Award-winning Queenstown-based hair and makeup artist Noriko Watanabe on her 35-year career in the film and television industry, including celebrated Kiwi director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, shot on location in the South Island. Interview Josie Steenhart; Photos Kirsty Griffin / Netflix
My mother had several beauty salons in Japan and she was doing very similar work – this was before people started to call themselves ‘hair and makeup’. From a young age, I would go into the studio and help her – she specialised in ceremonial styles. I have a photo of me handing a pin over at the age of three, so I must’ve liked it. I learned skills from her that prepared me for projects like Memoirs of a Geisha.
I started in fashion and at an actor’s request I began working in film. In 1982 I landed in Australia and the overseas film industry started for me there. I’ve never thought of doing anything else.
Creating and telling stories by hair styling and makeup.
I also love the collaboration with other people, especially if it’s a great script and an amazing director. We all do the job of our department differently, but we all move together in the direction of that director’s vision. When a great crew and technicians are moving together, I can feel that great energy and there really is nothing like it when you all get into the zone.
I fell in love with Queenstown at first sight. When I arrived, I saw beautiful mountains through the gorge and on the horizon. I’m an ocean person but I fell in love with the mountains and the lake.
When I go home, I feel like a fish that has returned to water. It’s a very spiritual place; it energises me. I could fill a hundred pages just talking about what I love about Queenstown.
I loved doing The Top of the Lake there, working from home for the first time.
It was a great script, a great director and an amazing crew.
I felt a really positive energy. It was a very serene environment and I could feel everyone’s creativity was heading towards the director’s vision. It was a beautiful thing.
First the cowhands would arrive, and we’d start to work on them. Jane would treat every actor like they were a lead with her attention to detail, so my team would be staining the teeth, making them up according to a cowhand’s activities. Then our ensemble cast would arrive.
The Power of the Dog was a low-budget film, so we worked in a way that was mindful about our budget and our skilled technicians would work efficiently so we could get our cast to set.
I do. I learn about that character and the year in which the story takes place. More than anything, I need to know how they lived and their economic status.
I will make a product how they used to make it too, in order to test and find out the consistency and texture. Then I will accommodate this with a modern product.
When I worked with the director Martin Scorsese [on Gangs of New York], I worked with a New York historian to determine the accuracy of the design.
Jane is no exception in this appreciation for research and attention to detail. Her generosity is to throw something at me, like an idea or suggestion, and then give me the space to figure it out. It can be very challenging to meet her vision, technically and spiritually, but it’s a gift to be continually challenged.
Jane pays very particular attention to how a character looks and I follow her lead to achieve the vision she has in her head and her heart. My vision is her vision. Ever since we started working together on The Piano, Jane’s vision has changed for each film – there isn’t a template and The Power of the Dog is no exception.
Rose’s character was interesting to explore. Her wig and makeup reflected the character as a working-class widow. Although it was set in 1925, I opted to show a design that reflected a self-taught and self-done image. Her wig and makeup become more dishevelled and distorted as she succumbs to Phil’s torment, that leads to alcoholism and depression.
Instead of just going for the typical 1920’s look I wanted to go with more of how Rose lived – with no beauty salon nearby, in a very remote place. It was fun to show the contrast between her and people like Mr and Mrs Burbank and their distinguished city folk look.
I worked with Kirsten when she was doing Spiderman 2 – she was very trusting of me on that project, so it was really nice to see her and work with her again. This was not an easy hair and makeup look to wear but she was very trusting of me and Jane.
Benedict was asked by Jane to be in character at all times. In my trailer I had a separate small room and I made that space special for him, treating it like a sanctuary. On the first day, the door to this room opened and he looked out and told my crew, “If you talk to me and I don’t respond, please forgive me. My character is pretty nasty but I’m a nice person.” Then he closed the door and didn’t open it again. He and I would stay quiet as we worked. I would accommodate any mood he was preparing, and I would like to think we worked together well.
When I had to prepare both of them in the morning (which didn’t happen often), I would do Kirsten first and my team would wait with everything ready to go. When she was done, we’d change everything on the makeup counter out for Benedict. We would never leave any evidence Kirsten was there before he would walk into the trailer because the Rose and Phil characters were not supposed to mix.
I met Jane in Los Angeles after working with Andrew McAlpine on a film in Hong Kong. He came to my home to say, “Noriko I want to do a film called The Piano together”. Time passed and later, in LA after I’d had a baby, I met Jane and the script was given to me. It was an unusually thin script, but when I started to read it, I felt like I could smell the season – it so beautifully described the surroundings of the story. She shared with me a mood board, which she does for every film, and from the moment I saw it, I became addicted to that powerful vision.
I have worked with her since she was 19 on quite a few projects, including Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady. Nicole was very talented and extremely disciplined; I had never met a young person so well read.
She hasn’t changed – she’s always pushing herself to achieve and is very kind.
I’d like to get back as soon as I can as all my family is there.
I’d love to do more projects with the amazing and talented crew in New Zealand. Thanks to Peter Owen, some of the top wig technicians work there.
I’d also like to eat a hāngī.
Yes, this fish would like to return to water very soon.