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Patrick Tatopoulos has progressed from designing some unforgettable creatures—for PITCH BLACK, SILENT HILL and the UNDERWORLD series, among many others—to feature-film director on UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, with more projects planned. However, Tatopoulos never imagined he’d take a career detour into being a judge on a reality series, but that’s his gig on Syfy’s FACE OFF. For eight weeks, Tatopoulos and fellow makeup/creature FX artists Glenn Hetrick and multiple Oscar winner Ve Neill have critiqued the efforts of a group of up-and-comers who aspire to follow in the judges’ footsteps. Tonight marks the season finale, with the four finalists, er, facing off for the top prize.
Tatopoulos’ French background is very evident as he sits on a patio at a Pasadena hotel during a party thrown by NBC Universal at the Television Critics Association press tour, discussing FACE OFF (with a fair amount of input from fellow judge Hetrick) as well as his body of work so far. Both Tatopoulos and Hetrick say that if FACE OFF had been around when they were starting out, they might have thought twice about competing on it.
“I would have absolutely loved the opportunity to get this level of exposure,” Hetrick explains, “but I don’t know that my personality would necessarily have been well-suited for competing in the show.” Tatopoulos agrees: “It’s a very good point. You need to want to do this. It’s a very special thing. I don’t picture you doing the show, actually,” he tells Hetrick with a laugh. “I probably would also be a little hesitant—maybe more, because I’m not sure if I’m that competitive and would want to be out there competing with people, [with] the pressure. They are amazing, those kids, being able to handle this kind of pressure. The pressure is stronger than what we do on shows in real life.”
At least on a real job, there aren’t a bunch of other creature FX artists designing competing monsters in the same space. Tatopoulos says he’s impressed with the FACE OFF participants for being able to deal with it. “One of the most interesting things about this show is the fact that they work together in one shop, and some of them have come up with very similar concepts. On one of the projects, [two teams] looked at each other and realized they were actually doing the same creature, the same concept as the other was building. They had 15 hours, and after three or four, they realized they were building the same thing. They had to back up and rethink. It was an incredible challenge.”
“Everyone had to work in a room with their own competition,” Hetrick adds. “I wouldn’t want to be around the guys who own the other shops. We have a mutual reverence and respect for one another, but when there’s a prize… Let’s say there’s this huge show that your shop’s going to feed off of for the next year, but to get it, you and everybody else who owns a shop has to get into a room and basically create makeup, and whoever comes up with the best one gets the whole show. It’s like I said before, I have a gigantic amount of respect for everyone on the show. No one walked away, no one quit, and that in and of itself is a huge feather in their cap.”
Tatopoulos and Hetrick had not met one another prior to taking part in FACE OFF, but they have become fast friends. “I’m a huge fan of Patrick’s,” Hetrick says. “When I was just coming up [as a professional makeup artist], he was somebody I always worshipped—the designs, the projects he would pick to work on. There are a ton of things I could choose that I love about his work. Now that we know each other, we’ve started talking about things, even judging the show. In one challenge, the things that were built through the arms, it hit a common chord with us—that sort of antediluvian, H.G. Wells/Jules Verne feel. We have a shared aesthetic, and Patrick designs it so well. Things like DARK CITY [on which Tatopoulos was production designer], which is one of my all-time favorite movies. The look of that movie is just brilliant. So it was a little overwhelming to meet him for the first time and sit shoulder to shoulder with him,” Hetrick laughs.
Tatopoulos jokes about Hetrick’s appeal: “Well, the tattoos on Glenn are very special,” he laughs, referring to Hetrick’s intricate sleeve skin art. “Just kidding. Sometimes you meet people and it doesn’t really go anywhere. With Glenn, we really clicked. End of story. I believe we have a similar vision, we like the same things as people. It starts with that. When I put a shop together with my crew, I like to see how good they are. I also like to see who they are as people. And when you click with someone, half the job is done already. You talk together and you know you’re going to go to the same place. I feel like I’ve known Glenn forever.”
Hetrick says it’s the same with fellow judge Neill and FACE OFF hostess McKenzie Westmore, scion of the Westmore makeup dynasty. “It’s a little strange. We’re sitting here just months past the genesis of this entire thing, and it feels like we’ve spent half of our lives together. We all have this huge shared history.”
The FACE OFF judging duties haven’t taken too big a bite out of either man’s schedule. Hetrick’s Optic Nerve shop is in capable hands while he’s out, and Tatopoulos reports, “My shop is actually closed now. I have moved on to directing.” On that subject, it could be a bit intimidating to tackle a first feature as director that’s actually third in a film franchise, as was the case with UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS—even though he’d been with the series since its inception as creature designer. “I was a little concerned about that, when they gave me the job,” he recalls. “I did think, ‘This is a great chance for me,’ but at the same time, I thought, ‘Kate [Beckinsale, lead in the first two films] is not going to be there. We could go straight to video. It could be a terrible situation.’ And so we were ecstatic when we opened at $21 million. It was been a fantastic experience. It set me up for other projects that are happening right now, as we speak.
“I’ve always done creatures and production design,” he continues. “I did the design on I, ROBOT—I designed the robot, I built it in the shop and also did the sets. It became a little too much for me. The way I want to work is basically, the project I work on, I want to be the talent next time. I don’t want to necessarily go to an old creature shop—though I have begun to start a great relationship with Glenn—I’d like to put a team together, sculptors, painters and all those guys, so I’m not stealing away from the world. I actually just designed some of the monsters for the new SILENT HILL, and I’m designing the new werewolf for UNDERWORLD 4, so I’m still a creature guy. It’s not going away for me, whatever I do on the side.”
The genre world is where Tatopoulos expects to remain, whether he’s making monsters or entire movies. “Everybody needs to keep changing and doing new things. When I did RISE OF THE LYCANS, I came into [directing] with a movie that was part of a franchise. It’s not like I could reinvent the wheel. The movie had those blue tones—stylistically, that’s part of UNDERWORLD. So I think I’m due to do something that will be my signature movie. I need to do a couple of those, a few projects I will work on, and maybe one day, I’ll move on to other things, but right now, this is what I want to do.”
There is a solid tradition of FX shop chieftains becoming filmmakers, with Guillermo del Toro being a prime example. Tatopoulos beams, “He’s my hero. As I’m starting to direct movies, I’m looking at his career, and one thing I like about his career is, Guillermo is not afraid to do big Hollywood movies and then disappear and do something very discreet, small and yet still incredible. I like someone who doesn’t feel that every time he does a new film, he needs to go to a higher budget, a bigger Hollywood movie. I like his way of thinking. So I’m hoping to be part of that tradition. He’s definitely my inspiration.”
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