Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Howard Berger, the Oscar and Emmy award winning Co-Founder of KNB EFX, about the lessons he's learned from directing legends. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
“Filmmaking is supposed to be fun. Yes, it is a challenge. It can be difficult. But at the end of the day, it's the director's vision. And you work as a team under one umbrella to facilitate that director's vision.” — Howard Berger
In this episode of Outliers, I’m talking with Howard Berger (@hoops511) about the twists and turns of his award-winning career, his artistic process, and what it’s like working with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Howard Berger is a prolific special effects artist and the co-founder of KNB EFX Group. He has over 800 feature film and television credits to his name, including Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2,Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained. Howard won an Emmy Award for his work in The Walking Dead, an Academy Award for his work on The Chronicles of Narn
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:04):
Welcome to another episode of Outliers. I'm your host, Daniel Scrivner, and today we have a special well off the beaten path show for you. On Outliers ID code, what the top 1% of performers have mastered and what they've learned along the way. In each episode, I dive deep to uncover the tools, habits, and ideas that we can all apply in our own lives. Today, I'm talking with Howard Berger. For nearly 40 years, Howard has worked in special effects for films and TV shows in Hollywood. And in that time, he's won both an Emmy and an Oscar. He's worked with many of the best directors, people like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Raimi, and Martin Scorsese. And he's worked directly with some of the best actors in the world, including Jamie Foxx, Anthony Hopkins, James McAvoy, and Mark Wahlberg.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:55):
In this episode, we go deep on what the best directors get right, what makes a script great, never repeating yourself, and why laughter is essential for hard work. Howard is the co-founder of KNB EFX Group, which has won multiple Academy Awards, Emmys, and British Academy of Film and Television Awards for their work on everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Walking Dead.
Daniel Scrivner (00:01:19):
So, without further ado, please enjoy this conversation with Emmy and Academy Award winner, Howard Berger. Howard. I am so excited to have you on the show. I'm a huge fan of Hollywood movies, and television shows, and a lot of what you've worked on. So, welcome to Outliers. Thank you so much for joining us.
Howard Berger (00:01:39):
Yeah. Well, thanks for having me. It's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it. I've been looking forward to it for the past couple of weeks, so it'll be good.
Daniel Scrivner (00:01:46):
Okay. So to kick things off and I guess one thing I want to make sure I try to do a good job upfront is just teeing up exactly what you do because it can be maybe a little difficult to grasp. When you're at a cocktail party, when you run into someone for the first time, when you meet someone's mom, how do you set up what you do?
Howard Berger (00:02:06):
Am I meeting the mom at the cocktail party?
Daniel Scrivner (00:02:09):
Howard Berger (00:02:09):
Because I think it's two different things
Daniel Scrivner (00:02:09):
It's the weirdest cocktail party in the world.
Howard Berger (00:02:12):
I was going to say, usually I'll go over and say, "Hey, I haven't seen you here before." I like that in a girl. So, that's how it works.
Daniel Scrivner (00:02:16):
That's a good start.
Howard Berger (00:02:17):
Yeah. Thank you. It works for me and Bruce Campbell. So, it seems to work that great. Usually when people will say, because they have, "So, what is it that you do? I know you're in the film industry." And I'll say, "Well, simply enough. I make monsters for movies." And they go, "Oh, really, monsters for movies." And granted, it's a lot more than that. It's so much more than that, but that really people understand that like, "Oh, a creature guy makes creatures and so forth and all that." Because if I really went in and explained it all to a mom at a cocktail party, it might be a little difficult.
Howard Berger (00:02:47):
My job's kind of altered and diversified through the years. And what we have in the film industry is people that are called department heads and department heads are the people that are in charge of the Makeup Department, the Hair Department, Lighting, all different sorts. And you're in charge of that department. You're the master and commander, so to speak. So, I'm a department head. So, when I work on a film or a TV show, I will oversee everything. So, that means all the straight makeup, all the beauty makeup, all the men's grooming, and any of the creature or special makeup effects.
Howard Berger (00:03:20):
And granted, I always look for films that have my passion, which is, special makeup and so forth. But I've also done movies like Instant Family, which was with Mark Wahlberg, where there is no special makeup. And it was just department headed that and handled Mark's makeup and other cast members. And Mark Wahlberg's an outstanding person and great to work with all the time.
Howard Berger (00:03:41):
But yeah, it's a lot of different things. So, with that said, as far as being a department head, I'm also part of the production team. So, I always make it point when I start a show that I go in and I say, "I'm not a vendor. I'm not just a makeup artist. I'm here to assist you with anything else." And a lot of the time, I'll end up working very closely with the AD Department. That's the Assistant Directors Department. I work very close with all the actors. My arms stretch very long in production. And I do far more than maybe what the normal makeup artist might do on a show. Sometimes people will just focus on their world.
Howard Berger (00:04:18):
Because I'm a film fanatic, I'm a complete a file that I love everything about movies, and I want to know everything about movies and how they're made and behind the scenes stories. And I've been paying attention for 38 years. That's as long as I've been doing this and I really make it part of my life to assist every department. There's a movie I did called The Chronicles of Narnia, the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. And I decided on that movie, I wanted to spend one day doing everybody's job, and I did. I did one day, including catering and I made breakfast for 1,200 people at 3:00 AM in the morning, and I did everybody's job. I might have not done it well, but I did it. And I knew I could. And it was really, really super fun. So, to me, that's also a sign of somebody who hopefully would become a good producer, knock on wood and having an understanding of every single department and what their needs are and how to facilitate all that.
Howard Berger (00:05:15):
So, I'm referred to onset a lot of times as the producer who's not a producer and people will come to me and ask me every question, actors will come to me and ask this, that, and the other thing. And I'll say, "Well, I'm not really a producer, but I'll act as a producer right now." So, that's what I do. There's a lot to it, but I take that upon myself. It's just not like a Makeup Department head in the Webster's and it says all this stuff, that's me developing the way I am.
Howard Berger (00:05:40):
And Greg Nicotero, who's my business partner and best friend for decades, a business partner at KNB EFX Group, same thing. He's always been that way, assumed more responsibility than required. And he's moved up to being a big director, and an executive producer, and a writer, and a show runner. So, it's really, really great, but we have those natural skills and not everybody has that kind of alpha leadership quality about them.
Daniel Scrivner (00:06:06):
What it sounds like clearly you absolutely love what you do, and you've been lucky enough to be able to do that for the last 38 years. Just to rewind a little bit, I know growing up, you had a big love for monster films.
Howard Berger (00:06:17):
Daniel Scrivner (00:06:17):
If you were to try to describe that, what was it early on? Was it a film in particular? Was it a show in particular? What hooked you and what was that moment that you just said, "Wow, this is what I want to do."
Howard Berger (00:06:29):
Yeah, no, absolutely. Listen, I love monsters and movies. My dad was in the industry. He was a post production sound editor and he loved movies. And we used to watch movies all the time and somehow gravitated to horror films, monster movies. And I was introduced really young, like maybe four years old to the Godzilla films and so forth and so on. And then, I developed a love for the classic monsters because then there were Aurora Monster Models, which are those really cool buildup models that you buy. And I think I literally discovered those in nursery school. I remember a friend of mine, his name was Michael Glass and I went to his house and he had all of them and I'm like, "What are those?" And then I went home for dinner. My folks picked me up and I begged my dad if we can go to Sears and see if they had them there. And they did, they had stacks. And my dad bought me for, I think it was like a dollar 49, the King Kong. It was like the greatest thing ever.
Howard Berger (00:07:19):
My parents or grandparents would always encourage me in the world of monsters. And I think for about three years, I was convinced I was like either Dracula or Godzilla. And I'd always wear a vampire cap and stomp around the house and destroy my sister's things because that's what Godzilla would do. But when I saw planet of the apes, the original planet of the apes, that's really where it clicked. And I thought, "That's amazing. And there must be somebody in the film industry that makes that like, somebody must turn those actors into that." And I asked questions with my dad and found this magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland and they had photos and that was it.
Howard Berger (00:07:54):
I would draw and draw and draw. All my schoolwork was covered in monster doodles all the time. None of the work was done, but there was a ton of monster doodles. So, that's really what sparked it. And the fact that I had parents who were really supportive, they probably thought their kid is crazy. And maybe this will blow over some kids like trucks, some kids like sports. I love monsters and I love movies. I didn't know how to use a hammer, but I could make a pair of vampire teeth, I guess.
Daniel Scrivner (00:08:23):
You've worked on an incredible array of projects and some of which from everything from Lone Survivor, all the way to The Chronicles of Narnia. So from kind of gritty real and truly horrific all the way to more playful and fantasy. Do you have something you enjoy in particular there? Or do you just enjoy the variety?
