The mythical monster gets a high-profile prequel

Eight decades after his first big-screen appearance, King Kong finally gets an origin story of sorts. In Kong: Skull Island, a group of scientists and soldiers explore an uncharted island in the South Pacific, only to discover it’s the domain of a beast called Kong. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer), the film stars Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson and John C. Reilly.

Brie Larson behind the scenes in <em>Kong: Skull Island</em>
From left: John Goodman, John C. Reilly and Brie Larson on the set of Kong: Skull Island | Photo by Chuck Zlotnick

Shot over six months in Hawaii, Australia and remote locations in Vietnam, the complicated production schedule presented a number of challenges for make-up department head Bill Corso.

“I was allowed a core group of three people,” explains Corso, “so I handled Sam Jackson and John C. Reilly, while Dennis Liddiard handled Brie Larson and Douglas Noe did Tom Hiddleston. We split the rest of the cast between us, and I hired a local in each place. We also had multiple stunt doubles and all the soldiers who had to be dirty and get the shit kicked out of them every day.

“When we got to Australia, we had a P.A. named Erin Tribble, who was a godsend, because it took two weeks just to manifest and prepare our stock and equipment for Vietnam. By the time we finally got to Vietnam, we were a well-oiled machine, but with a small department for all the work we had to do. We also had 30 to 35 make-up people to do the full-body native make-ups on our villagers. We were doing 40 of them a day, so that was a lot of work.

“The other make-up I had is a younger version of John C. Reilly’s character. Andy Clement did a subtle likeness make-up for me, which was a nose, brow and ears to make the actor look like a younger version of John C. Reilly.

John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow
John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow | Photo by Chuck Zlotnick

“Ironically, they worked him five days past when he was supposed to be there, so I ran out of appliances for him. Production said, ‘He’s going to have to come back tomorrow,’ so I asked the actor to consider wearing the make-up home and he did. He came back the next day just needing a little tweak, and actually looked better the second day!

“When we first meet John’s character in the movie, I hand-laid a big beard on him, because he was supposed to be a Robinson Crusoe-type guy. He then shaves it off to a shorter goatee, so his beard was laid on top of the goatee every day, because we were bouncing back and forth.”

Applying make-up to island tribe member
Selena Pertzel (left) on set, applying Iwi tribe make-up | Photo by Vince Valitutti

The biggest challenge on the film was a group of villagers on Skull Island, who sport a colorful three-dimensional mud make-up. As Corso recalls, “Our director wanted very geometrical machine-like patterns on them, so I did multiple tests to translate the original illustrations into a practical make-up. Once I came up with the final look, I talked to Jason Baird in Australia about handing them off, so his team built everything and hired the artists. When we got to Australia, we had a one-day class to walk everybody through the make-up. The same thing in Vietnam with our people over there.”

“Bill sent me some of the test patterning he did in Hawaii,” says Baird, “and at that point they had locked down the look they wanted. It was a complicated geometric pattern, like a language the villagers had developed for themselves. The grid pattern was supposed to look like mud, and there was also some tiny scarification cut into the skin, so our challenge was to find a way of applying this complicated mud make-up very quickly. On the big days, we had 12 hero make-ups, 15 mid-ground and 15 background; all of which had to be done within a three and a half-hour time frame.

Island tribe member
Island tribe member | Photo by Jason Baird

“The hero make-ups were done with encapsulated silicone pieces, which would be laid on and dirtied up, and then we added the fine details. There was a scene where the warriors are revealed emerging from the rocks, so that was a base make-up using PAX paint for the disguised rock work and the ‘mud’ applied over the top of that. There’s a second scene, which was the villagers with just the mud make-ups on them, so we put down the silicone scarification make-ups first, and over the top was a second layer of silicone with the colored mud make-up.”

Applying make-up to Iwi tribe member
From left: Anita Morgan, Anita Lowe and Karen Kelly on set, applying Iwi tribe make-up | Photo by Vince Valitutti

Because the silicone was so thin, adding make-up would have destroyed them, so each piece was pre-colored with powder pigment. “That was for our hero make-ups,” notes Baird. “For the mid-ground and background natives, make-ups were applied with a combination of stencils and hand-painting. For the mid-ground characters, we used a Bluebird product called Filthy, which was a clear base that was very sticky, so we mixed powder pigments into that material, which would dry and crack. And the background characters were basically PAX paint through the stencils.

Looking back at their experience on Kong: Skull Island, “We had a director making a $200 million monster movie, for which he was reinventing an iconic character while trying to make Apocalypse Now,” reflects Corso. “And our actors all wanted to be in a big, fun King Kong movie, so that was really exciting.”

Kong: Skull Island
Kong: Skull Island

“It was one of those jobs that was a real joy,” adds Baird. “We had a great team, and it worked out amazingly well.”

Kong: Skull Island opened March 10.

Photos by Chuck Zlotnick, Vince Valitutti and Jason Baird