The interview you’re about to read will mark my 200th article for Pop Geeks, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the occasion. Michele Burke is an acclaimed and accomplished makeup artist who has won multiple awards for her work, including two Academy Awards for, respectively, Quest For Fire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With a career spanning decades and continents, I knew Ms. Burke would be a fascinating interview subject, so I reached out to her via her website and she agreed to speak to me. This is the end result, and I hope you all enjoy reading it.
Say hello to Michele Burke!
Johnny: You were born in Ireland, and grew up there in a family of 10. As one can often draw inspiration for their future from their family, did you have any family members with connections to the entertainment industry?
Michele: No, absolutely not. I was the only one.
Johnny: Alright. To go to my next question, after some time working on Canada exploitation classics like Terror Train, you started work on Quest For Fire. A movie acclaimed for its’ realistic depiction of an ancient people, what did the research process for the film entail?
Michele: Well, it involved, first of all, understanding what the director wanted, and then seeing what the art department had. I’ll be honest with you. When I first started, I knew what a Neanderthal was, but the information, and the lengths of the research we went to, made me feel familiar with all of it. I didn’t know there were different types of Neanderthals all coexisting on the Earth at the same time, the shape of their heads, getting into more about evolution…It was fascinating.
Of course, there was the daunting task of making these guys look like Neanderthals. We were using foam latex which, at the time, it was an innovation. Everything was very new and original and exciting. None of us knew what we were doing, and we were just learning from each other along the way. It was a huge, growing endeavor.
Johnny: Alright. If I may ask a frank question, Quest For Fire was infamous for its’ sex scenes and its’ violence. Although they were simulated scenes, how difficult was it to reapply the makeup after each take of the more graphic scenes?
Michele: It was daunting. All day long, I was trying to keep makeup on actors. From Africa to Scotland to Northern Canada, the weather conditions would either cause the makeup to come off as they were wearing coats to deal with the cold or, in Kenya, it was hot and they were sweating. All day long, I was applying and reapplying makeup but, luckily, they had muck on them. It was dirty and hard to clean, so it actually helped us a little bit. The makeup was always difficult, particularly with the Mud People. They and the Neanderthals were tough. Every day was a challenge full-on, but it was exciting. I loved it.
Johnny: As a result of that, you would win your first Oscar for Quest For Fire, although you weren’t there to receive it. If you had attended the ceremony, do you recall who you would’ve thanked in your acceptance speech?
Michele: I would’ve thanked all the makeup and hair crew because, you know, We had a huge makeup and hair crew in Canada, England and Kenya, and you couldn’t do a film like that without a crew that were loyal, followed your directions, and helped you. You just couldn’t do it. Getting up at 4:00 in the morning, and everything else about it, was a huge amount of work, but everybody pitched in and became a team player.
I would’ve thanked them all. I would’ve thanked Jean-Jacques and people like that, but I would thank my crew, and also Chris Tucker because he was the one who came up with the original design of the three characters. We followed that, and it evolved from the first design, but his design of the Fire People and their makeup helped greatly. Chris Tucker did The Elephant Man, a very excellent design as well.
Johnny: Alright. To go to my next question, you’ve written of the challenges you’ve faced as a female makeup artist in the entertainment industry. Who would you say have been the nicest filmmakers to work with, the ones who didn’t say, “Can you do this?”, but instead said, “I know you can do this”?
Michele: Well, when working with Steven Spielberg and Neil Jordan and Francis Ford Coppola, there’s no question with them. They never questioned my talents. Of course, as I evolved in my business, there were very few who said, “Can you do this?”.
I remember the Director for Terror Train in Canada, Roger Spottiswoode, asked me if you thought I could do the film, it was one of my first films and I told him I could, and he actually hired me!
A director who comes to mind, believe it or not, is Roland Joffe. With all the directors I mentioned, they hired me knowing and feeling they wanted me to do it so, therefore, they thought I could do it.
I was hired for Joffe’s film There Be Dragons. There was an aging effect to do, but they had no money as they were shooting in Buenos Aires. Roland was the director, and we created the makeup up here at Spectral lab. Thomas Floutz and I would go down to Buenos Aires to do the makeup, and we hadn’t done a test makeup. I came up with a really bold and revolutionary design for the aging because I decided we would just do one whole face mask piece very thin, pre-painted, and then the hair would be the same with a skullcap patched in, which I would later use this design with the Les Grossman character in Tropic Thunder.
