How 'Bad Milo' Revived Hollywood's Old-School Creature Effects
One night, writer/director Jacob Vaughan was on the phone with his soon-to-be Bad Milo co-writer Benjamin Hayes talking about how much they loved Joe Dante's Gremlins and the early films of David Cronenberg. The conversation resulted in Vaughan blurting out a random idea: “We should do a creature feature where the creature comes out of a guy's ass!”
So they did.
“I don't care what people think,” Vaughan says of Bad Milo's bizarre premise. “It makes me laugh, it makes me think, there's a central metaphor, and there's a lot of me in it. I had a lot of stomach issues and a lot of stress. Who doesn't? I could put myself into it. I could write the craziest movie I could think of while making it about a character's problems.”
Bad Milo stars Ken Marino (Party Down, Burning Love) as Duncan, a ho-hum accountant who discovers a pint-sized, razor-toothed bugger hibernating inside him. “Milo” is the physical manifestation of his id; when Duncan is provoked by his coworkers, his boss, or anyone else kicking sand in his eyes, the critter emerges from his rear end to wreak murderous havoc.
The movie marks Vaughan's feature debut after working as an assistant editor on Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home for directors Jay and Mark Duplass (both of whom serve as producers on Bad Milo). Not the pedigree one might expect, but his work with the founding fathers of the mumblecore movement pushed Vaughan to take his scenario seriously, despite the film fitting snuggly into the history of horror comedies. Milo's actions demanded gruesome consequences, Duncan's stakes had to be “live or die,” and perhaps most importantly, everything had to look real. Including the butt monster.
To realize the creature, Vaughan turned to the art of puppetry, a staple of film history rarely tapped by contemporary blockbusters. “I knew the success to a create character would be how well the puppeteer bring him to life,” Vaughn says. “It's all a performance. Really good puppeteers can bring a sock puppet to life.”
The Bad Milo production spent one-seventh of its budget on bringing Milo to life, enlisting legendary artist Aaron Sims to design the creature and Fractured FX (300, Tron Legacy) to sculpt him into existence. “We were probably their tiniest movie,” says the director. “When I saw Milo being sculpted out of clay and molded into a foam puppet, I thought it was fantastic. So cute, so adorable. My only concern was whether people would believe that it came out of Duncan's ass.”
On set, puppeteers Bob Mano and Frank Langley assumed the “role” of Milo. Mano would work the facial features using a remote control system while Langley took position behind the puppet, articulating Milo in scenes where motion was required. Vaughn reveled in the practical effects and so did Marino, who told the director that working opposite Langley was like “acting with another actor.” Of course, the method was also painstaking.
“If Milo was supposed to run across the room, jump on a table, and grab a letter opener, you can only do that in small pieces. You would shoot him like 15 times, trying to get the right one. And Frank's arm is so tired. Then we have him flying through the air and landing on the table. Every time we shoot Milo it's like shooting a fight scene,” Vaughn says.
The crew could only shoot with the Milo puppet for 11 of their 27 shooting days, making the normal indie budget concerns even tighter. But it wasn't impossible and savvy planning that allowed Bad Milo to stage intricate set pieces on their small scale. A crucial scene towards the end of the film sees Milo duking it out with another butt-demon. To pull it off, two more puppeteers were required. One of them was Mark Bryan Wilson, the man behind Slimer in Ghostbusters. “I had a feeling that the puppeteers were out there, they just don't have a lot of opportunities to work. There isn't a lot of puppeteering in movies anymore,” Vaughan says.
Vaughan is cooking up a number of projects to follow up Bad Milo!, everything from an action comedy to a Milo-adjacent horror film to a “underwater fantasy movie that's almost non-verbal” he thinks would run about $10 million. As he both pieces together his future and sizes up Bad Milo!, he looks back his grisly comedy and makes a practical effects promise. "If I do anything with blood, I will overdo that blood." That's what happens when all the money goes to the perfect monster.