Since the graphic novel was released in 1995, various people in show business have been toiling to bring Preacher to the screen. Miramax considered turning it into a movie in 2000; a film version with James Marsden attached almost got off the ground in 2002; HBO came close to bringing Preacher to television in 2006; two years later, Sam Mendes was tapped to direct a film adaptation. Each of these vehicles came to a screeching halt though, for a variety of reasons that mostly have to do with Preacher's composition. The comic book series is complex, gory, religiously controversial, scatterbrained, and full of big ideas that don't exactly translate to moving pictures. A perfect encapsulation of Preacher's complexity and challenging source material is one of its most uproarious characters: Arseface, a teenager whose failed suicide-by-shotgun attempt resulted in a deformity in which, yes, his face looks like an asshole.
What Arseface symbolizes—grotesque humor, dark undertones, otherworldly atmosphere—is the heart of Preacher. An inability to capture Arseface is an inability to capture Preacher. So, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who finally brought a Preacher adaptation to fruition (the show premieres tonight on AMC), had a huge challenge to overcome with this character. And, in terms of likeness to the comic, it appears they pulled it off:
So how did they do it? By smartly calling on one of the best special make-up effects creator to ever live, Greg Nicotero (Day of the Dead, The Walking Dead). Rogen and Goldberg previously worked with Nicotero for their movies Neighbors and This Is the End, and since Nicotero already had a long relationship with AMC, it was a perfect fit. "They know their shit, that's what made this so exciting," Nicotero tells me. "They sent me the graphic novel [right away], so we were involved very early on." The 53-year-old expert was tasked with all of Preacher's special make-up effects, but everyone involved with the show knew that Arseface would be the centerpiece. "Even Seth, the first time thing he says to me was, 'Hey, I can't wait to do that! It's gonna be so much fun!" Nicotero says.
Devising the character's appearance, there were a couple things Rogen, Goldberg, and Nicotero wanted to keep in mind. First, there was a conscious effort to rely on practical effects instead of CGI or digital augmentation. The second concern was character-based: they had to find a way to give Arseface a rectum for a mouth while still making him sympathetic. This is a troubled teenage boy who has issues and emotions that are central to Preacher—so Nicotero had to be sure that viewers wouldn't immediately dismiss him out of disgust. It's an asshole, but it's an asshole you have to feel for.
Naturally, Nicotero and his team went through countless prototypes before striking that seemingly impossible balance. (Nicotero shared a few of these early designs with us—scroll down to see them.) "We generated a lot pre-production artwork, since the character is so important," he says. "I think we went through 14 to 16 different variations of this character." In some variations, Arseface would have more scars from the shotgun's buckshot. In some, they played with the size of the mouth-hole and "the striations of the musculature towards the mouth." And in other, more grotesque models, "the orifice was very puckered and sphincter-like."
"We tend to go big first, really put everything out there, and then dial things back," Nicotero says. "And with guys like Seth and Evan, they also have really big personalities, so it was really great that we had [Preacher showrunner] Sam [Catlin]. Sam helped sort of balance things out."
The Arseface make-up, which is actually one big prosthetic Nicotero and his team made, takes about two hours to apply to actor Ian Colletti's face. The most important parts in application for Nicotero was making sure the jaw line looked correct, and then perfectly shading the edges of the prosthetic to hide any signs of practical effects. "That's the hardest part because when you're shooting in New Mexico, a lot times an actor will start to sweat off the prosthetic. So you have to be very cautious about blending," Nicotero says. One other thing: the hole in Arseface's face had to be a black abyss. "We ended up needing to blacken out [Colletti's] teeth. So what we did was we created a black dental tray, so that when he was talking you didn't see his teeth. And we had to paint his lips, so that everything was black inside the hole."
The last step of building Arseface was one, making sure Colletti could talk through the prosthetic, and two, letting him take the make-up to the next level. "The actor brings it to life. We've worked on shoes where we put prosthetics on a performer and it falls flat," Nicotero says. That wasn't the case for Arseface, who Nicotero says did a great job of elevating the look they gave him, and imbuing this grotesque-looking character with a sweetness and a personality that goes deeper than facial deformities.
All of that hard work culminates when Preacher premieres tonight. After twenty years of waiting, fans will finally see this uniquely bizarre story brought to life on TV, and the execution of Arseface is going to be a large part of the reason why the adaptation takes people's breath away. The reality of this character, one that many tried and failed to create over the past two decades, is going to be something to behold.