Movie Interviews
10:04 am
Sun March 9, 2014

Hollywood Bug Man Understands How Cockroaches Think

Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 1:33 pm

When most people see bugs on the big screen, they squirm, panic or squeal. But not Steven Kutcher. Kutcher is the man responsible for getting those insects on the screen. He's been Hollywood's go-to bug wrangler since the 1970s, handling, herding and otherwise directing insects in over 100 feature films.

His proteges include the spider that bit Peter Parker in Spiderman, the giant mosquitoes in Jurassic Park, and the bugs in numerous other films, commercials and music videos. NPR's Scott Simon spoke to the biology instructor and bug artist about his work with the creepy crawly creatures.


Interview Highlights

On working with cockroaches

There is so much involved. Any fool could put a bucket of cockroaches on a table. But it takes somebody knowledgeable to know how to make them act for a camera. And so I have to make sure that wherever they're filming is sealed up, that we can collect them, that none of them are hurt, that the lighting is right, that they're not using too much heat — and then I say, "Action, bug."

And probably the most involved one I ever did — no computer generation — I had a cockroach come out of a shoe, walk onto a bag of Cheetos, turn left, walk through some Cheetos, and stop on a magazine that had a picture of a surfboard, for a movie called Race the Sun.

I did it by understanding how cockroaches think. Cockroaches are thigmotactic, which means that they like to run along the edges of things. And so what I do is guide them by creasing the bags of Cheetos and placing things in such a manner that I know that the odds are that the cockroach will go that direction.

On the industry's move towards computer-generated insects

Most of my work was all done before computers existed. ... [Now] it doesn't look as good. People accept it because they have nothing to compare it to. ...[I]t's more expensive. But it's done because it's easier.

On how he got his start

I took care of 3,000 African locusts [for Exorcist II]. We had to check the sex of each one to make sure there were no females, because females can reproduce. And I had large cages, and I'd put in flats of rye grass. Then I worked with Richard Burton. And I thought, "Well, that was really an interesting experience." And then right after that, the assistant director was working on Wonder Woman with Linda Carter and they needed ants. And so I went out and got ants, and it just kind of snowballed from that.

On the mortality rate of his insects and the involvement of the ASPCA

I try very hard not to harm any insects for two reasons. One, you can't do it in Hollywood. And two, if I have some good insects, I want to use them again. So for example in my painting, I put paint on the feet of insects and create bug art. And people say, "Well does that hurt the insect? How do you get the paint off?" And I say, "No, it doesn't hurt them. And I want to use them again, and I use a little stream of water, and I use water-soluble paint." So I've spent a lot of time studying how not to harm insects and how to manipulate them.

You know, sometimes, the American Humane Society — they do a good job in terms of what they're supposed to do for horses and dogs and cats, but when it comes to insects and fish ... it is really ridiculous. They're supposed to count the animals. So they say, "How many ants do you have in that bucket?" Because that's what they're supposed to ask. And I say, "You count them!" "Well, how do you know how many are there?" I say, "I count their legs and divide by six."

On why he likes bugs

Insects are the thermometer of the world. The world is so diverse. And there are so many different types of insects, because they're so adaptable. You study insects and you have hundreds of lifetimes in front of you; you can never learn it all. You take a passion — and my passion was nature and specifically insects — and you broaden it out, and it's unending. And so when somebody says, "Yuck! Bugs!" I know there's a job there. And for me, I get paid to play with bugs. What could be better?

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When most people see bugs on the big screen they squirm, panic or just go eek. Well, thanks Steven Kutcher. Mr. Kutcher's been Hollywood's bug wrangler since the 1970s. He has handled, herded and otherwise directed insects in over 100 feature films, including the spider that bit Peter Parker in "Spider-Man," and the giant mosquitoes in "Jurassic Park," and numerous commercials and music videos.

He's also a biology instructor and a bug artist. Steven Kutcher joins us from the studios of KPCC in Pasadena. Thanks so much for being with us.

