Johnny Caps1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s, Academy Awards, Air America, Almost Famous, Braveheart, Catch Me If You Can, Gregory's Girl, Hamlet, Highlander, Legend, Lois Burwell, Mission: Impossible, Mona Lisa, Oscars, ready player one, Saving Private Ryan, The Fifth Element, The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Princess Bride, Who Framed Roger Rabbit0
My first exposure to the work of my newest interview subject, Lois Burwell, came when I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a young child. Ms. Burwell worked on the movie’s makeup, and although it would be a long time before I knew her name, I was impressed with what I saw. A few years ago, I befriended Lois on Facebook. I knew I wanted to interview her someday, and that someday came on June 11th, 2021. We talked about the many films she’s worked on, as well as some big picture concepts. I hope you all enjoy reading this interview.
Say hello to Lois Burwell!
Johnny: I have my questions ready to go…
Johnny: Starting with this: What led you to be interested in a career in makeup effects?
Lois: Well, makeup artistry in general, but definitely film makeup artistry. I wanted to work in film. I was very clear on that. It just sort of unfolded, I suppose, in that I had the interest. I loved film.
I think I first started to make people up when I was a child at the local dance school, just for the evening or the weekend. It was the Iris Caldicott School Of Dance in North London, and we would put on little shows and play characters. I was the person who started to make up the older girls, as well as the younger girls and my own classmates into whatever it happened to be. Rainbows, mice, dolls, that sort of thing…
I suppose it just sort of happened. It just developed, and the path to having a career was rather like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There wasn’t a straightforward line of things. It was opportunities combined with good luck, and people liking my work and asking for me again. I mean, that’s basically what happened. It isn’t that I went to a particular school and did a particular course, or knew anyone who worked in the film industry. I mean, none of my family were. I didn’t know anybody in the film industry at all.
It wasn’t a career when I was a child that I thought of because it wasn’t a part of my world. It was what other people did, you know? I think that how I really feel about it now is that I would encourage people to expand their horizons, and if they feel a passion for something, explore it. You don’t necessarily have to make a career of it, but to do something that you really enjoy is fabulous and invaluable.
Johnny: I can definitely agree with that. To go to my next question, one of your earliest credits as a makeup artist was the classic 1980 Scottish teen dramedy Gregory’s Girl. What went into the makeup for that movie?
Lois: Gregory’s Girl was quite a challenge, actually more than first meets the eye, because Clare Grogan had unfortunately been attacked with a broken glass, and had a cut on her cheek that went from, I suppose, half-an-inch from the corner of her mouth up towards the ear, and it was fresh. I mean, when we began filming, I suppose it was three weeks or four weeks, something like that, but it was a fresh wound, and the question was, “How do we shoot this?. I’m not covering a fresh wound like that with makeup, so it has to be either three-quarters profile or wide shots. That’s where you are with it”.
That’s how the film was shot, and Clare was such a lovely actress and lovely person. I mean, it was really good that it didn’t come down to recasting, so that was good. It was fun. I mean, I was the only makeup artist on the film, and we were all shooting in Cumbernauld, which was a 70s council estate on the outskirts of Glasgow in Scotland. It was fun, actually. It was a really fun shoot. If people had gone away for the weekend and had too much sun (laughing), I had several kinds of sunburns or tans to take down and just keep continuity, keep everybody looking alright. Acne, I seem to recall, was one of the challenges.
Johnny: Moving along, you worked on the makeup for the 1985 Ridley Scott fantasy film Legend. You collaborated with American effects artist Rob Bottin on that movie. What did you learn from working alongside him?
Lois: Ooh, gosh. That’s a big question, and a tricky one, actually, to respond to. What I learned on that film was how to apply prostheses in the style he was doing it, so that was new and instructive. I hadn’t applied prostheses on a film before. In fact, although we’ve all applied bits and bobs before, that was such a major prosthetic film. It was a real indoctrination (laughing).
It was a long shoot, too. I applied and made up Tim Curry as Darkness with Nick Doveman. Nick Dudman and I did it between us. We’d both do the body parts, and then we had other actors we had to go and do, so we would start off applying together and then I would go and do a couple of my characters or one of them, whoever was scheduled in. Nick would apply the pieces to Tim’s face and then leave leave them uncolored. I would go back, and then Nick would go and makeup one of his characters while I made up Tim Curry and stood by him on the set, and then we both disrobed him of an evening (laughing).
