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Talking Makeup With Michele Burke
03 Jul 2008 : By Tanya Warren
Michele Burke
With credits that include ‘Dracula’, ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ and ‘Austin Powers’, Irish makeup artist Michele Burke has become one of world’s most formidable creative talents behind the camera. In our Q&A, the two time Oscar winner takes us from her early career through to her recent collaboration with Mike Myers at the MTV Movie Awards – and we discover that working with more Irish filmmakers is one of her top ambitions.

Born in Dublin in 1959, Michele Burke emigrated to Canada during the late 1970’s where she began carving her career as a makeup artist. Working her way up from fashion assistant to key makeup artist on high profile Hollywood productions, Michele has become one of the most versatile and innovative talents working in the industry today. The recipient of numerous accolades, Michele has won two BAFTA awards and has been nominated for the Best Makeup Oscar six times, winning twice for Bram Stoker’s 'Dracula' (1992) and 'Quest for Fire' (1981).


Dracula

You began your career working within the fashion industry, can you tell us about how you started out?  

I was inspired by watching a makeup artist work.  I had emigrated to Montreal from Dublin because at that point in the early 70s Ireland was in a terrible recession and there was no work, so I thought I should do something more and see what life can bring me.  I was working with a friend helping her put on a fashion show and I had no idea that makeup was a career.  Then, in comes this makeup artist and it was kindof like a lightbulb going off in my head - I was like “Oh my God, this is actually a job that you can do?”  I was always artistic and loved the idea of being an artist but my father always said do something practical because you can’t make any money out of it. 

On the other hand, I was always fascinated by the cover girls in magazines and wondered how did they transform because I didn’t see those girls on the street. I met a guy called Joqulie Peltier and he told me about a course that you could take which was real short – a six week course, three nights a week. During that time I had found my mission, my passion, I ate it up and I loved it.

So that began your career in the makeup industry, how did you progress from those early days into becoming a makeup artist for film?

I found a job working for Revlon as a demonstrator in department stores. In that time I did tonnes of faces and learned quickly how to do very good beauty makeup.  Then I applied to a very small makeup boutique called Electa and Corrado, at the time it was the key place to go to for makeup, and I worked with them for three years in their boutique. Not only did we sell makeup but we took appointments and did makeovers and gave them their face charts. It was the beginning of what is normal nowadays but back then it was very avant-garde.

They sent me out on photo-shoots and I did a lot of fashion spreads, covers for magazines and a lot of the fashion shows in New York and Toronto.  With Electa and Corrado I really learned the ropes and a lot about makeup but it was in that process that I realised I still didn’t know everything; special effects makeup, how to do fake noses, character work and ageing. They were strictly fashion so I found out about another Makeup artist in Montreal named Mickey Hamilton who did special effects makeup; she was an old timer and one of the few that did this. I called her and showed her my work and she said I could work with her for no pay, the typical routine, so I agreed and literally slept on the floor of her house on a foam mattress and sleeping bag. She took me in and I worked with her on three movies, I learned a lot about the movie business and how it worked and I learned a lot of special effects makeup with her.

So was it a conscious decision to move into film?

It really wasn’t no. You moved between film and fashion, everything was one and there was no division. It was a just conscious decision to learn more, that’s all.

At the time Montreal was one of the places where movies from Hollywood could get really great tax breaks to make their films. A lot of horror films would come up but the issue was they really didn’t have the crew to do some of these films…so along comes Michele.

I had enough experience to be able to apply but I was doing work that was way above what was normal to do at that point in your career, but there was really no-one else to do it. So by the seat of my pants I was learning on the job and I literally began accumulating work on lots of movies and that began my movie career.


Quest for Fire

And what would you say was your first big break?

One of the first films I did on my own was 'Terror Train', the horror film directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Jamie Lee Curtis, then I did 'Bad Dreams' and 'Visiting Hours'. Basically they were all slasher films but I learned a lot about having to think outside the box because at that point nobody really knew how to make blood. We had different recipes and makeup artists like Stephan Dupuis, Gordon Smith and I would share ideas and learn from each other.

Was it a very exciting time to be working in makeup?

It was completely exciting but we were in a bubble. I thought in Hollywood everyone was doing this and more, but at the time I was actually one of the only women working at this. I was in a field of one and had no idea what the rest of the world was doing - and then along came 'Quest for Fire' where I became Head of Department with Sarah Monzani and I won my first Oscar.

