The job of the special effects makeup artist is to make characters as gruesome and grotesque as possible, and Oscar-winner Howard Berger (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe) is a master at making such monsters and other otherworldly creatures for film and television.
Berger’s 200+ credits date back to 1984 and include installments in the Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises as well as the acclaimed Masters of Horror television series. Some of his creepiest creations lie among the Walkers in the “Days Gone By” episode of The Walking Dead, which earned him and his K.N.B. EFX Group partner Greg Nicotero an Emmy for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie, or a Special back in 2011.
Born in Los Angeles, Berger discovered the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland at the age of eight and subsequently grew up obsessed with monster movies. Straight out of high school, he began his career at Stan Winston Studios (Aliens,Predator), and then joined the legendary Rick Baker on the Oscar-winning film Harry and the Hendersons. Over the past few decades, Berger has added Prosthetic Designer (Hitchcock) and Makeup Department Head to his impressive resume, but he returned to the world of SFX makeup for Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire., the AMC+ streaming series based on the author’s 1976 debut novel.
Below the Line spoke to Howard Berger via Zoom from his K.N.B. EFX workshop, where he was surrounded by fake skulls and monster models. He shared his special effects makeup secrets from the show’s seven-episode first season, and described how, with the creative input and approval of series creator Rolin Jones, he transformed the beautiful characters Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson), Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid), and Claudia (Bailey Bass) into fang-baring, blood-soaked demons of the night while doing his best to remain faithful to Rice’s descriptions in her book.
Berger also talked about what sets his vampire creations apart from others, and his collaboration with co-department head Tami Lane. The duo developed individual lenses for each character that changed with their moods, as well as fangs for resting and eating, not to mention specially designed vampire-manicured nails. He also reveals the art of the bite mark and everything you’d ever want to know about blood, including the drinkable variety.
Below the Line: There’s so much to talk about, but first, how did you come to this project?
Howard Berger: I’ve worked with [Producer] Mark Johnson at Gran Via for many, many years. The first thing we ever did was the first Chronicles of Narnia movie. Mark and I became very good friends and have a great working relationship. We worked on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire; everything Mark does, somehow, I always get a phone call, which is really, really wonderful. He’s one of those rare producers who actually wants to keep relationships and reward people for the good work they do. So I always appreciate a call from Mark, who said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do Interview with the Vampire.’ And I went, ‘you’re gonna do the books, right?’ And he went, ‘yes.’ And I went, ‘that sounds great,’ and I was very excited. I ended up meeting up with [Creator] Rolin Jones, who’s our Showrunner.
BTL: How did you know it was a professional match between the two of you?
Berger: Rolin and I both grew up in the San Fernando Valley, so we are both original “8-1-8ers,” the original area code of Los Angeles. So we had a lot in common and, and talked a lot about what he saw and how he wanted to approach things, and I really, really liked it. I’m a fan of the books and I also enjoy the film, but the film is a very, very compressed version of the books that Anne Rice had written. So I was very happy to hear that it was going to be an adaptation, of sorts, of the source material, but Rolin was gonna have a twist to it and make it his, and make it unique, and he certainly did that. As I started reading all the scripts, [they] just got better and better and better.
BTL: Where were some of your earlier inspirations for the vampires?
Berger: So, in thinking about vampires, the makeups that are on Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt [in the film], they’re pale and veiny and [they] always have fangs. And I was talking to Rolin and we were trying to find something new and I sent him basically a bunch of photographs and reference of other vampires we’ve done here at K.N.B. Effects, myself and Greg Nicotero, and just vampires through the ages. But I didn’t wanna do the same thing. I didn’t wanna have them pale and veiny or [with] the Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Lost Boys‘ brow. And I kept thinking, ‘well, they have to integrate into society and be attractive.’ People have to be attracted to them, and that’s what sells their personalities, and then they’re able to just prey upon humans. So I thought, ‘let’s make everybody else look terrible, and let’s make Louie and Lestat and Claudia amazing looking like they’re the most beautiful people in the universe,’ [and] Roland went for that idea.
BTL: How did you go about creating this beauty?
