Meet Joe Black, Martin Brest’s 1998 film starring Brad Pitt as Death on holiday and Anthony Hopkins as his unwitting host, is an odd duck of a movie. It reenters the discourse every few years, usually after someone who’s never seen it stumbles upon it on late-night cable TV, then either dismisses it as totally absurd or defends its bizarre beauty.
I’m in the latter camp. I first watched this movie with my mom right after her dad died, and we sobbed the entire way through, both of us finding our own connections to the story of a beloved father (Hopkins) leaving his daughter (Claire Forlani) behind as she, uh … well, as she falls in love with the Grim Reaper. (Much like The OA, this movie is embarrassing to describe out loud.) To this day, even the first few notes of the sweeping score bring me to tears.
But Meet Joe Black is not for everyone. It requires a suspension of cynicism to let yourself get caught up in a three-hour film about Anthony Hopkins coming to terms with his mortality while his mortality sits next to him at dinner. It also requires a real suspension of disbelief to watch Brad Pitt pretend to be a virgin. However, if you do fall for its weird charms, you will be rewarded with several scenes of Brad Pitt eating peanut butter in a way that can only be described as pornographic, and a sex scene wherein Brad Pitt — remember, a virgin! — holds back tears of joy as he mounts Claire Forlani near a gigantic indoor pool.
The movie popped back into public discussion on Twitter last week, via an out-of-context clip of Brad flirting with Claire before abruptly being hit by two cars at once and dying a horrible, violent death.
I’ll concede that, out of context, this clip is jarring enough to be funny, located somewhere between the uncanny valley and the 1990s. In context, it’s … also sort of like that. But mostly, it works, because at this point in the film, you’ve just spent 15 minutes falling madly in love with Brad Pitt’s supernaturally hot character, and his death is so random and shocking and rude (again, he was so hot) that it jolts you directly onto the parallel plane of consciousness you need to be on to really appreciate this movie. This scene is something of a litmus test: If you cannot accept Brad Pitt at his being hit by two cars at once, you do not deserve him at his oral sex with peanut butter. If you can acknowledge its shortcomings but accept its general premise, you will emerge three hours later extremely sad and horny.
In an effort to avenge Meet Joe Black for a new generation, I reached out to Buddy Joe Hooker, the film’s stunt coordinator, and Robert Devine, the special-effects coordinator, to get the story behind the scene’s origins — which, incredibly, involved Brad Pitt in a unitard, being rubbed down with baby shampoo.
Are you familiar with the fact that this scene is going viral online again?
Devine: I’ve seen it, yeah. We’ve gotten calls from people wanting to re-create it for other movies, and they tell us, “This was done with computer graphics,” and I correct them: “Actually, it was done for real. I was part of the team that created it. A lot of people were important to it.”
How’d you get involved in the film? Do you remember the call?
Hooker: I think it might have come down from Ron Schwary, who was one of the executive producers — I’d worked for him before. It might have come from Brad Pitt. I’m not really sure; it’s been awhile. I was doing another film at the time called Red Corner with Richard Gere, so there was so much going on.
Devine: It was a little dramatic. We got the call [from the team], and they told us what they needed, and because of the deadline, we were on the red-eye that night to New York after giving our bid that same day.
Do you remember the first time the car scene was described to you? What did you think?
Hooker: After a conversation with Martin Brest and the DP and everybody, it was clear they actually wanted to do the car-accident scene with a real stunt man. And that’s how we set out to make it happen: We told him we’d need three-and-a-half, four weeks of rehearsals and rigging and all of this stuff to do it with Brad Pitt’s double, Scott Wilder. I definitely knew we could do it. We just needed the time.
But the producers kept putting things off — the window was getting shorter, I was about to start Red Corner, and I kept going, “Dudes, we have got to make this happen.” We started rehearsing and rigging and started doing all of this stuff on the back lot. Everything was going great, we were getting everything dialed in, but we hadn’t put a real guy [in the scene] yet. We were about a week into it, and we get this call: “Hey, they want to shoot this next week.” And I just went, “No way.” The shit hit the fan — they were really, really upset. So Scott Wilder and I had to come up with a plan.
