The Joker has gone through dozens of different looks over the last seventy-odd years, with artists making him more horrific or cartoony as they re-imagine him. With a new bust depicting the Clown Prince of Crime, special effects make-up master Rick Baker joins the roster of creators who’ve re-imagined the DC Comics villain. Of course, his Joker looks really sick, in all senses of the word.
Rick Baker has racked up a slew of awards—including seven Oscars—over a decades-long career working on classic projects like An American Werewolf in London, the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Men in Black, and Videodrome. Months ago, DC Comics commissioned him to put his stamp on the Joker for a new collectible bust that comes out today. I spoke with Baker this summer at San Diego Comic-Con and, in the edited and condensed conversation that follows, he talks about his career and his favourite on-screen Joker.
I remember when you did that group cosplay with your family a few years ago, where you all became different versions of the Joker. What is it about the Joker that fascinates you?
Rick Baker: I always thought the Joker was kind of a cool character but that family Halloween really piqued my interest in the Joker. When I saw him in a film, I always thought “that’s not quite how I’d envision him,” or, “not quite what I would have done.” But also I know from doing this kind of work, there are so many things that affect the final outcome. Whether the actor is willing to wear it, how much he has to do with it…
The inspiration for the Joker, which was Conrad Veidt from The Man Who Laughs is the best Joker, to me. And if somebody said, “make a good Joker,” I would do something like that. In the ‘20s, they didn’t have a lot of materials so they couldn’t do a lot of different things. But you look at the make-ups that Lon Chaney did with the materials that he had and they’re iconic and incredible. It’s all prosthetics and the limitations helped, I think. You see so many things now, they’re just too much.
People put too much rubber and too much shape, you lose the actor, you lose all that, you know? I always kinda prided myself on trying to make the right decision for the film I’m working on. But the Joker, just to answer your question, the Joker is just a cool character. And I just thought, “to me, the Joker should be insane and fucked up and scary as shit,” and so if somebody just looked at him, you’d want to run. You know? And that’s what I was hoping to do with this.
When I first saw the pictures of this, I was like, “How many diseases does he have?” What do you think is going on with him, physically?
Baker: I had to ask my daughter, “What’s the history of the Joker again?” I’d forgotten. She goes, “He fell in a vat of toxic waste, you know?” I’m like, “OK.” I don’t think that’s representative in other Jokers. He’s got this crazy smile and he’s white with green hair and stuff, but, it seems like he should be more fucked up. So that’s one reason I did a lot of this shit. I just thought his skin should look like it’s gone to hell because it’s been soaked in toxic waste. So I just wanted to do a more screwed up Joker, because he was birthed in toxic waste.
You mentioned your reactions to on-screen make-up approaches to the Joker. Do you have a favourite you feel works better than the others?
Baker: You know, it’s usually because of the performance more than anything else. When I first saw the Heath Ledger one, I wasn’t a fan of the make-up to begin with. I wanted to see a big set of teeth, you know? But he was so brilliant in that performance, and when I did my family as different Jokers, I watched the film again and saw the make-up and thought it was a really good decision for that film. That’s the thing, you have to adjust the design and characters for what the circumstances are. But he was brilliant. Such a tragedy he died.
When I think about the Cesar Romero Joker from the 1966 Batman TV show, something about them painting over the mustache makes it even goofier? It’s an unintentional effect of a guy who couldn’t be bothered to shave his mustache for anything and it plays into the conceit of it being only semi-serious. You mentioned what an actor is willing to wear. Do you think an actor would ever be willing to submit to making themselves look like this design of yours?
Baker: Well, I don’t think you could totally do this as a make-up, either. The actor is the armature for your sculpture, basically. We take a cast of your face. And if you have a nose like mine, I can’t make a nose like yours. And that’s frustrating, because a lot of times, that’s what you want. So, it is very nice to not have [a real person’s face] underneath. And also to not have to worry about the guy having to talk, to see, to breathe, all those things. I haven’t actually looked at this for a year and, to be honest, I’m actually surprised that I didn’t do more to cut things in a little more, make things more extreme, you know?
I think I got scared as I got going because it’s too different. That was my biggest fear: It was going to be too different for people to accept as the Joker and I was going to get hate mail from a bunch of Joker fans. But you talked about the Batman TV series and I was a kid when that came out. I was really excited there was going to be a Batman TV show. I wasn’t a big comic book kid, because I didn’t have a lot of money and spent it on Famous Monsters of Filmland. But I did have a couple of comic books and they were Batman. When the song started, I went “What the fuck? This is like children making a joke out of this guy.” It really pissed me off!
There’s a generation of fans embarrassed that was the popular version of the character for so long, but now I feel the pendulum has swung the other way. Even before Adam West’s passing, the way we think about these characters has changed. There’s a continuum of interpretations.
Baker: I’ll watch it now on MeTV and enjoy it. But as a—whatever age I was—a kid, that wasn’t the Batman I wanted to see.
Let’s say you were doing An American Werewolf in London today — what would you do differently?
Baker: Well, if I did American Werewolf in London today, I would take advantage of the digital technology. I wouldn’t do it all digitally. I would like to do a nice marriage of the techniques, practical and digital. But Max Landis, John’s son, is doing a version and I wouldn’t want anything to do with it. I did it once. I personally think it’s going to be hard to top that movie. It was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. I think it’s a mistake to try to do it.
Do you feel like digital special effects have made make-up a dying art?
Baker: It’s not quite a dying art. I thought it was going to die when digital happened, but there’s probably more make-ups going on now than there has been in many years. TV has created a lot of that. They do a lot of great make-ups on Game of Thrones. They do everything great on that show. The digital work, the costumes, everything’s great. And you’ve got Walking Dead and so many fantasy and horror and genre TV things that utilise make-up. It’s not a dying art. It’s just the motion picture industry has changed so much.
I was surprised to hear you say you’d use digital...
Baker: I embrace technology. I do a lot of digital work and I have fun doing it. To me, it’s all about the creativity. It’s not really the material so much. And I have fun learning new things. A lot of this [attitude] comes from [history].
Jack Pierce was the make-up artist who did the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, and he actually also did The Man Who Laughs make-up. He created these iconic images and saved Universal Studios. But, when the new regime came in the ‘40s, he was kicked out because he was using old-school techniques when everyone else was using foam rubber. He didn’t progress with the times. I made a note of that and I’m not going to let that happen. So I was the first make-up artist that I know of using digital designs with Photoshop 1.0. Now it’s commonplace. I was the first one to use ZBrush. On the ZBrush forum, which I joined anonymously, I had a big fan following. They didn’t know who I was. And it was kind of nice to know they appreciated the work. Not just the name. But yeah, I learned from Jack Pierce’s mistake, and I just like trying new things.
One of the things I like about my job is it’s always different. Maybe one day I’m making up Eddie Murphy as an old, white Jewish guy and I’m doing another movie where I’m doing a Bigfoot and making a likeness of somebody else. It’s not boring. I don’t want to do the same things every day. So, pushing clay around is fun, doing digital clay is fun, too, when you get tired of the other one.