A few months back, I wrote the article 15 90s Things I Like. One of the projects I mentioned was Dick Tracy, and my newest interview subject, John Caglione Jr., is a large reason why I loved that movie so much. With his Oscar-winning makeup designs, created alongside Doug Drexler, John Caglione Jr. helped bring the characters of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip to life.
There’s more to John than that, though, as he’s been creating makeup since he was a teenager and one of the youngest staff members at Saturday Night Live. He’s worked with legendary directors like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, his working relationship with Al Pacino, which began on Dick Tracy, has been going on for over three decades now, and he’s still working to this day.
John took the time out of his schedule to speak to me on Monday, May 25th, and I hope you all enjoy getting to know this icon of entertainment makeup.
Say hello to John Caglione Jr.!
Johnny: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
John: Thank you for asking. I appreciate it.
Johnny: No problem. I’ve got my questions all ready to go, so let’s jump right in. You got your start at NBC, including creating makeup for Saturday Night Live. What was it like to be working on SNL in its’ first bloom of success?
John: Wow. Well, it was kind of MY first bloom of success because I was coming right out of high school. I got that job through Dick Smith, the greatest makeup artist of all time. I was with him a couple of years, and he recommended me. I was just doing high school plays, and then when I graduated high school, I got that job at NBC, including SNL. It was my college of makeup knowledge, really. We just hit the ground running, and working with the Not Ready For Prime Time Players was just unbelievable. I mean, just to be around that kind of talent was awe-inspiring.
Johnny: I can imagine.
John: It was amazing, seeing the development of The Blues Brothers and Dan Aykroyd, the greatest sketch comedy artist of all time, and meeting Bill Murray. Actually, Bill Murray and I came in the same year. I missed the first season, and then in ’76 I graduated high school, so I came in on the second season of SNL. Me and Bill Murray were the new guys on the second season, and it was just amazing. At the time, you’re thinking, “This is just a great TV show. This is going to be fun”, but look what it’s turned into, Johnny.
Johnny: Definitely. What was the most creative makeup design you came up with at SNL?
John: Well, back in those days, there wasn’t the big budget like the guys have on Saturday Night Live today, doing all this amazing. Louie Zakarian is the makeup department head there, and I don’t know what their budget is, but he has a couple of guys in the shop and a big onset crew. Back in those days, it was just a ballcap and greasepaint, but I guess the biggest thing was putting on some Coneheads, and that was kind of a tall order, pardon the pun. We did those, but a lot of that stuff was really just out of your kit/go for it stuff. Even when Dan Aykroyd would play Jimmy Carter, you know, he still kept his mustache (laughing), and Jimmy Carter didn’t have a mustache, so that was kind of the way it went. You’re doing makeup on these great performers, these genius talents, and the material was there. The writing was so strong, and their comedic prowess was the whole thing, so all you had to do was help get them to a certain place. Put briefly, the biggest effort was the Coneheads every once in a while, and some ballcaps and things like that. Pretty simple.
Johnny: Alright. Staying with SNL, all the original cast members, and most of the original writers and crew, bailed on SNL before the infamous Season 6. Did you do any work on the show in Seasons 6 and 7 before leaving for your film career?
John: Is that where Piscopo and Murphy came in?
Johnny: That was the first season for them, yeah.
John: Yeah. I kind of started that year, and then I started to get more film work. I did a little work with Piscopo and Murphy, and that was about my sixth year before I left staff. I was with Jean Doumanian and that group a little bit, and then I went off and did film work, so I wasn’t there the whole season, maybe not even half that season, but that was an amazing time being at NBC in those days. Being in New York in the 1970s was just the coolest, you know?
Johnny: Absolutely. I have to ask this: While working at NBC, did you ever work on any of the Bob Hope specials, as his specials often featured sketches that required makeup work?
John: Yes, I did one. I worked on a Bob Hope show on the Intrepid, which was docked in New York. Don Knotts and Charo were on the show, and that was a really cool time, though I don’t remember doing any major character makeup on them. It was great to work on that show, though, but NBC was great altogether. When I wasn’t doing SNL, I was doing other shows because I was a staff makeup artist there. That’s cool, man. Nobody’s ever asked me that question about doing the Bob Hope show. That was great.
Johnny: I have to ask: Do you have any stories about Don Knotts or Charo?
