By MICHAEL GINGOLD
A new talent in the creature-performer realm will really creep you out in THE WRETCHED, which goes into release today. We got a chance to chat with the woman behind the titular witch, with pics of her prosthetic transformation.
Opening today at drive-ins (see the complete list at the end of this article) and on VOD from IFC Midnight, THE WRETCHED features Madelynn Stuenkel as a forest sorceress preying on the children of a small town. (See our review here.) Although it’s her first time tackling such a role—she was still an acting student in Chicago when she got the part—she creates a memorably freaky and frightening creature, with assist from the makeup effects by Erik Porn. The film was written and directed by Brett and Drew Pierce (interviewed here), who have recalled Stuenkel being “the happiest person on set,” and indeed, when RUE MORGUE speaks with her, she’s as cheerful and upbeat as the character she has created is evil and menacing.
How did you find your way into your first creature role?
I actually did my audition completely self-taped. I got the call from an agency I had done some work with, and they asked me to put together a tape of me doing different creature walks. I actually used to hide under my college roommates’ beds when they weren’t home and wait for them to get in. My freshman year in college, I dyed my hair black, so I had this long, black hair that I used to flip over my face [laughs], just like THE RING, and do this creepy walk out from under their beds when they would get home. So when I got this call, I thought, “Well, this is perfect. I can just do this walk I’ve been doing for my roommates all this time that they hated!” So I sent it in, and I got it! My agency actually just sent this to me because I’m tall; they had no idea that I had been trained a lot in movement work, and different techniques.
Did you do any research into the witch legends that the Pierces used for inspiration?
Yeah, even before I submitted my audition tape, they sent me some of Drew’s original concept art, so I drew a lot of inspiration from that. When I was creating the walk, I would recreate, as best I could, the poses Drew had drawn the character in, and create these moves out of the ways he had her posed. Also, I knew, based on the information I was given, that my creature had a lot to do with the trees and earth and natural elements, so I tried to incorporate those when I was creating her. I tried to give that kind of earthy feel in the movements, very grounded, and also to incorporate the idea of broken branches, because the tree is so significant, in the way I moved my arms and my back.vide more of the chilling atmosphere one might expect, given Montenegro’s appreciation of Lucio Fulci and his films.
What was the makeup process like?
That, obviously, took a few hours, from the prosthetics to the airbrushing to the detail work with the painting. But it was a really cool process for me to learn about. Erik Porn, the head of the makeup design, is very experienced and very cool to work with, hearing all the stories he had from previous projects. The quickest I recall we could do it was maybe three to four hours, but depending on how much time we had, we would keep adding little details, so it could be up to five or six or seven hours. All the pieces had already been sculpted, but there were little applications of prosthetics that were added during the initial makeup tests, and every time we did it, it got a little more detailed as they discovered new things they liked to do. When they airbrushed, they put on layers and layers and do different veining and splatter techniques. Every time, it got more and more intricate. And then it was hours just to take off the makeup, which a lot of people don’t even think about. It was cool.
And having the Wretch as a practical effects character definitely helps the film.
Oh, yes. I think it’s often so easy to step away from doing things practically, but when you can do a successful makeup effect, it’s the greatest thing. It catches the light better, it gives the actor something to react against, and that played to this film’s advantage.
How was your experience on the WRETCHED set? I understand it was pretty cold when you were doing some of your scenes.
Yes–unfortunately, we were in northern Michigan, and it was during the summer, but we always filmed at night, and at night it was still freezing. And given the nature of the role I was playing, I was basically naked. I would show up on set with my robe on, and it would be figuring out, what am I doing today? Getting covered head to toe in blood, or chocolate syrup, which they used as the fake rotted blood. So I would be in the middle of the woods in Michigan, freezing, covered in chocolate syrup, but I loved every minute of it [laughs]. The Pierces thought it was so funny, because I didn’t meet them until my first day on set, and I had already gotten into full makeup, so I looked horrifying. I was walking around, seeing everybody for the first time, and everyone was freaked out. But then when I met Drew and Brett, I was like [cheerfully], “Hi, guys, how are you?” I have a super-high voice, and I was super-giggly in between takes, and they thought it was just hilarious.
Did you separate yourself from the young actors, to keep a scary distance between your characters?
A little bit. Some of them did meet me before makeup, so they wouldn’t be as terrified on set, but it was interesting, because there was quite a big range. I worked with several different child actors, and some thought it was so cool and weren’t scared of me at all, whereas others were really frightened! There was one young girl who I did the opening scene with, and during that, I was not in full makeup–I was actually playing one of the women the Wretch possesses. But that girl, even though I met her before makeup, once we were actually filming, she was petrified. I think she is scarred for life! And I don’t know what to think about that, because it was mostly my face she saw [laughs].
Was there a division of labor between the Pierces on set, or did they handle everything together?
They worked very well as a team, and one of the big advantages was that, from what I saw, they never fought, they never argued, and they were always filling in the blanks the other might have left. They were constantly supporting each other and dividing up the tasks that needed to be done, where if one was talking to someone working on an effect, the other was talking to the actor. They made sure they had all their bases covered.
Did either one communicate with you more than the other?
I’m not sure; it was kind of hard to tell for me, because when I was fully hagged out, with my contacts in, I couldn’t always tell who was talking to me [laughs]!
What was the most difficult part of the shoot?
That would have to be when we were doing the scenes in my lair, because there was a lot of water in there, and I was doing shots where I was submerged. So I had full makeup on, and I was trying to hold my breath underwater, and I had these contacts in, so if any of the dirty water splashed into my eyes, it would get caught under them. Then when my nail pieces got wet, they started to fall off, so it was hard just trying to keep all my claws on for those scenes.
What did you think when you first saw yourself on screen?
It was one of the coolest things ever, and it was weird, because I had to remind myself that it was me. At times, it was so surreal to watch myself doing all these crazy poses. It was also interesting to see how a lot of the practical effects played out, because when we were filming them in the moment, I would think, “How does this fit?” or “How does this read on camera?” Then when I saw the finished product, I could not believe how beautiful all the effects turned out.
Have you gotten to see the movie with audiences?
Yes, yes, and that’s one of the most rewarding feelings ever, because specifically in horror movies, unlike any others, there is such a shared atmosphere in the audience, because everybody has such a shared reaction when something scary happens. Getting to sit with those audiences, and seeing everybody react when my face comes up on screen, and have some kind of audible reaction, is unbelievably cool.
What’s coming up for you? Any more creature work?
Well, I just graduated this semester, and I’ve worked at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and I just did a little bit on CHICAGO FIRE. That’s been really fun, but I definitely miss doing all that creature stuff; it almost seems boring when you’re playing a person after getting to be this monster and do all these crazy things [laughs]! I’m really hoping this could go somewhere, because it’s something I definitely want to step into again, and do more down the road.
Are you going to take your former roommates to see THE WRETCHED?
Oh, yes! I am so excited for them to see it—although it might seem a little familiar to them!
THE WRETCHED opens today at the following drive-ins:
• King Drive-In, Russellville, AL
• West Wind Glendale Drive-In, Glendale, AZ
• West Wind Sacramento Drive-In, Sacramento, CA
• Mission Tiki Drive In, Montclair, CA
• Ocala Drive-In, Ocala, FL
• Starlight Drive-In Theatre, Atlanta, GA
• Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre, Henderson, NC
• Highway 21 Drive-In, Beaufort, SC
• Stardust Drive-In Theatre, Watertown, TN
• Tascosa Drive-In Theater, Amarillo, TX
• Galaxy Drive-In Theatre, Ennis, TX
• Hollywood Cinema, Martinsville, VA