This is Joshua Meltzer, the Prop Master on Dexter.
Last week I visited the set of Dexter, which is in the midst of filming its eighth and final season, with the premiere coming up on June 30. Meltzer, who’s been with the show since season 1 and was made Prop Master in season 3, has had previous gigs on The Vampire Diaries and Reno 911!. But on Dexter, he’s the man behind the look of some of the most memorable kills — the Trinity Killer, the death of Rita — in the series, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.
“The look of this show is so incredibly important to the fans — they expect something from this show,” he said.
Meltzer gave me a tour of the show’s prop room and costume trailer, as well as the iconic sets of Dexter’s apartment, the Miami Metro police station, and even Dexter’s lab.
Side note: That photo shows Meltzer with Dexter’s kill kit. So many knives, so much work for our hero to do on the final season!
Ready to peek at some Dexter magic?!
1. Dexter uses two syringe needles when he’s tranquilizing his victims.
One is a real needle with a sharp point, which is what we see. The other has a retractable needle, which is what Dexter “punctures” the skin with.
So when you see Dexter “stab” someone with a needle, the point retracts back into the syringe. That way the actor won’t actually get stabbed in the neck. Good thing those needles are labeled, is all I have to say.
Bonus: The syringes are kept in the prop truck under lock and key — that way no one but Michael C. Hall will ever get to them.
2. There’s a secret recipe for the blood used on set…
And it’s Meltzer’s own special blend of maple syrup, food coloring, peppermint oil, and Dawn dish soap. “The blood is made from maple syrup, because it has a thicker texture and cleans up easier than corn syrup,” he said. “If we use blood outside, flying things like wasps and bees that are drawn to the syrup don’t like peppermint. So if you put in some peppermint oil, you won’t have a problem.”
He added, “There’s nothing worse than someone lying next to a pool of blood, and all of a sudden they’re worried about being stung.” Sounds like serial killer problems to me.
Why the dish soap? Adding that in helps the fake blood wash easily out of clothes. (A neat monster like Dexter would approve.)
3. When Dexter collects a blood sample, it’s that same maple syrup blend.
But when we see the slide in its case, the finished product is actually made from furniture dye.
“This [furniture dye] looks more like dried blood on a blood slide than all the different syrup formulas we used over the years,” Meltzer explained. Even though Dexter burned his slides in season 7, the boxes remain intact on the prop truck.
4. When Dexter slices into his victim’s to get that blood sample, he’s not really cutting them.
Surprise! Thanks to the magic of props, the scalpel Dex uses has a “rig,” which means it’s a dull blade rigged with a blood pool on one side. So when they film, the side filled with blood goes to the off camera side, and when it comes across the cheek, Michael presses and forces it out and onto the cheek.
The blood that oozes out is that same maple syrup mixture.
Here’s a knife with a rig, and that little pouch on the handle gets filled with maple syrup-peppermint blood.
And all you have to do is press down to get the blood to ooze out.
Meltzer showed me this knife in the prop room. TV magic at its finest!
5. See that pool of blood? It’s not actually blood, or maple syrup…
It’s a “blood pool” made from acetate, and can be picked up and thrown into any blood circle Dexter creates.
It feels a lot like plastic, and is about as thin as a few sheets of looseleaf paper.
6. It takes 12 hours to set up a typical Dexter kill room.
Meltzer revealed that the most intense kill room was for Season 4, Episode 1, “Living The Dream.” It was set in a boxing ring, and the entire place had to be draped in plastic.
“We try to make our kill rooms works of art,” Meltzer said. “That’s what this show is about. We all know our crew, when we do our kill room days, that’s a tough day for everybody. It’s an emotional day for Michael, it’s an emotional day for the poor guy who’s on the table, and it’s a tough day for the crew, because we’re gonna be there [filming] usually anywhere from 8 to 9 hours.”
7. The actors on the kill table are actually naked.
Except for some flesh-colored g-strings, they’ve got nothing on! They also are secured to the table pretty snugly. “They can’t get up unless we let them off the table,” Meltzer said.
