By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Touting fondue boarding, literal death by chocolate, zombies, and Starship Troopers‘ Casper Van Dien as a maniacal cheese magnate and dictator of a dystopian Switzerland, MAD HEIDI, now in post production, promises to be the most insane film of 2022. Starring Alice Lucy in the title role, MAD HEIDI infuses the classic children’s tale of a little Swiss girl’s bucolic life in the Alps with mind-ripping gore, black humor, and the unbridled audacity of such grindhouse classics as Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and The Big Doll House. Clearly, this is not your grandfather’s Heidi. This time around, the beloved Swiss icon is cinching up her lederhosen to take on the cruel cheese fascists who threaten her idyllic life and the world.
Directed by Johannes Hartmann and written by Hartmann, Sandro Klopfstein, and TROMA alum Trent Haaga, MAD HEIDI lays claim to the dubious title of the world’s first “Swissploitation” movie, Along with forging a brand new subgenre, the largely crowd-funded film also sets out to revolutionize how movies are financed, produced, and distributed by bypassing all traditional methods and placing a worldwide fan base firmly in the producer’s seat. We recently had the opportunity to visit MAD HEIDI’s set in Switzerland for a behind the scenes glimpse at the film’s production and some insights from producer Valentin Greutert and stars Casper Van Dien and Alice Lucy.
Producer Valentin Greutert, casually dressed in jeans and fleece jacket, is calm, cool, and in control as he leads us through the stark, white corridors of MAD HEIDI’s sprawling studios in Bern. Looking slightly professorial in his distinctive round-rimmed spectacles, Greutert’s enthusiasm for the film is tempered by an understated and distinctly cool European demeanor.
Our first stop is the costume department where endless rows of prison uniforms, lab coats, and military garb line the walls. Sewing machines stand ready for last minute alterations. There Greeutert introduces us to Leon Herbert (Batman, Alien 3) on a break from shooting. “He got his ammo!” Greutert laughs, pointing out a full bandolier of shotgun shells draped over the actor’s chair. Back in the hallway, we pass some heavily made-up extras, their features distorted, lumpy, and wet. “I see some zombies here,” Gretuert says, his ever-present smile widening into a grin. Greutert then leads us to the prop department which looks like a cross between an medieval arsenal and modern-day survivalist’s fever dream. Deadly weapons ranging from halberds and katanas sit side-by-side with racks of incredibly realistic 3-D printed assault rifles and submachine guns. Along with the weaponry, an array of in-movie products dedicated to the film’s villain, President Meili is stacked on a shelf. “There’s Meili Cheese Energy Drink and cheese ice cream; it’s really pretty wild,” Greutert says.
We meet some more zombies in the makeup department before making our way downstairs to the bowels of the studio where Casper Van Dien is shooting a scene on the film’s cheese factory set. Over the set’s conglomeration of pipes, beakers, and computer monitors,Van Dien, looking like a cross between a male model and Moammar Gadhafi in his spotless white uniform and crimson sash, stands ready on an elevated platform. Fog fills the set as he prepares for his big moment. This is an obviously tense scene for Van Dien’s character, President Meili, dictator of Switzerland, as he struggles with an unseen foe. Before exiting the set, we run into veteran actor David Schofield (Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) who plays Heidi’s grandfather, Alpöhi.
Despite the innate craziness of making a film, especially one as outrageous as MAD HEIDI, Greutert and his team, if you’ll indulge the cliché, have the production running as flawlessly as a Swiss watch. “Switzerland is a country of clichés,” Greutert says, explaining the concept of “Swissploitation.” “We have the watches, the cheese, the mountains, the chocolate. Johannes and Sandro, the creators of the story, they’re big exploitation fans. Then, we have Heidi, who is a very well-known children’s character and we figured that we could do something very original using these Swiss clichés. It’s going to be a hilarious piece of film.” According to Greutert, the MAD HEIDI shoot has unfolded nearly flawlessly with only minor, expected production- related hiccups along the way. “When you’re shooting a movie, it can always get late,” the producer says. “You have to hurry up. You have to simplify some stuff a little bit. But, for the most part, it went very well. We’re having so much fun.”
Turning to technical matters, Greutert explains that MAD HEIDI has been shot using Arri Alexa Mini 4K cameras in raw format to ease the implementation of visual effects. However fans of practical blood and gore shouldn’t fear a deluge of unconvincing digital blood. “Most of the effects we’re doing are practical effects. [We have effects like] a split soldier and the tearing out of a torso—this is all done as practical effects which, of course, takes a lot of preparation with special effects makeup. . . In this film, we’re trying to do everything with practical effects. Of course, sometimes you need CGI to help a little bit, but [MAD HEIDI] is like pure tradition. As much as we can, we try to make the blood really flow.”
