October 5th, 2020
She’s one of the most in-demand Film Hair & Makeup Designers in the business. Along with an Oscar and BAFTA win and multiple BAFTA nominations, Christine Blundell has a massive body of work from The Full Monty to Casino Royale, Disney’s Aladdin to Paddington – as well as a 30-year partnership with director Mike Leigh. She regularly has three movies on the go at any one time. Combine this with her commitments as Principal of her eponymous school based in London’s Camden Town and you can see why her reputation for hard work goes before her.
Warpaint grabbed a gap in her schedule last year to talk movies and education.
WP: How was Peterloo?
CB: It was brilliant! It kind of beggars belief that we’re not taught it in schools – you’re taught all about Waterloo, and this was just a peaceful protest that went so horribly wrong. Trying to do that with Mike (Leigh)’s process – it’s been a passion project for Mike for many years, and it was really great to finally do it with him. We had no money, and we had early talks about how he was going to cope with battle scenes. We bashed about different ideas about whether or not we could set it up with multi-cameras, film the whole thing in one big blitz, and then Mike would go in and do his thing. It was interesting, because we did a bit of Waterloo in it, and we did that part quite early on, and it’s funny because I know Mike so well now and I think he structured a bit of Waterloo so that he could find out what stunt people do, and how horses react and things – it’s all new for him. He’s not known for anything to do with war or battles, and watching him doing Waterloo, he was literally gleaning every little bit of knowledge there. Then we got stuck into Peterloo, which crossed over with my starting on Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin – I was switching teams from one to the other – thank God for my teams! I have my main team who follow me from job to job, then this year, because it’s been so busy, I’ve had an (affectionately-named!) mopping-up team, which is Claire Matthews and Christina Andrew, and they’ve been brilliant – running behind me, finishing off films, and I’ve been able to seamlessly move onto the next one.
WP: You’re really known for collaborations with directors, which is interesting because some people only collaborate with one – you seem to make key relationships with certain people who then want to work with you again and again.
CB: The only way it could have worked – I had to be really honest with Guy and Mike, because I missed out on Guy’s last film because I was doing Mr Turner, which was much more makeup heavy, and there was a lot more in-depth makeup, so I couldn’t come off Mr Turner for Guy’s production at the time. When we first started on this one, Guy asked if I could do Aladdin with them, and I told them I had to speak to Mike, but as long as they were both happy with me running between them and keeping my backup team, it should work.
WP: I suppose being confident in your position in your career means that you can say, “Yes, I’d love to, however…”, and I think that confidence is something that aspiring film makeup artists don’t know how you get. Is there a point at which that changes?
CB: I don’t think there’s a specific point, but you do grow into your socks a little bit. I do think that Guy was the only director I would have asked to do this with, especially as I feel so strongly about Mike’s films. I was there every morning until the end, and then jumping in the car to go and meet Guy!
WP: And it’s a very immersive process working with Mike, isn’t it – he’s so cerebrally involved in everything that he’s doing.
CB: Yeah, he’s really intense with what he wants to achieve from the bare bones of the story.
WP: His films always look gorgeous though! You can take stills from his films and get a real sense of what they’re about.
CB: Yes, I think a lot of that is down to Dick Pope, who tries something new on every shoot! He’s my favourite cameraman in the way that he’ll light it like a picture.
WP: What’s his background? Does he have a production-design background?
CB: Dick Pope started with Mike on Life is Sweet with me! His background before then was documentaries, and very rock and roll.
WP: What keeps you passionate about every new film?
CB: I love that you will always learn something new from every film. It’s interesting – initially, you don’t associate Guy Ritchie with Aladdin, but Guy’s doing an amazing job at it! In early, talks, we realised we’d have to sprinkle a little Disney dust on this – we can’t just do what we’d normally do on a Guy film, which can be a little bit rock and roll – we really do have to sprinkle a little magic on it. It was then that we realised that we had to think about doing beauty makeup on this – Jasmine has to be a Disney princess and Naomi Scott was perfect – her singing was amazing too. It was also really hard deciding who should play Aladdin – we initially had quite a few discussions about how we’d turn Mena Masoud and his unruly hair into Aladdin!
