One of Hollywood’s most prolific and sought-after makeup artists, Donald Mowat, is on the short-list for the Academy Awards this year for his work on John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things. Mowat has decades of industry experience, with credits to his name including Blade Runner 2049, Stronger, Sicario, Nightcrawler, The Fighter, and another film about a misunderstood suspect in a horrible crime, Prisoners.
In The Little Things, Mowat was tasked primarily with creating a lot of dead bodies—or making actors look dead, as the case may be—but, most importantly, with making one of the film’s leads, Jared Leto, look believably creepy and even insane.
Leto has been down this road before. After all, two of his makeup heavy films, Suicide Squad and Dallas Buyers Club, took home the Oscar in the category. But The Little Things is a less “showy” movie in that sense, with the idea being that Leto’s character, the prime suspect in a series of homicides, could be an everyday guy you see in your life, and not a comic book villain.
Last week, Below the Line spoke to Mowat about his work with the award-winning star and on this recent film.
Below the Line: Tell us how you started thinking about creating the characters for The Little Things?
Donald Mowat: I want to say one thing—we love your website. A lot us below the line people in film feel like we don’t always get coverage and we really appreciate it.
But to answer your question, it was pretty quick. An old friend of mine, Mike Drake, a producer, called me to send me this script for a movie that is set in L.A. He said you may find it interesting as it has Rami Malek and Jared Leto, and I said “I’m in.”
Then I got home and read the script and the shoot time, and I was like, “What?!” The lead time was incredibly short, and look, this movie is not a busy movie — it is not a costumes movie, it’s a makeup movie! And that’s fine, sometimes it’s one department supporting another, but this was going to be about makeup and forensics, not even that much hair. So I said, “Wow I have to move very quickly.”
I prepared them, and Mike and I met John Lee Hancock and showed them some ideas and they liked them immediately. I guess when you have worked around here, enough people give you leeway—it was fantastic because I had a good starting point so I went up to meet Jared.
BTL: How did you and Jared collaborate on creating the character?
Mowat: I think one of the reasons they hired me was cause of Jared—he is very specific in his approach, and we have worked well together. I love him and I really get him. We both get on very well together.
We spoke, and he showed me a whole sequence of pictures he put on the wall for inspiration, but most of them were over the top to me, and I said “I see it a bit more kept in reality.” But he always wanted a nose. My biggest obstacle was he was just coming off Morbius — he couldn’t shave his beard or cut his hair. So I thought about his idea of the nose and he was right—the way to change his appearance was the nose. That was our first thing.
With two weeks lead time, I got a hold of scans and sculpts from Morbius that were in the UK, sent it to a shop I work with in Sweden that I love. We had it sculpted, and a rush job to get it sent back here. Got it, went to his house and tried it on him. I thought of doing these little acne transfers right here [signaling to prosthetic nose used for filming]. Contact lenses, he thought I was making a mistake, I did not think so. Teeth. I said, “Jared, the nose may not work but the others will.”
We put all three elements together, thinking we would take one away, but we didn’t. Jared became very quickly into the character.
BTL: Did you try more than one nose? And what else did you end up with?
Mowat: Yes, we did. These are made out of gel-filled silicone, and some of them were quite large. We made one through six, but because of the time factor and the sculpting being done, we did not make time to do a makeup test with the noses. We did a test in his trailer the night before filming for the director to okay. But with Jared I felt comfortable telling him the truth, and he tried to add the wig, and I said, “Jared it’s no Bueno.” You’re still a normal guy who works in society.
He loved the noses, the acne. The teeth he resisted but we convinced him.
So finally nose number one was too small, nose number three was too large. The very first time you see him in the film in the repaid shop, he is in a nose he did not like. But that night a shipment that had been delayed turned up and that was the nose he uses the rest of the film. It was just in time, but I would not want to repeat that. To be honest it was stressful, and we never used to work like that! We used to have months to prep. Now between availability and where people live and are shooting, it’s harder. The fact that it turned up and he loved it and I did, and we were all so happy — that was luck!
