FIVE QUESTIONS: RICK BAKER
Make-up pioneer Rick Baker is a six-time Oscar winner for his movie magic in films such as “An American Werewolf in London,” “Ed Wood,” “Men in Black“ and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” but there were few projects in his illustrious career that got him more excited than the remake of “The Wolfman,” which has just hit stores on Blu-ray and DVD. I caught up with the 59-year-old film make-up wizard to talk about the legacy of the werewolf project, the disappointment that came with the film’s sour reception and his plans for the future. You can also read more about make-up and visual effects in our WIZARDS OF HOLLYWOOD series.
GB: There are certain characters and films that carry a special resonance with them and I would imagine in your area of specialty, the Wolf Man has to be on a very short of list of truly classic and unique properties. Talk about that legacy and also the challenges that come with it.
RB: It was the Universal films that made me want to do what I do. “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon” — it’s what hooked me. “That’s what I want to do, I want to make monsters.” And especially “The Wolf Man.” And when I heard they were going to do a new film I knew I wanted to do. I never pursue stuff, I’m kind of stupid that way, I’m not really a good businessman. I like when somebody calls me because they want to use me. But with this one, I didn’t to let it go by. I went and talked to someone at Universal and said, “If this is really going to happen and it’s going to put a person into makeup — as it should be done — then you got to use me. I really want to do this.” I was begging. I was glad to hear they wanted to use me, first of all. But then, like you said, then the reality hits and you think of the challenges. I need to make an homage to the Jack Pierce makeup, but I also need to modernize it and make it work for a modern audience. Are they going to accept a guy with hair on his face? It was a daunting task.
GB: Unlike those other Universal monsters, the Wolf Man has a transition. He isn’t a monster all the time and that changeover is a defining part of any werewolf film. For this remake, for you and the visual effects team, what was the strategy and philosophy about those metamorphosis scenes?
RB: That’s one of the things I always enjoyed about Wolf Man movies, the metamorphosis. And Lon Chaney Jr. was really underrated as an actor. I think in the original film and in the follow-ups there’s this deep sympathy you feel for this poor, cursed man. That’s so much of the appeal of it. He’s this tortured soul who, not by choice, turns into a monster and kills people. It just tears him up. But watching the man turn into the animal is one of the special things. I wasn’t sure going into this film how it was going to be done, Thirty years ago, with “American Werewolf in London,” we changed the way people thought about transformation. So what do you do now? The answer is they pretty much left me out of the transformation. They did it with CG. They utilized my ideas and concept sculptures, they scanned it all in, but it was all done in the computer. I would like to have been involved in it more because I also do a lot of computer stuff — I do my designs on the computer — but I thought they did a terrific job. On the Blu-ray there’s a lot of cool stuff showing how the transformation stuff was accomplished and also how I did my thing. It’s great for people to be able to see all that stuff. I tell my daughters, when I was young we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have home video — to watch these movies when I was young, I’d have to scour the TV Guide and see what time it was on and hope that my parents would let me watch it if they weren’t watching something else on the one TV in the house. You only had one shot at it. And there wasn’t a lot of information out there, either, but luckily there was Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and Forry Ackerman. He talked about the people behind the scenes and articles on how to do this stuff. That’s how I learned it was an occupation. But today the information is out there everywhere. I’m hoping it gives us a whole generation of whiz kids who are masters at this kind of stuff.
GB: There is a perception of an ongoing rivalry between people and pixels — what I mean is whether it’s in visual effects or animation, there are proponents of “the old-fashioned, high-integrity” way and then the generation of hard-drive kids who come in with the view that computers are the total definition of “state-of-the-art.” Many of the most successful storytellers now do a blend approach, but then we also see far too many films that use a massive amount of computer effects in a way that leaves the audience numbed. I’m wondering what your perspective is on all of that.
RB: I embrace the technology and I’ve been doing my designs on the computer for 22 years now. It’s another trick in your bag of tricks. There are things you can do [with computers] we can’t do with rubber and animatronics. But I hate when the computer stuff just makes for sloppy filmmaking, and it has. The common thing you hear now it, “We’ll fix it in post.” “There’s a C-stand in the shot; well, we’ll take it out in post-production. We’ll have somebody paint it out.” Well, why don’t you just walk over, grab it and move it out? It makes so much for sloppy filmmaking. It also annoys me when people now think it’s the only way to do things. That’s why I was really glad they actually wanted to go with a person in a makeup on this film. That was my fear. My fear was they were going to do a whole CG thing. When you have Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro and those kind of actors, you want to see them, not somebody’s digital version of them.
GB: The movie got some especially nasty reviews and commercially it was a disappointment [it made $139 million in worldwide grosses, but the production budget was $150 million, which doesn’t include marketing and advertising costs]. I have to say I actually kind of enjoyed myself, but I’m a sucker for the old monster movies. I was talking to [“Hellboy” creator] Mike Mignola and he also liked it for the very same reason …
RB: It’s funny — like you, the people who like old-school horror movies tended to like it. It’s the closest thing to a monster movie that’s been out in a long time. There’s fans of the old movies that went and saw this one like eight times. It’s not a knife-wielding-crazy-guy-movie where teenagers get cut up in the worst ways possible. It’s more of a gothic horror film. I was hoping it would bring back that type of film, the kind I really enjoy. It’s very much a monster movie, and I hoped it would bring back monster movies. Will this make it harder to continue make more? I don’t know. It’s always kind of tough. When you’re working on a movie you always hope that people will go for it and enjoy what you’re doing. I don’t know what they were expecting. Frankly, it seems to me that part of the problem was when it was released. To put out a movie called “Wolfman” on Valentine’s Day weekend against a movie called “Valentine’s Day“? I didn’t really understand the logic of that. What do you expect? Release it on Halloween and I’m sure it would have done a lot better.
GB: You’re always up to something interesting, and your resume is a pretty staggering thing to behold. What are you excited about right now?
RB: I’ve kind of changed my priorities on things. It’s hard when you have a business — I have a great big studio which is great when you have a huge project like [Tim Burton’s] “Planet of the Apes” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but when I’m making a nose for somebody it doesn’t pay the bills. Like I said, “The Wolfman” was something I wanted to do and I took that. I’m just starting up now “Men in Black 3,” which is another one I wanted to do because I worked on the first two.
— Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
PHOTO GALLERY: Sexy beast! A history of werewolves in film
Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.