The first thing you see when you enter the showroom at Rick Baker's creature shop (aka Cinovation Studios) is Mighty Joe Young. At somewhere around eighteen feet (judging from his seated position), you can't miss him. Then your eyes begin to wander, and you're suddenly surrounded by thirty years of film history. There are two busts of David Naughton from AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (one transformed, one transforming), a glowering Martin Landau as Bela Legosi from ED WOOD, Harry of the Henderson clan, two full-body casts of Eddie Murphy as Sherman Klump, and, flanked by a fraction of the bizzaro alien populace from MEN IN BLACK III, Baker himself.
Baker's in the middle of a TV interview, but I've been given the go-ahead to walk around the showroom and examine his Oscar-winning handiwork (he's a seven-time winner, twelve-time nominee). It's my second visit to the shop, and, as usual, I can't stop marveling over the nightmarish detail of his American Werewolf. As far as I'm concerned, this isn't a mask or a mold; it's the preserved head of an actual werewolf. A picture can't possibly do it justice, but, at the risk of mixing my classic monster metaphors, feast your eyes...
That's f/x work that will never need a digital brush-up. It's tangible and forever.
I'm of the generation that learned to revere Baker thanks to behind-the-scenes documentaries like "The Making of 'Thriller'" and myriad profiles in the pages of STARLOG and FANGORIA. What's amazing about Baker's brand of magic is that it doesn't get any less real once you know the secret to the trick. That's because there really is no "secret". I's just superior craftsmanship. And no one holds themselves to a higher standard than Baker. His perfectionism may wear on directors from time to time, but if they knew well enough to hire him, they generally know the wait will be more than worth it (the studio on the other hand might not be so understanding, which is how you end up with a misshapen turd like THE WOLFMAN).
Unfortunately, a practical effects wizard like Baker is increasingly out-of-demand in today's CG-dominated world - which is all the more reason to check out MEN IN BLACK III. These films have always been a fun showcase for Baker's creature-creating genius, but this entry contains extra-special appeal for longtime film geeks. Once the movie skips back to 1969 (where Will Smith's Agent J must prevent a young Agent K from getting killed), Baker's team unleashes a wild variety of retro aliens, most of which will be recognizable to anyone who grew up watching sci-fi classics like, for starters, THIS ISLAND EARTH, INVADERS FROM MARS and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
It's some of Baker's most inventive work in years, so it's no surprise that he'd be eager to discuss what might end up being his last assignment of this size. This isn't just a celebration; it's an I'm-still-here howl of defiance. And if the greatest makeup f/x artist of my lifetime doesn't make a case for the ineffable magic of practical f/x, who will?
Along with MEN IN BLACK III, Baker and I talked about his collaborations with Eddie Murphy, his design for the as-yet-unmade CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake, and the joys of working in a gorilla suit.
Mr. Beaks: I love that you got to cut loose creating classic '50s and '60s aliens with this movie. It brought back memories of GREMLINS 2, and how you were able to go bonkers creating all kinds of monsters on that.
Rick Baker: On the first film, Barry said (Imitating Sonnenfeld's nasal tone), "I've never even seen a science-fiction movie." It's different than working with Joe Dante. We had a shorthand. Same with Landis. I could mention a film in a scene, and they would know it; they would always know what I was talking about. Barry didn't have a clue. But after the first film, Barry learned to rely on me for ideas and saw me as a collaborator - as any smart director does when they hire someone really good. Same thing with Bo Welch. He's a collaborator on the film. But Barry gives me free reign. It all starts out with them wanting to be involved - and it's always a problem to get anyone to make a decision in the film business. Eventually, I just say, "Shit, I'm gonna start making stuff, and if you don't like it, don't use it." (Laughs)
But I pitched the idea to do the period aliens because I wanted make them. It just seemed perfect in this film. I said, "When you go back to '69, you should have retro aliens. You should have saucermen, and guys in space helmets, and crawling eyes... all that stuff!" Barry didn't know what I was talking about, but they all liked the idea. They knew the word "Retro". (Laughs) Fortunately, they went for it, so I got to have a lot of fun."
