Face Off's Ve Neill and judges

EXCLUSIVE: Makeup goddess Ve Neill on Face Off and her Oscar-winning career

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Feb 3, 2017

The 11th season of Face Off, which commenced last week, promises to be a very different from any before it as the All-Star line-up is made up of Face Off artists from yesteryear. But judging which talented makeup artists go home is no easy task no matter the season, admits Oscar-winning judge Ve Neill in an exclusive interview with Syfy Wire.

Neill has brought us some of the most unique character makeups of our time and won Oscars for Beetlejuice (1988), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Ed Wood (1994). For over 40 years she's worked on some of the most well-recognized and notable films and TV shows of our time. Beyond her three Oscar wins, she's been nominated for five more Academy Awards and won an Emmy for The Shining miniseries (1997), a BAFTA Award for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), and Saturn Awards for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007), Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), Batman Returns (1992) and Beetlejuice.

Neill talked with Syfy Wire about the new season of Face Off (and what made her cry), how she created her Oscar-winning makeup for Beetlejuice and why she's having the time of her life.

This season is very different from seasons' past. What can you tell us about it?

This is like an alumni of a school. They all tend to work together and help each other. A lot of these kids are friends outside of the studio, so it's kind of great. They all hang together and they're all friends. So it makes it a lot more congenial when they're in the lab and they tend to help each other more. I think that's kind of an interesting dynamic this year. At least that's what I think is going to happen because we judges don't get to see everything ahead of time. We only get to see our little bit at the end.

I think it's going to be really interesting to see everybody working in teams for the entire season. And we're not eliminating people every episode either, only every other episode. So you have a chance for redemption. So if you mess up on that one, you have a chance to redeem yourself next time. If you don't, well, sayonara.

Do you get attached to the artists? Is it difficult to eliminate them?

For me it's always hard to send somebody home because it's so devastating to tell an artist they're going home. Many times I've cried. You might not ever see it but I get all teary-eyed. When we have to send people home it's really sad and we all talk about it. Because they all try so hard and you're doing your darndest. You might have an off week where maybe that's not your niche, that you don't do so good at that one particular thing. But this season they're working in teams and so if one of them is weak in one area, the other can pick up the slack. It's kind of helpful and hopefully you'll see it works out well that way.

Face Off's Ve Neill

Do you have any disagreements as judges on who to send home?

Sometimes we have disagreements. I don't remember exactly specific things but sometimes where it's like, "No, I just don't agree with that," but then I get outnumbered or maybe one of the other guys gets outnumbered. You just have to say, "Okay, fine. You win." You like something more than the other one for whatever reasons those are. We all have our own reasons for liking things. Maybe something doesn't make sense to one of us and it does to the other one or maybe we don't care. It's usually me that doesn't care if it makes sense. If it looks good to me, I like it. It doesn't necessarily always have to work.

But to the guys, they have a different take on it. Especially Neville. Neville thinks everything has to work and there has to be a reason for something. I'm more on the idea that if it's a fantasy character it doesn't really have to make sense every single time. If it looks really fabulous, I'm happy. So sometimes I get outnumbered a lot. I hold my ground most of the time.

I was looking on IMDb -- you have 82 credits to your name.

I have 82? Oh, my God, I'm old [laughs].

Starting in 1977.

I actually started before that. They just don't have them all, I think [laughs]. Thank God! Unfortunately for me there's some movies that I did that were very famous and I can't really say I did them. I'm kind of stuck.

I was hoping we could talk about some of your most notable projects. Looking back at your career, is there one project that stands out in your mind?

I have so many favorites for different reasons. It's very difficult for me to come up with one. All the films that I did with Tim Burton have been fantastic. I mean every single one of them. Just always so much fun and so creative. Several films I did with Joel Schumacher, like the early Batman [Forever, 1995]. And just on and on. And of course Mrs. Doubtfire with Robin Williams. That was probably one of the more difficult ones, only because that was 13 overlapping pieces that had to be placed in exactly the same spot every day and I did that makeup 54 times.