Howard Berger (00:08:44):
I love the variety, but I really, through the years have focused on character makeups and fantasy. I'm not a gore guy. I've done so many gore effects. After doing the Kill Bill movies, I pretty much handed in my bloody apron. And I said, "I'm good. Never doing another blood gag because we had thousands and thousands of blood gags for Quentin." But I also just don't like the fake blood all over me. It's sticky and gross and I hate cleaning it up. And it's not my favorite thing. Greg Nicotero loves blood gags. He's the King of it. So, he can have that. I'll do my character makeups and it's good. But yeah, I love that.
Howard Berger (00:09:18):
I like developing a character with an actor and I always say like, "I'll bring X amount to the table, X amount of percentage of the character to the table." And then the actor brings the rest and he brings it to life. So, I can do a great makeup on an actor that's maybe not so great and it's not really 100%, but then I get the opportunity to do a really nice makeup on a really great actor. And they use what I brought as a tool and it helps them find the character as well. And it just keeps developing and developing and developing. And we work as a team, which is very, very important.
Daniel Scrivner (00:09:46):
Yeah. I want to dive into that because I feel like... So, my background is partially in design. I've spent a huge part of my life doing something that at least from the outside, looking in feels a little bit similar where, I have oftentimes a loose direction of where I want to head, but then it's this open-ended journey of like, "Well, actually I don't end up there." I end up totally somewhere different just based off serendipity and kind of the interplay of factors and the best way I've come to describe it is almost like alchemy. What is that process for you? So, you join a new film. What's that process of getting a shared vision with the director, and the producer, and that production team? And then what's that process with an actor, an actress?
Howard Berger (00:10:22):
Absolutely, that's a good question. So, I'll read the script and I'll have my ideas right away. And then I want to meet with the director and hear what he thinks or she thinks, or they think and see what their ideas are. And sometimes they have great ideas, sometimes they have no ideas and they're looking to us to bring things to the table. Then we'll brainstorm. Half the time, we're brought in way before there's even an actors cast. So, we're already developing characters, we're already trying to figure things out, blah, blah, blah.
Howard Berger (00:10:50):
And then once the actors cast, we'll revisit the artwork. So, we usually do a lot of Photoshop art. We have a whole design team at KNB and then once the actors cast, we'll take that art that everybody seemed to like and see how it works on the actor's face. And then there's a whole process where we bring the actor in for live casting and they're sculpting and mold making and fabricating pieces and so forth.
Howard Berger (00:11:11):
But I would love to know what the actor's thinking. And even when it's a straight makeup, just a beauty makeup, I want to know what the actor is thinking. They know their face better than I do, especially women, especially actresses do. And I'm always like, "What are you like? Tell me what you like because you're going to know better." And then I adjust and obviously there's specifics that the film has, but I really love that whole developing with the character. There's many times we'll develop a character and we'll shoot it and then we'll revisit it and I'll go like, "It's just not there." I just did this thing on this Amazon show that's going to be out hopefully this year called Them. And we had a character we developed and did tons of artwork and sculptures and we felt we landed on it, had an actor shot a couple of days. And then the show runner, his name's Little Marvin. That will be a household name soon enough. He's a great, great guy, brilliant, brilliant young filmmaker. And he came, he was like, "I'm rethinking this." And I'm like, "Okay."
Howard Berger (00:12:08):
He was like, "I think maybe we want to go another route overall." And I'm like, "Okay, I'm good with that. I want to make this better." So, we cast an actor who I thought would work really, really well, a guy named Derek Rogers and we redesigned the makeup. And instead of what we did the first time, which was a very big prosthetic makeup, it ended up being a little more simple. I kind of took it back to the makeup roots where it was a combination of little appliances. That's the things we glue onto people. And then what I call out of the kit.
Howard Berger (00:12:35):
And so, that's makeups that I'm not having to prep, but I do on their face, like make his face look wrinkly with this material called stretch and stipple and a lot of paint and a lot of highlight and shadow. And it worked out much, much better. And we were able to redefine the character opposed to sticking with something that we weren't 100% there. Little Marvin and I were like, "I'm not sure it's cool, but I don't know. It might be a little too out there for the tone of this show and that might pull people out." So, it was awesome that I had a show runner who was willing to reinvent the wheel, which was great.
Howard Berger (00:13:09):
And I think that's because he's fairly new at this and he didn't know he's not allowed to do that. So, I was so excited and I didn't say, "Well, we can't do that." I'm like, "Sure we can do that." It was great because we ended up coming up with something I think between he and I and Derek who played the part, who brought it to life, something really, really unique. And when the show comes on, you'll all see it and be like, "Oh my God, that's pretty awesome."
Daniel Scrivner (00:13:30):
I feel like that's one of the most difficult parts of the creative processes. It is kind of individually and together you have a sense for what you're trying to go after, but then it's this never ending process of iterating to get there. Just thinking about a project like The Chronicles of Narnia. Clearly, what you're trying to do, I think to create a great film that can stand the test of time, that can stand on its own, is create something that is both universal, where you're going to have a lot of appeal from a lot of people, but is also very, very, very particular. It has a very particular point of view and that is one of the hardest things in the creative process. How do you go about navigating that and trying to land on something that is new and innovative, but at the same time you think it's got broad appeal to it?
Howard Berger (00:14:12):
Well, using Narnia as a point of reference. So, Andrew Adamson was the director of the first two of that and Prince Caspian, and he really had a great vision. He's been thinking about this all his entire life and granted the source material is right there. It's great. I mean, C.S. Lewis wrote these amazing books that are being cherished by generations after generations after generations. So, Andrew really developed what he was thinking and what was nice is it was a rare example of a singular voice. There's not a lot of directors, sadly who have a singular voice. Quentin Tarantino has a singular voice and you know it. The buck stops there. So, it was that with Andrew as well.
Howard Berger (00:14:52):
And Andrew had had Shrek under his belt, which is animated, but made a ton of money and great story. So, he had some cache. He had good pedigree to start with, but we knew we had to create something that wasn't, I don't want to say, familiar, but that you didn't compare like, "Oh, that kind of looks like the guy from da, da, da, da." So I asked Andrew, I said, "What's inspiring you in this? What is your memories of the books?" And he said, "This movie is based on my memories as a sick child, reading these books over and over again in my bedroom. And that's what I want it to be from the eyes of me as a kid." And I went, "I understand." And that really was a key to this. I'm like, "There's no preconceived notions. Andrew is remembering how he felt when he was 10 years old, sick as a dog in bed for months reading all these C. S. Lewis books."
Howard Berger (00:15:47):
One of the other things was that Richard Taylor from Weta Digital, Peter Jackson's company from Weta Workshop. Actually, it's Weta Workshop. He was originally going to do the movie. And so, they had designed a lot of the characters, spent like a good year designing stuff, but King Kong got greenlit, Peter Jackson's King Kong. And so, Richard called me because we'd been best of friends. And he said, "Listen, I can't do this, but would you consider meeting with Andrew Adamson and maybe this would work out?" So, I met with Andrew and so did a bunch of other makeup effects people. It wasn't just like, "Hey, Howard's going to do it." It was like four other people bidding against it. And I had meeting after meeting and the meetings went on for six months until I finally got the phone call.
Howard Berger (00:16:28):
And Andrew said, "We want you to be part of the family." And I was so overjoyed. It was like I'd never felt any better about landing a show. So, we began designing immediately. We had months and months, which was also a rarity because nowadays you would get like hours to design a show and prep it. But back then, we had something like six months. So at the studio, at KNB, they had about 120 people working on the show and we spent night and day on it. And every week, every Friday, we would do an art presentation. So, Andrew and the producer, Mark Johnson, and some of the other executives, and so forth, and other crafts people showed up and we would have a big presentation of where we were at, what we were thinking, what our prototypes because we prototyped everything first. We did like five different Mr. Tumnus makeups that were totally off.
Howard Berger (00:17:15):
And we did some centers that were a little too scary, Fridays were the show Intel. So on Thursday morning, I brought my three children in, which were all young, from like six to 12. And I would give them the art presentation and they would critique it. And I wanted to know what they thought because they loved the books. They had no preconceived notions, but in their mind, they know what color Mr. Tumnus's hair is. They know the skin color of the white witch. They know if those ears are too big for Mr. Tumnus. Those are all notes, by the way, that my daughter, Kelsey gave me. It's like, "The ears are long and the witch doesn't have lips like that." And then at the end I'm like, "Okay." And I'd write all this-
Daniel Scrivner (00:17:54):
Howard Berger (00:17:55):
So, I would do that every Thursday. I'd have them come and visit. And they gave me notes and they were really, really helpful because it was through the eyes of a child. It wasn't like, "It should be more like Alien and Jaws, but different." It wasn't that at all. Working on the movie was parallel to the book. We basically went through the wardrobe, we lived in Narnia for seven months in New Zealand. And when the movie ended, we came out of the wardrobe and we were all heartbroken. To me, it's my most favorite film I ever worked on, on all levels. And I'm super proud of the work, I'm super proud of the work KNB did. I love the adventure. It was so hard, and so difficult, and so exhausting. I'm still tired. And that was in 2004 and I still have not caught up on my sleep from working on Narnia.
