In the film Beetlejuice, Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin make the title character appear by saying his name three times — but makeup artist Ve Neill had to do it the hard way. Neill, whom you may recognize from her Oscar speeches (she’s won three times) or her appearances on the Syfy makeup competition show Face Off (she has been a judge for 12 seasons), was one of three artists who designed the makeup for Tim Burton’s 1988 black-comedy fantasy film. Though Neill had a hand in every character from Winona Ryder’s quintessential goth teen Lydia to the inhabitants of the undead waiting room, her proudest contribution was transforming Michael Keaton into Beetlejuice. To celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary on March 30, Neill spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about how she created the smarmy, ghoulish, and altogether perfect face of everyone’s favorite ghost-for-hire.
“Tim had some drawings up on the wall, literally sketches of the character, which he did on all the movies that I’ve worked with him on,” Neill said about Burton, who famously draws his own concept art. “This particular character kind of looked like a derelict. So I copied the sketch; it was just up on a little cork board in this crummy little trailer that everybody was working out of. We were sort of the stepchildren of Geffen and Warner Bros. on that film, because they didn’t think we were going to amount to anything.”
Neill took the drawing back to the makeup trailer, where she did her best to copy Burton’s sketch onto Keaton’s face. When she was done, “he just looked like a nasty old derelict,” Neill said. “He was filthy dirty. We put this pale yellow wig on him, and he looked weird and creepy. Really disturbing-looking.” She took some Polaroids for Burton, who had the same reaction she did: The makeup was far too “creepy-looking” for the film’s comedic trickster.
“So I went back and did it slightly differently,” said Neill. “He said, ‘No, it still isn’t right.’ I said, ‘OK — we want all these people in the afterlife to be kind of pastel-colored, right? Let me take him back to the trailer and do what I want to do.’ And he said, ‘OK, go for it.’”
Watch the trailer for ‘Beetlejuice’
In addition to Burton’s directive that the undead characters be made up with pale colors (“like Necco Wafers,” said Neill), Neill received a specific request from Keaton: “Michael said, ‘You know, I really would like to not totally look like myself, three-dimensionally. I’d like to have like a broken nose and some bad teeth.’” She and makeup artist Steve LePore had one day to deliver a makeup that would please both the director and the star. And neither of them had a prosthetic nose on hand.
“I said to Steve, ‘Do you have any broken noses?’” Neill recalled. “And he said, ‘No, but I’ve got these swollen lips!’”
The artists glued the lips to Keaton’s face (“one on one side of his nose and one on the other”) to create a makeshift broken nose. LePore got to work making a set of decaying teeth, while Neill put together a color palette that she hoped would make Keaton look “kind of like a cartoon character.” For his skin, she selected a very pale, “almost white” shade of yellow. To mimic the eye circles from Burton’s original sketch, she combined dark brown and purple paints, “not totally mixed together but in conjunction with each other.” Hairstylist Yolanda Toussieng dyed Keaton’s wig a pale lime green. And there was one more thing.
“I sent a PA off to the hobby store and I said, ‘Get me some crushed green foam like they use on model kits, for moss and stuff like that,’” said Neill. ‘I said, ‘We’ll put some moss in his hair. We’ll just make it look like he crawled out from underneath a rock.’ So I got this crushed green foam, and I painted up the areas where I wanted it to come out. I wanted it to look like it was creeping out from underneath his hairline and his neck and stuff. I just stuck in on wherever the glue was.”
With the makeup, prosthetics, false teeth, and wig in place, Keaton checked out his reflection as Beetlejuice for the first time. “Michael loved it,” said Neill. “He just completely started going off, crazy-like.” Excited, she took pictures of the new look to Burton, who approved them in a typically understated way. “He said, ‘OK, that works,’” Neill recalled with a laugh. “So that’s how we created Beetlejuice. It was really by the seat of our pants.”
For her Beetlejuice makeup, Neill received her first Academy Award nomination and win. She also became Burton’s makeup artist of choice, working on all of his U.S. productions and receiving her third Oscar for 1994’s Ed Wood. (Her second was for designing Robin Williams’s Mrs. Doubtfire makeup.) Beetlejuice was a film that brought her career to the next level, and Keaton’s makeup remains one of her favorites — though ironically, his character ended up occupying a lot less of her time than the “straight makeups” for actors like Baldwin and Davis. “You have to remember,” she says, “Michael Keaton only worked like two and a half weeks on that movie. Because he was never with the living, except for that one scene at the end.”
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