Stan Winston and the tricky business of Legacy
Date: October 6, 2008
By: Geoff Boucher
The creature creators at Stan Winston Studio specialize in Hollywood miracles -- they brought dinosaurs to life for "Jurassic Park" and turned metal men into movie history with "Iron Man" and "The Terminator" -- but their next trick will be their toughest. The illustrious special-effects shop will try to hold on to its history even as it sheds its late founder's name and abandons his storied workshop.
Stan Winston, a four-time Oscar winner, died in June in Malibu at age 62 after a seven-year battle with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. He was universally eulogized as one of the true wizards of Hollywood. "The entertainment industry has lost a genius," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the time, "and I lost one of my best friends." Steven Spielberg and James Cameron spoke at the funeral, and across Hollywood there was reflection on what made Winston and his shop so special. "He came to special effects from a background of acting, which informed everything," director Jon Favreau said. "It was always about performance, not just puppetry."
Winston became a brand name in Hollywood decades ago (he won his first Emmy in 1973) and his namesake studio in Van Nuys became an industry landmark with its collection of aliens, robots and magical beasties. But now, just months after his death, neither Winston's name nor his workshop will be part of the day-to-day life of the company he left behind. All the latex masks and robotic critters have been crated up or already moved to a new facility in San Fernando that is much more modern but also far less charming.
Stan Winston Studio will also give up the ghost by changing its name to Legacy Effects, a somewhat ironic moniker for a company that seems to be pushing away so much of its history. I recently dropped by Winston's maze-like old workshop, which sits on a gritty industrial stretch of Valjean Avenue in Van Nuys, and got a tour before most of its treasures were boxed up. Everywhere you looked there was movie history, both famous (there's a mottled, undead version of Tom Cruise from "Interview With the Vampire" standing in one corner) and nearly forgotten (it took me a long minute to recognize one of the robots from the 1981 Andy Kaufman movie "Heartbeeps" -- but that film did earn Winston his first Oscar nomination).
The real treasure of the company, though, is its talent, not its heirlooms. That's the main reason behind the name change. John Rosengrant, who started working with Winston on the set of "The Terminator" (1984), said that he and the three other partners who will lead the company forward all value the studio's towering tradition, but have decided it would be best to take a step out of its considerable shadow.
"This was not an easy decision," Rosengrant told me. "When Stan died we lost a friend, a mentor, a teacher, an inspiration -- the whole gamut. Everything he did and everything he represented, it's ingrained in us. It would be hard to do anything but 'the Stan way.' "
That's why no one was surprised when, in the days after the company's founder's death, one of Rosengrant's partners told Ain't it Cool News, the popular fanboy website, that the business would be renamed the Winston Effects Group. It seemed fitting and natural. But that name didn't stick for long. Instead, the partners informed the Winston family that they would rename the company. "We did receive the blessing of Stan's widow, Karen, but I'm sure there was mixed emotions for the family. I know there was mixed emotions for us."
It's a delicate dance when a Hollywood company lives on after its namesake founder dies, especially if that founder happened to be an icon (and make no mistake, Winston was an icon in the specialized art-science of special effects). It's common for companies to keep the leader's prestigious name as an ongoing brand, hence the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. Entertainment and (in an especially good parallel to the Winston case) the Jim Henson Co., which was founded by a master artisan of singular imagination.
All these things went through the minds of Rosengrant and the other three Legacy partners: Shane Mahan (who also began working with Winston on the first "Terminator" set), Lindsay MacGowan (the British-born partner who was hired while Winston's team was working at Pinewood Studios on the 1986 film "Aliens") and Alan Scott (who came into the fold during the "Terminator 2" production and now leads the shop's escalating pursuits in television commercials, of which there were more than 100 last year).
But they also considered the fact that they themselves contributed a great deal to the success of Winston Studio, especially since 2001, when the founder's role in effects projects began to recede. Not only was Winston dealing with his health issues, he was also pursuing an ambition to produce movies.
"He was turning over the reins to us during 'A.I.' and 'Jurassic Park III,' " Rosengrant said, referring to two 2001 films involving Winston's close friend Spielberg. "Stan was on the set for 'A.I.' but he really turned over a lot of the duties at that point to the people here. He was passing the torch to us. He was very supportive of people finding their own successes here and, really, he will always be part of anything we do. When we get a new project, a new challenge, we all look at it through Stan's eyes."
That led to great success on "Iron Man," by all accounts a triumphant meshing of practical and CGI effects, which is an approach that is gaining great traction in Hollywood as the best way to realize fantastic visions on screen but deliver them with a real-world weight and solidity that keeps their movies from slipping into complete cartoon physics. Winston was "in the room during key moments and for key decisions," according to director Favreau, but his team did most of the heavy lifting. Favreau has worked repeatedly with Winston, both the man and the namesake studio, and he said that the crew that is now moving forward as Legacy will absolutely continue to have his business. "I have no reservations at all. We know them and they know us and their work is top-notch."
(In another Winston-related note, Favreau also said that he will be directing "Me and My Monster" for Sony. The movie, about a boy's life-changing friendship with a strange creature, was one that was near and dear to the heart of Winston. It was circled the flagship project for Winston Productions, another venture by the late special-effects guru. "It was something he reached out to me about and wanted me to do and I'm excited to be doing it.")
The last two major American movies that will have Winston Studio listed in the credits will be "Terminator Salvation" and then the Cameron-directed 3-D film "Avatar," which is fitting considering the importance of the killer-robot franchise and its original director in the career of the late wizard. "That," Rosengrant said, "will be a bittersweet thing for a lot of people."
"Terminator Salvation," in theaters next summer, is being directed by McG who, earlier this year, told me that he considered it essential to have the Winston name on his film. "It comes down to credibility," the filmmaker said. "I wanted to carry on this tradition and show people that we were going to make this movie the right way. That meant bringing in Stan and his people. You have to do things the right way."
The Winston name will also appear on a German film called "Pandorum." After that, the Legacy era officially begins (as far as movies) with the Bollywood production called "Robot" and then, if things go as all parties expect, with "Iron Man 2" in 2010.
Legacy also has been talking with the production team behind a film adaptation of Green Lantern, the DC Comics character that dates back to 1940. "We've done some early design work, so that's just preliminary, it's not green-lit yet," Rosengrant said. "And green-lit has a whole different meaning with that project, doesn't it?"
The shop is also making a new foray into television. While Winston labored on major television events as far back as the 1970s (he worked on "Roots," for instance, and won an Emmy for the creepy 1972 tele-film "Gargoyles"), now his team is looking for weekly work. "We've done some work with 'Grey's Anatomy,' that's a new thing for us, working on a television series. We'd love to see where that leads."
Depending on the workload, the Winston/Legacy group has upward of 120 employees and, no matter what the name is on its shingle, the top talent on that roster will bring in plenty of business in the seasons to come. And, to be frank, they want their names to be attached to future glories, not the name of their beloved but departed mentor. That's not unreasonable, but Hollywood is a tightly wired community with an emphasis on "reputation and relationships," as Rosengrant put it, and doing things "the right way," as McG phrased it. That's why the Legacy leaders are still fretting.
"Shane Mahan, one of the partners here, was talking to James Cameron and he told him about the name change. Jim thought about it and then he said that it was the right thing to do, you know, that it was fine. You got to understand, he and Stan were very, very good friends, so that meant a lot to us. Really, we were all breathing a sigh of relief..."
-- Geoff Boucher