BTL: What did you want the audience to take away from this complicated, mysterious character from how you made him look?
Mowat: The crazier he looked, the guiltier he looked, so I did not want that. I wanted it to be more subtle and more confusing. In most films, there’s a character that someone pins as the bad guy because of their appearance. The more regular you make him look—we had grips and electrics on set that looked like him—the more people will be confused about it. And that was the point. The teeth helped him change his voice, it pushed his lips a bit, and that gave him a good mystery to him, too. The idea was definitely have it be the guy who doesn’t look different.
BTL: How much lead time did you have and did you encounter any difficulties there?
Mowat: It really happened very quickly. It was white knuckle time for me going to work any day saying, “I have eleven more days, ten more days.” A package didn’t arrive from FedEx. The first set of teeth broke—they’re quite malleable. One of the noses didn’t turn up. There was a lot of drama there, and it bled into the dead girls and how much blood there was, and working with the autopsy teams. It became very epic for our team because we did not have more than a couple of weeks.
BTL: How did you create the dead girl looks? You had some experience with a lot of those in Sicario, but how did it come together here?
Mowat: In Sicario, a lot of them were dummies that we could not even lift, so we had to put the mud and the blood and tattoos on them. On this one, what was interesting was that we had to work close with Howard Berger from effects house KNB EFX. We had to have, for inserts, torsos for the some of them because of the shrapnel. For example, the Mary Roberts character, the blonde woman, we had to get dummies for some of the shots, but we did full body makeup, airbrush on the girl. The dummy was for the shrapnel. Everything else was the real actress.
We were also very aware of sensitive subject matter. So we had female makeup artists for whenever the girls were with nudity so that they’re always comfortable. I’ve seen it on sets where the girls are not always 100% comfortable.
So we did the wounds and airbrushing on the actresses. We wanted some artfulness to it—it was interesting to make the pretty and beautiful in its stillness, even if they were pale and dead. We had the grizzly floater body. I said to John Lee, “Let’s try a makeup test on the real actress,” and we did and she was into it. So you have both the dummy and real actor. It is better when Rami unzips the body, it is just much more horrific when it is a real person.
BTL: What makeup did you have on Rami and Denzel?
Mowat: Pretty basic. We made Rami more clean cut than he’s been looking, a tighter haircut by Michael & Michael. He wanted to just look cleaner than Denzel, who was going to look a bit shabby. We only had one makeup change in the end, when he’s been up all night and bleary. He’s a little more oily and shiny, so we brought that in to make him more sinister. Denzel had a body/belly on him but that was done by his makeup team.
BTL: Two of Jared’s movies have won the Oscar for makeup, and now you’re on the shortlist. How do you feel about all that?
Mowat: I’m delighted. I thought this film could get overlooked, because the work we do is based in reality. I don’t do monsters and goblins. I don’t work in that field, but what I do is based in reality and is part of the narrative, and that can get overlooked if you don’t have enough showy elements. Let me tell you, this was difficult to do. We didn’t have CGI and all sorts of props—that is his face.
So I am honored and delighted that this kind of work can make it to the shortlist. I’ve always been a bridesmaid in this area, and I love my work, so it definitely is nice. An Oscar does not validate you, but it is nice to have your peers recognize you. I love this work, and I’ve done it for years so it’s icing on the experience.
BTL: After this amazing job in The Little Things, you’ve been working on Dune. What can we look forward to with that one?
Mowat: You should be extremely excited. We’ve all had this pretty awful year. We are lucky to be working, and it’s also dangerous. A movie like Dune can make people excited again, I would love for it to be safe to see it on the big screen. It’s incredible. The cast, the crew. I am so so excited about it. I hope I can talk to you again about it!
The Little Things is now available in select theaters.
All photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Photographer: Nicola Goode