Posted on Tuesday, September 27th, 2011 by Germain Lussier
In the world of creature and makeup effects, there’s one name to rule them all: Rick Baker. In addition to films like King Kong, Star Wars, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Planet of the Apes, Hellboy and The Ring Baker has won seven Best Makeup Oscars for the films Harry and the Hendersons, Ed Wood, The Nutty Professor, Men in Black, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Wolfman and An American Werewolf in London. His creature and makeup effects on the 1982 An American Werewolf in London were so impressive, it finally pushed the Academy to recognize the category, which is why it’s sometimes referred to in the industry as “The Rick Baker Award.” That film is also why Baker made his first ever trip to Austin for Fantastic Fest 2011. He did a special Q&A after a screening of American Werewolf, which also included a print by Olly Moss.
Before the movie, I had the chance to sit down with Baker to pick his brain about the effects business as it stands today, his career, his latest work on Men in Black III and more. Read the full interview as well as see some exclusive images from the event after the jump.
Here are a few exclusive photos from the event, courtesy of Aaron Rainbolt. The Q&A is below.
/Film: When you are watching movies just as a fan is it hard to separate your sort of critical eye for effects, both practical and digital effects and your knowledge of these things versus just pure enjoyment of the movie?
Rick Baker: It is. It’s hard for me to watch a movie and not see you know the things you are not supposed to see and it does sometimes happen and I really appreciate that. (Laughs) You know, it’s nice when a movie is made that sucks you in so much that you just are taking it all in and just not looking at “Oh, that’s good. That’s good.” And “This is going to happen here” and you know.
So how often would you say that sort of thing happens?
It doesn’t happen that often. (Laughs) And it is really hard. It’s hard for me to watch other people’s makeup effects and things and not… I can see what’s going to happen or know how they do it and not have that feeling that somebody who doesn’t know… And you know I so wish there was a switch that you just turn and you could see something for the first time, especially being a creative person making things, you are working on sculptures and it’s hard to be objective after a while. It’s so nice to see it in a movie.
We are at Fantastic Fest and Fantastic Fest is known in part for these five thousand dollar schlockey effects movies where people have obviously been influenced by you and your work. Though you are now working on big budget movies, can you appreciate and respect that lower budget stuff?
Well I mean I started out on very low budget independent films that were shot in ten days you know and I’d have a week or two to prep and a couple hundred bucks, you know? I used to think then, “Man, I can’t wait to work on a real movie, a real Hollywood movie with a budget and stuff” and when I started to I realized that these guys that were making movies in ten days with no money were a lot more organized actually, you know, and creative about problem solving, because you had to be. The more money you have, the less you have to plan and the more you can waste and they do. You see these three hundred million dollar movies and know that half of it was waste, you know? It makes me crazy, but it does make for… You have to be creative with no budget, so I appreciate that stuff.
How did you up hearing about this screening? Did they contact you? How did this whole thing sort of come about?
Somebody that was somebody that’s connected with Ain’t It Cool News had my email address and they emailed me and said that “I have a friend of mine who is doing this thing and they want to do an American Werewolf thing. Would you be interested in coming?” And it’s like, “Yeah. You know, I’ve never been to Austin and I always hear great things about it and I would be curious to see what that’s all about.” I knew it was going to be some time around this time and I had a business meeting I had to do in New York two days ago and I said, “I’m going to be in New York and I could stop on the way back and that would work for me, I can do that.” I’ve got something else in a week, so it worked out well.
American Werewolf, obviously, was not only your first Oscar, it was the first makeup Oscar. Is it the movie that you sort of feel like you are the most connected with or people connect you with?
People connect me with it, yeah. I mean I definitely feel connected to it, but when people ask me what I think my best thing is I usually say Harry and the Hendersons, you know, and I know I said that at Comic Con when I was at Comic Con to kind of help promote Men In Black III and I never really read any crap on the internet, because usually it pisses me off and it hurts my feelings, you know (Laughs). But my daughter is really big on that and she said, “Oh man…” People were like “How can you say Harry and the Hendersons was the best thing?” I say, “Well because it’s really a good character.” I think Harry holds up just as well today as it did when I did it and a lot of people like Richard Taylor for example consider it a high water mark of like animatronic characters than the werewolf. I mean there’s stuff I cringe at when I see in American Werewolf that I would so like to do over. (Laughs)
You are the first name that comes mind in terms creature effects, do people put you on projects or do you still have to seek out a project? I know I remember hearing that on The Wolfman you wanted to be a part of it, but how does it happen generally?
