Donald Mowat has been working as a make-up designer in Hollywood for over 30 years. He was kind enough to talk to us on the phone about his career and his recent work on Blade Runner 2049, ahead of the BAFTAs on February 18, where he is nominated in the Best Make-up and Hair category.
Your work on Blade Runner 2049 has been honoured with a BAFTA nomination, was it a challenge creating distinctive looks for each character that built on and respected the rich world that Ridley Scott created with the first film? What a great question! Um, yeah, it was a rather terrifying experience. When Denis Villeneuve asked me to work on the film, and Roger Deakins, who I’ve worked with many times, I just kind of rang everybody up and said, “Why am I on this? It’s not the kind of thing I do.” And you know, Denis just said to me, “Look, we’re all terrified, so come on board”, and it made me laugh on a certain level. The one and only Marvin G. Westmore designed the make-up on the original, and I’m very taken with it, you know? Growing up in the industry, this is an iconic film.
But I realised later, having worked with Denis on Prisoners and Sicario, that this would maybe be more based in reality. As I looked at different mood boards, photographs, images, and design concepts that were exchanged between the art direction and costume departments and myself, and then bringing on the hairdresser, I realised that it’d be much more based in reality. And then I understood that this was why he wanted me there.
It would just be fresh eyes, and I think it was the right way to go, personally. I brought on the hair team, and suddenly I was a bit worried, because suddenly I thought, “Oh shit, we’re gonna end up looking like something out of Les Mis”, do you know what I mean?
(Laughing) Yeah, yeah. It’s so easy for hair to get crazy, you know? So I rang up somebody I’d worked with before and said, “I really want them to look like nothing’s been done”, and there’s an androgyny to it and Denis really liked that. So we sort of ran with that, and you’ll see that in those girls who try picking up K, who I wish we could have seen more of.
It was a sort of androgyny, I felt like we should have played more on that when Mackenzie Davis comes into it. I would have loved to have seen a character, maybe, that was perhaps trans. She [Davis] was the only one where I feel I kind of went out of my way to be very specific with that make-up and that hair to make sure that she was quite gender neutral, do you know what I mean?
Mhm. And to Denis’ credit, we were gonna do her with sort of the red lipstick and we did a camera test and Denis called me and said, “Let’s look at it together”, and when we did, I said, “There’s something not right, it’s so obvious. You could make that character look like Cruella Deville or Maleficent, you just know that’s the bad girl with the red lips, that’s just what that is in our culture.” So, we got rid of that. Then there’s Ryan [Gosling], and what’s so great about working with him is that he’s kind of rough and ready and at one point, Denis said that maybe he’s gonna look a bit like Clint Eastwood, and I said, “I think that’s great!”
I thought it was really great, and there was a rough sense of a rugged kind of masculinity, but also a softness to his face. And I think it worked, and a lot of people would say, “Is he a replicant or is he a human?”, and I’d say, “I don’t know, none of us know!” I guess that’s my attitude and maybe it’s why people like to work with me, but I didn’t get too caught up in that. I thought that it’s all kind of a dream, they all could be real or not real and that’s the whole point of it.
Like Dave Bautista, he’s a replicant but his casting was conditional of a make-up test. And it made me laugh in a way, because I thought, “How fantastic, we’re ageing Dave Batista!”
Because he was told that he was too young for the part, wasn’t he? Yeah, and that was one of the biggest challenges for me. I would say the biggest challenge was, you know, the Dave Bautista make-up, Jared Leto, and Ryan. Because Ryan is in every scene, and he’s always beat up and the context of that was reading the script and Denis pretty much leaving me to my own devices – and Ryan was fantastic. But I didn’t know what to do, we’d shot everything out of sequence, we’d shot Dave Bautista beating him up in that fight sequence on the very last day of filming, and we had to establish Ryan after that fight on the very first day of filming.
So really, it was make-up hell for me. It was hell to try and bridge together every single shot of Ryan Gosling, not knowing what would be happening.
