After virtually creating the modern make-up effects scene, Rick Baker came of age along with it, giving non-living characters in some of the most beloved films of the 70s and 80s the souls we all love. Drew Turney recalls a brilliant career with the seven-time Academy Award winner.
It started with a simple decision and it changed a moviemaking craft forever.
Director John Landis was doing a horror comedy as his follow up to frathouse smash Animal House (1978). Despite the laughs, he wanted his take on the classic wolf man legend to look real – no cheesy cross fades between a scared looking Lon Chaney and a scared looking Lon Chaney wearing yak hair and plastic teeth. Landis wanted An American Werewolf in London to show a man turning into a wolf in living, livid colour.
Then 30-year old make-up artist and creature designer Rick Baker was already making some waves in Hollywood. Friends with effects whizzes Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston, he’d created most of the creatures in the Star Wars cantina scene that made it so iconic.
But there was only one way to do Werewolf. They could stick 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. He used make-up effects, silicone rubber and an animatronic puppet for the mind-blowing shot we still judge all werewolf transformations against three decades later. It was good enough to form the recognisable image that sold the movie, but critical plaudits for Baker’s work didn’t stop there.
In 1981 the Oscars invented a new category – best make-up effects – just so they could give him one. 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 much as they do Baker’s because of classic films like The Godfather and The Exorcist and not so classic films like 1959 schlock classic The Alligator People. And just like Smith inspired Baker, today Baker’s work (he’s contributed to King Kong, Starman, The Howling, Ed Wood, Mighty Joe Young, The Ring, Hellboy, Tropic Thunder and The Wolfman) inspires directors, fans and up and coming make-up artists who’ll make sure CGI doesn’t take over completely just yet.
In fact if you’re a fan of his work on werewolves you’ll remember Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking mini-movie music video for 1983’s Thriller. Baker again teamed up with Landis to transform a man into a monster, the singer enjoying/enduring similar same in-camera make-up effects of rubber and hair David Naughton had a few years earlier. Aside from the werewolf transformation Baker and his team made Jackson and a troupe of dancers (including sister Janet) into decaying zombies.
That same year, Baker joined director David Cronenberg for the much darker horror vision Videodrome. If American Werewolf and Thriller fulfilled the dream 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.
Today, 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. The actors and producers all have ideas. The directors have ideas, as they should. I’m not saying they’re wrong but a lot of times I don’t think their ideas are any good. In film you’re not totally left alone to design what you want, there are all these other people involved in it.”
But even if Baker could retreat into the confines of his nondescript building in Glendale, north of Los Angeles, the real world keeps invading the joy of just designing and building creatures.
“I keep doing it because I love it. People ask if I’m really hands on and I am, because that’s what I do. I didn’t get into this because I wanted to have a business. I hate having a business, I hate having employees, I hate having to pay bills for this fucking building and having to think for other people.”
Such harsh words sound odd coming from such a soft-spoken guy. Dressed completely in black, he’s slender and slightly lanky, making him seem taller than he is. With his silver mane drawn back into a single ponytail and goatee he could be a cool, well-read, ex hippy grandfather.
And the gripes don’t end there. “When I did the first Men In Black they said 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 after Star Wars there were so many cantina scenes in so many space movies and TV shows.”
In fact, Baker’s own past has caught up to him. “There are people doing this sort of work now that I actually 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 from his early days 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.”
Fortunately for Baker, he gets to come to Cinnovation Studios to work every day. Before being taken to meet him for the interview, Dazed finds ourselves in a huge interior chamber the receptionist explains with a laugh was dressed for a party once but which they left after it was all over. One wall is from something out of 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 grey, stormy sky, ramshackle gravestones rising above the weeds and fallen trees and a 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 reception room is completely at odds with the buffet lunch being served but perfectly befits one of the modern behind-the-scenes masters. Baker, you decide before even meeting him, is a 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, where we sit down to chat with the make-up legend himself, that’s like Valhalla to Vikings, the Pearly Gates to Christians, 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 10-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.
But snarling proudly from a glass case in a corner like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre is the mother lode. The nightmares come back, the hairs on the back of one’s neck bristle, and suddenly the rest of the world dissolves as you stare into the wild eyes, oversized canines and ruffled grey hair of an articulated werewolf head, an American one that once terrorised London. In today’s CGI era it’s still the effect every other werewolf film is judged against – and found wanting.
“We used this for the scene on the moors, where it’s attacking Griffin Dunne [hero David’s friend Jack],” Baker explains, the day’s filming frustrating but the memory happy. “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 start to attack him.
“He grabs hold of the skin and rips the face right off. I said ‘what part of that did you not understand?’ 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’m going to’. And I just beat the crap out of him with it, he was really screaming.”
Baker 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 still 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.
But as the 2012 Oscars reminded us, make-up effects aren’t just about monsters and aliens. It was the 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 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 costar Arsenio Hall played several roles each, but Murphy was hardest to pick as the white, moustached Saul. Baker says the make-up bought the character to life only because star Murphy believed in it so wholeheartedly.
“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, 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 he asked if 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.”
So after a 30-year career and the never-ending spectres of business ownership, a shrinking ideas pool as the sci-fi genre continues apace and collaborator interference, it must be hard to muster enthusiasm for make-up effects after all this time. Though few of us ever get to have this much fun at work, everything gets boring if you do it long enough.
“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, and no further proof of that might be 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. [William Dear, Harry and the Hendersons director] said he really 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.