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Master makeup artist Rick Baker on “An American Werewolf in London” and “Men in Black III”

Master makeup artist Rick Baker on “An American Werewolf in London” and “Men in Black III” (photo)

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It’s hard to believe “An American Werewolf in London” is thirty years old. It looks way too good and scares way too hard to be a three-decade old film. A lot of the credit for the film’s longevity goes to the film’s master makeup artist Rick Baker, who designed its creatures and engineered the movie’s legendary transformation scene. Once you’ve seen David Naughton become that wolf in “American Werewolf,” you never forget it.

Baker came down to Fantastic Fest 2011 to take part in a 30th anniversary screening of “American Werewolf” that included a new ultra rare Mondo print by Olly Moss. Here’s a picture. Cue lycanthropic jealousy in 3…2…1….

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While Baker was in Austin, I was lucky to get to talk to him for a few minutes. I took the opportunity to discuss the making of one of the greatest horror movies of all time, uncover a few morsels of info about his work in next summer’s “Men in Black III,” and pick his brain about the most underrated movie makeup of all time.

When was the last time you saw “American Werewolf?”

There was a screening at the New Beverly or the Nuart or something when the Blu-ray came out, and that was fairly recently.

And what did you think seeing it again fairly recently?

I cringe looking at some of the stuff in the transformation.



What?!?

Yeah. It was thirty years ago and I was thirty years old and the average age of my crew was like nineteen. There were kids who had never worked on a film before. I do think it’s pretty amazing that people still hold it in pretty high regard, this thing that was done by a thirty year old and nineteen year olds who’d never done this stuff.

Looking back at a thirty year old movie, it can sometimes be hard to tell just what was groundbreaking when it first came out. In your mind, what was the really revolutionary stuff in “American Werewolf?”

People always talk about the transformation, but I think the film was so ahead of its time in so many ways: the blend of horror and comedy and the way music was used. So much was innovative about that film. That’s probably why people still like it so much. But it was definitely a showcase for the kind of stuff I do and I was so thankful to have that opportunity.

John Landis wrote this movie when he was a kid. When I did [makeup on] John’s first movie “Schlock,” when he was twenty-one and I was twenty, he had already written “American Werewolf.” We shot the movie he originally wrote back then. The only exception was the porno theater was a cartoon theater in the original script, because it really was a cartoon theater when John was in Piccadilly while he wrote it. It had since changed to a porno theater, so he changed that part. It was one of the few times in my career of forty years working in films that we had a script and we actually shot it.

How collaborative were the creature designs?

I’ve learned over the years to appreciate John because he comes to work prepared. He wrote the script and he knows what he wants. He would describe the shot to you, he would listen, and he would say things like “You’re the expert at what you do and I want you to do it. That’s why I hired you.”

He gave me a lot of freedom, although I wanted to make the wolf a biped and he said “No, I want this four-legged hound from hell.” I kept trying to talk him into the two-legged wolf. “No. Four-legged hound from hell.” So I made it. It wasn’t like it is today where I have to do 2,000 Photoshops. No, it was just “Make a four-legged hound from hell.” So I sculpted it, made a mold, and made it.

I feel like the underrated creature/monster things in “American Werewolf” are the Nazi ghouls in David Naughton’s nightmare.

They don’t get enough credit for being as truly terrifying as they are.

I wanted to do more. They’re basically Halloween masks. They’re soft rubber masks that don’t move. And John said, “That’s all I want. They’re going to be seen in really quick cuts so there’s no reason to do anything else.” But I think they do pretty much look like Halloween masks. It is still a well-done sequence.

But there’s something scary about the way they don’t move. It makes them seem more unnatural and otherworldly, which fits the fact that it’s a dream sequence.

When I do a mask, I do try to put a lot of character and a lot of expression into the sculpt. The bald Nazi guy grimacing with the machine gun, that was me, looking in the mirror making faces and then drawing and sculpting that.

Are you often your own model for a character?

A lot of times, yeah. And I think it’s true of a lot of creative people because they’re the only ones there when they’re working. “What’s it look like when a person makes that face?” And you look in the mirror and go from there.

When you say that these days you’re doing a lot of Photoshops and thousands of versions of designs, is that for “Men in Black III?”

That’s any movie these days.

That’s just the way it works now.

Yeah. I’ve been using Photoshop since 1.0, twenty or twenty-two years ago now. It was love at first sight. Never picked up a computer before that.

