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Emmy Nominees : Prosthetic Makeup Artists Sean Samson, Mike Hill on Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities 

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Lize Johnston as the Witch in “Dreams in the Witch House” episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

The Netflix anthology series, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, offers eight separate stories surrounding horror and the supernatural with eight different directors, including Catherine Hardwicke, Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Panos Cosmatos (Mandy), and more, all leaning heavily into the horror aspects of stories, some from del Toro and others from H.P. Lovecraft.

Hardwicke’s episode, “Dreams In the Witch House,” has been nominated for an Emmy for its prosthetic makeup, the work of Makeup Artists, Sean Samson and Mike Hill, who previously did work on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and The Strain, produced by del Toro, as well as on Nightmare Alley, despite that being less of a horror movie than del Toro’s previous work.

“Dreams in the White House” stars Rupert Grint as a man who lost his twin sister when they both were children, and he’s exploring all different means of trying to find her and bring her back, including taking a mysterious drug. Instead, he ends up encountering all sorts of supernatural creatures including a witch named Keziah Mason (Lize Johnston) and a rat, played by DJ Qualls

Below the Line spoke with Samson and Hill about their work on Cabinet of Curiosities, also making reference to the Emmy-nominated work by Production Designer Tamara Deverell

Sean Samson (L), Mike Hill at Netflix event for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL: Do you two usually work together a lot, or are you working on separate things, except when there are cases like this where you’re working on things together?

Mike Hill: Sean and I usually blend together when we’re doing stuff for Guillermo and [Producer] Miles Dale in Canada. We normally join forces then, because otherwise he’s not here, and I’m not there, so it’s usually not the case, but anything to do with that producing team of Guillermo and Miles, we usually get brought in. 

BTL: What were you told about this project, specifically, being that there will be different directors, and Mike, you only worked on half the episodes?

Hill: I consulted on every episode, and I built the creatures for four episodes.

BTL: Sean, you worked on every episode?

Samson: What happened was Mike and I were on Nightmare Alley, and that’s when we actually heard about the show, ages before. I think it was even brought up during Scary Stories. The scripts started to come in during Nightmare Alley. We wrapped, I want to say, at the end of 2020 on Nightmare Alley, and then early 2021 was when we started to get the scripts for the various episodes.

Mike and I were talking about basically how everything would be done for all of them from the very beginning, and then, just because of the workload, Mike handled the more prosthetic characters. “The Autopsy” was just a bunch of silicone bodies with one makeup, but Mike was prepping two other episodes during that time, while that one was filming. The one that immediately followed while we were filming was “Lot 36,” and then, after that, was “Pittman’s Model.” Just the way that the show’s overlapped.

Samson: With the rat creature, that was very involved, that was a full-body puppet slash creature suit, which Spectral Motion made. Mike built the corpse for that episode, as well, but there’s a lot of overlap. We’re pretty much some four or five months before we started shooting right up until we wrapped, so almost an entire year.

Lize Johnston (R) on set of “Dreams in the Witch House” (photo by Ken Woroner, courtesy Netflix)

BTL: How many scripts were done when you first came on board? Just one or two, and then you got more as you started prepping? 

Hill: No, they were kind of staggered, at least, I received them staggered. 

Samson: I think there were only four or five that were locked in, as far as scripts went, and then there were some outlines, which was just a brief description of how the episode would go. And then there were a few episodes that we read, or some drafts for episodes, and then they never ended up using them.

Hill: Maybe next time we’ll use them.

BTL: Would you say that you were working closer together on movies, but for this series, you were working on different things?

Hill: What was going on was Sean was running the application site on set, whilst myself and other shops were building all the product here to ship to Canada, to then apply on set along with Sean. Obviously, he couldn’t do both, and I couldn’t do both, so we had to break it up that way. Sean’s in Toronto and Sean was obviously on set the whole time, taking care of the day to day stuff, while we were busy building stuff back in L.A.

BTL: By the way, can I ask about the other three make-up people who have been nominated — Shane Zander, Kyle Glencross, and Megan Many?

Hill: Megan is supervisor at my shop, so she helped build all the creatures, very pivotal in doing that. She also played the Witch in “Pickman’s Model.” She played the scarred witch and the unscarred witch in that particular episode. 

Samson: And Kyle and Shane are two local artists that we like to work with. I’ve known them for 20-plus years, but we all worked together on Nightmare Alley, and it just seemed fitting that we had the same crew together again, because we’d only just worked with each other six months before. 

BTL: Let’s talk about “Dreams in the Witch House,” since that’s the episode you were nominated for. Catherine Hardwick directed it. Obviously, a big part of that is the actual witch and the rat creature. When you got the script for that episode, what was the first step as far as the two creature characters?

