Gretel & Hansel screening 2

Osgood “Oz” Perkins is one of the strongest names in horror – at least to those who are paying attention. In the last half decade, Perkins has made two incredibly devastating and emotionally resonant films, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House. With his third effort, Gretel & Hansel, Perkins dips his toes into an age-old fairy tale. The results are magical, visceral and terribly haunting. I was fortunate enough to attend a special early screening of the film, replete with an audience largely made up of kids for whom the movie is intended. This lead to an opportunity to chat with Osgood himself, digging into his creative practices and what turns him on the most about the creative medium of film. 

MATT: Was last night the first time you’ve watched the movie with an audience? 

OZ: No, it was actually the third time, but it was the first time with as many kids as there were, which was honestly the best part of it for me. 

M: Absolutely! Seeing that many kids, there were initially a few worries amongst the adults as to how they would react…

O: It was designed for them and the fact that they seemed engaged was great! 

M: They really were! They asked great questions too!

O: Yes. When encouraged, they will ask good questions. 

M: Along with directing, you also wrote your previous films. What was it that compelled you or drew you to this story versus something else you’d written yourself? 

O: It felt like… Hansel & Gretel is so deeply elemental and one of the original stories – the old stories that are in everything we do. That’s the original DNA or the patient zero for all of this stuff. I didn’t write it, but everything I’ve ever written or derived has come from something like this, so it’s like the parent of everything I’ve done. It became easy enough to feel honorable about what we were doing. Then you’re encouraged, because fairy tales are so simple, and it was easy to encourage ourselves to come up with ways of keeping it simple and making the elegance of that simplicity really stand out. Especially by designing our movie in the way that we did, it being that original story in a weird way helped make it feel like it was my own, because I’ve been borrowing from it forever anyway.

M: Being a huge fan of your previous work that makes total sense. Those films have a similar essence to them. Obviously they are deeply rooted in horror iconography, but at their core, are also stories that contrast myth with heart. I think a lot of people take that for granted. When they hear something is horror, they want something splattery or gross, but to me you approach it like, “Here’s a story about loss and grief, or coming of age.” Gretel & Hansel uses all of its aesthetics to get those ideas out there. 

O: Absolutely! The trick is to sort of disguise what you’re doing in a way, right? Movies are best, certainly for me, when there’s a certain level of coding going on, where the message or what it is is so deeply coded. I think of something like Eraserhead, for instance, which for the longest time eluded me, and I think it alludes most people. It’s like this thing behind glass. Then, all of a sudden, one of these times you see it and the code reveals itself and it’s like The Matrix and everything just falls into place. All of a sudden your brain opens up and your experience just widens and you see this thing clearly for what it is. I think that the Horror genre is best not because it’s disturbing and not because it’s unpleasant, graphic or aggressive, but because it hides everything, right? It acknowledges everything that is hidden and some of what is hidden we choose to reveal. We choose to show what we think it might be like and that’s what compels me about the genre. 

Gretel & Hansel screening 1

M: It’s funny you say that about Eraserhead! I had a similar experience with that film…

O: Yeah! Where like one day you’re like, “I get it!” 

M: Exactly! I’ve been watching it since I was 14 or 15 and loved it, but later in life it just clicked. So much so that I got the Eraserhead baby tattooed on my hand! 

O: Yeah! Did you have a baby? 

M: No babies as of yet! 

O: Wait til you have a baby THEN watch it! 

M: With Gretel & Hansel one of the things that really struck me was how visually rich it was. Some definite Jodorowsky/ The Holy Mountain vibes seep throughout. There’s also some incredibly interesting architecture within the film. What lead you to the overall aesthetic of the film? 

O: It’s funny. It’s never really such a straight line. Maybe it is for some people, but for me the real kind of magic in movie making is how collaborative the medium is. There’s very few art forms that allow for everybody’s voice to be at about the same volume. When it comes to the design of this, from a director’s point of view… I believe it was Walter Murch that said, “The director is the immune system of the film.” So everything that comes into the realm of the movie, the director says, “Yes! Good! Healthy! No! Sick! Wrong for us!” This is going to detract or this is going to build or this is right and this is wrong. At the beginning, I just said… here’s what’s not allowed – thatched roofs and cobbled streets and beggars and marketplaces with chickens and boiling pots and shit, buckles on shoes… none of that. No extras, no clumping horses or cattle and shit… that’s all out. You’re not allowed to do that. And as soon as I said that to the designers, that you’re not allowed to thatch any roofs or have any horse drawn carriages like we’ve seen before… give me a horse drawn carriage that looks like a tank, you know? Let’s have a steampunk thing or have this Jodorowsky-esque witch at the top of a mountaintop. As soon as you say, “this isn’t allowed”, your department heads, if they are worth a shit, start to feel so turned on. It’s so easy to turn off, right? To be turned on is so different. When people are turned on it’s amazing what comes your way. Even little things. Say the hats in this movie, the witch’s hats. The costume designer and I talked a lot about it and I said, I feel like it’s all those hats George Harrison was wearing post-Beatles, those weird gnome-ish, English country farmer hats? What the fuck were those? So we got all these pictures of George from the early 70s and…those were our hats. 