Howard Berger (00:18:44):
But I was so sad. When I came home from New Zealand, I was sick for two weeks and didn't leave the bed because I was so blue. I was so heartbroken and I just wish I could go back to Narnia. And then a couple of years later, like a year later, I got a call from Andrew's like, "We're doing the next Narnia." And I got to go back to Narnia again. And it was so wonderful, and then I got to do it again. So, my wishes came true and my dreams came true and it was great. And it's a great collaboration.
Howard Berger (00:19:10):
I had a great team and there's a wonderful makeup artist, her name's Tami lane. And she won the Academy Award with me for Narnia. And she's amazing. And we've tried to do all the shows together because we don't have to talk, we just have a dance. But that's the sort of things. You build relationships with people and those are the people that community is what makes the show successful, artistically, creatively, and also just as far as the mental health goes to. You're like, "I feel good about all these people." It's a camaraderie that's super important. I love to have fun. That's my number one priority. Whenever I start a show, I get my whole crew together and I go, "This is going to be a hard show. It's going to be long hours, but we're going to have fun." And that's the priority.
Howard Berger (00:19:52):
The work we can all do in our sleep, that's what we're good at, but we're going to have fun. And if anybody doesn't let us have fun, we clip them. They're out. So, we just move forward, have a blast, make this fun and enjoy it because at filmmaking it's supposed to be fun. It is a challenge. It can be difficult. There are certainly limitations that production sets forth sometimes that are very difficult to contend with. At the end of the day, it's the director's vision. And you really all work as a team, I would say under one umbrella, to facilitate that director's vision and give him what he wants.
Daniel Scrivner (00:20:25):
Yeah. And try to add as much to it that you can and build on top of it, flesh it out and take it further than they can take it. I love that note about just making sure that you're having fun, you're bringing that joy to it. So, clearly, part of that's a survival tactic, but I'm guessing part of that too, is maybe this belief that that's going to show up in the film, that that's going to show up in the work.
Howard Berger (00:20:42):
Yeah. I hope so. I mean, unfortunately, some of the most fun I've had on set is more fun making the movie than watching it, sadly. I'll see the movie and I'm like, "Wow, wait, you know what? We had fun, right? We had fun. I mean, it's not really fun watching this, but we had a good time on set." I consider myself a bit of a cheerleader. I want to keep my team's energy up. I don't ever want them to worry anything except about the work.
Howard Berger (00:21:07):
So, I take the brunt of everything, but that's what a leader does. I don't pass the buck or we say everything after bud is baloney essentially. My kids know that. Yeah. I'm like, "Okay, Travis after bud, it's all baloney. I don't want to hear anymore." It's about fun. And I like that fun. I mean, I'm a kid at heart. I feel bad for my wife because she's married to a 56-year-old going on 13. It's like not too long ago, I'm in my home office. And I brought home a bunch of masks and stuff. And she saw me sneak stuff into the house and she came in, she was like, "What's all this?" I'm like, "Well, I'm going to hang in all around the room. It's like my bedroom when I was a kid." And she's like, "Yeah, I don't think we're going to do that." And I'm like, "No, no, no, it'll be cool."
Howard Berger (00:21:48):
She's like, "Howard." I'm like, "Okay, nevermind." And I took it all back to the shop and I'm like, "Damn." And I thought, "She was right." We don't need that. Well, maybe I need one or two masks hanging up, but I love to play. I'm always laughing. It's almost like working in the industries dog years like one year equals seven years. I always feel like one year in the film industry equals five years to your life. But then I feel you can counteract that with laughter and the more you laugh, the long you live.
Howard Berger (00:22:13):
So at this point, I'm thinking I'm going to be probably about a thousand years old because I'm always laughing and I find humor in everything. So, I think that helps. And I think my crew appreciates that because I can be very serious. And I was lucky to work with Anthony Hopkins on a movie called Hitchcock. And Tony is similar to that and we were talking about fun and he loves to have fun. He's very mischievous. And he said, "You know, the thing is, I don't want anybody to mistake my kindness for weakness." And I said, "I like that." Because I saw production was trying to take advantage and he would not have it. He stood his ground and he's like, "This is where the kindness was getting misconstrued as weakness and I'm not weak." And I'm like, "Go get him, Tony. Get him, get him." So, that's a really good term that I learned from him and on top of a million other things, but it's true. It's easy to be kind.
Daniel Scrivner (00:23:05):
One thing that you've alluded to a few times, I have not been on a Hollywood film set, but I've been involved in post production work and worked with some of the just absolutely incredible people. But one thing I'd taken away from that experience is I've never seen any group of people that work harder than people in the film business, whether they're editors, whether they're producers, whether they're in post production, whether they're on set. Talk a little bit about that. How do you survive that? How has that pace changed over time?
Howard Berger (00:23:34):
Daniel Scrivner (00:23:35):
And then, how does that show up in the day-to-day?
Howard Berger (00:23:38):
Yeah. It's hard, man, and you're right. People on film work their butts off.
Daniel Scrivner (00:23:42):
Howard Berger (00:23:42):
It's insane. It is insane. And I have done shows where I've worked 90 to 100 hours a week, which is obscene and had very little turnaround, which means the time you go to sleep and the time you wake up. And we have unions. We're all part of unions. I'm a member of Local 706, which is the makeup and hair stylists and makeup artists. And it's a great union. And they take care of us and they look out for us and there's rules production has to follow.
Howard Berger (00:24:11):
Production will always want to try to bend the rules. But if you're a strong department head, you don't let them. But you love what you do and you care so much about it. You don't want to disappoint anybody. You don't want to disappoint yourself. Sometimes, a film crew won't really click and there's not the comradery, but when you're on a show and you're getting along with all the costume people and you're getting along with the camera and you're getting along with script supervisor and so forth, then it's really magical because you feel like you're a team and you're friends with everybody.
Howard Berger (00:24:40):
And I again surround myself with very optimistic and positive people. So, I don't have people like, "Yeah, these guys suck, and this is terrible. And I hate them." I don't have room for that. I don't have time for that. And I don't want that sort of energy invading my department or the films that... You need to keep a positive attitude. And like, "This is going to be great." And even if you're having a bad day, you know tomorrow's a new day and it's going to be a better day.
Howard Berger (00:25:04):
And even if it's not a better day, you got another day that's going to be better. It's going to be better eventually. Quentin Tarantino always says when we're on set, if something goes great, he'll say, "You know, you're a hero today, but tomorrow you could be a bum. So, just be glad you're a hero. But just remember you could be a bum tomorrow." And I'm like, "Okay."
Howard Berger (00:25:23):
KNB has done movies with him since the very beginning. Since then, we've done every single one of his films. And Greg Nicotero has been lucky enough to do most of them. I was on which he didn't direct, but I was there every day with Greg and also I ran, but Greg has handled everything else for Quentin. So, I mean, he's one of the best directors, if not the best, in my opinion, just on every level. You go home, beat up. You're a beaten dog when you go home. But that was a good beating. I feel great, man. We made some movie magic today, and only the way Quentin could do it because he's so unique. Quentin's movies are filled with comradery. Quentin make sure when we were in China, it's like, "We're all going to a party." And we all got in a van or a bus and went to the Great Wall with Quentin and had a big party all night long.
Daniel Scrivner (00:26:11):
So you've touched on a few things that you find just really magical about working with different directors. What are you really looking for? And what do the best directors that you've worked for, what do they do that other directors don't? Or, what do they do that is able to elevate the team? I'm just curious, what have you learned and taken away from the best directors you've worked with?
Howard Berger (00:26:30):
Yeah. Well, the best directors are the ones that come prepared. They understand the script. Sometimes they don't, some of them, I would even wonder if they ever read the script, but they have a plan, they're sensible. They listen, they respect your opinion and your contribution. And then they plant a seed and let that seed grow. And I watch that with actors and that's how I judge a good director is the way the director deals with actors. And I've seen directors give no, not even know what type of director like, "Okay, that was great. Just do it again. Or is there anything different? No, no, no, just do it the same way." And it's like, "That makes no sense."
Howard Berger (00:27:08):
Quentin, I observed treats every actor differently and he kind of tailors his directing style per actor. And that really impressed me. And I really enjoyed watching him. I mean, if there was an actor who needed to be a little roughed up a little bit, who needed a little gruff direction, he was willing to do that and kind of like, "Come on. What do you know? Let's go, what are you doing? Know your lines."
Howard Berger (00:27:31):
But then if there was somebody who needed to be a little more handled with kid gloves, he would be like, "Okay, that's cool. No, actually let's stop. Let's you and I go take a walk." And I saw him do this. "Let's take a walk and let's just take a little walk and everybody away. And when you're ready, we'll come back and do it." And I'm like, "This guy is amazing." A director who does his homework, I really do expect a director to show up and know what he's doing each day, have a plan, a shot list essentially of like, "These are the shots I want to do."