Hill: The witch, Guillermo uses an artist named Guy Davis, who does a lot of concept stuff for Guillermo, an extremely talented artist, and Guillermo worked together on how they thought the witch character should look. They did provide us with a concept that then we have to adapt and make it practical as a makeup. Sometimes, what you can put on paper can be extremely difficult to achieve, especially on a schedule. We have to condense and turn that concept into a fully-fleshed design that can work practically on a human face. That’s what happened with the Witch, and then we brought the actors in, we molded the head, I sculpted all her makeup from foam latex.

We pre-painted the pieces. We made the big crown on her head, to give her a regal demeanor. That was the Witch. On the rat, I designed the makeup on the rat creature, on DJ Qualls, which ended up as mostly visual effect, but it was certainly a practical makeup we took to stage and Sean and I applied on the actor. Guillermo shot some of that stuff, too, which was nice to have him on stage as well as Katherine. 

BTL: The actors came to your shop in L.A. to be sculpted for the pieces first?

Hill: Sometimes if we’re doing creatures, Guillermo will allow us to choose creature performers we think will work for the character. They’re usually local to me, and Sean’s got ones local to him. Obviously, the ones that are closest to me, I’m going to choose, so they can get to the shop whenever I need them, sometimes on a day’s notice, to come and try all these particular things.

For the Witch, we had to do dentures and stuff like that. It’s a lot of tests, you know, coming back into making sure these things look good and fit, etc. It’s always much more helpful for the locals, so we don’t have to keep flying them in every time I need a test.

BTL: I’m not sure when production on the show began in earnest, but with COVID going on, I’m sure you don’t want to have people flying back and forth between Canada and California either, and with the actors especially.

Hill: No, exactly, and we had to wear the masks and we had to wear the visors and all that, and it was frustrating, but hey, we all got to do our thing. We became accustomed to having to work through the COVID and what steps to take. Just keep your actors safe and make them feel good and make sure the environment is clean and safe, and everyone’s tested it, and it was fine. It was just more hindrances for us putting the makeup on, certainly on stage when you’ve got a mask and a visor, and it’s all steaming up with your reading glasses as well. It became a bit frustrating but hey, we got through it and we’re proud of what we did.

BTL: Sean, what are you doing while Mike’s doing all this make-up construction and testing on L.A.? Are you working on another episode?

Samson: The episodes were shot back to back, and there was no real time off in between. Some episodes had overlaps of second unit, so when we wrapped one episode, during the first week of shooting of the next episode, they would be doing pickup shots and second unit from the previous episode. All during this time, there were Zoom meetings for the next episode that was coming up after that.

It was always this kind of snowball effect, where I was either doing all the administrative stuff, Mike was prepping two episodes ahead. We had to look at the schedules, make sure everything was going to work with, like Mike said, having the actors available to them, because sometimes, like Lize, the character that played the Wood Witch and the Lotion Lady, and she was also in Lot 36, if Mike needed to see her, but she was up here filming something else, it would bottleneck. Luckily, two of the episodes that she was in shot back-to-back, so once she was up here, she was up here, and there was no back and forth.

Hill: To answer your question in the broader scope is, no, we didn’t have a day off, Sean and I. I was working, he was working, we’re just in two different countries, that was all, but we literally didn’t stop for nine months.

A rat from “Graveyard Rats” episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL: Besides doing everything back-to-back, you also had eight different directors, many with their own DPs. They shared a lot of the crew between them, but how did that work in terms of having to do pick-ups with one director while shooting another episode with a different director?

Hill: You just nailed it exactly right. Like Sean said earlier, it’s just a constant overlap. I gotta say, when you mention directors, every director was really cool on this. We had no issues or disagreements with any director. Everything went so smooth. It was really nice relationships with these directors, and they were all really cool people to deal with. I’d work with them again in a heartbeat.

Samson: They really understood the craft. They weren’t expecting something that was impossible to do. We would discuss ahead of time… that’s why we had all these meetings beforehand. There would be this overlap with us and VFX, the props department or the costume department, and they would know what we could do and how long it took to do it. And then, also the communication between the AD teams, because along with the directors changing, we had a rotating AD team. So they would do all the odd episodes and another team would do the even episodes. They would have to communicate with one another as well saying, “Okay, we need prosthetics to be on our set to do these pickup shots, so you guys have to shoot something else that doesn’t have stuff in it at the same time,” so that we’re not needed on two different sets.

BTL: Let’s get into the nitty-gritty on the make-up jobs for “Dreams in the Witch House.” Let’s start with the Witch. You said that you had Lize in L.A. for sculpting, so once that show is on set and Sean and his team are applying, how much time is it taking, and how much concessions do you have to make for VFX that might have to be added later?

