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The Witch in Gretel and Hansel, an elderly woman dressed in a black robe and head-wrap, dips her blackened fingers into a brass pot full of goo. Photo: Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures

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Gretel and Hansel’s director says his fairy-tale witch is basically Darth Vader

‘The most iconic and impactful villains are the ones who are upset, reacting to a life that hasn’t gone their way.’

Osgood Perkins — “Oz,” to friends and fans — thinks of terror as a tangible, space-occupying thing. The fear in his films fills the room and slowly turns the unlikeliest locations into torture chambers, from a girls’ boarding school (in his feature debut, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) to a Massachusetts mansion (in his follow-up, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House). A triangular hut tucked away in the forbidding woods sets the scene for his third feature-length effort, the outstanding new Gretel & Hansel, and acts as yet another gathering place for mighty malevolent energies. He puts an ambient unease in the air with a synth score that’s jarring in this fairy-tale milieu. And he uses reality-distorting lenses and bizarre imagery, cribbed from an eclectic array of sources, to unsettle the audience further.

Perkins’ creative adventurous streak has given him a respectable name among genre-movie nerds. (Though not for the first time — his father happens to be Psycho star Anthony Perkins.) He’s ready to ascend to the next tier of the indie circuit, and with Gretel and Hansel, he’ll have a ferocious new calling card to show off to studio brass. Perkins got on the phone to talk through his new film with Polygon, from its feminist bona fides to its cinematographic black magic, and he still had time to prophesy the return of the erotic thriller.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.]

Your first three films are all about reverential fear for young women and their power. Why is that a focus for you?

Oz Perkins: That kind of escaped from me, made its way to the surface. I’m not 100% sure why that is. It just has to do with the fact that the experience of a horror movie is about what we don’t understand and can’t see, what’s hidden from us. For me, female protagonists add a welcome layer of mystique and mystery, things I can’t easily grasp. Keeps me in a place of not-knowing, which is the place where I like to create art.

Gretel and Hansel is definitely focused on the feminine, especially in the relationship between Gretel and the Witch. Do you see them as representing different modes of feminism?

I certainly see an empowerment of the feminine in this movie, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily the same as being feminist. I try to approach my stories from a feminist standpoint, to the degree that feminism is about equal-handedness in treatment. I’ve always assumed that as the right position to be in. Now, the cultural expectation is such that we foreground different experiences, ones that haven’t been overstudied, and the perspective I liked was using a fairytale to map a young woman coming into her own.

Which half of that equation comes first, the underlying idea or the story used to convey it?

It’s different with each project. Blackcoat’s Daughter started with me asking where I was in my life, what was important to me, and what I wanted to see more of in movies. As facile as it sounds, that movie grew out of the location. I forced myself to commit to the concept of a horror movie in a school, and then kind of like a crossword puzzle, I used that one answer to start figuring out the rest.

Gretel and Hansel came to me as a script based on beautiful, classical material, and what turned me on about that was how faithful it was to the Brothers Grimm.

In a black-and-white, slightly tilted image, the director and star of Gretel and Hansel, both in puffy black coats, stand in a stark forest lined with fallen leaves.
Writer-director Oz Perkins and Sophia Lillis on the set of Gretel and Hansel.
Photo: Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures

Really? The finished film seems to be doing its own thing, especially in terms of aesthetics.

Well, what I wanted to be faithful to was the notion of fairy tales being self-contained, and not contingent on any context. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” it hardly matters what time or country this is supposed to take place in. It exists outside of time and place. Stories like that work because they’re a set of markers that don’t correspond to one metaphorical or allegorical reading. I did my own thing by leaning all the way into the metaphorical, fitting the archetypes into it.

That’s why we shot it the way we did. There are barely any two-shots. Everyone’s got the frame to themselves. We settled on a formalist bent once it was clear this movie would be self-contained like that, and it allowed us to pull from all styles and tastes and epochs. Brutalist stuff, Soviet design stuff, [Alejandro] Jodorowsky stuff, magic-book stuff — I filled up my shopping cart with everything that interested me.

How did the conversations with your cinematographer, Galo Olivares, go as you were figuring out the look of the film, particularly in the early sequences in the woods?

