Why the ‘Dune’ Makeup Team Should Win the Oscar for Creating Stellan Skarsgård’s Horrifying Baron

For the Baron, makeup and hair designer Donald Mowat riffed on Marlon Brando's gorilla-like look in both "Apocalypse Now" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau."
Dune The Baron
Stellan Skarsgård in "Dune"
Chia Bella James
 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

The remarkable transformation of Stellan Skarsgård into the horrifying Baron Harkonnen for “Dune” faces considerable competition in the Oscar category for makeup/hair. At least judging by the Make-Up Artists & Hairstylists Guild race, in which “House of Gucci” leads the race with three nominations for an unrecognizable Jared Leto as the balding, paunchy Paolo. Also posing threats are “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” in which Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain gets craftily transformed into the eponymous evangelist, and “Cruella,” in which Emma Stone delightfully becomes the punkish fashion designer.

We will obviously get a better handle on the Oscar race after the February 19 MUAHS Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. However, where “Dune” has the advantage is not being limited by real-life people or a Disney icon in training. Indeed, director Denis Villeneuve was free to reinvent the look of Skarsgård’s Baron by riffing on Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now.” For this makeup journey into the “heart of darkness,” he tapped go-to designer Donald Mowat, a 30-year vet, who collaborated with the Swedish team of prosthetics artists Love Larson and Eva von Bahr.

“I certainly talked about Brando from the very beginning,” Mowat said. “But I threw in ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ because there was something interesting in the presentation of the makeup that was over the top. So we split the difference. Denis loved it because we kept talking about gorilla-like. My big thing is fat is funny in movies and nobody is fat shaming. It also made me think of [the senior] Rod Steiger, who I got to work with. I threw a lot of references at Denis, which he liked and that got it rolling. As soon as I heard it was Stellan, I knew this was meant to be.”

Dune Stellan Skarsgård
Stellan Skarsgård in “Dune”Chia Bella James

Preliminary discussions centered around the Brando concept of cheeks and a large belly, but Villeneuve had a grander, more monstrous vision for the Baron. “Denis wanted it to be more massive,” added Mowat. That meant a fat suit. But not an ordinary suit, which would have been made by the Oscar-nominated costume design team of Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan. This required complicated engineering by Larson and von Bahr. Fortunately, they had the time and budget for such an ambitious project, with 16 weeks of prep. “Stellan didn’t shoot until the last month of production and that was my key,” continued Mowat. “This was happening while doing the makeup and hair and prosthetics for the rest of the movie.”

After taking a full body life cast of Skarsgård, the suit required seven sculptors and lots of silicone with plaster bandages to support the frame and maintain the shape; the head and shoulders were done separately. The seven-hour process for the full suit was then followed by separate pieces for the neck, head, chin, cheeks, jowl, earlobes, and hand prosthetics over the knuckles. They also had to build a stunt double suit for the scene when the Baron crawls up the wall after being poisoned by Oscar Isaac’s Duke.

The neck was potentially problematic because of the weight (nearly 25 pounds) and the possibility of it buckling. But the biggest issue was Skarsgård wanting to play most of his part naked. This upped the need for greater articulation and detail in the suit.

Dune Stellan Skarsgård
Stellan Skarsgård in “Dune”Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Costumers West and Morgan designed robes made of black silk that were slightly transparent for the few scenes where clothes were necessary, such as when the Baron rises or flies with the aid of harness straps, or gorges himself on raw meat. “We overlapped with costume with their blessing,” Mowat said. “We built them a mockup on a fat dummy based on what size Stellan would be, so costume could build fabric for his costume.”

Then there was an additional obstacle of the bathtub scenes because of the oil: The suit was buoyant and it wasn’t going to stay under. “I remember getting a phone call from rigging and special effects asking how big Stellan was because we had to figure out how to get this suit to go under water,” added Mowat. “We were all very overlapping —costume, makeup, special effects, makeup effects — and I think that was great for the movie. In my 30 years, I’ve never had this much collaboration before. But this is what was needed to achieve Denis’ vision.”

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