Bringing Dune to life

Donald Mowat on the make-up that has earned him an Oscar nomination

by Jennie Kermode

The eye have it - Zendaya as Chani in Dune
The eye have it - Zendaya as Chani in Dune

Over the course of his extraordinary 37 year career, make-up and visual effects artist Donald Mowat has worked on an amazing collection of films – every from David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly to Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler and James Bond hit Skyfall. He helped Denis Villeneuve bring the world of Blade Runner 2049 to life in 2017, so it’s no surprise that the director quickly sought him out when he began working on his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It was Mowat who transformed Stellan Skarsgård into a formidable Baron Vladimir Harkonnen whose size made him more intimidating rather than attracting revulsion – as he explains, he didn’t want to be involved in fat shaming. But there’s also a lot of subtler work in his approach to the science fiction classic, and when we met at a press conference shortly after he received an Oscar nomination, this was what I focused on.

Make-up and body modification carries significant weight in Herbert’s original version of the story. Mentats – human computers like Thufir Hawat (played in this version by Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Piter de Vries (David Dastmalchian) – have lips stained red by a drug they use to aid their concentration, doctors like Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen) carry a mark to show they they have been condition so that they can never harm those they serve, and of course there are the widely recognised blue-in-blue eyes of spice addicts (including all of the desert-dwelling Fremen). I ask Donald how much he drew on these established ideas.

“I'm so happy you're asking,” he says, “because the thing with the book is that, you know, I knew a little bit about it, of course, and about earlier adaptations and things, but I really tried not to follow anything. And so I didn't go back to the book, and I didn't go back to the film because it kind of tricks you. Do you know what I mean? Because it starts to play games with you. This is a new interpretation, and it's Denis’ film, this is the film he wanted to make since he was a kid. And sometimes on my team, occasionally somebody would make a reference to Doctor Yueh or Liet Kynes or someone and it would throw me a little bit.

“When I was doing Photoshop and very early make-up brainstorming, as Denis calls it, I would hear somebody say ‘Yeah, but they had the stain.’ It would throw me a little bit because I'm not copying or we're doing something they did. I wanted something we did. And I felt like I had to start over. So I didn't reference ever again, apart from a little homage like with the diamond tattoo, for instance. Of course people will talk about the book, but with our characters we had, you know, Liet Kynes is a woman in our film whereas it was a man in in the other film, do you know what I mean? So I think we have a lot of leeway. And I think it's a fresh start on a new creation.”

The natural make-up in the film also raises interesting possibilities, I suggest, because it features characters who are from very different environments: people who live out in the desert, people from a water world, people from a world where there is permanent smog. How did he address the way that that would affect the characters' skin, and give them the right kind of look?

“With Timmy and Rebecca, for me being one and two in the film, and working every day of the film, our concern was the contrast I'm seeing now and the paleness,” he says. “And this quite dramatic look to them. You see them in the desert and you want to maintain that throughout. And the Fremen, the people living in the desert, we based them a lot on all kinds of not just diverse, but representational people of the world, you know, people from all kinds of places, how people who live outside would look, and we did tribal tattoos and things like that.” This included, he says, thinking about how people living in that kind of environment would age.

He wanted to create distinctive looks for particular groups which would make sense in light of their backgrounds.

“The Sardaukar were more like a paramilitary group – militia, I think, really is a better word – bearded, a lot of broken noses, alphanumeric tattoos across the foreheads. Then the army of the Atreides, where they come from, and then the officers and kind of the royal circle. Paul's father, the Duke, was kind of a Russian Prince Michael of Kent, you know that bearded look? The royal families of Russia, that kind of thing, was the feel for that. So they were very distinct groups, and a very natural look. And again, Denis wants it to look like nobody has anything, but they do. They all have some form of hair and make-up. And then the Harkonnen who are quite theatrical: it's a combination of traditional makeup and airbrush makeup with eyebrow covers.”

No actor is ever willing to shave off eyebrows, he says, so quite a bit of work had to be done to give the Harkonnens the smooth foreheads we see in the film, which is certainly a striking look.

Donald is naturally very excited about the Oscar nomination, which he found out about when on the set of upcoming Guy Ritchie film The Interpreter. Fortunately he was working with Jake Gyllenhaal at the time, who is a longstanding friend and took it in his stride when Donald’s hands shook too much to complete the job. He is more relaxed about it now, though, and has nothing but praise for the other nominees. Beyond the big night, he’s looking forward to getting back to work on the second part of Villeneuve’s Dune.

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