Rick Baker interview: Men In Black 3, werewolves and Videodrome

To mark Men In Black 3’s arrival on DVD and Blu-ray, here’s our interview with special make-up effects master, Rick Baker...

If you’re not familiar with Rick Baker’s name, you’ll probably recognise his monsters. Having made his mark in Hollywood with his make-up effects work on movies such as The Exorcist, the Dino De Laurentiis-produced King Kong remake and Star Wars in the 1970s, Baker truly captured imaginations with his groundbreaking werewolf in 1981’s An American Werewolf In London. The film’s breathtaking transformation sequence and gore effects earned Baker an Oscar – the first given to a make-up artist in a new category introduced that year.

Since the 80s, Baker’s continued to push the boundaries of practical effects, whether it’s with animatronics or prosthetics. His most work was most recently seen in Men In Black 3, the latest instalment in a franchise that has provided a showcase for Baker’s imagination and technical skills for 15 years.

With the movie out on DVD and Blu-ray now, it was a pleasure to speak to Baker about his involvement in it, as well as his other work – not least his deliciously fleshy, nasty effects on David Cronenberg’s cult masterpiece, Videodrome.

It’s now 15 years since the first Men In Black, and we’ve seen some pretty major changes in CG effects since then. Do you think practical effects have evolved as well?

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Yeah, I mean, the biggest change for us has been the animatronic part – that’s gone away. We did have a couple of animatronic scenes in this Men In Black, but for the most part they’ve been replaced with CG stuff. One of the other big changes is in the use of silicone instead of foam rubber, but I used that on the first Men In Black, too, so I suppose it hasn’t changed all that much, I guess.

But I embrace the technology. I do hate to see things that I know we could do with make-up effects being done with a computer, but there are things we can’t do with make-up effects, so it’s useful to have that tool available to do it. 

I understand you use computers to help plan your effects anyway, is that right?

Yeah, I’ve been using the computer to design my effects for the last 20 years. I got PhotoShop 1.0 [Laughs] and it was an instant love affair. I love the idea of what I call no fear painting, you know, where you can try things and always go back to what you had. I love that, and I love making digital models on the computer.

I find it’s a really good design tool, and you’ve got a lot of options to do things quickly, and do things you never would have done with pencil and paper. I did, for example, in Men In Black 3, the little thing that comes out of the hand and shoots the spikes, I modelled that on my computer. I did a little 3D model, and I gave that file to Sony Imageworks, and that’s what they used in the film. Then we were able to make a 3D print of it, and make an animatronic version of that as well, so it’s cool that you can do that.

What’s your starting point for a design? Do you begin with the actor, for example Jemaine Clement’s character, as a basis?

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Well, I designed Boris before Jemaine was even cast. The original script that I was given had the Boris character, though he was named Yazz at that time. But he wasn’t totally fleshed out, and there were a lot of things that just didn’t make sense, to me anyway.

This was something that happened in the first Men In Black, I’d call up Barry [Sonnenfeld], and I’d say, “This doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that he’s wearing a disguise and he’s a prisoner on the moon for 40 years. It doesn’t make sense, you know?” And Barry usually tells me, “Stop worrying so much, it doesn’t matter”, and he’s usually right.

From the first film on, I’d always say, “It’d be better if we did this”, and sometimes they’d listen, you know? And they listen to me more now, because some of the things I said turned out to be the more popular things in the first film. The little green man inside the head that oepns up? That wasn’t in the script. That’s something that came out of my studio, and people liked that [chuckles]. 

That’s great! So it’s a proper collaboration with Barry Sonnenfeld?

That’s what I like about working on these films. With Boris, I just thought he needed to be fleshed out a bit, so I spent some time thinking about the design. And I also did a test on myself, actually made myself up with the costume and the whole deal, and showed up on the set while they were doing a 3D test, and let them see Boris in person.

Jemaine came onto the picture later on, and it definitely altered to fit his face. He’s the guy who has to wear it and perform in it, and with the actor’s face, it’s what you have to deal with, the positioning of everything. It definitely changed some. The first Boris that I did was a little more monsterous; what we ended up with was far more handsome.

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Is that important, though, for you to try the costume on so you can get a first-person reaction to it?

