The Birth of a Nation

by Douglas Noe, Department Head Make-Up | Make-Up Designer

The film was titled The Birth of a Nation. Forget about the film that was released in February of 1915. The two movies would share nothing in common other than title. My immediate thought was … “OK, this is a low-budget film,” as the producer stated. A true story period piece set in America 1831 about a slave uprising. “So, a 50-day, maybe 55-day shoot. Forty-five days minimum.” The producer said 27 days. I thought he was pulling my leg. He was serious. Twenty-seven days, OK. The camera test was scheduled for May 8, 2015. It got better. We would shoot this epic in Savannah, Georgia, at the beginning of summer. That meant high temps and high humidity for the duration of the shoot, not to mention the ticks, chiggers, and mosquitoes. At this point, I thought I would graciously price myself out. Then I read the script and spoke with Nate Parker. Before that conversation was over, I realized that there was no way I could pass up this amazing opportunity regardless of circumstances or money. This film would be a ‘game changer.’

Nate called to ask me personally if I would consider hiring someone as my second that he had worked with before and liked very much, Dionne Wynn. Dionne and I have worked on numerous occasions together and she was always a welcomed part of my team. A solid foundation began to form, and a wave of relief swept over me.

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Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight

As Christien Tinsley’s studio was generously providing the prosthetics and specialty dentures required for the film, Christien had planned on sending one of his trusted team members, Rolf Keppler. As department head and designer with experience in every aspect of make-up, I always appreciate it when all make-up and prosthetic endeavors are covered under the umbrella of one person. Nothing gets lost in translation and there are never any miscues this way. The department head is the last line of defense. So my plan was to hire a third who would roll with this in mind. Then came the favor, would I consider Rolf as my permanent third in an effort to save a small fortune traveling him back-and-forth from Los Angeles to just serve as a prosthetics artist? Of course! I didn’t even pause. Rolf was completely on board, and he appreciated that only one person was needed to guide the ship. Rolf, Dionne and I collaborated, but respected that I had been, and would continue to be, in constant dialogue with our fearless leader regarding what was needed, how it would be shot and exactly how he expected it to look. Rolf did much more than just prosthetics; we would all get glue, blood and paint on us and under our nails. A true team was set, my entire department core was (as we say) political hires, and I could not have been more at ease. Local talents Randi Owens Arroyo and Devin Shayla Morales completed the team, and Cassidy Talley (whose family also worked on the film) would turn out to be the best intern I’ve ever had.

I reached out to the extras casting folks and the Costume Department to see what was being accomplished in pre-production. Even so, we found ourselves dealing with groomed brows, multiple ear piercings and tattoos on a daily basis. Nate was kind enough to make all principal cast members aware of my concerns and requests as well, making him the sixth member of my make-up team.

I truly have never met a director with such a clear and solid vision. He had it all mapped out, both on his office walls (a true work of art) and in his head. Not only was he also the star (Nat Turner) and writer, he had put up his own cash and found the funding necessary—making him a producer as well. How the heck were we going to accomplish this in 27 days? Before and during our journey, Nate sent seven emails to inspire, encourage, build up, be honest and show his constant gratitude. Here is a portion of the first one he sent, the very night before principal photography would begin.

Date: May 10, 2015.

Subject: Together 

“The difference between success and failure is a great team.” The above was a quote Nate found and wanted to share, but he also went on to say this … As I face tomorrow and the weeks ahead, I do so with no fear, anxiety and or doubts. Wonderful things lie ahead. I believe it with all my soul. Together, we will not only succeed, we will thrive! I appreciate each and every one of you more than you know.

This email, like all that would follow, was sent to every single crewmember. No one was left out. With more than 25 years in film, I personally had never received such inspiring words from a director, lead actor, writer or producer. Remember that this was the night before the first day of shooting. I thought this journey was going to be an amazing one and I wasn’t wrong. 

Day One: Our first shot required adult Nat Turner to hold an ear of corn that practical effects had rigged to bleed on cue. WAIT A SECOND! What kind of blood were they going to use? The kind that stains skin, as I found out the hard way. Dionne rushed back to the trailer to get some stain remover for Nate’s hand! She was fast but Nate was faster. Next shot, “shrouded hovering angels.” We never saw them at base camp! I saw earring holes and a few tattoos, angels should have neither. As I cleaned up Nate’s hand and before I could finish my sentence, Rolf and Dionne scrambled to correct the angel oversight. So this would be the pace. An epic in 27 days. All right, we got this! Later that day, we would do a shot of Nat after some bloodletting had already occurred within the timeline of our script. Nate liked the way I spattered blood on him and so would begin a collaboration between us in the Make-up Department, the Costume Department and props. We would also help to provide blood for the Practical Effects Department, whenever it was necessary. A monumental set of tasks and responsibilities just became that much bigger before the sun set on our first day. What was it I said above? All right, we got this!