Johnny: Well, those are definitely impressive effects you helped put together.
Lois: Yes, they were.
Johnny: Moving to my next question, you were a makeup supervisor on Highlander, which celebrates its’ 35th anniversary this year. What makeups were you most proud of having put together for that movie?
Lois: Ooh, golly. Yes, 35 years. Good heavens! That makes me feel very old, actually (laughing), hearing that. It doesn’t seem that long ago.
Well, I think, actually, it was the size and the scale of it, to be honest. I mean, I think that doing the battle scenes was fun. The Kurgan, played by Clancy Brown, was terrific, although Nick Maley really designed that. I think it was the scale, and just pulling it off, that works. Everyone enjoyed the film. It’s still a popular film, and that’s what’s nice.
I find it very difficuly to talk about makeup that I’m most proud of because it can be something that other people wouldn’t even necessarily think of. It could be something small, like Candy, who The Kurrgan goes to see. She’s obviously a lady of the night, and just to get to put the tattoo on the back of the leg was fun. It’s those things (laughing). It’s not necessarily major characters. I’m just happy that the film works as a whole.
Johnny: I understand. I recently interviewed actress Shelley Michelle who, like yourself, had worked with the late Sean Connery. She spoke of him in glowing terms. What was your experience like working with Connery on Highlander?
Lois: Oh, yes. He was a complete gentleman. In fact, I can truly say that because he had his own makeup artist, Ilona Herman, who was a very nice person, but there was a scene where both Sean and Christopher Lambert are in a rowboat on a loch. Obviously, they were going to be out on the boat together, and it was a rowboat, so there was no room for makeup and hair. They were in wigs, and Sean had a wig as well as a specific makeup and facial hair. They picked one person to go out, so I was popped in the bottom of the rowboat. I don’t know if you’re familiar with rowboats, but they tend to fill with water at the bottom (laughing), so it was a bit of a soggy experience. I can surely say that I’ve been at the bottom of a rowboat with my feet tucked under Christopher Lambert’s bottom and my head underneath Sean’s (laughing).
It was quite an experience, but when we came in, when the rowboat came back to dry land having completed the shot and the scene, the rowboat didn’t go all the way in to dry land, so two prop men came out and piggybacked the actors to the shore, and then they just walked off (laughing), so I was left there. Obviously you don’t know me physically, but I’m not a tall person. I’m sort of 5 foot 2 if I stand up straight. I would’ve been up to my chest in loch water wading to the shore, and Sean saw this. I sort of waved and said, “Can someone help me?” (laughing). Sean stopped, ran out, came back to the rowboat, waded through the water, and carried me back in his arms to the shore…
Lois: …Which didn’t earn me any brownie points with the wardrobe department, the poor costume department, because he was in that wonderful suit soaking wet. I was persona non grata for a while there, but I can truly say it was a rather remarkable thing to have happen.
Johnny: Cool. Another credit that turns 35 this year is Mona Lisa. A tale of people in poor circumstances doing desperate things, what inspired your makeups on that movie?
Lois: Ooh. Well, actually, we did a lot of research photographically, as well as going into peep shows and strip clubs. There’s a peep show that was in Soho. I can’t remember the name of it now, it was so long ago, but it was a women’s cooperative, so they ran it and owned it as well as worked in it, so that was kind of interesting. It was based, really, upon real life characters and observations. You can bump up some things slightly, but you do research on things, and then you try and create it so the story has life and a solid kind of foundation.
It was a really good film to do. It was a really terrific film, and it was the first time I worked with Bob Hoskins or Sir Michael Caine, and they were both delightful. It was really a lovely film. Robbie Coltrane and Cathy Tyson, just really nice, and Neil Jordan was a super director, so yes, it was a real jewel to work on.
Johnny: Definitely. Moving along to a more fantastic project, and when I say fantastic, I mean fantastic in the sense of fantasy, not as in it’s better than, because they’re both extremely good movies…
Johnny: …You were a makeup supervisor on 1987’s The Princess Bride.
Johnny: Had you read the book before signing on for the movie, and if so, how did it influence your work on the film?
