I’ve been working on a book about dreams for almost three years. And today I’m sharing an excerpt from that book. Well, kind of. It’s actually a rough draft. I’m sharing it now because this book has already taken almost three years and it might be another three until it can be held in two hands.
I needed to send it off and out, just to remind myself that that’s something that can be done.
I’ve been alone with this book for so long and so today I’m sending a little bit of it out to you – not because you need it, but because I need you.
You can read more about the book here. It's still very much in the works, but what I can tell you now is this: It’s a book about dreams, and the people who go for them. It's also about your dreams. Not what you should do to reach them, but what you can do. It’s not about doing things that will always work, but about things you can do when nothing’s working.
It's about the hope of seeing what isn't there, and trying to make your ideas real. Whether it turns out exactly how you envision is not the point.
This is not a book that pretends dreams always come true. Or that dreams are even always worth pursuing. Or that dreaming is a thing you should even do. Only you decide that. But it is a book about what can be.
It's also a book written by a young woman whose dream is to be a professional writer, for whom this very book is her attempt at making her a dream a reality, an attempt that has been fraught with frustration. And yet, despite all the turmoil and cynicism and fifty-million times I've wanted to give up so far, I remain fascinated by the reality that despite all the pain and injustice in the world that there are still people who take a good hard look at it all and work towards what can be instead of what is.
I interviewed 120 people who had a dream come true in their life. The book will be their stories, and mine.
Below is one of those stories.
Thank you for being here. Thank you for reading this. Sharing it would mean the world to me. And you can also click here and scroll all the way down to enter your email address to be notified when the book becomes a thing you can hold in your two hands. Thanks for holding it for me now.
rough draft excerpt from a book about dreams and dreamers
by Isa Adney
But what if...no one wants to hire you for your dream job?
dream: become a professional monster makeup artist for film.
“For years I was sleeping with monsters by the bed. You know how people talk about having monsters under the bed? I had monsters by the bed.”
I wish you could hear Dave Elsey’s voice. It’s all kindness and wonder, wrapped up in an accent that makes me long for the two weeks I spent across England in my third year of college, climbing up moors with sheep everywhere, eating jacket potatoes in places called the “Red Lion,” and trying chana masala for the first time in London.
Also there was the Monet room, which I stumbled upon while lost, roaming the giant halls of the National Gallery in London, the art museum guarded by giant bronze Lions in Trafalgar Square. I stood in the exact center of the Monet room, equidistant from each painting, and slowly walked closer until my breath touched the paint. Then I’d step back to the center and walk towards the next one, letting the details slowly reveal themselves, each painting changing with every step.
Talking to Dave Elsey was kind of like standing in that Monet room, allowing me to walk closer to a story that always felt elusive – the story of someone who has won an Oscar - the story behind the thirty-second speech that the music tells us must stop for commercials.
I watch all the award shows because of the speeches. From that I collect names in a notebook on my phone, names of people I would love to interview one day (Octavia Spencer, Don Hall, Viola Davis, Tommy Kail, Common, Brie Larson, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Cynthia Erivo, Ava DuVernay…) There are 29 people on the list.
I wonder about things like how they sustained themselves through the times when they were pursuing a career in something as unstable as art, pursuing something as impossible as being a full time actor, writer, producer, director, musician, special effects designer, makeup artist….artist.
I think about things like that when I watch awards shows and after movies. I’ve been one of the last to leave the movie theater long before the promise of easter eggs and post-credit scenes. My easter egg hunt was always in the names, in the jobs that scroll slowly, each representing a person who made the film possible, and maybe even a dreamer who chose a profession with no stability, no guarantee, and probably no paycheck for a while.
In the upcoming live action Beauty and the Beast film (for which Dave Elsey crafted The Beast) there are jobs like:
fake teeth designer
drapesmaster (I love that someone’s job is to master drapes, drapes! This is a thing, people!)
snow and ice dresser
“additional electrician” (I do not know the difference between the two, but I do know that I love that Practical Electrician gets capital letters and I wonder if there should also be an Optimistic Electrician or a Delusional Electrician, just to keep things spicy. Hollywood - you’re welcome).
Credits go on for a long time, right? Movies are their own little ecosystem for this one moment in time. And all the names that scroll are people, with stories and lives and skills that all converged to make this one big thing.