So this is a question that appeals to the film nerd in me. You’ve worked on films with incredibly distinct visual styles like Nightcrawler and Skyfall. Do you work closely with cinematographers to marry together the camera, the lighting, and the make-up? Yes, yes I do. It’s not a common thing, but I’ve worked with Roger Deakins a number of times. He’s a friend of mine, I met him on Skyfall and his whole team, which includes his wife, and it’s such an unbelievable team to be around. But we worked on Skyfall and it was a very difficult project and Roger likes things to look a certain way, and I think he hates the whole hair and make-up getting to be too much, it’s overkill.
And I agree with him, and I think Denis is very much the same. I think that as a make-up designer, maybe I’m just saying this because I’m a bit older now, but I think that films have changed, and I get the sense that everyone’s working on their own project.
All these departments seems to work as separate entities, and I love working with Denis and Roger because they ask me, “Who do you want to bring on for hair? Who do you want to do this?” I bring my team on and I think it is extremely collaborative, because we don’t wanna be distracted by separation. Because if it’s based in reality, and you come on as a make-up designer or a hair designer, Denis might say, “They look too dumb”, and we struggled with hair. We had to really take them back and say, “No, no, this cannot look like the cast of Les Mis.”
This is based in reality, people don’t wash their hair in Blade Runner. It’s very hard to do on some films, you know? It can be very difficult.
Well yeah, I was watching Nightcrawler quite recently and what startled me was how you managed to take someone like Jake Gyllenhaal, who is renowned for his boyish good looks, and make him into this greasy, gaunt, rough-looking character in Louis Bloom. It’s absolutely fascinating. I really appreciate you saying that. That was a lot of work, you know?
Yeah. Because I’m starting another film with Jake and those same people, like Dan Gilroy, who’s just one of my favourite writers.
Oh, he’s a wonderful writer. Oh my God, Dan Gilroy, I mean, I just read the script, he is so clever.
(Laughing) He definitely is. I just remember prepping Nightcrawler. Dan was very trusting, Jake is just fantastic. But I remember the producers looking at him the very first day and saying, “Donald, I don’t know. You really went to town”, and I was very happy with that. But they were extremely nervous. They just thought, “Oh my gosh, shit!” Because people aren’t used to seeing Jake Gyllenhaal like that. This had to be, and excuse my language here, a fucking good film.
(Laughing) Yeah. Well, it was, it definitely was. Right? But if it hadn’t been, and you’ve got Jake looking like that, what happens? So you know, it took some balls, but I admired Dan Gilroy and Jake for just saying, “Look, let’s do it, and let’s do it like this”, but it didn’t have a lot of studio involvement. I think Blade Runner is different because it’s big and there’s so many levels to it, but I would say that any time Jake Gyllenhaal does a film, I would come and be part of it, I’m in, like Nocturnal Animals, for example.
That actually leads me on quite well to my next question. Blade Runner was a huge film in terms of scale, obviously, how are the challenges presented to you and your team different when comparing a large scale production like Blade Runner to a smaller, low-key production like a Nightcrawler or a Nocturnal Animals? I think that with something like Nocturnal or Nightcrawler, and I hate using the word control, but that’s what it is. You have a kind of control of a situation with limited funds, limited amounts of time, everything has to be done really well one time. You know, it’s measure twice, cut once.
And I think that what you’re working with is what you have. Blade Runner though, I think you have some choices and opportunities. I struggled a little bit, because I was in Hungary, and I had my crew from all over. Hungary, the UK, where my key person is from, one or two from the US, one or two from Hungary, that has its own struggle and politics. And bringing on a hair team, you know, I struggled with the hair a little bit.
I brought on Kerry Warn, I thought he could do more style and it worked. But you wouldn’t have that on a smaller film like Nightcrawler, all the centre people are responsible for all of it. So Jake wanted me to oversee all the hair and make-up, which I did and I had good people close to me, but we didn’t have a lot to work with. Even with Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford was very much great to work with, but I didn’t have a lot to work with either. I had x amount of people, x amount of money.
Blade Runner, I would say that that anxiety, the stress of a big film, I don’t necessarily need to repeat it. I think it’s very stressful. You know, it nearly killed me!
And I’m not kidding. For instance, we’d be in Hungary and we’d be shooting, and if I hadn’t have been with Roger and Denis and his people, I think I would have lost my mind a little bit. Every weekend I would work because we’d have a new actor coming in and the studio were only signing on actors very last minute. So Dave Bautista, his make-up was just a traditional old age make-up with simple latex. But his casting was contingent on approval of that make-up test.
