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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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