Donald Mowat, whose filmography includes Blade Runner: 2049 and Prisoners with Denis Villeneuve, as well as Spectre, First Man and Spider-Man: Far From Home, has been Oscar and BAFTA-longlisted for his hair and make-up work on Dune.
And Mowat says he put his career at risk by insisting that Stellan Skarsgård's transformation into the the film's morbidly corpulent villain Baron Harkonnen should be done with practical makeup.
"I felt I could deliver a practical make-up,” Mowat tells Yahoo as Dune arrives on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and VOD.
“[I told director Denis Villeneuve] with a huge lump in my throat because not a lot of films are able to do that anymore, and I was very aware that if I pushed this, I was also putting my reputation on the line. I think it took me 30 years to have that confidence."
Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr Moreau – that’s one of the inspirations you’re seeing when you watch Stellan Skarsgård’s performance
“We talked about Apocalypse Now and Marlon Brando,” explains the make-up designer, “[but] I went more over to Island of Dr Moreau, slightly more eccentric and camp.”
The Baron’s epic prosthetic make-up is one of the statement effects of last year’s movie, a gigantic job that saw the actor buried beneath seven or eight pieces of facial silicone and a body that took 16 weeks to build.
“What I was always afraid of, and what I was saying to Denis, was fat is always portrayed as kind of funny and it’s fat-shaming,” says Mowat. “This was creating a character of great strength.”
And it turned out to be one of the most nerve-wracking elements of the project.
Watch: How Stellan Skarsgaard transformed into The Baron for Dune
“A lot of films don’t have the time or the budget," Mowat says. "The expertise is there. There’s just very few films that want to spend that time and money and get an actor like Stellan. It’s a very different industry from when people used to do these huge, elaborate make-ups.”
Of course, while Skarsgard’s transformation — which took seven hours a day to put on, and two to remove — is the most noticeable part of Mowat’s job, a film on the scale of Dune is a truly mammoth undertaking from a make-up perspective for everything you don’t really think about.
“Someone like Zendaya coming in, even though it was just for a week or so, her presence in the film is hugely important both in the narrative and the visual, what she will look like,” he reveals.
“And we’re only getting her a day or two before. A lot of quick decisions are made and phone calls and we’re virtually meeting – barely. Those make-ups for me are rather challenging because I have to think very quickly and grab ideas that I can present to Denis.”
Luckily, he and the director are more than simpatico.
“[Denis] is such a great director and boss, [he] comes with a lot of respect for what we all do. When I get sent Denis’s choices of things — and they’re not choices, rather they’re ideas — I look at it and go, ‘Yeah that works as a set piece, that works as a wall, but it doesn’t work for what I do.’ Then I have to challenge and go back. It’s quite good fun, actually.”
As such, the film is filled with intricate, clever details such as the number — a kind of barcode really — stamped on the temples of the Sardaukar soldiers.
Read more: Denis Villeneuve talks Dune and its sequel
“I’ve been able to talk Denis away from tattoos in films before,” laughs Mowat. “All those men look the same – they’re all bearded, they have long hair, they’re quite tall, they have busted-up, broken noses…they’re like a militia. You know how US military wear dog-tags? Russian [soldiers] and some others tattoo and this gave me the thought of this thing across the temple. Of stamping it on. That’s [also] where I came up with the idea of the Mentat having this stamp on their lip. You find things out quite by accident.”
Still, despite all this skill and prep, it doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong, as Mowat found out when he worked on the look for Javier Bardem’s Fremen character, Stilgar.
“[Javier] is a man who lives in Madrid who’s a very good-looking modern European man,” says Mowat. “[Bardem as Stilgar] looks different. He’s got more leathery, tan skin and these little faint Fremen tattoos. He’s got very dark, charcoal eyeliner on, that’s something that Bedouin people do. There’s a lot of tribal elements in the make-up.”
But figuring out how to make that look authentic had its difficulties.
“Those make-ups can go wrong very easily. We often do a Photoshop just to give Denis an idea, a taste of what we might do. To be really honest with you, while we were doing pre-production and I put together a few things of Javier Bardem, he was looking like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. And I thought, ‘this is a mistake’. Something as simple as the black eyeliner could be very wrong.”
He laughs. “Simple is really difficult.”
With Dune: Part 2 in pre-production, it looks like he pulled it off and Bardem will feature a lot more next time around.
In the meantime, Mowat and his team have reunited with Dune cast member Oscar Isaac on Disney+’s Moon Knight, although the designer is forbidden from saying very much.
“We just finished it and I know they’re very excited about it,” is all he’ll admit.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have his own Bene Gesserit to foresee how audiences will take to it and more immediately, how many gongs Dune will score by the end of awards season.
Dune is out now on Digital Download and 4K UHD, Blu-Ray™ and DVD and VOD. Watch a trailer below.