Jonathan Thornton: The MML Interview

By on 10 October, 2011 in Art, Fun, Interviews, Kate and Stephen with 5 Comments

As we noted with last month’s interview of Tyler Bell, we’re kicking off a new feature here at MML, where we interview some of Midtown’s most interesting and notable residents.

The second installment of this series features Jonathan Thornton, a local special effects and makeup artist who has worked on countless plays, films, and productions. A conversation with Thornton is like wading into a blizzard of references to movies and TV shows he’s worked on alone or with people he knows.  And a look at his portfolio should not even be considered if you have a weak stomach. He is equal parts artist and chemist, with an expansive knowledge of anatomy and the ability to create phantasmic aliens and autopsy-table realism. He was recently hired to create visual effects for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Dracula, and he is teaching an upcoming special effects class that can help you ramp up your Halloween costume to unforgettable proportions.

I know you probably get this a lot, but I have to ask: How did you get into this? A lot of people want to get into Hollywood and movie making, but this is an especially cool thing to be doing from Montgomery, Alabama.

My first memory of this sort of thing was when my mom and step-dad  brought me home from church one Sunday and my step-dad popped out in a gorilla mask and absolutely terrified me. It made a huge impression. That was sort of his sense of humor, being into pranks. But I really remember being fascinated by the mask when I saw it when he wasn’t wearing it, up on the dresser. It was just fascinating.

So, I was always sort of into that sort of thing and another early similar memory is that in Montgomery they used to “fly in the monsters” out at the airport. It was a promotional thing for the local Jaycees Haunted House. So, before the haunted house, people would go out to Dannelly Field and see the monsters get off the plane “from Transylvania.” They’d all “fly in” and be imported to the haunted house and it was a cool promotional thing.

Well, my step-dad said I couldn’t go unless I ate all my lima beans, which I hate. I was highly motivated. I ate them. He then covered my plate in lima beans, maybe to get out of going, but I inhaled all those too. So we went. And I was so excited. When that giant Frankenstein’s monster came around the corner, I covered his boots in lima beans.

From there, I was making my own costumes for school plays and Halloween costume contests. When I was a sophomore in high school, I entered a costume contest at the Lamplighter Dinner Theater’s production of Dracula, which makes it kind of cool that I am working on Dracula now for the Shakespeare Festival. I won a car stereo, but didn’t have a car.

Anyway, fast forward to some years later. I was living in Birmingham and still made occasional things like a really cool Beetlejuice costume for the Jaycees haunted house up there, and we moved back to Montgomery because my mother-in-law was having some health issues. And that was around when I got my first professional offer from a friend to go help work on a movie called Blood Feast 2.

So, that’s how I went from being a hobbyist and a fan subscribing to Fangoria magazine and idolizing Lon Chaney to quitting my job to go and work on a movie called Home Sick and then many others.

Tell us a little more about your body of work. Tell us about some of the more difficult things you’ve built and worked on.

Well, that first movie, Blood Feast 2, was directed by a legend, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and from there it has been one big learning curve. Evey job is more learning and you’re talking about going out to a location and making props on the scene. And you have to make it work, even if you have a bad product that isn’t chemically sound and you’re trying to dry the latex in an oven in the middle of a cold snap. You have to set foam latex and make molds while working extremely long days. And even if something fails, you’ve got to make it work.

If you’re not learning something every day, you’re falling behind. I have multiple sculptures going at any given time and am always working on new techniques, my painting, etc.

A lot of people think you have to live in Hollywood to be involved in making movies. What’s it like to be based in Montgomery, Alabama?

In some ways, it’s an advantage. With the explosion in CGI, there was a decreased demand for special effects and you saw a lot of the L.A.-based folks dry up and move elsewhere, a lot of them moving to places where it’s cheaper to live. Here, our overhead is a lot less and it’s cheaper for film makers to fly us out for the time that they need us. Here, we’ve got a workshop and the space we need. And it’s not like most of the movies are filmed in L.A., so you’re going to have to travel to the locations anyway.

How did the new gig with Dracula at the Shakespeare Festival come about?

It’s cool that it came full circle from me seeing Dracula at the Lamplighter in high school and saying, “I can do better than that.” So now, they really wanted to do a good Dracula at ASF and he’s got two forms: his elegant form and his “true self.” So I sculpted a head and did some masks and the fangs. They did the costumes and the hands and wanted something they could apply themselves, but it was a good project that I was glad to be able to do such a great mask on such a fast timeframe.

And with plays and the live theater, that’s not something that CGI is ever going to replace.


What about the class you’re going to teach?

Editor’s Note: It’s going to be October 22 from 10-noon at ASF. The cost is  $95.  If you register before Oct 14 for the class you can get an invitation to a preview sale of Shakespeare’s Closet on Oct 14 from 5:30 to 7 PM. Shakespeare’s Closet is a giant costume sale of over 1000 pieces from the ASF archive, and the public sale for that is Oct 15 from 9 AM – 3 PM.

I was actually at DragonCon when they called about Dracula and about teaching the class. So it’s going to be cool. It’s a workshop about makeup and effects. There’ll be a full demo so they can see how it’s done with the barber chair and airbrush, but then I’ll give some tips that people can use themselves for their projects or Halloween costumes.

And without tipping your hand as to the tips you’re going to give at the workshop, what is some advice you’d give someone hoping to do more than buy a costume off the rack?

The best advice is to buy your appliance from a reputable company. Don’t buy from Woochie. You have to know what you’re getting when you order something. And definitely, asking someone for help is a good idea. You want someone like me who knows what they’re doing.

And you’ve also got to consider that you’re going to be wearing this thing all night. We had a friend go as Carrie, all covered in blood from the prom, and she nearly froze to death because she was soaking wet and also couldn’t sit down on anything. So you have to think about the practical element.

So where is all of this going? What’s the ultimate goal?

I’d love to be a shop owner, with a crew. Obviously, I want to keep working on movies. Sometimes the lower budget movies are more fun than the bigger budget ones because you have more creative control. Getting in there and knowing what you need to do is really the fun part.

I was lucky to have a guy like Bill “Splat” Johnson take me under his wing, and I’ve worked with a few interns and folks like that to try to keep it going and pass on some of what I’ve been able to learn.

But mostly, I like to keep learning, keep getting better every day, and keep trying new things.


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There Are 5 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Joyce Gulley says:

    Great article. Love you, son.

  2. Jerline says:

    So proud of you Jonathan!! 🙂

  3. Stephen says:


  4. Chris says:

    If you don’t know this man, get to know him. He’s truly one of the most “real” people you’ll ever meet, despite his fascination with the “unreal”.

  5. DOROTHY says:

    I’m proud to know you. Enjoy your success–True success is getting paid to do what you love, as you know. : )

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