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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.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

José Padilha shares his vision for “RoboCop,” clears up Michael Fassbender casting rumors

José Padilha shares his vision for “RoboCop,” clears up Michael Fassbender casting rumors (photo)

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Brazilian director José Padilha came to Fantastic Fest 2011 with his new movie “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within,” the sequel to the controversial 2007 Brazilian blockbuster about dirty cops on the dirtier streets of Rio de Janeiro. It picks up “Elite Squad”‘s story fifteen years later, with another morally twisted tale of corruption and crime peppered with intense action scenes. It’s one of the coolest movies here at the festival, but Padilha’s next project might be even cooler: a remake of the seminal ’80s sci-fi film “RoboCop.”

There’s a lot of interest around this project; just yesterday, rumors started swirling about an interview Padilha gave where he supposedly said he wanted Michael Fassbender to play the title role. With the last few minutes of my own interview with Padilha, I picked his brain about the remake, and he confirmed that that story was getting blown way out of proportion.

“I was doing an interview with a Dutch guy because ‘Elite Squad’ was opening in Holland,” Padilha said. “They wanted to talk about ‘RoboCop’ because of [Paul] Verhoeven, the Dutch director [of the original film]. So he asked me ‘Who is going to be RoboCop?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m not there yet.’ ‘Who is going to be RoboCop?’ ‘I don’t know!’ So he says, “How about Fassbender?” I said, ‘I think he’s great.’ That was it!”

Padilha did admit that he thought Fassbender would be a good RoboCop, but he was quick to add that he’s not the only guy he can envision in the part. “He’s a great actor but there are other great actors that I really love, that could also do it,” he told me. “I can give you other names if you like, like Chris Pine; there’s several of them. But I haven’t discussed this film with any actors.”

The Internet rumor mill, it seems, is getting ahead of itself. Padilha said that the film is still at the treatment stage, and there won’t be any casting until they’ve got a final script. That treatment, by the way, is a totally new one based on Padilha’s own interpretation of the material; he decided not to read any of the scripts from Darren Aronofsky’s aborted “RoboCop” remake that fell apart a few years ago. Why? “I wanted to focus on my own thing and do my take, even though Aronofsky is a genius.”

Details on his take were in short supply, but Padilha did explain what drew him to remake such iconic material: “‘RoboCop’ is a brilliant premise because the character is not a super-hero,” he said. “He’s a man who’s been transformed by technology for certain purposes. And so that premise alone touches so many interesting subjects. What does it mean to be immersed in automated systems and deprived of free will? What does it mean to be used by corporations for certain purposes? How does the media spin things around to make certain interests accepted by the public? Those are all things you can see in the first ‘RoboCop,’ and those are all things that are coming closer and closer to being real. Science is taking us there. And so that premise alone is really interesting to me.”

One detail he did confirm: his “RoboCop” will be set, like the original, in Detroit. It sounds like it will be shot there too. “If you go to shoot a movie in Detroit, you better put Detroit in it. I’ve been researching a lot about Detroit — and they’re making the statue!” Padilha added excitedly, referring to the news earlier this year that fans were raising money to build a statue of everyone’s favorite cyborg police officer in his home town. “It got a little polemic,” he noted, “but I think finally they made the right choice.”

It’s hard to talk to Padilha or watch his movies and not think he’s the right choice for the project as well. I’m very interested to see his version of the material. And after you see “Elite Squad 2″ — and you really should, it’s great — I have a feeling you’ll agree with me.

Who do you think should play “RoboCop?” Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter. And be sure to follow all of our coverage of Fantastic Fest 2011.

Fantastic Fest 2011: “The Yellow Sea,” reviewed

Fantastic Fest 2011: “The Yellow Sea,” reviewed (photo)

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Korean director Na Hong-jin‘s “The Yellow Sea,” his follow-up to his blockbuster debut “The Chaser,” starts as a spartan character study then sprawls into a massive crime conspiracy. By the end, things get a little too densely plotted; everyone I spoke with at Fantastic Fest was still trying to sort through the exact details of who did what to whom and why hours after the screening. Not surprisingly, I liked the first part of “The Yellow Sea” a lot more than the second part, though both halves have their moments.

Na wrings an enormous amount of drama out of an insanely simple premise. A cab driver named Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is deep in debt, and the men he owes are getting antsy. They gave him 60,000 yuan for his wife’s visa so she could move to Korea from their pitiful home on the Chinese border, but it’s been months since she’s called or written. With nowhere else to turn, Gu-nam accepts a proposition from a mobster named Myung-ga (Kim Yun-seok) who promises to settle Gu-nam’s debt if he sneaks into Korea and murders someone for him. He has ten days to complete the hit and, perhaps, find his missing wife.

These opening scenes are spare and quiet, rich with detail and unspoken tension. The sequence that follows Gu-nam as he sneaks into Korea aboard a series of ships could be from a documentary on human trafficking. The detailed work continues once Gu-nam arrives in Seoul and starts shadowing his target; meticulously learning his routines and determining the best time and method to kill his prey. His actions are small but the stakes are huge. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, the suspense is terrible and you’re just hoping it lasts.

The fateful moment arrives earlier and with a lot more complications than anticipated. The assassination doesn’t go wrong, but it doesn’t exactly go right either, and that puts Gu-nam in the sights of a lot of different groups: the cops who want to solve a murder, his victim’s underworld associates who want revenge for their friend’s death, and Myung-ga’s own gang who get drawn into an international mob war with a Korean kingpin.

When Gu-nam starts running for his life like a wild animal, the film grows equally frenzied. Bye bye quiet precision, hello orgy of violence. Bye bye carefully observed minimalist drama, hello knife fights, hatchet fights, crazy foot chases, knife fights, crazier car chases, and knife fights. Did I mention this movie has knife fights? Because it does. Apparently, no one in the Korean underworld can find a gun, but they’re all big fans of the Ginsu knife. Now I finally understand why it was important that that thing could cut through a shoe.

From there, the film become an extravagantly bloody mess in the style of other over-the-top Korean revenge thrillers like “I Saw the Devil.” “The Yellow Sea,” it must be said, does have a certain joie de vivre all its own. At one point, two characters are chasing one another on a boat. One leaps overboard to escape, and the other dutifully follows; the chase continues in the water below. A swimming chase! That’s a new one for me.

The frenzy is fine, but a little bit more clarity, at least narratively speaking, would have been nice. The film seems to provide an unambiguous answer to the core mystery that drives its second half, then immediately reverses itself with a couple epilogue scenes that confuse the issue. Of course I would never spoil anything here, but after you see the movie, leave me some feedback below and answer me these questions: just who was that banker? And why did he do what he did? And how was that woman connected to him?

Nobody here at the festival was quite sure. One wise colleague I spoke to who hadn’t seen the movie suggested that the perplexing finale could have been disorienting by design. And it’s definitely true that Na modulates his direction to match his protagonist’s mental state. When the crap hits the fan for Gu-nam he doesn’t know how or why either. On the other hand, characters in these final scenes exchange knowing glances that imply they understand who they are and what they’ve done, even if we do not. That’s the problem. The audience shares Gu-nam’s confusion, but not his final fleeting moments of comprehension.

“The Yellow Sea” has a TBD release date from Fox International Pictures. If you see it at Fantastic Fest, we want to know what you think. Leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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