And I can’t help but wonder if the majority of them have stories like Dave’s, stories of pursuing a thing that is a little bit crazy, a profession that is pretty unlikely, a thing that requires getting really good at something you may never ever get paid to do.
And yes, I’m sure there are people who scroll by on the credits who got their job because their uncle works in the movies, and, ya know, that’s cool too. I mean, hey – if I had an uncle in the movies I’d be pretty excited to be hired to be the
weather consultant? (wait, I’m probably not qualified for that if they require more than iPhone-weather-checking-skills…um…how about the
construction nurse? I have band-aids in my purse. Hm. No?
standby carpenter? Ah, but then they’d never want anything to happen to the main carpenter because the standby would always hammer nails crooked and also know nothing at all about carpentry. Oh I know!
stand-in for Emma Watson! Yes? When they need to figure out all the lighting stuff. I could stand there and make conversation with the Practical Electrician. And I think I’m about Emma Watson height…Oh wait…I just looked it up, we’re not close in height at all. But…I like books, and Belle, and Harry Potter and gender equality, so…. (Ok - I think I’ve been fired by my imaginary movie uncle.)
But what if you don’t have a proverbial movie uncle and your dream is to be a professional artist, to get paid to do your art?
Dave Elsey’s dream was to be a professional artist, a professional monster makeup artist at that. And what I learned from interviewing Dave, what I learned about what he did to pursue his dream, inspires me to keep going even when the dream feels more impossible than ever, even when I feel like maybe I’ll never be any good, like maybe I’ll never get my art to have that thing I really want it to have, like Ira Glass says:
“…it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit…And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work… it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”
Ira then goes on to say that this is all normal and encourages us to fight through the gap. The pain of the gap, as I like to think of it.
But what does it really feel like in the gap, when you don’t actually know if you’ll ever be any good, when the gap feels like a ditch you’ve dug for yourself?
I interviewed Dave years ago now, and his is the story I think about the most whenever I’m in the gap ditch. I use it like a sword to fight off all the doubt, all the phrases that creep up through the dirt:
Give up now.
Working on your craft is a waste of time.
Art is stupid.
No one will pay for this thing you’re doing ever because it’s trash. You are trash. You are a trash person.
Get a real job.
Stop this NOW!
Dave’s story reminds me that sometimes you just have to outrun those voices by working on your craft, by closing the gap.
This is Dave’s story. A story of a name that has scrolled through credits on films like Little Shop of Horrors, Star Wars, X-Men, The Wiz Live, Mission: Impossible, and Beauty and the Beast. But most of all, a story about the audacity required to turn childhood play into profession, the necessity of newspaper-tearing grandfathers and letter-answering monster-makers, the hours upon hours of practice required to close the gap, the drive to subsist on craft services alone, and the joy that comes from making something from your imagination – using your own two hands to turn idea to reality, fun to form.
Right away I notice Dave still talks with childlike joy about his craft. He loves makeup and monster movies, and he’s loved those things ever since he was a kid. He never missed a Saturday of Dracula or Frankenstein, the Saturday night double bill of monster movies, a regular occurrence on TV at the time. “I was just fascinated by monsters and creatures and that actors could make themselves look so different. And I really wanted to be able to do that.” The way a person could be transformed to look like a thing that did not exist in reality fascinated Dave. He wanted to transform people with makeup.
He did that thing that children can do. He saw something. He loved something. He imagined something. He did something. He played. It could almost be called practice, but there was no prescience of what is required of professional artistry, only a desire to have fun, to start doing the thing he wanted to do, without permission. “I just would experiment on myself and try to do buildups with plasticine [a kid’s play-dough-like toy] on my face.” He had no idea at the time that his plasticine days would lead to him to one day win an Oscar.
Initially Dave didn’t even know you could transform people as a living, he just knew it was all he wanted to do and all he wanted to read about. But when he wanted to make people into monsters for a living there weren’t easily accessible books and definitely no Google (the guys who invented Google were still just kids themselves, relying on books). To find information about the craft he’d fallen in love with, Dave had to rely on paper, and the kindness of a grandfather. “My grandfather used to tear out bits [about horror films] from newspapers and stuff and give them to me.” One day his grandfather un-crinkled a center spread about “the guys who made the monsters” and gave it to his grandson.
That torn out newspaper changed Dave’s life.