Well these days I hardly get phone calls any more.
Because of CG?
Yeah and with me they either think I’m old or dead or retired, because I did get rid of a lot of people I have kept on and did take a couple of years off and I wasn’t really planning on retiring, I just wanted to have a static moment, you know, to kind of purge myself of those years of working hard. So yeah I don’t get a lot calls anymore. Either they think I’m too old or dead or too expensive. And then I’m rarely called up for so low budget independent kind of things and I’m choosing the films that I already know, but omitting the fact that somebody has to call me. But it has to be something I really want to do. I mean films are hard, it takes a lot out of you… I’m sixty years old. Standing on a set for eighteen hours gets kind of hard and it has to be something I really want to do.
Then you have Men in Black III, which is a no-brainer. I just happened to get that call from Barry [Sonnenfeld] and I said, “Yeah for sure. I’m there.” Wolfman… I heard they were doing it and I… The way it usually works to answer your question is I don’t have an agent, I’m not even listed anywhere. I mean it’s amazing that I have ever been successful, but I like it when people come to me. I like it when they want to use Rick Baker and I have never have just taken every job I’ve been offered. I mean I don’t like the business part of the business and I usually try to ignore that and I have had people who kind of help with the business part and it’s like “Oh my God, you’ve got like four films. You could do this… You could make so much money” and it’s like “No, I can’t do the four films.” “Well are you sure? We could just hire more people…” “No, I can’t do things the way I do it. The way I do it, I do it. I’d go crazy and the work wont be as good. I can’t do it.”
You brought up Men In Black III. There was this whole controversy about the script and there was this huge layoff in the middle. How did that affect your work? Were you aware that that was going to happen? How involved were you in pre-production? How far along was there? What can you tell me about it?
Yeah. Unfortunately it’s kind of the way movies are made now and I actually, when they first approached me, I read a script that I thought was great and I thought “This is so great that this early on we have a script and it’s such a good idea. Let’s shoot it.” Unfortunately with the way movies are made today there are a lot of people with opinions and they want to try to get in there and make it their own and it kind of just got into like a mess. They said they were going to do the whole film in New York, because there was this tax deal and I said, “I can’t conceive of how the tax deal could be worth it, the money it’s going to cost to do it in New York. I have to make the stuff in LA and then we are going to have to ship everything to New York. Then we are going to have to have some kind of workshop in New York and some place to put it and I’m going to have to ship my crew and then we have to put them up.” It was just a crazy thing, but yeah they found out in order to qualify for this, we had to start filming by this date and we didn’t have the whole script ready, so they said “What we are going to do is we are going to film the first act and then we are going to shut down for the holidays until we rewrite the other stuff and come back” and finally I think it’s worked though. I haven’t seen a cut of the film yet, but I’ve talked to a number of people who have who say it’s really good. A lot of what I was seeing on the days that we were filming… I think it’s going to be really cool.
Awesome. I don’t have much more time so I’ll just ask one more question. To prep for this interview I looked back at your IMDB page and it’s unbelievable. How often do you reflect back on your career with the body of work?
What’s funny is that right now I’m working on a book about my career and we’ve scanned all of the photos that I’ve had and so many of them are like, I used to shoot black and whites and just get a proof sheet and pick out a few that I print and then never look at it again you know? We’ve just scanned everything and I’m kind of a pack rat, so I’ve got stuff from ten years old up until now and it’s the first time I’ve… I mean I’ve been working on it for the last month, basically everyday, all day long I have been looking on the computer at all of these stills and trying to pick the best ones and it’s like “Shit Rick, you’ve made a lot of stuff in your life.” You know I mean I actually impressed myself. I was impressed by the sheer volume of things that I have made and some of it’s good. (Laughs)
A lot of it is good.
But yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I mean I really feel like “Well you definitely have made pretty good use of your time on this planet.”
And don’t act like it’s over.
Rick, thank you so much. I’m looking forward to the screening tonight.
It was a lot of fun.