We designed this elaborate makeup that was done at Spectral lab under my direction, and it was great fun creating it. No one thought I could do this, and I just kept saying to myself, “I want a one piece”. We kept going through this. I went down to Buenos Aires, and I only had enough for eight days of shooting. Thom and I go down, and we brought the pieces with us. The budget was so tiny that we had no backups, so by the time We got there, the producers were really skittish and nervous because the next day we were going to shoot the makeup. The producers didn’t have confidence in me, and they were very nervous, saying things like, “Let’s put glasses on him, age his hair and paint some wrinkles on”. They suggested things like that to make it theatrical, not even real.
They called a meeting, and I was just off the plane. I thought, “This is the worst situation I’ve been in”, and I couldn’t believe they had done this, that the producers were worried and had no confidence in me. They were all sitting around and talking, and I said, “Look. I know the makeup we have is going to work. It’ll be fine”. Roland Joffe looked at me and said, “Michele, do you have confidence that you can do this?”. I said, “YES, of course I do”, and he looked at them all and said, “Meeting over. We’re doing Michele’s makeup in the morning”. (Laughing) Of course we did the makeup perfectly. That was an instance that comes to mind.
Johnny: Fantastic to hear, and a great testament to your skills. When establishing your name in the United States with lab work, what was the biggest lesson you learned that you would apply to your later work?
Michele: When I came down here to LA from Montreal, I tried to do it all, and I believed you had to do all the lab work, go to the set, do the makeup and everything. Down here, I realized that more people delegated. A lot of people didn’t do the lab work. They hired out people to do it. It was very novel, but at the same time, I owned my own lab and I would work alongside people. As things became more elaborate and complicated, it became very clear that, of course, I could prep and design makeup, but once we started shooting, there was no way I could do lab work and shoot.
Sometimes you had to trust that whoever was back there was going to do whatever you wanted, and that they would work. There were people I hired that I really trusted, and had skills, and would do the work. It was good. It evolved and made me aware that there’s other people out here who do a lot of great work. There weren’t a lot of women, even at the time, but there were a lot of guys and, in a way, I felt close working with guys because, most of the time in Canada, there were makeup people, but they were women. I mostly worked with Stephan DuPuis and, growing up with six brothers, I felt very at home working with men. It didn’t seem like an issue at all.
Once or twice, I bumped into people who were assertive and tried to do things over me on my films. I had to politely correct them and say, “This is how I want it done. Please don’t redo these makeups”. There were a few times I had to assert myself, and I hate doing that. I always feel very awkward, and it’s not a great feeling, but sometimes you have to do that. It was fine. By the time I came down here, I was heading up my own shows anyway, and so it didn’t always occur to me that it was a man/woman thing. I always made sure I had a crew of people that weren’t going to try to usurp me. Once or twice, as I said, some people did, but most of them didn’t. They understood what to do. That was more in the early days. Now women are doing lab work, and women are doing special effects makeup. There’s a big difference, and it’s good.
Johnny: Definitely. Jumping back to specific credits, you worked on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. One of the most memorable interpretations of the Dracula mythos, which makeup and hair effects are you most proud of having created for that movie?
Michele: When I was hired to do the film, I was hired to do all the makeups, and also to create the hair looks. I wasn’t hired to be the head hairdresser, but they wanted me to additionally create a cohesive look that was all-in-one. Eiko Ishioka, the costume designer who was hired by Francis Ford Coppolla to provide the costumes and design some of the sets, had authority over everything from hair to makeup to costumes, the whole look of the show. I worked primarily under her and learned a lot from her.
She was truly amazing, and she wanted me to draw and sketch each actor with the costumes, what makeup I would put on them, and the hair to go with it, and she always said, “Yes, I like that” or “No, I don’t like that”. When it came to old age Dracula, Greg Cannom designed the old age look that was on the face, but I designed the big, swirly white hair that you see. A lot of people think it’s his design, but actually, it was mine. If you go on my Instagram, you’ll see original photos of my designs.
