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Blood Is His Business

Need an eye impaled on a sharp object? A dismembered or decapitated corpse? A torso that squirts blood? Call makeup maestro Jeffrey Segal.

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The woman at the next table drops her french fry and stares openmouthed at the man nearby; he is gesturing wildly and speaking with a peculiar glee.

"Remember that guy with the mustache I showed you before? Well, this is him after he goes through a windshield. Then his friends go to try and get some help. They come back and find him eaten by the creature."

The woman makes a sour face and nudges her tray away from her.

"Here's the chest piece I made for him to show his guts eaten out. I'm very proud of the nicely sculpted rib cage and then the stomach over there and the bladder over there. There's one scene where they show the creature lifting the intestines out of his body. We used pig entrails and raspberry jam for that."

By now the woman is 20 paces away, her Wendy's lunch untouched, and she is not looking back. Too bad. Jeffery Lyle Segal is just as apt to be discussing the "nice things" he does: the people he's aged for commercials, the costumes he's made for Halloween, the makeup work he's done for W. Clement Stone, Oprah Winfrey, and Gabe Kaplan.

"He's very knowledgeable about pharmaceuticals," says Don Levey, a professional photographer who called on Segal to create the illusion of a skin disease. "He's very fast, and the disease looked just like it was supposed to look like."

Still, what Segal is really known for is doing the special effects for exploitation flicks.

"We had him make a hand with the fingers chopped off, a prosthetic head, and shoulders that squirted blood," says Wally Koz, producer at King Video and director of 5 5 5, so named because every five years its killer goes out and kills five couples in five nights. "It was a slash and gash picture," says Koz. "We had a torso of a girl that was slashed, cut, and stabbed."

Lisa Dedmond, a producer of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the Friday late show at the Music Box, recalls some of the effects Segal created for her film: "We had to have a head that was cut off and pulled out of a bathtub and the bathtub filled up with blood."

With the exception of Re-Animator, which Segal worked on because he knew the director, Stuart Gordon, from Chicago's Organic Theater, you probably haven't heard of a Jeffery Segal film. Trapped? The Inheritor?

His flicks usually go straight to home video. He wouldn't take his grandmother to see any of them.

But Jeffery Segal is not ashamed of his work. "Let me show you one of my friends," he said once to a woman he'd just met, as he fished a photo out of his wallet. The woman cringed. It was a snapshot of someone with an ice pick through one eye.

Jeffery Segal has brought to Wendy's a black portfolio with color glossies of his work. Looking through it is kind of like watching a bad Bob Hope special. I don't know whether the next act is going to make me smile or retch. On one page, for example, there's a photo of Marshall Field's Uncle Mistletoe--an actor whom he'd made up. On another are photos of age makeup he did during a summer class he taught at Northwestern University in 1984.

Flip the page and things get gruesome. Here, in living color, is a torso "opened like a book," as Segal puts it.

"In junior high school, I had an art teacher who made me draw plants for the whole year. That was his thing," Segal reminisces. "At the end of seventh grade, I hated plants, but I could draw basically anything I saw. Eighth grade I spent carrying around a book of nudes copied with photographic accuracy from Playboy magazine, which scandalized my junior high school entirely."

(If this speech sounds a little studied, it is. I've heard Segal give it more than once.)

At Highland Park High School, Segal decided that his art teacher was "a ditz" and he shifted his artistic interests to the makeup table of the drama department. Drama was nothing new to him; he'd acted in summer stock as a kid. Segal studied film and theater at Northwestern and got a master's in theater direction from the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he also taught classes in stage makeup. In between, in 1976, he returned to Highland Park to manage a brand-new, beleaguered little company known as Steppenwolf.

Segal likes to think that in his year as executive director he rescued the company from financial ruin. He recalls with pride the time he rose from a hospital bed to get Steppenwolf its first grant, which was from the Illinois Arts Council. Modesty and understatement are not Segal's strong suits.