With MAD HEIDI’s special makeup effects team handling the blood and guts, the heart and soul of the film is its diverse cast of experienced actors and first-timers. Among the familiar faces is American actor Casper Van Dien, best remembered for his role as intergalactic bug-fighter Johnny Rico in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 sci-fi epic Starship Troopers. “We’re having a lot of fun with Casper. He’s such a good sport,” Greutert says. “He’s always funny. He always has a joke to tell.” When asked why an American was cast to play a Swiss dictator, Gretuert explains that the decision came down to swagger and attitude. “From the beginning, we knew that Meili the dictator would be played by an American. It was clear for us,” Greutert says. “When Casper arrived here, he wore this big-ass cowboy hat and a snakeskin jacket! Americans for us are really types; they just have this different self-esteem just because they’re from the U.S., and the U.S. is a super power. . .We love this attitude and it’s exactly the attitude we wanted to have for the Swiss dictator.”
At this point, Casper Van Dien was kind enough to join the conversation. He was also initially taken aback by his role in MAD HEIDI. “They said, ‘We want you to be our president,'” Van Dien explains. “I go, ‘You want an American to be your president of Switzerland? Okay, I’m in!'” A solid script and familial connection to Switzerland helped seal the deal for the 52 year-old actor. “I read the script and I loved it,” Van Dien says of his decidedly cheesy role. “I’m familiar with the story of Heidi, but also, some of my family is from Switzerland from way back when. So, it’s fun for me to do it. It’s really cool. I love Switzerland. It’s a beautiful place.”
As for his villainous turn in the film, Van Dien prefers to keep his performance rooted in his own personality. “I just try to play myself as much as I can and it seems to keep getting me cast as villains. I don’t know what that says about my character!” the actor says. “Maybe I should go into therapy or something. . . I think it may have something to do with getting older. They leave the heroes to the younger guys. There’s more diversity now, too, which is a good thing. It’s a lot of fun to play [villians]. I enjoy it. It’s fun to play something other than what you are. It’s exciting.”
An old hand at shooting outside of North America, Van Dien’s experience on the MAD HEIDI set has gone well–smooth as Swiss chocolate, in fact. “I’ve shot all over the world. I’ve shot in so many different countries that it’s always amazing to me that you can get total strangers to get together and make something they shouldn’t be able to get done and make this magic and have a film come out of it,” says Van Dien. “There’s such a diverse culture here, but they’re pretty solid with their English. Just the joy of making film with people that are so passionate—I love that. And the concept is so crazy and wild. I’m having a blast.”
As a fan of exploitation and action movies with a resume filled with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror roles, Van Dien immediately related to MAD HEIDI’s outrageous plot. “Some of my favorite directors are Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino,” Van Dien says, including a nod to his Starship Troopers past. “Paul Verhoeven is always extreme in everything he does, and, of course, he’s my favorite director ever. When people are on the same page in a genre I’m into, it’s fun to be a part of it. It’s always thrilling. [Genre movies] are just fun to watch and rewatch. It’s interesting. People yell quotes from Starship Troopers at me all the time because it’s one of those movies that you can watch over and over. Anything that Quentin Tarantino writes or Robert Rodriguez writes, I can always watch again. . . These guys with the Swissploitation are just so excited about it, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. ”
As MAD HEIDI’s big bad, Casper Van Dien finds himself facing off against one of the toughest heroines in recent film history in the form of the film’s namesake portrayed by newcomer Alice Lucy. An experienced stage actress and producer MAD HEIDI marks the British actress’s feature film debut. We were able to pin Lucy down for a chat during a break in shooting during which she explained how she nabbed the film’s lead role. “My agent in London put me up for the role,” Lucy explains. “I did a self-take audition where they sent me some scenes and I recorded them in my house and sent them back. Then, I did a Zoom call-in audition. [The producers] came to London to meet some of the finalists for MAD HEIDI and we did a full day of movement, stunt workshops, and acting workshops. The next day, I got called back with some of the other actors to chemistry readings, and at the end of the day, I was offered the part.”
