In the FX Network’s limited series Fosse/Verdon, across the show’s eight episodes, we see the contentious but also tender personal and working relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and actress/dancer Gwen Verdon, both of whom triumphed on Broadway and in Hollywood films.
Portraying Bob Fosse was Sam Rockwell, and Michelle Williams played Gwen Verdon—both actors are Emmy-nominated for their leading roles in Fosse/Verdon.
Among the foremost challenges for Emmy-nominated makeup designer Debbie Zoller was the constant time shift within episodes, chronicling Fosse and Verdon’s careers from the 1950s to the 1980s. “Nothing was in any particular order,” she said.
Over 140 shooting days, the series, which was photographed two episodes at a time, featured a variety of looks for not only the titular main characters, but also a bevy of supporting characters. “The layers that were involved in this kept getting bigger and bigger,” Zoller explained. “To have to make the main characters and age them five decades, plus the supporting players, plus musical numbers—I had a great team and six weeks of prep. I did a tremendous amount of research. Each person came in for fittings and makeup tests. Every dancer, every background artist, you name it. Between me, hair department head Christopher Fulton, and the costume department, we established how it was going to go. We were all cohesive.”
Crucial to Zoller’s research was her absorption of every movie Fosse directed and photos from his stage musicals. Additionally, Nicole Fosse, the only biological child of both Fosse and Verdon, gave the production access to Verdon-Fosse Legacy, with behind-the-scenes footage and photos. “She would come in and give her opinions,” Zoller said of Nicole Fosse. “She was incredibly helpful and respectful; she understood the process we were working under. She showed us beautiful personal photos that no one else has seen. She would come on set, and I would look at her, and I knew that I nailed it.”
At the outset, only lasting for the first two episodes, Zoller attempted to determine how to configure star Sam Rockwell’s beard, as Bob Fosse had a very specifically-styled beard. Key makeup artist David Presto worked with Zoller on Rockwell’s looks for the duration of the show. Aiding the process was Rockwell’s volunteering to shave his head, important for his older scenes when Fosse began balding. “He had to be clean-shaven when he was younger,” Zoller noted. “He was growing his own beard back in after Christmas. I had to put a fake beard in with his real beard; I had to Telesis down his real beard, and glue the fake beard on top. For at least three weeks, I was putting his fake beard on top of the real one.”
With scenes shot as early in the story as 1955, jumping to the mid-1960s, throughout the 1970s, and into the mid-1980s, Zoller knew that the project mandated that she develop precise looks for her cast. “I had pictures all over the trailer of Bob and Gwen and the Neil Simon character, and Norbert [Leo Butz]’s character, Paddy Chayefsky, and it had dates on them,” she said. “I knew if we were moving to another date. It was a huge challenge, but I didn’t shy away from it at all. I felt like my entire career was prepping for this project. We had to tell the story through makeup.”
Due to the characters’ aging beyond their actual age, prosthetics were required for the project. Since the series was based in New York City, Saturday Night Live’s makeup department head, Louie Zakarian, took lifecasts of Rockwell and Williams which were sent to Vincent Van Dyke in Los Angeles who made the prosthetics. However, Zoller incorporated a unique system of creating the appliances for the show: Van Dyke sent the molds back to New York where Zoller made the appliances in her hotel room with fans and air-conditioning needed to dry the appliances in September and heat lamps used in the winter months. “I turned my hotel room in New York into a factory,” Zoller quipped.
Naturally, as the characters aged in the select scenes utilized by production, more prosthetic appliances were required for the actors. “Michelle had three different neck waddles as she aged,” said Zoller, adding that she used silicon-encapsulated neck appliances—Pros-Aide Transfers were added onto Williams’ face as well. “Gwen had an overbite, and Michelle, watching these videos, needed dentures— Art Sakamoto made teeth for Michelle. Jackie Risotto did Michelle’s makeup.”
In Rockwell’s oldest stage, he was wearing a prosthetic forehead, upper and lower eyebags, and nasal-labial cheek pieces which puffed out his cheeks. Rockwell also wore dental plumpers to broaden his cheeks and jawline. For Fosse’s death scene in 1987, production chose to shoot that moment the last night of the entire series. “It was intense,” Zoller related. “Sam said, ‘Debbie, we just made three or four movies in eight months.’ He was the bigger trooper, and I am his biggest cheerleader.”