September 27th, 2016
The stand out horror of the last 12 months is without doubt The Witch, making a superstar of the young lead, Anya Taylor-Joy. Our interview with make-up designer Traci Loader makes it onto our birthday honours list.
From the moment it screened at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Robert Eggers’ The Witch was destined for great things. Winning Best Director at that Festival’s Awards as well as the Sutherland Award for Best First Feature at The London Film Festival, it’s one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2016. Warpaint got a little bit scared with the film’s make-up designer, Traci Loader, ahead of its US and European Premieres.
Billed as a horror, The Witch is so much more than that. Robert Eggers, its writer and director, was fastidious in his research of life in 1640’s New England. He created a film that was authentic down to the very last detail – from the materials and methods used to build the set, the fabrics and techniques to produce the costumes, the dialect the cast spoke in, the music used in the soundtrack to the very real belief in witches and witchcraft in that period. But when it came to make-up and prosthetics, a little bit of 21st century know-how was needed thanks to Traci and Prosthetics expert François Dagenais.
WP: From the moment The Witch screened at Sundance last year, it was clear this was going to be a massively hyped movie. Did you know when you first got the script that this job was something special?
TL: When I first read the script, I fell in love with it. Robert had sent his inspiration book with it so you could really visually picture what you were reading. You never know how things are going to turn out from page to screen, but I did have a really good feeling about it. I believe Robert’s vision and attention to detail had a lot to do with it.
WP: Robert Eggers was fastidious in his authenticity when creating The Witch; how did this translate for the make-up department?
TL: Robert was very honest with me in that he really didn’t know that much about make-up. He knew what he didn’t want to see and that he wanted it to look real. However, he also knew what he did want to see and my job was to explain the ‘how’ out of all the possibilities. I admired and respected his vision and wanted to make him happy and make the right decisions for the film. I ran everything past him and explained why or how for everything. I also spoke with the actors about their characters and if there was anything we came up with together then I would run it by Robert.
Prosthetics-wise, he had met with a few people but no-one who had really wowed him (they were all very good but not the right one). I told him he had to meet with François Dagenais of Mindwarp Productions and that I thought they would click. Thankfully they did! I do have to say though, Robert knows facial hair… especially of that era.
WP: Can you take us through the planning for The Witch?
TL: The Witch was a very quick prep and we didn’t have camera tests. We didn’t even really have make-up tests. When we first got up to Mattawa, five hours north of Toronto, I went to the hotel where they were having a read through. I did a quick test for the breakdown make-up that would be the normal look for the film. I did one eye on Ralph Ineson, who plays William, and a little dirt and grim so he could see where I was going with it. I also painted the twins, Jonas and Mercy, as well as William’s teeth. Everything else I did before we headed up to the location. I broke down the script and each character, made my notes and looked up some reference for a few things. I think Robert and I only had two meetings in person, but lots of emailing and phone conversations (Robert was up north before I was and he was back and forth during prep). François and I also discussed different options for the key prosthetics.
WP: Can you break down the prosthetic, hair and make-up work for us? The cast was small, but each character was very specific; can you break each one down?
TL: Each character was very specific. We decided on three stages for William and Katherine to show life after the plantation and how it was taking its toll. Stage one and they were clean and nourished, groomed and glowing. With Kate Dickie’s Katherine at the plantation, she was pregnant so I kept her clean (no grim/dirt). I used a little concealer under her eyes, a slightly tinted lip balm and a light pink blush on her cheeks to make her look slightly flushed (I also used this look during her dream sequence). Stage two was once they found their dwelling place, she had no concealer or any make-up. She was grimy/dirty (especially nails/hands), face… not a really noticeable grimy/dirt, but a lived in, not bathing, living off the land in that time kind of dirt. Stage three was once the ‘witchery’ started and the sleepless nights and stresses it put on her. I used shading and contouring with her eyes and slightly more grime/dirt.
William’s stages were a bit more detailed. Stage one at the plantation was shot last, so we trimmed and styled Ralph’s beard (using bees wax to style his moustache) and applied slight grime/dirt and stained his teeth. Stage two was once they found the clearing. It was more grime/dirt (really worked into his hands and nails, neck, face), stained teeth, contouring and shading around his eyes with browns and ever so slight red. Stage three was the start of the ‘witchery’; life was really tough, food was scarce, he was trying to provide for his family as the evil was surrounding them. We really broke down Ralph’s skin texture with reds, purples, browns (I was using glazing gels that intrinsically worked with the skin, creating layers that just seemed to belong), contoured his face to make it seem more gaunt, and really broke down his eyes with browns, purples and reds.
