December 11th, 2015
Having just completed a globe-trotting tour of Spectre promotion, there’s no doubt that Naomi Donne has had a very busy year – but she’s not all big budget blockbusters. Just as happy on small independent movie sets and provisional theatre dressing rooms, Warpaint talks Bond, glass slippers and everyone’s favourite green ogre with one of the film world’s leading make-up designers.
Naomi is, by her own admission, “Old-school BBC. I’d enrolled at the London College of Fashion, and to be honest I didn’t even know that make-up was a job at that stage. Then I realised that if I wanted to do make-up, the only place to train was the BBC.”
It sometimes seems – at least to would-be MUAs today – that life was easier back then, but Naomi disagrees; “There were still thousands of applicants and, with very few make-up schools, if you didn’t train with the BBC then really you didn’t have much of a chance.” Having begged her way in, not even finishing the LCF course, her first job was a party political broadcast where she had to make-up Neil Kinnock. “I was terrified,” laughs Naomi, “I made him up under supervision, and he was a colourful character. When I got home and told my Mum, she told me ‘write it all down,’ but I didn’t of course because make-up artists can never break the confidentiality of actors”
So it was that the hallowed corridors of Television Centre saw her hone her skills, but the BBC and Naomi Donne had something of a tempestuous relationship. “I just wasn’t progressing after nearly eight years, and was told that my personality didn’t fit the BBC.” Naomi did however end up doing 3 of a Kind with Lenny Henry and Tracy Ullman and it was that meeting which was to set her on a very different make-up course. “I’d worked with Tracy and when she went to the States and on tour she asked me to go with her, so I used that opportunity to leave the BBC and freelance. My first feature film was The Doctor and the Devil with Timothy Dalton, and when he was offered Bond he requested me to be his personal make-up artist – for The Living Daylights.
“I enjoyed working with Tim and when he was testing for Bond he asked for me. Back then, in 1986, there were no female MUAs in film make-up. All the women were in TV, but in film it was completely male dominated – so much so that when I went for the interview they didn’t actually believe I was one.”
Naomi was utterly terrified in her interview, as new Bond films were equally as headline news as they are today. “The make-up tests were very nerve-wracking as I was scrutinized by all of the producers and the studio, including the Broccolis. In the mid-80s on films, hair and make-up was two separate jobs, but having that BBC training meant I could do both. This did cause a few headaches, as more established film MUAs felt quite threatened by the fact that we could do both hair and make-up, but the producers liked it because thought it would save them money. It doesn’t really as you still need the same amount of people.”
Back to 2015 and some of the bigger budget movies under Naomi’s belt, including Cinderella, do still separate the hair and make-up with a MU Designer and a Hair Designer. But it’s still important for budding MUAs to be good, solid all-rounders. “When I work with Hair Designers,” Naomi explains, “We collaborate. Often I must also work with principle actors who bring in their own MUAs, and again it’s a collaboration. I’m lucky that I’ve had good working relationships with other personal make-up artists who have been brought in during my career so far.” This is possibly because she’s also been on that side of the fence as a personal MUA for Ben Stiller amongst others for many years. “But not so much recently – I was very disappointed I couldn’t do Zoolander 2 or Walter Mitty due to Skyfall and Spectre schedules because Ben Stiller is so fantastic to work with. There’s just no vanity with Ben, he’ll do whatever is needed to create the right character.
“But there are many other actors who don’t enjoy it as much, who don’t like wearing make-up, and their wishes need to be respected. Christoph Waltz, for example, doesn’t like wearing make-up but was very professional when he was required to wear a complicated prosthetic for Spectre.
It takes a lot of courage to be an actor, and you as a make-up artist must support them. Acting is exposing, whether on film or on stage – different issues but throwing up a similar challenge. I do find that some people try and hide behind the make-up and use it as a barrier. Make-up shouldn’t be a mask or a distraction from what the actor is trying to do; if you can look at a movie and not notice the make-up then you’ve done your job.”
This is certainly the case for Lady in a Van, a project that Naomi is incredibly proud of. “I’d read the book, I’d seen the play, it was being directed by one of my best friends Nick Hytner and I desperately wanted to work with him, Alan (Bennett) and Maggie (Smith). Thankfully for me Bond was pushed back which gave me a window and allowed me to do it.”
Lady in a Van was most certainly a different scale of movie budget-wise from her other recent projects. “I think the whole thing was done for the equivalent of my Spectre make-up budget. It was a crazy couple of months where everyone had a wig of some sort, so I had to pull in some favours. Thank goodness for wig-maker Peter Owen who helped me out.”