STEVEN KUTCHER: It's good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: So do you just point to a cockroach and say action?

KUTCHER: Oh, no. There is so much involved. Any fool could put a bucket of cockroaches on a table, but it takes somebody knowledgeable to know how to make them act for camera. And so I have to make sure that whatever they're filming is sealed up, that we collect them, that none of them are hurt, that the lighting is right, that they're not using too much heat. And then I say, action, bug.

And probably the most involved one I ever did, no computer generation, I had a cockroach come out of a shoe, walk onto a bag of Cheetos, turn left, walk through some Cheetos and stop on a magazine that had a picture of a surfboard for a movie called, "Race the Sun."

SIMON: Well, I missed that, but how did you do that?

KUTCHER: I did it by understanding how cockroaches think and cockroaches are thigmotactic, which means they like to run along the edges of things, and so what I do is guide them by increasing the bags of Cheetos and placing things in such a manner that I know that the odds are that the cockroach will go that direction.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. There's a lot of planning that goes into this, isn't there?

KUTCHER: Oh, a huge amount. Most of my work was all done before computers existed.

SIMON: Have computers changed the work now even, if I may, lessened it a little bit?

KUTCHER: Oh, yes. It doesn't look as good. People accept it because they have nothing to compare it to, but it's more expensive, but it's done because it's easier.

SIMON: Your first film, I gather, was "Exorcist II?"

KUTCHER: Yes, I took care of 3,000 African locusts. We had to check the sex of each one to make sure there were no females 'cause females can reproduce. And I had large cages and I'd put in flats of rye grass and then I worked with Richard Burton and I thought, well, that was really an interesting experience. And then right after that the assistant director was working on "Wonder Woman" with Linda Carter and they needed ants and so I went out and got ants. It just kind of snowballed from that.

SIMON: May I ask delicately? Is there a mortality rate amongst the insects you work with?

KUTCHER: Well, I try very hard not to harm any insects for two reasons. One, you can't do it in Hollywood; and two, if I have some good insects, I want to use them again. So for example, in my painting, I put paint on the feet of insects and create bug art and people say, well, does that hurt the insect? How do you get the paint off? And I say no it doesn't hurt them and I want to use them again.

And I use a little stream of water and I use water-soluble paint, so I've spent a lot of time studying how not to harm insects and how to manipulate them.

SIMON: Do you ever run into problems with the ASPCA? Do they have anything to do with your filming?

KUTCHER: Oh, yes. You know, sometimes the American Humane Society, they do a good job in terms of what they're supposed to do; horses and dogs and cats, but when it comes to insects and fish, which used to be exempt, they have people there. It is really ridiculous. So they ask me - they're supposed to count the animals so they say how many ants do you have in that bucket, 'cause that's what they're supposed to ask.

And I say you count them. Well, how do you know how many are there? I say I count their legs and divide by six.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: What do you like about bugs so much?

KUTCHER: Oh, insects are the thermometer of the world. The world is so diverse and there are so many different types of insects because they're so adaptable. You study insects and you have hundreds of lifetimes in front of you. You can never learn it all. You take a passion - and my passion was nature and specifically insects - and you broaden it out and it's unending. And so when somebody says, yuck, bugs, I know there's a job there.

SIMON: Steven Kutcher, Hollywood's bug wrangler and a bug artist speaking with us from Pasadena. Thanks so much for being with us.

KUTCHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL MY FRIENDS ARE INSECTS")

WEEZER: (Singing) I have a friend and it's an earthworm. It burrows in the ground deep within the soil. Sometimes when it rains it comes out and we talk about our day. I have a friend and she's a butterfly. She flies from flower to flower drinking sweet nectar. With hundreds of friends they sleep up in the trees at night. I have a friend and he's a dragonfly. He sleeps around all day and hovers in the air. He's colorful and wonderful...

SIMON: Weezer, of course. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER VOICE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.