As audiences, when we view the insanely creative makeup effects in films from Lord of the Rings to Dark Shadows, everyone in that field owes their career to Rick Baker. The Men in Black 3 makeup maestro and seven-time Oscar winner invited Movie Fanatic to his Glendale, California studio for an exclusive behind-the-scenes visit and chat about his illustrious career and his work with director Barry Sonnenfeld on all three Men in Black movies.
Baker tells us about working on the Cantina scene in Star Wars, how his groundbreaking work on An American Werewolf in London still holds up and how the Men in Black (one of our Top 10 summer movies of all time) series has been a true gift for him as he can pay tribute to the visionary effects artists who inspired him as a child.
Movie Fanatic: The story of Men in Black 3 involves time travel to 1969. The aliens you create for that part of the story look different than previous creations for this franchise. Where did that come from?
Rick Baker: It goes back to the first Men in Black when they said to me that they wanted to see aliens like we’ve never seen before. I said, "That is going to be kind of hard because we’ve seen a lot of aliens." When I did the Cantina scene in Star Wars, it was a lot easier. So I said, “Why don’t we make aliens that look like aliens we’ve seen before, but better?” They went, “No.” And for the second film, they went, “No.” When I saw the script with the time travel element for Men in Black 3... OK, this is the time to do it! I pitched it again: 2012 aliens in Men in Black should look like we’re used to, but 1969 aliens should be retro -- brains and bug eyes, you know -- and guys with space helmets. They thought it was a brilliant idea this time. I got to do aliens that I grew up with, paying homage to the ones that came before me.
Movie Fanatic: What aliens in films inspired you for Men in Black 3?
Rick Baker: You could pretty much name any film that was done and we did something… we ripped off from it [laughs]. It was an homage, done with a lot of love. You know, films like Invasion of the Saucer Men and Colossus of New York, a lot of them were combined versions of aliens. We did a Robot Monster one, a lot of Outer Limits aliens! Any film I saw as a kid, I wanted to do something to.
Movie Fanatic: You’re worked with Barry now for three of these films. What is it about his vision that melds with yours on these fantastical films?
Rick Baker: It’s funny, for the first film, we didn’t know what Men in Black was or what the whole feeling of the film was going to be until we got way into it. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. After that film, we had an admiration and trust of each other’s judgment. Barry, at first, I thought was kind of an odd choice for the film. He said in his classic Barry voice, “I’ve never even seen a science fiction movie.” [Laughs]. Oh great. But, this could be a very good thing, something very positive. But Barry, with his background as a director of photography, he sets up shots that are really cool. His thumbprints are all over these movies. He really considers me a collaborator. He really wants that. He makes me look good [laughs].
Movie Fanatic: You get to make an appearance in this movie (photo below… the alien with the brains!), and do you always make yourself a subject of your own work?
Rick Baker: Oh, yeah. I’m almost always a subject of my own work. I usually will do the first version of any character I’ve created on myself. I was Boris before Jermaine was… I do it all the time. Sometimes the director didn’t even know it! In The Grinch, we had 90 people in makeup in Whoville and after it became a well-oiled machine I started getting bored. I’d make myself up and just get into a shot! [Laughs] Ron Howard never knew! I have fun with it. That was on my 60th birthday. It was a good way to spend my birthday. I had those fingertip extensions with the suction cups on, and I realized when I had those on that it would be difficult to go to the bathroom. So, I wasn’t drinking or eating all day. It was an 18-hour day and one of the last shots we did was a long tracking shot. I started to feel like I was going to pass out. I was really light headed. I can’t pass out! First, there are all these guys with heavier things on than me, and second, no one knows I’m in the shot. That would be embarrassing. The room was spinning! But, I kept it together.
Movie Fanatic: As you look back on your career, what are the personal benchmarks for you where you felt you pushed the envelope of your industry?
Rick Baker: I lived through and helped create the golden age of makeup effects. American Werewolf (photo above from his studio) and The Howling, the transformation was done in a way that hadn’t been done before. That was one of the big ones -- looking back I realized, my crew were kids! The average age of the people on that crew was eighteen. There was no one doing what we did. I just found kids that showed talent and a desire to create and we went to work. It actually holds up now. I actually cringe when I look at it now because we could do it so much better [laughs]. I was pleased with the gorilla suits for Gorillas in the Mist. Harry from Harry and the Hendersons was one of my favorite things that I’ve done. I think he holds up. The movie was a flop. I thought filming it that this was going to be my big film. But, I haven’t met too many people who don’t love that movie.