“I [read it and] went, 'That's something you can do!'” Dave remembers with revelation and the joy that comes from that moment you realize maybe the thing you love more than anything in the world could actually be a job.
“I didn't realize that that was a job that you could do, or something that you could learn, and I thought, 'Well, there must be books on this!'”
But there weren’t that many books. “It was incredibly difficult to find anything written about it at all.” So Dave transformed himself into a kind of Google monster, scouring papers, magazines, and bookstores for any and every tiny piece of information he could find on making monsters. He collected any articles he could find and read them over and over and over again. He studied his art and the artists who came before him. He was looking for a path and to learn from those who had worn it.
He closely studied the photographs of the monster men featured in the articles too, usually in their workshops: “I'd look at the photographs under a magnifying glass; if there was a shelf behind a makeup artist I'd look along the shelf to see what kinds of things he might have.” Dave was, in his own words, “back engineering,” trying to “work out how it was done” by noticing the supplies on the shelves.
I don’t tell Dave at the time but when he says this I realize I’ve done this before too. Whenever an artist I like tweets a photo with their personal bookshelf in the background I always press my thumb and pointer finger slowly away from each other to zoom in to see what books they own. Sometimes I buy those books and read them. Sometimes I wonder if this is weird. I don’t have the answer, but I like that at least now I’m not the only one who zooms in.
Dave too takes note of the supplies he discovers beneath his magnifying glass and buys them. His drama teacher, Mr. Malcolm Morrison, had noticed Dave was into makeup and had taken him to the Charles H. Fox store (established in 1876), just 40 minutes from Dave’s home in the east end of London. “I had an allowance - like a tiny amount, [and it] used to take me months to save up to go down to the makeup store to buy stuff. And then when I'd get there I'd have to choose really carefully what I was gonna get, and make sure it was something really necessary, [because] some of the stuff is like one shot kind of stuff – use it and it's gone.”
The scarcity of allowance breeding creativity.
So Dave had a new routine. Discover new supplies. Save allowance. Take a bus to Charles H. Fox. Experiment with new supplies. Repeat.
It reminds me of learning the scales that time I took band class in 7th grade. I was first put on the tuba but it swallowed me up. Then, the clarinet. My cheeks hurt and my lips got numb and I hated how much my back hurt from having to sit up so straight for an hour, not letting it lean against the seat, and playing the same thing every day. The scales. Up up up up up uppppp, down down down down dowwwwn. I quit band.
But I didn’t like the clarinet the way Dave liked makeup. The liking the scales can keep you in the seat long enough to get to play the good stuff, maybe eventually making the good stuff up for yourself.
The people who ran the makeup store started to notice Dave’s love of makeup and consistent presence and practice. “There weren't any other kids going in there, it was all professional makeup artists.” Young Dave would ask them questions about makeup and start conversations with them, and eventually when they started getting new supplies in, they’d tell Dave, “'Look we just got this stuff in, we don't really know what it does. Why don't you take it home and play with it and then you can come back in and tell us what it does and you can have it for free?'”
Dave loved this, and started making his own creative offers. “I struck a deal with them, I said, 'Okay, what if I make stuff for you, like rubber noses or chins and cups and like false teeth and stuff like this? I'll make that stuff for you, and you pay me, but you can pay me with materials.' They agreed. “That was basically the first paid makeup job I ever had…they'd pay me in makeup.”
Dave didn’t quit band. He did his scales. He also never stopped reading, always looking for more material, more articles about makeup artists. “I became a bit obsessive…I'd look everywhere and try to gather every little piece I could.” One day he found a book called Making a Monster by Al Taylor and Sue Roy. “It was all about makeup artists, so I was like, 'I have to have that.'”
This happens to me all the time with books; but I can go from the ‘I have to have that’ to reading the first sentence of that book in a matter of seconds on my Kindle. But Dave had to start by making phone calls to book stores in hopes one might carry such a niche item. “With some difficulty,” Dave remembers, he finally tracked down the book at a place in London called Forbidden Planet. They had the book - but only one copy. “I got up straight away and went down there…I was terrified somebody else would pick it up.”
But Dave got it.
He read through the whole thing immediately, soaking up all the names of all the makeup artists from past to present, “and right there at the end,” he remembers “almost as a kind of [a] post-script, there's a thing about this kid who's also doing makeup called Rick Baker.” Rick had done makeup for films like King Kong, Star Wars (episodes VI and V), and a Michael Jackson music video (“Thriller”).
