When The Dark Knight was released in the U.S. on July 18, 2008, it was immediately clear that not only had director Christopher Nolan elevated the superhero movie genre to something approaching high art, but that an iconic take on a classic character had also emerged from the endeavor: Heath Ledger’s dark, scary and more realistic take on Batman’s age-old nemesis, the Joker.
On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, we spoke with make-up artist John Caglione, Jr., who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on The Dark Knight along with Conor O'Sullivan. Caglione had previously won an Oscar for his makeup on Dick Tracy back in 1991, so he came into The Dark Knight with some very relevant experience in the realm of creating grotesqueries. But when it came to birthing a new version of the Joker, the makeup artist quickly realized that he would be crossing into some new and uncomfortable terrain.
“So I read the script for The Dark Knight, and having seen the first one of Chris Nolan’s trilogy, I got the feeling it was going to be more of kind of an organic-looking thing,” Caglione explains. “It was going to be kind of real, not so comic book-y. Going in, and then talking to Chris, meeting him, it became a more realistic approach to the makeup. … What would it be if this guy slept in this makeup? You know, this psychopath. If he didn’t spruce up his makeup for two or three weeks. And, you know, he never changes his clothes in the film. … It was those kinds of organic details that really helps.”
When Caglione joined the production, Ledger was already signed on to play the iconic villain. The makeup designer’s earliest meetings were with the actor, director, and costume designer Lindy Hemming, followed by Caglione creating five or six color sketches as overlays of headshots of Ledger complete with green hair, different kinds of clown makeup, scars, and so on. This was followed with some makeup tests with Ledger in London, but as the process continued, it became clear that Caglione had to abandon his artist’s instinct to get everything just right.
“You know, you go into it, and you’re trying, as a makeup artist, I’m always trained to do every little detail,” he says. “And you think of a clown makeup, and for the most part they’re pretty detailed with sharp lines, but this had to be the opposite of that. It had to look very broken down, very… very lived in. So, yeah, my first few times were too perfect, so I had to kind of let my hand go. And it was hard, it was really hard to do that. And I remember the first week, the first few days on set, I would look at the makeup, and you don’t know the context of the film and the overall vision, and you’re looking at it as a makeup artist. And I’m saying, this is the worst makeup in the world here! You know? And, it was like, oh, am I doing the right thing?
“And you’re looking at all the great makeups in history,” he continues. “Not just the Joker, but Clarabell and so many other greats -- you know, Emmett Kelly. And they’re always just very accurate, very precise makeups, and then here comes this. Ahhh! But, thank God it all worked out, right?”
It’s easy to forget now, but before The Dark Knight was released, the standard bearer of Joker makeups was the Jack Nicholson version from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. But Caglione says that as far as he can recall, that design was never really discussed when creating the Ledger Joker. In fact, even the idea of the Joker’s white face being the result of an accident -- which is clearly the case in the Burton film -- just didn’t fit in the Nolan world of Batman.
“The first Batman was amazing,” says Caglione. “I love Nicholson’s makeup. And I love the whole approach that Tim Burton [took] … the comic book style of the film, it worked. Everything about that film was great. So, in the back of my mind, maybe subconsciously it was there, but no, it never came up in meetings or discussions. It was, let’s roll up our sleeves and make this thing look like a real person could have done this to themselves. … I think it was always discussed, that this was a possible -- you know, just a psychopath. A real person that just gets into this whole thing. It’s almost like a split personality. And so, yeah, it’s a madman in makeup. It’s that concept.”
Part of the “doing this to themselves” aspect of the character includes the question of those scars on either side of this Joker’s face. Of course, the film itself leaves the question of where the scars came from open to interpretation, as unknowable as the Joker’s ever-changing origin.
“I always got the impression that it was self-inflicted,” says Caglione. “But it’s up to you to decide. Was he punished, was it abuse? Was it an abusive situation? It could have been [and] that just tipped him over the edge. Mutilation, self-mutilation. We never really know for sure.”
