Column: Adapting Oz, Special Edition

by Sean Gates

In the spirit of the Halloween season, today’s Adapting Oz is all about our Special Effects Makeup Artist, Norman Rowe, and our experience collaborating with him to create the Wicked Witch of the West.

Odd is the Norm

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but when I wrote the script for this movie I had no idea that it was going to be Clayton and I making the thing.  I didn’t hold anything back when I wrote it, and had I known, I might have.  I guess it’s good for the script that I didn’t know.  One of the areas where this could have ruined us, though, was the Wicked Witch.  Because the script calls for a wrinkly little old woman with a bleeding scalp, a cupped lower lip, bad teeth, and one blind eye.  All of the actresses who auditioned for this film were attractive and not old, and we didn't know anybody who could do that kind of makeup. 

The hope was that we’d crank out the concept scene, have a fundraiser and be able to hire the people we need to finish the movie.  Two years later that’s still the hope.  But we couldn’t afford to stop production while we worked to get to that point, so we had to press onward in whatever way we could. 

I learned about Norman Rowe through a mutual friend, Darek McGee, whom I’ve known my whole life.  After an extensive game of phone tag, Norm and I met for lunch at Vinny’s Italian Grill & Pizzeria.  We each had a sandwich and a couple of beers and I’d brought a laptop to show Norm what we were doing and what we were after.  We wound up sitting in Vinny’s from lunch time until just before the dinner rush, swapping ghost stories and talking about movies, monsters, and where to find good costumes on the internet. 

My first impression of Norm?  He’s a nice guy.  And not just in the polite, well-mannered sense but in the genuinely engaging and charismatic sense.  He likes people, he listens intently when you speak to him, and he laughs readily and often.  His hair looks like it’s trying to be normal but has never seen a normal haircut and isn’t quite pulling it off.  Everything about him is like that.   He looks kind of tough, but his voice is a clear tenor.  He wears preppy clothes but there are tattoos spilling out of his sleeves.  Spend a few minutes talking to him and if you don’t genuinely like him, you aren’t a human person. 

He invited me to a Friday the 13th party at his house, and I accepted, figuring it was the smart thing to do from a business point of view.  Before we parted company we swapped folders: I gave him some hard copies of my Wicked Witch designs and he gave me a portfolio of his work, partly digital and partly in prints.  Since Clayton lives in Maine, I scanned the best photos in Norm’s physical portfolio, selected the best ones from the folder on my hard drive, and shared them with Clayton.  There was no question that Norm’s work looked professional, and the fact that he lived near me was a strong selling point as well.  Clayton and I didn’t have to discuss it long.  Or really even at all.  We agreed he was capable and I assured Clayton that he seemed like a good guy.  So it was decided.

Norman and I kept in frequent contact.  I went to his Friday the 13th party, and though I was late arriving I was the only guest who actually made it.  The party was hastily planned at the last minute and apparently I was the only one without prior plans.  It was good, though.  I got to know Norm better, along with his beautiful wife Stephanie and their then-toddler daughter, Bella.  Not only is Norm a nice guy, he’s got an awesome family.  And a wonderful house full of huge windows and framed vintage movie posters. 

A couple of months passed, and then one snowy Saturday late in 2009 I drove Marie Rizza out to Norm’s house to have her life cast done.  He was still in the process of converting his garage to a creature shop, so for the day he’d set up a temporary lab on the island in Stephanie’s kitchen.  I had a Canon EOS Rebel XS and an mp3 recorder, and as Norm covered Marie’s head in alginate and plaster bandages, I took a bunch of photos and recorded an audio interview to draw from when writing his bio for the site.  This is one of those times when Norm’s personality really makes him shine. 

Norman's wedding cake business never took off.

He’s taken a life cast of his own head, so he knows exactly what his subject is about to go through.  He offers them a drink, explains step by step what the process is going to be, how long each step is going to take, and does everything he can to put his subject at ease.  Marie was very impressed with him and so was I.  He’s the ideal guy for this job.

It took a while to take the mold, and by the end of the process Marie was starting to experience a great deal of mental discomfort.  She was in almost total sensory deprivation, breathing through her nose, unable to see, hear, or speak.  She began to experience strange sounds inside the cast, which she now believes were the sound of her own breathing.  At any rate she started to have a panic attack, and I tried to comfort her while Norm rushed to get the cast done so he could cut her out of it.  In the end it was a success.

A few days before Christmas there was over a foot of snow on the ground, and Norm came out to my house with a partial sculpt of the Witch.  He’d used the mold to cast out Marie’s head, and was using clay to build the Witch’s features over top of her own.  Clayton and I were working on the teaser trailer and he wanted to be able to at least show a hint of the Witch at the end.  Since we weren’t ever going to have the makeup done in that kind of time frame, it was decided that I’d use the Canon to take a series of stills of the sculpt and Clayton could string them together in sequence to make a quarter-rotation turnaround.  I pulled some old hats and one of my mother’s old scarves out of some closets and mocked up the witch’s hat in a rough but sort of serviceable way, and used our Munchkin table and Glinda’s throne to create a makeshift greenscreen. 

A year and another Friday the 13th party later, Norm had his shop set up and had finished the Witch sculpt, which I came out to his place to sign off on.  He visited me at work with hair samples to approve.  By January he had created the molds for the mask and was pulling a cast.  Clayton came down from Maine for the weekend Scarecrow shoot and that Saturday night we went out to Norm’s for dinner, and to give Clayton and Norm a chance to meet at last. 

