Hollywood Bug Man Understands How Cockroaches Think

Entomologist Stephen Kutcher has wrangled insects for more than 100 films, commercials and music videos.

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?

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.