Crafting period specific make-up can be extremely difficult. When the era you visit has become legendary for its depictions on film, it becomes even more so. Yet Makeup Designer Donald Mowat had to approach the vibrant 1960s for a very different kind of family. In “First Man,” Mowat helps de-mythologize Neil Armstrong, making him a real person for the first time in film history. Mowat’s approach of providing minimal, yet essential makeup effects for Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy pairs well with the extremely tactile film on display. Mowat sat down with to discuss his work on “First Man” and his time with Ryan Gosling. We discuss approaching a period film with purposeful minimalistic makeup, and how that supports the cinema-verite style of the film.
Alan French/AwardsCircuit: You and I talked last year in the run-up to “Blade Runner 2049” and “Stronger,” and this year you’ve had a busy slate. Why don’t you tell us what you’ve been up to in the last year?
Donald Mowat: Well, after I spoke with you, I’ve done a lot of stuff. Obviously, I did stuff for “Blade Runner,” and it was very exciting to go to the BAFTAs with it. I had fun doing a lot of the educational stuff in London for BAFTA. That was very exciting for me. It meant a lot to me because there is more than just working on movies. Then it was time for “First Man.” After “First Man” I was able to just kind of squeeze in Dan Gilroy‘s next film, “Velvet Buzzsaw.”
AF: Oh we will circle back to that one because that is extremely interesting to me. Now how did you end up on “First Man?”
DM: Well, I didn’t come on board to be Ryan Gosling‘s makeup artist, because I ran around doing a lot, but Ryan brought it up to me quite early on. From what I gather, he and Damien [Chazelle], before “La La Land,” had decided they were going to make “First Man.” A couple of times, Ryan had asked me questions about makeup that were not “Blade Runner” related, and I found it really interesting. He was curious how I block and board every character, what little details I work on and how I come up with the ideas I get. He did bring it up when we were about halfway through “Blade Runner,” and I was able to meet Damien and Linus [Sandgren] in London. We talked about “La La Land,” and that’s how it came to be.
AF: What kinds of questions was Ryan asking you?
DM: Well, I think he saw how many films were about making look-a-likes, or recreations of characters. I told him I work very much in reality, so I think if you need to recreate Neil Armstrong exactly, I’m not your guy. There are three or four people in the world who can do that extremely well. But the more I got to know Ryan on “Blade Runner,” the more I knew that he could do Neil Armstrong with minimal changes to his appearance. If you think about how tight this film is, and Ryan had on a nose in the cockpit, I’m convinced it would not have worked.
AF: What was it like working with Damien for the first time?
DM: For me, I think a lot of the industry has begun to get very focused on their individual job. They may be in another department, and I’m in makeup, but we don’t get to be filmmakers together. That’s the opposite with Damien. He has an idea about everything, and he’s like an old-school filmmaker because of it. It’s the same working with Denis Villeneuve, and both Damien and Denis let me come up with my own things. We tried to make some teeth for him, but we also were aware of a truth about Neil Armstrong. No one knew what he looked like.
He wasn’t a TV guy and he wasn’t on Merv Griffin. When I looked at his face, he had kind of funny teeth, a hairline, and some different shading on his skin. The same thing with Claire [Foy]. Does she look like Janet? Kind of, but we went with the simpler tom-boyish look. I think if we had done “makeup” with a nose and prosthetics, would it make a difference? No one knows what she looked like.
AF: That’s very true. Even though Neil is responsible for one of the greatest moments in human history when you see his first steps on the moon, he’s in a space suit and you can’t see his face.
DM: I talked with Mary Zophres, who I had worked with before, but she told me that she tweaks a little bit. We did some things to Ryan to play with his skin tone, cut his hair, and we think it worked very effectively. Ryan didn’t look the same as he did in “Blade Runner.” I think there is some license, and I had never worked on a film in my thirty year career where the film was going to be so close up. There was going to be no filtering, no beauty lighting, and we would be up his nose.
It created something that made me feel unbelievably stressed, but also made it a one of a kind movie. We made it feel like it was part of a documentary. You look at the close-ups in Apollo, even the close-ups in the house, and they are so intimate. I don’t think there was room to do anything other than what I did.
AF: One of the things that impresses me most about the film is how tactile the whole movie feels. Did you know the audience would feel like they could reach out and touch the characters?
DM: I think that people were very drawn to intimacy. It was tactile and you could feel the emotion on the set. When I was young in the industry, you had these moments on set where you would be drawn to the performances and moments, but with time you grow a little jaded and cynical. But there are moments when you watch Claire Foy or Ryan, and they made it effortless. We all worked really hard, and there was something where it just felt like a home movie. I was born in ’64 and it all felt like my experience growing up. There was one day where we filmed Claire smoking a cigarette (and it’s crazy she knows how to smoke considering she’s not a smoker) but at that moment, it took me back and it choked me up. I had not had that happen on a film before.
AF: Speaking of Claire, it was a very different look for her versus her role on “The Crown,” where most American audiences know her from. What steps did you take to help her become the “every woman?”
DM: There’s something about the look of women in that period that is not what you would expect. Janet was an academic, she went to college with Neil, she was educated, very intelligent, and articulated. When you watch films from the 1960s, you see the Julie Christie and false eyelashes kind of look. But to keep Janet interesting, you could tell she only put on the lipstick because she knew the reporters were coming. She had a unique sense of style, but it was stylish, and I think that the combination of Ryan and Claire made each look great together.
AF: Was there anything that Claire wanted you to bring out of the character?