And Denis Villeneuve just gave an interview in something that I read about it, and I was very touched by it, because I was very much responsible for Dave, who I’ve worked with before on Spectre.
Oh yes, of course! And Dave is a wonderful man, and I think Blade Runner, more so than Guardians of the Galaxy, has turned him into a proper, respected actor.
Yeah, I remember watching it and just thinking, “Wow! He’s got some chops! He’s not just a loud funny guy.” He’s wonderful! And he could lead his own film. Dave could be, and I don’t want to compare him to The Rock just because of his size but, Dave’s got this soulful presence. And we aged him, Denis liked it. I remember being very nervous about it. All my team did a great job with that. Dave looked right, they approved him. Jared Leto very nearly gave me heart failure, because when they finally told me they had cast him, I was already in Hungary.
So I had a meeting with Jared by phone, I was then having to speak with Denis and the producers about what they wanted to do. And there was a lot of talk that we were gonna do him sort of bald, but then he couldn’t lose the beard for another movie.
So we went in circles, and finally, I really did think I would lose my mind. But we did do a test in L.A. with him bald, and the studio wanted to go for it, but they wanted him to shave his beard, which he wasn’t prepared to do.
Then we did the same test in Hungary, because they were liking it. But Denis was getting anxious, thinking it’s not the right way to go. And I did say to him, “If you want my opinion here, and you don’t have to take it, I think the bald looks like something out of an Austin Powers or a Bond movie with him in a white cap.”
(Laughing) That would have been a very different film. “And you’re gonna have Jared Leto doing a bad Bond or a bad Austin Powers”, and Denis said, “You know, you are absolutely right”, and we got him back into his own hair, we did the contact lenses, which were based off of a guy he knew who’s actually completely visually impaired. We had two sets of them, and had them hand-painted to make him blind, and there you go, it did it.
Oh yeah, the final look was very convincing. He came off as this otherworldly presence. Thank you! Sometimes, it’s simplicity. You know, if he had the eyes, and the this, and the that, it’s kinda overkill, and I think that was what I loved in this challenge of Blade Runner, because we could have really gone to a stupid place that I’d be very embarrassed about now.
And I think other hair, make-up, and costume people have recognised that and I’m really delighted that they saw that sometimes the skill is in not doing something.
Yes, less is more. Exactly.
So, you also worked on Stronger last year, which was about the Boston Marathon Bombing. Yes.
And it has hauntingly realistic injury detail in it. What sort of demands did the work on that film entail? Well, it’s funny you should bring it up, because yesterday, we were finishing First Man in Cape Canaveral in Florida. And I flew back, Orlando to L.A., and I watched Stronger. I’ve seen it before.
And I was so upset that Stronger didn’t get more attention or that it didn’t do better. I don’t know why, I’m not a producer, I shouldn’t really care, but it really bothered me. I’m actually really bothered that Jake’s not nominated for an Oscar.
Oh, he was wonderful in it, yeah. I’m also really disappointed that he wasn’t nominated for a BAFTA for it, and I don’t really know how it was released in the UK.
We only showed it for a couple of weeks, it wasn’t out very long. I don’t know what happened, people say it may have been the timing, the message, the bombing – I don’t know, I mean, that may or may not be true. What I do know is that I had one of the best professional experiences of my career on that film.
So I just feel a little bit hurt for everybody because I was there, I know what went into it. I thought Jake was tremendous. That character, Jeff Bauman, I am absolutely in awe of the respect I have for him.
I can’t even really explain it to anybody, it brings me to tears because of the courage involved to do that make-up. Doing Tatiana [Maslany] and Miranda [Richardson], and then Jake was just, it was fantastic. Everybody wanted to do it right and to do justice to the story and I had to replicate his amputations, and I was so deeply moved by meeting his surgeon. We recreated the whole Boston Bombing.
And I felt like the film wasn’t really about that, it was another story altogether which I think the press failed to get across, even in the television advertising. I think if they’d had another approach, people would have seen it as a story of great courage and survival and inspiration. I’m just so proud of the film, I can’t say enough about it. (Laughing) So, people will probably think I own shares in the studio or something and I’m trying to recoup money. But I watched it on the plane and I actually cried, and I’m not that person.