Beaks: Once you got the go-ahead, was there a checklist? Were you like, "I've always wanted to do my version of this and this..."?
Baker: I just wanted to make as many of them as we could. My crew all comes from that same background; they're all geeky fanboys. Norman Cabrera especially likes the retro stuff, and he was bringing in his old monster magazines. I kept saying, "We've got to do a saucerman, and we've got to do a Metaluna Mutant, and we've got to do a Gort, and maybe some OUTER LIMITS stuff." The list grew every day. We were always thinking of more. (Laughs)
Beaks: I only see the head back here, but that's your Ro-Man, right?
Baker: (Laughs) Yeah.
Beaks: It's a very souped-up Ro-Man.
Baker: (Laughing) We wanted to change him to a degree, but you'd still know it was Ro-Man. We actually had a Ro-Man helmet. I bought one. But it was too much like Ro-Man, so we cleaned it up and used it on someone else wearing a space suit. I just wanted to put a little Rick Baker into Ro-Man, and it seemed to me that he should have mechanical claw hands.
Beaks: My favorite alien in the movie actually isn't retro. It's the little crustacean guy.
Baker: Spiky Bulba.
Beaks: Where did that come from?
Baker: The scene in the script, Tommy Lee Jones is supposed to pick this thing up and say, "This is clearly not an Earth fish." So I did a photoshop design of a thing that was clearly not an Earth fish. My design had underpants for some reason; I don't know why, but he had this big bulge with these jockey shorts. He had those same legs, but he wasn't as spiky. So I showed it to Barry, and he said, "That's the Spiky Bulba?" I was like, "Oh, is that what his name is? Okay. We'll put more spikes on him." (Laughs) But what was great on this film is that I got a lot of my old crew back that I'd worked with on many films over the years. A lot of them worked on GREMLINS 2 with me. One of them was Joey Orosco, who's great with scales and really detailed stuff. So I gave him my photoshop thing, and said, "We've got to make this more spiky. Come up with something that's much better than what I did." And Joey did.
Beaks: How was Jemaine Clement with his Boris makeup?
Baker: He was great. When he first came to the shop, I asked him if he had any clue what he was getting into. He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Let me tell you what your life is going to be before you sign the contract." At that point, I'd already done a makeup test on myself for what I thought Boris should be. I kind of changed what was in the script, and re-conceived him some. I had these goggles shoved into my head, and I said, "I know a lot of actors wouldn't like the idea of never seeing their eyes, and I'm sure I'm going to have a fight with the studio about this, too, because they're going to want to see the actor's eyes. But I just think it would be cool to never see your eyes, to never know what those things are. I think it's much more intimidating." And he was pretty much up for anything we were going to do. Really nice guy. Like anybody, I don't think he loved the process. It's hard. It's hard just being a makeup guy, and the hours that you put in. You get up early in the morning, and you have to do the most important part of your day when you're half asleep.
Beaks: That's what makes someone like Eddie Murphy amazing. He really loves to disappear under makeup. He loves this process.
Baker: Eddie's such a good mimic. He's like me: I like fooling people with my work, and he likes fooling people as well. When he does a Jewish man, you listen to it and it sounds like an old Jewish man; then when you look at him, the face ain't a match. When I did the old Jewish man in COMING TO AMERICA, which is the first time I worked with Eddie, he said, "I can't believe how real it looks! The old Jew that I do is such a stereotype, I really need to do this justice." He tried some other stuff, but went back to the stereotype. (Laughs) I don't think he "loves" the process; you'd have to be crazy if you really love sitting in the chair for all that time. But he loves the final outcome.
Beaks: I couldn't be sure, and I don't see it back here, but it looked like you had a take on the Mastermind from INVADERS FROM MARS.
Baker: Yeah! The original script had a bowling alley scene in it. It went away, then came back at the very end. But I just thought it would be funny - because it was going to be a big bowling tournament - to have the mu-tants and the little Supreme Being guy in the ball. He's like, "I'm the Supreme Being", and then these guys roll him down the alley and you see him flipping around.
Beaks: And then you've got the Mutant from THIS ISLAND EARTH.
