Emmy-Winner Kirk Thatcher talks ‘Star Wars’, ‘Muppets’ and Film Industry Advice

Posted on: Nov 16, 2023

Kirk ThatcherPhoto Credit: Courtesy of Kirk Thatcher

By Jessica Mathis

Kirk Thatcher is an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer, director, actor and songwriter, as well as a creature maker and designer for both films and television.

He recently finished portraying the maniacal Monster Hunter Jovan in the Marvel TV special Werewolf by Night and reprised his role as the Punk on the Bus in season 2 of Picard. Thatcher took time to share insight into his incredible career journey.

You’ve had such a tremendous career as a screenwriter, director and producer, but you started as a visual artist? Tell me about the education that led to movies.

I would read and look at art books, [as well as the] illustrators that I liked and just kind of figured it out. I took some oil painting classes, high school classes and some courses in illustration and airbrush. Primarily for doing the creature stuff, [the rest] was kind of self-taught. There were a couple magazines about homemade filmmakers [and] how they made their monsters, and [I] could find out a little bit of information at the library.

How did your career start?

I went to UCLA for a semester before I started on Return of the Jedi. I was planning on being a film student and then I found out they wouldn’t even let you touch a camera until you were a junior. I had already been making movies since I was [about] 10 or 12.

What kind of movies?

Stop motion. I would make spaceships and blow them up. I’d make moonscapes and put a spaceship on wires of black thread. I made my own rain rig to make it look like it was raining. I didn’t really do a lot of linear story [telling] because I was more interested in getting the visual parts right.

I knew filmmaking was an art form, but I approached it visually like “Can I convince you this is a spaceship that’s 50 feet across, or can I convince you that we’re, you know, on the surface of the moon?”

What happened with film school?

After that first semester, I contacted Joe Johnston, storyboard and concept artist and art director for Star Wars and Empire. I had met him [initially at] the original ILM facility (Industrial Light & Magic), [which] was about a mile and a half from my house.

I called him up and asked, “Can I come up and make coffee and sweep the floors and run the Xerox machine at ILM?” I had previously visited him and showed Joe a bunch of my creature stuff and even left a creature puppet goblin-like thing I’d made.

The way I approached it was, “Well, they’re not gonna hire me to direct or make me the head creature maker, but they do need people who know how to paint and sculpt and make molds and start somewhere.”

So you started to help with creatures on Return of the Jedi? That’s incredible.

I thought I’d start by painting creatures artistically, but I started by painting and setting up the work stations and shop. Once that was done, I primarily did creature molds and painting. The main guys would design them and do the sculpts.

I mixed up all the paint, kept it ready, kept the airbrushes clean and then they would either come in and paint it or they would just say, “Here’s the little model I made, just make it look like that.” Phil Tippett was the creature designer and our supervisor. He put a lot of trust in me, which was nice.

I kind of went from zero to a thousand, learning what everybody does. Learning all that and [working in] my little department keeping creatures in tact and keeping the costumes from tearing or fixing them. You’re around that level of quality on-set and you kind of learn what’s good.

Where did it go from there?

I was at ILM for another couple of years working on Poltergeist and then Star Trek 2 and Star Trek 3 doing the same thing—making creatures, designing, building. I started doing rock [music] videos with David Fincher. We formed a little company and did a video called “Bop ‘Til You Drop” for Rick Springfield, which had all these aliens and creatures in it.

I not only designed [them], [I also] played the main creature. My buddy Chris Walas, who hired me on Jedi, went off to start his own shop and hired [later] me on Gremlins. It was a studio picture as opposed to five different locations like Jedi.

Then I went back to UCLA to study computer animation, because I’d seen what they’d done on the Star Trek films and a movie called Young Sherlock Holmes. I thought it was going to change the industry. After only a quarter or two of school, I got the opportunity to interview for Leonard Nimoy’s assistant.

Seems like that was a turning point. How did that change things for you?

I did some uncredited writing for Star Trek IV. At that point I’d started writing outlines for movies. I hadn’t started writing scripts yet, but my brain had been stewing, and I’m like, “Okay, I like this story, I like the storytelling process.”

I learned from Leonard how to direct a movie, like what a director has to know. He gave me a ton of responsibilities. I got to see how to work with actors, how to plot out a story so that you care about what’s happening.

You continued your creature and writing journey into The Muppets, right?

Right after Star Trek I met Jim Henson — another visual thinker — and we hit it off.

He was super collaborative and supportive. He moved me out to New York to do puppet designs on a show called The Jim Henson Hour before I moved back to Los Angeles to work at Walt Disney Imagineering, but at this point I’d started writing scripts on my own.

Jim and I started meeting about this idea he had called Dinosaurs, which was a sitcom about a family of dinosaurs. I worked up some character design drawings and met with him again for next steps, but sadly he passed away a day later.

They [ABC, owned by Disney] still bought the show. Because the producers appreciated my ideas, one said, “You should be a writer on the show.” So I learned how to write for TV. I was always going to be the dinosaur designer, but then I became a writer and producer on the show.

That was my first experience of getting paid to write, and [that] got me my WGA card. After that I moved more into writing with writing for Muppet Treasure Island with Jerry Juhl, who was the head Muppet writer.

You co-wrote that, right?

Yeah, I wrote it with him. I got directing mentorship with Leonard Nimoy and writing mentorship with the guy who created The Muppet Show. Then, I was a writer and directed little shorts for the [Jim] Henson Company. [After that] I was a supervising producer on Muppets Tonight, which we won an Emmy for.

The [Jim] Henson company had this movie called Star Gonzos and I had already written a Muppets sci-fi comedy called Muppets in Space. They took my title, but I said, “You can’t call it Muppets in Space because they don’t go into space [in this one].” They said, “Okay, we’ll call it Muppets from Space.” I wrote a bunch of punch-ups for it and then directed second unit and that got me my DGA card.

That’s kind of how I progressed from a guy making, painting and drawing all the way to a guy [who was now] writing and directing. Then I finally got to both write and direct my own movie, Muppets Haunted Mansion.

How long had that been a goal of yours?

Like 25 years.

What advice would you give to someone who wants a career as a producer or director?

Practical skills are how you get paid. I meet college kids all the time who say, “I want to make movies.” I’ll say, “Great. What can you do?” They usually say, ”I can do anything.”

But first you have to know what you love doing. If you can do anything you can be a production assistant because that’s what you’ll do—everything. The PAs and the producers are the two people who go everywhere on-set.

There is no right way. You can’t take directing classes and suddenly be a good director. I mean, Leonard wasn’t big on lenses. He was more like, “What are these characters doing? And what’s the heart of the story?”

If you’re a producer, the advice would be, well, produce something. You can shoot a movie on your iPhone. It doesn’t even have to be that clever. You figure out what it is you’re good at or what you love doing. You’ll find your process by doing it.

I would say this—know what your strengths are and then focus on your weaknesses.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jessica Mathis (AKA Divinity Rose) is an award winning screenwriter/performer/producer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the CEO of She Dreams Content Development and Production, which focuses on female forward projects in comedy, docustyle and genre entertainment.

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