Frank Herbert’s beloved 1965 novel, Dune introduced readers to Caladan, and the desert planet of Arrakis; to mysterious Bene Gesserits, native Fremen people, powerful dukes, and massive sandworms. Herbert’s rich world-building spawned 14 additional novels, but after a disappointing 1984 film, and several stalled attempts, adapting Dune to the big screen proved a daunting and unfeasible task.
Enter auteur filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve proved himself to be the new master of science fiction. To morph his cast of A-Listers into fantastical beings, Villeneuve called upon his fellow Montréal native and longtime collaborator Donald Mowat.
Serving as Dune’s Makeup Department Head and Makeup, Hairstyling, and Prosthetics Designer, Mowat transformed veteran character actor Stellan Skarsgård into the villainous Baron Harkonnen and Javier Bardem is unrecognizable as Fremen leader Stilgar. Some of Dune‘s makeup looks, like that of Rebbecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica, are more subtle, but whether it’s a marquee name or background character, each member of Dune‘s sprawling cast has an individualized look, designed by Mowat and accentuated with prosthetics, delicate tattoos, piercings, or other bespoke details—the result is breathtaking, remarkable both for its epic scale and painstaking craftsmanship.
Donald Mowat’s work on Dune has been shortlisted for Makeup and Hairstyling at the 94th Academy Awards. Read our complete interview below:
Awards Daily: I wanted to start with your relationship with Denis Villeneuve. Having worked with him multiple times, what was it like to come back together for Dune? What can you tell me about your initial conversations?
Donald Mowat: I just have to say that getting to work with Denis, initially on Prisoners, was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me, to work with someone like him. So, when Dune came up, and he got in touch to see what I was up to, I was thrilled to be invited to be part of it.
You know, what’s really great about Denis’ films is that everything is sort of a process of elimination and coming up with different ideas. I do a board, and we cross-reference between costumes and production design. We all check in with each other and what we’re looking at. I was looking at different films, and Denis sent me masses of photographs and different things. It all starts a dialogue, if you will, about makeup and hair and costume and props.
We started to talk almost right away about the Baron Harkonnen because he would play later in the film, and we didn’t really know— Will this be a practical makeup? Is it possible? That was really the question. And it was. I thought it was possible, but I needed lots of help and needed to be with the right people and put together a team.
We handled each and every character like that, as we do on every job. We figured out what each look might be based on some of the costume sketches. And then we talk about the makeup and the hair.
AD: What were some of your inspirations for the characters and how did that evolve into what we saw on screen?
DM: With the Baron, obviously, it’s a huge makeup job; it needed a lot of preparation.
As soon as Denis told me it would possibly be Stellan in the role and that it was going to be practical makeup and not CGI or a visual effects thing, I kind of had a plan because right away I thought ‘Stellan, Sweden,’ and I thought of my friends [prosthetic makeup artists] Eva Von Bahr and Love Larson, who’ve worked with me before, who are also Swedish. We were going to be in Budapest; it’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight. You get all the signs going, ‘This is meant to be.’ And I knew I was onto something.
I worked with the production designer Patrice Vermette, and costume designers Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan. It was very collaborative; Denis is very respectful of that and what we all do. I came to him with ideas of Marlon Brando, not just Apocalypse Now, but also The Island of Dr. Moreau, with the pale makeup. And that informed the look of the Rabban Harkonnen [Dave Bautista] and Piter de Vries [David Dastmalchian].
For Timothée and Rebecca, I looked at some medieval monasteries and royal families. To me, Rebecca had an essence of, I don’t know why, but a little bit of Princess Grace, a little bit of Ingrid Bergman, that’s kind of where I started.
Josh Brolin originally had longer hair, we cut it short and grew his beard, gave him the scar, which is a pivotal story point. With Javier Bardem, we gave him those little tattoos, creating a look where he belongs in the desert as a Fremen.
We gave Zendaya the tattoos and a look we don’t often see her in, which is completely natural, unmanufactured— natural hair and a clean, no makeup look that obviously takes a bit of makeup.
AD: Rebecca Ferguson’s look was so intriguing to me because usually, when we think of royalty or a woman in a position of power, they are more made up. Lady Jessica’s makeup is very subtle. What led you in that direction?
DM: That’s surprising. Rebecca, she’s an ethereal beauty, exquisitely beautiful, but I didn’t feel she should be made up. She’s playing an intellectual; she’s almost superhuman. But she’s also playing Timmy’s mother, and I think we wanted to make her look and feel that she’s the mother. And I think going with natural makeup was the right way to go rather than something more over-the-top. With the costumes, it felt like it could be too much. And I’m really glad we did what we did. I think it’s more believable.
AD: You mentioned Stellan Skarsgård’s character makeup. What was it like to have him in the makeup chair?
DM: He filmed at the end of our schedule for, I don’t know, seven or eight days. But we did 16 weeks of prep prior to that. It’s an incredible character. It’s practical prosthetic makeup, which we don’t see so much anymore. It took five people to apply it. I’m so grateful for everyone that worked with me on my team because everyone was at the top of their game. And Stellan loves being in makeup; he loves the process. So, it was a joyful experience for all of us. When Stellan is wearing clothes, his makeup was about four hours. And when he’s not, like in the steam room sequence, that was about six hours. It was a big undertaking. It’s a lot of work.
Dave Bautista had an hour and a half, and David Dastmalchian, maybe two and a half hours because he’s in a bald cap and brow covers.
AD: I would say Dune is the largest project you’ve ever worked on, and you had COVID and reshoots to contend with. How did Dune compare with your previous experiences?
DM: Yes, I thought Blade Runner 2049 was big, and it was. Dune is bigger in a different way, But, yes, Dune is certainly the biggest thing where I’ve been the department head and the designer of all of it, the hair, the makeup, the prosthetics.
But I also felt like it was a better way to work with Denis. On Blade Runner, really, we had just a couple of actors, but I think it would have been more cohesive for me just to run it as one person with a great crew. So I learned a lot from that, actually.
All of Denis’ films have incredible makeup elements. It’s really interesting when I think back on it. Sicario, Prisoners all have quite a few makeup elements, and they’re based in reality—and it’s usually more on the natural side, as you mentioned with Rebecca and Emily Blunt in Sicario. I think it’s really important to develop the characters looking the way I think they should look, or at least in a way that lends to the character, rather than being about vanity.
AD: If there is a Dune sequel, would you like to come back? [Legendary Entertainment has since announced that Dune: Part 2 will be released in 2023].
DM: Yes, in a heartbeat! [Laughs]. Look, I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world. After all these years, to still love working. Even having to get up at four in the morning, there are days you go, ‘Why do I do this?’ But I still love it. And I love this cast. I can’t say enough how much. Every single one, every person on this cast was a delight to work with.
So, I feel very lucky and deeply honored. And I’m really proud that people are interested to hear about the crafts and the artisans involved in the film because I think we all take the work very seriously and work incredibly hard at helping the director and the actors tell the story.
Dune is playing in select theaters and is also available through VOD.