Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel, Dune, hits the big screen this weekend. The Warner Bros. production features a bulging cast that includes Timothée Chalamet as the protagonist, Paul Atreides, and Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac as his mother and father.
Roughly, Dune is about the Duke of House Atreides trying to colonize the planet Arrakis (in a distant future) while facing resistance from its current overlord, the Baron Harkonnen, played by Stellan Skarsgard. The film also stars Charlotte Rampling as a mysterious, witch-like creature, Jason Momoa as the swordsmaster of the House Atreides, and Javier Bardem, as the leader of a local planet tribe.
But Dune impresses not only with its long list of talented cast members. Warner Bros. Pictures spared no expense in bringing together top crafts talent as well, including makeup and hairstyling artist Donald Mowat, who worked on Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049 as well as on last year’s The Little Things. Much like he did for the last time Villeneuve revisited a 1980s sci-fi classic, Mowat’s work in Dune is both impressively varied and remarkable subtle but important.
Read on as we discuss how and why he made the choices he made for the much-anticipated movie blockbuster event of this fall.
Below the Line: Let’s start with Skarsgard’s character, the Baron—that guy has a pale complexion, a bulky back, and a very strange look. How did you get to that character?
Donald Mowat: I was the Head of Department for makeup, prosthetics, and hairstyling for the entire film. I worked on all the characters, but of course you never do it alone—I handpicked my team. When Denis asked me to do the film, I knew it was intense. We planned out a lot of things and that included the hairstyling, because I thought it made more sense and more cohesive.
And so quickly we focused on the Baron, because as you say, he requires a lot of the makeup work. As soon as I heard it was going to be Stellan, I started working with some of his people in Sweden, they have a wonderful makeup and prosthetic makeup team. Love Larson and Eva von Bahr (A Man Called Ove), a wonderful prosthetics team and I thought well this is meant to be. So I designed the Baron with Love. We did some 15-20 passes of some ideas, referencing Apocalypse Now and Island of Dr. Moreau. Denis and I checked in often on this character and the Baron came to me as a fierce, gorilla-like, heavy, he’s fat and he’s funny. I thought it would be a real challenge, and it was–it took us 16 weeks or so. Then we started using similar makeup ideas for the other Harkenen in the story, including the one played by Dave Bautista. We thought of them as pale, smooth, hairless, eyebrow-less. But I have to give a lot of credit to a lot of people, especially Love and Eva. They work on the same level of realism. Their studio is like a shop and they work on smaller films, and it’s very hands-on. All of our actors were very enthusiastic about the prosthetics, but Stellan particularly so.
BTL: Was the prosthetic for the Baron plastic, silicone or something else?
Mowat: Silicone on his face. The fat suit is actually made of foam, which is very old school. It weighs probably 20-25 lbs for all of his makeup. He filmed for seven days. Timmy [Chalamet] and Rebecca [Ferguson], who are not in big makeup are filming every day. So the wear and tear was a lot.
BTL: How was it making Rebecca and Timothée’s makeup?
Mowat: Their hair and makeup was much shorter every day, but we had to reapply a lot during the day. For her, I had to make her look maybe not older but certainly regal. She is beautiful, but she is still a concubine. I also wanted her to be the daughter of the Charlotte Rampling character, so you don’t want to play up her beauty too much. The makeup was very careful. Her hair had to be made her look a little older and not girlie, at least not until they are both in the desert and there is a transformation for both of them.
BTL: Tell me about how you styled Timothée’s hair.
Mowat: His hair was like a character in the film. There were a couple of times when we were like, “OMG we should have cut it all.” It was Denis’ call, as he’s the boss. But my pitch was to keep it old school, and that was the right look for him. For the desert, it was interesting. I would have the effects guy throw the fan on and hit him with some wind, and I would literally throw some dust on him and wherever it landed, it landed. And, yes, you can’t match it the next day, but sometimes we get carried away in film with that sort of precision. It’s like rain drops–they’re not going to match. I was trying to approach realism more than repetitiveness. So I was very happy with where his hair ended up, there was a Hamlet-like quality to it, boyish at times, very serious at others.
BTL: I thought the last third of the movie, with both of their characters in the desert, really was effective in conveying a sense of transformation for both of them. What role if any did your work with makeup and hairstyling play in this change?