So what happened?
Hooker: We said, “Instead of using a real person, we can use an articulated dummy that has all the joints, fingers — everything works like a real human being. We can have a mold made of Brad Pitt’s head, that they can put on the dummy, and perfect, real glass eyes. You can’t really tell the difference.” And they went, “No way, it’ll never work, blah-blah!” So we just said, “Listen, it will work, trust us.”
How’d you create the dummy?
Devine: Body casting involves using plaster bandages and different rubbers and materials. We made a plaster-bandage mold of his body and shipped it back here and cast three bodies of Brad, using that.
When we were first molding him, we shook hands, and he just said, “I wanna ask one favor. Please guarantee me when this is done you’ll destroy every single head and body so that …” He didn’t put it into words, but I had a feeling he didn’t want love dolls of himself turning up on eBay.
How did you make the plaster mold? Was he naked?
Devine: No. We did it in a hotel. We laid down plastic. You don’t wanna hurt their skin, so I devised a method: use a unitard. And then I found that the best release agent, so the bandage doesn’t stick, is baby shampoo. So you then brush that all over the unitard while they’re standing there.
So you were rubbing baby shampoo all over Brad Pitt’s nearly naked body?
Devine: Yes, but he was wearing a unitard. I applied the plaster bandage on the front and back of his body, which is the same kind you use when you’re getting a cast. We had a stand so he could hold his arms out to help support himself. When we did the front, he did his, uh, personal area, and [my colleagues] were laughing, because I had to do the backside. Brad turned around and said, “Nice ass, eh?” and I said, “Thanks a lot.” All my lady friends since then have said, “Oh, we could have helped you.”
Devine: They didn’t want us to take any pictures — which was dangerous, because if we ship it back, what happens if plaster gets damaged? How do we re-create his body? One day, we’re walking around in NYC — only in New York! — and I’m thinking, It’s a shame we couldn’t get pictures; what are we gonna do?
I turn my head, we’re walking through the Village at 11 p.m., and I see a kiosk with magazines. My eye just somehow catches this bold print: “Brad Pitt Nude Pics.” I’m like, “What?!” I thought I was hallucinating. I looked again.
My partner and I — James, bless him, he’s passed away since — we went over, and it was a magazine called Celebrity Skin. I opened it up, and sure enough, somebody had shot him from a building into another building; you could see him through a window with the curtains drawn enough. A couple of front and back shots, but nothing … it was a little hidden. I bought the magazine and brought it back, and it was our backup. Though the mold got here fine.
Okay, so walk me through shooting the effect itself.
Hooker: The problem was that Marty wanted to shoot this, the hit on Brad Pitt, in one angle — with the camera never moving, never panning, no edits, no anything. The car comes in, hits him, he flies through the air, hits another car, goes off the back — and this all has to happen without the camera moving. So we created an endless cable rig. The van that hits Brad Pitt has a cable attached to the front of it. It goes down to 25, 30 yards, through a pulley. The cable goes through that pulley, over the other lane, through another pulley, then hooks on the back of the taxi cab. Now, on the front of the taxi cab, that cable is hooked again, and goes to another pulley, which goes around the pulley. Then there goes another pulley, attaches to the back of the van. You’re looking at a rectangle, with two pulleys on each end, and a double yellow line down the middle.
The van moves forward, and it pulls the cab, and when it hits the dummy, we have a huge crane overhead with a cable attached to the dummy that goes up to another ratchet that’s hooked up on a traveling rig. The ratchet lifts Brad Pitt’s dummy through the air, travels him X amount of distance, and he lands on the windshield of the cab. So it’s all pretty intricate stuff. We had to find out how far Brad Pitt could fly, how high he could go without leaving the frame, how far he could travel before he hit the cab without going out of frame.