Lois: I didn’t, actually. No. I had not read the book because I was called in for an interview. It was sort of a surprise thing, you know. I didn’t know what to expect, and it wasn’t as if someone said, “This is the film, The Princess Bride”, because you go in and the project has a pseudonym. It could be called, you know, Buttercup, for example. That’s what you do, and when you’re allowed to see the script or meet the director, then you’re told what the project is, so then I read it (laughing). Yes. Obviously, there was a kind of sense about it within descriptions contained in the novel. It just sort of bounced off the page, and Rob knew what he wanted, too, so that’s how it was influenced.
Johnny: Very cool, and now we come to a personal favorite credit of yours’ that I like…Well, it’s a personal favorite for me. You worked on makeup for 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was one of, if not the absolute first, movies I saw in a theater. Did you know when working on it that it would be the masterpiece it became?
Lois: Well, I don’t think you can ever actually tell, really, to be perfectly honest, but you know when something looks right and feels right. When you go to rushes, or dailies, as they call it, I’m a great proponent of watching the work so you can always improve upon it. You can always make small tweaks and change things for the better. Seeing that? Yes, it was an extraordinary film to work on. There was one point where I was doing second unit and we were working 24 hours a day, which was the scene at the end of the film where the factory becomes destroyed. We were doing it in continuity, so we were literally shooting 24 hours a day with two units, one taking over from the other, so that was extraordinary.
I think it holds up to the test of time. I really do, actually, as a film. I saw it not too long ago. I hadn’t seen it for years and I thought, “Ooh, it’s really good!” (laughing). It’s wonderful when there is a cushion of years. I can’t really speak for other people, I can only speak for myself, but when I see a film that I worked on, in my first viewing I’m always looking at the work and just hoping that it holds up from my perspective, my contribution. There’s kind of a strange way of viewing it, but when there’s years in-between, you can see it as a film, and so you remember some things about the experience of making it, but you see it as a film, and it’s quite wonderful when you enjoy it. You go, “It’s really good. I really enjoyed that”, because the anxiety over your contribution has been sort of muted by the years.
Johnny: I can understand that, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit is definitely one of my all-time favorites. You did amazing work.
Lois: So how old were you when that was your first theatrical experience, and where was it?
Johnny: Five years old. I saw it at a drive-in.
Lois: How wonderful. I’ve always wanted to go to a drive-in.
Johnny: Well, they have seen a pretty big revival during the course of the pandemic.
Lois: True. Unfortunately, I don’t live near to one, but yes, I really rather like the idea of that. It’s really rather terrific. So you went with your parents.
Johnny: Yep, my parents and my brother. Yeah, it was a lot of fun, but today’s interview isn’t about me. It’s about you, though, and to go to my next question: You did several movies for HandMade Films in the 80s, including The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne, The Raggedy Rawney and the aforementioned Mona Lisa. As George Harrison was one of the men behind HandMade Films, did you ever cross paths with him at any point?
Lois: I did, actually. Yes, he and Ringo. They came to visit on the set of Mona Lisa, and took Michael and Bob out to lunch. They came on the set afterwards, and I had to do checks on Michael and Bob. I was kind of set up round the corner, so I didn’t want to disturb. I’m not the sort of person who wants to go into Video Village. I just like to do the work quietly and be behind the scenes, really, as best as possible.
Michael said to me, (slipping into Michael Caine’s voice), “Why are you round the corner here? Come and meet them”. (Back to her own voice) I went, “Oh, no. They don’t want to meet me”, and he said, (back into Michael Caine’s voice) “Oh, don’t be so silly. Come with me right now”. (Back to her own voice) I got introduced and we had a chat. Really nice, down-to-earth, lovely people, actually.
Johnny: That’s nice to hear. I’d have to say that Harrison and Starr are probably my two favorite Beatles because they definitely had senses of humor about them.
Lois: Yeah, exactly, and they were up for a laugh, and nice. I mean, really, just pleasant, regular people. It was good, yes.
Johnny: Fantastic! Jumping into the 1990s, in the first year of that decade, you worked on two different movies with Mel Gibson, the action dramedy Air America and the Shakespeare adaptation Hamlet.
Johnny: Which movie provided more of a challenge for you?
Lois: Well, for the work, the physicality, Air America, because we were in Thailand. It was humid, there were quite a few bugs, and jungle-y (laughing), and we were there for a considerable amount of time. The first day of shooting was the scene where Robert Downey and Mel are in what was a pigpen. They’d been captured by a tribe, and they were held there, There was a monsoon, and we all got washed away down a hill. In fact, I was held onto by Mel, who was holding onto a tree (laughing) as the equipment went down a hill. That was kind of an exciting start to the shoot.
