How ‘Vice’ Makeup Designer Greg Cannom Turned Christian Bale Into Many Dick Cheneys, Earning The Actor’s Trust

For three-time Oscar winner Greg Cannom—the makeup designer behind DraculaMrs. Doubtfire and Titanic—nothing about Vice was simple. For this radically unconventional film, his first with Adam McKay, he was asked to transform Christian Bale into Dick Cheney, and was honest about the fact that he wasn’t sure he could pull it off.

During six weeks of makeup trials with Bale, Cannom was put through the ringer, designing not for one Cheney, but many. Ultimately, George W. Bush’s infamous VP would be seen on screen in many iterations, encompassing over 50 years of history, both personal and political.

In collaboration with McKay, Cannom was given free rein. In his 40-plus years on the job, Cannom has predominantly worked with directors who know little about his craft, and the degree of complexity at hand, in terms of demands on his department. “When I did Dracula, it was just supposed to be an old-age makeup, and I ended up doing a bat creature, and a wolf creature, and an old-age bat creature and everything in it. I’d show sculptures to [Francis Ford] Coppola, and Coppola would just go, ‘I know nothing about makeup effects. You do whatever you want,’” the artist explains. “So, I do what I think is right. I always use my eye, and I use every little trick in the book I can think of.”

While Vice was an unusually complex project for Cannom, he found in McKay the best collaborator he could ask for. “He’s so nice, and he’s always positive,” the makeup designer says. “One day I was on set in the beginning, and he walked in, and was just like, ‘How do you do this, Cannom? Are you a witch?’”

Not as easily impressed was Bale, who “had a lot to do” with the Cheney we see on screen, and pushed back at every stage, until he was sold on what he was seeing in the mirror. For Cannom, though, the process was fun, “because I’d much rather have someone who’s going to be part of it than not.”

With Cannom focusing on Cheney transformations, it would take the work of an array of makeup and hair artists to bring Vice to fruition, transforming actors like Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell into well-known, real-world figures. Remarkably though, in the end, an illusion was crafted that fooled not only Bale’s eye, but Cannom himself. Cheney was in the room, and Bale was not.

What were your first impressions when you read the script for Vice? What did you respond to in the material?

There wasn’t a script when I started on it, so I just had to go by what they were telling me about the film—that they wanted Christian to play Dick Cheney. That was quite a challenge. But we had to do some quick tests, and then if they liked it, they would green light the film. The script wasn’t ready for months, so I didn’t get to read anything [for] a while. Then, it was fun: What I liked about the script, as a makeup artist, is they’re showing him old, and everybody knows what he looks like when he’s old. But it also jumped around to where he was 21, 35, 27, 75, and 40s and 50s. It was all over the place, which is fun for us makeup people. Because then, you get to see the ages next to each other.

Bale is an actor known for transformative roles of this sort. What made you nervous or uncertain about the prospect of turning him into Cheney?

Well, he had never worn appliances before. You never know how someone’s going to react with that, because he’s done all these films just by physically changing himself. So, that worried me a lot. The first time I put him in the makeup, he was like, “Am I going to be able to turn my neck?” I was like, “Oh, yeah. It’s like flesh. Don’t worry about it.” So, that was a problem in the beginning. He started gaining some weight, too, because he wanted a very strong, thick neck—because he just wasn’t sure about the prosthetics.

We did the tests, and that worked pretty good. It was enough to green light the film. Then, we really started in a few months later, and we had to just go full-bore on it; we kept changing things, trying to get the [63]-year-old look down first, the one that everybody knows.

A couple weeks before shooting, I did a test on Christian, and I really liked it, but Christian still wanted to make it better, change it, a little thicker neck and everything. I was arguing with him, “No, it’s too much.” But Christian wins out every time, so the producer said, “Do it.” I think we only had five days to redo the whole thing. That Saturday before shooting, he was in the office, put on the suit, and I was like, “No, it’s too fat, I think.” He put on the fat suit, and glasses, and teeth, and walked in the room, and everybody just could not believe it. I was like, “Oh my god, you were absolutely right,” and that’s what’s in the film. He looked just dead on.

The good thing about that [was], he thought it was interesting as we were going along, but he wasn’t really happy. But that day when he put it on, you could just tell he was so happy. He just kept looking in the mirror and smiling, and he really became excited at that point.

With Vice, you were transforming an array of actors into living political figures. How did you approach this challenge, in a general sense?

One reason I think I’m good is back on Dracula with Gary Oldman, I did an old-age makeup on him, and it was beautiful, but it didn’t look like him at all. I was using pictures, and then I started to really look at his face cast and learned from that. I’m pretty good at doing old-age makeups, but keeping it look like the actor, which is really hard to do.

For this, I went in the other direction, like I did in Mrs. Doubtfire, where you just have to do something completely different. It’s thinking of sculpting, trying it, and making it work. I never thought it would work as good as it did on [Bale] because he’s got such a long face, totally different than anything Cheney had. When he’s 21 in the film, nobody knows what Cheney looked like back then, so we could get away with looking more like Christian. Even though Cheney, you could never recognize him in his photographs—a football player type guy—it was pretty amazing. We just had to keep working on all the stages and making it so [the materials] would smoothly blend into each other.

What materials did you use in crafting Bale’s prosthetics? What kinds of pieces did you put on him?