It was at this point that I was very kindly informed that I had spent my budget. Even the production staff was the greatest group of people you could ever hope to have … No problem, sometimes we give more than we take, and I was so taken with the script and Nate’s passion that I could live with this. No hairpiece rentals for me and I would use up a lot of blood and effects materials that wouldn’t get replaced. Something told me to bring everything! It was time for me to let go of a large stock of materials anyway. Timing is everything, and jeez, did we go through A LOT of blood!

Douglas Noe
Douglas Noe

So the responsibilities within my department were defined with blurred lines. Very often, Dionne would finish something Rolf or I had begun. Sometimes I would add a touch to a make-up that Rolf had done but couldn’t chase to set. Although Nate, Armie Hammer and Penelope Ann Miller (among many others) would be solely my responsibility, frequently Dionne would cover set while Rolf and I did any number of the numerous make-up effects needed on a daily basis. No one, not a single actor (male or female, black or white), ended up on film without someone from team make-up doing any number of tasks to him or her. Randi and Devin refused to let even one child get past them. The kids would at least get dirty hands and sunscreen. Rolf, Dionne and I never stopped. Nothing was going to get past us, nothing. I was 1,000 percent committed to making sure that nothing modern would pull an audience member out of the year 1831. The leading actors would be assigned with the understanding that we were a front united. In addition to the leads, day players and all background artists would daily need one or more of the following: tattoos covered, facial hair applied, brows filled in for the ladies, earring and facial-piercing holes covered, fingernails dirtied, teeth yellowed or grayed, sweat, tears and sunscreen applied. 

Dionne was responsible for Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Katie Garfield, Gabrielle Union and other characters. Gabrielle had beautifully arched eyebrows and Dionne knew that my request to fill them out might be met with some resistance from Ms. Union. So I told Dionne to make me the bad guy, saying that the department head insisted that individual hairs be laid in so that a proper ‘full eyebrow’ look would be achieved. I learned this very clever maneuver from Matthew Mungle. In the same way, Gabrielle was eager to get on board with whatever was necessary and I think she appreciated our ‘God is in the details’ approach

DinnerRolf, being an accomplished make-up artist, wasn’t just going to do make-up effects. One of the lead slaves in the film (“Will”) was portrayed by Chiké Okonkwo. He had a nasty scar on his face from above one eyebrow running through an eye, continuing to mid cheek. Chike also wore a contact lens to cleverly tie the wound together. His lips needed to express dehydration and exposure. Recent shackle wounds on top of old shackle scars and dirt completed the look. Another important character that would be in both young and old visages would be that of “Cobb,” portrayed by veteran character actor Jackie Earle Haley. Early in the film, Cobb’s temple is split open by Nat Turner’s father, resulting in an open wound. The older Cobb needed to have a matching scar. Rolf and I discussed the best plan of action to show the passage of time for Cobb would be to do as much as possible to make Jackie look younger, and let him play his actual age as the older Cobb. Facial hair was added in darker shades for his younger look, and we let Jackie’s grey hair show for his older look. I also had Rolf ‘punch up’ his wrinkles and creases, and ‘deaden’ his teeth to aid in the aging process. When the time came for Cobb to meet his demise at the hands of Nat Turner, the task of applying the blood rig and appliance to cover it went to Rolf while Dionne, Randi, Devin and I created countless casualty make-ups and wounds on the men fighting from both sides of the battlefield during the height of the rebellion. A three-hour job under normal circumstances was accomplished by Rolf in two hours. The sun was setting. We had to kill Cobb now! Jackie was on his back as a blood-spattered (it never got old for me) Nat straddled him holding his short sword at Cobb’s throat, right at the necktie area. Rolf and I had the blood tubes (hoses and syringes) primed and ready to go. Two lines leading to one tube that would feed directly to where the sword would enter the neck. A post held the sword in place and the sword would slightly retract on cue as blood flowed. Ready, set … ‘ACTION’! … No blood. The feed was blocked at the wound. We are losing the light. I see Nate’s eyes go blank. No time to troubleshoot … I handed my blood-filled syringe to Gus (stunt coordinator) and yanked the single tube from the appliance and rig. Jackie’s eyes went wide and I apologized while feeding the same tube back under his wardrobe and out to the camera side of the sword at the spot where it entered his neck. Nate knew immediately what I was doing and helped me feed it past several layers of clothing. No more time, I said to Gus and Rolf, “stand on those when Nate calls it.” This is a technical term for ‘push down on those damn things as hard as you can so we feel the blood flowing in the back of the theater!’ Rolling, two seconds pass and Nate calls action, blood flows as Jackie sells an ugly and frighteningly painful death for Cobb. One take, the light’s gone. We got it, collectively as a team. We got it. As Jackie rises from a pool of blood that extends from his shoulders to his knees, I joke with Gus that he only needs 29 more days and he can join our union. That’s a wrap on day 22. Jackie needs a shower …