With so many period wigs, Naomi was having to reuse and reuse wigs – pulling them off one actor, redressing them and putting them on another the next day. “Almost every actor in the film wore a wig of some sort. It’s a challenge to do a movie with no budget! Saying that though, there was nothing we couldn’t do, we always found ways to make it work. It’s so collaborative and one of the great things about small films. But the collaborative nature is similar on big budget films, as I’ve worked with some of the same people on Bond for over 30 years; there’s a mutual trust where if you need something, they’ll make it happen. You do, however, still have budgets and need to be aware of what you’re spending.”
Collaboration was certainly in evidence on Disney’s Cinderella, from working with Morag Ross (Cate Blanchett’s personal make-up artist) to Carol Hemming, the inspirational Hair Designer who brought Naomi in. “The original film was very much an inspiration. Although the original story was set around 1840, we decided to bring it forward to the 1940s, to have that classic Gone with the Wind feel.”
But for all the beauties in the film, from Lily James and Helena Bonham Carter to Holliday Grainger, Naomi’s favourite part of the movie was changing the animals into humans to drive the coach to the ball. “My favourite character was the goose, as we’d made a nose to make him look like a goose in human form. We had a wig made of feathers, facial hair made of feathers and a cravat of feathers – Peter Owen made all that, and it was some of the most stunning work I have ever seen. The only CGI on the face was when it was going into the animal changes, but we used prosthetics to facilitate those changes. I sat down with the visual effects guys and we worked together, ‘I’ll make this, you do that.’ With the lizard, when the hat comes off he has a lizard skin that we painted to look like jewels.”
Collaboration too with the team of experts that Naomi called upon to help in Spectre. “For prosthetics I got to work with Mark Coulier. Such a fastidious artist with a wonderful sense of humour, it was Mark that created the scar on Christoph that turned him into Blofeld, with just a nod to Donald Pleasance. Then there’s Cristina Pattinson’s incredible yellowed and bloodshot contact lenses on Mr White, and the wonderful Chris Lyons who made his yellow teeth. These people are at the top of their professions, and it’s always inspiring to work with them.”
Although British born and bred, Naomi has spent much of her working life on the other side of the pond and this afforded her the opportunity to work in another area of make-up design: theatre on Broadway and their well-financed hit shows. “It all started with a charity panto back in the ’80s. I worked with a then young costume designer, David Blight. I learned on the job, very early on, that theatre make-up artists work very closely with costume. It always starts with the costumes. From that job I caught the eye of the producers of Song and Dance and that started my career in theatre. I created the make-up for Mary Poppins, Shrek, and many other Broadway shows like Aida and Tarzan that haven’t as yet transferred to the UK.”
For Shrek The Musical, Naomi felt very strongly that the Shrek character prosthetics be film quality. “It is down to money I know, but for something like Shrek I wanted to push the boundaries of what we could achieve. It was extremely important that the children truly believe that it was Shrek. I met the amazing prosthetics artist Mike Marino and he created the Shrek make-up, consisting of a foam latex cowl and silicone facial pieces. Mike found a way to combine silicone with foam, but with the pieces running at $500 a face every single night, we knew it had to be perfect. Shrek had three MUAs who had to work through many fast changes. Mike came over to the UK to train the team who then had to adapt for provisional theatres and their own particular restrictions.”
Naomi’s work hasn’t always been in films. Remedial camouflage on burns victims is also very close to her heart. “I worked with African American women who have lost their pigment. I got burned on a plane and my own doctor asked me if I’d be interested in remedial make-up, so I had a make-up clinic in New York for burns victims. I’m keen to do same thing over here and have thought about it seriously for a while.”
Being one of the leading designers, Naomi is very aware of her responsibility to pay it forward and nurture the next generation of MUAS. “I’m always looking for new people. When you get announced as the designer for a big film you get hundreds of CVs. I go through each one and answer them all as it’s so discouraging to send your CV out into a void. Everything is filed, but I do feel really worried about a few things in our industry,” Naomi explains.
“There’s this flood of young people who think they are qualified to work on a big film when they’ve done a month in make-up school. That’s what they do, they spend a fortune for a one to three month course and they feel they’re ready for the film industry. There are some very good courses out there, for instance Christine Blundell’s school, so I look out for her students. But I am concerned that the market is getting flooded with artists who won’t be able to find work. I try to rotate work experience artists, especially on a long shoot like Bond. I always look for some kind of passion, someone who has not just done a course but has tried to expand their experience. Amateur dramatics, working in the theatre and some wig training are all very important.”
So what makes the perfect Naomi Donne assistant? “Someone who is willing to learn, watching what I’m doing, anticipating my next move, and having a lot of passion for the craft. I love throwing stuff at my trainees to see what they can do.”
There are whispers floating around that Cinderella might make a few award shortlists, but this is something that makes Naomi uncomfortable. “If you get nominated it’s a fantastic honour but I don’t do my work thinking about it. Cinderella is getting a lot of interest, they’ve asked us to enter for the Hollywood Guild Awards, but I’m not thinking about that. I’m more interested in looking ahead to my next projects.”