What happened was I was sitting with Eiko and Francis. Eiko designed the huge red cape, and it was going to be the centerpiece, the piece de resistance of the scene, and when he entered, Francis wanted to make a statement. They said, “Look, he’s timeless. He’s someone who had lived forever, and is going to be coming to Istanbul, a kind of East meets West situation”.
They wanted him to have this look of timelessness, and all I could think of was with a big cape, and him being so old, it was like a Kabuki Theater look combined with the Hopi Indians. Those are two ancient civilizations that have evolved over the years, so I did these drawings based on that, and the one that you see is the one that made it in, obviously. A lot of people loved it.
The interesting thing was that, on the day we did the makeup test, Francis wanted him to come across the set in the scene where you hear the music, and then see his head in the shadow on the wall, and then you see him. It’s like a shadow puppet, really, coming across the wall, and then you see who’s here. It’s a very dramatic appearance when he’s old, and it looks really good.
We were just beginning to shoot that in a few takes, and the first time everyone saw the whole thing together, the face looked great, the hands looked great, the costume looked great, and the hair looked great. Stuart Artingstall made the wig. I sat with Eiko on the set, and I’m kind of nervous, thinking, “I hope they accept this because if they don’t, I’m going back to the drawing board. It would be a lot of work, and we’re already shooting”.
I looked at Eiko, and I saw that the crew were muttering and laughing. Some of them were saying, “God, he looks like Mickey Mouse”, and of course, my heart dropped into my stomach. I thought, “Oh, that’s going to the death knoll because you can’t infringe upon anyone’s copyrights”. That means that with Mickey Mouse, you can’t have anyone who looks like Mickey Mouse. I thought, “Oh, my goodness. That isn’t good”, so I turned to Eiko and said, “What does Francis think?”. She turned to me and said, “He loves it”. I said, “Say no more”, but the look ended up being accepted, and everybody liked it.
It was a great film. It was a huge amount of work with the makeup, and it was complicated working with Francis. There were a lot of unsettled looks and unfinished designs, always done when we were shooting. Every day was full of a lot of things that were highly creative and highly exciting, but also nerves were frying. It was very intense, but it was great. I loved it.
Johnny: Fantastic. The late Christopher Lee famously refused to reprise his role of Dracula after his run with Hammer. Similarly, if a filmmaker were to do a new Dracula-themed movie and asked you to contribute to the film’s makeup, would you take the job, or do you think it wouldn’t work?
Michele: I would do a new Dracula. I mean, when we did Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis said to me, “I want a Dracula that no one’s ever seen before. I want something completely different”. There were a lot of contortions about his look. His skin had to be translucent. He had to look imposing, and he had to be a vampire that would pass in public so no one would know he’s a vampire until night.
There was lots of stuff, and I remember Penny Marshall wanted to have a chat for another film we were prepping for after Dracula. She had heard about all the contortions, and about how Francis wanted a completely different Dracula, and Penny said, in her New York accent, (slipping into Penny’s voice) “I don’t know what the problem is with Dracula. I mean, you put the fangs on, you put the cloak on, and you’ve got Dracula!”. (Back to her own voice) I thought, “If it were only that simple”.
Every Dracula up until then was like that. You’d give him a cloak, paint his face white, give him fangs and a widow’s peak, and he’s Dracula. Francis didn’t want that. He wanted something very different, and I loved that about him. I was delighted. He was a director I loved who made very challenging things. If there was another look at Dracula, I would love to give it a try. Why couldn’t he be anybody? It’s very challenging and very exciting.
Johnny: Indeed, and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula would win you your second Best Makeup Oscar, shared with Greg Cannom and one of my previous interview subjects, Matthew W. Mungle. As you were at the Oscars this time, were you nervous, and do you recall how you reacted when your name was announced as a winner?
Michele: I was a little bit nervous because there are always the curveballs of the underdogs, and the competition is always stiff. You’re up against your peers, and you don’t know what to think. We didn’t know.
I remember it was Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci who were presenting. Joe called out Michael Burke when he read the card instead of Michele Burke, and then I heard Matthew and Greg and Dracula. My husband was with me, and he said, “Get up, Michele. It’s you”. Of course, your heart is beating so loud that it’s drowning out your pulse. It’s a moment when you’re meant to be moving and getting on stage, and they keep telling you you’ve got to hurry up. There’s all that, and still you’re winning an amazing award, and you keep going, “My gosh, what will I do with all this stuff?”.
