The Academy Award winning makeup designer discusses his favorite creatures from the film, the diversified movie slate of KNB EFX and possibly working on Sin City 2 and Hostel 2

As one of the owners of the highly in demand KNB EFX Group, Howard Berger isn't letting the fact that he just won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Makeup for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe slow him down. Having done makeup work on such films as Army of Darkness and The Green Mile, and with a bevy of projects currently in the offing, Berger took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with us and discuss his work on Narnia, how he got started and how KNB FX might be lending their future efforts to such films as Sin City 2 and Hostel 2.

What's it like when you hear your name and it registers in your mind that you just won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Makeup?

Howard Berger: I did? (Laughs) It's very exciting. I was sitting there with Tami Lane, with baited breath, and as soon as I saw Will Ferrell's mouth form the "H-O" syllables, I just went, "Oh! I won... ." My heart was pounding, I was overjoyed and excited and at the same time I was sitting there going, "I have one minute from this point to say what I need to say so I better hop to it." It was truly, truly amazing and spectacular. It was a dream come true and a fantastic way to kind of round out this whole experience with Narnia.

On a film like The Chronicles of Narnia, do you come in with specific ideas for how you want the film to look? Do you read the script and then go, "Where do I begin?" Or, did you draw a lot from the C.S. Lewis book?

Howard Berger: Well, it's a lot of everything to tell you the truth. What we did was, WETA Workshop in New Zealand, Richard Taylor's company, had been hired almost a year and a half prior to our involvement. So they had done a lot of design work and conceptual artwork for Andrew Adamson, so when we came on that was already there, but we needed to still take that artwork and redesign it to kind of fit in the real world. It was a combination of illustrations from the original book and WETA's original artwork.

The two big things for me were Andrew Adamson's recollection of the characters in the book when he was a child and he read it. That was a really, really big influence and I wanted to recreate that world that was in his mind when he was small; and also my three children had a lot to do with it because they were such gigantic fans of the book. I did not want to disappoint them and I utilized their imagination and their purity as far as designing a lot of the characters as well.

How much of this movie were you on the set?

Howard Berger: I was on set every single day. We prepped in LA, here at KNB EFX for six months, then I took off to New Zealand and I was there for eight months. I was on set every single day. (Laughs)

Which character was your personal favorite to design makeup for?

Howard Berger: I had two that I really, really loved. The Narnia inhabitants are basically broken up into two groups. There's the good guys being Aslan's camp and the bad guys being the White Witch's camp. I'd say on the good guy's side, Mr. Tumnus was by far my favorite. I loved Mr. Tumnus. He was also the most difficult for me. He was the first character to film on the show and it was a lot of hard work. Once Andrew had hired James McAvoy, I felt a lot easier about it. I felt James was Mr. Tumnus.

As far as bad guys go, I loved General Otmin who was the White Witch's Minotaur; big, giant, black Minotaur. I just think he's so supercool and I remember sitting on set with him on the first day going, "I love this creature. It's so awesome looking. It's such a great combination of everything I love. He's got a little bit of buffalo, he's got a little bit of gorilla, he's kind of apish and best of all he's very Where the Wild Things Are."

Now you've done make-up on a wide variety of movies, Day of the Dead, a couple of Nightmare On Elm Streetmovies, Mulholland Drive, Ray and most recently The Hills Have Eyes, how does your job differ from movie to movie?

Howard Berger: Well, the thing is at KNB EFX, it's me and my cofounder Greg Nicotero, we're a really diversified company and diversified people. We don't have just one interest. Like, "I only want to do horror films." I don't. We like to spread our wings. In 2004, when we did Narnia, the other shows we were doing at the time were The Island, we were doing Sin City, Land of the Dead, so we had a large array of different sort of films that we do.

We look for things that really interest us and that will keep our crew enthusiastic about what they're doing. That could be a wide variety of things. You mentioned The Hills Have Eyes, that Greg supervised. That's just something that came up and we read the script and we thought it would be fun and we did it. You know, there's a lot of films that we turn down because we don't find it fun or challenging. At this point we've been around so long, we've been around almost nineteen years, that we just want to make things a challenge. We want every day to be different and we want to be proud of the projects.

That's where Narnia came in. It was such a magnificent project, something we'd never done before, but yet we knew it would be a fantastic accomplishment.

How did you get started doing makeup?

Howard Berger: When I was very, very young my father took me to see some of the Planet of the Apes movies, and that's where I really got hooked. I did as much research as an eight year old could do. I read Famous Monsters and so forth, and learned about Rick Baker and Stan Winston and John Chambers. I was a natural artist anyhow. I sculpt, paint and draw and I just kept perfecting my skills. I knew I wanted to get into movies and make monsters so what a better facet to go into?

As I got older, I started hounding these guys who were my idols and they let me come visit and gave me pointers, and kind of took my under their wing and it just kind of grew and grew. I got out of high school, the next day I got a job as a makeup effects person working in a shop and I've been doing it ever since.

What advice would you give to someone who was an aspiring makeup artist and wanted to do what you do?

Howard Berger: I think the biggest thing is it's about passion. You really have to have the passion for it. Don't get into this because you think you're going to make tons of money, or you're gonna be in magazines or articles or become famous. Get into this because you love movies and you love creatures and makeup. That will fuel you and that will help drive your success. We hire a lot of people, right now we have almost seventy people working at KNB, and we have hired people that are great artists, but we've also hired people that are not that great of artists, but their enthusiasm is so contagious that we bring them in and they really become very, very valuable staples here in the shop.

I think it's a matter of being well rounded. Know you're artwork, know your lab work in terms of mold making... and just be a well rounded person. Be up for any task and don't turn anything down. Just do it and if you believe in it and you really want something bad enough it'll happen.

What are you currently working on now and do you have any plans to do any work on Sin City 2 and Hostel 2?

Howard Berger: First off, we are very busy right now. Greg Nicotero's in Texas working on a Robert Rodriguez movie called Grind House, which he's co-directing with Quentin Tarantino and there's a lot of cool stuff in there. We are doing a film for Buena Vista International or Disney called Primeval. Which is about a big giant crocodile. We're doing a second season of Masters of Horror, we did the first season last year for Showtime, we're now doing the second season. A film with Tony Scott called Deja Vu, that's shooting in New Orleans. A film called Premonition that's filming in Louisiana with Julian McMahon. We're working on Casino Royale, right now we're actually getting ready to leave for location soon with some mechanical puppets we've built for that film.

As far as Hostel 2 and Sin City 2, more than likely I would figure we would be involved; we're not sure when. There's rumor of Hostel 2 starting filming mid-year. With Sin City 2 we're not quite sure but we know that we will be involved with it in some way.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe arrives on DVD April 4th, 2006 from Walt Disney Home Video.

Cinemark Movie Club
Evan Jacobs