Anya Taylor Joy, who plays Thomasin, has so much natural beauty no matter what you do. For the film, I gave her slight grime/dirt at the plantation and once they were on their settlement the grime/dirt level was slightly increased. The children Caleb, Jonas and Mercy had a suggestion of grime/dirt and stained teeth at the plantation and again at the settlement it was slightly more. There were so many things happening throughout the script… we had Katherine’s dream sequence where she was breastfeeding a raven. They are very powerful birds, so we had a protective breast plate with a silicone chest/breast appliance over it. I’m so proud of Kate for being so brave.
Black Philip… oh that crazy goat! It really had it in for Ralph. Originally François was building a Black Philip goat for the fight sequence, then it went to a goat head. In planning the fight they thought they could shoot around it. If the goat had been a bit more co-operative, we probably could have. It was decided that we needed a set of Black Philip goat horns (we had to have a driver pick up all the supplies from the shop and bring them to us). The day we had to do this was the first day the black flies came out (there were millions of them) and the goat was not happy about us trying to cast the horns, or the black flies. I’m not sure any of us want to go through that again! Then we had a driver on standby to take the moulds back to the city so François could make the horns and get them back to us. François also made a goat leg for when Black Philip takes human form. We used Bondo transfer wounds throughout filming from various cuts and injuries.
Caleb, the elder son, gets lost and encounters a witch – who was really broken down with dirty, bad teeth, bad nails, and feet, but still very beautiful. When we see him escape, he is naked and has been running through the woods in the rain. He was covered in scratches, bruises, bite marks and very pale.
For the film’s climax, Robert wanted these scenes to come across with accuracy and to have a real impact. I did some research as I was trying to come up with something of the time as well. I found bentonite clay (that is used in face masks and body treatments). It dries and cracks like a mud and we were happy with the way it looked. Then there was the unguent; I used tons of fake blood, tapioca for the flesh, and for the herbs they used I went to a proper herb store. I explained what I was trying to find and the lady that owed the store turned out to be a witch herself, so was very helpful. She agreed on the clay we liked and gave me some herbs that looked close to what they would have used. I did a test on my arm to show the textures of what it would look like and sent Robert photos. Thankfully he loved it! The girls that played the witches were troopers through all of it.
WP: The budget was very tight; how did this impact on the make-up department and how did you work round it?
TL: The budget was very tight. It mainly affected the prosthetic builds in terms of what François could or couldn’t do, but they just shot it differently so we wouldn’t require it. I was okay with my budget and I have a large kit, so I had a lot of stuff to pull from.
WP: The conditions when filming were brutal [filming took place in the tiny hamlet of Kiosk, 40 minutes from Mattawa in the Canadian North], what challenges did the locations throw up for the make-up and hair departments?
TL: Just trying to stay as prepared as possible and expect the unexpected.
WP: Being so remote, how did you plan your kit requirements? Did you have to bring it all with you?
TL: I had to bring everything – everything I thought I may possibly need. On weekends I could go into town an hour away to pick up basics like wet wipes, bug spray, etc. (but nothing fancy). When Michael Walsh would come up from Toronto, he would pick stuff up for me if I really needed something.
WP: What were your favourite parts of the job? And the most challenging? What products saved your life on the set of The Witch?
TL: My favourite part was the actual script, that everyone was so passionate about the project and that it was cast perfectly. The cast and the crew bonded as you often do when you are stuck in the middle of nowhere and it is so great when you have that because you don’t always have it. The challenges were the not knowing the unknown. Also, having an assistant that had never done a film had its challenges because it was such a fast-paced schedule and forever changing. He did a great job though!
The products that saved me were coconut oil and a product called Bag Balm (which was originally made for cows’ udders). I found it at a local shop in town and the lady in the store swore by it. Both products treated everything from dry skin and surprise eczema outbreaks to bug bites – the list is endless. The other product is arnica gel… That was mainly for Ralph and his run-ins with Charlie the goat.
WP: How big was your team?
TL: Just me and my assistant, Michael Walsh, and Francois. Head of Hair was Lydia Pensa and she had dailies when she needed extra help.
WP: What projects are you working on at the moment?
TL: François has been working on the new series of Hannibal, 12 Monkeys and Killjoys. I have just finished Noomi Rapace’s Rupture, the TV Series Bitten and I am currently in prep for a feature called Arq.