As I was driving the truck along a country two-lane in Westmoreland county, Clayton said “this isn’t going to be like having dinner with the Addams Family, is it?”  I assured him it was not.  In fact they’re a very normal, healthy family and the house is very warm.  It’s full of art and light and color.  The walls are a sunny yellow.  Norm’s got a movie screen in the living room.  I’m not sure there was anything I could say, any assurance I could give, that would have prepared Clayton for how much he was going to like Norm, for how sweet and lovely Stephanie would be, for how comfortable and inviting was their home.  In what was by now a familiar process for me, Norm offered us drinks and led us out to the shop, where he gave Clayton the tour.  Sadly the mask he’d poured was curing inside the mold, so there wasn’t much for Clayton to see.

Later we sat in the dining room, and talked, and ate Steph’s incredible chili.  Norm will keep you around all night if you let him, so gracious and gregarious a host is he.  But we had work to do, and Steve and his girlfriend were at my house hopefully making a greenscreen suit for Steve to wear.  So we extracted ourselves from the Rowe hospitality as soon as we could politely do so. 

Over the next few months Norm created two masks.  The first attempt he felt was not up to his standards as the pigmentation in the silicone didn’t look as natural as he wanted.  So he pulled a second, better-looking mask and used the first as a guinea pig to test concepts on. Then one Saturday I drove Marie out to Norm’s place in a snow flurry to have molds taken of her hands and teeth.  While we were there we got to see the second mask.  It was simply amazing.  I took a number of photos, some of which I shared on the forum at the International Wizard of Oz Club website, and in our own forums. 

By now Clayton and I had official plans to film the Witch in the summer of ’11, and it was already spring, so Norm had to bust some tail to get the work done, but he was confident that he could.  A week or two later I was out at his house again, approving the finalized mask, complete with hair, and the teeth to go with it.  Norm sends texts to my iPod with photos of his progress on the sculpts for the hands, then brings them to my house for final approval, and a week later he’s texting me with photos of finished hands.  I can’t believe it.  The Wicked Witch makeup is complete. 

The fact is, Norm turned out to be more than just capable of doing the job.  He was the exact right man for it.  From the content of his character, to the quality of his work, there’s nobody we’d rather have doing our Witch makeup.  He took the concept art I did of the Witch—the one that’s been on Facebook forever—and made it a three-dimensional mask.  He instantly got what it was that we were after, and used his own artistic sensibility to flesh out the idea, and add to it.  It’s incredibly rewarding to work with someone like that.

When Clayton arrived for the summer shoot, we spent quite a bit of time with Norm.  The first thing we did was to go out to his shop with Marie so she could try on the makeup and costume.  It was surreal to see the Witch finally come to life before our eyes after nearly two years of anticipation.  Nobody was more excited than Norm, who laughed maniacally from the time we got the mask on her, until the shoot finished.  At one point he brought Stephanie and Bella in to see the Witch.  Bella hid her face in Stephanie’s shoulder and none of us thought she saw anything, but Stephanie confirmed later that she did.

Every time we needed to film with the Witch, Norm had to be involved because there’s an art to getting her into the makeup, and it is, after all, Norm’s art.  He’s a perfectionist.  If something went wrong Norm took it harder than anybody.  He’s amazingly humble for a man of his talents and situation.  He gives us credit when everything is working, and tries to take the blame when it’s not. 

The first day of filming in Norm’s old shop, he’d left us the key in case we needed to get in during the week.  We’d gone our separate ways and Clayton and I were sitting at the stoplight at 218 and 301, after driving for twenty-five minutes, when we realized the driver behind us was flashing his headlights and motioning for us to pull over.  So Clayton pulled over and we were surprised to see Norm step out of the car.  He’d forgotten something and needed his key.  He’d been behind us for twenty minutes trying to get our attention.  We felt bad, but he wasn’t upset about it.  It was just so weird to suddenly find him there after going twenty miles out of his way to catch us. 

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid.

After final day of Witch shooting before Banner Elk, I wanted to take Clayton, Marie, and Norm out to a pizzeria called Angelo’s in front of the courthouse in Montross.  I’d never been, but I’d heard good things, which Norm confirmed, though he declined to come with us.  He was beating himself up over a difficult shoot and despite our attempts to reassure him, he was pretty upset at the way things had gone.  I felt bad that he didn’t come along, but he insisted we go have a good time and not worry about him.  Then he told us the fastest way to get to Angelo’s. 

As instructed, we followed Stratford Hall Road, Marie trailing us in her Mazda, until we came to a T intersection and turned left.  This was supposed to dump us out by the courthouse, right next to Angelo’s.  However it brought us out well East of there, near the Dairy Freeze. First I told Clayton to take us east on Route 3, until I realized where we were and had him turn around.  By now Marie must’ve wondered if we were completely lost.

Suddenly a blue mini-sport utility pulled out from the median and raced up beside us, the windows down, the driver shouting to get our attention.  It was Norm, grinning from ear to ear, his not-quite-normal haircut haloed in the evening sun, tousled by the breeze from the open windows.  Clayton toggled his own window down and between peals of laughter, Norm shouted three simple words:  “I MEANT RIGHT!!!!” 

Be less awesome than Norman in our forums.