Mrs Doubtfire

Applying a complex makeup on Robin Williams 54 times must have been very interesting.

That was probably one of the more difficult projects and it was foam latex. If we did it out of silicone now it be so much easier. But back then it was foam latex and it all had to be hand-painted every single day. And we're talking about putting it on a very active human being who was ... very active [laughs]. But it was fun and so delightful. Robin, what a dream he was. He was such a joy to be with.

So there's difficult things that make it still joyful. I have so many favorites, and I love all the films I did with Johnny Depp. He's so willing to be somebody else. Well, Pirates. I did the movie Blow (2001) with him and aged him from a teenager all the way to 60-something years old. Edward Scissorhands (1990). Sweeney Todd (2007). I've done quite a few pictures with Johnny and he's just so fantastic. He's just like your dream guy, you know what I mean?

I imagine there's quite a lot of people who wouldn't mind having hung out with Robin Williams and Johnny Depp for hours on end.

I've been very fortunate in my career, and then, of course, I just finished a couple of years ago the whole Hunger Games sequence with all those fantastic young actors. I mean, Donald Sutherland. I know just all these fantastic actors that you see everywhere all the time and if not you hear their voices [laughs].

You know what was so fun about The Hunger Games for a makeup artist? We did everything from dirt and prosthetics and blood and guts all the way up to high-fashion makeup and runway and just gorgeous beauty makeup. So it spun the gamut on that. We got to do everything on those movies. For a makeup artist that was a dream project to be able to do everything. Like one week making Jennifer [Lawrence] look like she's going down a runway and then the next week I have whip marks on Liam's [Hemsworth] back. For us it's really fun to do everything.

Pirates with Johnny Depp

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies must have had a lot of different kinds of makeups, too.

Yeah, absolutely. We got to do so many fantastic looks in that. The first film we got to establish all those crazy-looking pirates. The second film we got to do all the cannibals and all that crazy makeup with the bones and the body painting and all that stuff. And then I got to do that crazy eyeball paint job on Johnny. And we always have Keira [Knightley] in there somewhere running around, and we have our trollops that slap Johnny. So we have like all these fun period female makeups. And then we've got our nasty, filthy, sunburned, rotten-toothed, yellow-eyed pirates [laughs].

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Oh, another fantastic film. First I worked with Jude [Law] on Gattaca (1997) and then I worked with him on A.I. I had worked with Steven Spielberg on another film prior to that called Amistad (1997), which was another heartwrenching film. But yeah, A.I. was fun. And A.I. had a lot of R&D on that because Steven was really adamant about these robots looking as lifelike is possible, but as synthetic as we could get them. So I think I did about four or five big tests on Jude before we finally settled on what we had. Because we tried everything. We tried foam latex appliances over his whole face and then we tried gelatin pieces and we tried silicone and I finally sat down with Stan Winston and Steven Spielberg and said, "Guys, this guy is pretty perfect-looking already. The only thing that would take him to the next step above would be if he had a real chiseled jaw. Why don't we try just doing a tiny little jaw piece on him to make his jaw look like it's kind of sculpted, like sharper, and let's see how that looks." And that's what we ended up going with.

I just developed a paint scheme that would make them so that they went to a synthetic level, without wrinkling funny, and it took me a while to figure out what went where and how much I could put on them. But they gave me enough time to develop the paint schemes and to build it and that's how we did it.

A.I. with Jude Law

Galaxy Quest (1999).

Oh my God. So much fun. I was so sad Alan Rickman passed. But Galaxy Quest, when I first read that script I was laughing out loud. I went, "Oh my God, this is going to be hilarious." Because I was fortunate enough to have worked on the very first Star Trek movie with the original cast. I had done another film with Bill Shatner before that. So you remember growing up with them that these people were kind of like ostracized and never got to do anything afterward. They were relegated to, maybe not going to shopping centers, but their careers went down the toilet after that TV show went off. And when you read this script it's like, "Oh my God, this is just following what happens to people on Star Trek." It was just crazy. The casting was stupendous. I got to do that crazy guy with the wings. I did [Tim] Allen's makeup and I designed Sigourney's [Weaver] makeup. When they told me she couldn't be a blonde, I said just let me try. I designed her makeup and did her the first time and they went, “Oh, my God, she looks fantastic.” And I said, "Thank you." [laughs]

Don't tell me I can't do something because I'm going to prove you wrong. But that was fun, too.