M: I think it’s the little details like that that elevate the film. Whether it be the Witch’s hat of the girl’s little pink hat – they are so striking in their appearance. They’ve clearly had a lot of thought put in to, and feel inspired. 

O: Exactly, and like I said that inspiration comes from limitation. Saying, “It’s not this. Show me something else.”

M: That also, to me at least, works even more in favor of the way the film is shot. There’s such a scope and a life to this world. Without your typical beggars, extras, etc, you really pay that much more attention to the environment. Their surroundings and backgrounds feel more desolate, cementing how alone Gretel & Hansel are. 

O: I think that the unexpected sampling of other genres and other generic touchstones is fun for us. There was always the element of a certain level of sci-fi feeling, with the design of the house and the bleakness of things. Nobody is around anymore. There were times where I wanted to put these big pieces of metal in places. These sort of steel things although we didn’t get around to that. There was a quality to it like, “What world is this? What time is this? What epoch is this?.” 

Gretel & Hansel screening Matt

M: Perfectly complimenting the film’s gorgeous aesthetic is the absolutely incredible score by ROB. With your previous films having been scored quite wonderfully by your brother Elvis, what was it about ROB that lead to him doing this film?

O: He sent some stuff and as I listened to it thought it was exactly correct. When I spoke to him… you tend to get a lot from how people respond to you, obviously. This was another case where I told him, it can’t be this, this or this – that’s all I really know, ROB, is that it’s not these things. One other thing I know is that when you listen to the music, I need you to laugh. I need you to listen to the music and be sort of like, “I can’t believe I did that!” Or “that strikes me as funny.” If everything is just scary or dreadful it tends to tonally just become rather simplistic, almost facile in a way. Allow yourself to enjoy this and allow yourself to make some moves that you think are inappropriate or too much or too smart or something like that. Have a good time. And that was really all he needed. 

M: (minor spoilers in this question) Something I noticed in the film is that the Witch, magnificently portrayed by Alice Krige, maintains her old form when people are around and can see her. It’s not until she’s alone that we see her in this youthful, strikingly beautiful form (portrayed by Jessica De Gouw). That seemed to be a nice subversion to how witches are normally portrayed.

O: Yeah, I believe she even mentions it in the movie  – she says that she’s assumed the disguise of old age witch made her feel “safe” to people. To me that is so much of what is at the core of Gretel & Hansel. This original idea that there are people out there in the world who’s thing is to deceive children. That’s what they want to do. It’s one of the worst facts of the world and so what are the layers of which she can be able to do that and what are her tricks – and coming to them as an older woman is one of them. 

M: After the screening you mentioned that you layered a few nods to The Wizard of Oz into Gretel & Hansel. I personally also picked up on a few Alice in Wonderland motifs as well. I feel like these nods didn’t just feel like tacked on nostalgia, but also gave a more timeless feel to everything. Much like you mentioned earlier, you don’t know when this film is taking place or where exactly these woods are. 

O: Absolutely, all of that. We wanted there to be no context aside from other tales. All kinds of fairy tales or witch personifications came again to that “director as immune system” concept. All of that stuff was allowed and encouraged. We were referencing a bigger universe of stories, and a bigger universe of witches I suppose would be part of it, always wanting to acknowledge the originals because they remains the best. The Wizard of Oz is still the best witch movie. 

Osgood Perkin’s Gretel & Hansel is out in theaters now. It is HIGHLY recommended. Big thank you to Oz for his time and to our pals at Fons PR for setting it all up. 

Gretel & Hansel screening Oz Perkins

All photos from the special BMD Gretel & Hansel screening, credit to HLK photos. Last photo of Oz, courtesy by Matt.