We went up and, of course, Greg spoke first as a lot of his work was the cherry on the sundae work. All his stuff, the old age face, was the OOMPH, and there was our work, too, of course, which was a different type. He spoke first, but the problem was he spoke so long that neither Matthew not I got a chance to say a word, and all I wanted to do was thank my crew because, again, it’s your crew that helps you. You’re part of a team, and they work with you and as hard as you. I wanted to thank them, and I know that Greg had sort of spoken for Matthew, but they knew I wanted to thank them, so finally Greg finished his speech.
The Oscars’ theme that year was The Year Of The Woman, and I remember getting to the mic. I looked out, and there were a sea of faces that you know, like Meryl Streep and Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson. You’re looking at all these faces gaping at you with surprised eyes, and I thought, “Goodness, I’m going to pass out”. I took one deep breath because I kept thinking, “What am I going to say?”. The music started to play, and then I knew that our time was up, so I had to leave the stage and, of course, the next day I was really disappointed because I really wanted to thank my crew.
The newspapers said the next day, “The Year Of The Woman, and all the women were slighted by men”. Of course, they mentioned my name, but that’s just the nature of the beast. The Oscars are always complex and controversial, and they go on too long, and everyone has an idea of what you should be doing. That’s the way it is but, nonetheless, it was a great honor. It was very exciting, and when I won, I just felt somewhat vindicated.
When I won for Quest For Fire, I felt, “Was that a fluke? Was I worthy of winning that?”. I mean, I was only in the film for a few years. I’d never been to Hollywood. Nobody had ever heard of me. I was the first woman to win a Best Makeup Oscar in the second year they ever gave Oscars for makeup. This time around, it was like, “Wow, here I am in Hollywood, and it’s real”. To win it just made me feel, “Wow, I won two”.
It was very unusual at the time, and then on a break in the hallway outside the reception room, where people relax and have drinks, I saw Neil Jordan, who won an Oscar for The Crying Game. He lived down the road from me in Dublin, and when he saw me, he offered his congratulations. I knew he was doing Interview With The Vampire, but I said, “So I heard you’re doing Interview With The Vampire?”, and he said, “Yes. Do you want to do it?”. I said, “Of course I would. I’ve read all the books. I’d love to”. He said, “Alright, you’re on”, and right then and there, I got my next job. I thought, “Wow, I’ve got my Oscar and my next job”. I was hired for Interview With The Vampire, and I was super-excited because I just loved the books.
Again, it was completely different from Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. It was a whole different feeling and makeup altogether, and it was a film I loved working on. I did all the things they consider mainstream, you know, but at the time, it was different and new. Tattoo ink worked well to make it stay on because no other ink would work, but the tattooing did. Over that I did, believe it or not, I used a natural Number One Pancake from Max Factor. I buffed it on the skin and, of course, the tattoo colored veins made everything look really translucent. That was how we got the skin to look so great on Interview With The Vampire.
Johnny: Well, that’s definitely a fantastic story, and it’s amazing how a chance encounter can lead to an amazing opportunity like that.
Michele: Yes, I know.
Johnny: To go to my next question, when I interviewed Barney Burman, he mentioned times when he had to set up makeup labs in locations like a hotel room. Where’s been the most unusual location you’ve set up a lab for a film?
Michele: If we went on location, we always had a mini-lab or someone who could prep stuff. I know in Africa that we set up spots that weren’t completely labs. They were in the back of army trucks, which were very unusual because the tarp was green so, inside, everybody looked green. If you were doing anything with color, you had to go outside to look at the color and see how it worked. Of course, even that was tricky as the sunlight was so strong and garish that you had to second-guess what would look good. It was a lot of work figuring out the color.
I do remember setting up a lab on Vanilla Sky in a bedroom in the hotel we were in. It varies from film to film, you know? Luckily on most of them, I had the chance to prep and do the dirty work, so to speak, here in my own lab before the films began. The more I worked, the more I didn’t have enough time to completely run my own lab and, also, a lot of materials, like foams and solvents and even some of the mold-making materials, were affecting my lungs.
More and more I would design, and I would come in every day and check everything and go through what we were doing, and supply the designs to people, but it would get to the point where my lungs just couldn’t take it. It was too much for my health, basically.