It’s not just how they feel about it, but what it feels like to wear. It’s not a comfortable process to go through, on a daily basis, and actors will often complain about how I torture them and stuff. I don’t want to torture them – though in some cases I do [laughs] – but I also want to know if they’re just being a baby or if they’re being realistic about it. So I’ll try it on to see which is the most uncomfortable, or what might become annoying after a number of days. So at least I know what it’s like on the other side, so I can sympathise with them, or tell them they’re full of crap, or whatever. Because I’ve worn it, and I know it’s not that bad.

What was the biggest challenge for you on this film?

Technically, the biggest challenge was it was such an ever-evolving creature, this film. I mean, films always are, they’re always changing, but this one seemed even more so. They actually contacted me months before we were due to film, and gave me a script which I thought was great. Then the first thing they started doing was rewriting the script.

What made it difficult for me was I would start designing aliens for a specific scene in the script, and get pretty far along, and they’d say, “We’re not doing that scene anymore, it’s not in the movie.” It’s like, oh shit, you know? As it turns out, we could use most all of them in the movie anyways, in other scenes, but some aliens were very specifically designed for a specific scene.

So for example there was a police line-up scene at Men In Black headquarters, where you had all these really extreme aliens, obviously not human aliens, and then Will Smith’s in there. The joke is, Will doesn’t fit at all in this line-up. So we made some aliens for that, and one had two robotic legs and a glass bowl with a brain and tentacles in it, and a raygun, and it was really cool. Obviously not human. But there was no place in the movie for it.

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It was something we built, and every place we brought it along, even though it wasn’t easy to transport, and we were like, [Plaintive voice] “Can we put this somewhere?” [Laughs] And we never did. At the end, we did a shot on a blue screen stage, and they kind of stuck it in a corner where you couldn’t really see it, and they took the glass bowl off because it reflected the blue.

It’s not unusual in this day and age, to get the script and for it to be the movie you actually make. But on this one, we didn’t know what it was going to be until we saw it. And we were pleasantly surprised, because when we initially filmed, we were a month or six weeks in New York, then we shut down for four months while they wrote more script, then we came back.

And they continued to write the script as we were there – they actually had a guy on the set with a laptop who was writing the lines as we were doing them. Usually, that doesn’t work, but when I saw a rough cut of the film, I was like, “Wow, how does this happen?” It had a lot of heart, and I thought it was fun. 

Looking back over all the incredible effects you’ve created in your career, one of the prevalent things are hairy creatures – werewolves, giant apes – is that a specific passion of yours?

[Chuckles] I do quite like hairy things. That probably came out of my growing up in front of the television as a kid in the 50s. I saw a lot of the classic Universal films, and was really attracted to the Wolf Man – I thought that was such a cool idea. And, you know, Mr Hyde. So many things I like had hair on. So I started making hairy things and never stopped, you know?

How does making something hairy, like your work on American Werewolf In London, compare with something fleshy, like Videodrome?

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Well, they’re really different things, aren’t they? The funny thing about Videodrome, is that, pre-American Werewolf, I was always saying, “Let me do something cool, I can do some really great things. At least let me put a moustache on this guy, or at least put a nose on him!”

And they didn’t want to know about it. Then American Werewolf happened, and people thought we could do anything. I got the script for Videodrome, and it had all this crazy-ass stuff in it, and I was like, “How the hell am I going to do this?” [Laughs]

And there was some stuff, actually, that I couldn’t do. There was stuff in the script that, I just said to David [Cronenberg], “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do it as it’s written. But I can do this.” That was a mutated version of what he had, and again, with David, it was a real collaboration. He was great about really listening to what I had to say, and it was more like, “I can’t do it as written, but I think this gives you basically the same idea, if you do this and that”, and he was cool. “Here’s what the flesh gun should be, I think it should do this”.

The hard thing about those things – and this is what always bothers me when you have a contractor working on your house, and they give you a budget and an estimate of how long it’s going to take, and they never seem to be able to do that. It always seems to take twice as long and cost twice as much. I always say, “I have to do stuff – and Videodrome’s a good example – I have to do things in film on budget and on a schedule. And there are things I’ve done that I’ve never done and nobody’s done before, and I do it!”

On a wall, there’s a two-by-four every 16 inches, you know, you can do the math and add that up, and a sheet of dry wall costs this much, and you add that, how can that catch you out?” [Laughs]

Things definitely changed after that, though, in the 80s when make-up effects took off after American Werewolf. It wasn’t like you had to beg to do a make-up effects – they were writing it in the scripts – things I had no idea how I was going to figure out how to do what we did.

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With that, we were sadly out of time. Rick Baker, thank you very much.

Men In Black 3 is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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