There’s a fine line between horror and comedy and, for many familiar with his work, Osgood “Oz” Perkins has steadily become a master of both genre realms. For many fans of his work, however, his horror projects stand out. His work on The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House sets him apart but has also made us fans hungry waiting to see what he will tackle next in the realm. Now he dives back into the horror realm with his modern take on the folktale legend, GRETEL & HANSEL.
Ahead of the film’s release, I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk with Osgood. Throughout the course of the interview, we discussed everything from what initially attracted him to Rob Hayes’ interpretation of the folktale to leaning into the horror aspect of the original story and what it was like bringing the spooky witchy cottage to life for the big screen.
What attracted you to Rob Hayes’ script for GRETEL & HANSEL?
Osgood Perkins: What I liked best about it is that it made no apology for the source material. It didn’t say, “Oh it’s called GRETEL & HANSEL but really its got army’s and orcs and crossbows and fun dragons and shit, but don’t worry, it’s not bad.” It was exactly Hansel and Gretel and the fact that he was leaning into the original was, I felt, brave and not only brave but smart because everyone knows Hansel & Gretel and because you know it, that means you feel something about it.
Something that I love about your films is the focus on the female narrative. In this film, you have both Gretel and The Witch to contend with. How was it bringing those storylines to life?
Osgood Perkins: My pitch to Rob and the studios, when I came on and started developing it, improving it, revising it and reshaping it was the idea that this was going to be, as much as anything, a becoming-of-age story. We kept the incidents as it sort of happens when it was written however many hundreds of years ago – they leave their house, they go into the woods, they find the witches house, she’s nice to them, then she tries to eat them, and then they do something about it. That’s basically all that happens in the story and it’s really all that happens in our movie. As long as we kept to the basic signposts of the storytelling there were opportunities in there that give Gretel an awareness. Gretel is the key of conscious, she’s the keeper of the consciousness in this movie. She’s the one that understands that she sees things differently, she has this spider-sense, she doesn’t eat meat. There are a few things in the movie that are really subtle but I think she’s kind of a 21st-century gal in a whatever century [the film is], although we went out of our way to make sure it was no recognizable century.
People tend to forget how terrifying fairytales can be. What were some ways you made sure to lean into the horror aspect in this film?
Osgood Perkins: Yeah, it’s interesting that they forget. Fairytales are great because once you say Hansel & Gretel people are like, “Oh yeah, the candy house!” and you’re like, “No, no really think about what it is.” It’s about a witch who tricked kids and she eats them. It’s about a serial killer cannibal woman who lives in the woods and all she wants to do is eat children all day. It gets really grim really fast. Once you key into what’s really there it just becomes about sharpening the point on all that. Literally, in some cases, we did things like give Alice Krige, our Witch, cannibal teeth. Cannibal teeth are sharpened to a point. We did some research on cannibal cultures and what they do with their teeth and these people shave theirs down so that they are pointed. You get clues from the original material, that she’s a cannibal serial killer, and then you go one step further with it. We gave her a place where she does what she does which is something serial killers love. Think of it as the basement in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, kind of like, “Yup, you’re in here and this is the last place you are ever going to be.” We tried to have those qualities there to bring the story into a more modern time.
As an interior designer, I’m obsessed with the look of the film, especially the modern design of the cottage and the forest landscape in Ireland. Can you elaborate on bringing those visuals to life?
Osgood Perkins: One of the cool things about fairytales, that is sort of woven into the fabric of fairytales, are that they are their own world. There’s no context, there’s nothing like, “Oh this was happening when WWII was happening” or “This was happening during the Reign of Kings”, there is none of that, that’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is that children are set out and are faced with the unfortunate fact that the world is awful and that the world really wants to eat you, metaphorically or literally. We wanted to sort of situate it in its own universe and make no concession about that. It’s neither contemporary nor is it especially old. My production designer, Jeremy Reed, who worked with me on I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, I had pitched this film to him as one that is as much science fiction as it is anything else. It’s definitely not Game of Thrones, it’s not the Hobbit, and it’s not Vikings or any of those things. I didn’t want to see any thatched roofs, I didn’t want to see any cobbled anything, none of that. I wanted to find a different way to do that. He landed heavily on post and beams, a kind of low slung looking house, which reinforced our quality that this world is this world. It doesn’t need to relate to any other worlds, it’s contained. When you say to heads of departments that you want to do this really crazy thing, their eyes light up and they become children in the best possible way. I think it’s all too infrequent that that happens. It really just becomes wind in everyone’s sails when you say let’s do something that hasn’t really been done before. I’ve gotta say, I think we nailed it. We had a few reference photographs that we clung to and that helped to make our world.
In your career, you’ve done everything from comedy (Legally Blonde) to directing horror films, such as the one you mentioned above as well as The Blackcoat’s Daughter. A lot of people say comedy and horror go hand-in-hand, so what is it about this genre in particular that draws you in?
Osgood Perkins: For me, the horror genre is, well, two-folds. Just from a stylistic and aesthetic point of view, it’s the most liberal of all genres as far as I’m concerned because it allows for life and it allows for death. It allows for supernatural and all too natural and I think there is the opportunity for real glamour. I think some of the most glamorous things in movies have come from horror movies. They can be really sad in an interesting way but also hopeful at times. I think as a canvas the horror genre is kind of the most inclusive in a way which is probably one of the reasons why it survives and thrives as it does. It’s all about what we don’t know, what we can’t see, but what’s hidden from us. What’s behind the curtain, what’s around the corner, what’s behind the door, which is always just an analogous for how do we end? Life ends for all of us, what the fuck is that? What happens and how does it happen and that’s what it’s paired down to: How do I go? How does this all end? Does my end come at the end of a chainsaw or because someone comes into my house at night? I think the essential quality of not knowing is really endless in essential storytelling.
GRETEL & HANSEL arrive in theaters everywhere on January 31st, 2020.