Johnny: I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve read similar stories of how working in behind-the-scenes departments can be hazardous to your health. I was reading a recent report about puppet workers for the Jim Henson Company having to deal with their own health issues as a result of the conditions they were working in.
Michele: Yeah. Back when we started out, even Stephan and I, at a lab in Montreal, were working with solvents and things. We did not know about OSHA. We didn’t know that you should wear masks for that stuff, and it really did affect my health on certain levels.
When I was on M:I 3, I caught pneumonia halfway through. Luckily, they had done all the major scenes where I had set up all the looks and everything because when I work on a film, I design all the makeups. i usually do all the leads and run the show, and it was a lot of work, yet I got it all done, but I ended up in the hospital. That just shows you what can happen. There are all sorts of hazards on shows, like deadly things in the dust blowing in the desert. You have to look out for things like faulty lightbulbs.
Back on Clan Of The Cave Bear, I remember they were burning charcoal and rubber tires. If it wasn’t for Daryl Hannah complaining to her uncle Haskell Wexler, who was the DP, who went to the producers and told them to stop, it could’ve been a lot worse. Back then, though, there weren’t really regulations. Now, luckily, there are regulations to help us.
Johnny: Indeed. On a lighter note, in 2000, you worked on The Cell, which was a tour de force for your makeup artistry. When the script was first presented to you, do you recall what your initial reaction was?
Michele: It was, “I don’t know how they’re going to shoot this”. It all seemed very fantastical. The only good part about it, again, was Eiko. At this point we were friends, and she was going to do this. She loved it, and she told me about Tarsem, the director, and the ideas they had. I immediately was on board. I wanted to do it. Of course, they had great actors in the movie like Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D’Onofrio.
It was really amazing and really challenging work. Again, Eiko was taking over the look of everything, I hired the KNB Labs to work with me because, again, it was a huge amount of work. Also Eddy Henriques as my key. Some of it was being done as we shot, and the way Tarsem worked, some of the days he would come in and say, “I want this to happen”, and we would then and there have to create it.
The scene where Jennifer was in a corridor with all these strange, weird dolls was something he thought up that morning and, in the trailer, he said, “Michele, I want to have these looks”. Eiko had all these tear sheets of dolls and floors and weird stuff, and most of those makeups were done with tissue and latex and airbrush, made out of whole cloth like the old days. You never knew what would happen.
The biggest one was having Vincent D’Onofrio pull that cape down, looking like it was from hooks on the skin on his back. He had this huge harness under the fake chest piece , and we built this huge chest piece over it, and there were the hooks where he had to pull down the purple curtains on the set. It was truly a tour de force in makeup. Eiko had rigorously tested it. They harnessed him, and we had to put this chest piece over the harness. Of course we painted it and applied it, and it was a huge amount of work.
The other was where he was basically flying from hooks in his back. That, again, was another huge makeup job, and it took a lot of figuring out what to do to make it easy. It just took everyone onboard. It was, again, exciting and exhilarating, but each day was challenging yet good. I love that film still.
Johnny: Definitely. To go to some bigger picture questions, there are plenty of makeup schools bringing students into the entertainment industry. Do you think that will ensure that makeup effects live on, or do you think it may lead to a glut that impacts the field in a negative way?
Michele: Well, I believe two things there. Yes, there is a glut, and yes, in a negative way. There are people being hired who hardly know what they’re doing, and they’re amateurs, but what’s happening is that there’s also a glut of producers who want to make a movie cheaply. It’s very expensive to make a movie these days, so they hire people who are barely out of makeup school with very little experience, and their makeups are not up to scratch and then, of course, they rely on CG or visual effects to correct it.
In a way, there are a lot of sloppy makeup artists and then, on the other side of the spectrum, there are some really talented and incredible makeup people who rise above that pack of people who are mediocre, not learning and not trying to evolve. They’re evolving rapidly, they have a huge talent, and they’re rising to the occasion. There’s some incredibly talented people putting out stuff that makes me go, “Wow!”. You have both ends of the spectrum happening.