We started thinking of the film as having a prologue and the body of the movie, and we talked about what would be expected for the first section. Probably square formatting, not quite sepia, but some kind of Instagram discoloration that looks like it came from your phone. We wanted to avoid all this. We don’t want to do something that anyone could do on an app. So we shot in widescreen, almost looking like the extreme wide shots you’d see in Westerns, and made the rest of the film — the “present” — squarer in its aspect ratio… Basically, you marry yourself to someone who you hope has a taste compatible with yours, and I got really lucky with Galo. The fact that we literally speak different languages allowed us to find a new grammar rooted in the visual. What he was thinking and what I was thinking were often the same thing, but sometimes it was a surprise to both of us what the other person meant.

How did you design the Witch’s cabin?

Jeremy Reed, our production designer, knew that there would be expectations for what the Witch’s house would look like, and it was the same deal, where he just wanted to undermine all of them. He saw it as an opportunity to be in only our world, instead of yoked to anything else. “What if her house has more of a sci-fi look than the rustic cabin everyone will think of?” He wanted less Middle Earth, and more severity in architecture. We built one version on a soundstage, and then we found ourselves a nice clearing in the woods in Ireland. On a film set these days, you’re happily aware that you’re potentially destroying people’s shit, coming into people’s houses and fucking their rugs up and cutting their trees down. Fortunately, we found somewhere that wouldn’t have too much for us to mess up.

a dim and shadowy cabin in the woods with a figure standing in the front door in Gretel & Hansel Image: United Artists Releasing

Alice Krige’s performance as the Witch is another thing that defies the usual audience expectations. What did you want her to bring across?

We wanted the performance to come from a place that was real for her, and not be someone who just rubs her hands and leers. The most iconic and impactful villains are the ones who are upset, reacting to a life that hasn’t gone their way. Wicked Witch of the East, Darth Vader — everyone’s heartbroken.

I hope it’s not a faux pas to say that the first one coming to mind is Norman Bates.

Ha, not at all. What my dad did with that role was a modern, humanistic, naturalistic look at a deeply hurt person. And we get put right in his head, as someone who’s been abused and abandoned, and then has to cope with that. Alice and I tried to find where this woman’s coming from, and at what stage in her life we’ve met her. She’s entered into a magical bargain with herself that requires her to kill children, and we wondered what kind of effect that would have on a person in the long term. Everyone who’s addicted to anything, or dependent on anything, comes to feel not so great about it. You get more of whatever you need to make yourself feel less bad, but then you feel bad again. That’s a loop, and she’s caught in it.

Triangles are a really prominent, recurring image in this film. Do they have any special meaning to you?

It’s a primal, elemental, simple, undeniable force. It says to the audience, “This movie is what it is, itself in an immovable way.” The triangle announces the film as concretely and recognizably different. It came to me as a way to focus the visuals around something distinct.

Working with child actors in the horror genre seems like it would present some obstacles. Was that the case?

Yeah, especially with Sammy, who was 8 when we filmed the movie. There’s no such thing as an 8-year-old who’s not easily scared. He’d come up to me sometimes, take his little finger, and point at an action line in the script that was too much for him. He wouldn’t say anything, just underline it and point and look at me. I knew what that meant. The one scene in which Gretel and Hansel are getting chased by the zombie-looking guy, we restaged the approach so that he wasn’t in the heat of it all that much. That day, the guy playing the role made a sort of high-pitched moan I really loved, and we ended up changing it for the movie because I could see it bothered Sammy. He’s a sweet kid, and when he looks borderline miserable, you know you have to do something.

Your movies in the horror genre stand out for how they interact with specific, distinct literary traditions. Having covered the 19th-century ghost story and old-school folklore, do you have your eye on new territory?

As nicely as horror movies have come out of the reputation-gutter and become more well-thought-of by the general public, I think the thriller should be next up. The Hitchcockian thriller had a moment in the ’90s, a brief resurgence, but it’s spent most of the past two decades in shittier stature. Where’s our Vertigo? That’s what I’m working on next. I’ve started writing now, and Vertigo is the big one, with trace amounts of Frankenstein and The Social Network in there too.