For Dutch-born Arjen Tuiten, an Oscar nominee for Makeup & Hairstyling for his extraordinary work on Wonder, the journey to the Academy Awards began with his boyhood passion for special effects makeup, stoked by such films as Harry and the Hendersons, The NeverEnding Story and The Terminator. “I was always sculpting and drawing, anything artistic came naturally to me,” he tells Redbox.
One fateful night, his mother got him out of bed to show him an episode of a TV series called Movie Magic that focused on prosthetic makeup. “From that moment, I was obsessed,” he says. At the age of 19, he was living in the United States and apprenticing with Stan Winston, the Academy Award-winning creator of special effects makeup for such films as The Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar. He next worked with another special effects makeup master, Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London), who later encouraged Tuiten to open his own studio, which he did in 2015.
Tuiten, 37, has his own impressive credits, among them Pan’s Labyrinth, World War Z, and Maleficent. Wonder, based on R. J. Palacio’s beloved book, presented unique challenges. Jacob Tremblay (Room) stars as Auggie, a fifth grader with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare genetic facial deformity, and who struggles to adjust when after years of being homeschooled his parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson) enroll him in a private school.
According to the website The Credits, “The prosthetics covered Tremblay’s chest, neck, and face. Tuiten and his team created an under skull that pulled his eyes down to make them appear droopy. On top of this, they had to contend with the fact that unlike adult actors, Tremblay would be growing the entire time. This required making extra sets of teeth, and designing the prosthetics in such a way that they’d flex.”
Tuiten spoke to Redbox about the wonder of working with Jacob Tremblay, and getting caught up in the hectic Oscar season.
Redbox: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Did you watch the announcements?
Arjan Tuiten: Thank you. I was still in bed. They were supposed to start the announcements at 5:22 a.m. (The start was delayed). The phone wasn’t ringing and I thought, ‘Oh, we probably didn’t make it.’ When (the category) was finally announced, Wonder came up last because it’s alphabetical. My heart was pounding out of my chest
Redbox: Did your phone start ringing?
AT: Oh gosh, you have no idea; especially from the press in Holland. It was press requests all day. The director (Stephen Chbosky) called, the producers called.
Redbox: Which is more challenging, creating special effects makeup for the fantastical worlds of sci-fi and fantasy or for a story grounded in real life, as you did with LBJ?
AT: Real life is more challenging. Things have to look authentic. It’s like old age makeup. We see elderly people everyday so when something is off (onscreen) you know something is not right. It was the same with Auggie. The make-up was based on a real condition. If it looked like a mask or it was distracting, the movie wouldn’t work because it’s all about him. It had to look real, but also Auggie’s humanity needed to come through.
Redbox: How long did it take each day to transform Jacob?
AT: We had him in the chair for 90 minutes every morning. Because you do it every day you get kind of a rhythm and we got it down to an hour and fifteen minutes. It took 30 minutes to take it off.
Redbox: He sounds like a trouper.
AT: Oh my god! I can’t think of another film where a nine year old in full prosthetics is the lead character. For any actor, being in full prosthetics for 40 days is hard, let alone a nine-year-old-boy. I’m so impressed with Jacob.
Redbox: What was your process for creating Auggie’s look?
AT: I studied kids with the condition. A Chicago doctor was very helpful and there was a family there who were such fans of the book. They had a son (with Treacher Collins). They agreed to send me photos from his medical file. I also met several kids (who visited the set with their families). They were so happy that this story was going to be told. Auggie is their hero.
Redbox: What is it like to be caught in the Oscar hubbub?
AT: It’s been hectic. I’ve had offers for photo shoots and Oscar parties. I’m going to London next week for BAFTA (The British equivalent of the Oscars). I’ve gotten some offers from agents. (In my line of work) it’s all been word of mouth. It’s very personal; a director or an actor who has seen my work will call me. But I never had an agent or manager. I probably missed out on a lot of money (laughs).
Redbox: How are you handling all this attention?
AT: I’m a little uncomfortable. I’m not somebody who likes to be in the foreground. I’d rather not to do the Red Carpet. The Oscar luncheon (where all the Oscar nominees are in attendance) was great. You sit amongst Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro, who I’ve worked with. I did want to say hi to Spielberg and Meryl Streep, but they get bombarded all the time.
Redbox: Wonder is the little movie that could.
AT: I’m glad you bring that up. I remember on set, every once in a while, you could feel the energy; that this might be something very good. It’s great to see a little movie like this do so well. It’s not a remake. It’s based on a book. I think we crossed $278 million worldwide (on a budget of $20 million). That is incredible.
Redbox: In large part that’s a testament to your work.
AT: Stan Winston always said we are character creators. Auggie is not a special effect, he’s a character who has a life onscreen. Auggie will live on a long time. That’s what I love most about what I do.