Galaxy Quest

Looking back at Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), that had to have been huge for you, since it was so early in your career.

Oh, yeah, that was my first big union film that I worked on. I had worked on several films before that, but nothing like that. That was a giant film for me, so going to do that with Fred Phillips, who was kind of my mentor, was really a fun job. I mean, I was still very young and it was really a lot of fun.

Did you watch the original Star Trek TV show?

Oh, yeah. I was a Trekkie. When [makeup artist] Fred [B. Phillips] asked me to do that show I thought it was going to pass out. I started hyperventilating [laughs].

Where you able to push things farther in Star Trek than in some of your earlier projects?

Yeah, because they had money [laughs]. And Fred was really good with me because he knew I could do prosthetics cause that's how I knew him. The guy that I learned from and I worked together. We could never go on the union set. So I would always call up Fred Phillips and say, "Hey Fred. We made this stuff. Can you go put it on?" We had a really great relationship with Fred. When he called me to work on that film, he already knew that I could do the work.

He put me in charge of putting all the Klingons together. I got to basically design all the hair work and the paint jobs for all those Klingons in the movie. That was really fun for me as a young woman.

Star Trek The Motion Picture

Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice you still see everywhere, which cracks me up, because we were like the dirty stepchildren that they hid over at Culver City Studios because they didn't want us on the lot of Warner Bros. Cut to the fact that that movie pretty much pulled Warner Bros. out of the toilet at that point because they had nothing and that movie just made them so much money it was crazy. It probably didn't do all that well when it first came out, but I mean it started getting a lot of momentum and that was my first Oscar. And that character is now an iconic character that you see everywhere. If you say "Beetlejuice," everybody knows who that is. I have kids walking up to me and saying "Beetlejuice is my favorite character." I'm like, he's not even old enough to know who that is really, but okay, cool. [laughs]

When you tackled Beetlejuice as a character, what did you think?

Tim Burton is very good about designing because he's an artist himself. Tim had some pictures up on his wall in his office, just some pencil sketches of what he wanted him to look like and it was kind of like a derelict. So the first couple of tests I did he said, "He's too real and too creepy-looking and we don't want to look at him." I said to him, "Let me just go back and do something kind of fun and kooky. I'll go to the other extreme and you tell me if you like it." So I went and did what we saw on the screen and he loved that. That's how he got developed.

I actually sent somebody off to the hobby store to get me some of that crushed foam that they use when you make little railroad sets and little villages. I told him to go get some little bushes and some crushed foam and all the packages. I said get me all different colors in all different densities and they give me some moss. And I said, "I'm just going to make him look like he's been living under a rock." That's how that look came up. He comes out of that grave and it's like, "Okay, he's just been living under this thing getting all moldy and full of moss." So that's how he came about.

The makeup and Michael Keaton's performance made an amazing character.

He was like a comic book character come to life. Which is what we wanted. We wanted him to be kooky-looking, but we wanted him kind of scary and we wanted to be able to look at him long enough and laugh at him.

Beetlejuice

The Lost Boys (1987).

When people asked me what my favorite movie to work on for many, many years, that was my favorite movie. In fact, at the last IMATS, which is the big makeup artist's convention that was a few weeks ago, we had a 30th reunion for The Lost Boys. And we had a couple of the Lost Boys there, the guy who did the song, we had one of the kids and there was all the makeup artists and one of the prop guys and our still photographer and a couple other people showed up. And we had a panel and it's still so well-loved by so many people. If you think about it, there had been horrible-looking vampires up to then. But they were the first really sexy, scary-looking vampires. And that pretty much set the tone as to what vampires were going to look like from then on. That was something that Joel [Schumacher] and I were really adamant about. I said I want them to be really sexy, really scary, and beautiful.