Mowat: I feel like I was very busy during that part. They’re not in the desert for very long. I did try to make them look flush and sunkissed, but Denis caught me right away. He went like: “You know what? It’s not good.” That’s how he is–blunt, in a good way. I appreciated it, because I did not want to screw it up. The flush red did not help.
Where we ended up was to make him look more regal–they are now equal. A lot of it happened by accident–the dust and dirt–but it was very hard to match it every day. So that was tough. They also had to shoot every day in Jordan filming all of that part, and then they get back to Budapest to film the beginning of the film and they are all pale. The skin care on this one was tough.
BTL: The CGI blue eyes for the desert people, how did that work with your makeup?
Mowat: We did try to do contacts for the blue eyes and it did not work. We prepared some for Zendaya [who portrays a mysterious desert girl]. Honestly it was painful for the actors with the wind and sand to have the contacts, and they did not look good. So that was handled by the CGI department, but we did work with the actors to make sure the makeup matched. We started with Javier Bardem. This was very different than any makeup he had ever done before, and I experimented with the colors to get them to match the blue eyes. It was Bedouin, Berber, it was a lot of things. Moroque, Middle Eastern and African influences. I did this black coal powdered thing around his eyes with small tattoos you can barely see. I thought the darker skin and darker parts around the eyes would have an effect with the blue. Paul Lamberth, our visual effects guy, he sent me a photo of what they were doing, so I had it on my mirror so I could kind of get some help with those makeups.
BTL: We spoke about the main bad guy and the two leads–tell me about other characters that stand out at you as having particularly noteworthy makeup jobs for the film?
Mowat: I was a little bit overwhelmed at first, to be honest. I still love this work after 35 some years. Even when I wake up at 3 in the morning sometimes and wonder, “Why am I doing this?” Then I’m there and I love it, then I’m in the desert and I am dying. But let me tell you, the best part of this film was the cast. Not one cast member was objectionable in this one. Everyone was a delight. Timmy was like my child. I think the world of Rebecca, she is fun and outgoing. I am also a big fan of Javier Bardem from way, way back. He would text me to talk about the character, which is my kind of guy. We’d do practical tests and go to set and have Denis look at it. Dave Bautista is a gentle giant. A wonderful guy. Don’t forget, I know some of these people from other works like Prisoners and Blade Runner.
BTL: What about Rampling? She’s like a witch with a veil, but did you do a lot of work there?
Mowat: You know, even though she had a veil, we did. First, she needed to be very, very pale. I was also very aware of the relationship between her or a younger version of her and Rebecca’s character, so yes, I used the same foundation base for the two.
BTL: What about Oscar Isaac—he has a great look, what did you do with him? How did he fit into what you were trying to do with all the soldier type characters in the film?
Mowat: He made a huge impact in Dune. I did not see him initially as having a beard. But Oscar asked about it and Denis liked the idea, and it worked for me when I saw it. It ended up being a stroke of genius. Sometimes, you have to rethink. I mean Josh Brolin’s character was going to have a very long hair and finally asked him if he would be willing to do a crew cut, and he was. I think the most important thing for me at that point was to have something a little bit different between all the characters, to help the audience with visual cues. If you look at it closely, everyone looks just a little different—sometimes what I do is I will take pictures and lay them all out and pull other ideas from other fashion or actors from a bygone era to come up with something. For Rebecca, I used Princess Grace. For Charlotte, Reverend Mothers and medieval and Greek Orthodox, all very different.
For Oscar, too. Once he showed up with the great, salt and pepper wavy hair, and the beard he had been working on with his barber in New York, we really wanted a hedge to get his hair a little more pointy. We also aimed him a little bit, but playing up his handsome looks. We asked him to be a little more wrinkled, and he was totally fine with that. All the men sort of had a Greco-Roman quality. It felt period, but it was not.
For Jason Momoa, he was more wild, so there was some freedom. He had the long hair but also the uniform. I was trying to give everyone something they don’t usually have.
BTL: So, would you do it again, Dune 2?
Mowat: YES!!! I was just back in Jordan, it was 40 degrees, I had a cold, and was with a mask on and I was wheezing. But, I would work with all those people again in a heartbeat. You get spoiled working on something like that, which I’ve only had 3-4 times, and you really think it does not get better than that.
Dune has been playing overseas for a few weeks, but it will be released in North America this Friday, October 22, 2021.