Howard Berger’s Hollywood highlights

12 October, 2012 by Rodney Appleyard

Howard Berger features in a new documentary called Nightmare Factory, which showcases some of the best make-up effects he has created over the years with Greg Nicotero – his business partner at K.N.B. Effects Group. Together, they have worked on some of the biggest movies in the history of Hollywood, such as Evil Dead II, Pulp Fiction and From Dusk Till Dawn.

Read more about the documentary in the new October-November (#149) issue of IF magazine.


IF Magazine: What have been the highlights of your career so far?

HB: I still treasure the time I spent on Army of Darkness and remember the experience as some of my best days in film. I also really enjoyed working on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But I have to say that Hitchcock, which I have worked on recently, was a surprisingly dream project for me. It was very different to anything I have worked on before. I only had to create one make-up for this movie, which was on the great Sir Anthony Hopkins, but it's the first portrait make-up I have every done. It was an enormous challenge but also hugely rewarding.

Oz: The Great and Powerful, which comes out next year, was also hard work but a lot of fun. I have to say that working on Dusk Till Dawn has been my all-time favourite film experience – and I judge my enjoyment on movies that I can actually watch. I have a hard time getting through some of the movies I have worked on in the past.

To be honest, I'm grateful to have worked on any of Quentin Tarantino's films because he's such a super genius. I learn so much just by watching him on set and observing how he works with the actors. He tailors his personality according to which actor he works with at the time. Of course, he is one of the best filmmakers out there. I have to say that if I didn't work again after today I would be OK because I have worked with so many amazing directors and artists. It's been more than I ever dreamed of.

IF Magazine: Is it difficult to keep improving your standards after creating so many head-turning make-ups over the years?

HB: I still keep finding new challenges and I'm going to keep on going until I can't do anymore. The thought of retiring is ridiculous to me. But it's also important that you have other artistic interests in your life. For me, I'm also really into photography, which gives me a nice break from make-ups.

Greg is also stretching himself at the moment. Right now, he is successfully producing and directing films and his work on The Walking Dead TV series has really exploded. I don't know of any other make-up effects artist, except for Stan Winston, who has blossomed so much as a very successful director or producer.

On The Walking Dead series, we are very lucky that Frank Darabont (director of The Shawshank Redemption) loves Greg so much that he looks to him when it comes to creating the zombie world for this TV production. He is such a focal point for that production. It's great to see one of us move up the ladder like he has. I'm so proud that he's bringing dignity, integrity and respect to our industry. It's very refreshing and is only going to lead to bigger and better things for both of us.

IF Magazine: Can you tell us more about the make-up effects you created for Hitchcock?

HB: I applied prosthetics make-up to Anthony Hopkins everyday, which was extremely stressful but also fantastic fun. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career. I wouldn't say the make-up effects was ground-breaking – it was all made out of silicone – but what was special about this make-up was the way Anthony Hopkins worked with it to provide a brilliant portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock. We had to apply the make-up carefully so we didn't lose Tony in the mix. It had to be done in a way that allowed him to perform and create his own unique portrait of Hitchcock.

I think that Dick Smith's Abraham Lincoln make-up on Hal Holbrook is one of the best portraits ever. Although the effects didn't make the actor look exactly like Abraham Lincoln, it was the performance that made the film work and the make-up helped him to feel the part. I hope people feel the same way about this portrayal. Some people might say: "Oh, Alfred Hitchcock's forehead looks different." But if they do, they will be missing the point.

IF Magazine: How did you get the balance right between the make-up and the acting to create a convincing performance on screen? Was it down to collaborating closely with Anthony Hopkins?

HB: Early on, when I was approached to work on the show, I said I would only do it if I had the time to carry out a series of tests on the make-up. They agreed to it and so did Tony because they understood the importance of doing these tests to make the film work. One of the reasons why his performance is so spectacular is because we had time to carry out six very different make-up tests. We finally found the right one that worked best for all of us.

We also waited for Tony to start feeling comfortable with his performance and the character. Once this happened, we decided to lose aspects of the make-up that we didn't need. For instance, after a while, we got rid of the lip and then the dentures, etc. Shortly after that, Tony really got into the zone, which enhanced our work. He brought it all to life really. I always say that a certain percentage of the success of a character make-up is down to us and the other percentage is about the actor's performance. I couldn't have asked for a better partner on Hitchcock than Tony.

He's the greatest person I have ever worked with. I cannot say enough good things about him. He is the most kindest, giving, gentle, funny, brilliant, person I have ever met and we are friends now. If I could do another movie with Anthony Hopkins again I would be very happy. Again, I have been very lucky to have worked with some great actors, including James McEvoy, who I met on the first Narnia film. He will always be dear to my heart.

