Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Ellen Arden, the Werewolf by Night makeup department head, about stumbling into a bloody artistic space.
No one was more surprised by the copious amounts of blood in Werewolf by Night than makeup department head Ellen Arden. The Marvel Studios “Special Presentation” behaves unlike any other entry in the franchise. Directed by monster movie maniac Michael Giacchino, Werewolf by Night features more than its fair share of severed limbs, decapitated heads, and general bodily slashings. The movie was Giacchino’s chance to celebrate the Universal and Hammer horror films of his youth. So, the director went go all-out with his fiendish love for the genre.
As a veteran of slippery slashers like the Fear Street trilogy and James Gunn’s delightfully hyperviolent The Suicide Squad, Arden was thrilled at the notion of getting nasty with a Marvel property. Although, she couldn’t quite believe it either. No way the mouse house would allow their film to stay as goopy as the filmmakers were crafting it.
“Disney’s not a studio that’s synonymous with gore or blood,” says Arden. “I was like, ‘Oh no, is this going to be okay? Can we use this?’ Usually, we have an arsenal as the makeup department. Obviously, we have an arsenal of blood that correlates with different things. But blood can affect the ratings; the color of the blood can affect the ratings. The blood can affect how the show does in different markets around the world.”
With Marvel Studios and Disney+ backing his play, Michael Giacchino didn’t share those concerns. Werewolf by Night travels in the MCU’s supernatural shadows. These are comic book corners yet unexplored in the live-action realm. As the first filmmaker to explore Marvel’s horror zone, he desired a devilish and mischievous approach.
“Michael’s all in,” she says. “He was like, ‘More, more, more!’ And we’re just like, ‘Oh no, Disney is going to call and say you guys need to dial it back.’ But fortunately, that never happened. I would love to see it in color at some point, just to see all those striking blood moments. All of the makeup was so visually striking in color too.”
It didn’t take long for Arden to get into the gory swing of things. While hesitation initially found its way into her thinking, a few days into the shoot, she was screaming for gnarly mayhem alongside her director. Werewolf by Night became her dream production.
“Liorn (Leonardo Nam) gets shot with his own arrow,” says Arden, “and we shot that at some point, and it was just like, ‘More blood! More blood!’ There was blood coming out of his mouth, and this wasn’t normal for Disney. But as long as you’re supported by the people in power around you, it made sense. It certainly made sense to me because I love blood, so I’m like, ‘Oh my God, more blood!’ I was so excited that we were doing something that was horror-based in the MCU.’
Werewolf by Night as a black-and-white experience was a less assured reality. Giacchino shot the film in color, hoping the executives would eventually share his old Hollywood vision. This demanded all departments to dress the frame for color too. The task is not an easy one for makeup practicalities.
“It does pose a challenge,” says Arden. “It requires you to make smarter decisions when you are choosing product or color per se. We definitely had to stay on top of that. Fortunately, I have a camera degree, so I understand the relationship of black and white and color and how it translates to black and white.”
Arden’s palette had to go both ways, meaning her pigmentations could not run as extreme as the bloody mess that often got thrown atop it. In addition, her makeup could not contradict the foundational images of the comic books. Characters like Elsa Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly) had to appear like extensions of the comics while also falling nicely into Giacchino’s stylistic homage.
“For Elsa,” Arden continues, “she looks very classic, in general. She’s got very classic features. We had to make sure that she looked like the character. We have great artwork that’s provided from the Marvel books on Elsa’s character, but also, we wanted her to be grounded in reality and have this thing where it might look like a 1930s horror film. We’re trying to create this aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily exist in our time just because the cameras, the way the film reads, the way HD reads; they’re so dramatically different.”
However, the initial look of Jack Russell, the titular werewolf, differs from the comics. Gone is the blonde Malibu kid. In his place stands Gael García Bernal, sporting a rather elaborate facial design.
“Michael had known that he wanted to do something that was an homage to Jack’s ancestors,” she says. “We knew that we wanted to do something that wasn’t the commercialized version of the Day of the Dead makeup for him. They had reached out to an artist named Rosanna Esparza Ahrens. She’s a graphic designer that does a lot of work that revolves around the Day of the Dead. We took that and then translated it into the three-dimensional form that Gael is. When I first saw the design, I was like, ‘This is going to be a continuity nightmare.’ There were just so many dashes and dots. We designed stencils based around that to try to expedite that process, or else he would just be in my chair for hours on end.”
One must wonder whether the Day of the Dead makeup is part of Jack Russell’s everyday look or something he slipped on to infiltrate the film’s monster hunter party. The question rattles through Ellen Arden’s imagination, but if anyone on set actually knew the answer, they didn’t tell her. Those Marvel moviemakers are tight-lipped, even amongst their own.
“I don’t know if I think in my mind that’s part of his character per se,” says Arden. “I wonder if it’ll play within the MCU if we see him later. I like both ideas because I think Gael looked great as that character in that makeup, and it played well in color as well. The opacity of it is very pumped up with the contrast of black and white. When you see it in color, it’s a little more dialed back. It feels more like part of him, a little bit more organic. But it’s a really cool look. I would love to see it later in the MCU, but who knows? I’m not in control of that.”
Arden delights in her work on Werewolf by Night. While making the movie, she knew she was having fun, but those emotions don’t necessarily translate into a quality product. When she finally observed the film in its totality, Giacchino’s grand vision floored her.
“When I first saw the film,” she says, “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I think we made art somehow. We made art in the MCU.’ When you’re shooting it, it’s such a different experience because you’re seeing bits and pieces and trying to envision what it will eventually look like. When I saw the cut of it, I was like, ‘Wow, this all came together so well.’ That was great because my team and many other departments had such a good time on that show. It’s great to have it be an amazing product after the fact.”
Werewolf by Night is now streaming on Disney+.