Based on the short story by R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Dave and Lou Elsey’s short film Keep the Gaslight Burning had a private showing at the Magic Castle in Hollywood on April 19, attended by many prominent names in make-up effects. Sponsored by M.A.C. Cosmetics, the event showcased the film and its craftspeople with many unexpected surprises unveiled.
Dave Elsey, who won an Oscar for his make-up effects in 2010’s The Wolfman, conveyed his longtime interest in making a short film, especially one existing in the supernatural. “Ghost stories work really well in the short form,” he said. “The idea formed in our heads to make one small section of an anthology movie and the idea that it could expand into a bigger form. One of the worst things you could do was do a period movie on a small budget; but it’s a ghost story, and it will really work.”
Lou Elsey, who co-wrote and directed the film with Dave, echoed her significant other’s sentiments. “This is a showcase of everything we loved—everything to do with the genre,” she said. “We went for dinner with some friends who produced the movie with us, and we said we wanted to make our own thing, and, from that dinner, six weeks later, we were shooting.”
Producer Don Bies utilized his Northern California base as a production hub, eventually coming upon a 1908 farmhouse in Petaluma as the setting for the entire film. “It was more Western than Victorian,” said Bies, “but it fit the mood, and it was for sale, so it was empty. It had been turned into a commercial building, so we just went in and dressed it up.”
In only two days, the Elseys shot Keep the Gaslight Burning with the key collaboration of cinematographer Bill Holshevnikoff who shot with the Arri Alexa digital camera. “The rooms weren’t very big so we couldn’t do a lot of wide shots,” Holshevnikoff explained, noting that key to his challenges was shooting the two lead actresses: Markie Post as Mrs. Maxwell and Kate Armstrong Ross (Post’s real-life daughter) as Maya. “We used different lenses for Markie and Kate; slight different ones that looked better on their facial features.”
Elsey created the prosthetics for two of the ghosts in the story, one of whom is played by seven-time Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker. “I asked if he wanted to be a ghost and he said, ‘Yeah, when and where?’” quipped Dave Elsey. “He’d be great as the ghost, but I’d like to see him alive too, so we added a scene, and Rick’s really good in it.”
To create Baker’s ghost make-up, the filmmakers brought in Danny Wagner, a prosthetics veteran with 30 years of experience. “One piece,” said Wagner of the prosthetic appliance. “It was cut around the eyes, and it had the nose, and basically down to the cheeks and jaw bone; it was pretty light. The beard was actually his—we wanted to make sure it blended well. He was in the chair for about an-hour-and-a-half.”
For Post’s old-age make-up—her character also has a younger incarnation in the film—Wagner collaborated with make-up artist John Stapleton. “We started with her old-age make-up,” said Stapleton, “which was a stretch-and-stipple using Attagel and Green Marble SeLr Spray. A little beauty make-up around the eyes; some KY to make them runny since she’s in the gas room her whole life. When we did her beauty make-up in her younger years, we just took off half the stretch-and-stipple and did a really plump skin, like she has naturally, and then [added] the scar using a Tinsley Transfer and put blood and lots of spatter on top of it.”
Twenty-five-year industry veteran make-up artist Louise Zizzo assisted with Post’s make-up and took care of Ross’ make-up. “It’s mostly eye make-up—a deep red pencil; it was bleak—it was perfect,” Zizzo said.
Baker, with whom Dave Elsey shared the 2010 Oscar, didn’t hesitate to perform in his friends’ film. “They have a film project that’s an amazing story, and I want to support my friends,” Baker stated. “Dave actually asked me if I wanted to design the make-up; I said, ‘It’s your film—you do what you want, but I’ll wear it.’ So, I supplied the teeth and the lenses and the hair.”
Before events at the Magic Castle concluded, Dave Elsey expressed pride in his first film. “It’s an unpretentious ghost story,” he said. “I hope people enjoy it for what it is: a starter.”