An interview with FX artist Rick Baker
When man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night becomes a wolf when a wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright, you damn well better turn to Rick Baker to pull the whole hirsute ordeal off. If you don’t, it’s like an insult thrown in the face of God. After all, he (Baker, not God) created arguably one of the greatest werewolf transformations in history with An American Werewolf in London – which garnered him an Academy Award. The producers of The Wolfman – Universal’s remake of the 1941 film starring Lon Chaney, Jr. – thankfully recruited Baker for wolf wranglin’ duties and not those behind limp lupine fare like The Howling III.
An update yet still a period piece, this Wolfman stars Benicio Del Toro as Larry Talbot, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving. John Johnston took over directing duties when Mark Romanek hopped off his rumored bumpy ride through pre-production. And on Saturday, July 26th, Universal and Rick Baker unleashed upon San Diego Comic-Con audiences the first footage from the rather quiet production. It was a fierce and exemplary display of baroque architecture, ominous landscapes – where a bipedal beast lumbers through the trees – strewn, steaming viscera, open throats and menacing sharp teeth.
Moments after the presentation – that found Del Toro and Blunt making a surprise appearance – Baker joined a pack of press hounds, including ShockTillYouDrop.com, to talk Wolfman, clarify a few things he spoke about on stage regarding a lack of a “transformation sequence” and wax all fanboy-like about his craft and projects he would like to do. When he speaks, it’s with a palpable cynicism to remind us how long he’s been at the game, rolling with the ups (An American Werewolf in London) and downs (Cursed) that have come with his career. Despite the trappings of the biz and the indecisive suits he answers to, there’s a pervasive excitement for creating monsters Baker holds onto. Here’s a guy who, in his free time, mucks about on classic horror message boards and tinkers with CG-animated likenesses of Bela Lugosi as Dracula…playing the Monster Mash on his guitar. As Baker admits, he’s at a point where he “doesn’t want to be a slave to his business and wants to do the projects he wants to do.” The Wolfman was definitely one of those projects.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: What did you think of the footage – seeing some of it finalized and on the big screen?
Rick Baker: It’s so hard tell when you’re working on a movie what it’s going to be like. I see dailies every day and I get really excited. Just when we were there filming it was really exciting. The first, most exciting part is when we filmed in the gypsy camp and we’re on location in the woods. It’s like 20 really cool gypsy wagons, all of these Romanian people as gypsies, villagers with torches and pitchforks, all of this fog. It’s like, F**k, we’re making a Wolfman movie!
Shock: How has the makeup process changed over the years and how is it perfected in this movie?
Baker: The process has changed and the materials have changed a lot but not so much in this movie. I was very old school in this. It’s yak hair glued onto his face and a rubber nose, it was even foam rubber. Most of the time now we do things out of silicone, which the advantage to that is that it’s a translucent material and you can get a nice flesh color and flesh feel. But since the Wolfman was dark and it’s harder to lay hair on silicone, I mean, it’s pretty old school. Foam rubbery, acrylic teeth and yak hair.
Shock: Can you discuss everyone’s approach to the material? It seems everyone is tackling the material and looking at the old film with reverence.
Baker: I was just glad to hear that was the take they had on the movie as well. When I first read the script, it read like a CGI werewolf movie. But I can’t help myself from putting my two-bits in: It’s the Wolfman, it should be a guy in makeup, there should be fog, and there should be villagers in there and the poem should be in there. You know, “even a man who is pure in heart” thing, because at one point that wasn’t going to happen. You’ve got to put that in the movie, you’ve got to do it. I’m a fanboy and that stuff is what made me do what I do. I wanted to stay true to the Jack Pierce makeup, but still modernize it and make it work for this movie. I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It’s a very old school gothic horror movie.
Shock: Does it stay true to the mythology of the character?
Baker: Very much so.
Shock: Does the movement of the character limit you to the way you want the makeup/costume design to look?
Baker: Yeah, and we can limit that by what we do. When you see the feet, we have him on leg extensions. We have a couple of different feet – one is like Lon Chaney, Jr. where he’s on the balls of his feet, but we extended the pads of his foot and extended the pads of his heels so it has more of that dog-like joint. But the problem was, as you saw [in the footage], they had a lot of him running at pretty high speed. I, like on this film and almost everything I do, usually do a version to fit me first. Try the stuff out on myself first, because that’s how I learned makeup. I like it. [laughs] I’m going to be the Wolfman before Benicio! I did a makeup on myself and shot some stuff. Again, part of it was to convince [the producers] that this is the way to do it.
Shock: How did you look in makeup?
Baker: Much better than I do now. Pretty much like Benicio, although he can open his mouth wider than any normal human being. Those pictures that were released on the Internet early on – people thought they were digitally-enhanced, but that’s his mouth opening that wide. The teeth are a lot bigger than what Lon Chaney had, because the Wolfman definitely had to tear up people and do some horrible things. But what happens is when you put big canines on a monster and the guy opens his mouth and the canines don’t even open up, there’s no way he could bite somebody. Benny, he could.
Shock: Speaking of movement, did you have much say in how he moved, because his run is very distinctive when we see him going through the woods.
Baker: The real answer is no. This film was funny because I’m sure they thought I was being a pain in the ass with You gotta try this! and You gotta do this! I’m sure they were like, Just shut up and go away, put the makeup on and don’t bother us. [laughs] It’s a collaboration and there are a lot of people involved in what the final decision is.
Shock: Did you use a lot of ZBrush during the design process?