Date: May 31, 2015 

Subject: Over the hump 

I’ve had countless emails and calls from people asking how I’m feeling, expecting some kind of drowned-out, regretful plea for serenity. When they hear the excitement and peace holding me strong in my response, their confusion is almost comical. I tell them like I tell everyone, ‘I’m supported and protected by a passionate and unrelenting team.’

How can you not LOVE this man? He knew we were making something great. It was never ‘I’ or ‘Me,’ always ‘Us,’ a team. Always.

If you’ve seen the film, then you know that Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is brutally raped and beaten. Dionne and Rolf collaborated on this make-up while I remained on set at Nate’s side for a scene with Penelope Ann Miller. When Aja came to set hand in hand with Rolf (Aja could not see as the make-up required that her eyes be swollen shut), the gasps and silence were palpable. This beautiful child of God had been ravaged. Due to the amber candlelight, I immediately realized that a layer of sheen would be needed to add to the translucency of the silicone make-up material. Tough scene. As we finished, again Rolf (picture a bit of a giant) took Aja’s hand and slowly, gently led her down the stairs and back to the trailer for removal. A beautiful thing to see as if Rolf somehow felt the pain we inflicted with glue and paint.

For the scene of Nat being stitched up by Bridget (played by Esther Scott) after enduring a severe whipping, Rolf and I would do the extensive make-up together. Since our director/lead actor had to get in and out of the make-up trailer as quickly as possible, I had Rolf pre-paint and pre-stitch the wounds on the rather large back prosthetic (it covered Nate’s entire back). As we worked so well together, we had applied and finished the paint job in an hour and a half. Typically, the task would’ve taken up to three hours. As Rolf packed up our set kits, I finished Nate’s face to give the feel of dehydration, exposure and residual shock. Yet another tough scene to shoot. Elliot Davis, our director of photography, was always in our corner. He always lit our work in the best possible way without compromising the limited light that would have actually been available in 1831. We’re talking about oil lamps and candles, yet he performed miracles within those confines.

BirthNation7-5In addition to a prosthetic birthmark on the sternum of both child and adult Nat, the adult Nat would wear dentures, which we customized together. One pair for him to wear prior to receiving the butt of a gun to the mouth, and a pair to reflect a chipped tooth from said abusive blow. At the end of the film, prior to Nat Turner being hung, he is shot and beaten. Although the beating make-up would appear after some of the swelling had gone down, he still would have blood around one of his corneas. The lens tech did her best, but ultimately, wrecked the edge of the appliance just under the eye requiring the contact lens. With no time to fix it, both Nate and I agreed it should become a nasty cut just below the lash line. Problem solved, not ideal, but solved and no one second-guessed it. The scene that was shot showing him get the beating, we had nothing special planned in regards to make-up effects. Just blood, lots of blood. When Nate asked me if I could make the eye in question show some swelling begin. I remembered that I had Scotch tape in my set bag because if I had any spare time (I never did), I was going to tape my petty cash receipts to blank white paper as is customary for accounting. I made a tiny football-shaped cutout and placed it on Nate’s lid, and it worked. Some rapid bruise painting and a spattering of blood gave the appearance that his eye was beginning to swell shut. Years of theater prior to getting into the film industry definitely helped me roll with the sometimes imperfect world we live in.

Date: June 10, 2015

Subject: MY TEAM IS STRONG!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Team

What a day! As one of our teammates told me, “We shot a great week today!” I just want to thank you all for coming through and holding me and this project up today. There were many factors working against, but none could supersede the power of us working together.

Rest up all, tomorrow, we’ll get it again!!!

With Love and Respect,

Nate

Andrea Brotherton and Tayla Melvey from the Hair Department, our costume designer, Francine Tanchuk, and her key costumer (and husband), Earl, everyone from the props, grip and electric departments to the craft service folks, were all sweating and working together. A throwback if you will, to my days in nonunion independent filmmaking. Together, a common goal. No one department or person is more or less important than another. Yes, Nate had assembled an amazing collective of talented and generous people.