John: (Laughing) I don’t, really. I wish I did, but it was pretty straightforward. I remember meeting Bob Hope’s personal makeup artist who was with him for years. I don’t remember his name, but he was so nice to me, so I met him and worked with him a little bit, but that’s all I can tell you.
Johnny: Fair enough. Moving into film, one of your earliest jobs was as a makeup effects assistant on Friday The 13th, Part II.
Johnny: What was it like to make the jump to theatrical filmmaking, and what do you think has given the Friday The 13th franchise the staying power it has?
John: Are they still making Friday The 13th movies?
Johnny: Not officially, but its’ impact is still being felt in fan films that are being made.
John: Yeah. The only one I did was Friday The 13th, Part II. I was still working quite a lot at NBC, and I was working under Carl Fullerton, who was the department head special effects makeup artist on Friday The 13th, Part II. That was just an amazing experience because Carl Fullerton is a really great makeup artist. He was Dick Smith’s main guy on Altered States and The Hunger, so working under Carl was really where I learned all my techniques on making molds and sculptures and designs. I mean, I really learned under Carl, and that was just a trip, you know? Just a great experience. I don’t know why that formula stll works. I guess it’s the combination of sex and violence, maybe? I don’t know. What do you think?
Johnny: I definitely think that plays a part.
John: T&A and violence, I guess. I know that sounds bad.
Johnny: You know, you’re actually the third person with involvement in Friday The 13th, Part II that I’ve spoken to. The first two were Kirsten Baker and Lauren-Marie Taylor, whom I met at the Chiller Theatre convention in October of 2016. I found both of them to be very friendly.
John: Oh, cool. You know, I didn’t get to go on set very much, which kind of bummed me out, but I was in the lab most of my time on the film, just helping Carl build stuff. He was just amazing, so thank you, Carl Fullerton, for hiring me. That was great.
Johnny: Very cool. Moving into 1982, you worked with Frank Henenlotter on the cult classic Basket Case.
John: Yeah (laughing).
Johnny: A very disturbing movie, it’s said that one scene caused the entire crew to walk out. Were you one of them, or did you stay on to make sure the effects worked, or in case they needed touch-ups?
John: I stayed on it, I guess. From what I can remember, everybody was on and off that job. I didn’t know that the crew walked. Well, I wasn’t a part of that, that I can tell you. I was brought on by Kevin Haney, who was really in charge and needed some help. I came in and made the little Belial. In the surgical scene, I did the scalpel face person and peripheral things. That was a blast. Look what happened to that film. It became a cult classic. Frank was cool, and I think I got paid $250. I was just starting out, so I was like, “This is great”. I had a great time on it. No pressure…Just have fun and see what you can come up with. We shot up in Glen Falls, too, and it was nice to go upstate and shoot close to home. We also went to Alphabet City in New York. That was a cool experience. I learned a lot.
Johnny: That was definitely an interesting movie, and a good one. To move to 1983, you worked alongside your mentor, Dick Smith, on The Hunger. That movie was very stylish, befitting its’ stars David Bowie and Catherine Deneueve. What was it like to help create makeup for style icons like them?
John: I worked a tiny little bit in the lab with Dick, but the thing I really worked with Dick on was putting on the Bowie makeup when they were shooting in New York for about a week. I was just helping apply the makeup to Bowie on set, helping Dick maintain it and touch-up. I was just his wingman, the assistant applictor on set, and I had to pinch myself. Here I was, helping Dick Smith put on an incredible old-age makeup he designed, and it was just unbelievable, man. Bowie was the coolest, such a nice, down-to-earth guy. David was asking me questions about my family, and asking me to bring in pictures of them as he had some small kids at the time. Here I am with Dick Smith and David Bowie, helping put on his beautiful makeup, and being onset with Dick was like I died and went to heaven. It was unbelievable.
Johnny: That’s an amazing story. Two great legends in their fields, and how lucky you were to work with them…
John: Right. David Bowie and Dick Smith…Who would’ve ever thought that combo would take place? It’s just unbelievable. You’re right. I was just thrilled to be there.
Johnny: That same year, you created makeup effects for the Woody Allen movie Zelig. As the movie was about a man who showed up at many historical events and blended in with his surroundings, what were, respectively, the easiest and hardest effects to create for that film?
