What did you know about Mulan going in?
I missed the generation of the whole Disney princess film, but of course I knew about it because it was the only Chinese princess in the genre. Because my ancestry is Chinese, I knew more about the story of Mulan that had been handed down through fables, so I was aware of the story.
This marks your sixth collaboration with director Niki Caro. How did you get chosen for this film?
Niki and I are old friends and long-time collaborators. When it got announced she was doing it, she asked me to do it, and we’ve been talking about this for several years. Of course, I had to get approved by Disney, but they must have liked what we did together in the past because here I am.
Disney has had a great success rate with transforming its animated classics into live-action films. Were their certain looks from that movie that needed to be replicated?
They were never descriptive in that way. Our film is rooted more on the fable than the other Disney princess fairytales. Of course, we were very aware of the fan base so there were some iconic frames that I referred to, for things like the hair comb or certain things that were key markers in the story. We just did it as an homage.
You spent months in China learning the culture, history, and understanding the role that China plays in the story of Mulan. Tell me about that experience and learning about the look during the Tang Dynasty.
There are no photographs of that time and no oil paintings. There are scroll paintings, calligraphy, sculpture and poetry. I looked at all the artwork and literature of the time to make something true of the period and respectful of the Chinese symbolism and fables, mixed with a more cutting edge and modern look for a Disney audience. I also researched a lot about color theory and went to museums to build things up from there.
How did you transform Yifei Liu into Mulan, the fearless young woman who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father?
We have to believably use makeup to enhance the story but also not distract from the performance. Hers is key to believing who Mulan becomes. We did a lot of shapeshifting, but it had to be done subtly because she has a lot of extreme close-ups. The bone structure on Chinese faces is very different, and it’s not just about eyes, lips, mouth and nose. It’s a lot about flattening the face and taking out the color. I also heightened some of the boys around her to look a little more feminine so it would make her look completely believable. We also had to emulate the makeup of the period so I couldn’t use rice powder and lid, and I used things like Skin Illustrator, Bluebird, MAC and a lot of local New Zealand brands. With Yifei’s hair, we had to do a lot of old-fashioned hair tricks, like using fishing line wire, which enabled her to move in different ways, whether it was to tumble down, come unraveled, riding horseback or in the tea scene where she is balancing precariously.
Jason Scott Lee was such a good villain as Bori Khan. How did you design his makeup to articulate his villainous side?
With Bori Khan, we looked at Jason’s facial structure and designed a number of scars around that which would show old wounds he had collected through the years. He has survived many battles and Niki wanted to see that history. It was like facial tattooing with the way the lines and forms would assist his facial expressions. The scars were all sculpted and turned into bondos so they could move well with his face. We also gave him a lot of Guyliner and man braids and had fun with that.
The witch character, played by Gong Li, shapeshifts thanks to her powers. How did you help transform her through makeup?
Xianniang has special prosthetics that we would apply just before she was scheduled to be on set, and she had restricted use of her hands once applied. Gong Li was fitted with a very long wig with a crown, prosthetics, airbrushed special FX makeup, lashes, and beauty makeup. My husband (Chris Fitzpatrick) actually got brought on as the prosthetics supervisor and helped sculpt and design the beautiful [nails] that are on Gong Li’s hands.
What was the biggest makeup challenge of the shoot?
We were shooting in four different countries, and the same product is not always going to work in different environments. We worked in the snow, we worked in high humidity of New Zealand, we worked in the very dry climate of Los Angeles and also the extreme heat in China.
What was your favorite part of the experience?
It wasn’t easy but it was a big joy all around with great camaraderie between the departments and the generosity of the team. We all knew from the beginning we were making something special. When you’re not just in front of a green screen, it just makes it all the more epic and that made a difference.
Mulan is currently streaming on Disney Plus.
Words: Keith Loria
Photos by: Jasin Boland