‘Mank’ Makeup And Hair Designers Talk Recreating “Magical Period In Filmdom” & Grappling With The “Vernacular” Of David Fincher

When makeup and hair designers Gigi Williams and Kimberly Spiteri were approached for Mank, they jumped at the chance to craft looks for an Old Hollywood drama, set in an era they both loved.

“Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s was something that we’ll never get to see again. That whole studio system, it’ll never be like that again,” Spiteri says. “So it’s a chance to get a glimpse at what it was like, which I find fascinating.”

Directed by David Fincher, the drama is both a love letter to, and a critique of, Hollywood’s Golden Age, following alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), as he finishes the script for Citizen Kane.

It’s on projects like this, Spiteri says, that “what the hair and makeup department does as a craft matters. Whether you’re trying to emulate a character or just get the period right, you may not notice if it’s right. But you’re going to notice if it’s wrong.”

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Certainly, in the case of Mank, every effort was made to make sure that the work was right, though period accuracy was not the only concern. Because the film would be shot in black and white, both Williams and Spiteri had to engage in a lengthy series of camera tests, to make sure that their designs would translate properly, and that Fincher would be satisfied with the looks conceived for every actor.

In years past, Williams had collaborated with Fincher on the 2014 film Gone Girl, as well as the Netflix series Mindhunter, climbing the rungs between those two projects from assistant makeup department head, to the head of her department. Spiteri, though, had never before worked with the revered auteur, so it would take some time to come to grips with his famously particular working style.

Below, the designers reflect on the joys and challenges of tapping into a “magical period in filmdom” for Mank. Additionally, they touch on the idiosyncrasies of Fincher’s “vernacular” as a filmmaker, with regard to makeup and hair, and the way in which Williams guided Spiteri through her first encounter with the filmmaker.

DEADLINE: Kimberly, how did you get involved with Mank?

KIMBERLY SPITERI: It’s Gigi’s fault that I got dragged into it. [Laughs] No. I mean, it’s not her fault. I’m very thankful and grateful.

GIGI WILLIAMS: Kimberly, you gave a great interview, and you lived up to everything in the interview. Your work was impeccable, it was fast, it was under a lot of duress, and not enough help. I mean, it was not an easy project. Every single person had a wig, and nobody understood that every one of those wigs had to be set, combed out, pinned on. So, I’m really glad that you gave such a good interview.

SPITERI: Gigi has worked with David for a long time, so she knows David, gets David and they have a great relationship. So, Gigi was David’s voice for me, actually, to begin with. She knew his vernacular, what he was looking for, and it helped me to understand because it’s not the typical scenario. Working with David was incredibly amazing, but it was probably one of the most different [projects], in the relationship with the director, that I’ve ever experienced.

DEADLINE: Can you elaborate on that? What exactly made the experience so different?

SPITERI: Gosh, how do I put this? Because I think he’s brilliant…

WILLIAMS: David has a reputation for hating hair, period. If he could have everybody in a movie be bald, like he did in Alien 3, where he paid a lot of money to have Sigourney Weaver shave her head, he would do that. He hates hair. He has a fear of it, a loathing of it, so it’s difficult to understand that and give him what he wants. You have to know how to approach that because he wants it to be perfect, he wants it to be shiny. He doesn’t want it to stand out, but it has to be perfect. And it’s hair. So, hair moves.

DEADLINE: What did your prep look like, leading up to the shoot? I imagine you dug into a lot of historical research.

WILLIAMS: I spent a tremendous amount of time in books on film, looking at the characters, because almost every character in the movie is supposed to be a real person. So, we had a lot of visuals to draw on, and that was fun.

It was interesting because as I went through my house, looking at my reference books on makeup, I found that I had like six feet of books from this period, and I didn’t realize it. My son said, “Mom, you’ve been jonesing for a black-and-white Hollywood movie of the ‘30s and ‘40s since I was born.” And he’s 30. [Laughs] It’s this magical period in filmdom where it was all glamour, stylized, what we would call “smart.”

So you look at these books, you know who the characters are, we lay them all out on the counter, and then between Kim and I, we decide what we can do with the actor that we’re given to make him look like that.

DEADLINE: In pre-production, you also participated in a number of camera tests. What can you tell us about your experience there?

WILLIAMS: We did a lot of tests with David and the actors, trying to get everything right, especially [given] the medium he was using and the filters he was using. We spent a lot of time with Erik Messerschmidt, the DP, and the DIT guys, who are in charge of saturation, et cetera. We would set up a camera maybe once or twice a week and just bring in what we wanted to test. Then, later that day, or the next day, we were able to go into the editing bay and look at every single frame, and everybody had a voice in it. “It’s not shiny enough,” or “It’s too shiny. It’s too dense. It’s too dark, too light. It’s reflecting too much.” So, it was a group project.

DEADLINE: How long did that process go on for?

SPITERI: A couple of weeks, in terms of us going through colors, and putting things together to test. We didn’t have access to the actors at the [start], so we had a ton of wigs, and Gigi had color boards, and we’d stick them in front of the camera. That’s where David has little patience, and then has a ton of patience, because he wanted it right. He had a certain vision in his head, whether he could articulate that personally or not, so it was me trying to read just the slightest thing—something in his voice, a tone, whether he would get excited about how something looked on the monitor. I had to learn his vernacular because not everybody speaks the same language, when it’s about color, and makeup, and depth, and what it is that someone’s really trying to say.

