Here is a preview of our interview with hair & makeup designer Christine Blundell from our new ebook Peterloo in Process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration. To find out more and to purchase the book, click here.
In our interview with Mike Leigh, he stated, “Ideally, you have no makeup, but that’s alright within very narrow parametres. When you need makeup for all sorts of reasons, then you need someone who’s very good at making things real. Christine Blundell is fantastic in that.”
It surprised us to hear Leigh bring up his makeup and hair designer as such a key part of the process, simply because her work does look so real. You forget these characters are wearing makeup at all. What we learned from talking to Blundell was illuminating: doing the makeup on a historical film like Peterloo is an incredibly delicate process, even if the characters themselves do not wear makeup within the world of the film. Blundell researched how the diets, living conditions, and medicine of the time would have affected the appearance of the characters’ skin so she could paint their faces accordingly.
Blundell has worked with Leigh on every one of his films since the 1990s — in fact, Life is Sweet (1990) and Naked (1993) were her first ever jobs as a hair and makeup artist on film. Since, she has gone on to work on huge blockbusters, such as Wonder Woman and the upcoming Aladdin remake.
But her work with Mike Leigh remains her most rich and detailed, even winning her an Oscar in 1999 for Topsy-Turvy. On each film, she works with Leigh and the actors months before shooting begins, devising how each character might choose to express themselves visually. Topsy-Turvy earned her awards attention because the makeup is more pronounced, as she was designing characters who would be performing exuberant parts on stage. But Blundell’s job is important even for more subtly designed characters in modern films. Her work may often be invisible, but it is essential.
7R: Mike has a very unique process. Could you describe how you fit into that?
Christine Blundell (CB): I’ve been working with Mike since Life is Sweet, so that’s about 30 years now. Mike’s process is he will let us know when he’s starting a project, and we’ll all make sure we’ve all got our schedules cleared for him. From the moment we have that initial meeting, before he even starts with the actors, we’re kind of on call to him.
He sees the actors, and they will define who their character is and where their character is from. With every session with him, they will be growing up their characters. If something was to happen to them within that growing up — for example, if one of them has a car crash; one of our girls had a car crash once when she was aged 19 — he’d call me in at that stage, and we’d look at how faces would’ve been patched up at that time. If I recall correctly, we worked out the car crash would’ve happened some time in the’ 70s, so I looked at how her scarring would’ve happened. Then she carries on with her character with the scars from the car crash on her face, and as she gets older, they fade.
Basically, no one has a scar, or a tattoo, or anything on them that hasn’t got a story. In a lot of films, you randomly put a bad man’s scar on someone. You could never do that with Mike; it has to have a story behind it.
7R: Do you become more involved as you get closer to the shooting?
CB: The closer we get to shooting, once the actors know everything they need to know before we start filming, Mike will tell us we’re ready to do these things he laughingly calls our “surgeries.” And then myself, Jacqueline [Durran], and Suzie [Davies] will sit down with the actor. We talk about their character, and we create their world for them.
Mike will sometimes give us some notes which we don’t divulge to the actors. He’ll sometimes push us in a direction he wants to go in, or he’ll say to Suzie, “They do need to have a house, do need a flat, do need a car.” Jacqueline will put together a wardrobe, and I’ll look at how they’ve grown up and start talking about their look — how they look after themselves, if they go to the hairdresser all the time, or if they just home dye.
7R: Have you got most of the work done before they start shooting or are there often alterations on set?
CB: I have a book of all of my character notes. We start by looking at the look. For something like Mr. Turner or Topsy-Turvy, you are dealing with factual people, where you know what could possibly happen and what their look is like. But if you’re doing a contemporary thing for Mike, then you kind of have to be prepared for everything that is going to unfurl.
I might have a skeleton of what the story is. There’s not really any surprises that you are not going to know about before you start filming. There might be a little bit of something here or there, a fight might break out or something like that, but in all honesty, most of the story skeleton is there at the start. When you’re doing contemporary work with Mike, you’re filming a lot of it chronologically anyway.
7R: Could you describe what your collaboration is like with the other heads of department and how much you communicate throughout the process?
CB: We all communicate a lot. From the get-go, Jacqueline and myself work together very closely, obviously, because she’s the costume designer. Because we are all working together without a script per se, it’s really important we are close to whatever Suzie is doing: a lot of the information Mike might be giving out, we share between each other, and see how it will affect whatever department we’re doing.
We’ve all been working together for so long. [Cinematographer] Dick [Pope] started with me on Life is Sweet, and he likes to do something new with the camera every time, or with film stock. Every time we start a new process, Dick will tell us how he sees the film looking, whether he wants heightened colour or desaturated.
In Naked, we desaturated out. We did a bleach bypass on that, and it was one of the first films that actually had the bleach bypass. At the time that we filmed Naked, it was a proper bleach bath that the stock would go in every night. There were a lot of times where all of our greys went black. For me, any of the makeup I put on with a blue pigment, it went black.
When we did Topsy-Turvy, Dick wanted to do the lighting in the Savoy, the first theatre to ever get electric lighting. He was very specific about his lightbulbs in Topsy-Turvy. There is a lot of minute detail that goes on with everything, so the collaboration between all of us is crucial.