The physicality, I would say Air America, just to keep the work on because everybody was sweating bullets, as you can imagine, but technically, I think Hamlet, just because of the nature of the subject matter and the way it was filmed. I mean, you’re very conscious of doing Hamlet. Everyone’s under a certain amount of pressure, so I think that was trickier, but in a different way.
Johnny: Alright. I have to ask: When working on Hamlet, did you call it by name, or when working on it, did you refer to it as the Scottish film?
Lois: Oh, no. It was always Hamlet. The Scots play would always be Macbeth.
Johnny: Oh, sorry.
Lois: It’s alright.
Johnny: I got my plays confused. Sorry about that. To move along to 1992, you were the makeup department head for The Muppet Christmas Carol. Many people feel it’s one of the all-time best adaptations of A Christmas Carol, so what made that movie so special to work on?
Lois: Well, it was tremendous fun, and Sir Michael had the most wonderful sense of humor. I mean, he is such a love to work with, and joyous. He’s a joyous person, actually, so something like that just suited him so well, working with those Muppets, and the puppeteers are hilarious.
The outtakes…I mean, of all the films I’ve worked on, it’s, I think, the most joyous that I’ve participated in. They showed rushes at lunchtime at Shepperton, and normally everyone starts going to rushes at the end of the day or at lunchtime, and then it kind of whittles down and there’s normally five of you, or sometimes there will be three of you (laughing) at the end. It’s like last man standing. That was not the case on this. Literally, the puppeteers would come. The theater would be packed every lunchtime, and the outtakes were hilarious (laughing). They were absolutely brilliant.
It sounds small and silly, but there’s two chickens that were always up in a window, and the puppeteer who did the chickens? I would find, in my makeup bag, an egg with a feather on it (laughing). I was making up Michael one day, and there was a tap on my shoulder. It was the saxophone player from the band, the puppet. He sort of tapped me on the shoulder, and then he kissed me, and wandered away smoking a cigarette. It was that kind of thing. The puppeteers were so imaginative, and loved what they do. It was a really great experience. Brian Henson was fantastic, just a wonderful director with a big heart.
Johnny: That’s wonderful to hear. I actually had the great pleasure of meeting Jim Henson, a couple of months before he passed away, on a family trip to Walt Disney World. He was very friendly, and I’m very glad to hear that Brian carried on his tradition.
Lois: Oh, yes, very much so. They used to do wonderful things. I want to say it was every other Saturday, but I don’t think it was as often as that, that they would have Family Day. The puppeteers would get ready, let’s say it was 11:00, for arguments’ sake, in the morning, and the children of the crew could come and visit. Everyone stayed in character, so there wasn’t a moment of a reveal. It was always that Miss Piggy was Miss Piggy.
They would do a tour of the costume department, and the costume department was just beautiful. There were tiny little costumes for the mice, going up to huge giants, and everyone would have their character name on their rack. The children would be taken through there, and into the makeup department. It was really lovely. It was just a heavenly experience.
Johnny: That’s lovely to hear, and how lucky you were to work on that.
Johnny: Moving along: You reunited with Mel Gibson on 1995’s Braveheart. What went into the creative process behind that movie’s makeup?
Lois: Well, where that stemmed from was that Mel said to me he wanted there to be some kind of war paint. I remembered from history classes that the ancient Britons would paint their bodies with woad, blue pigment made from flax. In fact, there was a Roman soldier who wrote back in A.D 52 or so. I’ll have to look that up, but whenever it was, this soldier wrote back to Rome and said how terrifying the Britons were, the Celts across the Menai Straits in what’s Wales, basically, from England. The women had painted their faces. They were blue and terrifying. Just imagine what their men would be like.
That kind of stuck in my mind, and I thought along those kind of tracks. When the Picts, the Hibernians, the Caledonians, the tribes moved North and became Scots behind Hadrian’s Wall, they used the flax as a form of tattooing, although you can’t look at a tattooed face for two hours. It wasn’t desirable, so I stuck with the idea of the woad, and created that makeup basically with pigment, not with the flax itself because that would stain the skin.
That’s how that makeup came about, and for the wounds, everyone wanted them to look as realistic as possible, so you do research into the weapons of the time, and how those wounds would be inflicted and what they would look like, and you go from there.
