Interviewed by Fiona Underhill
For our latest Sunday Spotlight, Fiona sat down to interview Academy Award-winning prosthetic make-up designer, Mark Coulier, who has worked on films such as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – for which Coulier won the Oscar for ‘Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling’ in 2015, Ready Player One, the Harry Potter series, and upcoming films Stan & Ollie and Pinocchio!
Fiona chatted with Coulier about his recent work in the Suspiria remake and the use of practical effects for some of its standout scenes, so there are spoilers ahead for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet!
You’ve been warned…
I have to start with what is a stand-out scene, from a make-up point of view and that’s the infamous scene with Olga in the mirrored dance studio, where she’s being contorted and twisted – how much of that was practical and how much was CGI? How did you achieve that scene?
So, I’d spoken with Luca (Guadagnino, director) about that scene quite early on in our conversations about the film and he wanted that to be a pretty brutal scene that establishes how dangerous the situation is and he wanted to, I think the word was ‘pulverize’ this woman and break her down so we talked about how to do that practically, we wanted most of it to be practical. I’d seen Deliverance, I mentioned this guy who gets washed down a river and his arm gets dislocated and it’s twisted round his shoulder and it looks pretty intense. We decided that would be a good place to start – to twist this woman’s arm around and break her jaw, what else could we do that would make her all twisted and contorted? He had this amazing dancer called Elena Fokina playing the part and she was able to do a lot of the stuff herself. So we started off with the arm and then we did the leg and the rib cage – we did a prosthetic chest piece for her and a jaw piece and we moved her teeth. It kind of built from there really and we tried to get her into this position at the end where she was completely broken down and twisted up. It was Luca who wanted her to look really destroyed.
So it sounds like it was heavily practical then?
It was all practical in the sense that it was prosthetic appliances, the visual effects side of it was that they removed her real arm and her real leg. I think they augmented the jaw being twisted into place. So I’d say it’s about 75% us and 25% visual effects.
I have to ask about the character of Dr Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton). I think the creation of that character, from the performance combined with the make-up is just absolutely phenomenal. I want to ask about how you built that character – I mean the detail on the face is just sensational – how did you achieve that?
Thank you. That was Luca calling up and I think he’d seen Grand Budapest Hotel and we’d done an age make-up on Tilda Swinton in that film and Luca wanted to see if it was possible, to see if we could turn Tilda Swinton into this old Jewish man. So we did a test make-up probably eighteen months before the film actually started, just to see if it was possible. The test make-up was totally different to the Josef Klemperer character that you see in the movie, but it gave Tilda and Luca an idea of what we could possibly do. It was an idea that Luca had that he wanted all the characters, the strong characters to be female. This idea of Tilda playing this part is linked to the idea of the three witches that are the core of the story – Mother Suspirium, Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lacrymarum – and he wanted Tilda to play the three parts of Madame Markos, Madame Blanc and Klemperer. So that was it really, that was the start of it, so we did a test to see if we could possibly do it and we ended up re-sculpting it and re-making it and applying it to the finished character.
I heard a rumour that she even had a prosthetic penis, can I ask if that’s true?
That is true, yes. Well it was really more of a weighted thing that we put in there because she wanted to feel masculine, so she wanted to feel this weight between her legs. So I guess it’s a bit like Robert De Niro wearing silk underpants to play Al Capone. One of those little things that nobody else will see but it makes her feel more of the part.
I have to ask about the finale – how long did it take to shoot that sequence and what was the preparation, what were the decisions involved in that sequence? Again, how practical was it, how many buckets of blood did you use etc?
Yes, again, it was heavily practical. This is not a big budget, we had very little time for everything. We had nine weeks, we were supposed to have fourteen weeks, but we had nine weeks which is not a lot of time. We had full body suits – we did the character of Death, which is really intense and quite a character to create. We had the character of Markos to do – the witch, which is also Tilda Swinton playing that character in full body make-up which is pretty intense. And we had all sorts of stuff – we had disembowelments, lots of crazy stuff that Luca wanted to create for that finale. And we sort of created a workshop out where we were shooting and I brought people over from the UK and we were just frantically building things and finishing things off while we were out there. As well as making stuff in the UK, we did a full body make-up on Chloe Moretz. We were supposed to do that for two days I think and we ended up doing that make-up for five or six days. So we were frantically building pieces and making pieces out in this abandoned hotel where we were shooting everything in Italy. And it was quite intense but it was quite practical, a lot of it was practical, a lot of visual effects augmentation of the self, the blood, the bodies being destroyed, pulling the intestines out. [spoilers] We had the dead Patricia, the dead Olga make-up, we had Markos – which was this big full bodysuit thing that we built for Tilda, who was also playing Madame Blanc in that scene. We had the make-up where she gets her head chopped off…or almost chopped off. So, again, it was about 75-25 practical – there was visual effects involvement. And when you read that stuff on the page and spoke to Luca about it, it was really hard to try and work out in your mind what Luca actually wanted, what was it going to look like, you know?
What was the detail like in the script, what were the descriptions like?
I think Luca just wanted it to be a descent into madness, which is at the core of the witches. This is all going to ramp up and the film builds slowly into this big crescendo at the end, with the Mother Suspirium character appearing in the movie and he wanted to give a sense of craziness and the evil that’s at the core of the movie, this sort of power of the witches and we were just trying to put that into visuals. It was quite hard to read it and understand what Luca wanted. When you see the movie, we’re like; “oh right OK – so this is what we were making! It was very interesting.”
I’m sure there’s surprises for you, even when you’ve worked on the film. When you see the finished product, you’re still surprised by it.
Yeah, more so than most films that I’ve ever worked on. There’s three movies I did last year, I did Stan & Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody and I did Suspiria at the same time and I think the most surprising one out of all them is Suspiria. We make these sequences and we make the stuff, I remember Fernanda the hair and make-up designer, who did most of the ‘straight’ make-up looks said to me – she’d worked with Luca on a few movies – and she said “we just have to trust Luca, we have to trust our director.” It’s an interesting comment that she made – you’re making all this crazy stuff, how’s it going to look? She said; “We just have to trust Luca, he’s a visionary” he’s got this idea and when you see the movie, you understand. This crazy end sequence – the tension builds throughout the movie and then it all goes pretty wild at the end.
That’s the exact experience I had watching it, because I was skeptical going in, with it being a remake. But, as soon as it started, I thought, of course, it’s Luca, just trust in that vision and he absolutely has this precise vision and I think he totally followed it through with this piece.
Yeah, I felt the same way about it, actually. When you see the movie, we were busy out there making stuff, while he was busy filming all the stuff that didn’t have prosthetics in it, we didn’t see any of the dance stuff, the drama and the development of the witches’ characters. We weren’t privy to any of the filming of that, we were busy making stuff. So it’s always a surprise when you see the film at the end, I’d read the script and the story obviously and had all the conversations with Luca, so I had a pretty good idea of how it was going to develop, but it’s still quite surprising. And I really enjoyed it, I thought it was great. It’s a long movie, it’s slow, the tension builds, it’s really creepy and that end sequence. There’s a couple of sequences – the Olga dance sequence really grabbed me and I’ve seen it three times now and the audience is completely silent after that bit. Everyone is watching it thinking “my God, this is what the witches are all about – this is the evil at the core of the movie.” And you know then it builds quite slowly to that crescendo at the end, which really grabs you.
We ran out of time there (I had at least three more questions)! But I loved the movie and Luca created something truly unique with his team of master craftspeople, including Mark.
We’d like to thank Mark for taking the time to talk to us!