"I had bladder cancer when I was 23, says Segal, now 33. "It was some thing they found right away and got rid of right away. But I had to go in and be checked up. I had just been cystoscoped, and I woke up to get dressed right after I got out of anesthesia and made an appearance at the Illinois Arts Council, where I made a fervent plea that they should support this struggling theater troupe in Highland Park."

Segal has worked as a magician and a clown; he made balloon animals for the old Pickle Barrel restaurant at Howard and Western. He still carries balloons around with him in case a conversation needs a little zip.

"This is a male penguin," he said once as he passed a red, folded-up balloon to an attractive, blushing blond woman. As she'd noticed, the penguin was anatomically correct.

After college, Segal acted in summer stock in Indianapolis and Cincinnati and he did makeup for an offbeat production of Shaw's Androcles and the Lion in Greenwich Village; he had to make Julius Caesar look like Jimmy Carter.

He dreams of being a big Hollywood director who makes three-picture deals, but his one true love is country music. Calling himself a singer in the tradition of Lee Greenwood and Kenny Rogers, Segal won the Chicago-area True Value Country Showdown in 1986 as best vocalist.

"He actually wrote a song for us," recalls Leszek Burzynski, head of the Chelsea Film Corporation in New York and director of the film Trapped. "We used the song over the closing credits."

Before he started doing makeup full-time, Segal's talents flourished on Halloween. During the Watergate period, he did a pretty convincing job of making himself look like Richard Nixon. "It was the scariest costume I could come up with," says Segal, who loves to spin Halloween tales.

"Eight years ago, I decided at the last minute that I was going to be a satyr, a half man, half goat. It was a very hot Halloween, very summery. I covered my pants with white fake fur and I was naked from the waist up and I had horns and a beard and a goatee and I made an erect rubber phallus and went down to Rush Street, which I thought was the right place for that costume. I hooked up with a girl who was dressed as a nun."

About that time, a friend told Segal he should apply for a job doing makeup for an upcoming PBS American Playhouse. His big break found Segal, among other things, fashioning a beard for ex-Munster Fred Gwynne for the show Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby Is a Friend of Mine.

"There are different ways to build a mustache, and in theater you glue the hair directly on the skin," says Segal. "In film, because of continuity, you want the thing to look the same all the time. You need a ready-made piece. A ready-made mustache consists of taking individual hairs and a little tiny hook that's like a crochet needle and knitting each of those tiny, individual hairs onto a piece of lace. It's like making a hook rug. People who are very good at it can do it very quickly, but I had never made one before. It took me about four days to do, but I wasn't going to tell them that I'd never made one before, so I made one and it turned out fine."

The PBS experience--his first professional film credit--made it easier for Segal to knock on doors. The ones quickest to open belonged to schlock directors with particular requests: severed heads, saws through backs, dismembered torsos.

"He worked as a makeup effects designer for us and he was very good," says Leszek Burzynski. "He had to create a creature who was supposed to have been someone trapped in a mine 20 years ago. He was a blind, bloodless creature who had lived without the benefit of light or air for 20 years. . . . He enjoyed it. He was very precise. He had high standards."

"You must understand," Segal tells me, "that I am the kind of person who pricks his finger, sees blood, and faints. I don't like real blood. Real blood makes me absolutely ill. But, if I made it and it's like an arts-and-crafts project, it doesn't bother me. The illusion is the fun thing. Most of the guys I know who have done effects makeup have been actors or magicians or both. I have been both. The reason is we all love illusions. It's not that I'm into blood or guts or I'm a death monger or I have a death wish. I just enjoy fooling people. I enjoy the illusions.

"Personally, I'm happier making a dwarf or aging a person from 20 to 80 than I am blowing them up and tearing their guts out, but that illusion too I can appreciate."

No matter what he tells you, Segal has a pretty strong stomach for this grisly stuff. He did some of his research on makeup effects in the Cook County morgue.

