When Doniella Davy met with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins at the Ace Hotel in downtown LA he told her he wanted skin that would glisten. “It’s in Miami,” He said. “In the rain, in the sun, in the moonlight, on the beach, at night. I want them to glisten.”
The strength of Donni’s work is in its artistry and authenticity, so she assured him of two things; she would get real gold grills that wouldn’t look cheap or yellow, and she could make skin that would glisten.
Being a film makeup artist is a job that requires long hours and gets little recognition. But the visual art of makeup played no small role in the aesthetic that Moonlight received so much praise for; characters with incandescent skin, gold grills, and a drug-addicted mother shown to age over decades.
Donni left the New York art world to become a makeup artist in 2012 and got her start in LA taking small gigs on craigslist to build her portfolio. A former artist who studied photography at Pratt, she left her role at a high profile NY art gallery, after becoming disillusioned by the art scene, setting up fancy dinners for top names in the art world for openings attended by celebrities. She describes the downtown manhattan art scene as more of a cool contest than a platform for talented people to have their art discovered. “I started thinking, WTF is this dog and pony show?” she said.
So Donni switched coasts to pursue a career as a film makeup artist. After an apprenticeship with an established movie makeup artist, a small film on craigslist lead her to her first feature film. Her artistry got her noticed by another producer, who recommended her to Jenkins.
At the start no one knew that Moonlight would have its own place in the history of cinema. Donni loved the script from the minute she read it. It was a script about being black and gay and poor all in one movie. It was a script written with a sincerity that kept her up at night.
In Miami, Donni arrived with customized blends of oils to make each actors skin glisten in just the right way. “Barry noticed the difference between everything – things I didn’t even notice, like this one is a tiny bit brighter, this one gives a more diffused reflection, this one is sharper,” she states.
They didn’t want the characters to look like they had all been dipped in the same product, factory style.
She used everything from rosehip oil, to grape seed oil to achieve different effects for different actors. “For the kids, I used baby oil and they loved it, but if I were to put that on adults, they’d be like, are you putting Johnson and Johnson on my face?” admits Donni.
When it came to the grills, Donni tracked down Dr. Kelly Gold Grillz in Miami, a hole in the wall in an open aired plaza. While waiting in what looked like a dentist office, three loud and boisterous dudes rolled in. One of them grabbed her phone out of her hand, put his number in it, and told her, “Here’s my number in case you wanna get into some trouble tonight—Or in case you get into trouble and need your ass saved.”
When they opened their mouths, they all had grills. She knew she was in the right place.
Donni had to ship a mold to actor Trevante Rhodes in New York, where he molded his teeth, and mailed it back to her. Donni was instructed by Dr. Kelly to bring the completed mold back to a man named Jesus. At $700, the grill took up more than half the makeup budget for the entire film.
“Jesus told me, ‘The price is the price. You can get cheaper gold but it will look more yellow’ And I thought— no way. If this character is drug dealing and doing good – he’s going to get gold.”
Refusing to sacrifice authenticity, Donni met Jesus off the Miami highway at exit 17a to pick up the completed grill.
Undoubtedly one of the most amazing feats Donni accomplished was aging the character Paula, Chiron’s mom (Naomie Harris), who is progressively getting into drugs— without giving her a theatrical look. In the duration of the film she ages 10 years, and then 10 more.
Donni used teeth stains made from watercolor gels. She created subtle changes that weren’t drastic or overly dramatic. In the second decade of deterioration from drug abuse, Harris looks similar to how she looked in earlier scenes, but when the camera zooms in, the changes become apparent. Harris’ character, Paula, was based on Jenkins’ mom. Donni wondered if the real Paula would be watching the film one day.
“It’s not like you see this scary thing when the camera hits her – it’s all about realism. I wanted to be empathetic,” Donni said.
She didn’t want her to look too scary, or be covered in scabs.
“At the end of the day, I’m portraying a mother— not a monster.”
Harris’ entire role was filmed in three days during her break from the Bond movie press tour. After knowing Donni for only 30 seconds, Harris sat down and told her “You can do whatever you have planned. I completely trust in you.”
With that level of trust, Donni was able take risks, make mistakes and fix them. That is the kind of collaborative experience that Donni loves in the work that she does. And as a result, the visual effect speaks for itself.
The job Donni does is not easy. Unlike many celebrity makeup artists who pave stealthy careers for themselves staying close to the red carpet, avoiding rough terrain and faraway journeys, Donni chose to become a makeup artist because she wanted to tell powerful stories.
During the fight scene, the crew barely blinked or breathed as they watched the blood spill from Chiron’s mouth. Barry cut the scene and started again. After the second punch, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) swooped down and met Donni outside the frame, where she reloaded his mouth with watery blood.
Donnie explored the set medic’s kit and used butterfly band-aids and a tiny ball of gauze. This created the look of a last minute first aid treatment, such as an unprepared high school principal might do. As Chiron was interrogated by the principal his silence turned to mumbles and stifled sobs, and the tiny ball of gauze began to slide further and further out of his nostril.
Donni loves these moments, when the makeup takes on a life of its own. Other makeup artists might have made sure the cotton stayed in place, but Donni let it become a part of the story, as it slowly slid all the way out. The crew was dead silent watching the scene on the monitor. Some were looking down and some had watery eyes.
“This is live-storytelling,” says Donni, “Moments like that are what I keep showing up for.”
Written by: Elle Silver
Photography by: Doniella Davy & Will Richter