John: That was really an amazing situation to be in. That was recommended by Dick Smith, and to get to work with the great cinematographer Gordon Willis, who shot that film, was just amazing. The visual effects, for the day, were pretty outstanding with what they did, matteing Woody Allen into real newsreel footage. The trickiest makeup was the first one we tested, which was when Woody transforms into a black jazz musician. The first makeup that I did was a whole facial appliance makeup on Woody, and he really looked it. Even Gordon Willis was like, “Wow, this is amazing. He looks just like a black jazz musician, but you really don’t see Woody in the makeup anymore”, so I learned a really great lesson on the film. When you have an iconic face like Woody Allen’s, the idea is to not lose it. With all the makeups I did, black jazz musician, an obese guy, American Indian, I tailored them to fit the famous face of Woody Allen, so we would not lose sight of how that was Woody in the makeup. That was an important lesson, learned very early on, in designing a character makeup on a famous face. Getting to work with Gordon Willis, who shot The Godfather, was great, and to work with Woody Allen, of course, when I was 24 or 25 years old, was pretty amazing.
Johnny: Going into 1984, you helped create the effects for the titular creatures in C.H.U.D, a New York-based horror movie like Basket Case and The Hunger. Would you say that the condition of the city in the 80s made it a suitable setting for horror movies, or was it just coincidental?
John: (Laughing) Yeah, it did kind of fit. New York still had that gritty look to it. I mean, if you look at Taxi Driver, that’s the city I grew up in. The stars aligned for that film and its’ look…Great production value as the city was still kind of gritty. That was a tough Summer shooting C.H.U.D because I think we had a heatwave during the filming of it, and we had to have oxygen tanks on the set because the C.H.U.D masks had those guys covered in heavy foam rubber heads and hands and arms. Shooting in the heat was difficult, but we got through it.
Johnny: You did, and the movie remains a cult classic to this day.
John: It does. How about that?
Johnny: Moving into 1986, you worked on Manhunter, the first movie based on Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels. Did you read the novel Red Dragon before signing on for the project, and if so, did Harris’ words help to create the visual concepts you came up with for the movie?
John: I didn’t read the Harris novel. I went right off the script. Getting the sript first, and then meeting Michael Mann and getting his take on it, was the first thing I remember doing. Michael had a lot of character notes on top of the script, so I had a sense of Dolarhyde and the other characters we were involved in creating, so it was during the film that I pulled out the Harris novel and started going through it a little bit. They had just started prepping Manhunter when they called me for that, and so that was it. I should mention to you also that, during the time of C.H.U.D and Manhunter, I also worked on The Cotton Club. I know we’ll get to Dick Tracy, but just to let you know, on The Cotton Club, I was working with production designer Richard Sylbert, who would go on to be production designer on Dick Tracy, and Barrie Osborne, who would produce Dick Tracy, so I was meeting these people along the way. On The Cotton Club, I needed help as they wanted to shoot some additional makeup effects. I was in charge of prosthetic design on The Cotton Club, so I called Dick Smith and said, “I need somebody at the lab to help me get this stuff done”. He recommended Doug Drexler. I brought Doug on board to help me a little on The Cotton Club, and then as I got other jobs, like Manhunter and C.H.U.D, I called in Doug and we worked really well together. We did a lot of work together in those years. I was meeting all these people along the way, and that will lead us to Dick Tracy.
Johnny: Since you bring up The Cotton Club, I do have to ask: That movie had a pretty troubled production. I guess you kind of answered this, but was it easy for you to work on The Cotton Club, or was it just as hard as what Francis Ford Copolla had to deal with?
John: I had a ball on The Cotton Club. It was just unbelievable to be on the job. Yeah, there were moments when they were trying to work out Francis’ contract, and so we shut down for a week or two, from what I can remember, and then we came back, but we went right through it. We filmed for a long time at Astoria Studios and all over the city. On The Cotton Club, I was recommended by Dick Smith. I had to go in with Dick to meet Francis Copolla and Bob Evans at Bob’s office in Astoria Studios, so here I am, at either 26 or 27, sitting with the guys who had actually created The Godfather films, and that was pretty amazing. I did makeup on James Remar, who played Dutch Schultz. That was a makeup I did every day, and I think I applied over 100 rubber noses to James. I think he wanted to kill me by the end of it (laughing), but I loved working on it.