I felt that this film didn’t get a fair shake, and I really believe that. But the look of Jake, when Jeff’s nurses, they had cameos in the film, when they said to me, “Whatever you did to him, that is exactly how it looked”, I was so touched and flattered, and I felt honoured that I’d recreated something like that. Things like the colour of his skin, you know, the morphine-induced look. Everything about him and the way he looked, I was really happy, and as for the legs, we had some VFX that were very good. We brought in this company from Montreal who had done a film with Marion Cotillard called Rust and Bone.
So we brought them in to do the leg removals with the green stockings, but we have a couple of sequences where his legs are buried in the mattress in the hospital.
Oh yeah, the old school approach. Old school, yeah. He was, you know, boiling hot in there and we had these stumps made that kinda went on like a pair of underpants that hold up and snap right on his knees. And I thought they were very good and my team made those. I was just very proud of it. And Jeff Baum, well, he’s just so concerned for other people, and I’d been really ill in the Summer with a heart thing, and Jeff was like, so concerned about me and I was like, “But you had your legs blown off.”
It was at the premiere, actually, at the Toronto Film Festival. Jake said to him, “I hear Don’s been having some trouble”, and right away, Jeff Bauman, on those titanium legs, came rushing over to me to make sure I was OK.
Wow, what an amazing man. You know, I was so moved by that and I remember thinking that this was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, everything else pales in comparison.
He certainly does sound like an exceptional individual. Coming back to 2049, arguably the most iconic shot in the entire film is Agent K’s reaction as he stares at that giant Joi commercial hologram and his face is all mangled and bloodied. How did it feel to be a part of such a significant moment of the film? To play such a pivotal role in it? That is my favourite shot in the film. I think it’s one of Roger’s. That was remarkable. But the pink, that was a headache. It’s funny when you look at the final product, but there are many ways to skin a cat, so they say, right?
Yeah. And I remember leaving Los Angeles, I guess it was a month and a half before, and I was talking to Denis and looking at these pictures, concept art and costumes and I thought of this pink. Because in the first drawings I saw of her, she was quite red and she had yellow eyes.
But I remember looking at it, going, “But that looks like a red version of Mystique in the X-Men.” But you know, I’m really notorious for that, one, I guess I’m a Saggitarian and you know, my mom and dad are Scottish I mean, we don’t mince words, we just say it, you can imagine. And I just looked at it going, “What the- what is that?”, I mean, she was red-skinned with this dreadful, long, kind of sexy girl Barbie hair and yellow eyes, and I thought, “That’s so not interesting.”
And then it became pink, and as we got into the pink, I kind of thought, “I have a better sense of this.” But I’m terrified as well, because they cast a beautiful, beautiful girl who’s Cuban. And as soon as I knew she was Cuban I thought that her skin tone wasn’t fair, and so right away, you identify pink with fair, don’t you?
Yes. And so I went “Oh, shit.” So, I went and bought from a film and TV make-up supplier every colour; pink, red, blue, everything I could find for different body make-ups and brought it to Hungary. And then I met the girl and took her for a contact lens fitting in L.A. and Denis didn’t know, he said, “Well, I don’t know until I see it”, which of course is fair enough, I mean, he’s the director, it’s his movie!
But I needed to decide what I’m gonna present, so I had green scleral lenses, they’re neutral, they become CGI lenses that you can turn any colour.
Yeah okay, wow, that’s crazy! I know right? I turned up, I’d worked with Roger a lot, because I kept coming in with samples of pink, saying, “Is this the colour?”, and he went “No! It’s like bubblegum, you know? Pink”, and I went, “Yes, but she’s not that colour!”, and the pink was turning kinda mauve and, oh my God it was so… anyway, we tweaked it. It was put on twice.
Then they enlarged her, we changed the hair, Kerry had a wig and the colour was pink, but there was no contrast. Roger called that one, he said “Donald, that hair is wrong, it needs to have contrast”, so I went running back to Kerry and said that we needed contrast. And that’s how we ended up with purple hair rather than pink. And then it came together. And then Ryan had to be beat up, and that bandage, I had a picture of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown as inspiration.