Samson: Mike was there, too, for the applications of all these makeups. Mike would prep it, do the build in L.A., do a test usually, to get approvals on it, and then he would come up with the pieces. What would end up happening was – because we weren’t there for the build of it – Mike would show us how the piece would go on, how it was colored. We would always do a test up here as well usually, either it was for pre-lighting or whatever, and like with the Wood Witch, we had to coordinate with Luis [Sequeira] for costumes. That was very involved from the beginning, too, because we had to coordinate times when she sat in our chair, how much time he needed with her before she could go to set and then when she went to the set, we still had to do work with her – put the bonnet on, put the teeth in, the eyes had to go in – she wore contact lenses. Mike would be able to tell you more about the actual application or the amount of pieces.

Hill: I think there were about seven pieces on her, plus gloves and a chest. The pieces for this particular character, we pre-painted them all, because we know there’s not much time on set and everything is “Go, go, go.” We covered a lot of her face up for that reason, so it made the application quicker. I think we got it down to less than two hours on her. We got it down to a science near the end there.

On the rat creature, although it appears as VFX in the episode, we sculpted and designed that as a makeup. Every hair was punched in, dentures were made, wearing black contact lenses, the actor DJ Qualls. Sean and I applied that in Canada, and we shot it twice. We shot it once, and then we shot it again when Guillermo was in town, some additional stuff they decided they wanted to do with the character.

Yeah, it was VFX, but actually, we came up with that character. DJ Qualls was great, the actor who played that part. He was so into it, and that itself it’s a pleasure for us. We get an actor who’s totally keen on having the makeup on and wants the makeup to work. They want to look like a rat to make the character work. That’s like a million dollars to us. It’s great to have that co-enthusiasm from your actor, for sure, and DJ was that exactly.

DJ Qualls as the Rat in Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (photo by Ken Woroner, courtesy Netflix)

BTL: Was DJ in makeup performing with the actors even though he was full size?

Hill: He wasn’t with the other actors. He was shot on his own, to lock off for VFX. He was on set, we did apply the makeup, and he was directed by Catherine and Guillermo, but he didn’t interact with the actors, of course, because he was a different scale.

BTL: Were there any shots where you see him in the makeup or was it literally just redone with VFX, but assuming his face was still the makeup you applied? 

Hill: It’s hard to tell what was used and what wasn’t once VFX starts. It happens, cause a lot of the time, some creature, even if the creature is full VFX, we would honor the show and create a version of the character and maybe a statue or a makeup for lighting, for the VFX guys to pull from and to scan in. They’re scanning our sculpts and scanning our characters in makeup. They don’t just come up and build the stuff. When we were in Canada, we had DJ dressed as the rat in makeup, and we had to scan him all the way around, every angle, every shot, for VFX to have those files for later.

BTL: Let’s talk about working with Catherine Hardwicke. She hasn’t done much horror, but she’s done movies that involve prosthetic makeup, so what kind of direction was she giving you guys, and was she getting involved with that aspect as well?

Hill: Catherine was involved in all aspects, as we start to sculpt and create the Witch character, she was involved in all the process. She had to sign off and everything we did, and also Guillermo did too, because he was in charge of the monsters on the show. He let the directors know that he’s the monster man, and that’s the part he’d be most involved in. He’s involved in every aspect, but he’s really keen on being in charge of the monsters, and rightly so, because he’s got an incredible design sense. But to answer your question, Catherine was great. She understood it.

A scene from the “Outside” episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL: Before you go, I do want to ask you about Panos Cosmatos’ episode, “The Viewing,” which was pretty crazy, as one might expect from seeing his other movies. What was it like working with him, especially on the big climactic scene where face are melting, people are exploding, the whole thing?

Samson: His script, funnily enough, it was basically all dialogue. It was like a 30, 35 page script. It was all the dialogue and very little description of how the thing should look, but he did describe the melting faces. They referenced Raiders of the Lost Ark and everything. But that was all done on a separate unit, the effects unit, where we had old school gelatin heads, with heat guns, and slowed-down cameras, and pyrotechnics for the exploding heads. And then the creature itself was Spectral Motion built this old school man in a rubber suit kind of deal. And that was about it. It was pretty straightforward. He wanted to go for the ’80s style horror film.

BTL: That’s kind of his thing. Did you guys watch any of the directors’ other movies, or did you generally already know their work?

Hill: We knew some of them, but I did do my research, when I was going to work with them. From a professional standpoint, to know the person’s work, to at least revise it or look back on it, so whom you’re dealing with, it’s respect to know what they’ve done and how they shoot.

BTL: I’m not sure if they’re planning another season of this, but I hope they do, because it’s such an interesting premise to have an anthology series that focuses on all these genre filmmakers.

Hill: No, exactly. Guillermo is very generous with credit. Everyone gets their fair credit. He’s really fair with that, whether it be makeup effects or the art director. Yes, he named all the directors in each episode, and he’s very generous and respectful to everybody involved. He likes to give you the credit.

BTL: Especially make-up and creature stuff, because I know that’s his true passion.

Hill: Oh, yeah. He lives in that world, he’s from that world.

All eight episodes of Guillermo’s Cabinet of Curiosities can be streamed on Netflix.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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