"A real gorilla doesn't have these detailed expressions," says Carlo Rambaldi, "but for the movie, you need this. It's acting."
King Kong, or, to be exact, the mechanical head that model maker Rambaldi has made of everyone's favorite rampaging ape, has just switched into his "ferocious" mode. All snarl and sharp teeth, the model looks appropriately scary, and the 20 or so technicians sandwiched into the small, hot sound stage in a corner of the DEG Film Studios (as in De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) are excited. As a jockey-sized actor dressed in an ape suit sits in front of a camera, four technicians operating levers that look like the gear shifts found in 18-wheeler trucks push and pull, tug and jerk, operating a mechanical system that allows Kong to achieve a variety of expressions. Want a snarl? Push some mouth levers here, a few nose and brow levers there, and you've got the look. How about "lust" or a healthy "sniff?" No problem: Rambaldi has worked out the glitches.
Creator of E.T. and winner of three Academy Awards (for "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Alien" and the 1976 remake of "King Kong"), Rambaldi is a key ingredient in the production of "King Kong Lives!," the DEG production currently filming here. Rambaldi was just in Rome to receive the Premio Alcide de Gasperi, Italy's highest civilian honor, and flew back to run mechanical and photo tests of the several Kong models that will be so crucial to the sequel's success.
Ten years after producer De Laurentiis promised that "When the monkey die, people gonna cry," King Kong will rise from the cinematic dead and tug at our heart strings again. Despite nearly unanimous critical pans, his remake of the 1933 classic grossed more than $70 million at the domestic box office and was a Kong-sized hit overseas. So it was obvious that Kong's appeal transcends cultures and generations--and hence this sequel, due at Christmas.
Fifty-three years after he first appeared on the screen, Kong has, in fact, passed beyond the realm of classic film character into the areas of folklore and mythology. The "Beauty and the Beast" sexual subtext of the Kong films has been the object of comment and speculation for decades, and Kong's final, valiant stand on top of the Empire State Building is one of the truly enduring moments in the history of the cinema.
More important, despite the destruction he wreaks, Kong is, like Frankenstein and the Wolfman, a monster with a heart: a tragically misunderstood being, a creature who strikes back only in defense. "You can love him because he's unspoiled," sums up Michael McClendon, a day player on the sequel. "It's something we would all like to go back to: that lost innocence."
In "Kong Lives!," the ape's story takes up where the remake left off: Kong, after being riddled with machine-gun bullets and falling from the top of New York's World Trade Center, is airlifted to a medical facility, where he is put on life-support systems.
Cut to 10 years later. Explorer Brian Kerwin (Sally Field's errant husband in "Murphy's Romance's"), trekking through the wilds of Borneo, discovers a female equivalent of Our Hero. Rushed to a Tennessee medical facility, Lady Kong's blood is used for transfusions during an operation performed by Linda Hamilton (the target of "The Terminator") in which Kong is fitted with a 10-ton Jarvik heart. After recovering, Kong, sniffing his lady equivalent's "aroma," helps her escape. They flee across the Tennessee wilderness, with the Army in panting pursuit.
The love birds are eventually recaptured, but not before Lady Kong has been impregnated. The film ends with the birth of Baby Kong. Another sequel seems inevitable.
"Kong is classic mythology," says Kerwin, "the monster that nobody understands. Everybody wants to watch the monster wreaking havoc, but the attractive part of the myth is that there's one person who's privy to the monster's affections, who understands him."
In the previous Kong films, that love interest was played by women: first Fay Wray, then Jessica Lange. But in the spirit of camp fun that the producers and director John Guillermin, who did the remake, hope to impart to this sequel, it is Kerwin who will be the object of Lady Kong's crush. With this in mind, Rambaldi has had to come up with three separate Kongs--male, female and baby--each with individualized features. It's these creations that will be the stars of the film, since, as the actors are quick to acknowledge, plot and humans are also-rans.
"The movie is about Kong, about special effects, about jeeps being blown up," says John Ashton, who plays the Army general responsible for Kong's capture (and is well-known to millions as Judge Reinhold's detective partner in "Beverly Hills Cop"). " 'I'd like to thank the academy for blowing up my jeep,' " he says, mimicking an Oscar acceptance speech, " 'and Kong for smashing me into the ground. . . .' Acting is simply secondary in a picture like this."
Obviously so. In the studio's model department, for example, more than 16,000 man-hours alone are being expended to produce 1,200 miniature trees that will be used in the scene where Lady Kong rampages through a miniaturized landscape and then crashes into a barn (it will be shot on one of the studio's six sound stages).
On the same day that Rambaldi is testing his models, the sound stage in question is a beehive of activity, with artists and carpenters busily preparing tiny roads, bushes, rocks, and other scenic paraphernalia. On another massive sound stage, consisting of 20,000 square feet with a 45-foot high ceiling, an enormous heart transplant set has been erected, complete with platform bed for Kong, pulley for the heart and monstrous tanks for blood plasma.
Meantime, Rambaldi and crew are at work, preparing for their run-through. This time out, with 50 technicians working for three months, Rambaldi has produced a Kong that will come in several sexes and pieces:
There is an enormous 60-foot version of Kong, which features a removable head and legs (the head and fur color can be changed to create Lady Kong), and extremely limited movement (mostly in the jaw and eyes).
There's a giant hand, used for scenes in which Kong picks up objects and humans.
There's a Baby Kong about a foot high, with a limited number of movements.
And there's three Kong heads--for King, Lady and Baby--with different characteristics. But each includes about 15 different points of movement. (In contrast, E.T., a complete body model, had 85 movement points.) These movements can be combined to create an almost infinite number of expressions, including labor pains for Lady Kong, and a "love crush" for King.
The large Kong will be used in the heart transplant sequence, some "real for real" shots and a few scenes in which Kong is shown captured by the military. Otherwise, when miniature scenes are called for, three diminutive British actors will be wearing ape suits with Rambaldi's mechanical heads: One actor will be used for body movement and "generic face" shots, one for close-ups, and one for Lady Kong and Baby Kong.
Rambaldi, a thin, placid man in his late 50s who chain smokes while directing his technical crew, claims that "70% of the old Kong is repeated" in the new version, with the rest "of higher structural quality. Mechanics are better than electronics (for models like this), because the movements are more precise. This kind of mechanics is not taught in any university. This (Kong's face) is like a prototype, but it's a prototype that must work the first time."
A low-keyed genius, Rambaldi knows that on his shoulders rests the continued success of the Kong craze. He is not one to shirk the challenge.
"Technologically," he says, "a maximum level has been reached (in terms of what models can do). E.T. contained 85 points of movement, which is the best you can do with a human model. The audience knows these models are mechanical, but the whole point is to make them forget."