Not surprisingly, Ledger himself was very involved in creating the makeup with Nolan and Caglione. Indeed, he was essential to getting the worn and cracked look of his Joker just right.
“It was great with Heath, it was just a great experience,” says Caglione. “He was a great person to work with every day. It was like a dance, because certain parts of the makeup, to get those cracks and all the drippy stuff, you really need the cooperation of the actor’s facial gestures when laying down the makeup and the paint. So we had a lot of fun together on that movie.”
Achieving the desired effect essentially involved Ledger acting in the makeup chair.
“He would contort his face or raise his eyebrows,” recalls Caglione. “Or I would even take one hand and kind of scrunch the corner of his eyes to create crows’ feet, you know, draw those wrinkles, and brush grays and white colors over it, and he would relax and you would get all these expressive lines and details that just come naturally. Listen, it’s an old theater trick. They were doing it in the turn of the century, the 1920s in theater. Actors would put white makeup on and scrunch their face and let it go, and then paint little brown lines. So it’s nothing that we really invented. It was a throwback to old makeup techniques.”
Another throwback in the design process came in the famous interrogation scene, where things get real rough between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime.
“So, Heath and I would always be like, gee, what could we do a little different toward the end of the sequence?” recalls Caglione. “And I remember one time we’re talking about the scene where he gets beat up by Batman. He’s in the jail cell. And at the end of the scene, he wanted to have a different look, Heath. And I was thinking about what we can do with the eyes, the black and stuff. And I went, you know, there was this great villain in the Chaplin films, he was played -- the actor was Eric Campbell, and he always played the big heavy in all the Chaplin movies. And he always had these big, black eyes that kind of had these black eyebrows. And Heath was like, well, let me see a picture. So I pulled it up, and we kind of went for that kind of look. It was a throwback to an old Chaplin villain from the silent screen days.”
According to Caglione, Christopher Nolan wasn’t the kind of director who said “I want you to do exactly this.” Instead, he would offer inspiration and guidance. Take, for example, the paintings of Francis Bacon that he brought to Ledger and Caglione early in the design process.
“I think it was his way of saying, let’s blur this, let’s loosen this up,” says Caglione. “Here’s a book, look at it, and maybe you’ll find some inspiration. And it really helped, you know, we turned a corner. He didn’t have to say much, but that was the way it kind of went. And then Heath helped me to relax. The great actors help you relax so you can really bring it, and you can just try different things and feel free to do it. But that Francis Bacon painting, that day that Chris came in and plopped that down and we went through some pages… He said, yeah, maybe look at this picture, look at that picture. I think he actually had some of the pictures tagged with Post-its that he likes. Just for inspiration.”
Funny enough, it was a Francis Bacon painting in the 1989 Batman that the Jack Nicholson Joker spared during his gang’s rampage in the Gotham City museum. Coincidence? Who can say?
Of course, sadly Heath Ledger passed away before The Dark Knight was released. He went on to receive a posthumous Oscar for the role, but had he not died, the actor could’ve returned as the Joker. Caglione recalls Ledger talking about his ideas for the character beyond The Dark Knight.
“Yes, he did, he actually did talk to me about it,” he says. “He wanted to… start at the Arkham Asylum. And his idea -- I don’t know if he ever talked to Chris. This is just private moments in the chair with Heath, and conversations like, wouldn’t it be great to go back and see what really happened to this guy, how he became what he became? And why he just, you know, flipped out and became maniacal? And he always thought it would be great to go back to the asylum, or even before that. So it was just chit-chat in the chair. … Because I’m sure as an actor, he needs to know the origins of the character; it’s really important to him.
“He was excited about the idea of going back in time, and seeing how he became the Joker. You know, the evolution of the character,” says Caglione. “It would have been cool. It would have been cool.”
Indeed, it would’ve been cool. But at least we’ll always have Heath Ledger’s amazing performance from The Dark Knight, and the unforgettable look of the character created by Christopher Nolan, John Caglione, Jr., Conor O'Sullivan, Lindy Hemming and, of course, Ledger himself.
First featured on IGN.com