Denis Villeneuve’s dramatic thriller, Prisoners, has received phenomenal critical acclaim. This year, Hollywood bestows new praise on the emotionally gripping story, this time for its behind-the-scenes artistic brilliance by Canadian makeup artist, Donald Mowat.
The film unfolds with the abduction of two young girls and a father seeking answers by taking matters into his own hands. In this dark and poignant story, it is essential that every physical character detail carries its weight in credibility. From Melissa Leo’s finest wrinkle in her role as Holly Jones – the old, mysterious aunt of the alleged suspect – to Alex Jones’ boyish features, played by Paul Dano. It is precisely these nuances that garnered C | MU Instructor and Advisory Board member, Donald Mowat, the nomination for the 2014 Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Award for Best Contemporary Makeup.
As the Makeup Department Head for Prisoners, Donald’s talent graced the set of Villeneuve’s thriller to complete the jaw-dropping effects that fascinated international audiences. With particular interest focusing on the striking special makeup effects applied to actors Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello and Jake Gyllenhaal, we asked Donald to tell us about how their makeup was designed to help tell this compelling story.
“A month before we began filming, I spoke with Denis Villeneuve to discuss everyone’s looks. The initial design for Paul Dano was to make him seem like he hadn’t slept, maybe give him a damaged eye; make him bloody and dirty with some broken teeth. After seeing it, the director changed his mind. Based on how the story was written, he wanted more. I was slightly concerned at first about overdoing it but the concept really proved the dynamic of Dano’s character. You didn’t know whether he was innocent or guilty, which made his look very delicate and effective.”
As the film eludes the ethical boundaries of shock value, the evolution of Alex Jones’ makeup consistently provokes reaction. However, the character makeup for Holly Jones, Alex Jones’ suspicious aunt, is of equal admiration. We asked Donald how this red carpet beauty was transformed to reflect the dominating melancholy of the plot:
“Melissa Leo’s look had no special makeup effects, it was full paint age makeup done strictly with brushes. I wanted to avoid using prosthetics since they are easy to become aware of on film. Melissa was unbelievably involved with her character so I had to make her believe that she was old. In this case less was more, so I kept it simple. I didn’t need to go all out, I kept her pale because there is an innocence to it yet it also makes her character suspect. She appears to be preserved in it.”
What is extremely impressive is that Donald transformed Melissa Leo into a creepily aged Holly Jones in 30 minutes. Although Melissa Leo’s elderly facade contrasts the juvenile character makeup of Paul Dano, Donald has established both designs so they compliment each other amicably:
“I wanted to make the characters Holly and Alex Jones parallel and give them similar features as if they are actually mother and son. I made Paul’s face smoother to give off that roundness and cherubic effect. I wanted him to look almost androgynous so that he could resemble Melissa. The way his character evolved added to the creepy factor. It makes you question whether he’s guilty, so the concept for his look made for an interesting combination.”
We took a closer look at Prisoners characters Grace Dover, played by Maria Bello, and Detective Loki played by Jake Gyllenhaal. This is what Donald had to say:
“There are only a handful of actresses that will go to the lengths Maria did for a role. Her transformation was very real, right down to the progressive hollowing of her eyes. Both her and Jake were lovely to work with. It was actually my first time working with Jake. He was like an old-fashioned movie star; you just can’t take your eyes off of him. When he arrived on set the first day, he had long hair and a beard, which I had to get rid of. His initial ideas for the neck tattoos also had me worried. They were intended to be peeking out above his collar, which would have called for constant touch ups. But when it all came together, they were made more visible and he almost had a retro Russian look to him. The tattoos added to the mystery of his character to the point where you are not sure whether or not he is the guilty one.”
This award will not be Donald’s first. He is the recipient of a Prime Time Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement, a Gemini Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal for his reputable involvement in the film community. It is evident that Donald’s work has enhanced some of the industry’s most highly regarded cinematic productions. The 2014 Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards (IATSE Local 706) make for Donald’s fourth nomination for Best Contemporary Makeup. Considering it has been a decade since the last Guild Awards, where Donald was nominated for The Human Stain, he considers it a distinct honour that his work is being recognized yet again.
“I had a great time working on this movie, even on the tough ‘4 a.m. call time’ days. I became friends with the people I worked with even after the film, which doesn’t always happen. I also had a great team of cast and crew to help make it all happen. It’s been a career fulfillment. I’m humbled by it and I loved working on it, that’s what solidifies the meaning behind it. To know that I’ve created an impact is what matters, not actually winning, but that my work has been recognized.”
Another busy year of accomplishments for Donald is also ahead with upcoming films such as Nightcrawler, where he worked with Jake Gyllenhaal for the second time. He will also be finishing the filming of Wim Wenders’ Everything Will Be Fine, his first 3D film with actors James Franco, Rachel McAdams and Charlotte Gainsbourg. We simply cannot wait to see the brilliant makeup concepts he creates for these dramas.
As a Director for the Actors Fund of Canada and an esteemed Advisory Board member for C | MU College of Makeup Art & Design, he has always been an advocate for artist recognition. His devoted contribution to the film community resulted in the formation of the annual Genie Award for Makeup, known today as the Canadian Screen Awards for makeup. Donald’s accomplishments certainly classify him as an ideal role model to impart vital advice on aspiring makeup artists:
“I’ve been a Director of the Actors Fund of Canada for six years now and it’s been life changing. This is my message to you – do charity work, broaden your horizons, and be firm about your beliefs. You have to be diligent and persevere, and respect the advice you are given. It’s important to be true to yourself and to be able to admit when you don’t know something. Be able to critique your work and then to ask yourself, ‘How can I be better?’ Be cultured, well read and involved. Once you do this you’ll be in more demand. It’s easy to become myopic and lose sight and touch with the industry. Work hard for your aspirations but at the same time be a part of the community and always network and meet new people. Understand the fine line between confidence and arrogance.”
“When I started my career, professional training in this industry was rare, so I take it seriously. C | MU has been a huge part of making a difference for up and coming makeup artists. It’s great to be a part of that and stay informed of what is being taught. I often remember how much I myself have learned while teaching. It all comes back to keeping in touch with the community and knowing who you are.”
As one of the most successful makeup artists in Hollywood, Donald has worked as both Head of Department on innumerable award-winning films and Personal Makeup Artist for celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg and Daniel Craig. Donald’s skills and exemplary career have proclaimed him a master in the craft of Makeup Artistry.
C | MU College of Makeup Art & Design congratulates Donald on his recent nomination and we look forward to celebrating his future contributions to the film and television industry. His accumulated achievements, sense of community, and cultural initiatives distinguish him as not only a mentor to emerging artists but also as a commendable industry leader worldwide.