So, it was a huge learning process, as well as the whole black-and-white thing. It wasn’t just desaturating or taking the color away. It was actually shooting in black and white, trying to find things that worked, and showed, and didn’t show too much, or too little.

DEADLINE: Gigi, I’m sure you had to retrain your eyes, as well, for the medium you were working in, because what the camera would pick up was entirely different from what you saw on set. How did shooting in black and white influence your choice of color in makeup? I’ve heard that one shade of lipstick you ended up using was a dark black.

WILLIAMS: Well, it was really dark red, and that was really interesting because as we went through all the colors that we liked, having worked with David before, he hates red. He hates red on the set, he hates it in the clothes, he hates it on the lips. The only colors you had in that period in lipsticks were variations on red and a reddish pink, so your natural inclination is to stay away from anything too red, too vibrant, too in your face.

We had some of those, but then we got everyone together and I gave the lipsticks to everybody. Sometimes we had nine, 10 makeup and hair people working because we had so many people in the scene, and we’d go out and look at everyone, and all of a sudden we’d go, “Oh my god, they all have the same color lips!” Because everyone’s gravitated to the same one.

It took me, personally, a long time to come around to the very darkest red because I was so afraid of it. It took me a while to train my eye to, “That isn’t goth. That is that year.”

DEADLINE: Kimberly, how was your work affected?

SPITERI: It was lot of the same things. Take Amanda [Seyfried], for instance. You’d look at a photo and say, “Oh, okay. [Marion Davies] was a platinum blonde.” But if you were to put that shade exactly of a platinum blonde on, what would happen was, it would disappear, or it would look like it was floating off of her head. Then, some blondes, like William Randolph Hearst, [had] sandy blonde hair. Well, if we took a normal sandy blonde, it looked like mud, like wet sand.

So, we had to do things that you wouldn’t normally think of. Just putting on a platinum blonde wig in color would be great. But for black and white, it couldn’t be too light, couldn’t be too dark. We had to put a little bit of darkness in at her root so it would have a depth, but enough lightness that it wouldn’t look like this solid mass, which would happen with different shades.

With Gary, we wanted to give him a younger look with a subtle difference [compared to his look in another timeline], so we had slight differences in gray. We didn’t want it to be so shocking that it was in your face, and we had to test out different grays to [see] what worked on camera.

DEADLINE: I’d also heard, Gigi, that you gave your male cast members dark circles under the eyes, which helped you to get at the period look Fincher wanted.

WILLIAMS: Well, my signature in most of my films is guys with dark circles under their eyes. I love dark circles. I think they’re sexy; I think they’re real; I think they lend an authenticity to the look. I like to use ‘guyliner,’ but David said I definitely couldn’t use guyliner, so it ended up being eyeshadow, really.

I think it’s very funny. Charles Dance really had a hard time with his “cadaver look,” because that’s how I describe it. All the pictures of William Randolph Hearst, he looks like a cadaver. He’s got these sunken-in eyes that cast a shadow, like zombie eyes, so I did that in a 30-minute test, and he’s sitting there going, “Gigi, don’t you think that’s a bit much?” And I was like, “No, no. It’s good!”

DEADLINE: Could you both describe some predominant looks of the ’30s and ’40s that you recreated for Mank?

WILLIAMS: If you look at old movies, all the men back then had very pronounced eyebrows, so we darkened and made thicker almost everyone’s eyebrows. Then, there’s a smokiness to their eye. I put mascara on every man. I’ve never done that in my life, but I had to pull out their eyes. Because otherwise, everything just sort of went away. So, it was mascara, eyebrows, a gel that really puffed them out. We did a lot of plucking and stylizing and grooming their eyebrows, and then eyeshadow around.

For the women, it’s totally different, of course. In the 1920s and early ’30s, the eyebrows were really, really thin. David absolutely did not want really, really thin eyebrows, so we had to figure out a way of giving you the impression that they had really thin eyebrows by the shape you gave it, but not have it be so severe.

SPITERI: In terms of styling with the women, that’s all old school—what’s called wet setting pin curls. We had printed wave patterns all over, to give you certain styles. If I’m researching a period, I’ll go back and figure out what it was that they used then, and attempt to do it that way, to give that authentic feel and look. Men in the ’30s, it was Byrlcreems, and waxes, and barber cuts. A lot of what’s popular right now is what was in style then, so you have to be careful [about]…not making them look too modern. You need to find the fine line, and that’s usually with a part, or a little different product than what might be used now. So, I will research products of that time, and believe it or not, you can find them.

DEADLINE: When you look back at the film now, what are you most proud of?

SPITERI: I’m just honored and thrilled for everyone that Mank has been received so well. I think from the top down, it took a labor of love, and everyone gave it their all. For me, it was just an amazing process to watch David, to watch the actors. It was a lot of fun.

WILLIAMS: Working with David is like working with this incredible artist that you don’t always feel while you’re working. While you’re working with him, it’s technician stuff, but once we get to a certain point in the editing, you start seeing the real artist come out, because he looks at it and figures out what he needs to do, in order to take it one step further.

You look at this project and first of all, it’s a cap in my career because it’s just the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m just beyond proud of it because I’ve watched it six or seven times at this point, and every time I watch it, it gets better, and fuller, and more magical.

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