The other thing is that, with visual effects, they can do incredible changes to our makeup. A lot of times you see makeup and you think, “Wow, that’s great makeup”, but there’s a lot of correction and visual effects done to it, so there is that. When I did the bulk of my work, there were no visual effects, so what you saw was it. It was on camera. There was nobody correcting it, no one blurring lines or making edges go away, barely any color correcting or hair lace being rubbed out. All of what you saw was it.
Visual effects can help, but on the other hand, they may be hindering as a lot of makeup people are getting lazy. On the other hand, there’s some incredible work being put out. There’s a little of everything.
Johnny: Alright. Speaking of which, websites like YouTube and TikTok are also playing a big part in the importance of makeup in the modern day. Of all the makeup artists on social media, do any of them stand out to you visually?
Michele: I look around. I’m not a big person on social media, but I do have an Instagram account, and I love to see what other people are doing in other mediums, and there are some great people. I wouldn’t say I follow a huge amount, but there’s a few things I like. There’s one called Awesome MUA, and there’s another one called The Makeup Armory. They’re a school, but they pop out some amazing work. There’s one called itsariannebautista that does incredible makeups, and there’s also a girl named Megan O’Connor. She’s Irish and young, but she’s a great artist who’s mostly on TikTok, but also on Instagram. She does amazing work.
I was on The Glow Up, a sort of makeup competition. There’s The Glow Up England, The Glow Up Australia, and The Glow Up Ireland. I was on the Irish version as a judge, and when I was a judge, the prize was I would be a mentor to the winner. There were two winners, Megan O’ Connor and Caolan Kelly another makeup contestant who does amazing makeup. I follow Megan Kelly and Caolan and I see that they do great work. Those are the kind of people I follow and like. I look at everything , and I’m amazed by the talent out there. These are people who are literally doing it in front of their own mirror, s it’s quite incredible.
That never existed when I started out. There were no makeup schools or supply places. You had to make everything from scratch. Blood, scar material, molds, gelatin…Whatever you needed, you had to make. Now you can buy pieces already made for aging, for anything. Back then, you had to go to dental supply houses. We’d go to food markets to get food dye. We’d go to a cement place to get cement for our molds. You had to shop around for everything. Also no computers used or social media no I phones no fax or instant messaging! Now it’s a whole new country, a whole new world, you know?
Johnny: Indeed. On a similar note, what would you say are the most essential skills for being a makeup artist?
Michele: Of course, the essential skill is to have some artistic ability, but I think you must know how to do everything, and have a knowledge of all the products because that’s a huge thing. You can’t just say, “I went to school, and now I’ve learned it”, and then drop everything. Everything is constantly evolving. New tools, new products, new techniques…You’ve got to stay on top of it, and it’s changing so quickly.
You’ve got to go to different workshops. You’ve got to look around on YouTube. You’ve got to keep your ear to the ground and find out what’s happening. You’ve got to network. You’ve got to eat and sleep it. Most makeup people that excel are obsessed with it like I was, and they’re the ones that do well. If not, they’re probably literally fall by the wayside because the hours are so long, and it takes a lot of daunting persistence to make it because you work freelance.
Another thing is having a good bedside manner and getting along with everybody. It’s important to have a good bedside manner because we do our work on people, and you’ve got to know how to approach people, and what they might like. They have to trust you . Some like to read. Some like to chat. Some don’t like to chat. It’s important to never bring any of your own personal chit-chat into that. You need to keep it light and pleasant at all times. You need to make sure that the aura around you and the makeup room is pleasant and enlightening, and that the actor has total confidence in you, and that when they go out, they know they look the part that you created for them, and that they feel good about you helping them, touching them up and everything.
Another thing is that you need a clean presentation. Yourself, your nails, your hands…You need to wear clothing that’s clean and fresh and tidy your hair also., not flip-flops and spaghetti strap tops. It’s very important to be professional at all times. I won’t say how to dress, but everyone should look clean and presentable because you’re working on somebody. Your kit and tools should be the same way. You’re not there to do selfies or ask the actors any personal questions. It’s not a social media event. You’re there to work. I would say keep that social media stuff off the set. Be there, and do not gossip. That is very important.
