Monday, 13 June 2016

Burn the Witch (stereotypes)!

Meryl Streep's witch in Into The Woods is one of the most recent cinematic iterations

    As soon as I read Tommy Draper's first draft for Songbird, I knew that tackling a witch character was going to be an interesting challenge. There's so many images that spring to mind, and there's no concept that hasn't already been done to death in films and literature. So finding a way to present a new witch character is going to be tricky - and doing that while still paying homage to beloved witch characters of the past is going to be even harder.

Snow White's crone: The face that
terrified a generation
   When someone talks about aged, fantasy witches, the first image that always springs to mind for me is the crone in Disney's Snow White. Hunched, heavily wrinkled and with deep, dark rings around her buggy eyes. This is an image that scared a generation; a figure that is immediately terrifying - and immediately pitiable, too. When Snow White meets her, although she is frightened by the crone's appearance, she is sweet and polite to her because she believes her to be a harmless, little old lady.

   And that's one of the core themes in Snow White. Snow is young and beautiful. The evil queen is ageing - and when she becomes the old crone, it is her worst fears brought to life. She cries out when she sees her hands wither and wrinkle. Because, good and bad aside, Snow White has always been a fairytale about age, and the appearance that comes with it. While the childlike Snow White is loved, when the (solitary) Evil Queen becomes the crone, people are repulsed by her - and they believe she has no power.

  There's similar themes to address in Songbird. The witch, (who was - poignantly in this case - known just as 'Old Woman' for many drafts of the script), is surrounded by young, arrogant people who don't appreciate things the way that she does. At least, that's what it looks like from her perspective. But interestingly enough, while our witch is still a solitary character, so is our hero; Jennifer is shy, and prefers to hide away in her little flat.

   The witch that terrified me most as a child was The Grand High Witch from Roald Dahl's The Witches. I don't mean the movie version; Quentin Blake's deceptively simple line drawings left so much to the imagination that all sorts of images of the Grand High Witch's terrible face flashed into my young mind. I couldn't even be in the same room as the book for a time! But I plan on revisiting that childhood fear, particularly when discussing the make-up style for our witch.

Robert Eggers' The Witch goes
back to nature
   The other thing that was scary about the Grand High Witch was the way that she was able to move around undetected in public, her true nature masked (literally) by beauty and superiority. Although our witch won't change her face at any point, she does need to be able to appear in public, at a crowded bar nonetheless, receiving little more than the odd judgmental look from the younger patrons. How we achieve this will mostly be down to what she wears in these scenes, and the dignity with which she carries herself. She will be somewhere between the terrifying true face of the Grand High Witch, and the glamorous persona.

   Traditionally, when you look back over old fairytales, witches were never glamorous. They were ancient, feral creatures that lived outdoors - which is something that Robert Eggers has recently gone back to for his iteration in The Witch, and we want to homage those traditional witches as well as more Hollywood move staples.

   The Collector in Songbird has a lair in the forest, and we need to make it look as though this is where she is from - where she feels most comfortable and confident of success. So we need to capture this connection with nature; there will be a costume change for the forest scenes, but we also need to suggest that she cannot fully shake off her roots (perhaps literally as well as figuratively) when she's out in public. Costume and hair design will play a subtle part in this, but it's also very much down to performance.

   Taking all of the above into account, there's a lot of challenges in terms of the writing, direction, costume and makeup choices for this character. But casting is the most crucial decision of all, and I'm very lucky because my team and I have found the perfect person for the part: Julia Damassa.
The beguiling Julia Damassa

   When you first look at Julia, it's hard to imagine an old woman, so makeup will still play an important role there. But when Julia speaks, her voice and the way she moves gives a sense of otherworldly depth about her. Even more importantly, she showed an incredible understanding of the character from the word go, expressing some great ideas I hadn't considered before (like how The Collector processed sounds rather than listening to them, like she was mentally 'trying on' the voices). And when I asked her to find a monologue away from the script, something which summed up the nature of the character, she performed two pieces of powerful, masculine dialogue from The Tempest and Wuthering Heights. I was sold.

   In conclusion, there's still a lot of work to do if we want our witch to work in a modern, believable setting whilst still being respectful to the movie witches that have gone before. But with talent like this on board, I think we have the best chance of being successful.

Get a sneak preview of Julia's voice talents in the Songbird Teaser Trailer!

   For more information on Songbird, check out the designated page on the Triskelle Pictures website. To support the production (and pre-order a copy of the film in the process), please donate to our Indiegogo campaign. And, as ever, you can follow the Triskelle Pictures Facebook page for news and updates as they happen.

Sophie

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