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Thursday, 16 May 2013

Creating the Kurgan


David Howe discovers the Make-Up secrets of Highlander's Kurgan.

Russell Mulcahy's Highlander was the surprise hit of 1986. This tale of immortal beings battling through time also featured some startling make-up effects, courtesy of Sandra Exelby. Exelby's career has spanned television and film - she started as an assistant at the BBC in 1965, working on, amongst other things, the very first Cyberman story for Doctor Who, and she came to work on Highlander almost by accident.

"Lois Burwell was actually the supervisor on the film and I came in after about six weeks filming up in Scotland. They were shooting the early Scottish battle scenes, and they'd been working under dreadful conditions from four in the morning with crowds of three hundred people, all in period Scottish highland dress with beards and wigs. They were filthy dirty, they were involved in this huge battle so people were covered in blood. The ground was muddy and boggy, in some places knee-deep! They'd finish shooting at eight o'clock at night when everything had to be cleaned and prepared for the next morning and were getting back to the hotel at eleven to snatch some sleep before a four am start the following day.

"This had been going on for six weeks. Then they came back to London and started some of the other sequences. I was called in because Nick Maley, who was the special effects make-up designer on the film, was taken ill. He had designed the make-up for the main baddie called the Kurgan, and he was also doing an ageing make-up on Beatie Edney to make her look sixty-plus. Nick had had three attempts at doing the ageing on Beatie Edney and Russell Mulcahy hadn't liked any of them, then Nick was rushed off to hospital with a heart attack and subsequently left the film, leaving his assistant, Bob Keen in charge. Bob, who's since done Hellraiser and Nightbreed, and I knew each other from Space Vampires (released as Lifeforce), so he called me up and said would you come in and do this ageing make-up for me? So I went in on the Friday and did the test with Beatie, and they liked it so much that they asked me to attend the actual shoot on the Saturday. Then on the Monday morning the producer rang me and asked if I would take over the make-up on the Kurgan, which was a four-hour prosthetic make-up.

"In the story, after Sean Connery has trained Christopher Lambert, the Kurgan and Connery have a fight. Connery slits the throat of the Kurgan, but because he doesn't completely decapitate him, he doesn't die - you can only kill an immortal by decapitation. During the fight, however, the Kurgan decapitates Sean Connery and kills him. Skip forward several centuries to modern day, and we find the Kurgan in New York with a very bad scar right round his neck, and long hair. He kills another immortal who had arrived in New York and that killing is witnessed and a description of him appears in the papers. He therefore disguises himself by shaving his head apart from one tassel of hair which emerges from a dragon tattoo, and he sticks eight safety pins through the scar in his neck to make him look like a punk.

"Clancy Brown, who played the Kurgan, had straight shoulder length hair at the time. This was flattened to his head and pulled tightly away from his hairline so that the prosthetic could be attached. The head was made from foam latex by Bob Keen and his workshop crew and was a marvellous piece of sculpting. It looked good and went on the actor very easily. The prosthetic had four basic parts: the front and crown, two sides and the nape and back of the neck. These were stuck together after the first fitting so that the entire headpiece went on as one. It fitted along the hairline, over and around the ears, over the shoulders and onto the front of the chest. We stuck the nape of the neck down onto the shoulder blades to provide tension and to give realistic movement in the fights. The edges of the prosthetic were then glued down using a prosthetic adhesive and then filled and covered to conceal the edges. The head was then painted with an airbrush, shading the cheeks, temples and along the brow, and the tattoo was also painted on. The head was then covered with finely chopped hair so it looked as though it had been shaved. Around his right eye we laid in seven tribal scars. These were made from plastic scar material every day. His eye sockets were deepened and darkened to increase the look of evil. Every day the scar around his neck was sculpted freehand in the plastic scar material and then the eight safety pins were stuck into it. To complete the effect he was fitted with a pair of black contact lenses.

"Although the make-up took about four hours a day to apply, Clancy and I managed to make it enjoyable. He helped by passing various jars and glue and paint and anything that helped pass the time for him. Four hours in a make-up chair is no joke but we managed to get through it with smiles and laughter.

"Then after what was usually a ten to twelve hour shooting day we had to take the make-up off. This would take up to an hour of gently easing a brush of adhesive remover under the edges of the prosthetic so that the whole thing would come off undamaged enabling us to use it again the next day. When all the make-up and adhesive was removed, we cleansed his skin with antiseptic creams, making sure he was clean and unblemished, particularly checking for any signs of irritation or allergic reaction to any of the chemicals - make-up or cleansers.

"I was very pleased with the way it came out, and Clancy was wonderful and patient when it came to putting the make-up on."