05/29/2012 01:28 pm ET

Rick Baker, 'Men In Black 3' Oscar Winning Makeup Artist, on 'Thriller' And 'Star Wars'

I met Rick Baker -- winner of seven Academy Awards for Best Makeup -- at the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, New York. It was fitting location for the interview considering Baker's illustrious career: At the museum, Baker was roped off, with an empty stool next to him, like he was his own display. Actually, if Baker were up for it, perhaps he should be his own display -- a constant reminder of movie-making magic, before computer-generated effects made everything too easy. Or, as Baker calls it, too "sloppy." Thankfully for all of us, Baker is still too busy to be considered a museum piece.

Baker, whose latest work can be seen in "Men in Black 3," is a pretty candid guy. (And, yes, he's earned the right to be.) Here, we discuss the joys and tribulations working on "Men in Black 3" -- a film with a script that was constantly changing -- why CGI has made filmmakers sloppy, and he reflects at length about his work on two classic projects: Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and the original "Star Wars."

Nice to meet you, sir.
Don't call me "sir." You can call me Rick!

I'm originally from the Midwest, it's a habit.
[Laughs] Oh, OK.

This is an interesting setup. I fell like we are an exhibit. "The 2012 Interview."
We are!

In "Men in Black 3," was Jemaine Clement's Boris the most difficult?
Well, Jemaine was one we focused on a lot. What was hard was getting the studio and everybody on the same page that I was on. What I thought he should be.

That's interesting. What did the studio want?
In the original script, Boris was described as being like Dennis Hopper in "Easy Rider." And I thought he should be much more intimidating than that. And more alien. He wasn't very alien at all. And it turned out, in the end, it was a virus. I said, "I don't buy it." And I kind of pitched a whole different idea. To me, he should be much more Charles Manson or Sonny Barger, who was head of the Hells Angels -- he should be an alien. I mean, from a distance, he looks like a scary biker. And you avoid eye contact. If you see a guy who looks like that walking down the sidewalk in front of you, you're not going to be fucking staring at him.

I've seen human beings who don't look that different than Boris.
When I first pitched my concept for Boris, I showed them a distant image. I said, "See that guy? He looks like a human." Then I should them a little bit closer and I'm like, "OK< now you can see him a little bit better. You're not going to want to look at him."

Especially when a monster shoots from his arm. Was that your idea?
Well, it's funny, that kind of evolved. In the original script, an organic creature turns into a gun. A regular gun. And I said, "You know what? I don't buy that." And they go, "Why?" And I said, "It doesn't make sense." They're like, "It's like Transformers." I said, "No, it isn't. Transformers is a machine, turning into a different machine. It's not an organic creature turning into a machine."

It sounds a little like "Terminator 2."
But at least that was a liquid. But I said, "I don't buy it. Why don't we make it a creature?" Also, I said that I thought the creature should be part of him. Without this thing, he doesn't have his power. And Will had the idea that his weapon should shoot quills.

OK, even with something like the quills, with all of the rewrites, does that affect you at all? Like, "By the way, this character now has this power." Did you ever think, "I wish you would have told me a month ago"?
I mean, it happens in every movie.

OK, with any movie that you've ever worked on, what's the worse example of that?
Well [laughs], this is probably the worst example. The hard thing for me was that we made things for scenes that weren't in the movie anymore. It was designed specifically for a scene, we pretty much got it finished, then, all of a sudden, "We threw that scene out."

Can you use that elsewhere?
That's the thing. It's like, "OK, we'll use that for Men in Black headquarters." So, all wasn't lost. But it's happened to me, I would think, on every film I've done that we did something we worked really hard on, but it's not in the movie.

You've done amazing work on movies that aren't the best.
[Laughs] Most of the movies in my career, yes.

Do you ever think to yourself, I just created something extraordinary for a movie that not many people are going to like? Is that frustrating? You've won Oscars...
Do you mean The Wolfman?

Nothing against The Wolfman...
You know, I actually kind of like that movie. People rag on it...

I only use it as an example in this case because you did win an Oscar.
No, it's true. For me, I try to do the best I can do, no matter how the movie is going. It's still my name and my name is on it and I want the work to be as good as possible. You always do hope that the movie will be as good as your work is. I can't tell you how many films I've done where people have said to me, "I wish the rest of the movie was as good as what you did."

You don't see a lot of actors winning Oscars for bad movies.
Yeah. I mean, it was a joke when "Norbit" got nominated for makeup. And the thing is, yeah, the Academy -- it's not like the process isn't flawed -- but they're looking at the work, not the movie, for this specific craft category.

