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Confessions of a Woody Allen Makeup Artist

Gretchen Davis | August 5, 2013 | Story Beauty

In his rave review of Blue Jasmine for the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Mick LaSalle praised the "technical precision" of the movie, which he said was, "aided immeasurably" by make-up artist Gretchen Davis. In an exclusive article, Davis tells us what it was like to work with Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett.

Once upon a time, working with Woody Allen was an unreachable fantasy for me. I run the makeup department for films and TV shows that shoot in the Bay Area, and Woody hasn’t shot a frame of film here since sideburns were considered acceptable facial hair. I have watched and been inspired by his movies since I was a little girl, but I’ve never entertained the thought that one day I would have a chance to work with him. Then Blue Jasmine happened.

Now I can tell you exactly what it’s like to work with Woody Allen. It is…strange. On the one hand, Woody is very generous in giving his makeup and hair departments free reign. On the other, he’s almost eerily silent. You don’t have any idea what’s going on in his head, or if he approves of—or even understands!—your work. To say he is a man of few words is an understatement. If you are doing your job correctly nothing is said directly to you. If something doesn’t work, the director of photography will ask for changes. In some ways, I wasn’t working with Woody Allen at all. That’s not to say there wasn’t a tremendous amount of pressure on the set. Cate Blanchett’s title character, Jasmine, took quite a bit of work, in part because she goes through some serious emotional trauma during the movie. In real life, no one looks great while suffering that way, and so my colleague, hair-stylist Yvette Rivas, and I had to take some risks—in both subtle and unsubtle ways.

It’s not easy to take one of the most beautiful actresses in the world and make her look like a mess. Each morning in the makeup and hair trailer, we would talk with Cate about what look she should have. What was her character wearing? Was she in a downward spiral? Was she delusional? Was she trying to change her new beau’s perception of her? We often started with a blank canvas, applying her Chanel makeup as a woman with money might do herself. As Jasmine spins more out of control, I smudged, smeared, and removed her makeup according to how her mental state was changing in each scene. Hair would flip back and forth. We’d experiment with different colors, products, and hair designs. Yvette purposely left Jasmine’s roots in to signify a woman who could no longer afford to have them done at a salon.

Unlike most films, Woody Allen productions seldom hands out scripts or notes to crew and actors before shooting. In early August, I had to prove my mettle during one day of makeup tests. During the test, I met other department heads and the actors for the very first time, never having any conversations beforehand. It’s a day to give Woody something to visualize, and for makeup artists, probably the most difficult day on the job. You’re going in blind and winging “the look” with just a broad outline of what the director wants. And if he doesn’t like the results, you can be fired.

On the day after the test, there was a crucial afternoon meeting with Woody and all the film’s department heads at the Pacific Heights home he was renting. We were all there to look at the footage shot during the makeup testing the day before. After we viewed the footage of the test, I was relieved that all the principal department heads approved the makeup. Woody, however, didn’t say much. I found out later that I should take that as a compliment. However, there was one particular comment that I remember vividly. While the footage was running, Woody asked out loud to no one in particular, “Are those real tattoos on Sally’s [Hawkins, who plays Jasmine’s sister Ginger] back or have they been applied”? I froze up. “Applied,” several people answer. Woody was quiet for a moment, then said, “I just never know if the makeup is purposely done.” We all laughed—nervously. That was the last I heard anything from Woody about the makeup. It was time to go to work.

Gretchen Davis was the department head or key makeup artist for such locally shot films as Milk, Chasing Mavericks, and HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn after which she was nominated for a prime time Emmy. She is co-author of the first and second editions of The Makeup Artist Handbook distributed by Focal Press.

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