Well, with Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland playing the vampires, you had some good raw material to work with.

I did have some good raw material. They were cute. They're still cute. [laughs]

The Lost Boys

You've been in the makeup industry for a long time. Have you developed techniques that others use now?

Well, it's it's like anything else. It's like Dick Smith's book is one of our foundations for all of our prosthetics now. He was kind enough to share with everybody. Nobody wanted to share with me when I got in because I was a girl and they didn't want me in there anyway. So I have made it my life's mission to make sure that I share with everybody, and in actuality, I am now Director of Education at Cinema Makeup School, which is probably one of the best makeup schools in the country. So I get to put my two cents in there as well and make sure that the students are getting the best education they can with all the latest updated techniques.

And there's lots of girls in makeup right now.

Yes. There are lots of girls and there's lots of really good girls doing it, let me tell ya.

So what are you working on right now?

Right now I'm not working. I'm looking for a job. Films don't typically start up until March or April. So something will happen between now and then. I'm actually working off and on on the television series Feud. It's about the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It's being done by the same production company that does American Horror Story and their whole crew. So they'll finish that off next week and then they start on American Horror Story in a couple of months and I'll go back on to that show. I've been helping them out a little bit and doing commercials and odds and ends and stuff. And I have a lot of my own projects that I'm working on as well.

The Hunger Games, Ve Neill

Not working usually means sitting at home reading a book or watching TV. Maybe you should take a vacation, Ve.

I want to retire pretty soon. When I'm working on Face Off, that's a vacation for me. That's lovely. But I have things I'm doing. I'm starting a cosmetic line. I've also started an online platform for teaching, so I started an online school. I'm doing that as well. And then my brush line was just revamped. So that's coming out shortly. I have a lot of projects in the fire. Because eventually I'm going to want to retire, so I want to have all that stuff all set up for me so that I have an income when I retire. And that way I can just do movies whenever I want or not have to do anything.

Until they call and say, "We have a makeup emergency, Ve, and only you can help us."

And that does happen, funny enough. [laughs] I stay busy. Sometimes I'm busier when I'm not working. It's like how do I have time to work? I mean I'm so damn busy ... I've been very fortunate. I've had a extremely lucrative and very wonderful career and I've been very lucky.

But I love working on Face Off. We have a fantastic crew. It's lovely people. The contestants are always so wonderful and love to hear our critiques. As I said there's plenty of them that I see off and on and they're like our extended family. It's really nice to have that.

It's an experience for them. A lot of these kids are from the Midwest and places where they don't have a lot of the technology and/or resources we give them on the show. It's really good for them to have all that and see how it all works, and they meet all these people. It doesn't mean because they're gone they're not going to stay in touch with all the people they've met.

When you think back on your career and you look at the new up-and-coming makeup artists, what are your thoughts about what they're facing in their career?

Well, technology has advanced so much since I started. We still use the old techniques, but there's so much new technology that works so much better and so much faster. And you can do things that you could never do before. I think it's a really exciting era for makeup artists to be working right now, because not only do they have all the advances that we've made in makeup, they also have the advancements that we've made in visual technology. CGI can really be a fantastic enhancement to our makeups. I don't really think it will ever take the place of an organic-looking makeup, but enhancements with CGI are really a fantastic tool. Especially now because a lot of the CGI artists will start working with the makeup artists in post so that they can make it look right, so they don't wipe out everything the makeup artist has done and they only make it better.

What makes Face Off special to you?

What's so fun is I have people come up to me all the time that say, "I don't even know anything about makeup. I've never thought about it before. But I love your show. It's is so cool. All the artists help each other. It's not about the backstabbing and all the crap that a lot of these other shows show. Like all the people being angry with each other. The drama ... It's all very positive, uplifting, artistic endeavors. Everybody works together toward a final goal." And I absolutely agree. That's one of the things that's made the show so popular. I think that's one of the best things about the show is to have such a positive energy. And that's really important to me.

Face Off airs on Tuesdays at 9PM on Syfy.