Lucy is the second actress to be cast in the role of Heidi. The part was originally to be played by Swiss actress Jessy Moravec who can be seen in MAD HEIDI’s teaser trailer. Moravec dropped out of the project to concentrate on directing. As a Brit replacing a Swiss actress as a national icon, Lucy was acutely aware of her responsibilities. “I knew that Heidi was such an iconic figure in Switzerland—she’s the nation’s sweetheart. And I know how much the fans invested in Jessy and in the image that she had built,” Lucy says. “For me, it was stepping into Jessy’s shoes and using what she had already started and coloring the character and expanding on her a bit more. I used the trailer as a base to push and develop Heidi even further. And having Jessy’s blessing, as well, to take on the role was definitely something special.”
Although she came to MAD HEIDI relatively late, Lucy’s association with the beloved character goes back to her childhood in Scotland. “I used to storm about the mountains by my house with my dog Ella to the point where my family used to call me Heidi as a toddler,” Lucy remembers. “I was very much the mountain girl so, when the audition came about, it felt very serendipitous to me that I could actually play her.” Although MAD HEIDI is a very different take on the classic character, Lucy never loses sight of the little Alpine lass’ origins. “If you take away the gore and the blood and the murder and the fighting, at it’s core, this is still a “Heidi” story. It’s just a different part of her life in a parallel universe where things have kind of gone awry. At her core, she’s still the mountain girl who is very passionate and empathetic and very loving and very open. Those were the characteristics I really needed to take with me,” Lucy explains.
Along with her mountain girl pedigree, Lucy also brings a specific set of skills to the role that are essential to MAD HIEDI’s action-packed story. “I’m a trained martial artist. I’m a second dan blackbelt in Taekwondo. I trained from the ages of eleven through nineteen,“says Lucy. “For me that was a great foundation to start my training on MAD HEIDI and having an understanding of my body and how it works and how it moves, especially in the context of a fight. The tricky thing for me is trying to make it look pretty! I’m used to just being set off in the ring and going for three minutes until the bell goes. Working with [the MAD HEIDI] team and learning about precision and how to make something look beautiful and still have that fierceness and ferocity has been really fascinating.”
Lucy drew much of her inspiration and attitude for Heidi from Uma Thurman‘s performance in the Kill Bill movies. “Kill Bill would definitely be the most similar favorite film of mine to MAD HEIDI. For me, Kill Bill at its core has a feminist anchor. It has that drive and passion, and also the blood and the gore. Having a woman leading the narrative is definitely the biggest parallel for me in the film. . . I paid a lot of attention to when Uma Thurman wasn’t speaking—when she’s just killed someone or she’s just about to kill someone. I watched and analyzed how she uses her eyes to convey what’s just happened or what’s about to happen. . . She’s very grounded and very present and I wanted Heidi and her aura to be very present in the film, even when she’s not on screen.”
Alice Lucy also has a special message for MAD HEID’s many fan-investors. “Just know how grateful every single one of us is that they care and that they are so passionate and so invested in us making this film,” Lucy says. “Even on the hardest days, having this film made by the fans for the fans, even when you feel low or cold or you’re wet, you remember why you’re making this film and who you’re making it for and I can’t explain how much of a boost and a motivator that is. So the big thing I have to say to everyone who is a fan or an investor or is just excited to see the film come out is, “Thank you!”
Alice Lucy may find herself at the very beginning of a long run as Heidi if Valentin Greutert has his way. When asked what the next step after the film’s global digital release scheduled for Summer of 2022 on its own platform, the producer is to the point. “MAD HEIDI II. The film ends with a clear indication of a sequel,” Greutert says. However, MAD HEIDI represents more than a possible movie franchise to Greutert; it’s a shot over the bow to Hollywood announcing a revolution in indie film financing and distribution. Fat cats beware, Heidi and her successors are coming for their profits. “If this financing system works that we put in place with this Blockchain secured crowd investing where people participate in the revenue and people get their money back, I think it will take us three months to finance part two,” Greutert says. “I personally believe that independent filmmakers need to find new ways to make their films. I’ve produced films for twenty years and it’s always other people making money with your film. The sales companies and the distributors get the big share. We need to find a new way to finance the films and also profit from the films, and that’s where innovation hasn’t really arrived in independent productions. When you put it on iTunes, they take fifty percent of revenue and they decide on the price, but they don’t do shit for you! You do all the promotion yourself, and they get half of your money. The same-day global release of the film on your own website and deciding on the price to view the film yourself and controlling that and being able to pull in all the revenue on your website, I think is the future. . . When you sell your film to Netflix, you sell it once and you never see any money again.”
MAD HEIDI is scheduled for release in summer 2022. Be sure to check out madheidi.com for news and developments.