It’s interesting because I feel like your makeup work is so good that you’ve become sort of this de facto spokesperson for practical effects. I read interviews where people expect you to defend practical makeup and bash CGI. But you’re a guy who likes working with both sets of tools.

That’s because I’m a fan of the stuff that happened before me. Jack Pierce, who designed Frankenstein and The Wolf Man and the great Universal monsters, was eventually kicked out of Universal after saving their asses so many times because he didn’t change with the times. He was still doing stuff with cotton and collodion when other guys were using foam rubber. That’s why he lost his job, so that got tucked away in my brain. I always want to stay on top of things.

It’s fun doing new things. It’s another trick in the bag of tricks. I think it’s a great tool. The thing I dislike about digital is that it’s made for sloppy filmmaking because of the fix-it-in-post attitude that has come along with digital. So you don’t have to think about it now, you don’t make the decision now, you can think about it later and figure it out later. I don’t like that. When I did “Schlock” with John, I did two pencil drawings and said “You want this one or this one?” And he said “I like that one better.” That’s the one I made. On “The Wolfman,” for example, I did thousands of drawings. And it was like “Do one in between this one and that one. Now do one in between this one and that one.” Because you can. But I loved Photoshop the first time I used it; it was just so freeing to know that I could try things and I could always go back to what I had before, or I could take the eyes from this one and put them on this part of the face on this one.

You mentioned the famous Pierce makeups, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. We all know those. What’s a great example of movie makeup that’s underrated, that never gets the recognition that it really deserves?

That’s a good question. In general, the things that don’t get appreciated are the human kind of makeups. The things I always liked so much about Dick Smith was he could make human makeup work. Dick was the master of doing nice, subtle makeup. People always go “Oh yeah, a werewolf, cool. Aliens, cool.” Real cool is the Father Merrin makeup in “The Exorcist.” Most people who saw the film didn’t know that was a younger man playing an older man. That’s one of the ones that gets appreciated by a lot of makeup artists.

All right, so “Men in Black III” is next. What should we expect from the movie?

I made, at last count, 105 aliens. A lot of aliens, a lot of crazy stuff.

Should we count all 105 while we’re watching the movie?

[laughs] We’ll see how many make the final cut. Something I’ve learned from working on the other “Men in Black”s is that we’ll do aliens as if you’re making a whole movie about this specific alien. It will good enough to hold any kind of close-up, and it’s usually in a panning shot for two seconds, or it’s so far in the background you don’t even know it’s there until you watch it 47 times, which I guess is part of the success of the series. It is cool to spot things you never saw before.

What drives you to pick a project at this point? Is it the director? Is it the material?

I’m definitely at a point in my life where I’m trying to be a little more selective. When my parents died, it became clear to me that there was an end in sight. Death was never a real thing to me. And then when that happened I realized I only have so many years left, if I’m lucky. I don’t want to be doing movies that I don’t want to do. They take so much out of you. I took some time off and got rid of crew that I kept on for fifteen years. And people don’t call as much anymore, actually.

What?

Yeah. I think when my name comes up my competitors say “Oh yeah, he’s retired!” Or they say “I’m sure he won’t want to do this movie because he’s too big to do this.” “Men in Black III” they called me, and I was really happy to do it because I really enjoyed doing the other films. It felt great to be part of it again.

Is there a technical challenge that you’ve never done that you still feel like you need to conquer?

If I died today I would be happy with what I’ve done in my life. But I hope I don’t die today.

Where’s “American Werewolf in London” rank amongst your favorite horror films? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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SAG Life

Rappers Act Up

Watch the Yo! IFC Acts Movie Marathon Memorial Day Weekend.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Everett Collection and the '90s)

Memorial Day weekend: how to celebrate? Nothing quite says “screw spring—let’s do summer” like blockbuster movies starring rappers who ditched lucrative music careers in order to become actors. It happened a lot, remember? Especially in and around the ’90s. Will Smith, Eminem, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Marky Mark Wahlberg, Ludacris…icons with the hubris to try the silver screen instead and have it totally work out.

But what if more rappers had made the leap? That’s a rhetorical question—movies (and life) would’ve been better, obviously. To prove it, here are some movies that totally would’ve been more memorable with rappers.

