Going Beyond the Veil of Halloween – Interview w/ Artist William Basso
Like any of the classic movie monsters, Halloween is a beast that refuses to die here at the clubhouse. Though the full force of its presence may no longer be felt, replaced by an onslaught of “seasonal” marketing and “holiday” TV specials, we’ve still got a little October spirit left to spare thanks to fiendish creatives like today’s guest, William Basso.
Basso’s work has been featured in galleries all over the country, including most recently the annual October Shadows, as well as in films such as Congo, Edward Scissorhands, Terminator 2, Batman Returns and Jurassic Park (to name a few). Combining a variety of mediums, Basso’s creations border on the spectral with an ethereal quality that seems to actually “possess” whatever he’s working on.
So Halloween may be over, Bill, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk monsters, right? Let’s see… Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Christopher Lee’s Dracula?
Well, that’s a tough one because both are great. I would say that the Lugosi Dracula is probably more iconic and really created the image of Dracula in pop culture. Lee’s Dracula could be much more demonic and vicious while still exuding a certain nobility. Unfortunately he was never really given quite as much dialog as Lugosi, although in some movies like “Scars of Dracula” (1970) he had a decent amount, but in a way, I think his somewhat silent performance added to the character’s frightening and mysterious quality.
The other thing is that although Lugosi wore the cape and costume in several films, including Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, he really only made the one, true Dracula film. Lee made a lot more films as that specific character and I’m a big fan of all of them, even though some were better than others. So to finally answer your question, I guess it’s a tie, and that kind of makes Lugosi’s Dracula pretty potent given that he really only made the one film.
You just recently took part in the October Shadows art show. Can you tell us a little about the show and how you became involved?
A friend of mine, Taylor White and I came up with the concept over breakfast about five years ago, and at first we thought that it would be fun to do a small Halloween themed art show with thirteen artists participating. We also had the idea that it would be great if the show really focused on the traditional themes of Halloween…I guess you could say more of an old fashioned take on it, rather than a more modern one which seems to have become all about serial killers and mutilated corpses to a certain extent. I guess you could throw in a few homicidal clowns as well… those are really popular. We wanted to sway it more toward things like the iconography of a traditional Halloween from years gone by… black cats, pumpkins, witches, skeletons [and so on] with a strong “autumnal” vibe. Even things like the Mexican “Day of the Dead,” or the pagan origins of “Samhain” could be tapped into. Think more “Ray Bradbury” and less “Jason” or “Leatherface”.
To some, this could come across as “corny” or passe, but the thought was that within those traditions, artists could bring their own unique sensibilities to it and really make something interesting. I came up with the title October Shadows and that just seemed to fit perfectly. Taylor has put four shows together since and obviously the notion of having thirteen artists went out the window pretty fast, because a lot of artists from a variety of backgrounds all wanted to participate. I’ve participated in all four shows and designed a number of the various promotional materials like invitations and posters.
Well, Eldritch Design is actually my own company and a number of years ago I and a friend, Paul Mejias , started manufacturing some model kits for sale online. Those kits aren’t currently being produced and haven’t been available, but my role then was basically creative director and sculptor of the kits. I’m hoping to have a new Eldritch Design site up soon that will be a showcase for my sculptural work done over the years.
Were you ever interested in the Aurora monster kits when you were younger?
No. As a matter of fact, I absolutely hated those things. Just couldn’t stand to look at them… Of course I absolutely adored those kits! I built a few of them like many kids who grew up in the 70’s.
You almost had me going there for a sec. Did you have any favorites?
The Aurora “Prehistoric Scenes” and the Addar “Planet of the Apes” kits were also big favorites. Unfortunately some of those kits met an untimely end as they were set on fire or shot at with BB guns. I’m also ashamed to say that firecrackers were occasionally employed as well. The box art on those kits was always terrific… especially the James Bama paintings on the boxes of the Aurora monster kits. At the point that I started building those kits, they had already begun selling them with the “glow in the dark” parts included.
Your bio mentions that you were inspired by a mixture of “horror movie magazines and Eastern European art” at an early age. Exactly how did those two estranged influences come together?
Well, my parents are both artists and there were always a lot of art books lying around the house. I mentioned Eastern European art as one example, because I always found things like Polish poster art to be fascinating. My father always had European illustration magazines and things around when I was a kid and I would look at these wonderful images by foreign artists, many of whom were from Eastern Europe, Italy, or France for example. A lot of these artists illustrated children’s books too and my Dad bought some of these for us. Another influence came when my Dad took us to see the animated movie Fantastic Planet, which was a Czech and French co-production designed by illustrator Roland Topor. I thought it was really cool when I saw it and a bit creepy too… just a very strange atmosphere to it.