That was a big deal because, in a way, The Cotton Club, and meeting people like costume designer Milena Canonero and the aforementioned Richard Sylbert and Barrie Osborne, would lead to Dick Tracy as they were very strong allies of mine. They let Warren know there was “a guy in New York who you may want to take a look at”. It’s amazing the way you can do a film, and many years later, people are recommending you. I think, in a way, if I hadn’t done The Cotton Club, and if Dick Smith hadn’t recommended me, I don’t know if I would’ve worked on Dick Tracy.
Johnny: Well, before we get to Dick Tracy, in 1988, you worked on the remake of The Blob. A rather darker interpretation of the story, there were some nasty scenes in the movie, as shown in stills on IMDB. Did you find yourself being grossed out by your work on that movie or, for that matter, any of the other movies you’ve done?
John: (Laughing) Well, on The Blob, Tony Gardner was the guy who did most of the designing, so all I did was some lifecasts for them of some actors who were in New York, just casts of actors and certain expressions for him, and then I shipped all the molds to Tony. I didn’t do any creative work. All the art work and effects stuff you see in The Blob is his work. If it grossed you out, it’s because of Tony, not me (laughing).
Johnny: Alright. Well, we now come to the big project, 1990’s Dick Tracy, the movie where I first saw your work in action, as well as the first of what would be many collaborations with Al Pacino. As I’m sure you read the comic strip, what was it like to help bring these characters to life?
John: Oh, man. To take Chester Gould’s beautiful, incredible line drawings…Can you imagine that kind of position to be in? It was like the stars aligned. It was like, “Wow, this is an amazing spot to be in”, but we wanted to stay true to Chester Gould’s drawings because they worked for over 50 years at that point, so you don’t want to deviate too far from the original. I think the only real original design off the drawing came when we were designing Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice makeup because Al had a lot of input in that design. That was tailor-designed, but only that character. Chester Gould’s drawings were our bible, so Doug and I really wanted to keep that design ethic. Our job was just to translate that drawing as we saw it, and as best we could, so they could stand next to Warren and not look too far out, not look too much like a cartoon. That was basically our design ethic, as I recall it.
Johnny: You certainly did an amazing job with it. It definitely made a great impact on me as a seven-year-old.
John: Oh, you were seven? (Laughing) You were the perfect audience for that movie, right?
Johnny: Absolutely. I loved that movie so much that, for the first half of my 2nd grade year, I wanted to call myself Dick Tracy because I thought the character was so cool.
John: Aww. That’s awesome, man (laughing). My daughter was young, too, at the time. I think she might have been six or seven. She was really affected by the film. I lived it through a child’s eyes. It was special to a lot of little kids, my daughter included, and you.
Johnny: It definitely made a big impact on me. I gave up on calling myself Dick Tracy after I fell sick on my eighth birthday in 1990. I don’t know how the two were connected, but I just kind of gave up and returned to my regular name, but my teacher was kind enough to indulge me for the first half of the year.
John: That’s great. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened?
Johnny: It was just a generic flu that happened on my birthday.
Johnny: When it comes to Dick Tracy, I do have to ask: Do you have any Madonna stories?
John: Well, she was really nice. She would come in the trailer, and hang out and watch us do stuff, because she was curious about the prosthetics, so once or twice she would jump in there. My daughter would come to the set, and she just adored Madonna, so I didn’t tell my daughter Lauren that she was going to meet Madonna on the backlot at Universal. Madonna and I set it up, and I said, “Lauren, go knock on that door. Someone’s in there who wants to talk to you”. She opens up the door, and it’s Madonna!
John: My daughter said she just felt sick (laughing). She just froze, and Madonna pulled her in the trailer for a little while, and hung out with her and talked with her. It was just a great experience for Lauren, so those are the perks, but not too many other Madonna stories there. She was The Blank in the film, and we had to put the mask on her for the reveal, but we didn’t deal too much with Madonna as she didn’t wear too many prosthetics. Richard Dean, the beauty makeup artist, did her makeup, and he did a beautiful job, as did Cheri Minns, who was the department head on the straight makeup. They did a great job on her. We got to watch those cool performances, Pacino and her together. We were on the set, and watching that be filmed all day was such a treat.
Johnny: Absolutely, and a bigger treat came when you won an Oscar for your makeup work on Dick Tracy.
John: (Laughing) Yeah. Unbelievable.
Johnny: What was going through your mind on Oscar night in 1991, and when you were announced as the winner, what was it like to win the prize?