8. The way Dexter wraps his victims has changed over the seasons.
You may have noticed that in Season 1, Dexter’s victims were much more cocooned in plastic wrap than they are now. By wrapping the actors so tightly, the crew discovered that they were actually suffocating the actors — the plastic was enveloping them so much that the skin wasn’t breathing, and it became dangerous at times. Meltzer helped to create the classic Dexter wrap that’s used now, which has four layers: a wrap at the feet, the hips, the torso, and head.
(The wrap above is old-Dexter-cocoon-style. Looks sweaty in there.)
9. They use real chainsaws and knives in the kill rooms.
The way they’re able to get away with that is by dulling the weapons. So, for a chainsaw, the teeth are dulled. Same goes for the blades of any knives, butcher or otherwise. “You can still get hurt with it,” Meltzer said, “but it’s not going to rip you up.”
Bonus: When you see blood fly up and onto Dexter, it’s a practical effect done live on camera. As Dexter cuts, saws, etc., there’s a sprayer just under the camera that sprays the blood onto him.
10. Dexter uses four knives to create a kill.
“Dexter’s hero kill knife was actually created in season three, which is when I took the show over as prop master,” Meltzer said. “A knife was designed for each specific shot. There’s a hero kill knife — all dulled. And a retractable knife — the handle is solid, and longer, and the blade is shorter. But for the split second when it goes into the chest the audience doesn’t see it [the knife]. A third knife used is a handle that screws onto a chest plate that’s strapped to the actor, so it looks like it’s sticking out of the chest of the actor. There’s also a blood knife, which has a blood blatter on the side of it to create a pool of blood.”
Here you can see two versions of the Hero Kill Knife: The normal knife, and the retractable version.
You may notice that on the regular knife, there’s a negative space at the handle. That was added so that Dexter can hold onto that space, and when he does it looks the same size as the retractable knife.
And here’s the full bevy of options Dex has in his kill kit.
The Hero Kill Knife is sticking out, ready for use.
11. Remember those iconic painted nails the Ice Truck Killer left as his calling card?
That “block of ice” they were frozen in is actually a solid block of acetate.
The “fingers” were created from silicone, and painted with regular old nail polish before being placed into the acetate. The ice block now lives in the prop room.
12. It takes a few weeks to make a fake head.
When you think of all the detail that goes into making a realistic dummy head, it makes sense: Meltzer uses real hair, and puts each hair in individually — stubble and all. The head is also airbrushed and hand-painted to get each detail to perfection. Even the fake teeth are made from the crown material dentists use! “We can’t afford to make more than one,” Meltzer joked. But he was also being totally serious.
13. A body goes into three trash bags, and there are fake body parts in those bags.
“When we first started we actually went out on water,” Meltzer said, “and he [Michael C. Hall] would throw these into the water, and we’d have divers who would go and get the bags and bring them back. Then we tried doing it with safety lines on them, so we could haul them back up, but the lines would break and the bags would rip. Now we do it all on a stage, and we make the water CGI. We just do an upshot of Michael, where the camera’s basically in the water, and he throws the bag over, and there’s an effects man under the camera with a sprayer who splashes water up on Michael. It looks like he’s out in the middle of the ocean and there’s a splash.”
Also, the Dexter prop supply room has bins full of fake body parts.
From bin to trash bag, it all ends up at the bottom of the ocean!
14. Season 8 challenge: Find the fake dead body.
I asked Meltzer if the dead bodies are just actors playing, well, dead, or if it’s a dummy. Turns out that it’s a little of both, because while it’s often just the actor in full makeup, there are moments when they use a fake.
“It’s called a life cast, and we’ve done it two times in Season 8,” he said. “There will be two times when the audience sees an actor, and then a silicone dummy. And I challenge the audience to find where we do it. Because it’s really well done. It ain’t cheap!”
When I asked why a life cast was used this season, Meltzer explained, “There’s a storyline this season that involves doing things to the bodies that we can’t do to the actors. Actors are good and stuntmen are good, but what we had to do to these actors we couldn’t do.”