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Visual effects legend Steve Johnson talks Slimer, James Cameron, and fleeing the country

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Courtesy of Steve Johnson

Visual effects artist Steve Johnson became a Hollywood legend thanks to work on films like Ghostbusters and The Abyss — then he fled the country. Now, Johnson is back to tell-all in his five-volume(!) memoir, Rubberhead: Sex, Drugs, and Special FX.

Most people who write autobiographies manage to relate the story of their lives in a single book. So, does visual effects artist Steve Johnson really think he has enough material for his planned five-volume memoir, Rubberhead: Sex, Drugs, and Special FX? “Are you kidding me?” says Johnson, 57. ” I’ve worked with Michael Jackson and all the biggest directors from James Cameron, to Guillermo del Toro, to Tim Burton. Don’t you think people want to hear about that? You’ve got the photos, you’ve got the ups, the downs, the drugs, the sex. You’ve got it all! I could go on for ten or fifteen volumes. I think we’re cutting it short at five!”

The just-published first volume of Rubberhead is certainly not short of incident as Johnson recalls disguising Jackson so the King of Pop could mingle with the public unrecognized or fleeing to Costa Rica in the mid-aughts after the rise of computer-generated trickery knee-capped a career built on practical effects. “I really enjoyed working with Michael,” he says. “Michael was very unassuming, very child-like. Not intimidating at all. Just a really really really sweet man.”

Johnson is also open about his onetime drug usage and how, for example, he sculpted the character of Slimer in the original Ghostbusters movie high on cocaine. “I’m not glamorizing anything,” he says. “I’m basically screaming to the universe, ‘Look, here’s what happened to me, don’t make these same mistakes!'”

The Houston-raised Johnson caught the fantasy bug early via Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland movie magazine. But his interest in effects really sparked when, around the age of 12, he saw the film Little Big Man, in which Dustin Hoffman played a 121-year-old man, thanks to the skills of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith. “I could not believe my eyes,” says Johnson. “That makeup is flawless. The intricacies — it’s just so beautiful.”

After graduating from high school, Johnson decamped to Los Angeles, where he found work on two lycanthrope horror classics: 1981’s An American Werewolf in London and the same year’s The Howling. But it was Ghostbusters — and the grinning monstrosity, Slimer — which put him on the map. “It was a real trial by fire,” says Johnson. “I thought, I’ll sculpt the f–king smile-with-arms, a big blob, and they’ll love it. But it was months of sculpting, and resculpting. ‘Put ears on him!’ ‘Take the ears off!’ It was a goddamn nightmare.”

In 1986, Johnson established his own company, XFX, and over the next two decades supplied the practical effects for dozens of films and TV shows including Species, Blade II, and James Cameron’s science fiction spectacular, The Abyss. “James Cameron said, ‘Steve, I want you to create the single most beautiful, alien image ever put on film’,” Johnson remembers. “‘I want these creatures to be glass-clear, I want them to self-illuminate, and change colors, and I want to shoot them underwater. Can you do it?’ I’m like, ‘Yes!’ I had no idea how to do this. It was basically impossible. But I figured it out, with James’ help.”

The ’80s and ’90s were glory days for Johnson and his fellow practical effects artists as studios handed them massive budgets to create images which, with CGI still in its infancy, had to be physically made. “The business changed almost, from a bunch of idiots in their garages to these mega [design studios], million-dollar shrines to the art of what we do,” says Johnson. “It was a blast. I never thought it would end. And if ILM had not done those goddamn digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, it probably would have squeezed out another way. But that was the beginning of the end. Digital technology started rearing its ugly head and began to systematically stomp our business out with its hobnail boots.”

In the spring of 2006, Johnson lost the contracts to create effects for Where the Wild Things Are and Spider-Man 3 on the same day. Deeply in debt, Johnson decided to sell off his assets — and relocate to Costa Rica. “Basically, I lost twenty million bucks in one day,” he says. “I just snapped. I probably went temporarily insane. I had outstanding loans of two or three million dollars. Everything I owned was really the bank’s equity on the loans. I said, ‘F–k it, I’m closing my company, I’m going down to the jungle, and I’m going to heal.’ So, what I did is, I robbed myself. I had an 18-wheeler pull up to my studio, and take all the stuff, and began to fence it over the Internet while I was in the jungle.”

Johnson spent a year in Costa Rica writing a book which he describes as a mix of Hunter S. Thompson’s early, autobiographical novel The Rum Diary and Brett Easton Ellis’ meta-fictional Luna Park. “I’d never written a book,” he says. “I pick up my pen and paper, and go, ‘S–t, what do I write about?’ I blended what was happening down there — which was crazy, drug deals, and hookers, and gun fights — with what was happening in my life.”

Although Johnson was unable to sell the novel, he had caught the writing bug, and, after returning to the U.S., he began work on Rubberhead. The memoir eventually became an 800-page epic in which, with an obvious nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, current-day Johnson finds himself time-traveling to different eras of his life, even, at one point, taking part in a ménage a trois with a younger version of himself. “All the big publishers really liked it, but they all had notes,” he says. “They said, ‘You’ve got to cut out all that time travel s—t.’ I’m like, ‘But that’s the heart and soul of the book! You want me to destroy my book?'”

Instead, Johnson resolved to release his memoir in five volumes, each of which would boast an array of behind-the-scenes photographs. He teamed with the small company Montauk Publishing and, last year, launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance his literary dream, which ultimately raised an impressive $87,216. The writer says subjects covered in later volumes of Rubberhead — whose title refers to a derogatory term for practical effects artists — will include the vampire movie Fright Night and the suicide of a friend he was forced to fire from the film because of his drug problems. “I found his dead body,” says Johnson. “I was haunted by this during the whole latter part of the ’80s, when I was doing all these big films.” He will also cover his marriages to horror icon Linnea Quigley and UnREAL star Constance Zimmer. “There’s a funny story about meeting Linnea Quigley on the set of Night of the Demons,” he says. “Constance Zimmer? Yeah, she’s covered, but I’m not so sure how she’s going to like the way she’s covered in the upcoming volumes.”

Looking forward, Johnson says he hopes to divide his time between publishing and Hollywood. “My perfect plan is to spend half a year writing and half a year working with filmmakers that I really trust,” he explains. “As much as I bitch about the effects industry, and the digital takeover, I love this s–t. I love creating characters. I can’t get away from it—no matter how hard I try.”

The hardcover, audio book, and E-book editions of Rubberhead: Volume 1 can all be purchased at Johnson’s official site. The book is also available to buy at Amazon.