Johnny: Well, it was definitely fantastic work and, of course, you would win a Best Makeup Oscar for Braveheart, so were you nervous on Oscar night, and do you recall what you first felt when your name was announced as a winner?
Lois: I can actually recall that very clearly. I didn’t think for a nanosecond. I was just thrilled to be there. I was actually shooting The Fifth Element, so I flew on the Friday before to L.A from London, Pinewood, and it was all a bit of a whirl, to be honest, plus jet lag and working when you’re tired.
On Oscar night, i sat there and was just so thrilled to be there. It was so unbelivable that my fear was if they did call out my name, I would be rooted to the spot and unable to walk.
That was my fear, and the minute it was announced, I went up like a greyhound out of a trap. I practically ran up to the foot of the stairs, and then I realized that the boys were sitting down, so I walked back to collect them (laughing). I remember when the Academy Award was handed into my hand. I said, “Thank you for saying my name so beautifully”, to the presenter. It was an extraordinary night, actually.
Lois: Wow, you’ve done well (laughing). I’m impressed.
Johnny: …And I’m always honored to interview great talents like yourself. It’s lovely to hear your story of being there on Oscar night. I always watch the Oscars every year, and I always find it interesting to see how the show varies from year to year.
Lois: Yes, yes. Me, too. It is an extraordinary thing. It was wonderful, and it was something I never thought in a million years would happen to me because I don’t think in those kinds of terms. I’m quite happy with doing work that people appreciate, and I’ve actually learned over a period of years that if you’re…Not content, but if you’re satisfied by the work you do, that’s the greatest reward because no one else can actually give it to you, and no one can it take it away. It’s something that’s generated internally. If there’s a makeup that you can go, “Yes, I came as close as I could to doing what I really had in my mind, and it works”, I think that’s the greatest reward.
Johnny: I can understand where you’re coming from. I can certainly relate it to my work as a writer….
Johnny: …But to go back to the movies: You were the chief makeup designer for 1996’s Mission: Impossible, which celebrates its’ 25th anniversary this year. Knowing that the fictional IMF, a government force, used masks and the like to disguise agents, did you ever do any similar work with government agencies in real life, like the late John Chambers?
Lois: Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’d love to do that, but no. I haven’t been called upon, but if I had been called upon, I wouldn’t be able to talk about it anyway. I can say quite truthfully that I haven’t, but I think that would be extraordinary work to do, actually.
Johnny: Alright. Well, to move along, you were the makeup department head, as you mentioned, for 1997’s The Fifth Element. A movie with a very unique visual style, were you encouraged to go all-out with the movie’s makeup, or did director Luc Besson already have a certain style in mind that you helped get on screen?
Lois: Actually, yes and no. It was a real collaboration, actually. There were three of us. There was also Jean-Paul Gaultier who did the drawings, as well as the design of the costumes. He had the drawings, but there wasn’t really a makeup unto it. There were sometimes hairstyles, but not a makeup element. Inspired by that, and knowing from discussion, as well as various images, like a mood board-type thing, what Luc was looking at, then yes, I sort of cut loose and could come up with things that worked, show them, and then they were approved.
Johnny: Well, that’s another movie I had the pleasure of seeing in theaters, and it’s definitely a real blast of fun with a very inventive style to it.
Lois: Yes, it was really good, and I have to say I really liked working on that film. Jean-Paul Gaultier was a real worker. He was absolutely tremendous, and would be on his hands and knees pinning something on, or changing the look of something. It was very exciting and exhilarating, and you could really go to town and come up with things.
Johnny: Very cool. To go to my next question: Your first of many collaborations with Steven Spielberg came when you were a key makeup artist for Saving Private Ryan. A movie praised for the realism of its’ battle scenes, knowing that England played a large part in winning World War II for the Allied Forces, was it unnerving to go back and do the research required to help create the movie’s visual style?
Lois: Well, it was unnerving, but it was also really a personal journey as well, purely because my father was there on D-Day, but on the British beach, Sword. It was something that meant something to me. I mean, World War II has always resonated with me purely because it was my parents’ generation. We had family, literally, in all the forms of military there could be, whether it was the Merchant Navy, or an uncle with Monty in North Africa.
