Gretel & Hansel and Returning to Dark Fairy Tale Roots

Director Osgood Perkins gives us the story behind his dark new fable, Gretel & Hansel, and why he thinks Sophia Lillis is a unique star.

Sophia Lillis and Alice Krige in Gretel & Hansel
Orion Pictures

In Gretel & Hansel, director Osgood Perkins and writer Rob Hayes take the classic fairy tale first set down by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 (although its origins may go back 500 years earlier) and return it to its dark roots while giving it just the slightest modern tweak–an act as simple as switching the order of the names in the title.

Sophia Lillis (Stephen King’s It movies) stars as Gretel, who is charged with protecting her younger brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey) after the siblings are sent away by their desperate mother during a time of famine and disease. Making their way through the forbidding, dangerous and vast forest, they stumble upon the house of an elderly woman (Alice Krige, Star Trek: First Contact), who at first seems to have the children’s best interests at heart. But her real nature and motives soon become clear, and Gretel must empower herself while fighting against a hideous, malevolent force.

Gretel & Hansel is the third film from Perkins, who initially followed his late father Anthony Perkins (Psycho) into acting before turning to directing. Osgood’s first two movies, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, were set more or less in the world as we know it, even as they created a stately, atmospheric kind of horror that was unique on the contemporary scene. With Gretel & Hansel, Perkins transports the viewer to a strange, mystical world that’s both timeless and surreal, infusing it with themes relevant to today while channeling the power of a fairy tale at its most primal.

Den of Geek had the chance to speak with Perkins via phone about the new movie, as well as his thoughts on fairy tales and horror, casting the excellent Lillis and Krige, and more.

Ad – content continues below

Den of Geek: Like your first two films, this one is female-centric. Do you feel comfortable working in that space at this point?

Osgood Perkins: I think what it comes down to is that, especially when I’ve been working in the horror genre so far, so much of what’s compelling about it is that it’s all about what we don’t know, what we can’t see, what we can never know, what’s hidden from us or will always be hidden from us or will always partially be revealed. That for me is the fascination at the heart of all of it. So, I don’t know if it makes direct sense, but I think for me, the use of female protagonists, it helps me to stay in the place of not knowing everything and then staying in a place of sort of being mystified and in some ways terrified. I think that the unknowability of female characters keeps me on my feet and keeps me guessing and then therefore keeps me sort of acknowledging that which is hidden.

read more: 10 Great Fairy Tale Mash-Ups

And yet this film is also different from your last two in that those took place in a rooted, recognizable reality, and this takes place very much in a timeless fairy tale space. How did that challenge you?

One is always looking to harness the most powerful aspect of something. I was brought a screenplay for a fairy tale, and the real kind of charm and inspiration for me of the whole thing was how closely loyal it was to the original telling of the original, very simple story. So the fact is that there was never a version where I was going to lean away from a fairy tale universe. It was always going to be about how much of the mystical we can include. It became a question of really wanting to foreground it as opposed to some other Hollywood adaptions of fairy tales where they kind of almost go into it like apologists, saying, “Oh don’t worry, it’s not the old story, it’s not that at all.” What I liked about this, and what I continue to like about this, is that it really embraced the enchantment elements.

A fairy tale is neither world-bound nor temporally-bound, so really the inspiration and the freedom just flows forth from the fact that you’re doing what you’re doing, which is retelling the fairy tale, not retelling a fairy tale as a horror movie or retelling a fairy tale as something else, but just retelling a fairy tale.

Ad – content continues below

Right. Studios are always saying “this is a re-imagining of a fairy tale” or “this is a fairy tale like you’ve never seen it before,” instead of sticking to the original intent.

That’s what we certainly tried for. We tried to say, how can this be the story and only the story? Obviously we have to sort of fill it out here and there, and we have to look at things with a slightly updated lens. But for the most part we just wanted to represent the original, which is always going to be the best, the purest and the simplest. That was the goal.

read more: Best Modern Horror Movies

It feels like fairy tales have been watered down in general over the years, or even over the centuries. And yet these stories in their original form are pretty dark and a lot of them are pretty horrific.

Yeah, I think it kind of goes with concerns about the general modern day tolerance or lack of tolerance for upsetting your kids. I feel like at some point, who knows when it was — the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, whenever that was — when it kind of became the rule that children must never be upset. It’s like they’ve got to always be okay all the time. And my God, if they fall down, I’m going to freak out and they got to wear a helmet all the time. All these sort of precautionary things, which all make sense, but I think what’s happened as a result is that, yeah fairy tales which are really gruesome and are really kind of matter of fact about their gruesomeness, have been watered down and sort of apologized for, and made to feel like, oh well it’s not that bad really.

But the idea obviously of the original fairy tales was to teach children something valuable. At the very least it teaches them, hey know what, watch out there in the world, almost nothing is what it seems like it is. I think that children can be imparted that really valuable information and we ca try to teach our kids to protect themselves and to be aware. Fairy tales are sort of the first coded message that the world out there will do bad things to you, sadly. It’s sad to say, but it’s true, and I think a lot of people try to protect their kids from that reality for as long as they can and so fairy tales become kind of a little bit bland.