Yep, that is exactly what I thought when I saw that scene! Right? I’m really glad you caught that, you have a great eye. I had that put aside, Denis said, “Why don’t we try this?” the day before, and I just thought, “Oh shit, how am I gonna do this? What are we setting this to? What does it match to?”, and then I thought that no, actually, there’s enough that I’m doing that means the audience aren’t gonna say, “Well, he doesn’t have a cut on his nose.” It looks right and I know the audience will believe it, do you know what I mean?
Yeah, yeah. I knew I could sell that to the audience without them ever having seen him being punched in the nose. So, that’s what I did. And then the reflection, and the pink, I wish they wouldn’t just keep using the image as an example of visual effects, because everyone thinks it’s just a visual effect and it’s not, it’s all make-up.
Wow, I did not know that. It is a visual effect in that they make her big.
Well yeah, obviously, but the aesthetic is make-up. Yeah, she’s still painted, that’s all make-up. It’s really interesting, and I think we suffered because we never had a book put together, but every category has used that picture. Visual effects, cinematography, everybody, but it’s never been used for make-up, which makes me laugh because it’s the one image I keep saying we need. I think we’re using it for BAFTA.
Well, it’s a gorgeous image, absolutely. Right? And Ryan, looking like that, the look of him. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film when he pulls that bandage off and I mean, they were all a delight to work with, but that for me was K.
Yeah, we learn so much about his character in that scene, absolutely. So, just before we end this, hearing about all the hard work that went into Blade Runner, how did you feel to hear that you were nominated for a BAFTA for it? I was absolutely delighted and you know, really honoured. See, you live in the UK, so you have real people still. I live in America, I live in Hollywood, so everything’s “fabulous” and everything’s “the best”.
Glitz and glamour, yeah. You never really hear things for what they are, everything has to be perfect, you know? You know what I mean, they love everything.
(Laughing) Yeah, I’ve been to L.A., I know. So I do feel honoured, especially with BAFTA, because I’m also a member, and I’ve seen the screenings and the people who go to the films, the make-up designers, the costume designers, and the way they vote is different. The costume designers and make-up designers vote together on the nominees.
It’s far more telling, to me, than the way the Oscars operate, but that’s a whole other story.
So it adds more value because you’re being judged by your peers? I think so, I think to have costume, make-up and hair people, I think they’re looking at the film in a very different way. And also, I will say with BAFTA, I do really believe they look much more at the overall look of the film, the make-up overall. Not for one character, not one gag, not a particular thing, so I’m absolutely honoured.
I’m a big fan of BAFTA, they’ve been good to me, I’m thrilled, it made my day. Ryan, Denis, everybody was so happy and it felt right, and I’m thrilled to come over, you know? I’m thrilled to come back to London, that’s my home away from home.
Well, we’re happy to have you! I’m glad that you like our little island in the Atlantic. Well, I spent a lot of time over there as a kid, my dad used to work at the Hammersmith [Apollo] before the war. I have a real connection to it and I was living there when I was younger, and I’ve come back to do the Bond films. But yeah, I really feel I’m much more connected. So I think culturally, and with my family, I still have relatives over there, I do feel very connected to it. I think BAFTA for me means way more than a lot of other things, that’s for sure.
Yeah, it’s certainly an award that I put a lot of stock into, with it being a part of my home country. I mean, you’re a journalist, so how do you feel about the comparison between the BAFTAs and the Oscars?
I get very excited about the BAFTAs, because I feel a lot of films that are otherwise snubbed by the Oscars get the recognition they deserve. Especially a lot of British films. Right, I’m happy to hear that, because I think they do look at things that would never get in the mix, and that’s really good to hear.
Oh yeah, they’re wonderful, the BAFTAs. So, I’d like to thank you, Donald, I don’t wanna take up any more of your time, I know that you’re a very busy man. Thank-you so much for this interview, I’ve learned a lot about your creative process and about films that I already enjoyed, it’s been incredibly eye opening. Well thanks for speaking with me, I really appreciate it. Great questions, really, you have a great eye and are very knowledgeable about film, that’s nice to see.
Thank-you Donald, that really means a lot! Bye now. Goodbye!