DM: Not particularly, but I played with things throughout the shoot, especially with lines. I played with little levels of making them bleary-eyed, and even blew stuff in their eyes, particularly with Ryan. Damien was adamant that we didn’t do “Astronaut’s Wives,” and she carries the backbone of the family throughout the movie, as well as the stress that it reinforces. We did more with Olivia Hamilton, who played Pat White because she was a little more Astronaut’s wife than Janet and it helped to differentiate it.
AF: Now onto Gosling, I’m curious how you had to balance the makeup with extra effects like the sweat that we could see on their faces?
DM: Damien and I were talking early in the film, and he brought up the example of subtle aging through make-up. He was talking about Pacino in “The Godfather,” and I decided to take this approach with Ryan. I sort of added a dullness to his skin, a flatter tone, dulling the lips. Usually, I would give him more of a leading man kind of sheen, but we played with the eyes, made him sunken. I even got in on the stubble, and we started talking about the continuity and how to make it work.
I started the research, wondering if the stubble grows different in space than on Earth. You’d be amazed what people asked me, and we had to map it. I would text Ryan, and tell him whether or not he could shave or if he had to grow it out for a couple of days. I had post-its all over my trailer making sure we kept the continuity, and what he would look like over the course of a seven or eight-day mission?
AF: What about the sweat?
DM: If I could reset, I would spray them down and get it looking good. However, depending on how we were filming, that wasn’t always possible, so they had their own personal sprays as well. We went through so many little bottles so that we could continue on the gimbals. They were shaking around so much, we couldn’t have loose items bouncing around the cockpits.
AF: How did you go about the injuries that Armstrong suffers over the run of the film?
DM: It was tough at times, but we hit the levels where we needed to. The burn was challenging. I thought that I had put too much on for when he goes home, but Damien was adamant he needed to look beat up when he sees Janet. When he put it like that, I agreed with him immediately. Everyone’s reaction becomes, “look what is going to happen to you” and Neil has to deal with that. So if Neil had cleaned up before going home, there’s no tension or drama in those scenes. Her reaction would be no reaction.
AF: How did you approach the sequencing on the Lunar Lander that crashes?
DM: On the day where we did the practical stuff, where the lander crashes and he’s in the parachute, it was a really fun day. Damien had not done something like it before, but he let me take a hold on the makeup for the scene. People forget that you never know what is going to get cut when you’re working on it, but it needs to feel consistent and real. So sometimes other makeup artists’ work can look incomplete because a scene of transition gets cut. So we built the injury to last across multiple scenes.
AF: Which character was the toughest to design the makeup?
DM: You know, for a film that a lot of people would say is not a “makeup film,” I think that there’s a lot going on. Considering it is 90% in close-ups, that makes it a makeup film. I think Ryan and Claire equally presented challenges. They were equal but different. They play the most, and the other characters were more part of an ensemble. We had a uniformity to them, and that really worked because all the guys kind of looked the same at that period.
AF: What was something you learned in the research of this film that was fun to incorporate into your work?
DM: In preparation for Claire’s character, I asked my friends to send me pictures of their mothers. Damien’s research is primo, he’s got books and examples ready to go. Same for Mary. Their research is incomparable. So rather than just go on Google and find things I thought would work, I called my friends to send a picture. I felt like there was more to it than the astronaut’s wives images you see, and sure enough, people did look the way I remembered.
Right before “First Man,” Ryan and I had watched the Ken Burns “Vietnam” series. I had been ill between “Blade Runner” and “First Man,” and I remember we were texting and talking about it. It covered the politics of the era, but also showed real images of what we looked like. I loved that we could say “this is real,” and I had forgotten what a troubled time it was. We often fall back on fashion magazines of the day, but it wasn’t the reality for most. I think we tend to glamourize periods that weren’t very glamorous.
AF: I think some period pieces also uber-glam it up so that it looks stylized.
DM: Yeah for sure. I think it’s tough to do a slice of life when you can do a big glamorous hairstyle. But if you go for minimalism and strip that away, it can be more vulnerable and I think that it is undervalued. Even if you look on the horizon for all the period films that are coming, our film is period. But you see others that are vivid and quite stylized, but that can also be a fantasy.
AF: We talked about “Velvet Buzzsaw,” which is your fifth collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal. How did this come together for you this time?
DM: I met Jake by accident on “Prisoners,” and that was kind of an accident. I found out he didn’t have his own person, and we just kind of collaborate whenever we can now. I met Dan [Gilroy] on “Nightcrawler” and I’m very proud to have been associated with it. When he started sending me ideas, I just thought “what the hell was this?” But it was very interesting so I signed on. Then you start to get the cast memos for who signed on, and soon we’ve got Toni Collette, and Daveed Diggs, and Natalia Dyer. It was exciting.
AF: How long did you shoot for?
DM: It was only for about six weeks? Maybe seven. But it was a quick shoot in LA, and for Netflix. I’ve never been on anything like it, and the ensemble cast was really fun. It was great to meet this large cast and meet these people. I just enjoyed it so much.
AF: I can’t help but get excited because on IMDb it’s classified as a horror film, and obviously Toni Colette was in a great one this year. How horror is this going to be? Like “Suspiria?”
DM: Honestly, I’m not sure how they’re going to classify it. It’s got a lot going on and it’s superficial and part of the art world. I’m not sure I would call it a horror film either. It is kind of like an Altman picture, and you’ve got this huge ensemble centered around Rene Russo‘s art gallery. It’s quite pretentious and weird.
AF: Thank you so much for spending time with me talking about your movie. It’s one of my favorites for sure.
DM: Oh, well thank you so much Alan.