Dave didn’t think much of it, but when a little while later he starts reading one of the snippets he’d found from the back of a magazine, he recognizes the name “Rick Baker” because of his book. Dave’s information gathering was starting to produce connections, webs, maybe even a path to something, though he still didn’t know what yet.
The magazine snippet said that Rick Baker was working on a movie at Elstree Studios in London, and the concept was a revelation for Dave. “I was like, 'Oh, it's a studio! You can just call a studio. And I can get their address and I can send him a letter!'”
So fifteen-year-old makeup-obsessed Dave wrote Rick Baker a letter. “A little letter,” as Dave remembers: “I wrote to him that I was a big fan of his work, that I had seen the 70’s King Kong…and that it had made me want to create stuff. I saw that he was a young man like me, and that he had achieved so much.”
I can’t help but get stuck on the phrase, like me – how powerful it can be when we see people we relate to doing something we dream of. It also reminds me of the inverse, how hard it is when you don’t see anyone like you in the places where you aspire. It’s why trailblazing is bloody business.
Rick had blazed a trail for Dave, and Dave had done the work to find the breadcrumbs. And while Dave was excited to write the letter, he knew he wouldn’t hear back from someone like Rick. But he wrote the address for the studio on the envelope and sent it anyway.
I can’t help but wonder if Rick, an artist himself, recognized another artist in that letter, recognized someone willing to do the work. Because Dave’s “little letter” received a two-page response from Rick, ending with an invitation for Dave to call.
Dave was surprised to receive the letter and while he was thrilled at a response, he was also terrified: “I was incredibly nervous and very, very afraid of what he might say.”
Dave dialed the number Rick gave in the letter, and Rick said: “‘Look, why don't you come down [to the studio] and I'll show you around.’”
Dave took the day off from school and went to Elstree Studios to meet Rick Baker. “Career days” can seem like a trite tradition in schools, but I have yet to meet someone who cannot point to that moment where they encountered a person doing a thing they wanted to do and how it changed everything.
Dave arrived at Elstree studios, assuming he’d shake hands with Rick, hear about his cool life, and be on his way. “I thought it would maybe be for an hour or something.” But instead, “It ended up being an entire day.”
Rick walked Dave around the studios and showed him all the work he was doing for the film Greystoke. “It was a Tarzan film and he was making all the ape suits for it and I just thought it was absolutely amazing. It blew my mind.”
But it also made Dave realize something, a prickly awareness most dreamers must contend with early in the journey: “I was a long way away from being able to realize my dreams.” The distance between him and Rick, between his experiments and professional movie projects, between doing something after school and doing it for a living, felt like a great chasm.
It reminds me of one of my favorite Sara Bareilles lyrics: “Compare where you are to where you want to be, and you'll get nowhere…”
I heard those lyrics for the first time while folding clothes in my bedroom, still wearing pajamas at 2pm, frazzled from raising a puppy and frustrated with writers block. I knew I should have been working on my book, or the article that was due in a few days, but instead I opted to fold clothes while listening to Pandora. The truth is, I was devastated. I was not where I wanted to be. I was still reeling from graduate school rejections and feeling like I was not really good enough to be a writer. I felt unwanted and untalented and ungrateful.
Then Sara’s writing snuck into my room. Her song, “Uncharted,” bounced off the walls in my room and, for the first time in my life, I understood what people who said music “got them through” something actually meant. It was the first time I stopped what I was doing to just listen to a song.
“Compare where you are to where you want to be, and you'll get nowhere…”
I mulled over the lyric for a year. I loved it, but I also wrestled with it. I’m writing a book about dreams, after all - the very concept of projecting where you want to be from where you are, and trying to close the gap – trying to get somewhere. But getting nowhere? Hm. That sounded sad. "But what Sara sang felt so true, every time.
I started to wonder if the key word was compare, if the comparing is the part that can be discouraging, debilitating, halting - the kind of comparing that leads to thinking that where you are now is somehow less than.
So perhaps exposure to what you want plus comparison can be destructive. But what happens when exposure meets encouragement? Rocket fuel.
Rick didn’t condescend or puff himself up around Dave. He welcomed him. He taught him. He showed him around. He opened doors.
