Science Fiction Filme) Dear Mr. Wheeler. Your life for the film is unique. You started with such films as HOWLING II (1985), SLAVE GIRLS FROM BEYOND INFINITY (1987 and one of my guilty pleasures) or AMERICAN FIGHTER III (1989). Then came films like HIGHWAY TO HELL (1991), COPYCAT (1995) and STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996) for which you received an academy award nomination together with Michael Westmore and Jake Garber. Could you please tell us how you got into makeup? What did you do before you entered the film industry?
Scott Wheeler) I was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo majoring in architecture. Since Cal Poly had no theater major at the time it was an open door to anyone from any other major. I pretty much walked in and was given the opportunity to more or less create a makeup department for the theater at Cal Poly. I soon realized that this lifelong fantasy of being a makeup artist was a serious desire and I really didn't want to do architecture. So I used Cal Poly theater as my training ground. I found a union makeup artist through a mutual acquaintance in the film business that was interested in teaching. So for a year I took private makeup lessons on weekends in L.A. While applying everything I was learning to the Cal Poly theater. That was my back ground more or less.
SFF.) At the beginning of your career, you worked on many films that seemed, let's say, quite low-budgeted. What were the working conditions like back then? Could you be frier in what you were doing or did you have to improvise a lot?
S.W.) Some of it was low budget some not. My first job, essentially as a kind of intern was at the Burman Studio. I got to work and learn at the same time. That was on BUCKAROO BANZAI (1984) and STAR TREK III (1984). Not low budget. The conditions were great as was the education in how to do the lab work right. I then moved on to Cosmekinetics. That was Tom Burman's brother's company, Sonny Burman. Again it was a first class education on doing things right. THE HOWLING II (1985) was low budget but I also worked on THE CLAN OF THE CAVEBEAR (1986) which was not.
SFF.) Is there someone or a certain situation or film that moved you to do exactly what you are currently doing? Who were your biggest influences?
S.W.) Biggest influences. Start with actual movies and TV. The original STAR TREK at the age of 4. I was amazed by Spock. It just looked real. I could not figure out how they could make those ears with the ear folds. PLANET OF THE APES. My god! I was 6? Went to see it with my parents at the drive in. Had no idea what we were seeing. I was too young to even read the title. When Gorillas showed up on horseback with shot guns my mind was blown. Later, a few weeks later my parents took me shopping at our local shopping mall. There was a live demo of the PLANET OF THE APES makeups with the actual makeup artists who worked on the movie. My parents let me stay and watch while they shopped. Again I was blown away. That really had a huge impact. Then THE EXORCIST (1973). I was 11 when I saw it with my brother. We didn't even know it was a horror flim just that everyone was talking about it. That was a game changer. Later in Highschool our theater department was blessed with the Rohde family. Mrs. Rohde was the drama teacher and director of the school plays. Her son was the art teacher and set designer for the plays and a great makeup artist. A guy named Joe Rohde. The Joe Rohde of Disney Imagineering fame. That was my art teacher and my first direct influence as a makeup artist. We also had a copy of the Richard Corson book in the school library. I was in there nearly every day at lunch practically memorizing it.
SFF.) You grew up professionally in the golden age of practical effects and make-up, in the 1980s and 90s. Looking back, how do you perceive this time today? What did it do to you?
S.W.) Not sure if it was really a golden age but it was an amazing time. We had this small group of makeup effects artist all in the 20s and teens. We were working at the various shops. During that time there was a kind of critical mass artistically and technologically. Makeup effects really exploded on both fronts and we were in that explosion. It was time when one could still be a general makeup effects artist/makeup artist and work on all aspects of makeup and makeup effects.
SFF.) What do you think about today in your professional field? Is there more freedom today or are you strongly influenced when you work on big-budget films, for example, because of the pressure to succeed?
S.W.) Far less artistic freedom. It can be very frustrating.
SFF.) What is your opinion about education to become an expert in make-up? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
S.W.) Passion is the most important thing. Talent can be developed.
SFF.) As far as I'm aware, your first exposure to STAR TREK was on FIRST CONTACT (1996), for which you received an Oscar nomination. How did you get this job and what did it require of you?