It was something that was deeply personal at the same time, so I went to the Imperial War Museum in London, and was lucky enough to be taken behind the scenes and shown reference. There was one book, which was 1001 G.I Casualties, which actually notated, and there were photographs, the brave young men who were either injured or passed away. That was extremely moving, and I thought I was alright doing it because you kind of distance yourself. You’re looking at it in a technical way, you know, so I was distanced and technical. The researcher came in and said to me, “Are you alright? You’ve gone terribly pale”, and I suddenly realized I had gone slightly wobbly, not for any reason other than they were real people, and there’s always something dreadful and tragic about that.
I feel whenever I’ve done a war film, whatever it is, but particular Ryan and War Horse, whenever you do a film, you owe it to not do something gratuitous. It has to be realistic because someone did lay down their life for a cause and for a belief. I never take it lightly because it touches something so deeply human in a different way to me, at least. I don’t know if that answers it well…
Johnny: No, it answers it quite well. I mean, my own dad was a military veteran, albeit Vietnam as opposed to World War II, and so I can definitely understand where you’re coming from because it can definitely leave an impact on you.
Lois: Yes, exactly.
Johnny: On a lighter note, in 2000 you were the makeup department head for the movie Almost Famous. As both you and the movie’s writer-director, Cameron Crowe, came of age in the 1970s rock music scene, albeit in two very different scenes, what was it like to revisit that era on film?
Lois: Well, actually, it was quite extraordinary because it was a slightly different angle, as you quite rightly observed. Obviously mine was the British scene, so I was more into glam rock at that point in time. I think it was interesting because it was so much a part of Cameron’s life. I mean, obviously it was autobiographical, but really, I was guided by his experiences rather than my own, the experiences through the prism of his life and the Stillwater element.
We did actually do research on all the characters, and tried to make the actors look as much like the real people as possible. They were fantastic photographs, just fantastic research, so that made it easier, and really rather fun. It was good. One of the challenges of that film was that, although it seems now that fashions change and shift, when we made that film, people in the background had short hair when you wanted extras. There were a huge amount of wigs, and there was a clean-shaven period, too, so we had lots of facial hair to bring about all those sideburns and beards and all the rest of it.
It was a very busy, challenging film to make it look natural and realistic, and do the journey across the country. Obviously we weren’t doing the journey across the country, so you would go around the L.A area and bring in the extras, and you’re trying to give them a feel of different cities. It was a great film to do, actually.
Johnny: Definitely, and you did great work on it. In 2002, you worked with Steven Spielberg again on the movie Catch Me If You Can, based on the true story of con man Frank Abagnale. Knowing how much of a trickster Abagnale could be as he took on his various guises, was it fun to work on that movie’s makeup?
Lois: Yes, it was, actually. It was a really good film to do. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the real Frank Abagnale visited, so I actually got to talk to him and have a chat. An extraordinary gentleman…Quite sort of bland, not a figure that stood out, and I thought that must be a part of how he managed to do all those different things. He wasn’t noticeable, and that’s what was extraordinary about him. You could lose him in a crowd, but he was an extraordinary person.
Johnny: That’s interesting, the idea that one could be recognized while not being recognized. That’s almost Zen (laughing).
Lois: Exactly. It’s true, it’s true.
Johnny: Staying with Spielberg, you were the makeup designer for 2018’s Ready Player One, a movie that reminded me very much of the previously mentioned Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film’s extensive usage of pop-cultural references gave you a lot to work with. Which makeups that you created for Ready Player One made you stand back once completed and say, “Wow, how did I come up with that?”
Lois: Ooh. Actually, I’m trying to think. Simon Pegg aging was tricky to do, and great and challenging. I think the timeframe, and the handover to the character becoming a digital character, because there are elements within that that actually are makeup, and then they go into a visual effects character. Finding those lines, finding where one stopped and the other took over seamlessly, that was really fascinating and challenging.
Actually, for the facial motion capture, one of the challenges which doesn’t sound like much, but was actually quite a challenge to do every day, was 163 dots on the face that had to be in the exact correct placement for muscles and movement. We had some face maps to go from, but actually they didn’t work, so you’d have to do it freehand, and to paint that many dots on a face, you get mesmerized.
What I found, and this is sort of an interesting, quirky thing, amazing was that every makeup artist in my department would see the pattern differently. They would either do them vertically, or horizontally, or diagonally. They had a different way of counting, and a different way of seeing that one pattern, so everyone could get to the same place, but they all did it from a different path, which I found fascinating.