IF Magazine: What's so special about James McEvoy?

HB: He was still working on Shameless when he joined us for Narnia. In fact, we found it really difficult to get hold of him. But after he wrapped on set, he hopped on a plane straight away, flew into LA and arrived with us late at night. As soon as he stepped into the room, he won me over in a heartbeat. At first, when Andrew Adamson showed me a picture of James, I thought he was too good-looking and young to be Mr. Tumnus. I really wasn't sure about him. But James walked in with his back-pack over his shoulder, looking exhausted, strutted straight over to our full mock-up of Aslan, got down on one knee and said: "Aslan – my Lord!" As soon as he did that, I instantly thought: "This IS Mr. Tumnus – there is no question about it." There was something about the way he said it.

We then spent the whole night with James doing life-casts, even though we only had him for eight hours. Afterwards, I wrote a big letter to Disney and Andrew Adamson, saying: "I just want to let you know that James McEvoy IS Mr. Tumnus, and I can't tell you what a stroke of brilliant casting this is."

James went on to win everybody over on set. It was an absolute pleasure working with him – not that I'm always the actor's best friend. But sometimes you develop these really good relationships that are totally unexpected. I'm there to do a specific job. Usually the actor goes about his/her business and I go about mine. However, sometimes a rare actor comes along that you can develop a special relationship with and you make sure you stay in touch. It's great to see when marvellous and very deserving people succeed. He is one of those people who deserves everything he gets. I can't imagine anybody else playing Mr. Tumnus now.

IF Magazine: What was if like working on Oz: The Great and Powerful?

HB: We started out with Sam Raimi back in '86 with on The Evil Dead II, so it was wonderful working with him again. Since that movie, we have worked on a whole bunch of movies with Sam. We feel very lucky to be involved with Oz. I can't say too much but on this movie we worked on many interesting and difficult characters, such as witches and monkeys. I approached it in the same way as I tackled the make-ups on the Narnia films, which involved making a large number of make-ups quickly without losing the quality of the effects.

The Wizard of Oz was one of my all favourite movies when I was a kid, especially being a make-up artist. It's beyond my belief that Sam Raimi invited us to take part.

IF Magazine: Who is your favourite make-up effects artist in history?

HB: I'm very heavily into Rick Baker [An American Werewolf in London], Stan Winston [The Terminator], and Rob Bottin [Total Recall]. I loved Stan and when he passed away it was heartbreaking. I still have a hard time getting over it. I first met Stan when I was 12 years-old. He was always very nurturing towards me and it felt almost like losing my father again when Stan died. I owe so much of my career to him and I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him.

I'm also a huge fan of Rick Baker, who I have been friends with since I was 13 years-old. I still feel nervous now when I see Rick Baker. I get excited and my heart starts pounding because I'm such a giant fan! I have said that before and people think its odd. They say: "But you're Howard Berger!" And I tell them that I'm nothing compared to Rick Baker! He is the king of make-up and I'm still inspired by what he does.

Everytime Rick Baker has a new make-up showcased in a movie, I want to see it. Sadly, this doesn't happen that often these days, which is down to his own choice. But I always want to check out what Rick has done next and find out about the new ideas he brings to the table. It's never disappointing and is always spectacular/inspiring on every level. I also wish Rob Bottin would come back and create make-ups again. In terms of his design sense, I thought Rob was by far one of the most brilliant visionaries ever. The way he saw things was so out of the box and unlike anybody else.

Steve Johnson [A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: Dream Master] was also that way too. He used to come up with designs that made you think: "Where did that come from?"

IF Magazine: How special were the early days, when you started off in the make-up industry?

HB: It was a very magical time. It's a period of my life that will never ever exist again because it was pure and truthful and we were in it only for the art and working on movies. None of us had a dime when we started.

It was all for the love of monsters and we were obsessed. My heart starts pounding very quickly when I start remembering all of the good times. Of course, we are still making history but back then we made a different kind of history – it was the beginning of my generation of make-up artists, during the early-80s. I feel very lucky that I got into to it at that time.

That was the best time to be a make-up effects guy. We wore shirts with rock bands on them and cut sleeves, sported long hair and we worked 24/7 for $200 a week. We used to work until 3am, go out to have cheap burgers and then go back to work – it was non-stop. There was nothing that would get in our way. Sadly, I don' think that kind of spirit exists anymore for some people in the industry. I loved it and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I'll always have those memories, and maybe someday I'll write a book about it.