While all this was happening, I was beginning to discover things like Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine as well as Warren’s Creepy magazine. The combination of these two influences, horror and art/illustration, really set the stage for many of the things that I would explore in my art over the years.
Which you continued to do at Parsons School of Design I understand. What’s one of the most important lessons you took away from there and how has it changed your work?
That’s an interesting question to answer because when I got out of there, I was really focused on learning how to make masks and create monster make-up for a living. I went to school to study illustration and by the time I got out, I found that what I really wanted to do was create special effects and make up for films. The funny thing was that after working in the movie business for almost fifteen years, I began to sway back to being interested in creating graphic art again. I suppose what I actually took away from art school was an awareness of a lot of different types of art and photography as well as films that I saw at that time. I also think that I learned about creating “concepts,” how to conceptualize things.
Studying in New York City was a wonderful experience and really opened me up to all of that. That stays with you and informs your sensibilities… just like when I was a kid and how having those childhood experiences did the same thing. Those sorts of things that I did take away from the years at school, did enhance my point of view in the special make up effects stuff as well. Once again, being able to conceptualize ideas based on a rich background of art. I think that the more you broaden your interests and avoid too narrow a focus, the better an artist you can become.
As you mentioned, most of your work incorporates the classic theatricality of Halloween. What’s the major significance of this holiday for you?
I do find Halloween to be a big inspiration and I think that ties into a certain theatricality found in my work. The idea of the Autumn season and a certain feeling of decay combined with the theatricality of masks, costumes and all of that stylized, macabre imagery is inspiring for sure. All of this gets cross pollinated with many other influences. For example, I often find myself drawn to things such as painting, photography and films from the past or bygone eras. Many of my pieces have contained “Halloween” imagery, but I feel that there’s more there than just that and I certainly wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed as an artist that only specifically creates Halloween imagery. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but I feel that I want explore other things as well. I’ve been creating some newer pieces that have much of the flavor of my previous work, but at the same time are heading in interesting directions.
Do you have any all-time favorite Halloween and/or horror-themed movies?
Well of course there are many… too many to list here or remember, but some of my all-time favorites are: BLACK SABBATH… THE EXORCIST… LEMORA… AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON… KILL, BABY, KILL!… THE HORROR OF DRACULA… THE TOMB OF LIGEIA… NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE… VIY OR SPIRIT OF EVIL… BLACK SUNDAY… THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS… CREEPSHOW… THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)… FRANKENSTEIN (1931)… SUSPIRIA… VIDEODROME… and THE THING (1982).
Speaking of films, you’ve actually worked on more than a few as a special effects artist, right? What are a few that have been really fun to work on?
I think some of the ones that I’m most proud of were Edward Scissorhands, Terminator 2, Batman Returns and Jurassic Park and a Hal Hartley film called No Such Thing. In terms of films that were fun to work on, I enjoyed working on Predator 2, Interview with a Vampire, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Small Soldiers. Those weren’t great films in my opinion, but fun to work on. I wasn’t on set for INTERVIEW or ISLAND, but I was for SMALL SOLDIERS and Joe Dante is a very cool guy who made the set fun to be on.
Any crazy stories/celebrity geek outs from the set(s)?
One thing that comes to mind, and I believe it was during the filming of JURASSIC PARK 2, was that at one point Steven Spielberg was out of town someplace and was directing via satellite or something. He was on a monitor during some down time and was having a conversation with Jeff Goldblum about which films Jeff should buy on Laser Disc… just going through his favorite films and which ones Jeff should pick up. I was standing there and watching this thinking to myself, “wow, this is a cool Hollywood memory right here!”
Are you still active in this industry or have you chosen to concentrate more on your fine art?
Well, not really that much these days. I will occasionally do something with one of my friends in the film business, but I’ve been working primarily in the Halloween industry as a product designer and sculptor, while also concentrating on my own personal work.
With Halloween at an end, what’s up next for you this year?
I’m doing a series of new art pieces that I’m pretty excited about as well participating in a big group show curated by Chet Zar this coming January of 2012. I’ll also be setting up a blog very soon at my website (www.basso-art.com), and people will be able to keep up with what I’m doing there.
Let’s bring it on home… what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
Let’s see… I remember one time as a kid, I was in the grocery store with my Mom and brother and I saw this stuff… sort of tablets like Alka Seltzer, but these were actually for making a kind of fizzy, fruit flavored soft drink when dissolved in water like a Kool-Aid. I guess I thought that they would taste sort of like a sweet tart type candy, so not really thinking much about it, just decided to pop one in my mouth. Well, it acted just like an Alka Seltzer and suddenly my mouth started filling with this crazy, fruit flavored foam! I kind of panicked, running to the nearest water fountain and just started drinking a ton of water to try and contain it. I guess I learned my lesson there… don’t pop strange fruit flavored, Alka Seltzer thinggies into your mouth.