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X Hair and Makeup Designer Sarah Rubano on Turning Mia Goth Into Pearl and Working With Ti West

April 20, 2022 11:58 | By
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Sarah Rubano (L) working on Mia Goth as Pearl (C) with Kevin Wasner (Image via A24)

If you didn’t see X, the new horror film from writer-director Ti West, in theaters last month then I urge you to check out the movie on digital platforms, where it’s now available. Genre fans and gorehounds will be satisfied and are also likely to be impressed by the characters of Howard and Pearl, an elderly couple who unwittingly allows an adult film to be shot on their rural Texas property. Played by Stephen Ure and Mia Goth — the latter of whom pulls off double duty on X — the couple isn’t too thrilled when they find out the truth about their guests, who suffer deadly consequences.

While Ure is a veteran New Zealand actor in his 60s, Goth is under 30, so a lot more prosthetics and makeup were necessary to turn her into Pearl. As West mentioned when Below the Line spoke to him a few weeks back, part of the reason the film was made in New Zealand was that it allowed Weta Workshop to be involved. Weta is the special effects house co-founded by Richard Taylor, who has been constructing models, armor, prosthetics, and more for Peter Jackson‘s movies going back to 1989’s Meet the Feebles.

To handle the hair and makeup for all the characters in X, including Pearl and Howard, Taylor called upon Sarah Rubano, a well-regarded hair and makeup designer who has been performing those duties on everything from Avatar to the Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile.

Rubano also had a very interesting entry into the world of moviemaking, as she worked with some absolute legends in the prosthetics and makeup fields early in her career, as Below the Line discovered when we recently hopped on Zoom with her.

Please enjoy our chat below:

Sarah Rubano

Sarah Rubano

Below the Line: I was really impressed with your work on X. I didn’t even recognize Mia Goth as Pearl, and I only learned that she was playing that role from speaking with Ti.

Sarah Rubano: That’s perfect. That’s exactly what we’re going for. It wasn’t ever advertised as that, and Ti wasn’t gonna hide it, but he wanted it to be just a wonderful reveal for the audience at the end, whether it’s a friend that told him, or they see her name in the credits playing double duty. So that’s exactly what we wanted.

BTL: It’s even more amazing when you rewatch the movie, and there are so many scenes of the two characters together.

Rubano: It was a big job for young Mia Goth, and she smashed it. She did such a good job, and we all worked very hard around her. I think the end result is exactly what we hoped for. I’ve just seen it in the theaters once — I’m looking forward to seeing it again — but I’ve done a few projects where you’re quite hopeful, and then you see it, and it passes expectations. X has been that for me. 

BTL: Seeing this with an audience was a real treat. I saw it the first time with just a couple of other critics and then a second time with a real audience, and the reactions were really fun.

Rubano: It’s quite interactive, isn’t it? I think as time progresses, I think it’s going to age like fine wine, especially when we have Pearl come out, and then ultimately, there will be a trilogy, and so I think that they will be celebrated as a trilogy, and I think that they will just continue to age in a beautiful way.

Ti West X

Image via A24

BTL: I agree. Ti was very complimentary of Weta Workshop, which is one of the reasons he made the movie in New Zealand, so do you actually work out of there or just work a lot with them on different projects?

Rubano: No, I’ve actually only worked in the shop once before, and that was in 2006. There was a movie called 30 Days of Night. I was doing a little bit of manufacture work during the prep of that, which was great, and then of course, I went to set with it. I was handling Iris [and] some of the other vampires, doing their lenses. That was really the only time I’ve worked in the shop.

Otherwise, in 2004, I came down to New Zealand to work on The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with Howard Berger. Weta Workshop was also working on [that], so it was a real marriage between both companies in the way of armor, weapons, the prosthetic makeups that Howard was in charge of, and ultimately won an Oscar for. During that time, I got to know the Weta Workshop team [and] Richard Taylor, very well.

This is just a fun fact, but my husband, Joe Dunckley, he’s been working with them since before the first Lord of the Rings. He ultimately has become my husband, but we met in 2004, and so the affiliation was via work, but then also my husband has been with Weta Workshop since he was 19 years old really, so there was that connection there. 