Berger: My co-department head on the show was Tami Lane and I’ve been working with her for almost 30 years. I ended up doing Lestat, Tami did Louis and then we hired another great makeup artist, Paige Reeves in New Orleans who handled Claudia. So each main cast had their own makeup artist, cuz I thought that was important just so that we could focus on them entirely. Once we had them cast, once Sam Reid was cast as Lestat, Jacob Anderson was cast as Louie, and Bailey Bass was cast as Claudia, we started designing. Now, the hard part was, this was all during the pandemic, so Jacob was in London, Sam [was] in Australia, and Bailey [was] in New York. So I [was] prepping the show via Zoom. We were making things and sending them — especially [to] Sam, who was in lockdown — and we would do Zooms and have our fittings on Zoom. For Sam, I’d send him, like, four sets of dentures, [and] see which he liked. Rolin, myself, and Sam would get on Zoom, [and] Sam would try them on and do a scene and see what worked and didn’t work, and we augmented. It was, like, one of the most difficult, disconnected pre-production periods I’ve ever had because of the pandemic.
BTL: Let’s start from the head down — how did you create the look of their eyes?
Berger: One thing Rolin wanted was to go back to the source material regarding the color of their eyes because Anne Rice says what their eyes look like. At first, I was designing other things and I wanted all the vampires to have individual eyes. I didn’t want them all to be yellow eyes or red eyes. So we went back to the source material and did designs on the actors via Photoshop that were more accurate to what she had written.
Once that was approved by Rolin, I had this idea to show their emotions, be it hunger or passion — or just ravenous killers. Their eyes would change — not the color, but the sizes, so their pupils dilate and their pupils constrict. Also in the hunger phase, we had lenses for Sam that were also super bloodshot. He’s just drinking the blood and his eyes are filling up. So I really wanted to play with that. With the help of Ted Rae, who was our VFX Supervisor, we were able to design everything so we could actually see the eyes dilate or constrict, and that just made it more animalistic, because animals obviously do that.
BTL: What inspired the design of the fangs?
Berger: With Bailey, who plays Claudia, she just turned in such a great character. She’s just such a monster, such a shark. It’s all about eating and satisfaction. So we did that with fangs. We had different size fangs and we tried a bunch of different looks, like, maybe the canines next to it were fanged, or maybe they were bigger or smaller. We ended up doing pretty average-size fangs. We had three different sizes. I would call it, like, the rest size, which was like their normal size. And then there was, like, their attack, which were bigger teeth. We also didn’t want them to be fanged the entire time. It’s only when they’re about to kill. [I’m] thinking [about] Louie, who needs to go home and have dinner with his family, and if he had fangs and looked like a monster, that would be a pretty bizarre giveaway. Rolin agreed that we didn’t always have to have them fanged, only for specific emotions and activities.
BTL: Over the years, vampire fangs in movies and television have become less exaggerated. Did that come into play?
Berger: Yeah. We probably made, I’m gonna say, 50 different sets of fangs for each character, and we ended up using, like, two out of the 50. But we had some big giant fangs for Sam at first, and he loved them, but then it became a speech issue and it just became cumbersome and it didn’t make sense. We were living in this universe that Rolin and Anne Rice had created and we didn’t wanna break rules — like all of a sudden, their teeth are gigantic. We really wanted to make it feel natural and organic and [that] what was happening with them was organic.
BTL: What about the art of the bite mark?
Berger: Oh yeah, the bite mark! I did a lot of tests, actually, I did ’em all on Tami. I was looking at photos. I have, like, every single test I did; [a] bite on the neck, [a] giant bite on her wrists, on her arms. I think I spent a day just putting bites all over Tami and then letting Rolin decide, ‘Oh, I kind of like that, and this might be cool. This is the passionate love bite, and then this is the kill bite.’
BTL: Another big area of your vampire design is the nails. Can you discuss designing those?