How did it change your life?  

The funny thing about an Oscar is they say it’s the kiss of death. It changes your life in two ways; one, everyone thinks now you’re too big for your boots and you wouldn’t want to work on their little films - so those people don’t call you anymore; and the bigger films think you’re booked up. As a result it was a strange silence after it.

Then I began to get lots of calls and after a few years I thought I should go down and face the beast in Hollywood. In Canada, I was a big fish in a little pond but how would I fare in Hollywood? I came down and I kind of had to start up again. I started working on non-union films and finally I got into the union and little by little I began to get some really good movies. I got Dracula, which won me another Oscar which I felt was good because the first one you think maybe it was a fluke? Then I began to get other nominations for 'The Cell', 'Cyrano de Bergerac' and 'Austin Powers' as well.  


Cyrano de Bergerac

Does that kind of award recognition mean a lot to makeup artists?

Oh it does, absolutely. It’s always a double edged sword when you win something like that. First of all you have to acknowledge that you never win anything on your own, especially in film because it’s such a team effort and you rely on your team as much as yourself. There is a lot of work you have to say that even though you designed or supervised it, and did the main characters, the rest of the makeup and hair team also had a lot to do with it. You can’t ever think that it’s just you because then your ego is completely out of control.  It’s great and it’s a good feeling but you have to keep it in proportion with everything else.

 Yes, and then there’s always the next job after that?

That also that raises the bar because you are being watched and everything you do has to be amazing – there is a lot of pressure.

Going back to your early days, apart from the 6 week training did you do any other formal training?

No it was literally all learning on the job. There weren’t any makeup schools but there was a few of us, kindof like a Rat Pack; Gordon Smith, Stephan Depuis, John Caglione, Kevin Haney; but again it was just me and the guys kind of thing. We would just share ideas so there was camaraderie between us.

Did your background in fashion give you the edge for doing beauty makeup in films?


The Cell

Oh it did yes. I always say to makeup artists that if you want to be good, first perfect the beauty makeup. It’s the foundation for everything.  You learn how to blend and about the subtleties of colour and what works on a face. Then when you do character work you’re not heavy handed. I find when artists come from special effects and work back to beauty, sometimes they are too heavy handed and they put far too much paint on. It’s too heavy a makeup. Even though they’re sculpture and prosthetics are good, when it comes to painting they don’t have the finesse.

I have taken up oil painting and I primarily do faces just to continue perfecting the art of application. It’s a lifelong study and a lifelong passion really.

Do you think you would have pursued the same career if you’d stayed in Ireland?

No because at the time I was not even close to film or makeup or fashion. It was not in my field of vision because it just didn’t really exist. Film was way outside anything I knew about. I studied languages, French and Spanish, and hoped to work with those skills. Moving to Montreal opened up doors.

Would you recommend makeup artists to move abroad to pursue their careers?

A lot of them email me and look at my website and say “should I come to Hollywood?” but the visa situation makes it so hard to get work here. The other thing, in a way that it has helped and spoiled the business, is that there are too many makeup schools pumping out artists who are hopeful and thinking they are all going to be huge stars. The problem is there just isn’t enough work for them all. Even in Ireland I think there are five makeup schools, and when I left I don’t think anyone even knew what makeup was. It’s good and bad as only a few make it.

I’m not complaining about the schools because I wish there was a school I could have gone to because it would have been easier, but on the other hand I learned a lot of innovative ideas and techniques that I wouldn’t have in a school. We were basically blazing trails when we started. First we were applying foam laytex and then we all started doing gelatin, and now silicone is the thing. Before that people were using putty and wax and paper to make things!

The film business in Ireland has really become huge. It’s amazing and I would love to go back to do some more work there as there are some incredible filmmakers, actors and great talent. When I started out they were making films but nothing compared to what it is today.

Do you think people should go to the training schools or try learn on the job?

At this point I feel you have to go to the training schools. The competition is just too fierce and the unions require it. It’s hard to work on a union film unless you’ve got some work experience under your belt and no makeup artists will take you on unless you’ve got some previous work. You nearly have to come trained, whereas back in the old days if you could paint we would take you on. Things have changed so much and it’s good and bad.

In terms of your own career, which makeup artists have been your biggest influences?

