This may shock some of you dear readers, but this year I decided to skip the Breaking Dawn panel and instead went with the Rick Baker retrospective panel. Getting to hear Baker talk at great length aside, it was a fun surprise getting to see his work for Men in Black III because of how exciting the glimpses were. The retro aliens that Baker designed looked fantastic. Whether the movie works or not, his contributions will be more memorable entries in his speaks-for-itself body of work.
We all know the current buzz and rumors regarding MIB: III, but as Baker says below, its production is simply the way you make movies now. What’s going on with that film isn’t drastically different from most tent-pole releases, even the good ones. Before the retrospective panel, I got a few minutes to chat with the make-up effects guru on the matter.
Here’s what Rick Baker had to say about copying the greats as a kid, acting like a schoolboy with David Byrne, and the difficulty of working on modern blockbusters:
Are your nervous or excited for your presentation?
No. We walked through last night a little bit, and people come up to me and stuff, but everybody’s been really nice, and they’re always really complimentary and stuff, which is good. But the biggest problem is, like I said, I want to walk around and look too.
You mentioned you don’t like crowds, but is it comforting to know that they’re already there for you and on your side?
Yeah, well I mean it’s still nice to know that people appreciate my work. I still can’t believe the people who know who I am. In my head I’m just this kid who grew up in Corbina, California who makes monsters in his bedroom. I still feel like the same guy. I don’t look like it. I look in the mirror and it’s always a shock [Laughs]. I remember one year at the Oscars, you know, after you win you go backstage and you do some stuff and then you go back to your seat. They don’t let you in until there’s a commercial. I was waiting outside the door holding the Oscar. And David Byrne from The Talking Heads had won that year as well. And he was there and he was going, “Oh my God, Rick Baker! Cineffects!….” And he was going on and on. I said, “I play The Talking Heads every time I’m doing makeup. That’s on my playlist! I always play The Talking Heads. Any makeup that you saw in a movie, I guarantee you I played Talking Heads.” He’s like, “Man, that’s so cool!”
Like two schoolboys together…
[Laughs] Yeah. And it’s like that a lot. I’ll have fans that are people who do this stuff. It always surprises me when somebody knows me that’s famous.
Do you remember the first time you actually created your own design?
I mean, that was right in the very beginning. [Laughs] Most of the first stuff I created, as a kid, was kind of copies of other people’s works.
[Laughs] You mean, homage?
Yeah. But, you know, they were copies. [Laughs] But it’s a good way to learn, I think. As you’re doing it, you’re really studying what this other person did, and then you brain starts to train itself, and you kind of analyze what they did or why they did it. And then maybe as you do it, you put it on, you look at it, you kinda say, “Oh, I see why that’s there.” It was a good way to learn.
At what age did you start doing that?
Do you remember what movies you were looking at?
I looked at any horror, science-fiction, fantasy film that was on TV, which, luckily, monster kid generation, I grew in up in the ‘60s where Famous Monsters of Filmland came out. There were those shock theater packages and then they showed the universal horror movies and these bad movies, which I love. It’s a whole generation of people my age that all have that common bond of growing up in that time and they all have that love for the same thing. In fact, it’s funny, one of the things that’s most exciting about Comic-Con this year, the latest Famous Monsters has a cover that I painted and it’s their special Comic-Con issue. I painted a Famous Monsters cover! It’s at Comic-Con! That’s pretty cool.
[Laughs] That is definitely cool. What kind of creatures did you do for Men in Black III?
A bunch of aliens. I mean, pretty much any kind you can think of. [Laughs] We did 105 I think was the count.
Is that kind of like being given the key to a candy store and getting whatever you want?
I ended up with a lot of freedom in the end. Everybody wants to be involved in the alien making process, and they kinda were in the beginning. It really kinda just slows things down for me because nobody can really make up their mind. One person says one thing, somebody says something completely opposite. Eventually, when it gets closer to production they kinda get so tied up in other stuff. That’s when I say, “OK, I’m just going to make shit and they’re going to like it.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] Is Barry Sonnenfeld the type of director that will try to give you a lot of free rein?
He kinda does now, yeah. I mean we’ve learned how to work with each other. It’s funny, because with the first, none of us knew what Men in Black was. And Barry seemed like a really strange choice to me at first. A lot of guys in my crew were going, “Why’d they get this guy?” Because Barry, in his whiny voice, “I’ve never even seen a science-fiction film. They scare me!” I said, “You know, it could be a good thing.”
Having an outsider doing it?
Yeah, exactly. I said, “We’ve got to try to keep an open mind with this. It could turn out to be a really good thing, which I think it did. But yeah, it’s not like if you were with like John Landis or Joe Dante or one of those guys, again, Monster Kid generation; we grew up with that same stuff. We have a shorthand. They know exactly what I’m talking about. With Barry, it’s a different thing.
There’s something you said about Men in Black III, the production, how that’s the way of making movies now today. I was wondering when did that change? When did production become like that?
I don’t know exactly. I started out on low-budget films that were shot in a few days; low budget independent films. I kept saying, “I can’t wait to work on a real movie with a budget.” When I did [the 1976] King Kong, that was like a $25 million film, which was a big budget at that time. I’d kinda come right from low budget movies to that. I went, “Wow! These low-budget guys actually had their shit together more than these guys.” It’s like if you have money to waste you don’t have to plan as much. If you’ve got $25 million instead of like $30,000, you can be a little more cavalier about it and not plan, and then it just costs some more money. And then you start making $300 million movies, it’s less planning.
And more money to waste [Laughs].
[Laughs] Yeah, you know. And unfortunately, it just started getting more and more like that. It’s like there’s so much at stake, so many people they have to get involved. And so many times, the more people, the more opinions, the more money it costs and the less it’s somebody’s vision. That’s what I hate, really. It’s like there’s not a person I can go to. It used to be the director. You could go to the director and he would answer your questions. On this, Barry was even saying, “I can’t answer the questions because…”
There’s more people to answer to.
Yeah. It just slows the process down and basically screws it up. I think this movie is going to be really fun, really good, because they do have money to throw around. But they definitely can be so much more. Logic has no place in the film business. I’ve come to understand that.