The Godfather

Starring Biggie, not Brando.
Godfather-BIG

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

Only Coolio could improve upon Gene Wilder’s performance.
Coolio-Wonka

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

Billy Elliot, with a dose of Missy Elliott.
Missy-Billy-Elliott

Robin Hood: Price of Thieves

Low hanging fruit, Hollywood.
Robin-Hood-and-Lil-Jon

And of course…

Kanye-of-The-Lambs

See NONE of those movies and a whole bunch of real ones this Memorial Day weekend on IFC’s rapper-filled movie marathon.

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Brock Hard

Brockmire’s Guide To Grabbing Life By The D***

Catch up on the full season of Brockmire now.

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“Lucy, put supper on the stove, my dear, because this ballgame is over!”

Brockmire has officially closed out its rookie season. Miss the finale episode? A handful of episodes? The whole blessed season?? You can see it all from the beginning, starting right here.

And you should get started, because every minute you spend otherwise will be a minute spent not living your best life. That’s right, there are very important life lessons that Brockmire hid in plain sight—lessons that, when applied thoughtfully, can improve every aspect of your awesome existence. Let’s dive into some sage nuggets from what we call the Book of Jim.

Life Should Be Spiked, Not Watered Down.

That’s not just a fancy metaphor. As Brockmire points out, water tastes “awful. 70% of the water is made up of that shit?” Life is short, water sucks, live like you mean it.

There Are Only Three Types of People

“Poor people, rich people and famous people. Rich people are just poor people with money, so the only worthwhile thing is being famous.” So next time your rich friends act all high and mighty, politely remind them that they’re worthless in the eyes of even the most minor celebrities.

There’s Always A Reason To Get Out Of Bed

And 99% of the time that reason is the urge to pee. It’s nature’s way of saying “seize the day.”

There’s More To Life Than Playing Games

“Baseball can’t compete with p0rnography. Nothing can.” Nothing you do or ever will do can be more important to people than p0rn. Get off your high horse.

A Little Empathy Goes A Long Way

Especially if you’ve taken someone else’s Plan B by mistake.

Our Weaknesses Can Be Our Greatest Strengths

Tyrion Lannister said something similar. Hard to tell who said it with more colorful profanity. Wise sentiments all around.

Big Things Come To Those Who Wait

When you’re looking for a sign, the universe will drop you a big one. You’re the sh*t, universe.

And Of Course…

Need more life lessons from the Book of Jim? Catch up on Brockmire on the IFC App.

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Oh Mama

Mommie May I?

Mommie Dearest Is On Repeat All Mothers Day Long On IFC

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The cult-classic movie Mommie Dearest is a game-changer. If you’ve seen it even just once (but come on, who sees it just once?), then you already know what we’re talking about.

But if you haven’t seen it, then let us break it down for you. Really quick, we promise, we’ll even list things out to spare you the reading of a paragraph:

1. It’s the 1981 biopic based on the memoir of Christina Crawford, Hollywood icon Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter.
2. Faye Dunaway plays Joan. And boy does she play her. Loud and over-reactive.
3. It was intended as a drama, but…
4. Waaaaaay over-the-top performances and bargain-basement dialogue rendered it an accidental comedy.
5. It’s a cult classic, and you’re the last person to see it.

Not sold? Don’t believe it’s going to change your life? Ok, maybe over-the-top acting isn’t your thing, or perhaps you don’t like the lingering electricity of a good primal scream, or Joan Crawford is your personal icon and you can’t bear to see her cast in such a creepy light.

But none of that matters.

What’s important is that seeing this movie gives you permission to react to minor repeat annoyances with unrestrained histrionics.

That there is a key moment. Is she crazy? Yeah. But she’s also right. Shoulder nipples are horrible, wire hangers are the worst, and yelling about it feels strangely justified. She did it, we can do it. Precedent set. You’re welcome.

So what else can we yell about? Channel your inner Joan and consider the following list offenses when choosing your next meltdown.

Improperly Hung Toilet Paper

Misplaced Apostrophes

Coldplay at Karaoke

Dad Jokes

Gluten Free Pizza

James Franco

The list of potential pedestrian grievances is actually quite daunting, but when IFC airs Mommie Dearest non-stop for a full day, you’ll have 24 bonus hours to mull it over. 24 bonus hours to nail that lunatic shriek. 24 bonus hours to remember that, really, your mom is comparatively the best.

So please, celebrate Mother’s Day with Mommie Dearest on IFC and at IFC.com. And for the love of god—NO WIRE HANGERS EVER.

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