We started with Christian with a face cast; it had to be a really good face cast of him. From that, we made duplicates in special material, and sculpted on it. We would number the front of it, what age it was, and sculpt him, and keep alternating and working on him in the clay. Then, once you get that done, you cut the pieces up for overlapping pieces, which means that the neck is separate from the cheek, but the cheek has to blend over onto the neck, so you can’t see any seams. Then we molded all that, each piece, and injected silicone into it, and popped that out. Then, you had a silicone appliance of a cheek, or a chin, or a neck.

He had two tiny pieces on his nose, just to strengthen his nose and make it a little rounder on the very bottom. Then, he would take these plugs that Chris Gallaher had made, little circles that you can put up your nose to widen your whole nose, and still breathe through them. It was a lot of little gimmicks going on, besides all that, and he wore those all through the film.

Then, we started with cheeks and chin in the earlier years, and by the time we got to the [63], 68, it was about nine appliances. He had appliances on the back of his hands, and we had to make those up every day. It’s pretty crazy. It takes about three and a half, four hours with the wig because at some point, we tried to get the whole top of the head done, while we were still working on the makeup and coloring it. Then, they started on the wig, to try to get it down as fast as we [could].

Vice wasn’t shot in chronological order. How, then, did you manage Cheney’s visual transformation over time?

We did do charts and everything—huge charts. Then, we just had to guess. Sometimes, we’d be on a location and we’d have to do him at 65, and then maybe at 35, so we’d have to take him out during the day and put him into a whole nother makeup. Sometimes, you just had to guess at what you think is going to work, to blend into the shot you did two weeks ago, when he was five years younger. You had to figure out the years exactly. Between a few years, you’d sit there and take the wig, and maybe make it a little whiter, or a little darker, so that it would blend into the next wig. That was done all the time on his makeups. Then, I would go in and maybe make more of an eye bag, or a little more painting, make the lines around [his] mouth be a little more or a little less, to match. So, it might have been eight or nine stages, but there’s probably 25, 30 stages when you get technical about it.

Were any shooting days particularly challenging, as you worked through all this?

There was one day where we did three different looks. I think it was nine hours of just makeup. It was all period, from the ’60s down to the ’50s—a huge amount of period work, besides the hair work and everything.

What would Bale be doing, as he sat in the chair for all those hours?

He was usually insulting us, somehow, for fun. [Laughs] No, he’s very funny. He’d be going over his lines, and he’d be looking in the mirror a lot and working on the character, and watching a lot of footage of Cheney. He did so much research on that film—unbelievable. It was really fun making him up, and watching him become this character.

What was the process, when it came to your supporting cast?

Well, I did Christian and Amy’s makeup. I was supposed to have done Steve Carell’s makeup too, but because of the small test time, Christian wanted me to really concentrate mainly on him. So, they brought in Donald Mowat from Canada to do Steve Carell’s work. Kate Biscoe was the head of the makeup department, and she had 130 people to make up, everybody else in the cast. Her assistant was Jamie Kelman, who’s a really good makeup artist, and Jamie did Sam’s makeup; he did a nose on him, and makeup, and it worked really well.

Were the majority of your principals wearing wigs? Was any dyeing done?

Occasionally they would use their hair. Sam Rockwell, I think it was his. They cut and trimmed it and everything, and used it for the film, but a lot of it was wigs. With Christian, we used his hair for the 21-year-old and shot it, and made sure [it looked] good. Then, we shaved his head every day and just used the wigs, because there were so many looks, and it was pretty thin hair. Amy, I think all of hers was wigs, and I think we did 9 or 10 wigs and pieces on Christian. Everybody else, because of the period stuff, it was mostly wigs, trying to get that done. It was quite a jaunt to get through this film because all of us were just scrambling, trying to get it right. But it turned out really nice, all the hair and makeup, and the costumes and everything. Wes Wofford, who used to work with me all the time back in the day, he moved back East, but he came out and did Colin Powell [Tyler Perry]’s makeup, which was fun.

Vice is a film that wouldn’t work without the right hair and makeup. Was your department’s budget any higher here than it might usually be, given all the makeup the film required?

No. It was the type of thing where, when we were starting, they’re going, “Well, we might want one wig for Christian,” and I’m just laughing. I called up my hair guy, Justin Stafford, who makes the wigs really good, and they aren’t cheap. I just said, “Look, we’re starting on this now. We have about six weeks. Can you start on it? They will pay you. It’ll take a while to make the deal, but can you come in tomorrow and start making wigs?” And he did. He was working on another show, but he just dropped everything, and came and started working on it. Then, they found out how much a wig is, but at one point, you’ve just got to go, “Look, this is how it has to be.”

You’ve done a lot of boundary-pushing work over the years, even winning a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy in 2005, “for the development of…special modified silicone material for makeup applications used in motion pictures.” That said, how did Vice compare, in level of difficulty, to films you’ve worked on in the past?

Wes Wofford and I came up with that silicone; I came up with the skin, and Wes made it work. We were the first to use overlapping silicone appliances back then—the rest of the silicone, as far as I was concerned, didn’t work. You couldn’t make it up; it wouldn’t stick. We came up with this incredible silicone that was a rubber skin, and I could put makeup on it, just like I always do, and it worked beautifully. With that, we did incredible age makeups over the years; it was on Bicentennial Man that we came up with that, and it’s just been trying to perfect it for years. Coloring it is half the problem. On Benjamin Button, I thought that turned out pretty good, but it still wasn’t quite perfect, what I wanted to do.

This film, I really wanted to take it further, and I found a new way of using my makeups, mixing it with a tattoo color that works fantastic. Really, we took our time to get the coloring down, and it actually went pretty smoothly, this film. Once we got into the realm of it looking like [Cheney], then it was just fine tweaking it. Everything just fell into place.

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