For prop master Kirk Corwin (Gone Girl, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), every project is a new challenge with new equipment, weapons or character accoutrements to design, manufacture and maintain. But just like in director Paul Feig’s reboot of the classic Ghostbusters itself, the props and tools from the original film cast a long shadow over his work.
Story by Drew Turney
The iconic ghostbusting equipment like the traps, proton packs and the timeless Ecto-1 from Ivan Reitman’s 1984 comedy are instantly recognisable today. How could any new Ghostbusters film possibly reference them but make it’s own mark with props that stand alone?
To add to the complexity, Feig’s vision for the Ghostbusters universe was for it to be as realistic as possible – if two poorly paid academics (Kirsten Wiig and Melissa McCarthy) teamed up with an engineer (Kate McKinnon) and a subway operator (Leslie Jones) to take on a paranormal threat in real life, what would it look like?
The answer would put Corwin’s skills to the test, and as he explains to Video & Filmmaker, it was only through collaborating with the crew of designers and one very lucky academic that he’d help bring Feig’s ideas to life.
What does the job of the property master on Ghostbusters entail?
It’s the same as on every show. The manufactured props are, of course, the main thing on Ghostbusters. I came on board and a lot of the props had been in the works in terms of conceptual art.
But I look upon my job as directing things in a way that lets us actually build them and that will serve the functions of the actors. We get really interesting conceptual designs but some of them aren’t workable for some things the actors have to do.
Ghostbusters was easier in a sense because we had the original film, we had an idea of where we were going. Production designer Jeff Sage was the most instrumental in the look of props, Paul had a lot of input and we finally came up with the designs – way too late, as is always the case. Then, we start building.
It sounds like you were more active at the design end than a property master usually is.
Yes, on Ghostbusters I was actually involved in the designs to quite an extent. Mainly that was because Jeff was very gracious and said, ‘Hey, what do you think?’
We were building proton packs and PKE [psychokinetic energy] meters and he gave me a lot of input into what kinds of things we needed as well as the general look.
Did anything particularly drastic change about the designs while you were involved?
When I first came on some of the look was much more futuristic. Then we got into the character of Holtzmann [Kate McKinnon], who’s the main builder of the packs. I always go from a place of reality and she’s somebody that works in these underfunded college physics labs.
We did a really fun field trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and saw how their shops were set up. We also went to some colleges and looked at physics departments. I think Paul was very impressed with how much junk there was. All the surplus stuff that’s piled up – we wanted to have that kind of feel.
Does it make it easier or more fun if the production brings you on earlier in the process?
It does. It’s really fun when I’m on early enough to have a say in the look of things and how things are going to be built. Ghostbusters was good because we had a long prep, but often in movies the scripts change, so we held off on starting the manufacturing until we were really sure.
Of course for me, the guy who has to actually get it all made, it was eight weeks later than I would have wished, but we got it all done.
Talk about how part of the effort to make the props as realistic as possible led you to academia.
We have the concept that ghosts and all these things exist, but Paul wanted to have as much of a feel of reality as we could. We consulted with some physicists about what’s physically possible and what’s not.
Of course, we went from the original proton packs too, but once the packs were designed and we were on the show, we ended up with a really, really nice man, James Maxwell, a physicist who came on to build one of the experiments in Holtzmann’s lab.
He was very enthusiastic and engaged. We had him come up with a little three-page paper on how the proton packs would actually work. It was partly to give Paul some dialogue so he could have the actors talk about science rather than complete gobbledygook from comedy writers.
And you kept him on to do more for the movie, correct?
Yeah, there’s a non-profit science organisation of scientists frustrated seeing really non-scientific things in movies. We contacted them to get some basic technical expertise to guide us very early on.
They guided us to one of the physicists over at MIT. There’s one scene in the movie where Kristen Wiig is working on this huge white board with this massive equation, she actually did the entire equation for us.
But she was about to have a baby, so because she wasn’t able come in and help us build this initial experiment, which was going to be a big part of the first time we see the Ghostbusters’ lab at this college, she suggested James, who was her associate.
He came in and worked with us for a couple of weeks. We brought him in on the day we shot the experiment scene and I introduced him to Paul. Paul suggested we have James help us with a little bit of dialogue, then he started saying ‘Hey, can you call that James guy and have him write what he thinks they would be saying if they were talking about this subject’. He’d write down a little conversation.
Paul is very active on Twitter, and when he released the photo of the proton packs a lot of people asked what various components were. We went to James and asked him to name them for us. He did a great job so we ended up having him work on the proton pack. He also did the ghost trap for us.
Being a physicist he was trying to make sense of all the components, so it was fun to sit down with him and go through all that.
If it’s a sci-fi fantasy, why not just make the props really way out and spectacular?
I start with the characters in the story, and it goes back to it being slightly more believable that the proton packs be made from parts out of some physics lab.
We certainly talked about having them be more futuristic but it just didn’t seem right for the characters. If they’d been from more of a well-funded, Tony Stark kind of lab we probably would have gone more futuristic, but they were all people working at various, not terribly well-funded physics departments and colleges.
Ghostbusters is currently in cinemas now, check local listings for times.
For more info about the props used in the film and to watch behind the scenes featurettes, check the official Ghostbusters website: www.paranormalstudieslab.com