Thrill seeker

Thrill seeker

By Michael Pickard
November 23, 2023

Job Description

From working on Netflix series Bodies to creating decomposing bodies in her garden, hair, make-up and prosthetics designer Melanie Lenihan speaks to DQ about her career in high-end television and how she’s helping others to overcome the barriers she has faced in the business.

When War of the Worlds became the first high-end television drama to resume production after the first Covid wave in 2020, it was only possible thanks to the huge amount of preparation the crew had undertaken while they were still living in lockdown.

For Bafta-winning hair and make-up designer Melanie Lenihan, that meant turning her garden into a prosthetics studio and creating 40 decomposing bodies for the second season of the HG Wells adaptation.

With the story restarting six months after season one, “I set about making 40 dead bodies in my garden with no help apart from my two teenage sons, who I had to quickly teach how to do prosthetics,” she tells DQ.

“But when we got there [to production] with our 40 dead bodies, the producer said, ‘Mel, we’ve got something to tell you. We’re now just two weeks later.’ So me and my team – and I had to get others in to help – were desperately sticking flesh to these decaying dead bodies I’d made. We had days to turn it around. That was definitely one of my biggest challenges over the last few years.”

Working in the film and television industry for nearly 15 years, Lenihan has come to specialise in big budget drama, particularly where prosthetics are called for. Her first major series designer role came on ITV crime drama Marcella in 2018, and she’s since racked up credits on The One, The Lazarus Project, The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself and recent Netflix release Bodies, as well as War of the Worlds. Some of her film work has also seen her join the teams on The Batman, Black Widow and Avengers: Endgame.

Melanie Lenihan spent lockdown making 40 dead bodies

This year, the Yorkshire-based artist has spent most of her time in Budapest, where she has been working on forthcoming drama The Day of the Jackal. Written by Ronan Bennett (Top Boy), the Sky and Peacock series reimagines Frederick Forsyth’s thriller novel of the same name, with a cast led by Eddie Redmayne as notorious assassin The Jackal and Lashana Lynch playing a law enforcement agent out to catch him.

“I’m definitely tempted by the bigger jobs,” she says. “For The Day of the Jackal, you’re transforming Eddie Redmayne into many different people, so who wouldn’t want to do that? It’s an amazing opportunity. I end up going where the most exciting opportunities are.

“Eddie Redmayne and Lashana Lynch were two of the most wonderful actors I’ve ever worked with. But it’s not just down to the talent and performances, they’re just really lovely people to work with. it just makes your job even more fun. I had a great team as well, so I’m so happy.”

Bodies was another job that was too exciting to turn down, with its high-concept premise – four detectives in four different timelines attempt to solve the mystery behind the same dead body – leading Lenihan to make actors including Stephen Graham appear 50 years older.

Stephen Graham in Bodies

“I love to tell a character’s story, take them on a journey and be part of that. For some crazy reason, I find it a lot of fun to do,” she says. Bodies, a Netflix series, is based on a graphic novel and Lenihan says having that as the foundation for the series meant she was able to relax the authenticity of the periods being recreated in the drama, which takes place in 1890, 1941, the present day and 2053.

“We didn’t have to stick to a certain period or be accurate to that period, so for example, in 1941, it was very film noir,” she says. “In the graphic novel it was like that, so all my references were taken from film noir movie stars with perfect hair, and not London as it was at the time. It was a really exciting project to do.”

With The Lazarus Project among her credits, Lenihan jokes that she has pigeonholed herself with projects dealing with time travel. “The make-up there was for special effects and injuries and all that kind of thing,” she adds. “That’s easy peasy for us, really, but it was genuinely about just creating some good characters.”

Working across such ambitious series, it’s become a natural part of Lenihan’s role to collaborate with visual effects (VFX) teams who play a big role in bringing these shows to life. That means decisions need to be made early on to decide how much of a show will be completed with effects in post-production, and how much might be achieved practically on camera by Lenihan and her team.

The Bastard Son contained many gruesome scenes

“It’s always a little bit of a battle – a nice battle, but a bit of a battle,” she explains. “I really love building a good relationship with the VFX guys so we can seriously talk about what [the producers] want practically and where they can take over, because sometimes CGI blood just looks like CGI blood, and there’s nothing they can do to make it real.

“When things are computer generated, it quite often looks computer generated, so to have something practical is massive for them. Even if we do decide to do a shot where somebody’s head is blown off and half of it is missing, it is still better for them to have that done practically [to work from later], because if not, they’re making it up out of nothing.”

That means part of Lenihan’s role as a department head is now managing that partnership and determining how far make-up effects will be used to create what the final image will look like on screen. “I had that on The Bastard Son where, if people’s hands were turning into ice, we would take it to a certain degree and then they would take it from there.

“Then when we’re doing the insides of people’s bodies, we’d lay [the actors] down and put some green screen or green mat or tape over them [for VFX] but they would still want us to make the element, even if it was just a bucket with intestines in, so they’d always have something practical. If not, it costs tens of thousands very quickly.”

Lenihan in action

Another notable example from The Bastard Son – the story of a teenager who discovers he is an extremely powerful witch – comes where one character is quite literally ripped apart. “We made all the body parts and then did the aftermath so you could see the it on the floor,” Lenihan remembers. “Then they came and photographed them so they could put them in the air and rotate them. It was just so clever, and they did look a little bit more realistic than if they’d have just made that digitally, when it wouldn’t have had the same effect.”

Lenihan started out working mostly in film, but it was an experience designing her first TV show that has shaped her approach to working on the small screen.

“I didn’t have the best experience creatively. I enjoyed doing the work, but it was last minute scripts, last minute casting. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t really contribute much here because I am just firefighting,’” she says.

That meant that when she was interviewed for crime drama Marcella, she told the producer that she didn’t want to do TV unless she was part of the creative process from the beginning. “’Otherwise I’m just unable to offer you anything or bring things to the table that add anything to your show creatively,’” Lenihan told the exec. “She just went, ‘Oh, I like that answer. You’re hired.’

“And they kept their promise. It was really interesting to be in so early on the process because one of the things they do in TV is they’re always trying to keep costs down. But being part of that creative process is absolutely pivotal to making the difference on a TV show because you are up against costs. I have met producers who have said that they think I’m too expensive, but really they save a lot of money with me. They save money with my experience, all the kit that I’ve got and the type of team that I have around me. It’s always about the bigger picture.”

Lenihan’s work always starts with the script and carrying out her own research, before recruiting the best team to support her designs. That includes working with new artists looking to break into the screen industry and supporting people who might face the same barriers she has had to overcome.

“I’m a northern, working-class mum-of-two, and when I first came into the industry, especially in prosthetics, it was very male dominated, and people didn’t tend to have families in our industry. You were married to the job almost,” she says. “I felt like I’ve really struggled sometimes to overcome those barriers.

The ageing process in full effect

“When people meet me, they have a preconception of who I am because I’m northern. I might sound uneducated, but I’m not. But people have got a perception of who you are meant to be to work in this industry, and I have worked really hard to pull down those barriers. So I really like to give people an opportunity who wouldn’t always get an opportunity in this industry.”

Her attitude to supporting others gives weight to the mantra she carries with her. “If I can do it, anybody can do it,” she says. “I just wanted to make characters and bring these stories to life, and that’s why I always went down the prosthetics route. I love doing hair and make-up but it’s the prosthetics that lead me now to some of these more exciting jobs because it’s the challenge of bringing those characters to life and changing them throughout the story.

“I wanted to do TV because I wanted to make a difference. It was my mission to up the quality of TV work and I feel like we’re really getting there.

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