Armie Hammer (playing Sam Turner) would also be one of my many sole responsibilities, he too would wear dentures. Fortunately, he was one of several actors who grew out his facial hair for us. He was the best, and never complained about the constant grime I insisted on putting around his nails. For his death scene, he takes a short-handled ax to the chest and wanders from his bedroom out into an open hall and slides down a wall where he proceeds to bleed out and pass. We did several takes of him sliding down the wall and into a medium shot before getting it perfect. Some pretty major bloodletting from a wound that I applied with a feed for practical effects to link to with a powerful flow of blood. It was perfect except for one hitch. We saw the end of the metal tube that led into my appliance. This was our last shot of day 14. Preston Holmes, the producer who ever so elegantly and quietly kept track of time and money, said we simply could not afford to do another take. As Armie stood ready to slide down the wall yet again, I watched Preston shaking his head ‘no’ while first AD Dutch and Nate discussed the obvious issue. This is when I made a move that as a make-up artist, this is seldom if ever called for or in any way acceptable. But we were a team after all. I approached Nate and Dutch and asked for permission to give my opinion. Understanding the dilemma (no one was at fault, these things happen) and appreciating Preston’s responsibility, I asked Nate if he intended to give the film a pass for digital cleanup. He immediately got it. Tens of thousands of dollars now with an entire crew already in overtime or a couple thousand dollars later to digitally erase the tube. Without a pause, Nate called ‘that’s a wrap.’ Time to clean up Armie. After seeing a press screening of the finished film, I saw no evidence of the tube in what I know was the hero take. Armie also sold us a sad and confusing death. To my knowledge, no aspect of the work my crew and I did was given any help or cleanup digitally in post. As much as I would like to have seen a few minor things cleaned up, I can recall one particular conversation (of the many) Nate and I had during preproduction. He explained to me that we were depicting some real horrors and ugliness, and that it was okay if what happened while doing so wasn’t perfect. I appreciated that he wanted to keep it ‘real.’ Keep it organic and sloppy if that’s how it played out. The death and suffering we were depicting was never and never should be ‘well done.’ I get that …

Penelope Ann Miller was also a character that I was eager to do. She would also appear both younger and as her actual (approximately) age. Although not completely thrilled that I pushed the envelope quite liberally with regards to her ‘older’ self, she loved what I did to make her look younger! 

For Nat Turner’s visions and a scene with African elders, an ‘earth’ clay (developed by a friend and colleague, John Blake) was employed. Nate would end up being covered from head to toe. His younger self (actor Tony Espinoza) would also be covered from head to toe, but with iridescent shades of green and blue powders that I had pre-mixed and had to glue to the poor kid’s entire body due to the heat and humidity. As fate would have it, it actually rained the evening we had all these clay-covered elders, clay-covered Nate, and blue- and green-covered Tony working. Every production assistant, costumer and assistant director were employed to hold umbrellas while team make-up stayed in touchup mode.

Date: June 14, 2015

Subject: A final note …

… I will be leaving with a dream realized. I owe so much of that to you all. You’ve given me the very best of you, day in and day out—and the quality and heart of our film is living proof. I’ve done a few films in my career, and can say without hesitation, this is the best experience I’ve ever had. Words will never be able to properly articulate the appreciation my heart holds for you all. As much as I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Thank you.

With brimming gratitude,

Nate

Nate said two things to me very early on that helped me to justify having my hands in nearly everything that came out of the Make-up Department … “Trust me” and “I trust you.” I know that Nate was counting on me like no other director ever had before. It is my prayer that he was never let down or disappointed. Since he very graciously gave me his blessing to use the emails he sent to all of us before, during and after our incredible journey; I’m guessing he isn’t let down at all. I personally have never been so proud, not just of the work that was carried out, but of the story and message. Being a history buff, I am a little ashamed that I did not know this true story. Nate did not flinch. It’s all true. The story of a God-fearing and conflicted slave who had very real visions. And saw that all human beings were and shall always be … EQUAL. And that this God-given right was worth fighting for.

Date: June 28, 2015 (a week after we have wrapped)

Subject: On my mind …

… Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, know you’re not out of mind. There’s a young director out there still singing your praises and sending positive energy your way.

May the Lord continue to bless you all!!!

Nate

The Birth of a Nation, shot in 27 days, the South in 1831.

If you can’t tell that it was shot in 2015, then mission accomplished.

After all, no one knows what we do unless we don’t do it. •