S.W.) As I mentioned before my first exposure was STAR TREK III. But my immediate connect to FIRST CONTACT was from being a full time makeup artist on STAR TREK VOYAGER. All of STAR TREK was under the supervision of Mike Westmore so it was quite natural to work on FIRST CONTACT.
SFF.) To what extent did you have to adjust the actors' makeup to make them look like the Borg? How difficult was it to keep the human features?
S.W.) Those weren´t really issues. The trick was to design a makeup that can be done many different ways using the same basic elements that can fit any actor. But that was the norm for STAR TREK so it wasn't really any kind of adjustment. We knew exactly how to do that from the start and it was built into our process.
SFF.) And while we're on the subject of FIRST CONTACT: How exactly did you go about planning the make-ups? To what extent does the make-up support the individual characters?
S.W.) The Borg were created with a series of individual prosthetic elements that each makeup artist could use to create individual makeups that stayed within our conceptual design parameters. The paint scheme was critical in keeping the concept and the consistent look of the Borg.
SFF.) After that you remained faithful to the STAR TREK universe, among other things for the TV series VOYAGER. What fascinates you about working for STAR TREK? Is it the wide possibilities you get to create new beings or is it something else?
S.W.) That was exactly it. We were doing new aliens on a weekly basis. It was a prosthetic makeup candy shop.
SFF) Your Portfolio is a wonderful compilation of fantastic work. Do you have some favorite works of yours and is there a project that, unfortunately, never came to fruition, even though you had already designed a lot for it?
S.W.) Yes. There were two that come to mind. A vampire design for a movie that never got made based on the novel “They Thirst” and a design for the character “The Man with the Red Eyes” from A Wrinkle in Time. I was in contact with the producer of A Wrinkle in Time (both versions) from about 1983 onward. I was not able to work on either for various political/economic reasons. But neither version really depicted that character as he was written in the book. So it goes. I really would have liked to have done that as a makeup.
SFF.) You have also worked on films like COPYCAT (1995) or WE (2019). There, instead of being in the fantastic realm, you tend to see very "human" make-up like scars or injuries. To what extent is the difficulty with such make-up?
S.W.) Realism presents us with an objective standard against which our work can be judged.
SFF.) For example, if you need to prepare to show aging processes of a character, how do you go about it?
S.W.) Research and careful study of real aging
SFF.) What were the challenges for MADTv?
S.W.) The pace and learning a new medium.
SFF.) Currently you have also been working on the OBI WAN-KENOBI (2022) series. What did you do there and how did it feel to be part of the STAR WARS universe now?
S.W.) I love the original STAR WARS and was thrilled at the opportunity to finally be involved in that world. Not going to lie. It was a miserable experience. These once great inspired movies have been reduced to corporate franchises that are completely geared towards selling merchandise. There is no creativity for the makeup artists. We are vendors making a conveyer belt product. It’s a tragedy and waste of talent.
SFF) If we look back to the movies you have done, we see that you did a lot of genre-movies. I am really into science fiction (or fantasy movies in general) because I think, that those kind of movies are the best way to show actual political and social events. For example, SOYLENT GREEN or SILENT RUNNING. Do you believe that these genres can transfer something to the people?
S.W.) Absolutely. When the writers understand that and use it as a medium for such messages
SFF.) Do you take some (personal) fears into your make-up? Where did you take your inspiration from for this design?
S.W.) The fear of failure is quite a motivator. I try to do whatever research I can to inspire better designs. When I am asked to actually do the design work.
SFF.) You work for both: cinema and television-series. Could you please give us an overview of the extent to which the working methods in these media are different?
S.W.) In the past they were quite different. Now they aren't different at all. It used to be 35mm film vs 3/4" video. Totally different levels of resolution. Now everything is shot on 6K and 8K digital. TV and film are no longer really different.
SFF.) Imagine you meet an extraterrestrial one day. He wants to know why you were stuck into movies with just one movie to explain, which will it be and why?
S.W.) Not sure I would explain that to an extra-terrestrial but to a stranger I would say it's the power of art combined with the magic of transformation. It's kind of like playing god at its best.
SFF.) I held up with one of the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult make-up you were working on and why?
S.W.) The Borg Queen for FIRST CONTACT. We had serious technical issues with the life cast and it had all the pressure that comes with doing the most important makeup in the movie. And I was given the reigns to design and execute that makeup.
SFF.) Dear Mr. Wheeler. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.