Baker: That was such a blast. The Mutant is one I did myself for the most part, the head and stuff. The problem is, I set a certain standard; the people who work for me always try to do their best work, but sometimes it takes way too long. (Laughs) I'm trying to learn from my mistakes on the other films. We know that they're never going to be in a shot like this (points to the whole display of aliens behind him). We don't have to spend two months on the sculpture. I'd rather spend two months on ten sculptures. I said, "I think we can fabricate a lot of this stuff. Let's just try to get a lot of stuff done in a couple of days; it'll still look cool." They still weren't quite getting it, so I decided I was going to make a Metaluna Mutant out of bits and pieces and fabricate it. I came in the next morning with the pretty-far-along version of it, and they were all like, "Whoa!" So I kept working on it, and a couple of days later I had it.
Beaks: I was at the TCM Fest screening of THE WOLF MAN. You said that was the first time you'd seen it on the big screen. How was that?
Baker: It was cool! I saw stuff I'd never seen before, like Evelyn Ankers's sweaty armpits. Did you notice that?
Beaks: I did not!
Baker: Maybe I'm sensitive to it because I always have sweaty armpits, but next time you see it projected, in the antique shop she's got a ring of sweat in her armpits through the whole scene. That was great, but I missed the premiere of Bob and Kathy Burns's BEAST WISHES that night.
Beaks: That actually leads me to my next question. You belong to a proud fraternity of performers who've acted in a gorilla suit. There's George Barrows, Charles Gemora... all the way to Bob Burns. I actually did a top ten list of my favorite gorilla suit gags, and you were on there twice: once for Dino in THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and again for Sidney in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN. When's the last time you had a gorilla suit on?
Baker: I haven't had a gorilla suit on in quite a few years now. I actually think I had part of one on when we did the Ro-Man thing to look at something. It's hard work. (Laughs) It's kind of a thankless job. Any suit performer experiences that same thing. You're very aware that you have this suit on. You can't see very well, you can't breathe very well, and it gets really hot. You're uncomfortable, but nobody else is. When I did [KING KONG '76], I'd put the suit on as soon as I got to work and wear it all day long. I'd take it off for lunch, but then put it on again - sometimes for no reason whatsoever. But that's the way it worked. It was a really hot summer, and it was all bluescreen stuff in the old days of photochemical compositing. The whole crew had shorts on, half of them didn't have shirts on, and I'm in this suit.
I remember Bob telling me early on, "They don't treat you like a person when you have a suit on." He'd tell me stories of one guy trying to set him on fire, and another guy trying to throw lye on him. He also told me about a guy in a Tweety Bird costume at Magic Mountain getting rolled down a hill by some kids, so he ended up getting a great big hatpin. He'd keep it inside the costume, and if anyone would get too close he's [stick] them. You forget that there's a person in there. I'm glad I had those experiences, but I don't know that I'd do it for a film again. I'm too old and not in good enough shape.
Beaks: Will we ever see your version of The Creature?
Baker: I've done a number of designs for the Creature. At one point Landis was going to do it, and at another point Joe Dante and Mike Finnell were going to do it, and then John Carpenter was going to do it. The Carpenter one was the one that went the furthest; we actually did a whole bunch of designs and maquettes, and then that crapped out. The last time somebody talked to me about it was when Ivan Reitman had the film, but their thinking was so different from my thinking was that I didn't want anything to do with it. They were making it part-dinosaur, part-every fish in the world. It wasn't the Gill Man. I think if it's to be done today, it should be a CG thing. I can't believe I'm saying that, but the fact that all the underwater stuff is such an ordeal for a guy who has to breathe underwater, and then what happens to the costume. It seems perfect for a CG character. The thing is, the original Gill Man design is still so great. My designs for the Creature were kind of like my designs for the Wolf Man; it was very much based on a love for the original material, and trying to stay true to that in a lot of ways. I think we had a Creature that was updated, but you could still tell where it came from.
Beaks: I'd still love to see it.
Baker: Well, I'm doing this book on my career, and there are going to be some sketches in there, along with pictures of things no one has ever seen.
That book cannot get published soon enough. There is only one Rick Baker, Hollywood, and he's as brilliant as ever. Use him.
MEN IN BLACK III opens Friday, May 25th.