Berger: It’s interesting… when we started doing the show, people literally thought, “Oh, it’s just eyes and teeth.” And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no. It’s way bigger than eyes and teeth.’ There’s so much. The biggest thing was — and it seems [like] something simple — nails, ’cause the nails are very specific in her book. And also, you know, there’s a lot going on with the nails. The nails are the biggest pain in the rear end you could ever do. Those poor guys, you know — Jacob, Sam, and Bailey; chasing them, putting them on. Oh god, they were such a pain in the ass! Because they don’t stay [on]! You have these nails, and originally we tested all different size nails, and some were [too] big. And then I’m like, ‘this is not gonna work. They’re gonna knock them off. They won’t be able to pick things up.’ So they’re very, very subtle. And then Tami had the idea of, like, ‘why don’t we just go and have their nails manicured with acrylic nails?’ And I’m like, ‘sounds great.’ At first, the guys were like, ‘hmmm… I don’t know if we wanna do it,’ and then towards the end, Sam was like, ‘I need another nail appointment, I need another nail appointment.’
BTL: That’s hysterical, a vampire manicure. Did they go to a salon to get them done?
Berger: So, the first couple weeks we decided to do acrylics, we had somebody come to the trailer and do the nails. That became cost prohibitive. It was very expensive. So Tami found a place that was Covid safe. They would have to go there while nobody was there and they would go before the place opened. We paid a nail salon to just do them and no one was over there because we were doing something for the show. Plus, we were concerned about the Covid situation in New Orleans. So I’m like, ‘we don’t want anybody near the actors ever.‘ So every week we would send the actors in to get their nails done because we had a very specific design.
BTL: What about the everyday makeup that you had to apply to the cast?
Berger: The makeups we did — Tami and myself, and Paige — they’re just really clean, beautiful makeups. I mean, we are lucky that our three actors are gorgeous people. Sam is just amazingly attractive. Jacob, we all fell in love with. He’s such a great guy. And Bailey’s beautiful. One thing I wanted to do on the guys was keep a little bit of their stubble. I didn’t wanna shave them clean. I had to discuss that with Rolin, ’cause [at] first, he was like, ‘Well, I think they should be clean-shaven.’ And I said, ‘No, they weren’t clean-shaven when they were taken.’
So I wanted to keep that. It’s not like it all goes away. Plus, you know, with Jacob’s skin, I didn’t want to get into any irritation, and same with Sam, we won’t have any skin problems. They work every single day, so if we don’t shave them, we’ll take it down. The progression of having Jacob when he’s Human Louie… Tami really dressed him down and even increased his stubble. And then he becomes Vampire Louie, [so] we took all the color out [but] the texture’s still there. It gives him a bit of an edge and helps cut their jawlines.
BTL: The next thing I want to talk about is the actual drinking of the blood. How did you decide what would be in this concoction that they could stomach?
Berger: That was a big trick. There are different bloods in this show. We have human blood and then we had vampire blood, and it actually is a little bit darker and has, like, a pearlescence to it. When they’re drinking the stuff, like in the Dubai sequence, Props had [created] an edible blood that wouldn’t affect them. If they had actually drank the blood we made, it’d be like drinking maple syrup. It would be horrible. We were really careful in the way we designed it because we wanted the blood to stand out and be different.
We [also] have dressing blood. That’s [the] blood that just goes on clothing or on the floor. That, you don’t ingest, and we could use pearlescent powders. We did a lot of different blood tests [of] blood spraying out. For the edible blood, we ended up finding metallic cake frosting powder that was edible, so we mixed that in. It’s all these crazy things and you mix that in and then they were able to have that in their mouth and not be sick. [For] any of the big drinking stuff, we faked it, or [else] they would have stomach problems the whole show. They’re such good actors that they look like they’re drinking blood, but they’re not!
BTL: How did you design the scene with Jacob after the fire and it looks like he’s doused in milk?
Berger: That was something Rolin came up with and we kept trying to figure out, like, “how is a vampire gonna burn?” Rolin used a word that made all the sense to me. He said “carbonization.” I wanted it to feel like when wood burns when you have a campfire and that wood gets really hot and gray and cracks and all that, and very ashy. That’s what we wanted the vampires to do. So it wasn’t, like, gory. It wasn’t like you see exposed flesh or anything like that. It literally carbonizes their flesh, and then Ted Rae adds in the ash flying. That’s another great example of our thoughts [lining up] with Rolin’s thoughts and VFX’s thoughts. Tami and I did the test makeup on Jacob. Tami handled all the prosthetic work on Jacob and then, obviously, that rolls into Bailey when she puts her hand in [the light].
