April 13th, 2018
From Blade Runner 2049 to Skyfall, Nocturnal Animals to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Donald Mowat’s resume reads like a masterclass in every film genre you can find. His work cover designing, department heading and the small matter of personal to Daniel Craig, and his list of awards nominations grown by the year. Awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for services to film in 2012, we caught up with him when he was in London recently for the BAFTAs.
WP: How did you get into this industry?
DM: By accident, really. I didn’t really know what I was going to be. My Dad is very studious and went to Glasgow University, while my Mum’s a Registered Nurse and Scottish trained, which is the best in the world. My Dad took me to the theatre and to see films, and I kept looking at the detail, and at first I thought costume was interesting, then I would notice people’s names, and I saw make-up and it was all men, whether it came from here or the US. In our local children’s theatre we had a wonderful lady called Beryl, who’d trained at the Royal Albert Hall and knew make-up, and we’d put on a bit of greasepaint and a bit of lake, and we’d end up doing Mikado, and that’s how I started.
Beryl taught me what she knew, then I started to notice that people were too made up, so I tried to do the same with less and still to this day it’s the heart of what I do. My parents were very supportive when I wanted to learn in the UK and I came to live with my great aunt in Totteridge, but there was nowhere to go to study make-up. My dad said I needed to go to theatre school, so I went to RADA for an interview, but it was all stage management or props. This is back in 1982 and the BBC wouldn’t train a man at that time, and that was annoying, because I couldn’t get a start, so I went back to Canada. At the time I arrived in Toronto, CBC was prepping for a production of Anne of Green Gables. I’d done a make-up on an actress called Lesley Hope who was always badly made up and the fashion was for heavy make-up in those days. Shonagh Jabour was heading the show and she was looking for someone who had a light hand, so I tested for her and she hired me, and on the sequel I went back as the Assistant Dept Head, and I was 21 years old. I got some great pictures and got to meet Dame Wendy Hiller and Colleen Dewhurst and then it happened. And the years pass and here we are.
WP: You have such a large body of work, every type of film, and have long standing collaborations with personals, but also as Head of Department – you get to sit on both sides of the movie fence. Do you find that the role is changing?
DM: The way we work on US productions is changing, and we have a responsibility to those we work with us taking on the role of administrators, as well as make-up heads. In the UK, there’s very little union involvement, in the US and Canada it’s diminishing too, and the rules come from back in the day when the credits were just Makeup Artist. As HODs and Designers we have to be leaders and I take my responsibilities towards my team very seriously; I endeavour to work safe and smarter in the changing industry we have today and don’t want my crew, who’ve just finished night shoots, to be driving home and check with them that they’re all right. There have been several incidents: we had a snowstorm in Atlanta on my last job, people were driving home in dangerous conditions.
Harassment of any kind is not acceptable. I also feel we have a responsibility to ask whether people are getting the sleep, the nutrition, and the help you need. The Actors Fund of America, The AFC in Canada, the Film & Television Charity here – people are really suffering with mental health issues, addiction, working when they shouldn’t be. Colleagues know when people are suffering. Now I’ve got my Fitbit, I know what fitness I am getting. On the film I’ve just finished, First Man which has been a joyful project to work on, it’s 70-80 hours a week, then there are dailies to watch which thankfully I can do at home. I’m trying to watch my weight, eat well, not smoke.
WP: How do you pick a project? What attracts you to it?
DM: I think they pick you sometimes, with Bladerunner 2049 I thought, “What they heck are they calling me for?”
WP: You have amassed such a body of work over the last decade, much of which has garnered award nominations, from the dark and twisted, to absolute mainstream, and your collaborations with Daniel Craig that are absolutely front and centre, then there’s Blade Runnner 2049 where you’re picking up a 30 year old, cult movie that originally had a tiny budget, and rework it.
DM: I don’t know why I think that – we all know that in this industry it’s either a feast or a famine – I do think that people end up on the project they’re supposed to be on – and I’ve probably been on a couple that I wasn’t supposed to be on! Blade Runner 2049 was not a natural for me. I looked at this and thought I’m never going to watch it. When it came time to work on it, I was terrified. I’ve been doing Stronger which was a great project for me and Blade Runner didn’t add up for me. I called the director and asked, “Denis, am I your guy?” I always say that – I wish other people would be brave enough to do that too. And Denis said, “My friend, we’re all terrified,” and that made it better for me. I went around one day to Roger Deakins’ and we had dinner, and he said the same thing. I think that’s why I like working with them and maybe why I was meant to work with them. I don’t know what sort of makeups people were expecting, but I know it wasn’t that. I knew from the makeup tests what it was going to be. It’s a great project and I’m really happy to have done it.
WP: What’s your favourite movie that you’ve done?
DM: Noctural Animals – twisted and fearful, and meeting with Tom Ford here in London and I thought OMG. I love that, he’s got such a great eye. Sicario was one of my favourites too. There are certain jobs that we love because of what’s going on in your life at the time – personally, professionally – also a certain amount of freedom where there was respect. As soon as there’s too much administration, I feel like I need an assistant or a secretary. The tattoo clearances …. Then there’s the work to cover up existing ones, I’ve been covering tattoos for years with Eminem and Mark Wahlberg.