I’ve definitely formed my own working relationships with Richard and the technicians there at the shop. Over the years, Richard just used me as the makeup artist he would send out to represent. I think the first time Richard sent my husband Joe and I off to represent their product for a movie, was District Nine. Joe and I were sent to South Africa as a team, and that was 2008, to represent Weta, which was everything from specialty crops, costume fabrication, and prosthetic makeup. We went to South Africa and then from there, it’s just been job after job. I’m kind of the go-to makeup lady that Richard puts forward for all projects that run through Weta.

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Image via Weta Workshop

BTL: Before we get to X and the nitty-gritty of your work on that, I do want to ask about your background. I read that you were in costumes at one point, and it’s not often you see people go from costumes to makeup and working with the likes of KNB EFX, one of the top places for special effects makeup.

Rubano: Okay, so I grew up in a very creative household. My mother was a very creative lady, so I always had that influence. She was a seamstress, and she also sold Avon, so makeup and costume. But I got a college degree, a BA in the arts, and then I moved to Los Angeles. I started working as a production assistant, and as a production assistant kept just meeting the creatives and saying, ‘Hey, I want to get in. I want to be the PA within your department.’ My first creative work opportunities came via costume, so I just gave that my all and that was my foot in the door.

And then I got an offer to work on one of the Godzilla movies, the 1994 [movie] with Matthew Broderick. I was asked to organize and be the office coordinator for the creature shop, which was Patrick Tatopoulos, and basically, a who’s who of makeup effects people, which was incredible. We just had all the best in the industry collected together for a year, so that was like heaven for me. It was my foot in the door as far as fabrication goes, and that’s what I knew I wanted to do — specialty costume, which ties in closely with prosthetic makeup. I just started learning, making the most out of all the opportunities, mentoring with some of the best in the industry. 

And then, my hard work and tenacity and focus and dedication led to me doing the circuit in LA through all the makeup effects shops — Todd Masters, Steve Johnson, Henson’s Creature Shop, KNB, of course — so I had just wonderful opportunities, but I always made the most out of those opportunities. In 2003, when I was working at KNB, I was sent down to New Zealand, as I mentioned, to start work with Howard on the Narnia film, Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe. It was such an ambitious show, and there was such a massive body of work. It was challenging, but Howard really, he and Tami Lane, they gave me an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to start trying things like little fawn noses and centaur ears. And you know what, Ed? I was great at it, and I flourished. It was like an apprenticeship. From there, it just kept growing and growing. I got more opportunities, a lot of self-study, a lot of diligence and hard work, but really, I owe a lot of my beginning start to Howard Berger, who really just saw something in me that he wanted to nurture.

Ti West X

Image via A24

BTL: What was your intro to working on X and what was going to be involved with that job?

Rubano: Weta Workshop came to me, and they said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this crazy project. These people are coming down to make this film,’ and I said, ‘Okay, well, that sounds interesting.’ I read the script [and] knew right off the bat that the main actress was going to be playing two parts, Maxine and Pearl, so that sounded incredibly ambitious, especially given the timeline. It was also very exciting. I’m a sucker for a creative challenge, so I took that on board as a real challenge.

We had our first meetings. I had my meetings with Ti, with the Weta Workshop team, of course, Jason Docherty, who runs the prosthetics there at the shop. And then the production staff, and then Ti and Jacob Jaffke, our producer. Right off the bat, I saw how excited they were, and because Weta endorses me, they were excited to have my involvement. And I was excited right back, because I saw something really creatively colorful, and incredibly, just spectacular, just leaning into these characters that were just quite dynamic.

Weta was the springboard, I jumped on, and then, basically, I came on in November, so some of the 2D concept had already started to happen. Mia Goth already had a life-casting session done overseas, and that was standing by, and we just started to make the plan around manufacture. In the same period, I was also designing the makeup and the hair for all the characters, so it was quite a busy time. Towards the end of January, we started shooting, so it was a very ambitious period. 

