In his 27 years in Hollywood, Steve Newburn had never worked closely with genitalia. Across more than a hundred film and television credits, the prosthetic effects designer had mostly specialized in building nightmares: chemically burned zombies, noseless vampires, kaiju maquettes. Normal stuff. But a few years ago, Newburn got an email from producer and frequent collaborator Tyler Campellone about a new Ari Aster movie. “It’s a really weird one,” Campellone wrote. “Do you want to talk?”
Soon, Newburn was leafing through a 190-page script about a 49-year-old Jewish man named Beau with extreme anxiety, an overbearing mother, a psychosexual complex, and engorged testicles. “I’m halfway through it going, ‘I don’t even know what I’m reading,’” he tells me. Then he got to the climactic scene in the attic of Beau’s childhood home, in which a tall, phallic creature fights off an army veteran who has PTSD. “I can’t remember the exact wording of it. It was like, ‘Giant Penis Monster,’” Newburn recalls. “I didn’t really care what it was. I wanted to do it because it was Ari.”
After asking Aster for a basic visual, Newburn received a pencil sketch of a large, circumcised penis with eyes and teeth on its head, two arachnid arms, two enormous and swollen testicles stabilizing it, and, in between them, a sac with numerous smaller penises protruding like udders.
“I feel like I’ve seen everything, and then this comes along,” Newburn says. “It’s like, ‘Nope!’”
A surrealist picaresque told in the style of an immersive anxiety attack, Beau Is Afraid is about as unconventional as it gets, following its titular protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix) on a chaotic journey to reconcile the traumatic and suffocating relationship he has with his mother, Mona (Patti Lupone). For his entire life, Beau has remained celibate, haunted by the story of his conception: His father died at the moment of orgasm, a fate that Beau’s mother tells him also afflicted his grandfather and great-grandfather. Believing he’ll suffer a similar death, Beau refrains from sexual activity, catching a severe case of epididymo-orchitis and a trove of other neurotic conditions in the process. But the dry spell ends when he makes it home for what’s presumed to be his mother’s funeral and runs into his former tween crush (Parker Posey). Though he survives his first ejaculation, she ends up petrified on top of him and coaxes Mona—who, surprise, is not dead—into the bedroom to berate him for his behavior. After unleashing a long diatribe, Mona leads him to the attic of her home to show the truth about his “dead” father. But when Beau peeks his head above the floorboards, he sees his sickly twin brother chained to the wall and sitting near his dad, a terrifying and growling shaft and balls.
In an absurdist three-hour movie featuring a full-frontal-naked man stabbing city dwellers, an illustrated and imaginary second-act odyssey, and an aquatic tribunal, it’s a tall task to make a 30-second impression. But Aster was confident that Newburn and his effects team, who had previously supplied him with the detailed miniatures and decapitated head of Hereditary, would find a way to jolt audiences and turn this Freudian fever dream into an animatronic creature capable of enduring and delivering its own pulpy violence. “What I really appreciate about Ari is that he does things that are completely different and out there from everybody else,” Newburn says. “It made for some of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had.”
When Newburn began plugging the dong monster design into Photoshop, he didn’t have to make many alterations to Aster’s original doodle. “The sketch didn’t leave a lot to interpret other than the fine details of it,” he says. As a result, he mocked up a number of variations to the skin’s texture and color, along with the shape and size of the eyes and mouth. Once the initial concept had been approved (Newburn opted for rotting human teeth along with lesions over the testicles), he began modeling and scaling the creature in three dimensions, determining its height and making it modular for easier transportation. Then, construction began.
Inside his Toronto-based studio, Newburn and a group of 20 effects artists framed out their 16-foot monster using lumber and chicken wire. Afterward, they sculpted skin over the top with foam latex, baking the biggest piece inside a car-sized oven to make it soft and spongy. Over the course of the next nine weeks, the team put the structure’s animatronic parts together, installing high-powered motors to enable slight facial expressions and building out functional arthropod arms and linkage systems for puppeteers to move them. “It weighed more than half a ton by the time it was together,” Newburn says. “We kept it to the point where each section of it could be moved by four people.”
Though the monster isn’t mobile, it’s more than just a sideshow. In the dimly lit scene, the phallic beast yells and sways when Jeeves (Denis Ménochet), a homicidal war veteran dead set on killing Beau, crashes through the window and sets off a blaring house alarm. After knocking Beau down with the blunt end of a dagger, Jeeves starts shooting multiple rounds at one of the 6-foot-tall testicles before repeatedly stabbing the other one. As it gushes blood and pus, the monster abruptly drives its arm through the top of Jeeves’s skull, instantly killing him and sending Beau shrieking and falling down the stairs. “That was your father!” Mona cries to him as Beau’s therapist drags him across the floor.
