Interview: Makeup Artist Donald Mowat on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and ‘Stronger’

As we dive deeper into awards season, we’ll begin to critics and guilds rewarding extraordinary craft work. One individual who stands out in the fray of 2017 is Donald Mowat, a makeup designer responsible for two extremely technical displays of his craft this year. Not only did Donald design the makeup effects for “Stronger,” a contemporary biopic of Jeff Bauman, but also crafted the makeup for Sci-Fi juggernaut “Blade Runner 2049.” I sat down with Donald to discuss his career and recent collaborations with Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal.

AF: How did you first get involved in makeup design?

DM: Well I loved theater and film, and like everybody, I first started noticing the small details in costumes and makeup. It sort of caught my eye and I began working on makeup in theater in high school. That really started me, because someone has to make 14-year-olds in plays look older. It was by default, but I also loved it. It was very communal and wasn’t a sport, so it was the only outlet I had with people my own age.

AF: Makes sense. Now one of your frequent collaborations was Mark Wahlberg. How did that happen?

DM: I thought it was really funny at the time. He was a very nice guy and I wondered why he even needed a makeup man.  Well, it was because he had extensive tattoos that needed to be covered up. At the time, that was a really big deal at the time. He subsequently had a lot of them removed and I stopped working with him about 8 years ago.

AF: That’s cool. Now I saw one of the last movies you worked on with him was “The Fighter.” How do you develop the makeup effects for a movie that is so physical?

DM: Well a movie like this is kind of terrifying. People look at the makeup in those movies because there have been so many boxing movies. I decided to root it much more in realism and look better for the audience and characters. I almost hate saying this because it could offend some people, but it shouldn’t become about the makeup. It should help the story and help the characters, but if you’re too focused on the makeup it can hurt a movie. So with “The Fighter,” the characters were great. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, it was just a little bit of makeup and hairstyling to add to their performances.

AF: Oh yeah, I mean Leo and Bale have astounding performances, and Amy Adams too. I think the makeup does help to differentiate them from other characters those actors have played.

DM: Well it is different because I worked with Melissa several years later on “Prisoners” with Denis [Villeneuve], and in that film, we aged her a bit. It’s good to go back and see if that makeup can help with their characters.

AF: Speaking of “Prisoners,” that was first collaboration with Denis. How did that happen?

DM: It was a couple of things. I knew about the job, and I really wanted it. In most films like that one, when they shoot on location they go with local crews. It’s that way in most of the crafts. On this one though, with the all-star cast and the very particular eye of Denis, they were looking for someone. My name had come up, almost certainly because of Roger Deakins because I had worked with him on “Skyfall.” I believe that he and his wife said something like “if you do need someone, we have our friend Donald,” and that really was amazing. Then I know one of the producers, and I look at the cast list and I’d worked with Melissa, Paul Dano, the costume designer, and suddenly it made sense.

AF: Where in the process do you normally get involved?

DM: With someone like Denis, I know pretty early on. Normally we don’t, I think my department comes in a little bit late, only a couple weeks before. But with Denis, I came in about a month to five weeks before.

AF: You also mentioned that you work with Roger. How do you collaborate with him?

DM: Well you have different relationships with different people on set. Roger and his team work as a unit. They’re nice and respectful. When I was working on Daniel [Craig], we were taking a risk making him look haggard and older as Bond. With Roger lighting it, he let me do what I do, and he knew how to get the best shots possible. That is kind of a collaboration that is unique. Everyone thinks their job is the most important on a film, but with Roger, it doesn’t feel that way.

AF: Now you’ve worked with Denis on a number of films now. Which was the most fun, and which was the most challenging?

DM: “Prisoners” really has a lot in it. I don’t know though, Denis’ films are so cinematic, especially with their cinematography and I would argue makeup. “Blade Runner 2049” was more epic than his others in production design and costumes, but “Sicario” or “Prisoners” has a lot of individual makeup, evolutions of characters, realism, and aging makeup. I would say that if it’s not a lot of fun, that actually made it a good movie because it was hard. “Prisoners” was hard. “Sicario” was hard. “Blade Runner” was very hard. I think that “Sicario” is not a job that I would have been on, but it was a big step. “Prisoners” was very special to me because I had relationships with so much of the cast and crew. “Blade Runner” was perhaps the most difficult, but now at the end, it’s also one of the most rewarding.

AF: They are all excellent films, so I don’t if I could choose. With that, let’s shift over to “Blade Runner.” Did you ever refer back to the original when making this film?

DM: A tiny bit. Obviously my whole career I’ve loved that film and I’ve been a huge fan. Marvin Westmore created the makeup in that one, and I thought it was such a special movie at the time. It came out just before I started working in the business in ’83 and ’84. For me it was a reference point when I would work on TV or smaller films. I think was for many other people. While I love it, at the same time I didn’t want to copy it.

I think a lot of us viewed it that way, one aspect, in particular, was the Daryl Hannah makeup. It was so spectacular, I wondered “what am I going to do?” I called Denis and we talked for a while, and I was sort of relieved that everyone was terrified, but I think it was healthy for the creative process. Denis told me, I need you, you’re the best person for this. I realized quickly that it was about keeping the film based in reality far more than some would have thought that helped.

Once I got to Hungary and saw the costumes and the sets, I felt way more comfortable. It’s one thing to see storyboards and concepts. Once I started to see what everyone was doing, I realized it would be based in reality, and I could do that.

AF: Which character proved to be the greatest challenge when developing the film?

