Q&A: John Caglione Jr. talks SFX on “C.H.U.D.”, “AMITYVILLE II” & more…


John Caglione Jr. is a make-up SFX maestro who has worked on horror classics like AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION, C.H.U.D, BASKET CASE as well as taking the world by storm with his groundbreaking Oscar winning make-ups for Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY. But before the 40s comic book detective got his big screen update in 1990, Caglione was in service of another famous Dick.

FANGORIA: Dick Smith is a name that defines the sheer magic of movie make-up was a mentor and influence on your work. What was it like learning from him?

JOHN CAGLIONE JR.: Well, if it weren’t for Dick Smith, I would probably still be working in the dental lab and not in the biz today. Early on, I was working on the Lon Chaney Sr. and Jack Pierce make-ups that I would study in Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. Then I discovered a picture of Dick Smith making up Dustin Hoffman as the 121 year old man in LITTLE BIG MAN. I think the picture was in Time Magazine and at first it looked like a doctor working on an old man to my young eyes. But as I was studying the photo I realized where Hoffman’s young shoulder was and where the foam latex old wrinkled neck was! Holy cow! It was an old age make-up and the doctor was Dick Smith! That was it for me, I was hooked!

Soon after I saw THE EXORCIST and Dick’s mind numbing make-ups, I wanted so badly to get in touch with him. My mom had a Rona Barrett who was a gossip columnist at the time and in it was the address for the Linda Blair fan club through Warner Bros. Hollywood. Here was my chance to contact Dick. I wrote a letter and on the envelope, in big block letters, “Dick Smith, Make-up Artist for THE EXORCIST” and a little cartoon portrait sketch of Dick. It was a little like putting a note in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean.

Fast-forward to about 4 weeks later, I’m playing football in the street with my friends and my mom yells from the house, “Johnny, Dick Smith is on the phone!” I was 15 years old and that began my correspondence with Dick Smith. Dick invited me to send him a letter of questions and a blank cassette tape and he would record all of his answers to my questions on tape. Those tapes were amazing, he was wonderfully generous and would go beyond my questions and talk about THE GODFATHER movies and THE DEER HUNTER. He is my inspiration and my hero, taking the time for this kid from upstate NY was unbelievable. When I was 18 graduating from High School, Dick recommended me to the NBC-TV NY make-up apprenticeship and that is where I began my make-up career. It does me good to remember those very early and  exciting days; God Bless Dick Smith.

FANGORIA: What film or films did you assist Dick Smith on and what is your favorite Dick Smith design/creation?

CAGLIONE JR.: It’s funny but I only assisted Dick a couple of times; a little on ALTERED STATES and I did a couple of days on THE HUNGER. We also worked together on the Dutch Schultz make-up for James Ramar in THE COTTON CLUB and I applied that make-up everyday. I am basically pretty much self-taught. One of my favorite Dick Smith make-ups is the old Father Merrin on Max Von Sydow in THE EXORCIST.

FANGORIA: You were an assistant on FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. What was it that you learned on the set of that film and how did working on the famous sequel lead the way to your next project? Was Tom Savini ever on hand to overlook anything that went on during the shoot?

CAGLIONE JR.: I worked under Carl Fullerton on FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2; Carl was Dick Smith’s number one assistant on ALTERED STATES and THE HUNGER, and he is a great make-up artist. It was working for Carl where I learned how to do good prosthetic lab work. I was Carl’s lab tech so I didn’t get to go on set. Tom Savini wasn’t around on the film, it was all Carl and he had it all figured out.

FANGORIA: BASKET CASE is quite simply a genius little movie. What was the overall process in creating Belial? And when did you know you had it just right?

CAGLIONE JR.: I give all the credit of creating Belial in Basket Case to the amazing Kevin Haney. BASKET CASE was Kevin’s job and I just came in to give him a hand here and there.

FANGORIA: AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION is one of my all time favorite demonic possession films and still scares me to this day. What was the process in the undertaking of this project?

CAGLIONE JR.: AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION was the first time I was in charge of make-up effects. Yes, the process is always to first read the script and do your make-up breakdowns and concept art. For instance, the different stages of Sonny’s demonic make-ups. I was so inspired my Dick’s work in THE EXORCIST and I think you can see that in the film. It also helps to have a good co-operative actor working with you when you have heavy prosthetics to apply! Jack Magner was an angel. I wish I knew what Jack was up to these days. I hope he’s doing good; he was a great guy.