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Image via Weta Workshop

BTL: What’s your process like when working on a project like this. Are you just working on paper, drawing things out, or are you actually drawing on pictures of the actors to figure things out?

Rubano: For characters like Pearl and for Howard, it goes through a 2D design concept phase with the staff at Weta Workshop, in accordance with me, Jason Docherty and the team who are building the appliances, [all] in accordance with Ti, of course. We are all working together to develop an aesthetic that will make sense in a practical way. We can see something beautiful on paper, but it’s got to make sense in a practical way, so we flesh that out, and then, once everybody’s happy with the general aesthetic, once we all talk it through and we’re all happy, then we take it to the next phase which is sculpting the actors’ form.

Then they just start building these characters through a sculpting process, so we can look at nose size in accordance to chin size in accordance to earlobe size. “How flappy do we want the neck? How saggy do we want the boobs?” All of that. We work through it as a team and then make sure that under the guidance of Jason Docherty, will these appliances in some areas, are they going to hold up? How are we going to split them up for moldmaking. Jason is a wizard with this stuff, and thank goodness for him, because some areas of the prosthetic were paper thin, tissue thin, and then other areas were quite bulky. It all has to work together.

For Pearl, when she had the full arms… There were times we were able to cheat the prosthetic arms, because she had longer sleeves like when she’s in her pajamas or the sweater. When she was in everything, it was 30 individual prosthetic appliances. When we were cheating with the arms, it was 22 individual pieces and that included the full scleral contact lenses [custom made and painted by Cristina Patterson of Eye Ink FX] and dentures. And then for Stephen, who played Howard, there were nine pieces all together. It was not as big of a prosthetic, but it was still a big makeup. Normally nine pieces would be huge, but on this show, in comparison to Pearl, that was no big deal. [laughs] 

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Kevin Wasner applying makeup to Howard (Stephen Ure)

BTL: Was Howard just the head and shoulders, or did he have prosthetics on his arms as well?

Rubano: Nothing on the arms except for a 2D tattoo, but we were able to shave the actor’s head, which was helpful, so we didn’t have to bald-cap him. He had cheeks. He had eye-bags, he had a chin. He had an upper lip piece, he had ears, and then scleral lenses and dentures, as well. 

BTL: I’ve visited a few sets over the years, including the makeup departments, and applying makeup used to be something so time-consuming until recently, as they’ve found ways to do it quicker and easier. Was that the case with X? Were you able to get the actors into full make-up faster than maybe 10 years ago or so?

Rubano: For sure. The materials, the pieces were all silicon, so they have beautiful blending edges, the encapsulant, and so they go on beautifully. Kevin Wasner was pre-painting all of my appliances. He came over for this from the States as my key makeup effects artist, so he would pre-paint our appliances to save us some time. Of course, once all the pieces were applied, we’d still have to go in and do a comprehensive airbrush over everything. But yeah, it was a real dance. 

The way it went was that there were two of us that would start bald-capping, and then applying all the pieces, and then, Kevin would come in to do airbrushing, and then Kevin and I would go in to do all the hand-painting. Then, four of us would come in to do all the arms and all the other little futzy things, and then I would do the wig, and then I would do the lenses, and we’d pop her teeth. It was a constant flow of people in and out. I try to always have the same people doing the same thing, so that it’s running like a machine, and things are flowing in a very natural way. Because the more you do something, the more confident and the faster you are doing it, so try to keep the same people doing the same things. And also, I’d like to create a peaceful environment for the actor, because Mia is preparing herself as Pearl, so I don’t want chaos around her. Not to say there weren’t chaotic moments — there truly were —  but we tried to do our best to create a space for everyone to focus on what they need to do in a very ambitious shooting day.

BTL: I imagine it’s a bit like a NASCAR pit crew where you have five or six people around her, each working on different things all at once.

Rubano: That’s pretty accurate.

BTL: Because of the involvement of Pearl’s makeup, did Ti try to do all the stuff with her around the same time, so she didn’t have to wear it for that many days? He mentioned that they found a location where most of the movie happened, so did that make it easier to do all of Pearl either earlier or later in the shoot?