BTL: It sure sounds like these actors had to go through a lot!
Berger: We had the best actors. Sam and, Jacob are just the salt of the earth and so lovely and wonderful and such great super talents. I always say that we bring like “X” amount of percent to a character. We all build the character together and we’re there to give them tools. So we can create something really great, but then if we don’t have the performance, it’s kind of a fail. We were lucky because we were able to bring something great and hand it off to Sam and Bailey and Jacob, and then they just made it even more spectacular and knew how to utilize everything we gave them.
BTL: Let’s go back to your beginnings with K.N.B. Effects and your partner Greg Nicotero. Is it true that you were roommates?
Berger: Greg and I have been friends for 40 years. We first met [when] we were working on a movie called Day of the Dead. I was 18 years old and he was 19, and it was my very first location job. I got hired to go work in Pittsburgh, and Greg was the first person I met off the plane, and right away, we knew we were gonna be best friends for life. When we finished that movie, I said, ‘you should move to Los Angeles.’ He was a medical student and he took a semester off to work on a movie ’cause he was like, ‘I just wanna work on one and I’ll go back to med school.’
Well, he never went back to med school, but he became a master doctor in monster-making. We all got a house together, myself and Greg and two other makeup effects guys [who] we were working with. So we had four people living in this one really not-so-great house. In February of 1988, we started K.N.B. Effects Group, and so it’s been about 35 years. Greg and I are thick as thieves. Through the years we’ve been able to diversify. Greg obviously handles the world of The Walking Dead, and that’s all his baby. All [of] The Walking Dead is Greg, 1000 percent.
BTL: Speaking of zombies, there will probably be lots for Halloween. Do you ever see your creations trick or treating?
Berger: Yeah, all the time and it’s really, really cool. It’ll be fun to see if there are any Louis or Lestats or Claudias [this year]. That would be really, really cool. The combination of meeting people who are so in love with what you’ve contributed to in film and TV is a wonderful thing. I’ve seen a lot of people tattoo themselves with things we’ve created, which is pretty cool. It could be Freddy Krueger or Chucky, or a Predator that we designed, or some weird obscure creature that we designed and they’ll have it tattooed all over their arms or on their legs. Just crazy stuff, or something from Evil Dead 2, or Army of Darkness, and really hardcore horror stuff. It’s really neat to know that there are people out there [who] love this so much [and are] so fascinated with it. It just keeps it all alive and keeps the genre alive.
BTL: What are some of your favorite memories that come back to you when you watch Interview With the Vampire?
Berger: To do this in New Orleans was cool, and shooting in the locations that are in the book. Lestat’s apartment is Lestat’s apartment. Being in New Orleans is a world itself, and it really brought everything together. Unfortunately, we never got to meet Anne Rice. It was, like, the second week of shooting and we were shooting next door to her house. We were like, ‘Anne Rice lives there. Let’s go knock on the door!’ And then the next morning, she passed, so we never got a chance. When we got there, Sam’s like, ‘I’m gonna go see if I can find first editions.’ So he looked and found a few in New Orleans, and then the day after Anne Rice passed away, they were just flying off the shelves.
BTL: Given the success of this series, does it feel like horror is bigger than ever?
Berger: It’s a wonderful genre and it’s spiking again. At times, Hollywood will say “horror is dead.” Horror never ever dies. It is always growing and growing and growing, and this [past] season, the top films have been horror movies, with the exception of Top Gun. And now, with Interview with the Vampire being so popular, on its heels is Mayfair Witches, which is gonna be great too. We finished that. We were still shooting Interview when Mayfair started, so it just kind of segued over.
Mayfair‘s gonna be amazing. Mark Johnson and Rolin and Alan Taylor, who was our director of Episodes 1 and 2, just really made it all wonderful and brought [that] world to life. I’m very proud of the way our vampires look. I think they’re lovely. I’m very proud of the last episode. When I watched the last episode, I was sad because I didn’t want it to end. I was like, ‘this is so good. Can we please start Season 2 now?!?’
Season 1 of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire is now streaming on AMC+. The series has been renewed for Season 2.