He turned Michael Jackson into a werewolf and James Woods’ belly into a vagina. Seven-time Academy-award winner, king of movie make-up, tells Drew Turney how he transformed latex special effects into an artform
Staring into the wild eyes, oversized canines and ruffled grey hair of a werewolf that once terrorised London is a daunting experience, even when it’s safely locked inside a glass case. Snarling proudly from a corner of Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studios, the articulated furry head has lost none the ghoulish menace of its big-screen debut over 30 years ago in An American Werewolf in London – just catching a glimpse of it makes the childhood nightmares rush back.
“We used this for the scene on the moors, where it’s attacking Griffin Dunne,” Baker, its silver-haired creator, explains. “He had to grab the skin on the outside to try and fight it off. I told him to be careful because the skin and hair weren’t attached very strongly. So it’s the first take and I’m puppeteering it, and I attack him. He grabs hold of the skin and rips the face right off. I said, ‘What part of that did you not under-stand?’ So I’m trying to glue it back together, and we had rubber teeth in it but I wanted to put the hard teeth in it. I didn’t originally because they could have really hurt him, but I said, ‘If you’re going to play rough I am too.’ And I just beat the crap out of him with it, he was really screaming.”
The Hollywood special-effects genius says he’s surprised the 31-year-old werewolf head is still in one piece, and that it’ll crumble if anyone touches it. But a sadder fate met the full-body model that Baker and director John Landis used for long shots. He gave it to a collector friend and somebody backed over it with a car. Not an appropriately dignified fate for the monster that redefined a craft.
Back then, movie special-effects were still a raw art. But when director John Landis decided to follow up his 1978 frathouse smash National Lampoon’s Animal House with a horror comedy about an American tourist who morphs into a werewolf, he was determined for his wolfman to look real. Landis wanted An American Werewolf in London to show a man turning into a wolf in living, livid colour.
30-year-old make-up artist and creature-designer Baker was already making waves. Friends with SFX whizzes Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston, he’d created most of the creatures in Star Wars’ iconic cantina scene. But a werewolf transformation was a different matter entirely. They could have stuck hair and pulsating plastic sacs to David Naughton’s face while the actor writhed on the floor of a London flat in agony. But when Landis wanted to see the snout of a wolf emerge from Naughton’s face, Baker knew there was only one way to do it. Baker used make-up effects, silicone rubber and an animatronic puppet for the mindblowing shot we still judge all werewolf transformations against three decades later.
Among its fans was one Michael Jackson, and in 1983 Landis and Baker teamed up again to recreate the werewolf transformation on the King of Pop for his epochal 13-minute Thriller video, which also saw Jackson and a troupe of dancers (including sister Janet) turned into decaying zombies. The mini-movie was a major pop-culture event and has been voted the most influential music video of all time. Also influential, in a more underground way, was Baker’s work that same year for a much darker horror vision – David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. If American Werewolf and Thriller tapped into the fantasies of B-movie lovers everywhere, the sight of James Woods reaching into a vagina-like opening in his own abdomen to pull out a handgun spoke to our most Freudian nightmares.
In 1981 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even invented a new award category – Best Makeup – just so they could give Baker an Oscar for American Werewolf. Looking like a shaggier Steve Jobs in his younger days, Baker bounded up to the stage and finished his speech by thanking a man who he called “a real inspiration to me, Dick Smith, for all Dick has contributed to the art of make-up.”
Many movie fans know Smith’s work as well as they do Baker’s, both from classic films like The Godfather and The Exorcist and not-so-classic schlock like 1959’s The Alligator People. And just like Smith inspired Baker, Baker’s work (which also includes contributions to Starman, The Howling, Ed Wood, The Ring, Hellboy, Tropic Thunder and The Wolfman) continues to inspire directors, fans and up-and-coming make-up artists who’ll make sure CGI doesn’t take over completely just yet. He was even given a cameo in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong in tribute to his work on the 1976 version, in which he played the the titular giant ape.
But as the 2012 Oscars reminded us, make-up effects can be about subtler things. This year the award they created for Baker went to Mark Coulier and J Roy Helland for making Meryl Streep look like an aged Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. It’s an aspect of the craft we don’t equate with Baker after a career of iconic monsters and otherworldly beasts, but some of his best work has been the sort you might not notice.
“I like doing both monsters and reality-based work,” Baker says. “Aliens are easier in a lot of ways because we don’t see aliens every day and human make-up is the hardest to pull off. You can have a defect in the rubber on an alien and nobody would know that’s not what the alien’s supposed to look like. I’m really pleased with the work that was nominated this year, and I can’t say that every year.”
In fact, one of Baker’s most successful results, as he himself describes it, was the old Jewish man in the barbershop for 1988’s Coming to America. Eddie Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall played several roles each, but Murphy was hardest to pick out in his role as the moustachioed Saul. Baker says the make-up bought the character to life only because of star Murphy’s dedication.
