Early promotional image © Universal
Early promotional image © Universal

On October 2 2009, Rick Baker was presented with the Jack Pierce – Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Chiller-Eyegore Celebrations at Universal Studios. In his acceptance speech, the Oscar-winning special effects make-up artist spoke of his abiding respect for Jack Pierce, who created some of the most iconic monster make ups for such classic movies as Frankenstein and The Wolf Man.

Now almost 60 years later, Baker has created his own make up for the remake of The Wolfman starring Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, a nobleman in Victorian London who is cursed with a horrendous destiny.

I’m really impressed with the Jack Pierce-inspired designs, how did that develop?

Fortunately, Benicio and I came from that same place that we’re fans of the original movie. If it was totally up to Beni, he wanted to look like Lon Chaney Jr. That was it. I was on the same page with him, but I just thought it needed to be amped up a little bit.

I was just so excited to hear that they really wanted to, in this day and age, use an actor in make-up. I was so afraid this was going to be an entirely CG wolfman running around and I think you really get a benefit from an actor with some hair glued on his face.

Given your work on American Werewolf in London, what are your thoughts to the large use of CG within this Wolfman?

Restrained, but contained...? © Universal
Restrained, but contained...? © Universal

It is the digital age, isn’t it? I knew there would be a certain amount of CG stuff in this film and I thought there should be. If it was totally up to me and how I’d do the transformation, I would have used a lot of CG, I think it would be crazy not to. I would have really liked to have mixed it up a bit, I would have liked to have had more make-up in it, like we did in American Werewolf in London, and do things like compositing those parts with real bodies, or compositing real eyes on a fake head, but it just wasn’t to be in this film.

I’m always amazed that films ever get finished, they’re such hard things to make and there are so many people involved and Joe came on this production very late and we inundated with questions by a million people, including me. I had a lot of questions about the transformation, because he had to make stuff. It turned out for him the best choice was to do it as a CG thing in post.

I totally understand that. But I would have liked to have been more involved with it. A lot of the ideas were mine, they scanned my sculptures, and utilized those for a lot of the stages, but I thought they did some terrific stuff, I quite like what they did with it, and they did things that we couldn’t have done with just rubber stuff.

Did it occur to you that some of their foot and hand extensions ended up looking a lot like what you did for real in American Werewolf?

Werewolf in the woods © Universal
Werewolf in the woods © Universal

Yeah. When I first started talking with these people, they said, ‘We want to do the American Werewolf transformation,’ and I said, ‘But in American Werewolf we had a naked man [who transformed into a] four-legged hound from hell.

Here we have Benicio Del Toro with some hair on his face [already], we really don’t have the range, there’s not as far to go.’ And they said, ‘Well, we could see his claws grow and his ears get pointed,’ and I went, ‘And how many times have we seen that? What impact is that going to have?’

I didn’t have the answer to begin with, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and my initial idea was instead of going from A to B is that we go from A to Z and eventually back to B.

I think part of what made American Werewolf’s transformation have an impact was the pain aspect of it, so I just said, ‘What if the Wolfman’s hands just tweak and the fingers bend in a really unnatural way, just because his body is doing crazy stuff? At least I think that will have some impact and people will respond.’ So that’s the direction it all went in.

It was tough getting anybody to even talk about the transformation. I must say. There are so many decisions in making a movie and I remember there was supposed to be a transformation meeting but they quickly mutated it to something else that was easier to talk about.

There’s a lot of gore in it too, was that CG?

Confrontation... © Universal
Confrontation... © Universal

We did a lot of gore practically, we did knock somebody’s head off in a hurry, it’s crazy not to take advantage of the tools that you have. People always try to pit the rubber guys against the digital guys, and it’s another tool, another trick in our bag of tricks, and my computer is one of my favorite things. I’ve been doing my designs on a computer for 22 years I think now, I got PhotoShop when it was 1.0 and I fell in love with it instantly.

With the computer the biggest problem is you have too many choices, and I think that was the problem in this film. I had a really hard time getting them to decide, it was always like, ‘How about doing one between this one and that one?’ In the old days it was, ‘Do you like this drawing or do you like that drawing?’ and then you’d go make it.

I spent months trying to convince them of what I thought the Wolfman should be, and I made myself up and shot video and thought, ‘They’re going to love this,’ because I thought it was really cool, and they said, ‘I don’t think it’s there yet.’ That was seven months before we filmed, and two weeks before we filmed I basically sculpted the face that I had on myself seven months before. It’s the way movies are made.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.