John: Well, it’s surreal. I don’t know what I can say that anyone else has ever said, but in a way, I’m not a public speaker. I’m a behind-the-camera person, so a part of me was like, “I’m really as close as I think I should get. I’m having fun, and if we don’t win, that’s okay”. You know, you’re a nervous wreck, man. I was sitting in the audience. Martin Scorcese was right behind me with the Goodfellas group, and Al Pacino was to my left. I was like, “What’s happening?”, and then the miracle: We won! I was very, very proud to be on stage. I mean, I’ll never forget looking off the stage into the audience, and Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart are sitting in the first or second row, center. You’re looking at Jimmy Stewart and YOU’RE on stage, and Jimmy Stewart’s applauding you. I couldn’t be more proud, being on stage with Doug Drexler and sharing that Oscar with him, because he really worked his butt off and he was a great partner, and really supportive. That was a great situation, to share that with Doug. I really want to say that because he was really great, and I miss all the years working with him. I really do. We were like the great Martin and Lewis of makeup, and I never had a situation, before or after the 15 years I worked with Doug, bringing him on Manhunter and C.H.U.D and all those films, eventually leading to Dick Tracy. I miss working with the guy.
Johnny: Yeah, I can definitely see why. That movie, like I said, was great. I just really wish that Disney, back in the days when they loaded certain DVDs with special features, had done a special edition for Dick Tracy, because that movie definitely deserved it, but I’ve noticed that Disney has an odd relationship with most of their Touchstone Pictures releases now. Unless it’s a certain title like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or The Nightmare Before Christmas, they kind of like to pretend that Touchstone Pictures didn’t exist.
John: No kidding, like even The Rocketeer? There were some really good movies they did in those years.
Johnny: It’s just really disappointing. I mean, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has picked up the slack and given a bunch of Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures titles the DVD treatments they deserved. I just wish they could do the same for Dick Tracy.
John: Yeah. That’s strange. Wasn’t Honey, I Shrunk The Kids a Touchstone film?
Johnny: No, that was Disney, but that, too, was a barebones DVD release that only got a pan-and-scan transfer.
Johnny: I mean, it did get a widescreen Blu-Ray, but that’s only available through Disney Movie Club, and it doesn’t have any special features, not that the DVD did, either…Not even a trailer.
John: Huh. That’s wild, and they’re still that way today.
Johnny: Pretty much.
John: You would think they would want to make money, to pull these films out and get them back out. That’s revenue, hidden treasure.
Johnny: Definitely, but to go away from Disney and back to you, in 1992 you created prosthetic effects for Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in the biopic Chaplin. What went into that project?
John: That’s one of the films I look at and go, “I wish I had more time”, you know? I’m a big Chaplin fan from the very beginning. I was watching the Charlie Chaplin Film Festival when I was in grade school on PBS up in Troy. My mother would let me stay home and watch Chaplin. It was an education for me. We were called in very late on Chaplin. They were deep into the shoot. There’s a scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie, if I recall correctly, is in his early 60s and about to exile the United States, and then he’s on the back of the Queen Mary, leaving the country. When you see those two or three scenes, that’s the actual makeup tests. I designed those makeups, and we had about a week to put those together. We didn’t have time to test. We had to go for the shoot, so that’s the way Chaplin went for me (laughing), and I wish I had more time on that shoot because it’s just a personal prestige picture, and Robert Downey Jr. was amazing in it, wasn’t he? He was just unbelivable.
Johnny: He was.
John: I remember Robert saying to me one time, on the second or third day, “Johnny, if I start thinking about who I’m playing, I’m going to blow it”, but he did a great job. That was a rush job, a really rushed job.
Johnny: Alright. Well, a project where you had more time was another collaboration with Al Pacino when you created the makeup for his production of Richard III, as shown in the documentary Looking For Richard. What’s the biggest difference between stage makeup and screen makeup?
John: Well, the obvious is the distance in theater. Depending on the size of the theater and the effects, it’s more of a broad look when you’re designing a theater makeup. It’s a larger-than-life kind of design, depending on the number of the audience in the theater. I did Golda’s Balcony, where I had to makeup Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir. It was just a nose, paint and a wig, but the theater was not large, so the design of it was almost like a TV makeup. I guess theater is more exaggerated, and film and television are definitely a more hyper-realistic approach to the design of it, because they’re going to do close-ups in film and television. With Al, the whole purpose of designing any makeup for him is to help his performance, and I learned that way back with Woody Allen, as we discussed about Zelig. You don’t want to lose the actor. Even in Dick Tracy, you can still tell it’s Al Pacino in that makeup. We started out doing designs on Al for Dick Tracy, and we had these generic appliances because we thought, on Dick Tracy, we were going to do a lot of the background actors in prosthetics. We had tons of different pieces, and we did all these makeup tests. We had these big chins and noses on Al for these tests, and I have pictures of him that are amazing, but we narrowed it down to a nose, lip and chin, and his hairstyle, because Al felt he wanted to look like a split between Hitler and Groucho Marx, so that was kind of a visual. With Al on all the jobs since Dick Tracy, it’s just basically gilding the lily and helping Al feel the performance.
