Rick Baker talks about working on the new film and the Hollywood system in general

There are few that are considered legends in the field of makeup special effects, but Rick Baker is certainly one of them. He won the first Oscar in the makeup effects category for American Werewolf in London in 1982, which led to his work on such films as Batman Forever, Men In Black, The Ring and many many more including a slew of Eddie Murphy movies and he even did the makeup effects for Michael Jackson's seminal "Thriller" music video/short film. His latest project is the upcoming Benecio del Toro film, The Wolf Man. I was invited to participate in a roundtable interview session with the makeup icon about the film and a lot more. Here's what he had to say.

How has the technology and the process of makeup changed over the years?

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Rick Baker: The process has changed a lot, but not so much in this movie. I went very old-school with this. Black hair glued onto his face and a rubber nose, foam rubber. Most of the time we do things out of silicone. The advantage of that is it's translucent material and has a really flesh feel, but since The Wolf Man was dark, it's harder to do silicone. It's pretty old-school. It's foam rubber and acrylic teeth and yak hair.

With a lot of remakes now, it's very common to hear filmmakers talk about not referring to the old one that much. It seems like, in what you're describing, you have this approach where you're trying to be refferential to the original film. Can you discuss that approach?

Rick Baker: I was glad because that was the kind of take they had on the movie as well. I was relieved. I was really worried. When I first read the script, it read like a CGI werewolf movie. I can't help myself in putting my two bits in. I said, 'You know, it's The Wolfman. It's supposed to be a guy in makeup. There should be fog and there should be villagers with torches.' I'm a fanboy. That stuff is what made me do what I do. I wanted to be true to the Jack Pierce makeup but still moderinze it and make it work for this movie. I'm really happy with the way it turned out. It's very old-school and gothic horror movie.

How limited are you by the way the characters move? Does the movement of the character limit you in terms of design?

Rick Baker: Yeah, we kind of can limit what we do. You saw the feet. We actually had these leg extensions. We have a couple of feet that we did, one is very Lon Cheney Jr., actually, where he's on the balls of his feet. We actually extended the pads of his feet and heels. The problem was, there's a lot of running through the woods, at pretty high speeds. On this film, and almost everything I do, I do it on me first and try it out myself, because that's how I learned makeup, and I like it (Laughs). It was like, 'I'm going to be The Wolf Man before Benicio.' I do the makeup on myself and shot some stuff and part of it was to convince them that this was the way to do it.

How did you look?

Rick Baker: Much better than I do now (Laughs). I looked pretty much like Benicio, only that he can open his mouth wider than any normal human being. You know those pictures that were released on the Internet early on, there was that shot with his mouth wide open and people thought that it was digitally enhanced. No, that's his real mouth opening that wide. The teeth are a lot bigger than what Lon Cheney had, because definitely The Wolf Man had to tear some people up and do some horrible things. We needed to give him a bigger set of teeth, but what happens a lot of times when you put big canines on a monster and the guy opens his mouth, the canines don't even open up (Laughs). There's no way he can really bite somebody, but with Benny, he could.

Do you have much say in the movement of the character or is that mostly the direction?

Rick Baker: The real answer is no. This film is a little funny. I think they thought I was a real pain in the ass. I kept going, 'You've gotta try this! You've gotta do this!' They were like, 'Just shut up and go away.' Just put the makeup on and don't bother anyone. Again, it's a collaboration and a lot of people are involved in what the final decision is.

You're an amazing Z-brush artist. Did you do any Z-brush on this early on?

Rick Baker: Yeah, I did do some Z-brush stuff initially. The funny thing was, the movie had started out with a different director. He, like many people, wasn't sure what he wanted. Benecio wanted Lon Cheney, meaning, early on when we talked, they were saying they didn't know where they wanted to go and Benecio held up a video cassette (of the original) and said, 'This is what it was," which I was glad to hear, but I didn't want to just copy that Wolf Man makeup but I wanted to stay very true to it. I did thousands of designs. The very first thing I did was Benny as Lon Cheney Jr.'s The Wolf Man. The second design was what The Wolf Man is now, but it took literally thousands of designs and the director leaving the picture for me to make The Wolf Man what I wanted it to be. I'm not gonna give the other guy a choice. He's going to have to live with it. He's not going to have time now. It was two weeks before filming and we hadn't made anything yet because nobody had made a decision. That's one reason why I made myself up as well. Seven months before we started filming, the makeup on myself, that's really the same that's on Benny, I shot stuff and cut stuff and went, 'Look at this stuff and tell me that this isn't what The Wolf Man should be?'

