In honor of the DVD and Blu-ray release of Joe Johnston's The Wolfman remake, Universal was kind enough to arrange an interview between Horror Squad and legendary makeup maestro Rick Baker. I'm not going to pretend like I wasn't intimidated to do it, either, but once the man behind a fleet of iconic masks opened the conversation with fond memories of his similarly-named friend, Kevin Peter Hall, who played Harry in Harry and the Hendersons, I knew there wasn't any reason to be intimidated.

What I didn't realize, however, was how candid Baker would be about his work on The Wolfman. The film quickly became notorious due to a torrent of production problems and, fortunately for us, Baker was happy to open up about what were actual problems with the film and what may have just been symptomatic of fan backlash.

Horror Squad: So why the pursuit of The Wolfman over any of the other projects in Hollywood? I know that you've said once you heard about the film you actively went after it, which is not something you normally do.

Rick Baker: It's one the films that made me want to do what I do for a living. It's one of the films that made me who I am. So many people of my generation all grew up with that shock theater package on television of Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, Mummy, all the Universal stuff. And then we had Famous Monsters of Film Land magazine, we had the Aurora model kit stuff. It's a film that kind of just shaped my being, you know?
When I heard they were doing it, my first fear was that they would go an entire CG route. I said that if they did it in makeup, I had to do it; I have to do a movie called Wolfman. So I was really glad they liked the fact that they wanted to use makeup and that they wanted to use me because I would have been really disappointed otherwise.

HS: Are you satisfied with the end result?

Baker: Am I ever satisfied with the end result? No, I don't think I ever am because you only see things you think you would do differently or shots that aren't in the final film that you spent so much time on . I did enjoy it still. It's always hard the first time you watch any film that you do because you see all that stuff. The second time I saw it I went with a real movie crowd and it's like, you know what, it's a monster a movie. It's what I've been waiting to see, an old school monster movie. It's not a knife-wielding guy chopping up teenagers in the most graphic way possible-- I'm not a real fan of slasher movies. Monster gore is a different thing to me. It's a curse that turns him into a beast; it's a different thing that can be more fun. I find it kind of disturbing when people cheer when someone just gets stabbed brutally.

HS: Do you have any favorite effects that didn't make the final cut of the film?

Baker: [Laughs] We won't go there. The toughest thing on this film was everybody trying to figure out what the movie was. Everybody wanted to be true to the original material but they had to make it so a modern audience would enjoy it. That was always a concern. Making movies is just such a hard thing to do. I'm always amazed movies even get finished yet alone are sometimes good. It's a miracle.

HS: Once it was announced that the transformations would be 100% CGI, I think that tainted a lot of fan's perception of what was and wasn't digital. But once you see the making-of segments of the Blu-ray, it's amazing how much of your work is in the final film.

Baker: It is.

HS: And I know that you're actually a big proponent of marrying CGI with practical effects. Is it tough on you as an artist to have to balance what fans think they want with what's best for them?

Baker: CGI has a lot of backlash now. I think it's just because there are so many people doing it. It's a tool and it's only as good as the people behind it. When you have some amazingly talented people doing it, you get some amazing work. When you have some not-so talented people doing it, you get some not-so amazing work.

My whole beef with the CG thing is that it's made for sloppy filmmaking. So often it's like, "we'll fix it post," but it's just stuff you could do there, on the day and not have to spend a great deal of money fixing it in post. You can also put off decisions. That was part of the whole reason the transformation is CGI. They didn't want to think about it then, "If we do it CGI, we can finish the movie and then start thinking about it."

With me, I only have the preproduction time to try and get the stuff made. I couldn't get answers out of anybody. The first thing I said was, "I don't know how we're going to do transformations in this movie." People were expecting what we did in American Werewolf 30-years ago and they want 30-years of advancements.

In American Werewolf we had a naked man changing into a four-legged hound from hell. Here we have Benicio del Toro, whose practically a f*cking werewolf already, and then we have Benicio with a little more hair on him. I didn't know how we were going to make it a big deal.

I actually came up with the suggestion of it not being a linear transformation. He shouldn't go from A, being Benny, to C, being the Wolfman; he should go off in crazy directions. I did some animations on my computer where I held up his hand and tweaked his fingers like his fingers tweak in the movie. The claws grew, but we've seen that a million times. I though, "We'll just go in these crazy directions first and then he gets reined into the wolfman in the end."

They used some of my suggestions and they scanned some sculptures that we did, but I was pretty much aced out of their whole thing, which was disappointing. I think they did some terrific work, though.

HS: It works astonishingly well in the film, I just think some people didn't like the concept of CG transformations.

Baker: Yeah. Part of that maybe my fault because I was bitching at Comic-Con about the transformations being all-CG and it kind of became "Rick Baker hates CG!" And I don't! If I had done the transformations myself there would have been a hell of a lot of CG, you'd be crazy not to use that tool.