The main thing is to be humble, and another one is to know how to run your business. It’s great to do makeups, but when you’re working, especially on films but even on commercials or anything, you have to know how to bill, how to negotiate and get a good fee for yourself. Write down your hours and how long you’re going to work, and if there’s overtime, how to negotiate overtime. Again, you have to be able to present budgets and the price of things to the producers, and tell an estimate of how much time, your crew, and what it will cost. In the end, it’s their time and money, and they don’t want to hear how the makeup took three or four hours. They want to hear that it was quick and efficient, and that it didn’t cost them, and that what you’re doing is the perfect job that they want.
There’s a lot there to unpack, but really, you need all those skills if you want to be a good makeup artist. Apart from that, when you do a good job, there’s nothing like that feeling of being honored and being acknowledged by your peers, or by your team, and that you see the actors have confidence in you and what you’re doing. That’s the reward, you know?
Johnny: …And what a great feeling it is.
Michele: Yes, absolutely.
Johnny: To go to my next question, in recent years, many Best Makeup And Hairstyling Oscar winners have won for more grounded projects, like Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, as opposed to the unusual and fantastic, like your work on Quest For Fire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Do you think that’s a result of the CGI boom, or a different trend?
Michele: No. I’m on the Makeup Committee of The Academy, and I’ve been there since the very beginning. In fact, I was one of the first members. It’s very easy to spot the dragons, so to speak, but makeup is smoke and mirrors. Makeup is stealth. When you see an actor in their normal day, and then you see what we do to transform them, sometimes you’re gobsmacked because it’s so unbelievable.
When you’re looking at the actor acting, that they look like that in their everyday life, you think you’ve got something on him. Thats just the old man, or the character that they’re playing, but you forget what we have done in very subtle ways with light and shadow, with color and hairwork and different little details on the cheeks, earlobes, nails, the color and texture of the skin, all sorts of things. Sometimes those subtle things that we’re doing have to be honored, and a lot of times, people didn’t because they’d say, “I don’t see makeup. He just looks like this. He’s just playing whatever”.
The more that you see that type of work, you really begin to admire it because it’s like what we call the no-see makeup. It’s makeup, but it’s like it’s invisible, like it’s not there. Remember, the screen is huge and everything is magnified. It’s highly skilled work that you do to make someone look different. If they’re wearing prosthetics, they’ll look different, but with just light and shadow and color, you’re really transforming them, and that’s a true art. It just is, and some people are really, really good at that.
It’s a skill, and more and more, we admire the whole makeup team. It’s very easy to do prosthetics, and get painted and sculpted in a lab. You’ve got a whole team there helping you, but to do it all on set is difficult. The makeup on The Theory Of Everything, for example, was amazing, and a lot of it was out-of-the-kit makeup, as we call it.
Johnny: I never really considered it that way, but it’s an interesting way of looking at it. As you are involved with the Academy, and have won two Academy Awards, I do have to ask: What did you think of Will Packer’s decision to move Best Makeup And Hairstyling, and several other categories, off the official show at the Oscars this year?
Michele: Oh, I think that’s not right because, after all, these are essentially craft awards. We’re honoring people who work on the crew, and to give them less time because you want to be entertaining, and because you want to have more viewers and make more money, to show people doing a song and dance…Shoving Best Makeup and Best Sound and the others who are highly skilled off the show? I don’t agree with that.
Of course, I don’t have any say in that because the Governors made the decision and then just told us. We didn’t have a say in it, sadly. I feel they’re craft awards and, therefore, if you looked at a film and took one of those crafts out, and then watched the film, there would be huge holes right across the board.
I remember one day we were discussing makeup at the Academy, and someone said, “Well, I don’t think that person’s eligible, really, because if you look at their work on the film, it was far less”. Somebody else said, “Well, if you had Post-Its, and for all the time you saw the work they did, you would put one on their face, how many Post-Its would you see across the screen?’. If you blotted out all those categories from the film, you would say, “What the hell am I watching?”.
Each little category is super-important. You can’t just say Best Director or Best Film are more important than Best Sound or Best Costume Design or Best Hair And Makeup. If you don’t take care of the makeup on the actors, what are we looking at? We’re looking at someone just looking their normal self. It doesn’t work, so I think they’ve got to find some other way to deal with this once and for all.
Johnny: Yeah. I was really disappointed in that decision. You are the 15th winner of an Academy Award that I’ve interviewed, and all the Oscar winners I’ve interviewed so far have been winners in categories that were presented off-air this year, and I was disappointed in that decision. I can only hope that, when next year’s ceremony rolls around, they’ll present all of them live again.