"I'll never forget being in Dr. Stein's office," says Segal. "He said, 'Would you like to see some slides?' I said, OK. The first slide he showed me was of a guy whose head had been blown apart by a shotgun. Half of it was lying on one shoulder. Half of it was lying on the other shoulder. There was a red, gooey mess in the middle.

"Then he said, 'Would you like to go downstairs?' I said, downstairs? So, he took me downstairs. At the Cook County morgue they have rooms for the dead bodies and I can't remember what all the rooms are called, but they're named for the colors the bodies turn when they die, So, he opened the door to the Rose Room for me and from about 15 feet I took a very quick look at some very stiff stiffs. I said thanks a lot, closed the door, and went upstairs."

To complete his research, Segal obtained some anatomy books and paid a visit to a second morgue, where he was lucky enough to view an autopsy in progress.

"I was struck by the colors," says Segal, commencing another well-studied story, "The colors were so vivid. The muscle was a brilliant scarlet. The fatty tissue was as yellow as the cups we're drinking our soft drinks from now. His eyeballs were very white. For a moment it was fascinating, but then I had to excuse myself and leave. But for ten seconds I was frozen and it was a fascinating experience because I was able to look at it from the abstract. But it doesn't make me want to be dead soon."

The process of turning a normal face into something disfigured and gross usually takes from two to five hours and any number of polysyllabic materials. The longest job that Segal knows of was the one that changed John Hurt into the Elephant Man--14 hours each time for makeup maestro Christopher Tucker, from whom Segal has taken classes.

Makeup is one profession that has a strong preference for synthetic materials. "Normally," Segal says, "you try to stay away from things that used to come from something that was alive because, first of all, they don't last long. If, God forbid, you don't shoot the scene the same day, if it doesn't get refrigerated, it will smell very bad. Frequently, when you make an exploding head, you stuff it with calves' brains and things like that. You hope the head explodes that day because otherwise you end up with a very smelly effect.

"There are a number of industrial kinds of things we use in effects makeup: epoxies and polyurethanes and rubber products. We use gelatin to make scars. Methol-cellulose gum is a very popular item. It's the same thing they put in McDonald's milk shakes. We use it to make saliva and glue. Blood is normally Karo syrup with red food coloring, so you can eat the blood if you're in the mood."

In his studio at Randolph and Halsted, Segal has about 2,000 wigs in cardboard boxes.

"If you want wigs, talk to me," says 'Segal. "What happened was, I walked into this store and the guy who ran it had to get all his stuff out of there in three days. I walked in and he was going to have the stuff hauled away and thrown away, so he said 'What do you want?' I started hauling boxes off the shelves and I ended up with a pile of 50 boxes on the floor. I said 'I cant begin to pay you for all this.' He said, 'How much do you have?' So I named a little figure and he said, 'Take that wall and that wall.'"

Segal turns to a page of his portfolio and says, "This is an illusion I'm particularly proud of." Apparently the producers of one of those high-quality flicks thought it would be a pretty good idea to offer the clientele a prostitute with a broken bottle stuffed in her mouth. In the business, these gory effects are known as "gags." And Segal says, "This was a pretty good gag."

"It's totally gruesome," Segal admits. "It was tricky to engineer. I gave her a fake nose, fake lips, fake teeth, the whole side of her face is artificial, and the Coke bottle is carefully sculpted to fit into the carefully sculpted rubber wound. So the actress is not feeling any pain no matter how painful it looks."

If you look at Segal's work and say "That's sick" he'll probably tell you "Thank you very much." But a perusal of the portfolio brings one to wonder about its morality. The genre in which Segal works runs to violent rapes and murders and the glorification of subservient women. Promiscuity tends to be punished with disfigurement.