Ad – content continues below

Do you have any memory of the first fairy tale that scared you or impacted you in a meaningful way?

No, it’s funny, I think that for me it was always move the images, because I grew up in a family that what we did was we were part of making the moving image. So for me, Linda Blair in The Exorcist was always a villain I’d get obsessed over. I don’t think I paid much attention to fairy tales, actually, although like everybody they’re obviously in my system and they’re not going anywhere.

There is also the idea in this story of parents abandoning their children or giving their children up to the world, which carries a lot of weight right now.

Yeah, and we looked for places where we could sort of angle towards a more contemporary experience while keeping the story what it is. So for instance, it’s usually expected in “Hansel and Gretel” that it’s an evil stepmom and a dad who’s sort of there, and they don’t have enough to eat, so they push the kids out.

We just felt that maybe there was a version where Gretel and Hansel were the children of a single parent, a single mom. And the single mom stood in for everything else that people, I think, are supposed to understand about that situation in our world today. The plight of the single mother is really understandable as one that is sometimes just too much. So we tried to, whenever we could, sort of say what it feels like today without changing the story.

The simple act of switching the title around also changes what this story is about.

Ad – content continues below

When the script came to me, that was on the title page, and instantly it is one of those things where it’s such a simple, really kind of an elegant move to just swap those, but it makes it feel so different. And then in development, we wanted to span their ages out a little bit more so that it leaned into Gretel’s coming of age in a way that was just more dynamic and current.

read more: Must See Movies of 2020

It’s definitely about Gretel empowering herself, but then you’ve also got that tension within the story of the witch who has gotten to a point where she’s been corrupted by all that power.

Yeah, and we tried to make sure that the witch wasn’t just some sort of two-dimensional villain. We wanted to make sure that she was a person too. We wanted to stay with that philosophy of every villain is just the star of their own story or, if you take it further, every villain is the star of their own sad story. So we wanted to say, okay, we get it, the witch is powerful, but where does her power come from? And then what happens to power over time? And we did liken it to drug addictions or sort of addictive behaviors or compulsive activity.

Let’s talk about Alice Krige for a minute because she’s one of our unsung acting gems, especially in genre work. She’s got this otherworldly quality that lends itself to this material.

Yeah, when we were approaching production and we hadn’t cast a witch yet, the only thing I knew about it is that I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea who I was going to cast. It is the kind of thing where there were no types, I didn’t have a description, there were no ages. There was nothing to sort of help find this person. So when Alice became part of the conversation, I was woefully undernourished when it came to my experience of her as an actress. So she graciously made a tape for us, an audition tape that was so vibey and so textural, and so deeply weird and dark.

Ad – content continues below

Many people send tapes in, and it’s usually them in their living room and in front of a wall. Alice’s was like she had walked onto a Bergman set. It was like she’d walked into The Seventh Seal. She was in a corner, it was dark, it was so wonderful, it was so vibey, it was so kind of experiential. You never see experiential audition tapes. So she just sort of flattened all comers really with one stroke. And then when you get her on the set, she has a very impish sort of sly, mischievous air to her, which obviously can only help us.

read more: ’80s Fantasy Movie Moments that Terrified Us as Kids

And then there’s Sophia. I think we’re going to be watching her and seeing her accept awards in years to come. She’s just going to be one of our next generation of great actors.

I absolutely, categorically agree with you with every sentence. I think that it’s a rare thing, obviously it exists, but it’s so uncommon that the camera can have a relationship with an actor’s face the way that it does with Sophia, with an actor’s eyes. Film acting is so much about us looking into the actor’s eyes and seeing how much of everything we can find there, and Sophia’s eyes are kind of endlessly deep, and the camera just understands her in a way that it doesn’t understand most people. She’s so willing to learn and sort of approaches everything with a feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and I think that’s such a beautiful place to be, especially when you’re 16, which is how old she was when we filmed this.

The lucky ones are the ones who have claimed not to know what they’re doing, and don’t need to know what they’re doing. They don’t need to have some huge plan about what we’re going to do in a take, because as soon as the camera engages, it’s really like another person is standing there. It’s really quite uncanny. She’s very special.

You were adapting the book A Head Full of Ghosts for a while. Are you still working on that?

Ad – content continues below

I wrote that script. It’s been kind of spinning for the last couple of years. I can’t promise or not promise that that movie will happen next, but I certainly loved the script.

You’ve made three features in the horror-Gothic-dark fantasy space. Where do you kind of see yourself as a filmmaker now? Especially in a time when we’re seeing a lot of great, great sophisticated work coming out of this genre.

I’m working on a couple of different spec scripts. My first movies were obviously just entirely from my own kind of creational fountain, so it’s hard once the ball gets rolling to get back to time spent doing your own thing as everybody kind of clamors for you to do their thing somehow. I’ve got at least two horror specs that are in process, and then one that’s probably more along the lines of something like Vertigo. I see it as a really kind of beautiful thriller–horror has gotten such nice treatment over the last several years, so maybe the thriller is next in terms of regaining its elevated status and being something that could be as beautiful as Vertigo or Diabolique or something like that.

Gretel & Hansel is out in theaters on Friday, Jan. 31.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye