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The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger’s Joker Was Born

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The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

Oscar-winning make-up artist John Caglione, Jr. retraces the steps of creating The Dark Knight’s Clown Prince of Crime.

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.,

The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

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.

The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

“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.”

The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

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.

The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

“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?

Achieving the desired effect essentially involved Ledger acting in the makeup chair.

The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

“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.

The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

“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.

The Dark Knight: How Heath Ledger's Joker Was Born...FabbyNews.com

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