Hard work can help you find a locked door, but sometimes it’s only the kindness of a person on the other side who can open it.
Rick gave Dave a little notebook. “'Okay here's a notebook, here's a pen. I'm gonna tell you a lot of stuff, I want you to write it all down, cause otherwise you're gonna forget it. I'm gonna take you down to all the different departments in the shop, and show you all the different things.'”
Sometimes we need other people to show us all the things. Access is a commodity, and one of the greatest gifts.
Rick “was so fantastic and so great,” Dave remembers. He showed him all the things, and encouraged him to keep practicing the craft.
What helped Dave not feel too overwhelmed at the distance he still had to go was direction. Rick gave him something to do now. “At the end of the day he gave me a bunch of masks to take home, and he said, 'Just take these home, just practice sculpting them over and over again...when you can get the look like the sculpts I've given you, you'll be able to sculpt everything.'”
Rick gave Dave the sheet music. The scales.
That meeting with Rick, Dave says, “completely altered the course of my life.”
Dave took the masks home and took Rick’s advice. “I probably spent next to three years sculpting them over and over again.”
Dave couldn’t find an art school for makeup artists, so he created his own. “I'd get home from school like at four o'clock, and then I'd work til midnight doing makeups, and then I'd go to bed, and then get up and then go to school and then repeat. And on the weekends I got to do it all day every day, so, just every single moment, every waking moment that I could get I'd try to do it.” Up up up up up uppppp, down down down down dowwwwn.
His family noticed. “I had great parents who were very encouraging of me, [but we] lived in a really small apartment. My aunt and uncle lived 20 minutes away and they had a house, and they said, 'Look, we can see that you're interested in this stuff…We'll give you a room in the house, you can turn it into like a little studio, and you can put all your stuff here rather than…screw up your mother's home.' That was amazing because then suddenly I could do stuff on a scale that was worth doing, and I could make a little bit more mess than I would have done otherwise.”
I can’t think of a dream that doesn’t require a space (real or proverbial) where you’re allowed to make a mess.
His aunt and uncle also had a spare bedroom that Dave would sleep in right next to the studio which led to a process he made up to determine if his art was any good; he calls it “night standing: You take the mask, and you set it up all looking great by the side of your bed, and then you go to sleep. And then when you wake up in the morning, you look over at the mask, and if it looks cool then you've done a good job, but if it doesn't look cool then you go argh; [either way] it's immediately apparent. So for years I was sleeping with like monsters by the bed. You know how people talk about having monsters under the bed? I had monsters by the bed.”
(When I write the first draft of Dave’s story I leave it open on my computer when I go to sleep and then review it first thing the next morning.)
At this point of the story I can’t imagine any kid doing more to become a professional makeup artist. I can’t imagine his practice and supreme focus and dedication not paying off right away. But the thing is, it doesn’t. All dreams hit reality, but it’s what they do at that point that separates them. The delusional dreams are the ones that ignore reality, the possible dreams are the ones that acknowledge reality, and try to harness it to create a new one.
Dave graduates high school and can’t get a job as a makeup artist. Reality: “There were a lot of union laws and things in England at that time, and it's very difficult to get in. Basically you had to have worked on a movie to get into the union, but you couldn't work on a movie unless you were in the union.” Dave was stuck in that vicious cycle anyone experiences when looking for their first job - no one wants to hire you without experience, but you can’t get experience until someone hires you.
But Dave had already spent too much time working on his craft to be so easily deterred.
Dave hit his first wall, but he got creative. Using the research skills he developed as a kid he paid close attention to the industry, hoping to discover another pathway to his dream - and he found one. “There was an emerging art form called animatronics which is basically kind of working in the special effects field with makeup and stuff but it was more of a kind of a robotics and engineering side and I thought, 'I don't know much about that but I know just enough, I think, to get by.’”
Just enough. Sometimes that’s all you can do when you’re going for a dream. Find just enough to break in, to get by, to keep going.
He got a job in the animatronics department on the film Little Shop of Horrors. “[It] was a terrific training ground” he remembers. He worked with a team on Audrey, “the singing dancing plant” in the movie, and “by the end of that I knew how to do animatronics too. I picked it up incredibly quickly because it wasn't far…from the other stuff I was interested in.”
Sometimes the wall leads to new skills, new crafts, new experiences you could’ve never dreamed of.