Baker: I did do some ZBrush stuff initially. The movie started out with a different director. He, like many people, wasn’t sure what he wanted. Benicio wanted Lon Chaney, Jr. We had a meeting and the studio wasn’t sure what they wanted and Benicio held up the video cassette and showed them, This is what we want. I was glad to hear that, but I didn’t want to just copy the Wolfman makeup. I did thousands of designs. The very first thing I did was Benny as a Lon Chaney, Jr. Wolfman. The second design was what the Wolfman is now. But it took thousands of designs and the director finally leaving the picture to not even give the new director a choice. [I thought] I’m just going to do what I think the Wolfman should be because we don’t even have time now. It was literally two weeks before filming and we hadn’t made anything yet because no one made a decision.
Shock: It’s a huge undertaking doing the Wolfman, was there anything that you didn’t get to do that you wanted to do?
Baker: The only thing I’m a little bit disappointed about is the transformation. ‘Cause we made stuff but didn’t shoot anything. I’m still pushing more to be involved in that, even if it is CG. I do CG myself for fun. But I think it’s a continuation of my design. I know this stuff, I’ve done it. I’ve seen these films, but I wish I did more movies like this. Obviously, I do stuff with Eddie Murphy and do fat people and makeup that’s really hard to do…but I want to make monster movies.
Shock: There seems to be a groundswell of filmmakers who are pushing back against CGI, are you sensing that at all?
Baker: A little bit. There’s some backlash to it. I embrace the technology. It’s really nice to be able to do things we can’t do. There’s a limit to what I can do with makeup and animatronics. I just saw Batman and it’s nice to see they took away [Aaron Eckhart’s] face for Two-Face. We couldn’t do that. I don’t think it’s the answer for everything. It’s an amazing tool, but it’s only as good as the artist behind it. You see some great CG stuff and you see some shitty CG stuff.
Shock: The American Werewolf in London transformation is so definitive, how do you look to doing another one? Do you reinvent it? Build off of it?
Baker: That’s the problem with the one thing with the transformation in this movie. In Werewolf we had naked David Naughton, four-legged hound from hell. You had a whole body to change. Here, you’ve got Benicio Del Toro – who’s practically a f**kin’ Wolfman anyways – and Benicio Del Toro with a little bit of hair on him. We didn’t have far to go. I said, To be honest, I don’t know how we do this transformation. How we make it an American Werewolf in London thing out of this slight change? His nose and teeth only grow a little longer. We came up with some ideas, but I don’t know what they’ll end up doing. In Werewolf, the transformation was the big showcase thing. The showcase here is the performance of the actors and the makeup.
Shock: Has the advent of Blu-Ray and HD made your job any more difficult?
Baker: It hasn’t changed my job, in my mind anyways, because I try to make the stuff look realistic. When I was a kid doing all of this, I would put pores and all of this stuff [into my work] and Hollywood people would say, Kid, you’re doing too much work, you’re never going to see that shit. I see it. I want it to look as good as I can make it, so I personally want the makeups to look as real in person if you’re standing this far away from it.
Shock: This new Wolfman looks incredibly violent and the Universal classics were heralded for their atmosphere and subtlety. Being such an old school fanboy, what are your thoughts on making a graphic Wolfman film for audiences who seem to have seen it all?
Baker: I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not a big gorehound. Monster gore is different to me than killing a teenager in any way than when a person does it. I don’t know how I rationalize that. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I’m surprised they put as much of the gore stuff into [the Comic-Con footage] as they did. We definitely shot some gory stuff, but whether it ends up in the movie, I don’t know yet. I think that’s Universal’s decision of whether it’s going to be an R or a PG-13 or whatever. Like I said, I don’t mind monster violence so much. I think for an audience to see it today, you would almost expect an amount of that. It wouldn’t break my heart if they tone it down somewhat.
Shock: Is there another monster you’d like to do?
Baker: Frankenstein. Frankenstein, more than anything, is the film that made me want to do this. I have a Frankenstein’s laboratory – pretty much recreated everything.
Shock: What if they offered it to you to direct? Would that outweigh your trepidations about helming something yourself?
Baker: I don’t know. I don’t think so. If they said, Here’s a pile of money, you give us a film and we’ll have nothing to say with it I’d be more interested.
Shock: Why do you think we don’t have personalities emerging from the FX world like we saw 20 or 30 years ago?
Baker: It’s interesting. I just said that the other day. Who’s going to take Stan Winston’s place? There is a guy I brought over from Japan I sponsored in this country who is the future of makeup. I’m so thankful he showed up. I supported him for three years, he has guaranteed me three year’s work. His name is Kazu Hirosugi. He’s got the love. There are a lot of people who got into this to be the famous makeup guy, not so much the love for the work. They’d work for us, come in when they were supposed to come in and leave at five o’clock and I’d still be there at midnight. Kazu is one of those guys who would come into my private workshop and I’d be working and when I looked outside at the parking lot, I’d just see his car and my car. No one else. It’s such a commitment. You have to dedicate your life to this stuff to be able to make it the way I want to make it.
Shock: How would your Frankenstein look? How similar to Boris Karloff?
Baker: That would be the problem. Frankenstein’s monster is Boris Karloff to me. It’s so hard to get away from that. I don’t have a sketchbook full of Frankenstein ideas. I kept hoping that someday somebody would approach me about a Frankenstein movie. My fear was that I’d have all of these ideas and they would say, No, we don’t want that. When they were doing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I really wanted to do it. It didn’t happen, I saw the movie and I was glad – like when I when I heard about Van Helsing. I loved the idea of that, it was a cool opportunity. Werewolves and vampires and a Frankenstein monster all in a movie – I was like, Yeah! Then I saw it and thought, Okay, that’s the reason I didn’t do that. I thought the opening to the movie was great and I really liked the opening of The Mummy.
Having just returned from England, Baker adds it’s now time for a vacation. I suspect we’ll be hearing from him more as we draw closer to The Wolfman‘s release on April 3, 2009.
Source: Ryan Rotten