Johnny: Well, it’s definitely worked out well.
John: It has. Thank you, Warren Beatty, for hiring me on Dick Tracy because that’s where I met Al, and that’s a long relationship I’ll probably never have with an actor again.
Johnny: Well, I’ll have some more questions about him later, but in the meantime, moving into 1997, you created makeup for Johnny Depp’s directorial debut, The Brave. The movie was never released officially in the United States, so do you wish American audiences had had the chance to see your work on the project?
John: Yeah, My work was not tons of stuff, really, just some stuff on Johnny, tattoos and wounds and things, but we did some fun makeup tests on Johnny. He was playing a Native American, and he really wanted to transform and take a look at that, so I did this whole Native American with chiseled cheekbones and things on his face to make him look more rugged. It was way too much and we didn’t use it, but Johnny was great. He’s the great character actor of our day, so we did a lot of tests and we got to play around with a lot of stuff. The movie’s not bad. It’s pretty dark. Have you seen it?
Johnny: No. I only read about it in Nathan Rabin’s former A.V Club column My Year Of Flops.
John: Yeah, but we had a lot of fun shooting it. I’ll tell you that walking around the Mojave Desert in California with Johnny was a blast. It was a very loose shoot, very relaxed, and Marlon Brando was in it! I got to go into Marlon Brando’s trailer, and help him with his makeup. It was amazing. I never thought I’d get the chance to help out Marlon Brando, and there I was, alongside Johnny Depp.
Johnny: That’s fantastic.
John: That was a winning film for me, just on a personal level, just unbelievable, and we had just come off of Donnie Brasco, which was a blast, too. That was where Johnny knew me because he wore fake sideburns and everything for Donnie Brasco as he couldn’t grow those long 70s sideburns. I put them on him every day, and I was department head on Donnie Brasco. Al brought me into that, and that’s where I met Johnny Depp, and after that, he went off and directed The Brave.
Johnny: Well, I certainly hope The Brave will get a domestic release one day.
John: Yeah, I hope so.
Johnny: Also in 1997, you worked with Steven Spielberg on Amistad, What was it like to work with a legend like him?
John: Oh, man. Unbelievable. I mean, I was just one of the New York additional crew. I wasn’t in charge, I think. John Blake was on it from California. He was a really great artist, and Ve Neill was on it as head of the makeup department. Christine Beverdige was on it, who is Anthony Hopkins’ makeup artist. I was just one of the additional New York guys. I was in charge of the background, laying out the muttonchops and the mass production of it all. I didn’t really do any principle cast, but it was unbelievable. I live out on Long Island, and Amistad was shooting up in Massachusetts. I would drive out to Orient Point to take the ferry as I could drive the car onto it. It takes you to Rhode Island, and you just drive up to Boston. We were staying at a hotel where the production office was. I got there at about 7:00 or 8:00 PM at night. I parked the car, I got my gear, and I was going up to the production office. I get in the elevator, and just before the doors close, who jumps in but Steven Spielberg? (Laughing) It’s me and Steven Spielberg in the elevator going to the production office, and he could tell I was nervous. He said, “Hi, I’m Steven”, and I said, “I know who you are!”, and that was my very first moment, arriving into the Amistad production office with Steven Spielberg. (Laughing) How cool is that?
Johnny: Very cool.
John: I was just kicking around, doing background and other things. I think I worked on it for about a month or so.
Johnny: Alright. Moving into 2003, you worked with Al Pacino on the HBO miniseries Angels In America, where you created the effects for Pacino’s portrayal of the late Roy Cohn. As Cohn was very well-known in New York City when your career was in its’ early stages, had you ever crossed paths with Roy himself?