Howard Berger (00:27:57):
Sam Raimi is that way. He's a great director. Unbelievably prepared, shows up with a shot list. You get a shot list, everyday storyboards attached to the shot list. I know exactly what we're doing. I know what he wants to see. It makes it so much easier. And to me, it's disrespectful when a director shows up and hasn't done their homework. Who knows what they did when they went home? But they show up not knowing what they're shooting first, have no clue how the scene is going to go together, has no idea this, that, and other thing. And I've experienced unfortunately, lately, a few of those, and it's really disrespectful to the crew.
Howard Berger (00:28:30):
I get really upset and it's like, "You know what? If I performed the way that I performed, I'd be fired." You expect us to bring our A game and you're bringing your G game. I'm like, "Dude, what are you doing? What are you doing? You go home." But the guys that really love filmmaking and understand the process and ask questions. That's the other thing too. Asking questions is super important. No question is dumb. No question is stupid. Ask the question and you'll get an answer.
Howard Berger (00:28:58):
And I'm good for it with educating producers and directors and PAs and anybody, costume. I think education is unbelievably important and we need more of that and people need to not feel so insecure about asking questions. Those are the attributes I look for in a director.
Daniel Scrivner (00:29:17):
So, you've mentioned this earlier of just how you start out your process, reading the script, reading the screen prey is something I kind of stumbled into a few years ago is I'm starting to read screenplays instead of books. To be super honest, I find screenplays way more enthralling than fiction or nonfiction books because I can picture it in my head. It gives you sense for context, it feels like this rich vivid, medium. And Quentin Tarantino scripts are absolutely incredible. They are just-
Howard Berger (00:29:48):
Daniel Scrivner (00:29:48):
They're so dialed in and they have such an interesting character to them. What are you looking for when you get a script? And what do you need to see for you to know that this is a project one, that you'd enjoy, but this is a project that you could take on and take somewhere and that you're super excited to chip into?
Howard Berger (00:30:05):
Well, anything from Quentin. Even if Quentin wrote a movie called My Little Pony, I'm like, "This is going to be the best of My Little Pony movie ever." So, it's anything that comes out of his fingertips is genius, but I'd say the three screenwriters and filmmakers whose scripts I love the most and I've had the most fun reading is Quentin, Frank Darabont, and M. Night Shyamalan. And it's because they were so... Let's see. They weren't MIDI scripts.
Howard Berger (00:30:31):
And actually Paul Thomas Anderson too. Paul's scripts are fantastic. They are just enough words to tell the story and you picture it. Like when we worked on Unbreakable with M. Night and I read the script and then I saw the movie and I was like, "Unbelievable." It's exactly the way I remembered it. Pulp Fiction, when I read that script and especially when the scene where, John Travolta goes to Bruce Willis's apartment, the way Quentin described in the script and when I was on set, I looked around and I went, "This is 1,000% out of the script."
Howard Berger (00:31:07):
So, Quentin's words are so vivid and he uses just enough words to tell that story. It's not a big meaty thing. I've been getting back into reading books lately, just because I feel stupid. And I'm like, "I've got to do something other than watch Netflix for goodness sakes." But yeah, at times I find myself because I read hundreds of scripts every year, I find myself drifting. I also suffer from dyslexia. So, I have to go back and reread and reread. But in those scripts, I don't, I get it all. I absorb it. Reading Green Mile, I remember I got that script and I sat down and I read it and I cried at the end. I never ever got emotional reading a script, but it was so beautiful in the way Frank explained everything and told the story and I felt it in my heart. I felt the sadness and loneliness of losing everybody you knew, the Tom Hanks character, Paul. Everybody he knew is gone, but he will continue to live. And it was very heartfelt.
Howard Berger (00:32:01):
And I remember putting it down and my wife said, "How was it?" And I was just bawling and I'm like, "Best script I've ever read." But those filmmakers, those four filmmakers, Quentin, PTA, M. Night, and Frank Darabont are just unbelievable writers and magical.
Daniel Scrivner (00:32:18):
And when you read one of those and it's for a project, so you read the script, you end up getting excited about it and you say, "Yes," I'm sure the wheels in your head are turning the whole time you're reading the script. Do you start sketching right away? Do you try to allow everything that you've read to sink in? What is the process, I guess, from taking in an idea and then how does that then turn into you starting to shape that in your own mind?
Howard Berger (00:32:39):
Well, I like to read it from beginning to end, just like I see a movie. And I want to just absorb the storytelling, then I'll go back and pinpoint. I'll highlight all the stuff that I think I'd be responsible for. And then I'll start thinking about, I'll break it down and start having discussion with the designers and with Greg and we figure out like, "Okay, this might look like this and here are some ideas." Sometimes we'll put together kind of a little bit of a look book and show the director. And like, "This is kind of what we're thinking. It's kind of in this vein or this fan." It's like, "Yeah." Then there's directors that you've worked with for a long time that you have a short hand with Frank Darabont, we have a shorthand with and same with Quentin, and Robert Rodriguez.
Howard Berger (00:33:16):
And I remember on Green Mile, there was a specific makeup on Patricia Clarkson, who plays the wife that has brain cancer and they had done a couple of tests and Frank just wasn't happy with it. And it wasn't because it wasn't good. It just wasn't what he was thinking. And he couldn't express to the makeup artist what he wanted. I was already on the show and I was there doing something else. And he said, "Howard, I need you. I need help. I want vampires, John Carpenter's Vampires." And I went, a"All right, I know what you need."
Howard Berger (00:33:43):
So I went home and I got a cast, Patricia, and I sculpted these little socket pieces and all, and I did a test makeup and he's like, "That's at 100%." And I said, "But I speak the same language." I understand Darabont speak. Same with Sam Raimi. I understand Sam. I understand Quentin. We understand Robert Rodriguez and this Little Marvin I was talking about, speaks the same way. I can even say one thing, I'll say like Henrietta and I'm like, "Yeah. Henrietta from Evil Dead. Got it. I'm on it. I know exactly what you want." But those are planting the seeds and that's what's really, really great about it. Amazing things can grow out of it.
Daniel Scrivner (00:34:20):
Going back a little bit to the beginning of your career, something I've always just found fascinating and also wonderful about Hollywood is it does very much seem like it still thrives on apprenticeship. Like so much of getting in the industry is kind of earning your way up. What was the first film set that you were on and what was that process for you of kind of getting started in the industry?
Howard Berger (00:34:41):
Well, I was extremely proactive and annoying to my idols like Stan Winston, and Rick Baker, and Dick Smith. And I really pushed myself on them as a little kid writing them and calling them and even showing up at their studio and knocking on the door holding a box of garbage that I thought was kind of cool. And they were very supportive, but you say apprenticeship and there used to be an apprenticeship in the industry that when the studios ran everything and it was really, really great like just using my department, makeup and hair as a point of reference. There used to be a makeup and hair apprenticeship. And you had to go through that in order to be eligible to join the union and get jobs. And I feel like we really miss that now.
Howard Berger (00:35:24):
Now we take apprenticeship on ourselves through whatever. It kind of dissolved and the studio system dissolved. I think that might have been it, but it'd be really, really wonderful to have the apprenticeship program because then, instead of people coming out of schools and only knowing the curriculum, they'll have a full spectrum of everything and be forced into doing the worst job to the best job, and that's important instead of like, "All right, sculpt the skull. Okay. Sculpt the foot. Okay. Do a zombie makeup. Okay. Do a fantasy makeup."
Howard Berger (00:35:54):
Half the time the kids do things that are too big for them. When I was a kid, I made a bunch of monster stuff and I went to visit Stan Winston and Stan Winston did Terminator, and did the Terminator films at Aliens, did Jurassic Park, won multiple Academy Awards. I worked for him for years. Magnificent person, I love him so much. And he went through the apprenticeship program over at Disney with Robert Schiffer. And when I brought stuff in, he's like, "Yeah, this is all fine, but why don't you do a fake nose?" So he's like, "You got to crawl before you walk and you have to walk before you run. And right now, you're just running, but you don't know how to run. So, go home and sculpt the nose, sculpt an ear."
Howard Berger (00:36:33):
And I did what he said and it's true. I was able to. He's like, "If you can do a great fake nose, that's hard because that's right in the center of your face." So, I took all the lessons that Stan gave me, which I thought were essential. And then I got a lucky chance to meet Rick Baker. And Rick Baker has won seven Academy Awards, did the Men in Black films, and American Werewolf in London, and Thriller, and Greystoke, and Mighty Joe Young.
Howard Berger (00:36:55):
I mean, Rick is I idolized Rick to know, and I've known Rick since I was 13 years old. And even now when I see him at me being 56, I get nervous and all butterfly and giggly because I'm like, "Oh, it's Rick Baker. He's God liked him. He's magical to me." But I learned so much from that and always listened and observed. So nowadays what we try to do is we're trying to personally and individually have an apprenticeship program within our own industry. We're taking it upon ourselves and especially in light of trying to be more inclusive and diverse in the people that are in our industry.
