If makeup artist Gigi Williams' credits were more literal, they might read something like this: artist, scientist, special effects designer, researcher, archivist, screen tester, analyst, and occasional therapist. Though her official title on David Fincher's much-lauded period piece Mank is that of makeup department head, evidence of Williams' work is woven into every corner of every scene. The real-life story of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, the biopic is a sweeping drama populated with portrayals of 1930s and 40s-era figures like Orson Welles, Marion Davies, and William Randolph Hearst. Already pulling heavy-weight award nominations, Mank is a classic Old Hollywood tale that's never squeamish about showcasing the grim underside beneath the town's glamorous veneer—in fact, that's part of why it's so great.
On Mank, Williams was tasked not only with transforming a slew of high-profile actors like Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried into accurate depictions of the real people they play, but to do it with one major qualifier: the entire film was shot in black-and-white. For Williams and her crew, this not only meant hours of research and testing but also close analysis of things like hue, tone, and finish that can throw a shot out of alignment. Williams, who's worked closely with Fincher on a number of projects over the past six years, masters balance on this film: between historical accuracy and filmability; character makeup and realism; direction and collaboration. The result is a stunning, interpretation of Hollywood's Golden Age and the creation of what's considered the greatest film of all time.
Here, Byrdie exclusively talks to Gigi Williams about the black-and-white filming process, how her makeup design helps actors get into character, and why making this movie was such a uniquely joyous experience:
What's your individual pre-filming process like? Do you do a lot of research, look at photos, construct mood boards?
A lot of research. I went through my house first to look for books, and I didn't realize I had a thousand books on that period. My—he's 33—said to me, "Mom, you had a jonesing for a black-and-white film in this time period since I was born." So it was a dream of mine. And I had all of these books, I didn't have to go out and get any books. I literally had, I would say, 50 books in my house that were really great because obviously we were doing a lot of real characters and this was 90 years ago. Fortunately for us, that period in filmdom has the most documentation. It was all owned by the studios so it was all very scripted. You didn't have any oddballs, they kept everything under wraps. Everything was very pretty and beautiful, but we wanted it to look a little more real than that. We didn't want it to be on the set shooting, we wanted it to be like before going on set. So we tried to keep it real, but yet give the impression of this glamorous, Hollywood beauty. Because even the guys were pretty damn beautiful. [LAUGHS]
Does that process differ at all when it comes to design for original characters vs. biographic portrayals?
I don't have a preference, but it's pretty much the same thing. I read a script and I get a picture of the character in my mind and the person playing the character. Then I'll magazine it, book it, tear things out and mood board it to find something that works for them. And then, of course, talk to them about their vision of the character because it is a collaboration. I'm there so that they can completely get into character and forget about that part and have a better performance. It's very collaborative. Except for Gary [Oldman], every character was, "You do what you want. It's totally yours." Some of them had a great time with that. Charles Dance was hilarious, he plays William Randolph Hearst.
What I tried to do in this movie is look at the photographs, and however the photographs were—like if someone has dark circles in the photograph even from lighting—I put those dark circles in. Those became their signatures. So he looks like a cadaver: he has these round eyes, they're sunken in. I put so much stuff around his eyes, I sunk them in so badly, that on the way to the test he was like, "Oh nooo, Gigi! It's too much!" Trust me, trust me. And that's how he stayed but there was one day, somebody told me was asking one of the extras to take his picture on their iPhone with the "noir" setting so he could see it—because he still thought it was too much! And he still talks about it today! But it did help him get into that character.
Can you tell me more about shooting in black-and-white? What was the process like?
First of all, we had a meeting with David [Fincher] and he said, "The only thing I want to tell you is everyone has to have a tanned face." And that's because of the filters we were using. If the skin wasn't at least a shade darker than the whites of the eyes, then the whites of the eyes wouldn't pop and we would lose the eyes. That was basically my only box I had to say in: everybody had to be tan. Then we looked at the photographs we wanted to copy, looked at product, and then we did tests.
The other thing that became very important while we were doing this was the amount of shine, or matte, or luminescence; it was the depth of the products we were using. David, at one point, said, "I think maybe we should go for an eggshell finish." Like if you were going to paint your bathroom, you do high-gloss, eggshell, or matte? Eggshell looked great because it didn't reflect too much light but it gave enough reflection that the person looked alive. That was really important. We wound up doing the film almost entirely with tinted moisturizers which I had never used that much of. I had a huge drawer of tinted moisturizers we did on the whole thing. I used the NARS in the tube in Cuba, that was one color I used a lot and there's a lighter one, too. For Gary, I had a foundation—that one I don't remember—that had a bit more luminescence for when he was young. When he was young, I wanted him to look alive and glow because as he gets older, he wears no makeup and I paint stuff on his face! [LAUGHS]
What's the most challenging part of shooting in black-and-white?