Michele: I think so. I think they just need to find some other way of dealing with things. I know it’s very complicated as they have to get the ratings, and they need the money as it’s a huge part of their revenue, and they need that to cover the Museum and all the stuff they need money for, but there has to be another way. As I say, it’s an awards show for honoring people, so honor them.
There has to be another way to make it entertaining. People are fascinated with Hollywood. I don’t know why they can’t bring in more Hollywood behind-the-scenes stuff. People would love to see that. When you’re working on a film, they do all that stuff. They have crews that shoot us in the makeup trailer doing the makeups. They go to where the costumes are and show them putting the costumes on. They follow the director and other crew and actors. I think people would like to see that, or maybe have the actors talk as they prepare for the character. I think people would find it fascinating. You could show someone having their makeup taken off. Or prepping for a stunt or special effect.
I mean, I love that stuff, so I think that’s something they could do that the audience might like to see. No one can get enough of it, but they’re not showing it. That’s just my opinion, though.
Michele: Exactly. I believe in that completely.
Johnny: I now come to my final question. What’s next on the horizon for you?
Michele: Well, I’ve done film for so many years that it’s kind of like I’ve been eating chocolate mousse cake, which has been my favorite cake for so long, that now I want to evolve and do other stuff. I still design characters for different actors if they come to me, and I do different makeups for people, but mostly now I paint. I also work for two very big makeup lines, Carslan, one of the biggest makeup companies in Asia, and Glossip, an Italian makeup line.
I’m their spokesperson. I design their looks, and I also help them create new, innovative products and packaging and things like that, so I really enjoy that. That’s a different angle, but I did a lot of that when I worked with Max Factor, also during my career, which I loved. I also love fashion and beauty makeup, which is where I started my career. I also design applicator blenders for Geka Brush in Switzerland, owned now by Medmix, they are sold business to business, so you’ll see them in different makeup lines, but obviously not with my name as they’re sold that way. I do share patents with them, though, on my designs, and I make revenue from that, so it’s quite exciting.
It’s just an evolution, and I believe you do need to have a plan B in your career. You get to a point where you eat too much chocolate cake. I don’t want to work 16-hour days. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve done my scenes. I want to do something different. Life is about evolving, and what you loved when you were 20, you may not like when you’re 30 or 40 or 50, whatever. I love evolving, and it gives me a lot of freedom, a chance to work in my studio and be home because I spent half my career on location, and I just love being home. With COVID, I’ve been home more (laughing), but it’s been nice, a very diverse evolution, and I like it very much. That’s what I’m doing next.
Johnny: Fantastic to hear. Well, that does it for my questions. I again thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Michele: Thank you for thinking of me and calling me up.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. You’re very welcome. I’ll be in touch again soon, and I hope you have a good evening.
Michele: You, too. Thank you very much, Johnny. Take care.
Johnny: Take care, too. Bye.
I would like to again thank Michele Burke for her time and her kindness. I would also like to extend a thank you to her webmaster as well for providing me with the pictures that illustrate the interview. For more about Michele’s life and work, you can visit her official website.
On a separate note, as mentioned at the beginning of the interview, this is my 200th article for Pop Geeks. I first came to this site in January of 2014 after having spent the majority of 2013 in the writing wilderness. RetroJunk, the website I used to write for, lost a lot of readers in its’ 2012 overhaul, and I lost most of my readers on that site as a result. The few who remained there were rather indifferent to my writing, and when they did speak up, it wasn’t really with kindness.
I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Eileen Cruz, the founder of Pop Geeks, for allowing me the chance to write for this site. She gave me an opportunity that not everybody has, the opportunity to make my autism spectrum disorder work for me instead of against me. The end result has introduced me to many wonderful people, whether they’re interview subjects or readers, and given me a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
I would like to thank Ms. Cruz, my fellow Pop Geeks writers, all the talents I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing, all the managers and publicists who have helped me along the way, all my friends who have boosted my writing, and last, but definitely not least, you, the readers. Whether you comment on Pop Geeks itself or on its’ social media outlets, I thank you for taking the time out of your day to read my articles. All of you have my undying gratitude and thankfulness.
Here’s to the next 100 articles. Cheers!