Johnny: I think that is very fascinating as well. I mean, the movie’s a visual wonder, and it’s a movie I really dug. I never read the book, so I was just coming into the movie blind, and I thought it was a blast, and as I keep on saying, you did magnificent work on it.
Lois: Thank you. Well, there was a huge amount of work on that film. Both the work that you didn’t see, obviously, like the facial mapping and motion capture, but also through to the agings and the different characters, whether it was the port wine stain or literally making someone look younger AND older, which we did with makeup, not with visual effects. It was a very busy film (laughing)…
Johnny: …But busy is good.
Johnny: To go to my next question: Although we’re gradually making our way back to normalcy, coronavirus has made an indelible impact on all of us. How has it impacted your work?
Lois: Well, it’s impacted it from the perspective, obviously, of health and safety. I mean, in the beginning everyone was on lockdown, but then the film industry bounced back relatively quickly because of the protocols that took place.
For our department, the protocols are incredibly rigid and strict, and they should be because we have actors in our chairs without their masks on, obviously, and we’re touching them because you can’t social distance and put makeup on someone, so it’s impacted it in that way. The only thing that I think is really tricky is the fact that, for me personally, I wear glasses, and to work with a face shield, the glare is a problem, so it slows down the work. It means that the work takes longer than it normally would.
Everything’s slowed down because you have to slow it down. You have to clean everything. You have to make certain that all the protocols are held to. You can’t just be on a set and jump onto something that you see is wrong. You have to wait and make certain that it’s safe to approach, and that someone has left the set so you can go onto the set. It’s all those things, so the mechanics of what we do or how we do it has changed, but what we do has remained the same.
One of the joys of filmmaking, and it is a joy of filmmaking, is that sense of camaraderie in that you have a group of people who come together who might not have known each other before, and you come together with a single vision of creating this film. It’s rather like an orchestra. Everyone plays a different part, a different instrument, but everyone has something to contribute. There’s that sense of camaraderie, and then the film is made, and then a group of strangers come together to experience that film in a theater. COVID has impacted both ends of that, and I really hope that we can gather again, not only when we’re making films, but also in that group activity in theaters to watch films.
Johnny: I certainly hope so, too, and I have faith that we’re going to get there.
Lois: I do, too.
Johnny: To go to my next question: You’re a BoomXer, part of the micro-generation born between 1957 and 1963 that, as can be inferred from the name, bridges the Baby Boomers and Generation X. How has being in that microgeneration affected your view on the world?
Lois: Ooh, lord. Gosh, that’s a big question. I’m not certain I’ve got a big answer. I don’t actually know. I think I can see great promise for the future. I love how the youth of today tend to be more open-minded, and more embracing of difference, which I think is exciting, and they tend to have a global view, at least the young people I know. I think that’s really wonderful, but I also like what might be considered some old-fashioned values, too. I like good manners. I really think kindness is an underestimated quality. It’s something that need to be nurtured and brought on and acknowledged more.
I know I was brought up with that as a basic principle. You would be patient and kind with people, and always give the benefit of the doubt, you know? You can judge something afterwards. You don’t have to do it in that moment. I think that some of those values are good attributes and great tools for life, I think, rather than an item being something you desire. That sense of enjoyment of the simple is something that brings, I think, great joy to life in any walk of life.
Johnny: Interesting. I’ve been asking this question of some of my recent interview subjects because I’m in a microgeneration myself. I’m an Xennial. I was born in 1982, and so I’m part of the microgeneration that connects Generation X and the Millenials, born between 1977 and 1983…
Johnny: …So the concept of microgenerations has been a fascination to me in recent years.
Lois: Right. How do you perceive it being then?
Johnny: Well, speaking for myself, I can understand how some might be cynical about our current direction, but at the same time, I have faith in my fellow man, and I do believe that, even when things are at their worst, there’s always light on the horizon, but that’s my personal viewpoint.
Lois: I agree completely. I think it’s darkest before the dawn. I really do, and there’s always hope. Hope springs eternal, and I really am hopeful. I see so many wonderful qualities these days that, I think, need to be praised more and encouraged more. It’s so easy to dwell on the dark and the worry and the trouble, the things that dog us day by day. It’s easy to focus on them, but I think there are so many young people who are really out behind preserving the planet, preserving life. That’s a beautiful quality, and something we desperately need, so I am hopeful.
Johnny: Me, too, and now I come to my final question: What’s next for you?