WP: It must be nice to get to do events like last night – the Makeup Magazine Nominees Party – where you get to hang out with your peers.
DM: It’s lovely – we don’t often get to do it, and even then I was still working, organising teeth for Jake Gyllenhaal and taking calls from people who are in a different time zone.
WP: Do you brain dump your ideas and designs to give your head more space?
DM: I have a harder time – they were sending me one thing that was making me laugh and then the tattoo artist that I like to work with rang me while I was heading in to see a show the other night – the phone doesn’t stop.
WP: Do you like to be approached? Would you take an approach from a trainee?
DM: A young lady came up to talk to me last night and I say hello to everybody, I know what’s it’s like to start out. I remember sending resumes and CVs, and they don’t reply – I try to respond and for the better part of my career I have responded; if I haven’t its because I deleted by accident because I get quite a few. Today there was a lovely man and his daughter, and I spoke with them a lot – asked her to friend me on FB and say how she knows me, and I’ll friend them. I have lots of students and I’m happy to help. I’ve pointed people in the direction of job, if it comes up I’ll put it on there. If it’s in LA, or even here in London, I needed someone once and I put it out there, so people respond and I like to respond. I don’t want to be one of those people who say it and don’t do it. The young lady today, she was perhaps 15, and she’s showing me shots of what she’s done and I asked, “Can you do a clean, pretty makeup?” and she went, “Yeah,” and I said, “Really, then make sure you do some of those. You keep practicing and you can do it all, and you’ll never be without work.”
WP: Do you think hair is important? Does it get you more work, having that extra string to your bow?
DM: I do, I think that many people here do both. In a sense I think a combo of design is important. Movies are about makeup, unless there’s a period aspect to it or a lot of facial hair going on. A makeup artist’s role is to make the other guy look good, and be supporting and creating. And you have to have passion. In Atlanta I had lovely young people working with me – I like to give them experience before they’re 100! – they do want to learn and they want the challenge. It’s hard for them to balance a career and a family vacation – they look at me and I don’t even have a cat!
WP: Where are you based?
DM: LA, mostly but that’s changing though. I still have a little apartment in Canada, I’m here a lot, if I left LA, it would be for London – Tom Ford says that. I feel quite a connection here through my Mum and Dad. The Bond thing too – it just sort of happened. I never thought that would happen, it was never on my bucket list, Daniel and I have this great connection, he’s a remarkably nice human being, and coming here and doing that, and being raised from family here. My grandfather ran the Hammersmith Palais before the War, my Mum’s from Inverness, both my parents are Scots, my dad was down here, my auntie lives in Greenwich, there’s a connection. In Canada, it’s the same thing, just a different sound. There are parts of the country that are still the way it was here pre-War, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, which wasn’t part of Canada until 1949 – was a British protectorate until then and barely voted in favour of joining. My sensibilities are much more Scottish.
My mum was a McDonald before she married my Dad, the Mowats have a tartan and the only person who knew that was Daniel Craig and on Spectre he came walking through the trailer one day with a funny look on his face with something, and it was the Mowat tartan and he’d ordered me a custom duvet cover. What a sweet thing to do. That’s his style. When I’ve been sick recently, he sent me organic fruit.
WP: What changes have you seen in the industry?
DM: Everything’s changed, the effects people are changing, we’re all sort of coming back together with what we do. You learn a lot from collaboration.
WP: What’s next for you?
DM: I’m working on First Man, my first job back since I was ill. I was a little nervous to be honest, but I’m working with Claire Foy, who is lovely, I love her, and Ryan Gosling. Damien Chazelle asked me to do it – it’s a ‘60’s period, not pastiche, but real ‘60s – he was very nice. We’ve shot Apollo 11 already, you think that would be easy, but it’s two distinct films. The first part is the family bits with Neil Armstrong and his wife, then we went into studio in Atlanta to did Apollo 11 in very cramped conditions – it’s all about stubble and it’s a five-day space mission – and it’s very tricky makeup. We have one day left to do the opening of the film with Ryan Gosling.
Next I’m with Dan Gilroy (who wrote and directed Nightcrawler) who has written another film and it’s Jake Gyllenhaal and I love Jake, so I’m doing that with a lovely British actress called Zawe (Ashton), and Natalia Dyer (Nancy Wheeler from Stranger Things) and Renee Russo, and it’s only five weeks and it’s starting straight away. Then I’m taking a break.
WP: What’s your favourite holiday destination?
DM: I’ve never taken a six-week holiday in my life. When you’re on film sets in some very strange places, I don’t want to live rough like that. I like a staycation, that‘s great for me, as it’s so rare. I’d be very happy going up to Scotland somewhere, but I like hotel living cos I’m used to it. I’m not a bit island person, I fancy the cold, I like a bit of cashmere and wool, that’s my Scottish roots, you could put me in mohair somewhere. The heat, I like California dry heat, but the glare maybe has obscured my mind sometimes. I think in a way that creatively it’s more inspiring than New York, because New York always feels like it’s a copy of London, and there’s great beauty in London. And all over Europe, and I really love London, especially the National Portrait Gallery. Watch this space – I reckon London will be seeing a lot more of Mr Mowat in the future.