WP: Lots of people now have personal makeup artists for movies now – how do you work around that and fit in?
CB: If the question posed here is how do I get on with personals – as long as they’re willing to come along and be part of the mood that we create in the morning, I’m happy. As Head of Department, part of your job is just bringing everyone together, and if Will Smith wants to bring Judy (Murdock) and Pierce (Austin) as his guys to do his hair and makeup – who am I to argue? However, where I have to be careful is that Guy is very specific about what he wants, and I kind of have to be the conduit that brings it all together.
WP: How did you find working on Wonder Woman?
CB: There was a lot of skin maintenance. We were spray-tanning into the night, and salt-scrubbing in between to get the residue off, as well as running around getting their hair ready. All of my team worked so hard on this, we could have done with double the team we had, especially the Italy part of it when you had the heat to contend with too. It’s a big like when I did Casino Royale, I wanted Bond to look like he sweated. Here I wanted it to be real too, not cartoonish – I wanted Wonder Woman and all the Amazons to look like strong women, not just like they had perfect makeup. Another interesting thing is that the film was so overrun by women. It was quite an intimidating set to step onto.
WP: In terms of you – you have you in your professional job, and then you have the school. (Christine Blundell Makeup Academy). What was it that originally drove you to set up the school?
CB: It’s been running for ten or eleven years now. The reasons I set it up haven’t changed to now – I didn’t think that the training was up to scratch elsewhere and at the time, I was getting trainees who were being taught things they just didn’t need to know – you don’t need to know monster makeup, you need to know how to dirty people down, how to deal with continuity. You also need to know that you’re going to be a trainee for a couple of years, then you’ll be a junior. In fact, your path to being a makeup designer should be at least ten years long. It’s a weird profession we do, it’s all make-believe, and one of the key things is being malleable enough to move your headspace from one story – or century – to another at the drop of a hat. I’m a really firm believer that we all have different styles, but all of us are good at putting our own stamp on things.
WP: How much of a process do potential students go through when coming in here – because you don’t take a massive intake, you have quite a small group?
CB: We’re very boutique – we’ve quite often discussed this, potentially expanding, but I like staying at this size. We have between 12 and 16 students, which is small, and we get them paired up as well. It’s also to do with the calibre of the teachers and this was one thing I was really strict about at the start – all the teachers are working in the industry and sometimes you have to wait for a break in their schedule for them to come in and teach. When we set up the itinerary, the first two weeks will always be the same: basic makeup and basic hair; after that everybody that comes through is warned that the teachers are much more important than the schedule – we’re very flexible on our weeks and we’ll move it around to make sure we get the right learning from the right people. And we have a high success rate, and we do a lot with the students afterwards, they all get work experience and I do their final checks when they’re working with me. We have a running list of Q&As so they can be asking me questions all the time and if I get a chance to come in to the school, I will and will grab the list and go around giving them answers. I think the main thing they learn is that it’s all about being a trainee for a while – let’s plot your career out here. Getting them out on set and doing their reviews on set is also really important to us. The aftercare is really important here. I work in the industry, and I will come across a lot of people who are employing my students, so I have to make sure they’re good! In a way, they’re representing me wherever they go. When they leave here, we expect them to be reporting back and letting us know what they’re up to and if there are problems, they come straight back to us.
WP: Do you then encourage former students to come to you for work experience candidates when they’re in a position to offer that?
CB: As they move up the food chain, I like to think that people come back to chat to our current students and I always get past students in to talk to them. I think it’s important that they talk to graduates who have recently gone through the things they’re about to face. I’d expect people to be trainees for at least two years, and I’d expect them to be juniors for a couple of years after that. We have a buddy system here that partners people up with those who are more experienced.
WP: You’re very much a part of the professional development programme.
CB: Yeah, we’re always looking for ways that we can help more. There will always be people saying we’re training people to take their jobs, and it can be hard trying to reassure them that they’ll always have more experience than these trainees.