"This worries me, it worries me very much," says Segal, who insists he'd honestly prefer to work on films like Big or Crossing Delancey. But he says that in the context of today's slasher movies, what he does is "pretty tame stuff." He cites scenes from other films in which people are torn limb from limb, and maintains that his work is not as graphic--a claim not bolstered particularly by his portfolio.

"I'm glad that the slasher picture as a genre is finally dying commercially because I don't think it contributes anything positive to society. If we had more psychological studies and it happened to have special effects in it and it made some moral point instead of glorifying the killer, I think there would be a reason to make that sort of picture.

"Unfortunately, slasher pictures don't contain those elements and I don't think it's something I necessarily want to do anymore."

"I don't recall him finding anything morally offensive [in 5 5 5]," says Wally Koz. "Nothing offends me. I make what people want to see. If you offend easily, you're in the wrong business."

Segal is now shopping around for a production deal that will let him break into the film world as a director. He says he wants to stay away from the slashers, but if it comes to that he might do one.

"I like to save money when I go to the movies," says Segal, "so I usually look for a double bill. And the best place to find a double bill of a creature feature was always the Woods. The audience thinks they're watching television. They sit there, they talk to one another, they talk back to the screen, their kids are crying. But, whenever something violent happens on the screen, the young men go wild with glee. They laugh. They scream. They have a wonderful time. I honestly believe that if people lack enough power over their lives or enough power over others, they tend to identify very strongly with anyone who has power and it doesn't matter whether the morality presented is good or bad.

"At the Woods, people bring their kids to see these movies and there's not much supervision involved. And you see all these five-year-olds staring up at the screen watching people being mutilated, hacked up, with gleeful villains getting off to do the next sequel. It's teaching lessons I don't want to teach anymore."

True enough. The slasher cinema does present killer as protagonist. Heroes don't return for sequels but the killers do.

"I used to enjoy the Nightmare on Elm Street movies," says Segal. "4 is an excellent piece of filmmaking, but when you got to the end of 3 you think he'd really had it. He's buried in hallowed ground. He's been defeated. God has won. And right has triumphed.

"But then they bring him back for 4. Back from the grave. Freddy is powerful enough to overcome the will of God. Now, when you sit in an audience at one of these films, the audience enjoys Freddy because he has a lot of charm. It's what Shakespeare says in Hamlet--'A man can smile and smile and smile and still be a villain.' Look at Richard Nixon. Same way with Freddy. Everyone identifies with him because he's the most interesting personality. Then he's given all the power. And how does he use this power? To eviscerate young people. And everybody identifies with him.

"We have Freddy dolls, a Freddy series. I think there's a problem there. I think there's a trend in creature features to give the bad guys the power to bring them back for another sequel. The moral implication is that the bad guys will always win if they're strong enough. What it encourages people to do is to become a strong bad guy. And I think that represents a problem."

But for all that, Segal remains comfortably on the fence, entertaining the possibility that his activities might actually benefit society! Maybe they're cathartic . . .

"Young men are the prime target for these movies," he tells me. "Maybe they feel themselves from time to time that they're not as in control of their relationships as they would like themselves to be. And maybe watching these movies is their way of safely venting their frustrations. That may be the good thing about these movies. You let the killer on the screen do it for you and then it's served a very good purpose."

And if this isn't true, well it's not his fault.

"It's my job to make things look as real as possible. That's what I'm paid to do. But it's also the director's job to provide a context and that will influence how the audience views the film."

Certainly, working on these films has had some cathartic effect on Segal himself.

"My greatest nightmares always had to do with personal disfigurement. Anything that assaults my body physically gives me the creeps and doing these dissected body parts allows me to confront that fear and deal with it. I used to, when I was a kid, have lots of nightmares about creatures which I stopped having since I've started working on these pictures. It's cleared it out of a certain part of my psyche. Creature features give us an opportunity to confront some of our deepest fears and overcome them and triumph over them."

And the result?

Says Segal, "I haven't slept better in years."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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