Oh my goodness! Jack Pierce, Ray Harryhausen, he’s an animator; Dick Smith; John Chambers. They were also blazing trails and they did unbelievable makeups that they had to invent. They were classics in Hollywood. Jack Pierce did Frankenstein, The Mummy, Hunchback of Notre Dame; and they were all makeups that no-one had ever seen before so they became complete classics. They all invented just the way I did when I was doing my work so they were definitely very inspirational.

You recently worked as a makeup consultant on the animated feature Monster House, do you think the CGI field is threatening towards the makeup artist?

It is in a way, because it has taken a lot of our work away. For some of the monsters that you would see in 'Pirates of the Caribbean', it’s all animation.  Films like 'Indiana Jones', 'The Hulk', 'Terminator', 'Iron Man' - they are all using CGI characters, but on the other hand we are still doing a lot of creative work that’s exciting. I just finished a film that’s coming out this summer called 'Tropic Thunder'.  I did this really funny makeup on Tom Cruise where you’ll see him like you’ve never seen him before.  It was a real challenge makeup wise. We had to put so much hair into the pieces by hand. It was a really difficult job and something that could not be done by computers, so I think the challenges will continue as the industry changes. I would sum it up this way, CGI and makeup often work hand in hand, we may begin something and CGI will take it further – it’s exciting we are crossing T’s and dotting I’s for each other. 


Jessica Alba and Mike Myers at the MTV Movie Awards

Also, I just finished a month long work with Mike Myers and we did some funny, quirky makeups for the MTV Awards, he played Kristen the Craft Service lady with big boobs, just really funny stuff. With Mike you constantly have to do work that’s challenging and exciting and also a lot of fun.

Is part of your job building a trusting working relationship with actors like Mike Myers and Tom Cruise, who you’ve worked with quite a few times?

Absolutely, in the end you clearly rely on that. Once someone trusts you and likes your work they’ll call you again and again. It’s exciting to work with people like that, they’re very inspirational and masters of what they do and it’s fascinating to sit back and watch them.

What qualities do you think you have that helps you work with those guys?


Michele with Tom Cruise on Interview with a Vampire

I think working with them you really have to help them become the character that they need to be without interfering any further and without grand-standing your work. In other words, what I do has to be an aid for them to look the character or be the character that they want to be. We can’t let any more of us get involved, that’s it.

When preparing for a movie, do you have conversations with the actors or is it your vision?

It’s a combination of both. When Tom and Ben Stiller came to me for 'Tropic Thunder' they had a vision as to what they wanted. Then I did research and came back with suggestions. Little by little we chipped away at it until finally we had three Photoshop pictures of what we wanted to do. So we tested these looks and then it was a mixture of two of the looks that we went with.  It’s always different every time. Sometimes Mike Myers will say “this is exactly what I want” and then he will say “well this is my idea what can you come up with?”

I find working with Tarsem, the director of 'The Cell', he’s a wonderful director and he always pushed me further. Likewise Stephen Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, Neil Jordan, Jim Sheridan and Terry George; no matter what you came up with they always pushed you to greater heights – making you jump further than you yourself felt you could never get to.  Tom Cruise, Susan Sarandon, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Jessica Biel and Mike Myers, just to mention a few, are like that too. They make you better than you are.

With directors and actors asking you to go that bit further, is that a great challenge for you?


With Tom Cruise and Stephen Spielberg on the set of Minority Report

Absolutely, its like you’re an athlete and you’re saying “I can jump six feet” and they’re saying “yeah but can you jump seven?” and then you go “Okay, I’ll give it a go.” Somehow with their aid and their advice you make it, and do it, and land on the ground and go WOW!

When you finally see the picture of your finished work, the character and the makeup test on screen – you think this is going to work. Then you have to map it all out and think about each day so that it goes on quickly because there’s no point in designing a makeup that takes four hours to apply. Tom Cruise always wants everything under an hour. No matter what makeup I do on him it has to be less than an hour – he nearly comes in with a stop watch! On the 'Tropic Thunder' makeup we pre-painted and pre-made everything. I worked with three people and we just slammed it on.

What is the most difficult aspect of your job?