Daniel Scrivner (00:37:31):
So, I'm curious, part of your work, especially I imagine as a department head is putting together an incredible team and you talked about a little bit of that a second ago. What are you looking for from the people that you recruit on your team? And when do you know that someone's got it? When do you know that, "This person's amazing? I know if I looked at their resume or looked at their track record, maybe that's not there yet, but I know that they've got something." What's that like, and I guess what are you really looking for there?
Howard Berger (00:37:55):
Well, if we're talking about KNB for starters, KNB and all makeup effects shops are basically the Island of misfit toys. So, it's like all the broken, weird, misshapen, reject toys, all somehow gravitate to the world of makeup effects and everybody's their own individual. And it's the funniest thing watching all these guys and girls. For me, the art of course is very important, but I'm not always looking for artists. I'm looking for craftspeople too, people that are great thinkers that think outside the box, that can do this project or I can hand this over. And attitude is a huge thing. We've had people that are great artists, but not really great people and we've weeded them out.
Howard Berger (00:38:37):
And then I've had people that are really maybe not the best artists, but they're really wonderful people and we've kept them on and we've nurtured them and they've become very successful in what they do. I'm way more willing to be patient and invest my time into people that want to be there and really love it. That's important. I look for that and I look for that on an onset crew too. I don't want anybody who doesn't want to be there.
Howard Berger (00:39:01):
Then at the same vein, I'm not going to ask anybody to do something I'm not comfortable doing. So, if I had to like, hey, I have to climb up that ladder, which I hate heights, but I'm going to climb up that ladder and make sure it's safe and go do that touch up. So then if I need somebody else to do it and I make sure this environment's safe, there's no reason not to. But I always look for people that are enthusiastic, that are going to be part of the team, that are going to make us look better. When I hire a key, a key is the person who's second in charge. And why I like to work a lot with Tami lane, Tami is way better at certain things than I am, and I'm better at certain things than she is. Not many, but maybe one or two things, but it's good. You want to have people that are better than you, that do certain things.
Howard Berger (00:39:46):
I'm not that proficient at beauty makeup on women. I can do it, but I'm not all that comfortable with it. It's probably the thing I'm least comfortable with because I don't know, I get a little nervous because it's a woman's face. They know their face better than I do. So I'm like, "Hey, Tam, do you want to do this makeup?" And it's so because Tami's way better at it. So, I looked at people that have strengths in that area more so than I do. I'm good with it. I'm good with delegating. And that's something I had to learn through years and years is to delegate things I didn't want to. I'm like, "I got it. I can take care of, I'll do it. I'll do it."
Howard Berger (00:40:15):
But you can't. You go crazy and stuff falls through the cracks. So, I've certainly learned to delegate. It's very important. And you find people you trust, people you can give the assignment to and they run with it. I don't want to be there and nitpick like, "Hey, you know what? That vein should probably go here." Instead of like, "No, no, that's cool. Just keep going. Maybe do this and this, but no, it's yours. It's an alien run with it. Don't make it blue." That's all I say. "Don't make it blue."
Daniel Scrivner (00:40:41):
Goes back to your idea of planting a seed and letting it grow-
Howard Berger (00:40:43):
Daniel Scrivner (00:40:44):
... and not trying to take too much control of that-
Howard Berger (00:40:47):
Daniel Scrivner (00:40:47):
... to let it happen. One thing that clearly stood out to me and you already mentioned it was working with Anthony Hopkins on Hitchcock. That's an example of something that I find so magical and only happens in Hollywood movies where an actor literally transforms and that is at every level. They transform their speech, they transform their mannerisms. They look completely different. What does that process look like when you're working with an actor? I'm just so curious, is there a moment where it all clicks together?
Howard Berger (00:41:15):
Daniel Scrivner (00:41:15):
Does it just kind of build over time? What is that like?
Howard Berger (00:41:18):
Well, Tony's exception to the rule. I mean, he's the greatest actor around. When I got hired right away, I started work and what made that all work is Tony was accessible to me anytime I needed him, which that's a rarity. Usually like, "I will send a double." I'm like, "That's not a true test. Testing this makeup on a double is not testing it on Tony."
Daniel Scrivner (00:41:40):
Howard Berger (00:41:40):
So, Tony was always really good. And so, the first time we did the test maker, we did six versions of that makeup and it looked great. It looked just like Alfred Hitchcock and Tony loved it. It was much bigger, but he was like, "Howard, I don't even need to act in this." And I'm like, "No, I need you to act in this Tony. That's what's going to bring it to life." I said, "This is just a tool." Anyhow, it looked just like Alfred Hitchcock, but I lost Tony in the makeup and I'm like, "We need to reinvent this. It's a great Alfred Hitchcock makeup, but it's more of a likeness makeup. And I want to do a portrait."
Howard Berger (00:42:09):
My wife actually coined that phrase. She was like, "You're not doing a likeness, you're doing a portrait." And I'm like, "She's right. It's a portrait. It's my impression of Alfred Hitchcock on Tony Hopkins." So, I wanted to do something that was a combination. So, we kept redesigning. I had a great sculptor, Richie Alonzo, who's amazing artist, sculpted all the makeups for me over and over and over again until we finally hit one, kept testing on, on Tony. He'd show up at my shop at 6:00 AM, go in my office where I have a big makeup station, and do the makeups and test it out and get him fully dressed. And it helped him find his character.
Howard Berger (00:42:40):
I remember there was one time where Tony has really big blue eyes and Alfred Hitchcock had Brown eyes. And I was like, "Tony, I really feel like we need to do specialty contact lenses." And he was like, "Howard, I think we're good. I don't want to do the lenses." And I'm like, "Let me make a set of lenses. Can we just try them?" He's like, "Howard, I don't think people are going to realize that it's going to be fine." I'm like, "Okay. Well, let me make a pair of lenses, and let's just take a look."
Howard Berger (00:43:04):
So, we made a pair of lenses and when we did a task and I put the lenses in and Tony was like, "My God, that's it, it clicked. That's what we've been missing." And I'm like, "Yeah, I know. I've been saying that, but until it's your idea, it's not anybody's idea." So, Tony's like, "Howard, you were right. Let's do this." And I'm like, "Thank you, Tony. Really ties it all." It tied the room together, which was great. And then of course, with Tony's magnificent performance and Julie Weiss's costume, she built this under suit. This kind of fat under suit for Tony to wear and the costumes were beautiful, but that was a great example of having the time. That was the thing too.
Howard Berger (00:43:40):
When I got approached, I said to the studio, "I have to have time to do this. This is not a two-week prep. This is like a three-month prep, and I need the time. If you're not going to give me the time then I'm going to say thank you very much and move on."
Daniel Scrivner (00:43:52):
Wow. You've worked with just who's list of incredible actors and actresses from Jamie Foxx to Anthony Hopkins, to Samuel Jackson. And I could quote names many more minutes. What have you learned that is surprising and interesting from the actors and actresses that you've worked with? What stands out from the most remarkable ones, the ones that are best at their job?
Howard Berger (00:44:15):
Daniel Scrivner (00:44:15):
What have you taken away from what they bring to the role? Just, what has that been like?
Howard Berger (00:44:20):
I've been so lucky. A question that gets asked a lot to me is like, "You must work with some really difficult, horrible actors." And know what, I don't, because they're not, I love actors. I love them. I'd say James McAvoy, who was an unknown when we did Narnia, I love him with all my heart. He is a great friend still, and it was really fun to watch him become this movie star on this film. And the next movie he did was King of Scotland, which is a great film. And I watched that film and I watched decisions James made that were so subtle. And I was like, "God, he's just amazing. He's just picking up." But I learned a lot from James.
Howard Berger (00:44:58):
Jamie Foxx, who KNB has worked with quite a bit, but I had the pleasure of doing Jamie's Electro makeup for the amazing Spider-Man Part Two. And Jamie was such a great guy, such a giving considerate person and actor. And again, patient. I went to see Jamie before we started and I had all this artwork that Nicotero had supervised and really ushered in with the production, got to the point like, "This is where the studio wants Electro to be in." Greg did all that. And I stepped in because I was going to go to set. So, I went to go see Jamie and I brought all the artwork. And I said, "Before we talk about this, I need you to look at all the art and I'm going to tell you what you're in for. And you have to let me know that you're going to be okay because if you're not, this is going to be miserable and it should be fun."
Howard Berger (00:45:44):
And Jamie looked at everything. He's like, "Dude, I'm so in. I can't tell you." But Jamie couldn't have been better. And I learned humor. I mean, more humor because Jamie's a very funny guy. We had 3:00 AM calls. He come in singing and great mood and we had a thing with all the crews would be myself and Peter Montoya doing Jamie, and then Josh Turi, and Tami Lane doing Clay, who is Jamie's stunt double. We had always two electrodes onset, two electrodes for the price of one. And we would do a thing where Jamie would start a conversation every morning of something just controversial or whatever. And then he would say, "Okay, when we're done with the makeup, everybody ponder it. Now, it's time to ponder and we'll reconvene at cleanup time."