FANGORIA: C.H.U.D makes many affectionate nods to the golden age of movie monsters. Was this something that you took to the creation of the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellar?

CAGLIONE JR.: C.H.U.D. was a lot of fun and yes to me it was a full-blown nod to those great campy 60’s movie monsters I grew up with. It wasn’t so great for the actors who had to wear the heavy foam rubber suits because we shot during a major heat wave in NYC and we had to keep the oxygen and AC near by. Some of the C.H.U.D.s were dropping off like flies on that one.

FANGORIA: You have done non-genre work such as FOR THE BOYS with Bette Midler and CHAPLIN with Robert Downey Jr. What were these films like to work on and how did they differ from the early horror films you marveled at?

CAGLIONE JR.: Working with Bette Midler on FOR THE BOYS and Robert Downey Jr. on CHAPLIN differ from the early horror film work in several ways. First being, of course, these are A list actors in high profile big studio motion pictures. Also, doing old age make-up on such a widely known face like Bette’s is a daunting assignment. If you change one line on such a famous face like Bette’s, you become a nervous wreck. Also, Bette has a very smooth unlined face so sculpturally it didn’t give me much to go on. My personal favorite make-up on Bette is when she is in her 50’s and 60’s where I used subtle prosthetics, old age stipple and paint.

CHAPLIN was a rushed job. I was contacted by production before they had to shoot scenes with Robert as Chaplin in his 60’s where he leaves the US. There is a scene where he’s watching TV in his bedroom and another on the ocean liner sailing from the NY harbor. Those two scenes were the first time I applied the make-up! There were no time for tests!


 Working for Bette Midler was truly a big highlight in my life and career. She hired me personally on FOR THE BOYS and was wonderful to me throughout the process. It sure makes me feel good to hear her say good things on her aging make-up. It’s music to my ears.


FANGORIA: Non-character work is something that you have also perfected. Where it be aging performers throughout the progression of a film or something as depressing as depicting the physical effects of AIDS as seen in LIBERACE: BEHIND THE MUSIC and ANGELS IN AMERICA. As opposed to creating Belial and C.H.U.D, which as far as I could tell would be fun and exciting, did creating the make-up for these films that depicted the dreaded disease of AIDS bring you down?

CAGLIONE JR.: I was a staff make-up artist at NBC TV in NY in the mid ’70s through the early ’80s, and during that time, I had lost several friends and co-workers to AIDS. It was a devastating time back then as we didn’t know what was happening. So working with Al Pacino on ANGELS IN AMERICA, I had all those emotions came out in those make-up designs and, of course, through his amazing talents as a great actor.

FANGORIA: Al Pacino seems to be someone that you have worked with on many occasions. Is he a good friend and does he feel completely comfortable in the make up chair with you at work?

CAGLIONE JR.: Man, how lucky can a make-up man be? Having the honor of working for over 20 years now with Al Pacino! It’s beyond the Hollywood dream! We have a great working relationship and he puts a lot of trust and faith in me and we are good friends. Al does feel comfortable in the make-up chair but he doesn’t like to be there too long! So I have to move fast when applying his make-up. It’s like a workout but lot’s of fun. I also have a great actor I work a lot with now, Russell Crowe, and what a privilege to be with him too; he is a very warm and generous man.

FANGORIA: Your work in DICK TRACY is just perfect! When did Beatty approach you to take on the task of creating Tracy’s rogues gallery?

CAGLIONE JR.: I believe Warren Beatty first heard about me from his great production designer Richard Sylbert. Richard was Francis Ford Coppola’s production designer back on THE COTTON CLUB. That is where I meet Sylbert and where he saw my prosthetic make-up work. I also did a few film jobs with Jon Landau, the co-producer, and he was pushing for me too. Those guys helped me out a lot. Then I met Warren in LA and he gave me the script to read and break down over night and meet again the next morning.

