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How makeup designer Donald Mowat helped shape Blade Runner 2049’s future

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From getting Jared Leto’s blinding contacts halfway around the globe to picking the right shade of pink for a giant naked hologram woman

Photo: Alcon Entertainment

Most people haven’t heard of Donald Mowat, but they’ve likely seen his work in films like The Fighter, 8 Mile, The Departed, the James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, and now, Blade Runner 2049. Mowat is a longtime makeup designer whose work has earned a Primetime Emmy, a Saturn Award, two Hollywood Makeup Artists Guild awards, and two Gemini Awards. He was recently nominated for a BAFTA award for his work on Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Mowat has worked with director Denis Villeneuve multiple times, on Prisoners and Sicario, and he most recently partnered with Villeneuve again on the sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner. Though critics have largely been positive about the film, it's been a box office disappointment. But that may change once the film opens in China and Japan on October 27th.

A few days before Blade Runner 2049 was released in America, I spoke to Mowat by phone about his use of vision boards, the challenge of continuity, and how to pick the exact right shade of pink for a gigantic naked hologram woman.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Was it hard to visually stay true to the original Blade Runner while keeping things fresh for the new one?

Absolutely. It’s terrifying, because from my perspective, you don’t want to copy or plagiarize the original, which was so incredibly well done. I’m a little bit jealous, actually. And then trying to come up with what’s in our world… Denis is a very different director. I think we did scale it back, we kept it in reality very much, to create the characters, the palette. It was a challenge from a makeup point of view, because so many characters were introduced in this film with very, very little time in advance.

What kinds of conversations did you have with Denis Villeneuve during preproduction?

We’ve worked together before. He brought me on board. When the director is someone you know, it eliminates a lot of that anxiety. Everyone in film thinks their job and their craft is the most important thing in the world. But the thing with makeup that’s a little different is, we’re dealing with people, rather than things and objects or sets. Having worked with Denis before, I had the luxury of knowing what he will or won’t like, so when I do a very quick makeup test, or a board — every character, I put a mood board of photos, inspiration behind each character — I usually know he’ll go for it. And that’s having had the experience with our two other films, which were quite makeup-intensive.

What did the mood boards look like for your main characters?

In preproduction, I was working on another film. As a makeup designer, we don’t come in nearly as early [as other design crew]. Denis would send me reference photos and Dropboxes of things he was looking at. We kept circling back to androgyny — David Bowie, Tilda Swinton — and he would give me ideas. It might be Alexander McQueen as a fashion reference. And then I would go find toned-down versions. I think it’s very much how he likes to work, taking elements of things rather than copying or borrowing too many things. The film gets brought back into a kind of reality for the viewer, so for me, it’s a very nice way to work.

How different was your work on Blade Runner 2049 from your other films?

I found it kind of daunting. Ryan Gosling as K, you would never think on paper, “Oh, that’s going to be a lot of work.” It’s actually a lot of makeup with him on that. You know, there’s all the beat-up. He’s always going through something. He appears a little clean for points, he goes through the shower, cleans the wounds off, but that’s all me. The very first day of the film, we shot in the office with Robin Wright (who plays Joshi), but I had to establish how K looked from his fight with Sapper. That happens in the first scene of the film, but we didn’t shoot it until the last day in November. So tracking makeup from June to November on one guy, and what happens in this world, is very difficult. The audience would never know, nor should they. And I don’t think they would notice it. People have said, “Oh my God, Ryan looks really different.” That was all done out of sequence and out of continuity, but it still has to make sense to the audience, what’s happened to him.

Jared Leto’s eyes in the film are a creepy effect. How did you choose the lenses he wears?

That was really tricky — how we go about doing what we do in the makeup side of things is not so straightforward, because of the logistics. Jared was in Los Angeles. I was already in Budapest. He was traveling, going to Tokyo, so I was already calling after shooting for 13 or 14 hours on set. I was calling my eye doctor in Los Angeles — they do a lot of specialty lenses, like for Pirates of the Caribbean and all those films. We had two different styles made, hand-painted. But it caused me a tremendous amount of stress, because of the time frame for me to get them to Hungary. If something, God forbid, doesn’t work out, you’re really stuck. So your instincts have to be good, and every contact you’ve ever made, you will use as a makeup designer. You’re suddenly calling people in Slovenia and London and Toronto, and anywhere you can think. “Does anybody have any contacts for this?”

Those lenses, they’re called scleral lenses. They cover the whole eye. Because Jared really wanted to use the Method acting approach, they had to block his vision completely. They’re non-prescription, and they’re doubled up. So he really can’t see through them.

Image: Alcon Entertainment

Ana de Armas has a sequence in the film where she’s covered entirely in pink makeup. How did you choose the shade?

That was chest pain and high blood pressure. I knew that was coming. Denis and I spoke, and I had seen some artwork — it was a little bit misleading, because to me, the woman in the drawings they sent looked more red, like something from X-Men. Everyone interprets it differently. The color pink is interesting, because you could show four different people various shades of pink, and everyone will disagree on what color it is.

Ana de Armas is Cuban, so she doesn’t have white, white skin. You would think pink on a very white, ivory skin would really startling, but it’s not, because she is a cool color on a warm skin tone. It looked a bit strange, so we had to play with it a couple of times. Before I left Los Angeles for Budapest, I was panicking. I brought, I think, 15 or 20 bottles of various colors, thinking, “What if it changes? What if he wants red, what if they go blue? What kind of pink?” Then it was looking apricot. I mean, it seems so simple, but it really isn’t, because we had to figure it out and then do a test with her. I wish it had been in the film more. It was really beautiful.

Image: Alcon Entertainment

The bright, soft color contrasts really well with the grittiness of that scene. Was that done purposefully?

It mirrors this softness that happens, and what K wants. All that pink light ends up on his face, turning all of that blood dripping down his face — it’s really quite beautiful. And it feels like an homage to the original. When he pulls that bandage off his face, it felt quite beautiful, really.

Did you have a mental image of the film you wanted to convey?

The makeup for me is just not being noticed. I’m always happy when people don’t realize it, like, “You’re right, Ryan Gosling looks different. We’ve never seen him like that.” I’m always really flattered. I feel really happy that I’ve done the job, I’ve done it right, if people don’t start noticing it. I do find there are films where I’m so aware of what the makeup artists have done that it does take me out of the film. I think working with Ryan and certainly some of the other actors, like Jared, there was a certain kind of freedom. I don’t think it was distracting. I think it helped tell the story without being the story.

Ana de Armas with Donald Mowat on set.
Photo by Stephen Vaughan