Rubano: Well, it depended. We had scenes where it was both Pearl and Maxine in some of the scenes. On those days, we would shoot because we had a Pearl double, who was in the Pearl makeup, fully, and then we had a Maxine double, who was fully in the Maxine look, so that Mia had something to work with. There were moments where we could do an over the shoulder and all you would see was the wispy hair and the bony shoulders, so a double was okay for that stuff. And the same with Maxine, we were able to go over. It was a wig that matched Maxine, so we were able to cheat in that way. There was never a day where we shot Mia in the Pearl and the Maxine look on the same day. It would just be one day as Pearl or one day as Maxine, and we flipped back and forth between that.

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Kevin and Sarah at work

BTL: Was it the same person who doubled Mia for both characters?

Rubano: Absolutely, and then in addition to a young lady who was also in the Pearl makeup, we also had an old woman, who we used here and there, peppered throughout. For the sex scene for Howard and Pearl, that was an older woman body double. There were a few instances where we were able to plug in an older woman body double, here and there. We did a hand at one point, and that was about it, I think. So the sex scene and one hand double moment where she turns the keys of the truck.

BTL: Were you involved when Ti was prepping and even storyboarding, to know how things would be shot so that you knew when you didn’t have to do the full makeup? It seems very complicated to do those scenes where you have to know who and which parts are going to be in the frame during any scene.

Rubano: 100 percent. We’re involved with all the storyboarding, Weta Workshop, they are. That is part of the concept phase —  storyboarding, figuring out and fleshing out the shots. ‘How are we going to achieve these gory gags? Where’s the camera going to be? What angles? How are we going to maximize those shock moments?’ Because we want the gag to be convincing, and super-effective. In order for these gags that were quite involved and specific and intricate to work, we had to know where the camera was going to be, and how we were going to build something so that it could work. Including the designing of the makeups for Howard and Pearl. ‘How are we shooting this? Is it gonna be quite grainy and dark? Do we have to really lean into the age spots, and really do some heavy moodiness under the eyes and crazy burst capillaries all over the nose? How heavy-handed are we going to be with those details?’ So yeah, all of it has to be considered and fleshed out with Ti and the lighting department, camera department, everything. 

Ti West

Image via A24

BTL: What was involved with the hair? Was a lot of the hair part of the pieces you were applying or was that separate?

Rubano: I have a wonderful lady here in New Zealand. Her name is Cody Dysart, and she built my wigs. They are customized to fit over the prosthetic makeup and over the bald cap and everything. I love my Pearl wig, which is partially made out of mohair to give it that real ethereal, thin, kind of ghostly feeling. That is one wig, and it’s not multiple pieces. It’s just one wig that goes on, and same with Howard, who had that piece made for him, customized.

BTL: While you were making X, did you have any idea that Ti wanted to do another movie focusing on Pearl? Is that something you needed to take into consideration while prepping for this movie?

Rubano: That’s a great question. Absolutely not. [laughs] When we started shooting X, he said to me, ‘You know, I’ve been writing something else that I’m trying to get made on the back-end of X that ties in, so get ready, Rubano.’ But I hadn’t read the script. I didn’t know much about what it would be, except that it would tie-in to some degree or heavily. We just wrapped on through X and then at the end of X, I was handed the script for Pearl. I think anything that needed to be considered that would affect Pearl, Ti would have guided us through, because he was really the only one who knew all the details about how the two would be interconnected.

BTL: Ti is definitely a bit of a force of nature. I remember talking to him for The Innkeepers, and he told me that he wrote that in like a day and a half, which is crazy when you realize that people spend months, even years, writing scripts that aren’t even half that good.

Rubano: I really enjoy working with Ti, because he’s so detail-oriented, and he’s a perfectionist, and I’m the same way. So we have high standards, and I just love how passionate he is. I love how detail oriented he is, and yeah, I look forward to making many more films with him.

X is still playing in select theaters, but it’s also now available on digital and On Demand platforms.