Howard Berger (00:46:26):
And then all of us would come back in and clean up and we'd start talking. He's like, "So what did you think, Howard? What did you think about this?" And I'm like, "Well, this is my feeling. And Jamie, what was your thought? And dah, dah, dah." And he just made it so wonderful because it could be a drag for him. I mean, there were days where he was in a full nude, prosthetic makeup except wearing a little bikini thing. It was a good five hours to get him in it. Then he would shoot 12 hours and then he'd take two hours to clean them up.
Daniel Scrivner (00:46:51):
Howard Berger (00:46:52):
Never said a word, never said a word and just was a complete gentleman like one of the best Colin Farrell. I got to do a movie with him and became friends and he's wonderful, so collaborative, great ideas, again, super patient. I put him through some horrible stuff in the remake of Fright Night that Craig Gillespie directed, who also directed I, Tonya, really cool director. But just let us go in here. And there's another example. He just planted the seed between Craig and Colin. We came up with some amazing stuff, great production design stuff, great actual sculptures like Jaremy Aiello did for us at KNB. Yeah, it just goes on and on and on.
Howard Berger (00:47:34):
Once I have the trust of the actor and I trust the actor, then I really feel good about it. And I'm also there. I think as a makeup artist, you're actually kind of a little bit of like a bartender/psychiatrist. And you spend more time with actors and anybody. You start their day, you're with them all day long, and then you finish their day when they come in, get cleaned up and it's been nice. Sometimes we have actors who just love being in the trailer. I did a film called The Gambler and Jessica Lange did a week on it. And she gravitated to The Trailer. I have my hair department head, a guy named Johnny Villanova, who I met on Lone Survivor. We do everything together. And he and I are the best team and we run the best departments because we just like to have fun and we're very similar.
Howard Berger (00:48:17):
We love to laugh and Jessica loved the vibe and she would always come to the trailer and hang out during lunchtime or whatever. She's like, "Why do I want to be by myself in my trailer? I hang out with you guys. You guys make me laugh all the time and we have such a good time." And it's true. We'd watch stuff on television. We watch Cheaters. She's like, "What is this show?" I'm like, "It's called Cheaters." She's like, "Greatest show I've ever seen." So, it's stuff like that or John Goodman. You build environment in the makeup trailer that the actors feel they're safe and that they're being taken care of and being respected and are there to have a good time. And that's really, really important to me.
Howard Berger (00:48:54):
Johnny and I did a film with Alan Arkin and Mark Wahlberg, a thing called Spenser Confidential. And I love Alan Arkin. I always wanted to meet him and he didn't really need makeup, but I brought him in every day, so Johnny and I could talk to him and he finally started to realize, and he's like, "Howard, why do I even come in here?" I said, "Because I want to talk to you." He was like, "But you do a minute makeup on me, but you take like 20 minutes to do it." And I went, "Because I want to talk to you because I think you're so magnificent." He's like, "Well, just tell me you want to talk. Come to my trailer and we'll talk. I don't need to come in here." I'm like, "Fine."
Howard Berger (00:49:24):
So, Johnny and I would go to his trailer and hang out and just talk to him. I'm just like, "Alan Arkin is the greatest guy on earth." I have also learned, because I get to work with so many actors, that you still have to draw a line in the sand for yourself. I don't go out and have dinner with actors. When I say I'm friends with them, occasional like text message or maybe a call like, "Hey, just checking up to say hey." It's not like, "Hey, man, let's go out and let's be best friends. And let's go to Disneyland and hold hands." It's not that. I just keep in touch because I actually truly care about them and really like them. But yeah, you have to be careful of your relationship. You need to keep it. You're still at professional level, you have to do. That's number one and then just to be there and be their confidant and so forth. And they need to feel safe is the big thing. Makeup trailers should always be their sanctuary.
Daniel Scrivner (00:50:11):
There's a few things that I just have to ask about, have to touch on. And one of those is going back to the Chronicles of Narnia. In that film with your team, you won an Oscar.
Howard Berger (00:50:20):
Daniel Scrivner (00:50:20):
What was that experience like? What was it like to learn that you had been nominated? What was it like to wait until that night? What was it like to hear that you had won? Was it just all one dream sequence?
Howard Berger (00:50:32):
Yeah. Well, I grew up watching the Academy Awards. I've been watching it ever since I can remember, and my dad loved it and we would watch it every time it was on every year. I always dreamed of being in the film industry. And once I understood what the Academy was, it'd be really cool to be in the Academy and someday, and all this stuff. Anyhow, you don't go into a movie thinking, "This is my Oscar." And there are people that do that. And that's, I believe, in karma and that works against you.
Howard Berger (00:50:59):
So, the second you go, "This is my Oscar," you're never going to win that Oscar for that. You just jinxed yourself. It sounds crazy, but I do believe it. And I feel like that's a scientific fact. And it's not an alternative fact, it's a scientific fact.
Daniel Scrivner (00:51:13):
You heard it here.
Howard Berger (00:51:14):
Yes, it's true. So, when we did Narnia, I never thought about that. I was just like, "I think I did a great job and I had a best time ever." So, when I heard, "Hey, your movie is being considered for an Academy Award or for Best Makeup, it could be a contender." I'm like, "Wow, that would be amazing. That would be a dream come true." That's cool. It's gravy. I got to do a cool movie and I made a good living and I had the best time and I'm proud of what I did. So, that's the payment.
Daniel Scrivner (00:51:42):
Howard Berger (00:51:43):
That's the payoff and people liked the movie. So, anyhow, the night before the Academy Award nominations are announced and I made it down to what's called the Bake Off. And the Bake Off is a part of the Academy where there's seven movies that are selected. And then you go talk about the movie to the voting members and they have like a five or 10 minute clip. And I did that and I didn't know. So, there was voting. And so, I waited and then I was very excited and I went to bed and I bought a bottle of champagne just in case. And so, I woke up in the morning and when you turn the TV on, they don't announce, "And best makeup is," because they want to talk about everything else.
Howard Berger (00:52:21):
So I was like, "I don't know. I wonder." And then I got a phone call 06:30 in the morning and it was Mark Johnson, who was the producer on the film. And he said, "Hey, Howard." I went, "Hey, Mark." "Well, congratulations. You've been nominated for an Oscar." And I was like, "Oh my God." I was out of my mind and I told my kids and I got the bottle out and I popped the bottle. I still have the bottle and the cork and I drank it all. And then somehow went to work and was so excited. I got nominated for an Academy Award. It's like my dream come true, one of my many dreams. But I never expected it though, nor did I think I deserved it. But I think I earned it.
Howard Berger (00:52:56):
I don't believe anybody deserves anything, but people can earn something. And I felt the work I did had earned that recognition. So, Tami lane and I are nominated, it's an amazing month. My friend, Dave Anderson, who won an Oscar for Men in Black and Nutty Professor along with Rick Baker called me and we were nominated together. His movie, Cinderella Man was nominated. I was nominated, then Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith or something was nominated. And Dave said, "I have some advice for you." Because Dave had already been nominated and won. He said, "Have fun and be drunk the whole time. Just drink the whole all month." And I'm like, "Okay, I can do that."
Howard Berger (00:53:34):
So, anyhow, it was just a great thing. It was one wonderful thing after another. We got to go to the luncheon, which is amazing. We got to go to all these parties that the studio sent me on like a publicity tour. They realized like, "Hey, Howard Berger is kind of a secret weapon because he's not like a standard guy who just stands there." Well, we had a good time. It was really fun. We did a lot of stuff. Yeah. I'm there to entertain. I'm like, "Turn it on. Here we go, everybody."
Howard Berger (00:53:59):
So, Disney started sending me around to South by Southwest to promote the film and do a bunch of things. It was really fun. Anyhow, Oscar night came and Tami and I got ready together at my house and my date and her date. And we went to the Oscars and our hearts were pounding out of our chest and there's a point where they move you. Our seats were kind of in the back, but during the commercial break, they move you forward so that you have a short walk. And one thing they tell you is you have one minute to get up there and say the speech and get off, or they're going to play the music. And you see, behind the audience is a giant digital clock ticking off tick, tick, tick.
Howard Berger (00:54:32):
So, they were about to announce it. Makeup it's Will Ferrell and Steve Carell are giving the award.