First of all, not freaking David out in person! He hates red, can't stand red. So in all the projects I've worked with him on over the past six years, you can't have red lipstick, you can't have a red Coca-Cola sign in the back, you can't have red anywhere. So finding a red that he could live with on the set—and then it would translate to the color value, the tone value, the hue value that I wanted on the camera—was fun. I think we tested 300 lipsticks for color alone and then picked a palette of eight lipsticks, dark to light, depending on how much tone we wanted. What was really great was we had a director of photography, and we were all groping through this because we had new lenses, we had new cameras, new ways of looking at things, high contrast, etc. So everybody was on the same page of, "Okay, is this gonna work? Or is this gonna work?" Almost every day, we'd get together and set up a camera in the lobby of the office and do some tests. We'd pull in production assistants and whatever, do some tests on foundations and lipsticks and then later that day, we'd go in and look at it on the screen. All of us would sit around and go, "That one works really well, that one doesn't. Oh, that one's very nice, maybe a little more on this."
We had the ability to really play so that by the time we were shooting, we were very solid on where we were going. Except for, I have to say, I was very afraid of the really dark reds. There's pictures of Marion Davies where she has black lips, and I kept saying, "You don't want them this dark, do you?!" And sure enough, by the time we got to putting her on the set, we had a lighter lipstick on her and we took her out and [realized], "No, we've gotta go dark!" And we ended up going in and changing a few of the extras because they were too light-—even my background artists would pick the middle color! So we had to go in and adjust.
Let's zoom in a little on Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and her very glamorous look. How did you bring that character to life?
[Marion Davies'] eyes were very doll-like in her pictures. And she's very innocent and bats her eyelashes. Her eyelashes became a focal point: we could change the shape of her eyes with her eyeliner and especially with her lashes. They were customized so there were short ones and long ones and then short ones again to make her eyes more of a round circle. And the real Marion Davies has a triangle-shaped mouth so it took a while to make Amanda's round mouth into a triangle without making her look like a fool. And then there's the eyebrows: in Marion Davies' pictures, she's got pencil-thin eyebrows.
David didn't want to go pencil-thin so we had to find a way of conveying the feeling of pencil-thin on all of our ladies without going to the caricature of, "Ugh, was that a terrible eyebrow period." We went for a very rounded shape, very much a half-moon and with a long tail. They were manicured, they were groomed but they weren't as thin. We did throw in a few very thin ones just to cut it up—I don't want everyone to have the same eyebrow. And then, of course, with [Lily Collins, playing Rita Alexander], she has caterpillars for eyebrows and David didn't want those eyebrows. He wanted her eyebrows much thinner. I've worked with Lily before and I was like, "No, no, we can do this without plucking!" So I used Elmer's Glue and did them up and over, then took some tattoo color and erased them, and made them a different shape. David didn't know I didn't pluck.
The experience sounds so collaborative. Do you have any favorite memories from set?
It was a very joyful experience. We're very much a family, the people who work with David, so we all respect each other so much and we all watch each other's backs. The dolly grip will come and go [WHISPERS], "Gigi, she's got a hair on her cheek!" Everybody watches everybody. I think we had a great time with the [actors playing] writers, all of these young guys, some of them this was their first movie part. We made them look like the real writers and we did an amazing job, and they were in seventh heaven working with Gary [Oldham]. They died and went to heaven! So we had a great two weeks with them. Gary is an amazing person to work with, an amazing person. And so is Amanda. All of the actors were great. At the beginning, Gary really wanted to wear a lot of prosthetics and shave his head and wear a hair piece. David didn't want prosthetics, he wanted Gary to work naked. No artifice between him and the camera, which for Gary is really, really hard. He always either perms his hair, sticks on a gold tooth, or a wig, or prosthetics—something to hide behind. Without him having anything, I'd say the first two weeks were a little rough. I had to be a real shrink. [LAUGHS]
It sounds like David Fincher stays pretty involved and has a hand in everything.
David is the only person I know who is an expert at every craft. And he can tell you about every craft: what you need to do, what product to use, what it should look like. This is camera, makeup, hair, props, costumes, everything. And he doesn't beat you with it. He'll say, "This is what I want but I don't want to encroach on your creativity so get me that." It's amazing, it's really amazing. You can take yourself, your art, your creativity to the sky as long as you're in his box. If you step over his box he'll go, "Hmm" and then you know you gotta back it up a little bit. But he's usually right. If I really feel strongly enough, I'll fight him on it. Like, he didn't want any lipstick on Rita; he thought she should have no makeup. It took me a while to explain to him that in the 1940s, even if you're in a steno pool, you don't leave the house without eyebrows and lipstick. My mother would put them on in bed! I did get my way on that.
Speaking of the 40s, do you have any tips on incorporating this era look into a more modern one? If I wanted a Marion Davies-inspired look without feeling like I'm in costume, what would I do?
Elongate your eyebrows a bit, make it rounder and come down. That would change the whole look without going, "What did she do?" But it will give you a feeling of the flapper or Gatsby. The other thing is bringing your lips a little longer in the middle, almost like Madonna. Madonna always has a point right here. You're changing it a little bit because their lips were smaller.