Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the antagonist of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune,” is the spiritual father of bad guys like Jabba the Hut and Tywin Lannister (“Game of Thrones”). The exceptional Stellan Skarsgård, who plays Harkonnen in the new “Dune” movie, is the literal father of Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) from the recent “IT” horror movies. And like his son, the elder Skarsgård cuts a terrifying figure with only a handful of scenes onscreen.
Portrayed by the 70-year-old Swedish actor, this Harkonnen emphasizes mysterious menace over dialogue. Gone are the Baron’s long-winded speeches and predilection for young boys, as described in the novel and in previous adaptations. Crucial to Skarsgård’s performance is the character’s design: Harkonnen is a triumph of practical, in-camera visual effects and makeup. And all the more scary when fully exposed.
“Stellan just loved being naked as the Baron,” veteran makeup artist Donald Mowat explained to TheWrap. “We all used to kill ourselves laughing when Stellan would ask for more nude scenes. He felt, quite correctly, that the Baron appeared more frightening and dangerous unclothed than cloaked in robes or armor. So he was always asking for more nudity.”
But it was a double-edged request. Because less clothes, paradoxically, meant much more time in the makeup chair. “It took five people about four hours to apply Stellan’s makeup,” Mowat said. “And that was when the Baron was wearing a costume. Naked, it took six-and-a-half or seven hours. That’s a huge difference in the day, but it was worth it.”
The hours-long process included seven prosthetic pieces that were glued to Skarsgård and then carefully painted. Explained Mowat, “We added cheeks, jowls, a silicone bald cap, and eyebrow covers. I’m always looking to spot fake eyebrow covers in films, so we worked hard on those. Also, Stellan wore prosthetic hands and feet and ankles.”
Skarsgård’s nose, eyes and mouth are all his own. That was important to director Denis Villeneuve. From his earliest conversations three years ago about Harkonnen with Mowat, he insisted that the actor’s performance was never overwhelmed by latex. Or that the character’s design, which went through about 15 different permutations, be subject to caricature.
“Honestly, the first couple versions we sketched out didn’t work,” Mowat said. “That’s often the case with villainous characters. Denis liked the idea of a smooth, Alopecia-like appearance, but our initial designs make him look like a hairless bear. And we were aware, of course, of the history of using fat suits for comic effect. This was definitely not meant to be one of those performances.”
A touchstone for Harkonnen, in the minds of the creative team, was a classic movie performance by Marlon Brando. “We always talked about Brando as Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now,’ that mysterious figure in the jungle with the long robe and the bald head,” Mowat remembered. But he added a twist from the latter-day Brando canon: “I also had in my head the crazy Brando role in ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau.’ That movie was not a big success but, wow, Brando’s performance is so unpredictable and out there.”
Mowat contacted the Swedish makeup team of Love (pronounced “Lu-vuh”) Larson and Eva Von Bahr, two-time Oscar nominees that Mowat first met a decade ago on David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” also featuring Skarsgård. “Love and Eva had just made some prosthetic pieces for me for Jared Leto in ‘The Little Things,’” Mowat recalled, “and I knew they’d be a great team to help design the Baron.”
In engineering terms, the job was overwhelming, requiring seven months of designing and building. The body suit, ordinarily a task of the costume department when worn under an actor’s wardrobe, was a pure prosthetic makeup effect here, carefully sculpted and fit for Skarsgård’s body. Inside his suit was a hydration vest, not dissimilar to the desert-defying outfits worn by characters in the film, which would expel cold water to keep Skarsgård from overheating.
Then there was the naked Baron in the black-water bathtub.
“The whole foam suit weighed more than 20 pounds,” Mowat said. “But it was made of foam, so it was buoyant. It floated in water. Who knew? So that meant we needed to cut up and flood an entire suit, basically destroying one so that it could be rigged to pull Stellan under the water and then pop him up again. It was complicated.”
Still, Mowat expressed his gratitude to Villeneuve, who he previously collaborated with on “Prisoners,” “Sicario” and “Blade Runner 2049.”
“I just love that Denis was so committed to go with practical makeup effects,” Mowat said. “And that he was so supportive. We needed 16 or 17 weeks and Denis and [producer] Joe Caracciolo actually let us have it. We needed the time but also the support and the belief that we could do this. It’s a very traditional technique, not a visual effect, not CGI. Very few films get to do this anymore – it’s the essence of our craft.”