Daniel Scrivner (00:54:38):
Howard Berger (00:54:39):
They've made themselves up haphazardly and I think it's the funniest thing. Here are two of my favorite comedians giving this award. And so, I'm sitting next to Tami and then they go, "And the Oscar goes to Howard Berger, Tami Lane, Chronicles of Narnia." And I grab Tami and I pull up and say, "Come on, we got a minute." And we'd go all the way up. And then when I see Will and I see Steve Carell, we get it. I've already have a speech because you only have a minute. I so wanted to wrap it up and let Tami speak and I didn't do it quick enough. And she didn't get a chance. They cut it off. They cut the sound off and I feel bad about that, but I feel like I needed to say what I needed to say. It could be my only opportunity to ever do this. And it was a magical night and we've got to go to the Vanity Fair Party.
Howard Berger (00:55:24):
I remember we had a limo and we drove there and the security checks and they're like, "Do you guys have a ticket to go to the Vanity Fair?" And we both hold out our Oscars and they go, "You've got a ticket to go anywhere you want." So, we went to the Vanity Fair and then we ended our night at Jerry's Deli at 4:30 in the morning, having pastrami sandwiches, had our Oscars on the table and anybody that was in there and came by, could hold the Oscar and-
Daniel Scrivner (00:55:48):
Howard Berger (00:55:49):
... and take a picture with it. And it was one of the most fun nights I ever had. And the next day, that shows you that even though you won an Oscar, you still have to go back to the real world. And so, I had to go.
Daniel Scrivner (00:56:00):
It's only one night.
Howard Berger (00:56:00):
Yeah. So, I got up in the morning, I went to Kane Beach, showed off the Oscar and then I had to go do some chores and I had to go pick all my kids up from school, but I took the Oscar with me and I went into their room and I'm like, "Hey kids, this is the Academy Award." So, it was really, really fun. And then I got nominated again for Hitchcock. We didn't win, unfortunately. But what was fun is Tami was nominated for The Hobbit, I was nominated for Hitchcock. So, it was great to go through that process again with her, my best friend, but neither of us won. So, that's okay too. But yeah, it's a great experience. And again, it's gravy, but I feel very, very honored and very grateful. People in my branch, my makeup and hair branch are wonderful. They're my peers. I respect all of them.
Howard Berger (00:56:41):
This past last year, I became a governor of my branch along with Lois Burwell, who's the Vice President of the Academy as well and Linda Flowers. And yeah, it's a great thing. And I get to be really involved. The thing I think I regret the most is my father passed away 25 years ago and he never got to see any of this. And I think that if he had the opportunity, he'd flip. He would be like, "What do you mean you won an Oscar? What do you mean you're going to the Oscars? You're a governor at the Academy." So, it's like all this stuff is so great. And it always goes back to me thinking about my parents because both my parents passed a long time ago. And I always think like, "Yeah man, if they were here, they'd flip," because this was my dad's dream. And I just really was lucky that I got to live it.
Howard Berger (00:57:27):
And I just know that he's hopefully looking down and going, "Wow, I can't even believe that my son has accomplished so much." So, I'm very proud of what I've done, but I'm also very, very grateful. Every day I wake up and I'm like, "Thank you so much for letting me do this." It's a dream. I don't take one single moment or one single minute or day for granted because it's very easy for me not to be here. And it's just a lot of hard work. Just having taken the initiative, it was scary. I was scared, taking a chance all the time. When I used to work for people, I used to work for Rick Baker, and Stan Winston, and Kevin Jaeger. And then one day I said, "I'm going to start my own company with my friend, Greg Nicotero." That company could have failed. I have no money. I'd be broke. I'd be out of the business. But I was lucky and both Greg and I had such drive.
Howard Berger (00:58:17):
There was no way we were going to let that company fail. And it's been 32 years, we've had KNB and KNB is an iconic makeup effects studio in the film industry. And it all started in a teeny tiny little shop, little room, 800 square foot. We're now 20,000 plus. So, it's pretty amazing.
Daniel Scrivner (00:58:35):
What is that collaboration been like? I mean, I think, there's very few instances I can think of, of someone having a true partner, a best friend, someone that they love working with that they've gotten to build something over decades and you've gotten to do this for 32 years. What has that been like?
Howard Berger (00:58:50):
Well, it's been great. I mean, Greg and I became fast friends. I worked on a movie called Day of the Dead, a George Romero's zombie movie and we worked for Tom Savini and that was my first location. I was 18 years old and Greg was 19. And Greg and I, we just met and we're like, "I think we're going to be best friends for life." So, I talked Greg into moving into LA, which he finally did and we got a house and we had a bunch of roommates and we all worked on different shows and some shows together. And at a certain point, I said, "You know, we should start our own company because we're not making the money. We're not getting the recognition. Nobody knows who we are, but we're running the shows." And he's like, "Yeah, let's do it."
Howard Berger (00:59:28):
So, we've got a little show we did for like 700 bucks, but it turned out it led to one thing after another, after another, after another. And I think of Greg, Greg's my brother, he's the brother. I have three sisters that are all younger. I don't have a brother, but Greg's my brother. And I cherish him and I love him in that way. And I respect him immensely. And I always did. And granted like any brothers, brothers fight, brothers argue, brothers sometimes disagree. But the underlying relationship is you love that person to no end. And I would do anything for Greg. And I think Greg would do anything for me.
Howard Berger (01:00:00):
I think we're going to be friends till we die and nothing's going to ever change that. It doesn't mean that we'll have KNB forever. Who knows what happens? We might just go, "Yeah, we're done with the film industry." Or, "We have this new thing." Apple came out with a chip and you just put it in your neck and you watch whatever you want. So, I'm like, "Okay, there you go." But I do know that we'll be friends forever and we're going to be in that old age, home together, the motion picture, old age home together, our iron lungs will be right next to each other, and it'll be great.
Daniel Scrivner (01:00:29):
It sounds beautiful.
Howard Berger (01:00:30):
Daniel Scrivner (01:00:31):
So, you've done so much. We've covered so many films here. And for anyone that's interested, I highly encourage people to go on IMDb and then browse through everything that you've worked on over time. Are there things that you're still itching to work on? Is there a type of movie you love and what does that look like?
Howard Berger (01:00:47):
Well, there's two directors I would love to work with and I don't think I'm going to get the chance to. I would love to work with Woody Allen, but Woody Allen doesn't ever need my services. So, I respect. I think he's a magnificent filmmaker and I would love to work with Clint Eastwood. He runs a tight ship. The guys he's been working with for ever are still there. So, he's a loyalist. So, I don't see why he'd go like, "I think I'm going to switch over and use Howard to do this show." But those are the two filmmakers I'd love to work with.
Howard Berger (01:01:14):
I'm really trying to break into producing. There's a project I'm interested in that I'm trying to develop that I hope will lead into that. I love what I do, but I feel like I need to start segwaying into something else and use my other talents to make better sense of filmmaking, which I know I can. I've currently been co-writing a book. I've been researching. I'm doing a book with a good friend of mine, a writer, Marshall Julius in the UK, and it's going to be cool. I think it will be out next year. We've been interviewing tons of makeup effects people, and actors, and directors, and visual effects people, and editors. And it's basically a book about relationships, and camaraderie, and adventure, and fun stories. It's not a technical manual about like, "And then I put the glue down." It's none of that nonsense.
Howard Berger (01:01:59):
It literally is some amazing stories and people have amazing stories about their experiences with specific actors. It's not a drag mag. It's not a dirt book. It's all about fun. And I think people will really, really enjoy it. So, we're hoping that that will... We've got to finish writing it. It's taking a long time. The pandemic actually helps us like Marshall called and he's like, "Now we should write that book we've been talking about for 12 years." And I'm like-
Daniel Scrivner (01:02:22):
Howard Berger (01:02:23):
Yeah. And I'm like, "Okay." And we did. We've interviewed over 50 people so far for this book and it's really going to be a great book. So, keep your eye out for it. It's going to be called Practical Magic. So yeah, we're trying to get that going, but that's not going to be till next year. But yeah, I mean, I want to do that. I want to do everything. I don't want to live it myself. I just like it all. But most of all, like I keep saying, I want to just have fun. I want to always have fun and enjoy what I'm doing. It doesn't make sense not to. Life goes so quick.
Howard Berger (01:02:50):
We've seen a lot of people pass away and I'm sure even though older people, you see like, "Oh, died at 95," I'm sure on their death bed, they thought, "I didn't get enough, 95 years wasn't enough time." And it's like, "I didn't get to finish this. I didn't get to finish that." And I'm sure I'm going to feel that way. I'm like, "I need another 200 years. What the hell. I laughed enough. Didn't that work? I'm sure." But it's never enough. But in the time that we have, we need to be kind to each other. We need to be considerate and respectful and we need to do what makes us happy. And that's important.
Howard Berger (01:03:21):
You must do what makes you happy. Just have fun, have a great time. This is supposed to be fun. We're here for a reason. It's not to be miserable. It's to enjoy it and make other people's lives better. I work on movies and it's entertainment. It's whatever, but it makes people happy, and that's great. And movies make me happy. I love seeing films. I grew up on them. I've been watching movies since I was a little teeny kid and I try to watch at least two or three movies a week when I'm working, when we're not stuck.
