LOS ANGELES — Once you saw past the stage smoke and secret curtain, the great and powerful Oz seemed like a pretty lonely guy whose citadel had too many hallways and not enough heartbeats. It’s hard not to wonder if the same applies to Hollywood wizard Rick Baker, but maybe that’s just because of the giant hourglass and the flying monkeys that decorate his shadowy office.
“It’s quiet around here until the next job,” said the seven-time Oscar winner. Baker is the most celebrated creature creator in movie history, but he now has reached a career chapter where he only will take on projects that possess a special challenge or sentimental appeal.
This summer Baker is celebrating his 40th anniversary in the business of makeup, visual effects and monster construction — he was an apprentice to makeup master Dick Smith on “The Exorcist.” The 61-year-old’s latest work is “Men in Black 3,” the somewhat unexpected return of a franchise that has consumed (and frustrated) Baker more than any other Hollywood venture.
“Men in Black 3” sees Will Smith reprise his role as Agent J, who, along with other secret operatives, is tasked to monitor and police all extraterrestrial activity on Earth, which (unknown to the public) is a bustling Grand Central Station for off-planet visitors who arrive with either tourism or tyranny in mind. Tommy Lee Jones is back too, although his character, the caustic Agent K, is portrayed in most of the film by franchise newcomer Josh Brolin. That’s because Smith’s character goes back in time to 1960s to work with a younger version of his persnickety partner.
The time-travel motif applies to the Sony series in real life as well; the “MIB” franchise started 15 years ago and a full decade has passed since the second film, creating the question of whether young moviegoers will greet this installment as an old friend or an unfamiliar alien face.
The stakes are high too. The 3-D release, like other summer 2012 entries “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” cost more than $200 million to make. For Baker, all of those factors, plus the anniversary and the strong possibility that the film is his last “MIB” expedition, have made this feel like a milestone moment.
On a recent afternoon, Baker gave a visitor a tour of his 33,000-square-foot Glendale headquarters, which features an indoor cemetery, castle-rampart facades and a gallery of props and creatures. You’ll find the furry or freakish characters from “Planet of the Apes” (2001), “The Nutty Professor” (1996), “Wolf” (1994), “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) and “The Ring” (2002).
One whole wall is devoted to a gallery of intergalactic souls from the “Men in Black” franchise, and that real estate was well-earned. Baker says the three films together are easily the most intense, persistent, frustrating and defining brand name in his body of work, a career that includes more than 50 feature films, years of television and projects including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and “Captain EO” mini-movie.
The challenge of creating dozens of varied alien species for each film attracted Baker to the first “MIB,” and his efforts on it led to an Oscar. But it wasn’t easy.
“We did more design work on that film than we did for every other movie that I’ve done all put together,” Baker said.
Every design went to director Barry Sonnenfeld, who has led all three “MIB” movies, producer Walter F. Parkes and also executive producer Steven Spielberg. But the creative team members were often distracted with other duties or projects and their notes on talons, tentacles and eyeballs would contradict one another or, taken collectively, leave Baker with a mish-mash beastie and a bad case of project alienation.
“Design by community is not the best way to work, and it consumed all of this time we needed to be working,” said Baker, who had specialists sitting waiting for something to move beyond the illustration stage.
Sonnenfeld views Baker as a true partner, although he acknowledges that his own lurching efforts to articulate what he really wants — and his changing opinions — create plenty of consternation for Baker as he returns again and again to the drawing board.
“What I do,” Sonnenfeld said without regret, “is frustrate him.”
In the new sequel, which features some winking nods to extraterrestrials of cinema past, Baker himself appears on screen as an alien with a cut-away cranium that leaves his brain exposed — entirely fitting for a Hollywood maverick who has never kept a lid on his thoughts or impolitic opinions.
“I’m amazed that movies ever get finished at all — much less come out good once in a while,” Baker said. “It’s an awful lot of work and it can go wrong a thousand different ways. I hate wasting time or money and that happens all the time for no good reason, and then people save money by skimping on the important things.”
Last year at San Diego’s Comic-Con International, he publicly cautioned that this third “Men in Black” seemed to be in real trouble because it had started without a finished script and looked like it could collapse in on itself. And what does he think now?
“I was really surprised — I saw an almost finished cut of it and it was really good, my jaw dropped actually,” Baker said, adding that Brolin has brought a new crackle to the series.
As for his own work, Baker says it’s difficult for him to choose a favorite creation, though when pressed he usually goes with hairy old Harry from “Harry and the Hendersons” (1987), a big-footed, sweet-faced giant who despite his stillness and artificial origins seems startlingly alive in person.
Back in the 1990s, Baker’s workshop employed dozens of people, and the pace was so intense that it led Baker to ask himself why he was constantly expanding a business that would need more business to pay for the expansion. After his parents died in fairly quick succession about a decade ago, he shifted into a selective vendor approach and hires workers for each job.
The hardest thing, he says, is competing with the past. Since his days as a boy with a wild imagination, obsessively reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and dreaming of fake blood and mad scientist work, movie creations have taken virtually every size and shape, so it’s nearly impossible to do something truly original, whether sculpting with foam rubber or digital tools.
“Since the cantina scene (in ‘Star Wars’) ... a lot of the possibilities have been explored,” Baker said. “You’re painted into a corner.”
Baker said the question he’s most often asked is whether he has nightmares. If he has, he can’t remember — as a kid he went to sleep every night in a room full of ghoul heads and fanged faces. They’ve always been his silent friends — and despite the frustrations of working within the confines of a sometimes dysfunctional Hollywood system, he’s happy to live a somewhat solitary life among his magnificent creatures.
“You have your battles, but that’s moviemaking,” Baker said. “I’m not complaining; it’s all I ever wanted to do. And the monsters have been really good to me.”