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The Transformer

Makeup man Matthew Mungle found his calling in Hollywood as a creator of illusions.

May 15, 1997|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Matthew Mungle's lab is full of severed heads: ones that have been shot in the forehead, crushed by gorillas or finished off by flesh-eating viruses. Perched on his shelves are Tupperware cases labeled "hands and feet" and "stumps." And everywhere there are little vials, jars and carving instruments.

Fortunately, it's Mungle's business to manufacture fantasy.

Mungle, 40, is co-founder of North Hollywood-based W.M. Creations and has produced some of the less-attractive faces in films such as "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Congo" and "Outbreak." His makeup work has earned him three Academy Award nominations and one Oscar--for "Dracula."

But it's the subtle effects--like aging--that Mungle says represent the greatest challenge. The audience expects faces in horror films to look weird. But they expect old people in dramas to look real. "The most difficult thing to do is old age," he said. "You have a little leeway, but if it doesn't work, it ruins the film."

Mungle's most recent Oscar nod came for "Ghosts of Mississippi," in which he turned James Woods into 72-year-old Byron de la Beckwith. Other recent work will be shown off Sunday in the two-part CBS movie "True Women," for which he aged Dana Delany from her 30s into her 70s. He also did makeup work on "Austin Powers" and prosthetics for "Lost World." So while aging is a specialty, it's not all he does. "To me, if you're going to call yourself a makeup artist, you should know how to do everything."

Mungle grew up about as far from Hollywood--psychologically if not geographically--as possible: a dairy farm in southern Oklahoma. His interest in movie magic was fueled by "The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao." He bought Dick Smith's magazine, Do-It-Yourself Monster Makeup, in 1965. Three years later, when "Planet of the Apes" came out, Mungle was hooked. He made a deal with the owner of the local theater to make himself up as an ape and walk around downtown Atoka (pop. 4,000) to promote the film.

Mungle had been at Oklahoma State University for two years when "Star Wars" happened, changing the lives of every special-effects geek in its path. Mungle was in Houston that summer when Rick Baker, who created the creatures in the film's famous cantina sequence, came to town for a science fiction convention.

Portfolio in hand, Mungle asked Baker where he could learn makeup effects. Baker recommended Joe Blasco's Make-Up Center in Los Feliz. Mungle finished one more semester of college to please his parents. Dec. 26 he was on the road to Hollywood.

Blasco, who owns the school but no longer teaches, remembers that Mungle showed exceptional talent. And Blasco--also from a small town--identified with his new protege.

"Can you imagine being in a small farm town," Blasco said, "a place where if you even pick up your mother's eyebrow pencil people are going to look at you funny?"

With Blasco's help, Mungle worked his way into the makeup effects world. He did small projects, TV, commercials, in addition to horror films such as "The Kindred" and "The Guardian," but his career really took off after the 1990 film "Edward Scissorhands."

Mungle got into makeup just as the craft was coming of age. In the 1980s, films such as "American Werewolf in London," "Mask" and "The Fly" took makeup effects to new levels, especially as new types of plastics and adhesives were developed.

In creating his own techniques, however, Mungle has started to draw on an old technology: gelatin. The substance was used in the early '30s, but abandoned later when hot lights made it melt. Cooler lights and faster film make gelatin viable again, so Mungle used gelatin cheeks and jowls on Woods in "Ghosts of Mississippi." Gelatin looks and moves more like skin, Mungle said.

John Jackson, Mungle's partner in W.M. Creations, said that the company's success has been helped not only my Mungle's talent and innovation, but his willingness to adapt.

"He never says no," Jackson said. "He says, 'Give me a minute.' "

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