To build out a convincing space for this carnage, production designer Fiona Crombie had to find an attic that could fit the monster’s enormous needs. Initially, she was hung up on the logic of Mona’s home, trying to find an attic that made logistical sense with her sleek interior design. At one point, she even considered moving the scene to a basement until her location scout found a barn hayloft outside Montreal that had the necessary dimensions for “Dad,” as Newburn’s team called it. “I was like, ‘Does it read as a barn?’ But the whole idea was that it was like a massive, nightmarish void,” Crombie says. “It has the potential for something to be there. …The fact that it was a barn became irrelevant, and we just went into, ‘How do we make it practical?’”
Once the creature was finished, Newburn’s team broke it down and transported it to the barn loft. It took about three days to reassemble Dad and two days to shoot the scene. About five puppeteers were needed to bring the penis to life—one person stood inside the shaft to move the arms, another controlled the head with a parallelogram boom arm, and three others used radio controls for the motorized facial features. Newburn also coordinated with a special effects team who built a pressurized tank behind the skin that could spurt blood and pus from its stab and gunshot wounds. “Being so different from anything we’d done before, I just wanted to sit there and watch people’s reactions to it as they walked into the room and saw it for the first time,” Newburn says. “OK, somebody’s coming up the stairs, let’s see what they do.”
While dressing the attic with old kids toys and rejected house furniture, Crombie got a closer look at the painted details and watched the puppeteers standing around it. “Is it going to work?” she wondered. “And then, when you saw it lit in the scene and, most importantly, Joaquin’s reaction, you just go, ‘Oh my God, it absolutely worked.’” But in contrast to Beau’s own horror and the rest of the crew’s gobsmacked reactions upon their first looks, Phoenix observed the creature’s whiteless eyes, stretched-out frenulum, and wrinkled scrotum for a full minute with hardly any expression. “It was the first time we’d met Joaquin,” Newburn says. “He was just like, ‘Huh.’”
In the midst of the creation process, Newburn remembers asking Aster whether the monster he was building was literal or a figment of Beau’s imagination. “Initially, the response was that it doesn’t really matter,” Newburn says. As Aster told The Daily Beast, “I want you to be close to Beau and I want you to be in his experience, but it is his experience navigating that world.” Either way, Newburn was glad that the fractured filial relationships of the plot gave his creature some metaphorical might beyond just being something to gawk at. “It was viewed as being a necessary part in the story, even as ridiculous and weird as it is,” he says. “It’s something that has a purpose, an existence, a backstory, and a reality to it, that doesn’t just show up to go ‘boo’ out of the darkness.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beau Is Afraid has divided critics and audiences over its big-swing storytelling and unanswerable questions. In many ways, the giant penis monster—now stowed inside a storage unit despite producer Lars Knudsen’s initial hope of displaying it during the movie’s Hollywood premiere—epitomizes the movie’s existential debates and Aster’s own dark and idiosyncratic mind. “He can’t always explain what he wants, but you can kind of talk it out of him,” Newburn says. “I just appreciate his approach to things and the fact that it’s not cookie cutter.”
Still, Newburn couldn’t get over how bizarre his daily routine became over those two months. Every morning, he walked into his studio and found himself surrounded by genitals. “There’s a naked Parker Posey body over there, and Joaquin’s giant testicles over there, and there’s a giant penis in the middle of the shop,” says Newburn, who made sure none of his staff took any photos, for HR purposes (“I think everyone respected it,” he says). Even Crombie had daily, indirect exposure to the penis monster. Aster had texted a photo of it to her at the beginning of the project. “When Ari would call me, the picture that would come up was that monster because your phone defaults to the picture someone sent you,” she laughs. “It was quite a detailed pencil sketch.”
The laughs carried over to the set of the new Chucky television series, where Newburn was concurrently working. There, a colleague told him about the “Cockzilla” that he had helped design for the opening title sequence of Jackass Forever. Soon, they were in a literal dick-measuring contest, trading notes on each other’s phallic achievements. “We were comparing penis stories,” says Newburn, who declares with confidence that nothing can top Beau Is Afraid. “The whole movie was like that.”
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.