Howard Berger (01:03:55):
Now I'm watching 400 movies a week and finished up three seasons of Hannibal in two nights. So, I wasn't sure if I should kill people and eat them or eat them and kill them. I was unclear about that. But now it's real simple, man. Just be cool and have a good time and enjoy life because this is all we got. We don't go around once, I think. Nobody's proven that to otherwise. So-
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:20):
Howard Berger (01:04:20):
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:21):
Well, thank you so much for being here. You've shared so many wonderful stories and it's been amazing to just-
Howard Berger (01:04:26):
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:26):
Howard Berger (01:04:27):
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:28):
So, I appreciate it. Thank you, Howard.
Howard Berger (01:04:28):
No, it's great. I love talking as my wife. No, I love it. And I love educating and I like talking about what I do because I love it. And trying to spread the good word of being positive to people and just being-
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:42):
It's a great message. It's underplayed.
Howard Berger (01:04:44):
It is underplayed nowadays. You don't need to talk smack about anybody. Just be happy and just enjoy and be nice to everybody. Things will be a lot better if you're just nice to people. So, that is simple.
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:56):
So, I wanted to ask if you'd be willing to do two more stories.
Howard Berger (01:04:59):
Daniel Scrivner (01:04:59):
One was, I was curious what your favorite film is and what you love about that film or what stands out to you?
Howard Berger (01:05:07):
Is that the favorite film that I worked on or favorite film overall?
Daniel Scrivner (01:05:10):
I think just, from my perspective, it's you clearly went into filmmaking because you love it.
Howard Berger (01:05:16):
Daniel Scrivner (01:05:16):
So, what is the moment where you're watching a film and yeah, likely one probably that you didn't work on. Yeah. That just-
Howard Berger (01:05:24):
Daniel Scrivner (01:05:24):
... really stands out to you. And then what's so special about it?
Howard Berger (01:05:26):
Well, there's two movies that changed my life. And the first one was Jaws. When I saw Jaws, I couldn't believe what I was watching. It was the most terrifying, brilliant film I'd ever seen. It's still my favorite film. I can watch Jaws anytime. It's so well-made, it just tells the story. Spielberg did such a great job. He shot it very much like a TV movie, which was his background. There's no inserts, and crazy shots, and crane shots, and drone shots, and any of that nonsense. It just sets it up and it tells you a magnificent story. I love Jaws. I still love Jaws. I don't go in the ocean because of Jaws. So, it's been 46 years I haven't been in the ocean.
Howard Berger (01:06:07):
And then the movie that really did it for me was the original Star Wars. Star Wars came out and I had heard all about it, but I couldn't picture what people were saying like, "Oh, in the beginning, the spaceship shoots over your head." Prior to that, we've always just been on that flat level. It's like, "Oh, spaceship goes across like this." And I went to see that at the Chinese Theater, my dad took us. We sat out in the rain waiting to go in hours and hours and finally got in. And it changed my life. It truly did. I walked out of that movie thinking, "I'm going to work on films like this. This is the type of movie I want to work on."
Howard Berger (01:06:38):
And I've never worked on a Star Wars film. And I think at that point, I wish I did. Now, I'm okay because it's not where I think it would be, in my mind. And I prefer just to keep my dream the way I think it is. But Star Wars and Empire strikes back. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could do no wrong in my eyes. Those movies were a magical to me and yeah, changed my life. I was like, "These are the movies I want to make when I grow up." And they were.
Daniel Scrivner (01:07:06):
It's amazing. And so, I have to ask one more story, which was from... Yeah, I've heard you tell it and I would love if you share it again.
Howard Berger (01:07:12):
Daniel Scrivner (01:07:12):
And that's just what it was like for you to be a part of Kill Bill.
Howard Berger (01:07:15):
Daniel Scrivner (01:07:16):
And what it meant to just step up into that challenge and what the process was like?
Howard Berger (01:07:20):
Well, on Kill Bill, Greg was supposed to go do Kill Bill, but his wife got pregnant and he couldn't go. She was delivering. Actually, as I got on the plane, I was on the phone with Greg, he was in the delivery room and he's like, "The baby's coming." And I'm like, "I'm getting on the plane." He's like, "There's the head." I'm like, "I have to shut the phone off." And so, Deven, who's Greg's son was born as I was leaving and got onto the plane.
Daniel Scrivner (01:07:44):
Howard Berger (01:07:44):
So, Greg obviously couldn't leave his wife for what was originally supposed to be three weeks of shooting in China, turned out to be six, seven months, which my then wife wasn't very pleased about hence why she became my then wife or has become my then wife. It was amazing, but I didn't know what we were in for. We just went with a bunch of stuff and hoped that we could make stuff happen. I had two other guys with me, Christopher Nelson and Jake McKennan and 500 gallons of blood and a ton of body parts. But we didn't know. We didn't know because basically we talk about quitting scripts, that scene was kind of like, "And then all hell ensues." And I'm like, "What does that mean?" Same with Dusk till Dawn. It's like, "And then all hell ensues." And I'm like, "That's a six-week shoot of all hell ensues.
Howard Berger (01:08:33):
So, we went to China to try to get stuff going there. It was very difficult. It was super, super hot, humid, miserable, sweating like a pig. Quentin is very demanding as he should be. And at first, the effects weren't going just as well as we had hoped and we're trying to rethink things. And the thing is, we're thinking to inside the box and Quentin says, You guys got to get out of the box. Get out of the box, start thinking beyond."
Howard Berger (01:09:00):
And we started thinking about it and we started watching what some of the Chinese guys were doing and the stunt guys. Quentin wanted when people are getting slashed the blood just shoot out. And I'm like, "Oh, well, normally that would be a squib." And he's like, "We're not doing squibs." I'm like, "Okay, well, that'd be a hose." He's like, "We're not doing that." And so, I was looking and I saw that the Chinese stunt guys, they took condoms and they would fill it with blood, wrap them up and they'd hold them in their hand. They were small. And on impact, they'd shoot them and blood would spray out. And I'm like, "That is genius."
Howard Berger (01:09:31):
So, I talked to them best I could. And I went out and I bought condoms, but I had bought American condoms. They're like, "No, no, no, no. They have to be Chinese condoms because they just break." And I'm like, "Of course, there you go. That explains it." So, I went and got this and we filled it with blood and we had a big bucket of water and we put all the blood condoms in there because that way they wouldn't stick, they would just float and they wouldn't break. And we would hand them off. And Quentin's like, "Now you're thinking outside the box. You talked about squibs, we can't do that. You figured it out."
Howard Berger (01:10:02):
So, Quentin pushes you to figure out, "Yeah, there's 10 ways to do this, but what's the way you wouldn't do it? And that's the way I want to do it." So, we had this great experience and we stayed there for seven months and we did, I kid you not, at least 40 to 50 blood gags a day, just Chris, Jake, and myself. The day would start off with a rehearsal for the first half of the day and I'd take notes. Like, "And this guy's arm gets cut off. This guy gets split in half." I go over to Chris and Jake I'm like, "Okay. So, what do we have for this?" He's like, "Now that we got to make it." And I go to Quentin and I go like, "What do you think about shooting this split thing?" "Oh, we've got plenty of time. We're not shooting that till after lunch." I'm like, "Lunch is in six hours."
Howard Berger (01:10:41):
So, we'd be putting stuff together and we did electromagnets and came up with a whole bunch of cool things. I think at first Quentin, like I said, he was like, "This isn't happening. It's not happening. Maybe this isn't going to work out so well." But then it kicked in and I was really glad that he had the patience to stick with it and let me try to figure out where our shortcomings were. I felt we were very handicapped the whole time, but once we got the momentum and the crew clicked and that wasn't just the US crew, we clicked with the Japanese crew, the Chinese crew and because we'd all go out and I always said, "You know what? None of us understand what we're saying because we speak different languages, but we all laugh in the same language." And we would just go out and laugh and laugh.
Howard Berger (01:11:23):
And I understood the Chinese guys laughing. I understood the Japanese guys laughing. I was like, "There you go. Laughter is universal. That's the international language, is laughter." And we had the best time. We never knew what we were talking about, but we would eat, and drink, and play games, and laugh. And it was great. So, we finished up in China, finally got home. We had another six months shooting air in LA, which was all the desert stuff and all that. And we shot the movie as one movie and then it was so long, Quentin decided to cut it in half, which I think was a great idea and make two films out of it. And they're two films I'm super, super proud of. And I worked so hard. It was so exhausting and really kicked my rear end, but it was unbelievably rewarding. Again, on my top five of most proud favorite movies I've ever worked on.
Daniel Scrivner (01:12:11):
It's amazing. Thank you so much, Howard. You've been so generous with your time.
Howard Berger (01:12:15):
Thank you so much.
On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge — in business, investing, science, and so much more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. Listen to past episodes for free, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe to Outliers on your favorite podcast platform.
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