Tech Support: Makeup artist Howard Berger on fleshing out 'Hitchcock'
The ever-adventurous Makeup and Hairstyling branch once again showed independence in its choice of nominees this year. While many people assumed transforming Daniel Day-Lewis into Abraham Lincoln would yield a nod for “Lincoln,” it was turning Anthony Hopkins into Alfred Hitchcock that tickled the branch’s fancy as Sacha Gervasi’s film managed to score its sole nomination in the category.
Howard Berger, Oscar winner for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” shares this nomination with co-special makeup effects artist Peter Montagna and hair stylist Martin Samuel. But a little over a year ago, in November 2011, he was getting ready to wrap up shooting of “Oz: The Great and Powerful” when Gervasi called him to say the project had been given the green light.
Convincing the audience that Anthony Hopkins was Alfred Hitchcock was always going to be a daunting task. “We had a very little amount of time and money but I wanted to take that time and money and use it towards testing,” Berger says. “We were able to get six different makeup tests to see what was and was not going to work on Tony.”
There was still a fine line between creating Alfred Hitchcock and not losing the charisma of the actor underneath the prosthetics. “We wanted Tony to be able to perform and allow facial movement,” he says. “As we got more comfortable with the character and Tony got comfortable with the character, things modified.” An important change that Hopkins became open to was with respect to contact lenses, which he originally did not want. “Tony has these piercing blue eyes and persuading him to wear lenses to replicate Hitchcock’s brown eyes became an important part of the makeup," Berger says.
When you’re creating something, it’s a team effort. Berger's team had to create a specific look but also a look that the actors were comfortable in. Hopkins "is in 90-95% of the movie and we needed to make sure the makeup we were doing wasn’t hours and hours and hours in the chair," Berger explains. "He’s 75 years old – a very fit 75 years old but still 75 years old. And Tony realized that our job was as important. Sometimes an actor won’t respect the makeup by eating a hamburger or sleeping on the newspaper."
When I ask Berger what it was like to create Old Hollywood, he doesn’t take long to respond. He says it was "super-cool" and like a childhood dream. Having grown up in Los Angeles, the journey was all the more rewarding for him. Not only that, as is rarer and rarer these days, the opportunity to actually shoot a film in Hollywood was one he savored. But there were also plenty of challenges that came with that dedication to period.
“If the makeup hadn’t worked, the movie wouldn’t have been successful," he says. "I had to be very resourceful and smart about how I approached everything. I’m a pretty quick makeup artist and I wanted to make sure I could do a great job every single day but within the confines of what the movie needed of me.”
Berger, who has “Oz” set for release next month and, as noted above, won his first Oscar for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” is familiar with fantasy endeavors as well as period pieces with more practical effects. How does he compare the two efforts? “I approach everything kind of the same way," he says. "Even if you’re dealing with a giant enormous film such as ‘Oz,’ time is always of the essence. In ‘Oz,’ I put together an army of artists. Here, with Martin and Peter, the way we do makeup for one is the same for 100.” He also praises costume designer Julie Weiss, who created the pivotal fat suit for Hopkins, who didn't exactly want to gain a ton of weight for the role.
Berger is quite involved in the Academy Awards, too. “I love the Oscars,” he says. “I’ve watched the Oscars my entire life. In 2006, getting nominated and then winning was a dream come true.”
As for this year? “People seem very positive,” he says. “I just like the ride. It is an honor to be nominated. It’s awesome to win as well and we want to go and represent the film as best we can.”
His involvement with his branch has led him to have strong opinions on the rules for choosing the nominees for makeup. And he emphasizes that he is not disconcerted about only having three nominees in the category. “The voting process changes if we had five,” he says. “We like the voting process we have. We look at all movies, it whittles down to 15-17 and then seven in the bake-off and then three that get nominated. The process has worked for years.”
And he’s proud in the branch’s tendency to give films their only nomination and look past overall reputation. “We’re very satisfied. It is a very serious thing and we take it very seriously. It’s not about what is the best film or who has the most makeup but who has the best makeup.”
As for the addition of “and Hairstyling” to the category’s title this year? “What prompted that was so many years where success of the makeup is because of makeup and hair. I think it’s a long time coming and our branch felt it was fair to have ‘Best Makeup and Hair’ as opposed to ‘Best Makeup’ – doesn’t mean that every year both makeup artists and hairstylists will be up but it opens up that opportunity.”
When looking back on “Hitchcock”, Berger remains thrilled to simply have had the chance to do a film about the master filmmaker.
“It was shot in 35 days," he says. "Every day we would count off. And on the last day, we were really blue. The next day, I got a text from Tony that was ‘I’m really sad that I’m not having my makeup done today by you.’” And to Berger, that was the ultimate compliment.