“It’s a tough process. Maybe it’s fun the first and second time, but we made Eddie up for The Nutty Professor for something like 60 days, and you’re talking three-and-a-half hours in the make-up chair in the morning and an hour at the end of the day to remove it. And then there’s some asshole like me always looking at the corner of his mouth or poking him or something.
“But for Saul in Coming to America, the make-up was something like 15 or 17 separate pieces of foam rubber, and when we got him all made up he couldn’t believe it, it was much more real than he expected it to be. He thought the old Jewish man he did was such a stereotype and asked if he could just improvise and play with it. So I got a video camera and it was just him in the make-up chair looking in the mirror improvising a bunch of stuff. A lot of it was hysterical but a lot of it was really serious acting. It helped him find the essence of the guy.”
Until you meet Baker and witness his youthful energy, you’re thinking about how doing anything for 30 years must make it harder to muster enthusiasm. Few of us ever get to have this much fun at work.
Fortunately for Baker, he comes to Cinovation Studios to work every day. One wall of the downstairs reception hall is from a gothic horror film, a medieval castle-keep with gargoyles grinning hideously from the walls and the ghostly white figure of a woman hanging in front of a huge iron crucifix. Along the other wall is the graveyard, a six-foot-high hill built against a stormy sky, ramshackle gravestones rising above the weeds and fallen trees and the corpse of a zombie rising from the ground, coffins broken open along the front and spilling the grinning skeletons of their occupants. The huge room may be at odds with the buffet lunch being served but perfectly befits one of the modern behind-the-scenes masters. Baker is the quintessential kid who never grew up, with the irrepressible glee for blood, guts and death all little boys have.
But it’s the exhibition room upstairs, home to the werewolf head, that’s like Valhalla to Vikings and Santa’s workshop to kids. Scattered around the outside of the room is a collection of moulds, models and characters that look like a museum of Hollywood’s best special effects. In the middle of the floor is a ten-foot-tall model of the ape from Mighty Joe Young. Lying on a slab like a corpse in a morgue is the fat suit worn by Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. Harry, the bigfoot from Harry and the Hendersons, shares a strip of pretend forest with Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan’s characters from Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.
There’s evidence here and there about how much Baker still loves his work, including a crazy-looking woman crouched behind the door, easy to miss completely but looking like she’s escaped from a hospital for the violently insane. Further over is a hole in the brickwork in the dark, the decomposing faces of two zombies leering through. Neither are from movies, they’re just the result of Baker having fun.
“It really is hard, especially when you’re as fucking good as I am,” Baker says with a hearty laugh. But there’s an unparalleled joy in bringing something to life, especially when we love as well as fear his creations. It’s surprising to hear, but his favourite job was for 1987’s bigfoot family comedy Harry and the Hendersons.
“I’m a big Frankenstein fan, and when you see Boris Karloff’s performance you really have sympathy for the monster. Same with Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo. We’re sympathetic because they have a heart. (Harry and the Hendersons director William Dear) said he wanted me to do it because I give my characters a soul. I think he was trying to butter me up, but there’s some truth to that and it’s something I try to do. I don’t necessarily want to just do horrible monsters and killing machines.”
But despite the Oscars on his shelf and some of the most influential movies of the Spielberg/Lucas golden era to his name, the 61-year-old still can’t just do
what he wants. “Rarely if ever,”
is how Baker responds when asked how often he really controls his designs. “There are people who say, ‘You’ve been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive, you have all these awards, how can you not be
in control?’ It’s just not the case.
In film you’re not totally left alone to design what you want – there
are all these other people involved in it... When I did the first Men in Black they wanted aliens like nobody’s ever seen before. And that’s really hard. When I did the cantina scene in Star Wars there weren’t a lot of films like that. But afterwards there were so many cantina scenes in so many space movies and TV shows.”
In fact, Baker’s past has caught up to him. “There are people doing this sort of work now that I helped start out and trained. They’re a lot more into digital today and they’ve really learned their digital aesthetic from me.” He tells a story about hanging around an online forum for the digital animation and 3D application ZBrush. Baker saw a post of a design that reminded him suspiciously of a creature he’d made for a Disney film called Gargoyle, which was ultimately abandoned. “I said, ‘This looks a lot like a design I did in the 90s’, and the guy on the forum said he was basing it on a creature this other guy did, and that other guy used to work for me.”
As for the future, things still look bright for Baker. He’s showing no signs of slowing down and is refreshingly open to new techniques and tools for a veteran – you certainly don’t expect an avowed rubber-and-glue man to have taken to digital design so completely. Baker believes it will become a more essential component of the make-up artist’s toolkit, and he’s ready to dive in.
“I’ve been a fan of this stuff as long as I can remember, and I’ll never forget the example of Jack Pierce, the make-up artist at Universal who did Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and all these classic films. He didn’t progress with the times. Other people were using foam rubber appliances and he was still using cotton and spirit gum and they got rid of him. I took note of that as a kid and decided to stay on top of what’s new. Plus it’s just more fun.”
Interview by Drew Turney