Lois: Ooh, I have no idea (laughing). Truly, I have no idea. I’ve never had a career path or plan. If you had asked me when I was on the set of The Princess Bride, “Are you going to live in America? What kind of films are you going to make?”, I wouldn’t have been able to answer it. I don’t have goals, let me put it that way. I’ve never been someone who has a goal because, in a way, I think that’s kind of a mini-death. You achieve that, and then what?
I think of it as you’re going along, and you gather as you go. You just gather things and experiences as you go through life, so I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know what projects are coming in next, no idea, but that’s what’s exciting, and then the phone can ring and you know what you’re doing for the next three months, or six months, or what you’re going to do next year.
Johnny: Alright. Well, I have to say that does it for my questions. I thank you again for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me. I loved hearing your stories. You really do have a way with stories and, of course, you have a way with makeup. You’re fantastic at what you do, and I look forward to whatever you’ll be doing next.
Lois: Oh, bless you. Thank you so much. That’s really nice, and how about you? Tell me a bit more about you if you have a bit of time.
Johnny: Oh, sure. I’ve got time. Well, speaking for myself, writing is a hobby of mine. My paying job is as a cashier at a major retailer. That’s what makes me money. My hobby is writing, and I love interviewing people.
I’ve lived all my life with an autism spectrum disorder. One of the aspects of that is having a particular focus on a certain subject. For me, it’s the pop culture of the 1980s, which I turned to during some dark times for me in the 90s and 00s. The interviews I do with talents like yourself are basically my way of saying thank you to these talents for having made the work that got me through the dark times and got me to the light. Movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Highlander certainly played a part in that.
I didn’t have the easiest of time in the 90s and 00s, but I could always turn to those movies for a quick boost of entertainment whenever I was feeling down and out, and so to interview talents like yourself, I consider it a great honor and privilege, and I also admire other aspects of your work. We have a mutual Facebook friend, another former interview subject of mine, Jewel Shepard, and she told me of how you helped her out after she was recovering from chemo. I found that very noble and kind of you to do.
Lois: Oh, bless you. Thank you. Well, she’s a very special person. I’ve got a very big soft spot for her, and she was so brave and courageous.
Johnny: Me, too. She was the third talent I did a phone interview with, and I’m hoping to interview her again someday because you’re right. She’s special. She’s a very sweet person, and really has a way with words. She’s a gifted writer, in addition to her many other talents…
Johnny: That’s basically where I’m at. All your stories have been interesting, and again, I thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this.
Lois: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for being so valiant, and finding so much joy and pleasure in the films we’ve made. I mean, I do really see filmgoers and filmmakers as being the hand in the glove. We are one and the same. What draws most people to work in the film industry is the fact that film is for everyone.I look around at the Academy on the board, everyone sitting at that table, and 99 percent of them literally come from regular families. The film industry presents a wonderful opportunity for people to be creative and make films, make stories that resonate with everyone else. It’s such a collaboration of humanity.
Wherever you go in the world, you’re shooting with a crew that you’d otherwise never meet because how many Thai people in Thailand did I know for three months? If you’re on holiday, you wouldn’t, but you always know what everyone does on a film set. They always relate to each other in a certain kind of similar way, and the same is true with audiences, those who have never worked on a film in their life, but they have this passion for it. That’s all of us, and especially this last year in lockdown. I mean, there isn’t a single person that hasn’t been touched or elevated or turned by watching a film. I think it’s a privilege for all of us, one, that it was invented and two, that we can see it and create it. I want to thank you because without you, and without people who love film, I wouldn’t have a job (laughing).
Johnny: Well, it’s my pleasure to help you in that way, and as I said before, I look forward to whatever you’ll be doing next. I know you’ll do a magnificent job with it.
Lois: Thank you. Thank you so very much. I hope so. Put in a good word for me when a smashing film comes along (laughing).
Johnny: I will, and on that note, I hope you have a wonderful afternoon and, like I said, I’ll catch you on Facebook.
Lois: Great. Lovely. Take care of yourself. Be safe.
Johnny: Be safe as well.
I would again like to thank Lois Burwell for taking the time out of her schedule to speak to me, and I thank you all as always for taking the time to read this interview.
Coming soon to the Flashback Interviews are conversations with actress/dancer/photographer Deborah Geffner, legendary comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, and actress/burlesque dancer Stephanie Blake. Stay tuned.