The most difficult for me is the hours. Early on when I was young and very youthful I would leap out of bed with glee at 4am – but I will tell you now when the alarm goes off at 4am I groan! The hours are really daunting and I always say to a lot of young women especially who call me up and say “oh, I wanna work in movies” that if you intend to marry and have children don’t even consider it. You cannot do the two. Unless you want to have other people bring your children up you just couldn’t do both. Do fashion or commercials or something else because in film the hours are horrible, but you have to do those hours to keep the work.

Can you describe your typical working day?

You would get up around 4 / 5 am – the trailer is prepped the night before and you would set everything out.  Then the actors would start coming in and you would start the makeup call – doing anything from one to three or four makeups. Then you would go to the set the rehearsal would start, they setup the shot and start filming. All during that time I would be watching the actors on set and we would be preparing other actors for the next scene. Not only am I watching the actors on set, there is a lot of ongoing business with scenes that are happening later in the day and then preparing for the following day. It never ends; the ordering of products, the timing of things, you have to watch the crew and their hours and also the budget. 

Do you like to work on bigger or smaller projects?

The size doesn’t matter because I’ll just put together what I need. For me it’s the creative challenge that gets me going. I loved doing films like 'Dracula', 'Austin Powers', 'The Cell' and 'Mission Impossible', 'Vanilla Sky', 'Cyrano De Bergerac' – films that have a great creative challenge because it’s all about the art of makeup.  I love making up actresses and actors equally either in character makeup or beauty. Both can be equally challenging and I really like the creative aspect. 

What’s the best tip you can give a makeup artist?

Always think outside the box and never stop learning. Never think that you’ve arrived and that you know it all – there is always somebody behind you clipping at your heels with a new technique. I can never sit back and say “I know it all so I can just walk in” because every film I do I try something new. You have to constantly be humbled by the fact that you are just one of many and you have to keep learning.


Austin Powers

What’s the technique you use most in your work?

What I’ve learnt most is the use of colour, form and how to blend that into art. The technique that I’ve learnt with oil painting - that ground work has always stood by me.

In your team, what qualities do you look for in your crew?

I am usually hired to create the look of all the characters for some very challenging films so, o f course, I want somebody that is talented but I also want somebody who can work in my style palette and zone. I also look for somebody who can take orders and can follow directions. I’m not rigid about it but I create a very definite style and a look for the film and I do want that followed. A makeup artist’s technique is critical to executing a design’s essence and direction.

I encourage input from my team as they are also creative and sometimes they will come up with very creative ways to do something. I make sure everyone feels vital to the work they are doing, and the film. 

Do you do a large amount of research before designing a makeup?

Sometimes I have an idea straight away and sometimes I’ll do a huge amount of research. I don’t necessarily go to old movies because that’s been done before – I usually go to art and other fields of vision for my inspiration.  If it was a drug movie I might go to a crack addict website; or if it was murder mystery I might go to police files or autopsy pictures. I go to real things, I seek art. I find inspiration all over the place in animals, bugs, plants...

Would you photograph or sketch them?

Both, if I see something along the way in my life I will tear things out of magazines or take pictures of them – so I keep a file of things I will constantly come back to. Something I that I think the texture on that fish was perfect, or those two colours worked well together.

What are you currently working on?

I am working with actors and actresses on publicity shoots, some fashion shoots…and of course painting also. I am also designing a very specialised line of makeup tools – so I’m busy enough!

Have you any goals or any directors you’d like to work with?

I’d love to work with Irish directors again. I’ve worked with Neil Jordan, Terry George and Jim Sheridan before and they are great memories. I really want to get back to my roots and work in Ireland again. I only came here as a segway in my career to perfect what I do. The film business in Ireland is so good now that I would really like to come home to roost. 

Selected Credits – Michele Burke

• Monster House – 2006
• Mission: Impossible III - 2006
• Elizabethtown - 2005
• Spanglish - 2004
• Austin Powers: Goldmember - 2002
• Minority Report - 2002
• Vanilla Sky - 2001
• The Cell - 2000
• Picking Up the Pieces - 2000
• The General's Daughter - 1999
• Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me - 1999
• Gloria - 1999
• As Good as It Gets - 1997
• Jerry Maguire - 1996
• Some Mother's Son - 1996
• Moll Flanders - 1996
• Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman - 1993
• Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles - 1994
• Color of Night - 1994
• Dracula - 1992
• Cyrano de Bergerac - 1990
• Alien Nation - 1989 - 1990
• Quest for Fire - 1981
• Terror Train - 1980





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