Neill’s talent and experience is vast as she’s worked on more than 70 film and television projects, designing and applying everything from straight beauty makeup to complex prosthetics. With that kind of range, it’s no surprise that The Hunger Games director Gary Ross asked her to join his design team bringing Suzanne Collin’s first novel to life. Neiil was responsible for the garish look of the Capitol citizens, the beauty looks of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and all the Tributes, as well as the blood and wound work that showed up liberally in the games Arena.
In an exclusive FEARnet interview, Neill talked to us by phone from the set of her latest project, the film adaptation of the Stephanie Meyer novel The Host, as she did last looks on her cast before they went out to set. With barely any time to bask in the glow of the huge success of The Hunger Games, Neill reveals to us how she used everything in her bag of makeup tricks to help bring the complicated dystopian world to life.
Since The Hunger Games is based on a very descriptive book, did you go into your meetings with director Gary Ross and production designer Philip Messina with a lot of specific ideas or did you follow their lead?
I obviously read the book first and then definitely read the script. You’re hired for your knowledge and your expertise so I like to go in and say what I think and what I’d like to do, but ultimately we’re the tool of the director. We have to go off his inspiration and what vision he has. You also work together with everybody. I worked very closely with Judianna (Makovsky), the costume designer, because all these visions have to work together. Nothing can be done independently of each other or you’ll have a jumbled up mess. We all did work very closely together and we all brought our expertise to the table and we made a beautiful meal. [Laughs]
Was the final look of the Capitol really Gary’s aesthetic, more your ideas or something in the middle?
We came to something in the middle because I never got to see any wardrobe, and conceptually we always go to the extreme. We want to be big and fabulous and have our makeup to show, but ultimately you have put [people] in that world, get them dressed and they have to have hair on their head. It’s something where we all have to work together. They had done a lot of work ahead of me with the wigs, but we always have to go off what people are wearing. After we got to see a lot of Judianna’s costuming, we took our designs we were working on and adjusted them to the whole look so we had a beautiful picture throughout. We didn’t want anything standing out more than another and it all had to work together in a very symbiotic way. I think we were a terrific team.
The book describes the Capitol citizens with various skin colorations and plastic surgery to resemble felines, none of which made it into the movie. Was there a lot of testing to see just how far you should go in the film?
I’ve got to tell you we didn’t have to do too much because we did [the coloring] once and I immediately said, “Oh, no, no, this is not going to fly!” It’s really great to read that stuff but when you actually start seeing it then it’s different from your mind’s eye. For some of the things, it was just too garish. When you put makeup on to color coat skin it never looks right. Maybe in one of the future books, if they want to start tinting people digitally that might work, but just very faintly. As far as doing it with makeup, it never really reads well and looks like the Hulk, or something. You really have to be careful with things like that. And as far as alterations, like making people look like cats, it wasn’t the story we wanted to tell. All we had to do was make sure that these people were very Imperialistic and outlandish and just over-the-top. We didn’t need to go there with those other things. Plus, it’s very time consuming to do that type of work and we didn’t have that much time to do it. We had upwards of 400 people working some days and it took nine hours just to get [the citizens] into beauty makeup, hair and wardrobe. Turning them into cats just wasn’t an option for us.
What character look were you most satisfied with?
I was pretty satisfied with everybody. I was really happy that everybody came out so beautiful. Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, he was so handsome and he put that gold eyeliner on and looked so amazing. He loved it so much that he actually asked me to give him some so he could take it on tour with him. I called up Make Up For Ever and got him the eyeliner and the gold powder and he took it with him. I dunno, we’ll see if he uses it or not. [Laughs]
Are you aware that Seneca Crane’s beard has its own Facebook page now?
I did! I had to fight to get that beard and I’m so glad I won. I think Gary and Judianna thought it was too much but I said, “Oh, no, no, it’s fabulous! We have to keep the beard!” It was one of the tests I got to do ahead of time and I’m so glad. It’s an iconic look now which is pretty great.
Aside from the Capitol looks, you also created the wounds and blood makeup for a PG-13 movie about kids killing kids. Did you inherently know how much pull back you were going to have to do on the gore?
I’m very aware of it because I had just done The Amazing Spider-Man which is also PG-13 and we did a lot of prep work there. I knew the coloring the blood had to be, I knew how much we could do, and what we could do and couldn’t do with the blood. I really knew our limitations ahead of time and it was good that I did because most people don’t know that going into a film if they haven’t actually done it, you know? It winds up getting taken out or they can’t use it so it was good that I had that knowledge going in of what we could see and what we couldn’t see.
[Spoiler alert] In the book, Peeta‘s leg wound is particularly gnarly and he eventually loses it. Was actor Josh Hutcherson’s leg injury makeup more intense at any point because of that plot point?
No, we never talked about losing the leg. We did do part of a huge wound but we wound up not seeing a lot of it which was fine because I think it was too much. I think they showed just enough of everything to really get the point across of how severe the injury was, along with [Katniss’] burn. I think all of it worked out really well.
You brought SyFy’s Face Off winner Conor McCullagh onto the film as third makeup artist. Was that due to his win?
You know what it was a total fluke is that Conor was on the show because I didn’t know it at the time, but Conor lived in North Carolina and I hired him because he was there, not because he won the show. But Conor is a great artist and I knew that he would be really helpful in doing a lot of stuff.
What was he responsible for in the film?
I had Conor do the sculpting for the tree bark on Peeta’s arm. I was already onto prepping for the Capitol when they had to go back and do the sequence with Peeta [hiding] in the rock, so I had him do that too. I wanted Conor to be able to showcase his work a little bit so that was really nice. I mixed everything up ahead of time. I told him exactly what to do and he did a beautiful job for me so you can’t ask for much more than that. He also did a lot of Cato’s wounds at the end after the mutt attack.
Speaking of Face Off, SyFy renewed the series for a third season. Are you coming back as a judge?
Oh, yes. Right now I’m doing Stephanie Meyer’s The Host. As soon as we are done with this, three days later we start on Face Off.
Do you and your fellow judges make suggestions about what kinds of challenges the contestants do?
We do not because I think [the producers] may think it’s a conflict of interest for us to have input on that. We would love to! I think they’re wasting our talents not asking us for input but they do have input from other artists. So far they have not had any input from us and maybe that’s how they want to keep it. I don’t know, we’ll see.
What’s the personal appeal of being a judge on Face Off?
I love doing it because I like to see how creative these young people can be in 15 hours. It continually blows me away that they have 15 hours to do this! And you know when somebody says, “Even the best one wasn’t that good,” I say they have 15 hours! One to ten is their worst and their best and that’s how we judge. It’s not our worst and our best, but their worst and their best. How else are you going to do it? It has to be done in the parameters in which they are working. But they come up with some amazing things. The fact that they have the nerve and balls to get up there and do that is mind-boggling. I know a lot of makeup artists that go, “Nuh, uh! I don’t want to do it.” I personally don’t want to do it! That’s scary! They have such nerves to do that and they are so confident that they can get it done so it’s great. They’re just terrific.
With the huge success of The Hunger Games, the sequel Catching Fire goes into production later this year. Are you coming back?
Yes, I’m already prepping it in my head! [Laughs] I bought a paperback version of the book and I’m already going through and highlighting and getting all my ducks in a row so I’m really prepared this time.
What’s jumping out at you already?
There are so many injuries and so many weird things that happen to them that I have to start planning ahead for water and sunburn. I’m researching a lot of products to make sure the kids don’t get sunburned when we’re out there. Water and sun can screw up makeup so that’s what I’m starting on first.
The Hunger Games is in theaters now and Face Off season three premieres this summer on SyFy.