Now Dave had the movie experience he needed on his resume, but there was still a problem. “People thought that I was an animatronics guy now which is weird because I set out to be a makeup artist. [And] there weren't many animatronics jobs [either].”
Even after all that, Dave still wasn’t getting work.
Those moments when no one wants to hire you. Those moments where you wonder if this means you aren’t any good. Or worse, that you’ll never be any good. If you are perhaps delusional. If perhaps you don’t have what it takes. If perhaps when you thought you were trying to create new reality you were just ignoring reality, and now it’s coming for you with a vengeance.
Dave remembers, “there was a really really rough year, a really rough year, where I hardly worked at all.” But of course everyone rallied around him and said “Keep going Dave we believe in you - never give uppppp!!!”
Nope. Instead people started to say the thing that most people who go for stuff know very well, the siren’s call to any dreamer when reality bites: “‘Maybe you should think about [doing] something else.'”
But Dave did not want to give up make up before he’d even really tried to do it professionally. Instead, he decided, “I’m gonna see what I can do.'” He hung in there. But he was running out of money.
Then a friend reached out, a friend he’d actually made during the Rick Baker tour of Elstree Studios, another young makeup artist named Steve Norrington. Steve became a very good makeup artist, but halfway through his career, as Dave tells it, “he said, 'I'm not gonna do this anymore, I'm gonna become a director.' And everybody said, 'Hah! Good luck with that, you can't just change careers.'
“So anyways he went off and he became a director.”
Steve reached out to Dave and said, “'Will you do the effects for me?'” It was for Steve’s first film, so Dave agreed to do it at cost, as long as Steve provided the materials, a little workshop, and just enough to live on.
Steve agreed, and the film indeed provided just enough to live on, even food. “Literally I was eating catering…I couldn't go out and buy food to live so I was eating just what the catering people were bringing around.”
That job helped Dave go from the little studio in his aunt and uncle’s house to his first professional studio, and after the movie ended he kept the tiny workshop at Pinewood Studios. But Dave was still struggling to find work as a makeup artist. No one would hire him to do makeup; they still only saw him as an animatronics guy. Typecasted.
So Dave decided to hire himself for the role he knew he could play, even though no one else seemed believe in what he could do at the time.
“[I thought] ‘I'll set up my own company and then I'll be the one that lets me do what I wanna do!’ I'll be the one that goes, 'Dave, why don't you be a makeup artist?’ ‘Oh, thank you very much, Dave I think I will!'”
Dave started his own business as a makeup artist and everything was perfect from there.
Just kidding. As Dave remembers it, “I had no money and it was terrifying.”
I imagine that anyone who’s invested in themselves or their art or their ideas has said the exact same thing at some point. Investing in yourself is terrifying. TERRIFYING. Like, monster-makeup-done-by-an-expert-monster-makeup-artist terrifying.
But sometimes that fear creates pressure that actually helps.
For Dave, the pressure of having to pay for his workshop at Pinewood Studios motivated him. “I thought, 'Well, this is sink or swim time.” He knew if he didn’t get any work, he would lose his studio. “It was a scary thing to do but I kept it on.”
That wheeling and dealing kid at the Charles H Fox makeup store had grown up and his propensity for creating makeup projects with a small allowance became an asset to his business. He started getting clients who really appreciated the high quality he could give them even if they didn’t have a huge budget. “If something [went] wrong when I was a kid, then I would have to pay for [it] myself, so [I learned] really quickly if you've done something and it doesn't work, that's your pocket money gone, and so you go, 'Okay, how do I not do that again?'” The lessons of entrepreneurship. The things you learn when the stakes are your own livelihood.
“The company took off, and I started to get a good reputation to be able to do realistic looking makeup and nice stuff on a budget…I got a few commercials, and then got some TV work, and then a few movies.”
His company ran on a variety of odd jobs like that for three years. Until one day when he bumped into a friend who worked at the Jim Henson Studios in a parking lot. “[He] laid out a bunch of movies that they were doing there all at the same time which sounded great to me [compared] to my one commercial or whatever it is that I was doing, and then at the end of this big list he said, 'Oh we're also doing this other show, it's like a little sci-fi thing but it seems a little dated to me, I don't think that's gonna go.'”
But Dave, ever that enthusiastic kid, expressed his genuine excitement about the sci-fi thing. He thought it sounded cool. They finished catching up and said goodbye, Dave thinking nothing of it.
