Things we know about werewolves: they go to the gym a lot, they take their shirts off when it starts raining, they transform when girls don’t fancy them, they’re Native Americans, they’re made of pixels, they’re really, really bad at acting.
Let’s start again. Back in 1941, back before New Moon and Taylor Lauter, The Wolf Man and Lon Chaney clawed out the real template for the modern movie lycanthrope. And in March 2006 – just two months after Eli Roth’s Hostel kickstarted an ugly new “torture-porn” fad for the horror genre – Universal Pictures announced they were reaching through the cobwebs into their darkest vaults to resurrect one of their greatest monsters. The Wolfman would howl again.
Benicio del Toro signed to play the tortured man who transforms into a murderous lycanthrope. Se7en and Sleepy Hollow scripter Andrew Kevin Walker would write the screenplay and Mark Romanek – the TV commercial stylist and One Hour Photo director – was set helm his eagerly-awaited second movie.
On paper, it looked thrilling. And no one was more thrilled than make-up maestro Rick Baker. Just was just one name missing from the roster: his name. “I was probably eight years old when I saw the original Wolf Man,” he recalls. “It was the film that really made me want to become a makeup artist.” He didn’t even wait for Universal to find him – he called them. They hired him instantly.
Baker’s last job was turning Robert Downey Jr into a black man for Tropic Thunder. But his CV is coated in four decades of fur: King Kong (1976), The Howling (1981), Harry And The Hendersons (1987), Gorillas In The Mist (1988), Gremlins 2 (1990), Wolf (1994), Mighty Joe Young (1998), The Grinch (2000), Planet Of The Apes (2001), Cursed (2005), King Kong (2005)…
Oh. And a little ‘80s scare-flick called An American Werewolf In London. Brilliantly combining prosthetics with animatronic body-parts, Baker’s groundbreaking, skin-splitting, bone-jutting transformation work changed actor David Naughton from a naked man to the snarling hell-hound – and changed the face of horror makeup. How amazing? So amazing that the Academy Awards invented the Outstanding Achievement In Makeup category just so they could honour him. Baker had been waiting his entire career for a chance to top that sequence. The Wolf Man remake was it. “Well, I was hoping so,” says Baker, ruefully. “Yeah. It turned out not to be. Even though I was pretty certain in my head what The Wolfman should be, nobody else seemed to be…”
Two years later, there was no sign of The Wolfman – or its director. Just a couple of months before cameras were set to roll, Romanek left and Universal desperate put the call out for a last-minute replacement. Worryingly for horror hardcore, none of the names were exactly renowned scaremongers. Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) led a ragtag pack of Frank Darabont (The Majestic), James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma), Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3), Bill Condon (Chicago), Martin Campbell (Casino Royale). Between them, they had every genre covered – except the one that mattered.
One month after Romanek bailed, Johnston got the nod. “They basically told me they had a director who had just walked off the show,” remembers Johnston. “They wanted to stick to the original shooting schedule, which meant they wanted to start in about three weeks. So they asked me, ‘Can you shoot this film for this much money and this many days?’ And I said, ‘Of course!’”
Mark Romanek, of course, had said something rather different. Didn’t think so at all. “I think that there was a disagreement mostly over what was required to make the film,” reveals Johnston. “You never know the full story. And there are several sides to this story. But I think that basically Mark felt that he needed more shooting days and more money to make the film the way that he wanted to make it. And the studio was not willing to go there. I think that there were also probably creative differences, but I wasn’t really privy to all those discussions. When I came on, it was like, ‘Okay, that chapter’s closed. Move on.’”
So could The Wolfman be done? Or did Johnston just need the work? His last film was Hidalgo, way back in 2004. This was a massive chance to stamp his name back on the Hollywood map.”Well… um… It was a very tight shooting schedule and a very tight budget,” admits Johnston, with a sigh. “But if this was a job I wanted, I wasn’t going to say, ‘Mark Romanek was right! It can’t be done for this much money and this much time…’” Are we saying that Romanek was right, then? “Yeah… well… What I did say was, if you don’t add any more pages to the script, I think we’re very close to being able to make this film. At that point, I believe it was about a 105-page script. Of course, soon after I signed on, we added 17 pages to the draft!”
In fact, it was star and producer Benicio del Toro who insisted scenes be put back in – none of it flesh-ripping action, all of it character development between del Toro’s character and his father (Anthony Hopkins) that had been snipped for budgetary reasons. “The movie needed them, the actors wanted them and I agreed,” says Johnston. “This is a completely different story to the original. You’ll be reminded of the original but it’s an updated retelling of a classic Wolf Man story. It’s a classic retelling of a Gothic horror film.”
Prowling back to the late-1880s Gothic heartland of Victorian England, the Wolfman script sees Lawrence Talbot (del Toro) back in the sleepy hamlet of Blackmore for the first time since his mother died. Talbot’s childhood died with her and he’s spent decades trying to forget. But following the strange disappearance of his brother, he learns that something wild, brutal and blood-hungry is murdering the villagers. With suspicious Scotland Yard inspector Aberline investigating, Talbot joins the hunt – only to discovers that the beast lies within… And it’s really hairy.