DM: Well, I think there were a couple that were difficult. What I’ve discovered is that sometimes, the ones that feel difficult aren’t, and the ones that feel easier end up being far more difficult. Look at K, Ryan Gosling’s character. That’s actually a really tricky makeup. I don’t suppose the audience would know, but I other people that do what I do would call me up and tell me they enjoyed the work on his character.

AF: So full disclosure, I went to a barber after seeing “Blade Runner” and asked for Ryan Gosling’s haircut.

DM: Haha. Did you?

AF: Oh yeah. I don’t pull it off like Gosling, but I love it. Now one of the things that I found very interesting was his injuries. I’m sure it’s shot out of sequence, but the injuries track the whole way through. How do you go through that process?

DM: That’s very astute and observant because not a lot of people get that. It can be a frustrating process and was difficult and stressful. I knew the script well, and I would refer to it over and over again. I mean it was not a little out of sequence, it was shot wildly out of sequence, more than any other film I’ve ever done. This is where Denis’ trusting and Roger’s ability to make everything look so interesting. I just had things ready for Ryan’s character.

We didn’t know what would happen with the Dave Bautista fight, the Sapper Morton fight, we shot that the very last week of shooting in November. I had to establish K’s injuries in June. It was for me a bit of a map, you’ve got to be really careful that it doesn’t come across as a little too hokey or “leading man” as it were. That wouldn’t work in “Blade Runner,” and I knew that with Roger I’d be okay.

AF: How about Ana De Armas and her crazy coloration as a hologram? How do you balance those colors with the gritty nature of Los Angeles in 2049?

DM: I’m glad you noticed that because it doesn’t play in the film for very long. I board every character independent of the other departments, usually just faces. When I was back in Los Angeles, Denis had sent me the concept art. At first, I thought was terrifying because she looked like an X-Man with a pink body and yellow eyes. It was a good starting point, but I was unsure. I was worried she’d be terrifying, but she could also look beautiful and exotic.

There was also some difficulty with the color. I mean you can ask five people what the color pink is, and you’ll get 5 different answers. So I would have color matches and paint matches to show them. I think I had a moment in LA when I went to my suppliers and I bought all of the pinks they had. All the old school theatrical body paint that they use for the Blue Man Group. I’m not that high tech, so I went into the pinks, reds, oranges, and had to bring it all to Hungary.

We were running out of time, and we had her sit in LA. Ana is such a delightful lady, and we went and got contact lenses for her character, like five or six different ones, including the purple ones she was wearing. They make some that are made for digital, so they’re green, but they can change to any color they want. We gave her the green at first, but Denis didn’t love it. So that evolved and Roger helped a lot. We were going through wigs, and it wasn’t working. There wasn’t enough contrast with the hair and pink. I was really struggling to get her in, and then we changed the wig to a purple one and it was perfect.

AF: I also wanted to touch on some things from “Stronger.” How different is it moving from a Sci-Fi film like “Blade Runner” and then coming back to the real world of “Stronger?”

DM: Apples and oranges. It’s so different. More than anything it was so meaningful. It’s a smaller project but it was incredible. Jake Gyllenhaal, I just can’t say enough about him. He’s the most collaborative actor I’ve ever met and that’s inspiring. The movie didn’t have a lot of money and there’s a challenge in that. There are moments in the movie that Jake is so supportive, with David Gordon Green, they let me do my thing. The one thing in makeup that I’ve noticed is that more and more people want to tell me what to do, and I don’t know when that happened. But working with Jake, he was so into it.

When I was researching and presenting my ideas to Jake and David, that Jeff Bauman’s eyes had changed in tone and color. Apparently, this can happen after catastrophic events. That’s the kind of thing that Jake would want me to figure out. Even though Jake has these incredible eyes, we had to go in on this. There’s a shot when they’re putting him in the wheelchair that his eyes look like coal, and everyone thought that it made him Jeff Bauman. Jeff’s mother came to set and even she thought it was incredible. It’s a subtle makeup technique that can have so much power and influence in how they responded to Jake.

AF: What about the recreation of the bomb?

DM: It was something that we were extremely sensitive about. We were working with so many people who had been there, it was a very emotional atmosphere. There was a sense of quiet and respect, because of the event itself. We also had the medical teams help us to approve of Jake’s makeup to make it accurate.

AF: You had a medical team consult on his makeup?

DM: Oh yeah, not just for the injuries, but for everything after. Especially when you see Jeff on opioids, or in the hospital. He should look a sticky, yellowy grey. It’s a surgical look and it touched me. I kept Tatiana [Maslany] in a mirror look to Jake, one that shows how she’s stressed, exhausted, and fatigued look.

AF: Did you actually meet Jeff during the filming of “Stronger?”

DM: He’s an incredible guy. On a personal note, I had some health issues this year, a big sort of shocking event in my life. Well when I saw him at Toronto, Jeff was so concerned about me. I think that speaks to what kind of person he is, that he’s so concerned with everyone else. This is a guy on titanium legs whose life was forever changed. Yet, he was so concerned about me. It was deeply touching and it will always be an amazing moment in my life.

Where do you have Donald in your predictions? Will he receive the elusive Oscar nomination? Let us know in the comments below! 

“Blade Runner 2049” releases on DVD and Blu-Ray on Jan. 16, 2018. 

“Stronger” releases on DVD and Blu-Ray on Dec. 19, 2017. 

CLICK THE CATEGORY TO SEE THE OSCAR PREDICTIONS:

MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |