Since forming the KNB EFX Group in 1988, Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero are becoming virtually the go-to guys for film and TV productions looking for the very best in special make-up effects, character prosthetics, animatronics and creature design. The Group has some 800 credits to its name including movies such as Minority Report, Kill Bill, Django Unchained, The Mist and Predators and currently TV hits Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Most recently Howard Berger’s make-up designs have been seen in his old friend Sam Raimi’s Wizard of Oz ‘prequel’ Oz the Great and Powerful and as the movie arrives on DVD/Blu-ray Starburst caught up with Howard Berger to find out just how he set about revisualising one of cinema’s most famous and beloved movies for its 21st century make-over.
Starburst: What originally drew you into the world of filmmaking, specifically the area of make-up effects? Was there one pivotal influential moment where you decided ‘that’s the job for me?’
Howard Berger: Absolutely. I saw Planet of the Apes when I was a kid when it came out and I said ‘that’s what I want to do when I grow up’; I wanted to know how they did the make-up and then it really got ‘solidified’ when I saw Star Wars and then I was 100% ‘I want to make these sorts of films and I want to be involved in this sort of world’. I was a huge classic Universal monster fan - Creature from the Black Lagoon is my all-time favourite monster; I just love that world and I’ve been very blessed that I get to work on films that I get to use my talent on films that people love and enjoy - just like Oz the Great and Powerful.
Your CV reads like an A-Z of the most popular contemporary science-fiction and fantasy TV shows and movies of the last two decades or so - some of which have been family-orientated movies like the first Narnia and now Oz. Do you enjoy working on projects which have a broader appeal than the more intense horror and SF movies you’ve done?
I prefer that audience nowadays actually. I feel like I’ve done my days doing all the horror stuff and the blood and guts and all that; I’d prefer never to do that again personally. The co-owner of KNB is Greg Nicotero and he handles The Walking Dead, that’s his baby, he’s the king of the zombies and he loves blood and guts and that’s why our company works and is so diverse - he loves that world and I love this world. My first foray into the family films and fantasy stuff was in the first Narnia and I had such a great time and it was such a wonderful experience it really made me realise that I like that world a lot plus it was the first time I worked on a film where my children, who at that point were young, were able to actually see the movie which was a rarity - they’d never seen anything I’d worked on - and they also got to come to the set and be a part of that whole world which wouldn’t be possible when I was working on a Freddy Krueger movie! You don’t want your kids coming to the set amidst all that nonsense! I certainly love character make-ups and on Oz I had a fantastic opportunity to do many character make-ups; the big make-up I got to do and which I really loved was the big job on Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West. It was a difficult make-up to design and execute every day but it was also unbelievably rewarding and fulfilling.
Did you feel hampered or liberated by the fact that, due to Warner Brothers’ owning the rights to certain elements of the iconic 1939 Wizard of Oz (such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers and even the green colour of the Witch’s skin) you couldn’t make those visual connections to the original movie?
I thought it was very liberating. I was glad because I didn’t want to have to duplicate what had already been done and also I think that opens you up to a lot of criticism from your peers. But the entire team on Oz wanted the film to maintain its respect for the original material - the Baum books which we were utilising as our source material but also with the original film from the 1930s in the back of our minds. We don’t want to diminish, destroy or disrespect what everybody is used to and knows as the world of Oz but what was great was that Sam (Raimi) was able to paint a new picture of what Oz looked like and still maintain and respect the original source materials. It was a matter of him assembling a great team, ourselves at KNB along with Robert Stromberg who was the production designer, Scott Stokdyk who was the visual effects supervisor and Gary Jones who handled all the costume designs and creation and he brought together this team which had the same sort of respect he did and wanted to create a new Oz with the same flavours that we all grew up with instead of, as filmmakers, going ‘I didn’t like the original one, I want to reinvent the wheel’. I don’t think that’s ever the way to go and Sam certainly took the right path and continued to create an Oz we all know and are familiar with and made it even more wondrous and fantastic.
Was Sam Raimi particularly ‘hands on’ in terms of make-up designs or did he just let the experts get on with it?
Sam’s hands are in everything! Sam’s hands are covered in everybody’s pie! He’s very specific and that’s what I love about him; I’ve worked with Sam since 1986 (The Evil Dead II) and he has always been very specific, he knows exactly what he wants - and sometimes it takes a little bit to get there. It’s not like he says when he first meets you ‘this is exactly what I want’; he’ll give you a kind of flavour and you develop it and test yourself. He appreciates the importance of pre-production which is very much needed in filmmaking and so we did a lot of different versions and tests in trying to find the right looks for all the characters, be it the Witch or the Winkies, the Tinkers or the Munchkins until we found the right look and it took a long time to find the look for everything, nothing was ever ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ right out of the gate, it was a lot of revisiting and refiguring things. The Witch went through numerous changes; even while we were shooting I was altering and tweaking things sculpturally and having new pieces made in LA because we were shooting in Michigan. The Witch tweaks a little bit in the course of the film; I see it but I don’t think anyone else does!
When the film’s actually shooting are you a constant presence on set?
I’m there every single day, I never leave the set. I applied Mila’s make-up and about four other make-ups every day and then I ran an entire crew of 75 make-up and hair people and then I’d go to set and be there all day long. If Mila’s on set I never left her side. I tried my best to maintain that make-up throughout the 14 or 16 hour shoot day - Sam likes to shoot for many, many hours - and we’d start our day at 3.30am when Mila would come in and we’d do her make-up which would take about an hour-and-a-half and then I’d move on to the next make-up and the next. We had a big rotation so everyone did a Munchkin, everyone did a Winkie or a Tinker every morning and then we’d go to set and shoot and shoot and shoot. Sam has a tendency to shoot his master shots and then do a bunch of stunt stuff and then after about fourteen hours get into close-ups which is horrible for a make-up artist so there were times when I had to go up to Sam and say ‘hey we don’t have to shoot Mila’s close-up today, maybe we can do it tomorrow because the make-up’s not looking as good as it did fourteen hours ago‘. Sometimes Sam would do it but sometimes I’d just have to suffer the consequences! But it’s always fun and it always works out even though Sam nitpicks everything and he makes you do the best work you possibly can, you don’t rest on your laurels and say ‘that’ll be fine’, he looks at every little thing. He even looks behind the ears, that’s something I had to tell my whole crew ‘make sure you make-up behind the ears because Sam will go and look around the actor and go and look behind his ears and if they’re not made-up he’ll go ‘Hey, Howard, can you make the back of the ears up?’ He does it all the time!
Away from Oz, we have to give a bit of a shout-out to the shamefully underrated The Mist which KNB worked on in 2007. We love it!
Greg handled that one for us. There was a lot of design work which went on and Greg and Frank Darabont, another really talented director who’s extremely nit-picky, spent a lot of time figuring out what these characters and creatures would look like and we had a great team and I think at the end of the day people really like that movie. I’m really glad you guys love it!
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m in New York shooting The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and it’s looking great. I’ve got another month here; we’ve been shooting since January so it’s been a long six months and I’ve got a bit longer to go but it’s going wonderfully. Then at the end of the year I’ve got a movie coming out called Lone Survivor, a war movie with Mark Wahlberg which I think will be great. It’s all good and hopefully there’ll be more Oz movies and hopefully I’ll get called in and get to go back and visit the wonderful world of Oz again. I can’t wait!
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on 1st July 2013
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