Almost 30 years later, did you have any idea we'd still be talking about the video for Michael Jackson's "Thiller"?
Heh. You know what? John Landis told me that was going to happen.

Yep. He said, "You're gong to be remembered more for this than anything else you do." I was like, "You're kidding? This is a music video." But, when we filmed the zombie dance, it's in the middle of the night in a not great part of Los Angeles -- like in a meat-packing district next to a place where they just slaughtered animals. But it was a crazy day for me because I had all of these zombies to makeup. It was crazy, beat the clock thing. And I'm standing there, watching people do that "Thriller" dance for the first time. And it was like, "Fuck. Look what i'm looking at! Look at what these guys are doing. People would pay money to see this." It was a cool thing to be involved in.

Do you look at movies that are completely CGI and think, You know, you should have called me?
You know, I embrace the technology.

You have to, right?
Yeah. But I hate when it's used wrong. And it's something I think we can do better. What I really do hate about the digital revolution is that it's made for sloppy filmmaking. "Fix it in post." It's like, "I don't even have to think about this now. I can just not make this decision." And I don't think that's always the best way to go. I do hate that part.

I mean, you will always be fine. But are you worried about young people starting out in this craft? Like in 40 years, filmmakers may decide that we don't need this at all?
Well, yes. People are trying to do that. I just worry about, not just the people in the craft, but what you're going to be seeing. There's a real magic that happens when you have a really good actor in really good makeup on really good set. Now, you have a guy with motion capture dots on his face and he has no idea what he really is on that motion capture stage -- you're not going to get the same performance. I mean, you have Andy Serkis who is really good at that, but, most actors ... I mean, Eddie Murphy, so many times, didn't know what he was going to do until he sat in the makeup chair.

To that point, you worked on the first "Star Wars." I've read Ewan McGregor compare his acting in the prequels to that of working with a tennis ball, compared to Mark Hamill who was actually looking at a creature. Do you think it makes that big of a difference?
I do think it makes a difference. I mean, I do think it's cool that you can do things that you can't do any other way. But, just because you could have 10,000 werewolves running down a wall, doesn't mean that you should. The backlash it's getting is that they do things that totally take you out of reality that you're not buying it anymore. You don't care. You know, the first "Star Wars," when I saw that, I was so fucking excited. Everything was just so exciting. I saw some of the later ones and they had some sort of huge scene in outer space with a zillion ships and all of this stuff going on. And I was just like, "Why do I give a shit?" You know? Technology, when it's used well, is great. Not that it wasn't done well in "Star Wars"...

What are your memories of working on the original "Star Wars"? I know you did some work on the Mos Eisley cantina scene.
My involvement in "Star Wars" came in post-production. Ken Ralston and Dennis Muren were working on it and they had already filmed the cantina scene, originally. With different aliens, but not as many. George wanted to embellish on it. So, I came along and no one knew "Star Wars" was going to be "Star Wars". Fox didn't want to spend any more money. George wanted to add some stuff, but there wasn't any money to do it. We couldn't do stuff as elaborate and cool as I wanted to do it. But it was a one-day shoot, basically. And some of the masks we made were mass production kind of masks -- I figured we'd throw it in the background. And George actually featured some of them more than we should have.

It's one-day shoot, but it helped create one of the most iconic scenes of all time.
Oh, I was so glad I did it, for so many reasons. One, because it's "Star Wars." But also because movies are a series of cuts. And it's crazy, people in the industry don't understand. Many time I'll say, especially when we did much more practical effects, "Let's shoot it in post with a smaller crew." That's how we did the American Werewolf transformation. And they say, "It won't work." And I say, "Did you see 'Star Wars'? Do you know the cantina band, playing in the cantina? That was shot six months later, in a whole different country, by completely different people." They were never in there at the same time Harrison Ford was in there. And they're like, "I can't believe that." And I say, "It can be done." You swear those guys are there. We did a closeup of Greedo...

Two different actors played Greedo.
Yeah. And the shot where we did a closeup of him, where Han shoots him, we shot, again, later. Different people. A series of pieces of film, cut together.

On any movie you've worked on, what character are you most proud of? Even it appeared on screen for a second.
It was actually a movie titled "Harry and the Hendersons." Harry, I think, was my favorite. You can watch that movie today and I think it still looks good. For one, it was cool because I was one of the puppeteers who controlled his face. And it was our first radio controlled, animatronic guy. Like I said, I think he holds up. "American Werewolf," a lot of people still say great things about it, but I look at it and think, Oh, we could do so much better. Harry, I could improve upon, but not the same amount. I think he still looks pretty damn good.

Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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