John: No, I didn’t. I never met him. I wish I did. That would’ve been incredible. When I was working in New York, Abraham Beane and Ed Koch were the mayors during those days, so Roy Cohn would’ve been in that time zone, but I never had the pleasure of meeting him (laughing).
Johnny: With Angels In America, what was your favorite part of working on that?
John: Just everything. There’s Mike Nichols directing, and with Al, again, it’s just an incredible experience. There were so many stages of what happened to Roy Cohn with HIV and AIDS, and there were different levels of makeup that we had to figure out and test. I made a lot of Roy Cohn noses for Al (laughing), because Roy Cohn had this bad surgery scar on the bridge of his nose that really threw it into disarray. Al likes to play with noses, for some reason, so we made a lot of different noses for Al, which we didn’t go with in the end, but it was unbelievable. It was Mike Nichols directing Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and it was pretty great. We shot that at Astoria Studios, so I was back there again, and it was a great New York picture to be on alongside working with Al Pacino again to help him with the character. A dream job.
Johnny: Speaking of HBO, you worked on several episodes of The Sopranos, so how did you land that gig?
John: Kymbra Callaghan was the department head and Stephen Kelley was the Sopranos effects guy. Henry Bronchtein was a producer I worked with on The Sopranos for a while, and when Steve couldn’t make it or was doing something else, I got called in for a few episodes, and did a few things for that. It was great, a lot of fun with a great cast. James Gandolfini was a very nice guy. There was a good vibe on that set, and I enjoyed going when I worked on it the few times I did.
Johnny: Fantastic. To jump back to the 90s for a question, you worked on the Denzel Washington movie The Hurricane, the biography of boxer Rubin Carter. As boxing matches can get very bloody and visceral, and so can jail time for that matter, would you say that the makeup required for that movie could’ve been seen as a return to your 80s horror work?
John: I don’t know, maybe not consciously. Norman Jewison directed that, and he just knows how he’s going to shoot. There were some fight scenes, but they weren’t really bloody. I think I made some swollen eye appliances and things like that for the fighters that Denzel’s Rubin fights. I think there was one fight in particular where I made some pieces for the other guy who gets beaten pretty bad. You know, Carl Fullerton has been Denzel’s makeup man forever, so he did Denzel and I department-headed the rest of the picture. That was a privilege gig because there I was working with Norman Jewison and the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, so that was cool to department-head that.
Johnny: To jump back into the 00s, you created the makeup for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight. When you were working on that movie, did you have any idea that it would become the modern classic that it did, or that Ledger’s performance would go down in film history as one of the all-time great villain portrayals?
John: Not at all. I mean, how could you, really? I mean, you’re working in a great situation with Christopher Nolan and the great Heath Ledger, and you know you’re working on something really special, but for it to become iconic and as huge as it did and is still, there’s no way to know that. You know, though, that you’re working on something very special, tailor-made and beautifully designed by Christopher Nolan. The look and the story is just impeccable, really, isn’t it?
Johnny: Absolutely. It’s a modern classic.
John: It is a modern classic, isn’t it now?
Johnny: Yep. It’s easily one of the highest-rated movies on the IMDB Top 250. To go to my next question, you went from DC to Marvel when you worked on makeup for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014. What’s the biggest difference to you between D.C and Marvel’s approach to filmmaking?
John: I don’t know the difference, really. As a makeup artist, I was just the New York department head on that picture. Electro was designed by Howard Berger and his team. You’re just dealing with day-to-day stuff as a department head, so that’s above my paygrade, I’d have to say, as far as the difference between Marvel and D.C and how they make films. That’s just at a higher level that I’m not aware of.
Johnny: Alright. We’ll move along to my next question: You were the makeup department head on the miniseries Waco. How did you get involved with that project?
John: That was through Taylor Kitsch, whom I’m still in close contact with. He’s a great guy, and he played Koresh in Waco. I’ll back up a little. I did this movie called Only The Brave, and it was about the Granite Mountain firefighters who died in a fire in Arizona. Josh Brolin, Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly were in it, and Taylor Kitsch was one of the lead actors in the film, so I worked with him on that out in New Mexico, and then he called me and said he wanted me to be involved with Waco. I got to work with Taylor, who’s a terrific actor. I jumped at it. That’s how I got it: Taylor Kitsch. Wasn’t that a good miniseries? Did you see that?
Johnny: I did see some of it.
Johnny: When it comes to working on projects based on true stories like Waco, are you ever nervous about properly honoring the memories of the dead?
