Rick Baker: Monster Maker
'An American Werewolf in London'
Austin Chronicle: You won your first of seven Oscars for Best Makeup for your work on An American Werewolf in London in 1982, a category the Academy virtually created for you. That's almost as mind-blowing as the famed transformation scene itself.
Rick Baker: There had only been two Oscars given to makeup artists before me. John Chambers got one for Planet of the Apes, and William Tuttle got one for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. At the time I was doing American Werewolf, I had no idea the category was going to be created and I might win it. Even these days, I don't really think about it. I just try to make the coolest stuff I can. But my first Academy Award was the coolest because it was presented to me by Vincent Price and Kim Hunter, who played Zira in Planet of the Apes.
AC: Your character makeups – Hellboy, Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, the Rondo Hatton-esque goon Lothar from The Rocketeer – tend to be overshadowed by your creature effects. Do you have a preference or are they all labors of love to you?
RB: I'm a fan of the monster stuff first and foremost. They're what made me want to become a makeup artist in the first place. I've been calling myself "Rick Baker: Monster Maker" since I was a kid, and those are the kinds of things I really love. I don't get to do as many as I would really like. Actually, I got kind of pigeonholed by my work with Eddie Murphy on Coming to America and The Nutty Professor. Mind you, I had a lot of fun doing those character makeups [for] Eddie Murphy, but I would rather do a monster movie any day of the week.
AC: You had a somewhat, shall we say, negative experience working on Universal's remake of The Wolfman.
RB: Almost every movie is a negative experience in its own way. Moviemaking is a train wreck, always, and I think moviemaking in this day and age is the craziest it's ever been. Back in the Seventies, I cut my teeth on low-budget, independent films that were shot in 10 days on really minuscule budgets, and I couldn't wait to get to work on a real movie where we'd have some time and some money. The first really big-budget movie I did was 1976's King Kong – I did the [Kong] suit – and I was shocked to find out how unorganized and chaotic everything was. I thought the low-budget movies were chaotic, but when you only have 10 days to shoot a film and very little money, you have to have a plan and stick to it. When you have millions of dollars to waste you can be more casual about it. And that's unfortunately kind of the way films are made now. They throw hundreds of millions of dollars at movies, and so much of it is just wasted. Movies are so producer-heavy now. There are all these people who want to be creative but aren't, you know? They want to be part of the process, and they end up gumming everything up. It's making me nuts.
AC: You're at the point now where you can pick and choose which projects you want to do though, right?
RB: Well, yes, it's funny because my business evolved to the point where I ended up getting a pretty big studio and I took some jobs that I wasn't necessarily totally in love with just to keep the bills paid. After my parents died within a couple of years of each other, I kind of realized there's an end in sight, and it's not that far away, you know? Do I really want to be working for people I despise? So I changed my ways and basically just said, "I don't want to have to do movies I don't want to do," and I took a sabbatical, a couple of years where I didn't work at all. Which actually led to all these rumors of my retirement, and I'm not retired! At this point in my life, I'm 60 years old and I've been doing this professionally for 40 years. I still really love it; I love doing creative things, but each time you do a movie it takes a toll on you, especially when it's a screwed-up, crazy mess like movies are these days.
AC: Are there any dream projects that you wish someone would offer you?
RB: I've been fortunate in that I've done a lot of things that I really wanted to do. If I dropped dead tomorrow, I would be satisfied with what I'd done. But I'm a big fan of the original Universal Frankenstein monster – it's one of the reasons I do what I do – and I'd love to do something like that. I am my own Dr. Frankenstein, in a way. I may not use dead bodies to make my creations, but I do create something that didn't exist before and make it look alive.
An American Werewolf in London screens Saturday, Sept. 24, 6:05pm, and Wednesday, Sept. 28, 12:30pm.