WP: Do you think it makes you more employable to have hair as well as makeup as a key skill as a trainee?
CB: It is very important to have hair, and I think it’s a really good background to come from – not the be all and end all but a very useful skill to have. We talk to people of all ages, and we do tell the younger ones especially that they need to go and get a Saturday job in a salon, and then go and do their NVQ, and then go and work in a salon again for a couple of years and come back here when you’re 20. Have some experience – in fact, knowing what a bad job is means you’re more likely to recognise a good one. I’d always rather someone came to us with a work ethic. I think it’s important that they can work with people – I often get students asking how you get your design on an actor who doesn’t want it, and I always tell them that you make sure you don’t end up in that position – if you’ve been talking – and listening – to the actor the whole time, then they’ll be comfortable as it will be very much their design. It’s a relationship of trust. We’re working ultimately for the director and the production – one of our most important jobs is just to make sure that the actor is in a good place in the mornings. It’s one of the hardest things for students to understand. I did a talk at Cinemagic in Belfast and one of the students asked what I enjoy most about my job and I said that I really love watching good actors, you can never underestimate what an actor is going to bring to the table. When I was doing Legend with Tom Hardy, there’s no way we could have done those two different looks (for Reggie and Ronnie Kray) in the 25 minutes that we ended up having to do, without Tom bringing what he brings. It wasn’t a lot of big prosthetics – we dropped his hairline and he does what he does. A good actor is worth their salt – you work with people like Julie Walters, Brendan Gleeson and Hugh (Grant) on Paddington 2 – they totally embrace it.
WP: Back to students, how far into the course are they before you get a feel for how you’re going to use them?
CB: The first few weeks of the course everybody is feeling their feet – even though we have quite a few very qualified people join us who’ve worked in hair, makeup, salons – for the first few weeks everyone flails about a little bit, and then about six weeks in you can see everyone getting into their rhythm and their natural flair starts coming out. By the time bootcamp comes around at the end, you get a good idea of where the talents are. But then, say that, what I’ve learnt over the years running the school, it’s not always the person who has the art degree or whatever – a lot of the time, it’s down to the personality of the person, and that drive to keep going and be resilient, they don’t have an artistic temperament – they have work ethic that comes with it. If people ask what I want out of a trainee: in the first week, I expect to be telling them what to do. By the second week, I don’t expect to be telling them what to do every day. You need somebody with initiative, who can pre-empt what you need, not going to be asking you questions, knows when you’re thinking about other things, who can read people – and we can’t really teach that. That comes from their families and the way they’ve been raised.
WP: What’s next for the school and for you?
CB: We finish filming Aladdin at the end of January, and I’m taking a month off to move house – I’ve never taken a month off! Then who knows… The school is ticking along nicely – I think the next thing is to make Petar actually do the course, so he knows what his students have to go through! We have no plans to expand as of yet, but who knows in a couple of years? Never say never.
WP: What is it about a script that makes you want to work on it?
CB: A lot of the time, it’s been who the director is. When I did Constant Gardener, I was really intrigued with the director (Fernando Mierelles) and how he was going to deal with actors because he workshopped City of God for over a year and I really loved that film, found it really interesting. I think that having worked with Mike for that long, I find it really interesting in how directors integrate their work. A lot of it is to do with who the director is, but it’s kind of the script too. I’ve got my team so I can’t now go off and do personal stuff. They’ve been with me for so long and it’s an earned responsibility; I’ve collected them over the years. Lesa (Warrener)’s been with me for 20 years, Chloe (Meddings) since Casino Royale so that’s 10, Scarlett (McPherson)’s been with me for five and then I rotate my juniors and trainees – Charmaine (Fuller) has run my crowd for as long as I can remember and I’ve got Claire (Matthews) as mopping up crew. I think if I was to go off and do something on my own, then I’d lose all that. I think I’m at an age now that I like to pick projects we can all do. I don’t know what’s next – wait and see.
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