Have you ever wondered how the insects in movies do exactly what they’re supposed to? How do they know they’re even in a movie scene and play along with the plot? Like the spider that bites Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) in Spiderman. The bees that swarm Matt Damon in We Bought a Zoo. The spider that walks four feet and slips into a slipper in the cult classic, Arachnophobia. Or the giant mosquitos in Jurassic Park.
It turns out that there’s actually a person behind all these shots, manipulating the insects to do his bidding. That man is Steven Kutcher, 69, an entomologist who has been working in Hollywood since 1976. He has been a part of over 100 feature films, numerous commercials, music videos and TV movies.
“I think of myself as a bug wrangler, a consultant. I’m not the cheap guy who trains dogs and chickens and happens to have a tarantula,” he said. “I’m both a scientist and an artist. I think Steven Spielberg said I was the first entomologist in the film industry. I brought the science of insect behavior to the film industry.” It’s pretty obvious that Mr. Kutcher takes immense pride in what he does.
His first film came about rather unexpectedly. His childhood love for insects led him to an entomology degree from University of California, and a master’s degree from California State University. He was preparing to completely immerse himself in the profession when one of his former professors got a call, asking for someone who could tend to the locusts in Exorcist II. The professor recommended Kutcher.
He found that he loved the job and considering the fact that one of every three Hollywood movies at the time featured insects, there was always plenty of work. But Kutcher had his biggest break in 1990 – a nine-month stint on the sets of Arachnophobia. He actually held an ‘arachnid Olympics’ of sorts to determine the best three species (out of 500 spiders) for the role. “Two tarantulas played the king and queen spiders, but the delenas were in most scenes,” he said.
So what’s his secret? What makes Kutcher so special that scores of insects dance to his tunes? Well, he refuses to divulge most of his trade secrets, but he says it isn’t too hard if you know what you’re doing. He says that getting insects to ‘act’ is just a matter of creatively modifying their normal behavior with light, heat, wind, or textures.
If Kutcher needs a mosquito to stay still like a statue, he would place it in a cooler first. To keep a tarantula still, he would briefly cover its eyes. There’s even a video where he demonstrates how a tarantula freezes the moment he obstructs its vision. To get a fly to clean itself, he’d gently place a bit of honey on its head. And to protect Matt Damon from horrible stings, he used young house bees that are easy to handle and less likely to sting.
The spider-to-the-slipper scene in Arachnophobia is Kutcher’s proudest moment. To get the delena to hit the mark, he created two fences made of monofilament (thinner than human hair, invisible on film). He used small motors to move the lines up and down, deterring the spider from leaving its intended route. “It’s all about connecting science with art,” he said.
For this scene, he also trained the hefty John Goodman to avoid stepping on the spiders and violating animal protection laws. “We cut out the bottom of his shoes and taught him how to step on spiders by putting the holes over the spiders. If he would’ve stepped on them with his heels, he would’ve squashed them. But he had the feet of a ballerina.”
Kutcher also works behind the scenes at times. Like this one time, when he kept thousands of darkling beetles in his home for several weeks, feeding them granola. The beetles were waiting to make their acting debut in the 1987 movie, Prince of Darkness. He also fed rye grass to the locusts of Exorcist II when they spent six months in cages in a Warner Bros. studio.
It isn’t unusual to find Kutcher’s home swarming with creatures from the insect world. He has about 15 pet tarantulas, 200,000 dead flies stored in gallon jars (handy for dirty kitchen scenes), three cages of cockroaches, five dead insect collections and an insect zoo. It’s no wonder that he lives alone. This kind of house is hardly a venue for a first date. Incidentally, his ex-wife left him for a geologist. But Kutcher seems to have no regrets. After all, it’s the bugs that really paid for the house. “Cockroaches and flies paid for my house. Who would have thunk it,” he marvels.
Hollywood directors love Kutcher’s work because he is an expert at achieving a sickeningly natural look. But modern filmmaking involves the use of a green screen, where the insect and actor don’t necessarily have to meet. Kutcher isn’t too happy about this technology. Maybe it’s time someone make a film about him, with his enormous insect collection. He could star as himself, perhaps?