Devine: He’s a human ping-pong ball. We rigged the body with bungee cord, so instead of looking like a click-clack robot, it reacts like bodies react. And they had to put a new windshield on the taxi every time. One time, the whole body was just in the right position, but the body came through the windshield, and stopped just a few inches from the stunt driver’s head. Pretty close call.
What’s up with those photos online of Brad running into a giant piece of blue foam?
Hooker: I had a brilliant idea. Nobody wanted to use CGI. In the first storyboard I sent you, the top of the page, you see where the blue van hits Brad Pitt?
I took a huge piece of foam, and they carved out the front of this van exactly to scale, and we painted it blue, and then we put it on a dolly grip, brought it back, and they laid down some dolly track. Brad Pitt, the real one, is standing there, and we run this big piece of foam that looks like the front of the van and hit Brad Pitt. In real life. But it’s a big piece of foam. It can’t hurt him. We ran as fast as the grips could go and hit him as hard as we could.
We get a print of the shot, and when we go to shoot it, and we take the dummy, and we place this dummy in the exact position Brad Pitt was in when this thing smacked him. We used maybe 15 frames of a CGI for that piece of foam hitting Brad Pitt.
You didn’t use any other CGI?
Devine: Well, they did use computer graphics. They didn’t like the way the suitcases moved in the scene — they were kind of leaden, they wanted more dynamism. So Industrial Light & Magic got all the credit, if you look at the film — we’re not even really listed, which is sad. But the effect was almost entirely practical. ILM got the credit because they charged more money to fix the suitcases.
Did Brad enjoy getting hit by the fake van foam? How did he react?
Hooker: He was loving it. He was doing his acting thing. He took one more look back to see if the girl was there, he turned, you hear the honk. And that was it!
How did the extras react to watching Brad Pitt’s dummy get hit over and over again by multiple cars?
Hooker: It blew everybody out. People freaked out. They bring ‘em out and put ‘em on the street; they don’t really know what’s going on. There’s Brad Pitt’s dummy standing there; they’re not really sure what’s happening. [When he first got hit], people were screaming. They were like, “You killed Brad Pitt!” And I kind of thought it was hilarious at the time, but the more I thought about it, I was going, Wow, they should have maybe told this to people. I think they didn’t because they were looking for those reactions. What if one of those old people had a heart attack or something?
What was it like to work with Brad? Was he fun?
Hooker: One day we got the dummy in, and the face came in — we had a Hollywood makeup artist do the face, and make his mouth slack-jawed, like somebody who’d been hit would be — and they dressed it up in Brad Pitt’s dressing room. We didn’t want anybody to see it; we wanted to see it before anybody else did. And it looked exactly like Brad Pitt. It was bizarre. It was too real. It looked like a dead Brad Pitt.
So Brad and Scott and I were going, “You know what, let’s fuck with these guys a little bit.” We said, “Brad, tell the assistant producer and director you really need to talk to them; it’s urgent. And have them come over to the dressing room.” So they knock, and Brad says, “Come in!” And we set the dummy in his makeup chair there, kind of looking at the mirror, and when they came in, they saw his head, and were talking to the back of it. They’re like, “Brad, what’s up?” They’re having a conversation with the back of this dummy head.
Devine: He was great to work with. Real professional, aside from the joke about his butt. But I laughed and was embarrassed, and they said, “Oh, look, he’s embarrassed.” I was like, “Oh, great.” But he was great to work with.
How attractive is he in person?
Hooker: He’s great! I’m not a dude guy. But as far as appreciating another guy, I think he’s really cool. He’s very unassuming. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. Or at least, at that point he didn’t. He was just a regular dude. I really appreciated that. He was willing to do whatever we asked him to do.
Do you remember any other fun stories from the set, perhaps involving Brad Pitt?
Devine: On the dummies, there were these durable silicone heads with wigs and hair and eyebrows and fake eyeballs. After maybe 20 takes, one eyeball popped out. When I saw it later on video, I noticed that something followed him after he went off, followed the arc of his bounce. And I zoomed in and slowed it — and it was that eyeball. And that was the actual take they used. If you look at the film, you can see his eyeball rolling offscreen.