actually it’s a horror comedy, we used to do animation together in the early nineties at this studio called Colossal Pictures. As we were writing, at first we just wanted to make a really dark horror film (chuckles), but we used to do cartoons together so we couldn’t help ourselves, we started cutting up as we were writing. And we realized these are actually some really great (chuckles) scenes we were coming up with, some of the funny stuff was actually really great, so it has a strong comedy element to it which I feel really good about.
I have another film project I’m working on of my own creation, that’s still very sort of early stages with some story boarding, sketching. And I’m going to be doing some live performance work with this artist named Cassils that I’ve been working with over the course of the last year-and-a-half, it’s very extreme physical stuff. I’m doing what’s in front of me or whatever ideas are bothering me at the time (laughs).