As a fanboy who grew up on this stuff, it can be a big undertaking to take on a character like The Wolf Man. Was there anything you didn't get to do that you wanted to do?

Rick Baker: The one thing I am a little bit disappointed about at this point is the transformation. We made some stuff and they didn't shoot any of it. I'm still pushing for getting more involved in that, even if it is CG stuff. I mean, I do CG stuff myself, for fun. I think it's a continuation of my desire and I know this stuff, I've done it, I've seen these films. Again, I wish they did more movies like this. I do a lot of movies with Eddie Murphy, fat people in different makeups that are really hard to do, but I wanna make monster movies.

It seems there's almost a groundswell of filmmakers now who are pushing back against CGI, where CGI was really embraced in the past 10 years. Do you sense that happening at all?

Rick Baker: A little bit, yeah. There's some backlash to it. I mean, I embrace the technology. It's really nice to do things that we can't do. I mean, there's a limit to what I can do with the makeup or with animatronics. I just saw the Batman thing and it's cool that they could actually take away his face for Two-Face. We couldn't have done it like that, but 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. That's why you see some really great CG stuff and that's why you see some really shitty CG stuff.

For the future of makeup, do you thin it's going to remain old-school or will this new technology jump forward?

Rick Baker: Well, it's changed a lot in materials, like in silicones and things, and we can do some very believable and realistic. You can be two feet away from somebody in makeup and not even know. Dick Smith was my idol and I thought he put on the most believable makeups in the world. When I actually saw him put one on in person, and I was standing a few feet away, I could tell it was makeup. Now, I mean, I could put on a makeup and walk in a room and nobody would know, nobody would question me. That's really changed a lot but the computer stuff is taking over part of our work and I think it's great when they can do stuff that we cannot do. What we do is an additive process. A Two-Face like they did in the ("The Dark Knight") movie, where they cut into his face, was really great. Or the Harry Potter thing where they took the guy's nose off. That was really cool.

How has the advent of HD and Blu-Ray changed your process or your job?

Rick Baker: Well, it hasn't changed my job, in my mind anyway. When I was a kid and doing this stuff, the Hollywood people said, "Kid, you're doing too much work. Nobody's ever gonna see that shit." I'd go, "I see it." I want to make it look as good as I can make it. I personally want the makeups to looks as real in person so you can be standing this far away from them, so for me it really hasn't made that much of a difference.

Do you intend to go into CG as well? Use all the tools?

Rick Baker: You know, I'm reaching the end of my career and I don't want to have to restart another one. I don't like the business aspect, I like making the shit. I do a lot of CG stuff for fun. I don't know if any of you guys ever saw this, but about 8 years ago I did a Monster Mash video and I never got a chance to finish it. I got a whole band with Dracula and Frankenstein and Wolf Man and the Bride. I did pretty good recreations of those characters in a rock band doing Monster Mash, just for fun.

What else are you working on?

Rick Baker: Nothing. I just got back, I just finished like a week ago. I'm gonna take some time off. I've gotten to that point in my life again where I don't want to be a slave to my business. I want to do what I want to do and I'm just waiting for somebody to come along that makes me want to do it and if nobody comes along I'll just do it myself.

What about directing?

Rick Baker: I think I'm the one person in Hollywood that doesn't want to. I've seen people who are really established directors that can't do what they want to do.

Is this movie an example of that?

Rick Baker: Yeah, all movies are. I mean, they're filmed by committee, directed by committee. That's the reason I had thousands of designs is because I had an army of producers who had suggestions and stuff. 'Why don't you put big monkey ears on him?' 'Because he's The Wolf Man, that's why. It's a stupid idea.' 'Well put big monkey ears on one of them. Let's just see it.'

The Wolf Man is set for an April 3, 2009 release.