Writer/director Nate Parker plays Nat Turner, a Virginia slave and preacher who led an unsuccessful slave revolt in 1831. Filmed in Savannah on a modest 30-day schedule, the small but ambitious movie presented several challenges for its crew. “As soon as I read the script,” says make-up department head Douglas Noe, “I called back and said, ‘Seriously, there’s no way you can do this in 30 days; this is easily a 65-day shoot!’ There was a long pause, and the production manager said, ‘No, we really have to get this done in 30 days!’
“When I started breaking down the script and doing my homework, I realized how important it was to be accurate and honest. This was not a meticulous-looking time period. This was 1831, so it wasn’t polished or perfect. A couple of men might have been clean-shaven, but generally speaking, it was nearly impossible for that period regardless of your color. Even sideburns had soft bottoms, so we made sure of that in the pieces we laid, I also talked to extras casting early on, because we needed the women to let their eyebrows start growing in, and the men needed to start growing their hair, as well as getting ahead of things like tattoos and piercings.
“I’m such a stickler for detail that I literally begged [make-up artist] Dionne Wynn to ask Gabrielle Union if we could lay seven to 10 pieces of hair on each eyebrow so it didn’t look like her eyebrows were tweezed. And Colman Domingo wears earrings, so I asked him to take them out and let the holes relax, because smaller holes were easier to cover.”
In some ways, Noe was the perfect choice to oversee The Birth of a Nation, having worked on such African-American-based projects as Nina and The Butler.
“I don’t know what homework Nate did before inquiring as to my interest in the film,” he notes, “but it’s no secret I’ve made it a specialty going all the way back to my first two films, A Rage in Harlem and Deep Cover. I also worked on Vampire in Brooklyn, Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Amistad, and with Cicely Tyson on A Lesson Before Dying and Mama Flora’s Family. I’ve had a lot of experience working with African-American skin in my career, so while I’m betting it did come up, interestingly, I was never asked, ‘Can you handle the nuances of darker skin and the complexities of making darker skin look good without going ashen or blue?’ Nobody ever posed that question, but I think one look at my IMDb profile would have dispelled any fears.”
Noe also put together a top-notch and serendipitous team, thanks to a few requests that turned out to be perfect for the project.
“I won Nate Parker over very quickly,” he remembers, “but Nate asked me to consider a local make-up artist named Dionne Wynn he had worked with before, and I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve hired her on numerous occasions as recently as a couple of months ago, so I would be happy to have her as my second!’
“I was also presented with a situation where Christien Tinsley, who created our prosthetics, was going to send Rolf Keppler as his prosthetic guy when we needed him, but production quickly realized it would cost more to fly him in and out than to make him part of my team. At that point, the line producer said, ‘Would you consider making him your third and using him when there aren’t prosthetics working?’ and I said, ‘Of course.’”
Dealing with a lead actor who was also the film’s writer, director and producer “… worked out pretty smoothly,” Noe says. “I think the toughest part for Nate was when he had to be on his stomach for an hour while Rolf Keppler and I applied his back appliances for a whipping that took place during the course of the story. He did ask if we could speed things along, but was always a gentleman about it!”
While Noe headed up the straight make-up, Tinsley provided a wide range of prosthetics.
“That mainly involved silicone pieces and Pros-Aide transfers,” Noe says. “We definitely couldn’t use gelatin because of the heat and humidity, and we also did a lot of out-of-the-kit stuff. There were even a couple of times when I used wax, knowing it wouldn’t last but gave us enough translucency to work for dark skin, and it was something that could be done quickly. Christien sent us a myriad of wounds to use for the battle sequences, but I would say 50 percent of what we did was paint and blood gel and out-of-the-kit stuff.
“There were also specific make-ups for which Christien created pieces for us. There’s one character that gets beaten so badly that her eyes are swollen shut, and near the end of the film, Nate’s character, Nat Turner, gets beaten, so all those pieces had to be made. The whipping wounds on his back were an entire back appliance made for him.”
With the shoot moving along so quickly, Noe says he and his team didn’t have time to dwell on the sadistic brutality that was playing out in some of the scenes involving slave owners and their property.
“We probably went through four gallons of blood in a few days, just slinging blood around, and maybe half a gallon of blood paste.
“And because everything was happening so fast, there was a lot of crossover with the other departments. At one point, Nate saw the blood paste I was using and said, ‘Hey, can we put that on the business end of every axe, scythe, pitchfork and sledgehammer?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ so we used a ton of that stuff, just bloodying up tools and weapons.”
The Birth of a Nation opens Oct. 7.