John: Of course. That was tragic. I remember that whole thing. I remember seeing that on television, just the whole intrusion of the government. Maybe that guy was a loose cannon, but for that to happen in America? Yeah, you want to be careful with that.
Johnny: Well, on a lighter note, another Al Pacino collaboration came when you worked on his makeup for the Martin Scorcese film The Irishman, which was noted for using visual effects to deage the characters. How did your makeup work alongside the CGI?
John: Well, Pablo Helman and ILM were the real magic there. My thing was in certain scenes where Al was younger. There was a wig change, and his hairdresser Trish Almeida does the wigs. She did a great job, and so there’s color changes in the hair. My stuff was basically out of the makeup kit, checking the skin tone, his eyebrows, filling out his lipline slightly. Al doesn’t really like to sit in a chair unless he has to, and who does, really, getting stuff glued to you and all that? The real magic was Pablo Helman and ILM, but we did what we could in the chair, given the half hour I would take to do his makeup. That’s really all I did, not much.
Johnny: To move along to my next question: Your work has most recently been seen on the Amazon series Hunters. As executive producer Jordan Peele is such a horror fan, did he suggest bringing you onto the project?
John: No, not at all. That’s because of Al Pacino. I can safely say that all the jobs I’ve done with Al have been because of Al star-requesting me. That went with The Irishman, and that went with Hunters, too. We were all shooting in New York, and I’m based in New York, so I was star-requested by Al Pacino once again. I think I’ve been star-requested 12 or 15 times now.
Johnny: One of the all-time great collaborations…
John: Unbelievable. Just beyond a dream, seriously…
Johnny: On a bigger note, what would you say has been the biggest change in the entertainment industry between the 1970s and 2020?
John: Well, for one thing, there’s a lot more content. There’s Amazon and Hulu and Netflix, so you’re not waiting for the big Hollywood studios making feature films. There’s a lot more to fill out now, so there’s a lot more work for technicians. That’s a good thing. Going from the 70s to today, thank god I was working at NBC back in those days, and working on the horror movies and things like that, but today there’s just so much work out there, though not lately because of this pandemic with everything shut down now. It’s also a much faster pace now. That could be because I’m getting older, but I do enjoy the pace of making it. You have to move quickly, so that never really changes for us, the makeup people. You have to go quick, get the job done, and get the actors out of the trailer and onto the set. There’s a lot more content out there, and that’s good for all of us.
Johnny: Alright. I now come to my final question: What advice would you give to people looking to enter the effects part of the entertainment industry?
John: I would give the advice that was given to me by Dick Smith. I think you have to absolutely love it. You have to absolutely nuts about it, and how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! I don’t think that changes. You just have to really love it, and be aware of the work that’s come before you. Be aware of all the great artists who paved the way for you to take a shot at it. You just have to be nuts about it. That was advice given to me by Dick Smith. Right now, I’m looking at it in my shop as I converted my garage into a studio, I’m doing a prosthetic makeup for a film job, so you’ve just got to keep your fingers on it and practice. After all these years, I still love doing it. It’s still a blast.
Johnny: That’s fantastic…
Johnny: …And that does it for my questions. You had a lot of great stories.
John: You sound like a great guy and a really terrific writer, so I’m looking forward to reading it.
Johnny: Thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I loved hearing your stories, and it was an honor to speak to a talent like yourself because Dick Tracy was a very big influence on me growing up, and you did amazing work. It was an honor to speak to you about that and so much more.
John: That’s so wonderful to hear. Thank you. You made my day, really. Thank you so much.
Johnny: My pleasure. I hope you have a good afternoon, and I’ll be in touch with you again soon.
John: Alright, Johnny. Enjoy the day, and thank you for your time.
Johnny: You’re very welcome.
John: This was very nice. Thank you.
Johnny: Thank you.
John: Take care.
Johnny: You, too.
I would like to again thank John Caglione Jr. for taking the time to speak to me. For more on John’s work, you can visit his official website, which has links to all his social media.
On a side note, my interview with John Caglione Jr. marks my 150th article for Pop Geeks. As I’ve said before, I love writing for this website. My greatest successes as a writer have come through Pop Geeks, and I look forward to what the next 50 articles will bring.
Speaking of which, coming soon to the Flashback Interview will be conversations with actress and ADR coordinator Leigh French and actress/therapist Lori Lethin. Thank you as always for your support.