Reporting E. Reid Ross
If you’re looking for a career in the entertainment field, the good news is that you don’t have to be a brooding pretty boy or a top-heavy anorexic in order to break into Hollywood. The bad news is that most of the jobs available behind the camera kind of suck. Even if you do manage to get onscreen as a stuntman it’s probably next to impossible to get decent insurance, and just about every other job on a movie set is no different from the tedious blue collar situation that you bought a one-way Wichita-to-California Greyhound ticket to avoid. But with a little creativity and a strong enough stomach it is possible to carve out a niche for yourself. Just ask the guy who wrangles insects and spiders for a living.
The way Steven Kutcher came by his position as the film industry’s go-to guy for all things wriggling and abhorrent was completely by accident. After having studied biology at UC Davis and entomology at Cal State Long Beach, he was contacted one day by one of his former professors, who was looking for some help with a peculiar project. The professor was searching for someone with Kutcher’s particular brand of expertise to assist with the 1976-77 production of The Exorcist II: The Heretic. More specifically, he needed someone to “babysit” a swarm of 3,000 locusts. And if his hand was steady and he had the nerve, maybe he could strategically place a select few of them on Linda Blair’s boobs.
The film turned out to be one of the worst sequels ever made, but provided Kutcher with an epiphany about the movie business: “It turned out about one in three films had bugs in it. It may have been just a fly landing on a dinner plate, or a butterfly in a garden, but they were there.” From that point on Kutcher was never wanting for work. From applying leeches in The Goonies (in a scene that was cut, sadly) to herding bees in We Bought a Zoo, his list of credits would grow to rival that of even the least script-discerning movie actors.
Much of the reason for his success at his chosen craft, aside from the fact that most people get both violent heebies as well as uncontrollable jeebies just thinking about it, comes from what some describe as an uncanny ability to get bugs to do what he wants. Training insects and arachnids would seem to be an impossible task, like teaching cats not to eat the recently-deceased elderly, but apparently Kutcher gets the job done every time. But don’t take our word for it, here are some testimonials:
“He is very creative, he can figure out how to get the creature to do what he wants while being very delicate.”
— Lucinda Strub, special effects technician who worked with Kutcher on Arachnophobia
“I was given this drawing of a spider that didn’t exist and told to find a real spider that matched it. Kutcher brought in different types of spiders to showcase the talents of each. He literally had the spiders doing tricks.”
— Robin Miller, property master for the movie Spider-Man
“The spiders were like his children and he took great joy in [their] performance.”
— Actor Jeff Daniels, star of Arachnophobia
He was the first to use ultraviolet lights to direct swarms of bees and can make a spider perform on cue with the use of monofilament. He’s put wasps on Farrah Fawcett, covered Sigourney Weaver in ants and plucked a grasshopper from Richard Burton’s crotch. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can recognize Roger frickin’ Corman for a lifetime achievement award, we’d say Kutcher is due. Unless he’s somehow related to Ashton, that is. Then no. No he should not.
Not a man to be pigeonholed, Kutcher has demonstrated some surprising talents beyond the glamorous world of on-set roach herding. He’s also a gifted artist, with works on display at numerous galleries and museums. And to answer your question… yes. Yes, of course it involves bugs. Let’s let him explain the process: “I’ll take a bug in my hand and, leg by leg, and load the paint on.” Don’t worry, that’s not the end of it. The bug is then set free to skitter around and “create” by leaving a trail of the applied paint along with, we’re going to have to assume, the occasional fear-poop. After the bug has been sent on several artistic journeys around the canvas, the end result is something that looks like this:
The bugs can’t take sole credit for creative vision either, as Kutcher uses light and other stimuli to influence the movements of his living, multi-legged paintbrushes. He also assures us that no harm comes to his assistants during the process: “I use water-based, nontoxic paints that easily wash off. I have to take care of them. After all, they are artists!”
Kutcher continues to ply his trade to this day on such shows as Criminal Minds and The Mentalist, and if you want to see his artwork in person they’ll be on display at any number of locations from California to Maine in the coming year. We’d like to express our thanks to this unsung Tinseltown hero for allowing us the use of the photographs presented here. And for all you kids out there with an eye on a future in the entertainment industry, just remember that it’s not just the leading man who gets the girls. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Stephen Kutcher’s assistant, Diana Terranova.
E. Reid Ross loves the ladies, and by “ladies” we mean “microwaveable burritos purchased in bulk.” Feel free to friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and check out his supple body of work over on Cracked.com. He and a few pals also blaspheme old comics at RealToyGun.com.