So Doug Drexler, who I made a partner in my company, and I did a break down and design ethic plus lots of sketches and then we met Warren and submitted our ideas. Two weeks go by and while I’m on a film job in Canada, the phone rings in my hotel room after midnight and I groggily answered. It was Jon Landau and he says “I just wanted to call and tell you that you are doing the make-up for DICK TRACY, now go back to sleep… goodnight.” I don’t think I was able to sleep for two days!

FANGORIA: Were you a fan of the early comics?

CAGLIONE JR.: I did read the comics when I was a kid and liked them. The strip in those days had a character named Moon Maid, the cops could fly to the moon in their magnet powered Space Buckets and fly to the moon in 52 minutes. DICK TRACY also had a wrist TV! They were great.

FANGORIA: What DICK TRACY character were you most excited by to get to work on?

CAGLIONE JR.: For me, I was very excited to work with Al Pacino on his Big Boy Caprice make-up. Al had a lot of great ideas and a lot of input on his make-up. One that stuck while I was sculpting was he said to me “I want to look like a split between Adolf Hitler and Groucho Marx!” That cemented the image for me. I think you can see it not only in the make-up but in Al’s performance, he is both funny and scary.

FANGORIA: Any personal favorite characters out of the bunch you created?

CAGLIONE JR.: Other personal favorite DICK TRACY make-up designs are Flattop, Steve the Tramp, and the guys in the opening card game, especially Little Face.

FANGORIA: Which mobster took the longest time to have his make-up applied?

CAGLIONE JR.: Flattop took the longest time to apply because he had ten foam latex appliances. Doug and I did that make-up together and applied it over sixty times. It started at 2 ½ hours then we got it down to 1 ½ hours due to the repetition of applications.

FANGORIA: I also love the more subtle make-ups in DICK TRACY. Were you also responsible for the not-so-extreme designs as well?

CAGLIONE JR.: I was responsible for Michael’s Bug Bailey with big ears inspired by Disney’s DUMBO. I think Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart was done by Sheri Mennins, and Madonna as Breathless Mahoney was done by Richard Dean.

FANGORIA: Warren Beatty still owns the rights for DICK TRACY and has long stated his intention for a sequel. Would you be interested in returning, should the opportunity arise?

CAGLIONE JR.: Hell Yes! Warren Beatty is amazing to work for. I would sure love to be with him again if he does another DICK TRACY! Keeping my fingers crossed for that and pray that lightning will strike twice.

FANGORIA: What was your reaction to the Oscar win for DICK TRACY?

CAGLIONE JR.: My reaction to winning the Oscar for DICK TRACY was I guess what a ball player feels when winning the world series. I was on cloud nine for a while. It was the greatest feeling looking out from the stage to the audience and there is Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Al Pacino and Michael Jackson. It’s a vision I will always remember.

FANGORIA: You helped reinvent the look of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. What was the process here for recreating such an iconic comic book villain?

CAGLIONE JR.: I think it was Christopher Nolan who came up with the self inflicted scars on The Joker. Chris wanted the make-up and the film as a whole to be organic plausible and realistic. So with designing The Joker make-ups, it should show the wear and tear; the breaking down inside and out in the character.

When Heath and I were playing and testing various make-up looks in London, Christopher Nolan and his wife producer Emma Thomas came into the trailer to show Heath and I a book on Francis Bacon paintings, real ghostly and blurry images. Chris wanted the make-up’s to have a smeared lived in look, as if The Joker didn’t change his clothes or take a bath too often. So I incorporated all of those ideas. Then there was the great acting job by Heath Ledger who goes beyond the make-up and delivers a masterpiece performance. I loved working with Heath.

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About the author
Lee Gambin
Lee Gambin is a Melbourne, Australia based playwright, screenwriter, film and theatre essayist and journalist. He has been working as a writer for Fangoria magazine since 2008. He has worked in independent theatre for many years as well as Artistic Director of his own independent theatre company. His rock musical OH THE HORROR! was a major success in its initial workshop run in 2009. He has lectured for numerous film societies and film festivals including the Melbourne International Film Festival. Gambin runs Cinemaniacs, a film society in Melbourne that present genre favorites. Gambin’s play KING OF BANGOR was published by Stephen King associative publishing house The Overlook Connection and MASSACRED BY MOTHER NATURE: EXPLORING THE NATURAL HORROR FILM, a film analysis book, is published by Midnight Marquee Press and has had widely positive reviews.
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