As Johnston signed on, that script was being rewritten by David Self, the man behind ace Armageddon thriller Thirteen Days and Sam Mendes’ Road To Perdition. Then the writer’s strike began. It was starting to look like The Wolfman was cursed. “The studio had spent a lot of money already, before a frame of film was shot,” explains Johnston. “There was a lot of angst and, I won’t say panic, but it was close to that. I just said, we’ve got to make this work. And that, for better or worse, I’m not going make Mark Romanek’s film or the producers’ film or the studio’s film. If it’s got my name on it, it’s going to be my film. I will say that, now having finished it, the film isn’t a completely different animal to the film that Mark Romanek would have made.”
It was too late for Johnston make any major transformations to The Wolfman, but he scored one huge casting, signing Hugo Weaving to play Inspector Aberline. The question needed to be asked, though. Could the director of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids? really have an eye for horror? “To me, there’s a level of violence and gore and bloodshed here that’s integral to the story and the characters and it’s definitely a justified R-rating. With a film like this, you don’t want people to be disappointed but you don’t want to make anybody sick.”
Isn’t that what audiences want in modern horror? The torture-genre wave finally seems to have bled itself dry, but can an old-fashioned Gothic horror movie still success in these post-Abu Ghraib times? “Believe me, I was a little concerned about that initially when they talked to me,” admits Baker.“Personally, I think those torture-porn movies are pretty sick. I think it’s one thing when it’s a human killing another human in the most graphic way possible. When it’s a cursed guy beyond his control, that doesn’t seem to bother me so much! But I don’t know whether a modern audience – kids who grew up on all the CG stuff – would actually accept this. But then again, it could be something that’s brand new to then. They probably haven’t seen the original Wolf Man or even seen a guy in makeup and they might find it really cool. We definitely do some pretty horrible things to people. I don’t know how much I supposed to talk about pulling chunks of flesh out and stuff! But he is a Wolf Man and he kills people. And he’s got some big teeth and some big claws so he does some serious damage…”
The secret, says Johnston, was discovering a taste for blood without being blinded by red mist. “That means you look for interesting ways to dispatch the victims that you haven’t seen before. There’s no shortage of blood and carnage. I think our blood budget tripled on this picture! It’s not cartoony at all.” Not hard to guess what Johnston is hinting at – the last time Universal’s monsters clambered out of the crypt, no one was scared. Even when it was Wolverine himself trying to slay them. “What we didn’t want to do was the Van Helsing thing,” nods Johnston. “Whether the audience is conscious of it or not, when they know it’s a CG character, it runs the risk of taking you of the story. Which is why I always wanted to use Benicio in makeup once we complete the transformation.”
True, Johnson was no hardcore horror fan. But like Baker and del Toro, he’d fallen in love with Universal’s monster movies as he was growing up. And not unlike Baker, he’d become a visual-effects expert, working on the original Stars Wars trilogy before moving into the director’s chair.
Looking to pay homage to the original Wolf Man designed by ‘40s makeup artist Jack Pierce, Baker had been working on the look of the Wolf Man for months. It felt like years. He’d created hundred of designs for the creature. It felt like thousands. “I ended up doing a whole shitload of designs,” he says. “Eventually, I actually did a makeup on myself and showed them that.” And? “And they still couldn’t decide!” Baker finally had enough. “I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna do what I think is right. So I pretty much did what I did seven months before.”
Applying that make-up to del Toro took hours. Baker and his team finally got it down to three on, and one hour off. Luckily for them, del Toro was almost as crazy about Universal horror classics as Baker. Not that it made the makeup any easier. “Those were the movies I would stay up to watch when I was a kid,” he tells Total Film. Not that it made the makeup any easier. “The make-up was not easy,” he shakes his head. “If I want to say something or do something, I have to take off my teeth. I walked around with a team that had to take off my hands so I could scratch myself or eat… But I did scare people! ”
What Baker didn’t get to do was tackle del Toro’s transformation from man to wolf. “In American Werewolf, we had a naked man and a four-legged hound from hell, we had a really big range to go,” explains Baker.. “Here we go from Benicio del Toro, who’s practically a fucking wolf man already, to Benicio del Toro with some hair on his face. We’ve seen that shit so many times…” He’s still a little disappointed. “I wanted to use animatronics. But it’s the digital age, isn’t it? When you get an actor in a great makeup on a really cool set and he looks at his face in the mirror and there ‘s a different face looking back at him… magic happens. Magic happens that you’re not going to get on a green-screen.”
That magic is what Johnston, Baker and del Toro are hoping will make the Wolf Man tear up the box office. “From the feedback I’ve gotten from audiences, the one consistent not e is that they’re so glad we’re not doing a slasher film and it’s not shot like the Bourne movies. It requires an audience to get involved. I think that the reason people are responding to it, they go expecting it to be something else.”
If they’re expecting New Moon, they’re in for a shock. That kind of shock, according to del Toro, that’s exactly what everyone – from the kids to the kill-junkies have all been looking for. “There’s gore and then there’s gore. I think this one has GORE,” he says. “But it has a story, too. It’ll be interesting to think what teens might think. It’s not like we’re schooling them. I just think that they might start discovering these old movies, like the Boris Karloffs, and realise that they’re real McCoy.” So The Wolfman isn’t for Team Jacob. Del Toro just stares blankly. “Who?” Exactly.
Publication: Total Film