HS: You just would have taken a different approach to the production?

Baker: Yeah, you have an actor like Benicio, you want to see him. I would have done some stages where it's him with stuff on his face doing things, not just completely replacing his face. But again, I think they did some terrific work.

It was a hard movie to do and there were disappointing times on it, but when you go on a set and you're in the forest and it's filled with fog and there's gypsys and people on horseback and a wolfman roaming around, it's like "I'm working on a monster movie!" You know? When we were in London, in these places that were the same as they were in the 1800s and people are in period costumes, it's like time travel. You're seeing people as they looked then and the city as they looked then; it's like going back in time. It's really cool.

HS: Well, watching the Blu-ray, there's a great segment on your original makeup tests on yourself. Aside from the cameos you do from time to time, have you given any thought to spending more time in front of the camera? You were a great character performer, I thought.

Baker: Yeah, but I'm a terrible cue-card reader. The thing about the DVD is they had me reading the teleprompter, which I didn't know I was going to have to do. I don't read well, I'm kind of dyslexic, so when I saw the DVD I thought people would buy it just to make fun of me. I told the people at work you've gotta get this because I know I would give someone a ton of shit if I saw them have to do it like that.

It would be fun for me if it was a part in makeup. I love making scary faces, that's just how I grew up. I like to know what it's like on the other side, what I'm putting someone through.

The main reason I did that makeup test for this movie, though, is because it was seven months before we started filming. I did a whole slew of designs and basically the director said, "I don't see it in there," but I did. I did the man and the wolfman and a whole range between to let them pick where they thought it should be and they go, "Well it's not in that range." But I pushed that it had to be in that range. They just weren't seeing the Photoshops that I was doing, so I thought makeup would be so much more clear.

So I did that makeup on myself and filmed it and sent it to them thinking this would be it and he still didn't think it was right. Though, mind you, it is pretty much what we ended up doing, but this was seven months beforehand. I ended up scuplting the appliances for Benicio two weeks before filming, and that's one of the things that pissed me off. I could have had a room full of appliances by then and everything done the way it should be done and prepared. I wouldn't have had to hope that it worked.

HS: That's a shame.

Baker: Yeah.

HS: However, and this is a testament to you, I don't think those frustrations are evident in the final film.

Baker: Oh, I'm still pleased with how he looks and I think it looks pretty good. I just also know that I maybe could have gotten sleep some nights -- well, days, since we were working nights most of the time. That prep time, if we could have utilized it properly, would have helped. It was a pleasure working with everyone on the film, though, and that made it fun.

Benny is a monster kid. He had a poster of the Wolfman in his bedroom and he and his brother would play Wolfman and Frankenstein. Every day he would bring in some new monster magazine he just bought online. I knew them all by heart, so right away we bonded.

HS: That's great.

Baker: Until he told me he likes Glenn Strange's Frakenstein's monster more than Boris Karloff's, so I threw him out of the makeup trailer. But then we kind of agreed because he told me the only time he really liked him was Abbot and Costelo Meet Frankenstein, so we became friends again.

HS: Since you're a big fan of digital modeling and working on computers, I'm just curious from a techincal perspective if you've been doing anything with 3D printers and whether the rise in quality of that tech has altered your methods at all?

Baker: I've printed a few little busts of things that I've sculpted digitally. Actually, I've got a little one of Benicio and a little one of the Wolfman. I don't do it much in my work because we're so detail oriented, though mind you those printers are getting really, really detailed. But there's also so much work on the person's face itself.

I know a lot of it is being used on superhero stuff for the costumes. It's great for that and symmetry as well. If you're doing smooth, hard things, it's the way to go for sure. I'm looking forward to the next generation of 3D printers. In the last couple years it's come a really long way.

I went to have something printed a few years back and they showed me some examples. I didn't bother because I knew the detail I wanted wouldn't show up, but now the little ones are much better. It's a tool. I sculpt digitally and then paint in Photoshop and what's great about doing it digitally is I'm not modeling a 3D dimensional thing. I can look at in 3D from every angle. But I don't think people that only model digitally know what it's like to do a real world sculpture where you can't do two sides at the same time, where you can't move something globally.

I don't know if you've seen my Bela Lugosi Dracula, but I did a CG Dracula model in between Abbot and Costelo Meet Frankenstein and Dracula at an age we never saw him at. I did it with a software called Zbrush and Moto, which is a rendering software, and it's great because I can just pull or compress lengths when I need to; you can't do that with plaster. It's really hard to do likenesses that way, though, because the most minute detail can make or break it, but it's a very, very interesting tool. Check it out, it's on the Internet somewhere.

categories Interviews, Horror