But about a week later, the Henson Studios guy calls him up and “says, 'Hey, you know you said you're interested in this [sci-fi] thing? Would you like to head it up?'”
I can’t help but think about that kid who unapologetically loved monster movies and spent time after school making masks – how a kid like that can grow up into a person who still isn’t afraid to express enthusiasm. Sometimes so much of growing up seems to be about bridling enthusiasm, slaying zeal, tempering eagerness. I love that Dave’s fervor leads to grown up job opportunities.
The Henson Studios guy asks Dave to head up the makeup and special effects for the sci-fi show, to be a creative supervisor for Jim Henson's Creature Shop, a role that requires knowledge of both animatronics and monster makeup. Which Dave had.
Dave said yes.
“‘Only thing is’” the Henson Studios guy said, “‘it's in Australia.'”
Dave had never done work outside of where he grew up. “The only locations I'd ever had were around Europe and the UK, so I thought, 'Alright, what do I do?'” It didn’t take long for him to decide. “Well…go!” He laughs as he remembers the decision to make the leap. Dave and his wife Lou, also a talented costume designer and special effects artist, moved to Australia. The sci-fi show, Farscape, went on for five years.
After the show they moved back to London, and Dave’s work was getting noticed. He got a call he never dreamed of getting. “George Lucas and his producer called me up and said, 'Would you be interested in doing Star Wars?'” Dave said yes. But the filming was in Australia. So Dave and Lou jumped right back on a plane for Australia, and the guy who couldn’t get anyone to hire him as a makeup artist is hired by George Lucas.
Dave feels lucky that someone like Lucas noticed his work, but he also believes that “having great luck takes hard work.
“Nobody gets anywhere doing nothing. None of these things really truly drop into your lap. You have to actually do the work and then that can lead to the next thing. You never know what the next thing is but you just keep trying to do work as good as you can and make everything you do better than the last thing that you did and in that way, you hopefully keep stepping forward and keep making more luck for yourself.
“And of course, there are the people who will continue to say, ‘Well, you know, maybe you should think about something else’ or will tell you along the way that there's no way that you can do what you're dreaming of. But you have to just keep going, 'No!' Tenaciously saying, 'No, no, this is what I'm gonna do.' And keep doing it.”
Dave keeps doing it. He does Star Wars. He doesn’t stop trying to get better.
In 2011, he is nominated for an Oscar for his makeup work on The Wolfman.
Cate Blanchett announces his category, and opens the envelope. “And the Oscar goes to…
Applause erupts and the camera zooms in on the back of a man with a very long, perfect, white ponytail cascading down the back of his suit, one in which the term “pony tail” suddenly makes more sense than it ever has before. But that man isn’t Dave.
Dave is getting up too, short brown hair cropped close, a huge smile, perhaps the same one he wore as a kid when he looked at himself in the mirror after molding plasticine to his face, walking a few steps behind the guy with the long white pony tail.
The man with the pony tail worked with Dave on The Wolfman. They’ve both won the Oscar together, and are making their way towards the stage.
The man with the pony tail holds his Oscar and speaks into the microphone first; he thanks his wife deeply and then turns to his colleague and says with overflowing joy and shine, “Go Dave!”
Dave holds his Oscar tight and thanks his colleagues and his wife, and then says: “It was always my ambition to lose an Oscar one day to Rick Baker…this is better.”
The man with the long white pony tail is Rick Baker, the young makeup artist who answered Dave’s letter, who invited him to Elstree Studio, who gave him all those masks to copy. Decades later, they win an Oscar together, as a team. They walk off stage, look at each other, and click their Oscars together, smiling. A toast.
Dave doesn’t sleep with monsters right next to his bed anymore, but he does still use the “night standing” technique in his work, the one he developed as a kid at his aunt and uncle’s house. “The Beast [from Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast] is in my workshop right now,” he tells me with the kind of joy you would think might wane after 30 years since his first job on Little Shop of Horrors. But he goes on with what can only be described as childlike wonder. “Once we get it all together and we get it looking cool, we ‘night stand’ it in the work shop: we set it up in a prominent place, and then we say goodnight and we all go home…[and] go to bed. And then in the morning, we come in and it’s all set up and looks cool. We’re like “Oh yeah! It does look good!”