For ‘Suspiria’, Makeup Designer Mark Coulier Transformed Tilda Swinton Into A Hideous Witch And An Old German Man

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Approached for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria—an homage to Dario Argento’s giallo classic—makeup designer Mark Coulier was put to one specific test. Could he transform Tilda Swinton, one of the industry’s most notable shapeshifters, into a man? A prosthetics wizard, Coulier had, over the years, taken on the vast, fantastical worlds of Harry Potter, The Mummy Returns and Fantastic Beasts. He’d turned Robert De Niro into Frankenstein’s monster, and Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher. He’d even turned Swinton into an elderly woman, the memorable Madame D. of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. But the prospect of believably transforming the actress into a man—or rather, a man playing another man—was radically different. To convince Guadagnino that he could execute a metamorphosis on which the film hinged, Coulier would meet with Swinton to conduct a series of early makeup tests.

If you include her performance as Lutz Ebersdorf—a non-professional actor, starring as psychoanalyst Dr. Josef Klemperer—Swinton would actually play four characters, each with their defining look. On opposite ends of the visual spectrum, her two other characters were the severe Madame Blanc—a dance choreographer who sweeps an unsuspecting American into her world of witches—and Helena Markos, a terrifying creature whose body is falling apart. Her presence embodied certain interests on the part of Guadagnino; specifically, his passion for the films of David Cronenberg. “He loves a bit of body horror,” Coulier remarks, “a bit of twisted flesh.”

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While there was plenty of that to be had in Suspiria, the makeup artist was also met with a challenging vision on Stan & Ollie—again, pertaining to the specifications of those before the camera. For this comedic drama directed by Jon S. Baird, Coulier would transform Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly into the iconic comedic duo of Laurel and Hardy, resorting to finely honed fat suits and more tricky prosthetics to pull it off.

For an exclusive look at the two-time Oscar winner’s process on Suspiria, take a look above.

Could you give a full account of the various prosthetics created for Tilda Swinton’s characters in Suspiria, and how those were applied?

Regarding Madame Blanc, that was a straight makeup department thing. They wanted her to look pretty austere and sharp. She’s got the big wig on. For [the psychoanalyst], Tilda’s always been clear that we were transforming her into Lutz Ebersdorf, the actor who then played Klemperer. For that, we had to get away from Tilda’s feminine features—she’s got a long, slender neck, and a very feminine jawline, and high cheekbones, and we had to thicken up the jaw quite a lot, and the neck, to get her into those male, heavy-set proportions. She’s completely covered, her entire head, in several sections. We had a tubular neck that was pulled over, made out of silicone, and separate cheeks, a chin, top lip, nose, forehead, ears, back of head, hand prosthetics, fingernails. We had a wig on there. So, it was a full deal—bits of body padding—and we painted it up. We had a few reference characters—Germanic looking, 80-year-old male reference—which all worked really well. Josh Weston sculpted the makeup, and Anna Kiesser did all the paintwork on the pieces.

Then, we did Tilda as the Markos character, the witch, which was pretty crazy. I had a big full make-up suit with silicon pieces glued all over it to give it some translucency. It had small body parts of children built into it and absorbed by Markos over the years. Luca described her mouth as being like a frog’s, so we wanted her to look like this wide-mouthed, mutated human being. He had a particular picture that he loved of this strange old woman with a pair of black glasses on, which we managed to keep because it looked so cool in the design. The hair is really designed from the picture that Luca had, and then the makeup was made according to Luca’s description. We did him a maquette and then it was like, “More of this, more of that. More body parts, internal organs on the exterior of the body.” Anything that would make her look really corrupted and messed up, because she needs a new body.

Was illustration a fundamental part of your prep?

An artist I work with a lot called Simon Webber did some drawings of Markos, and we did maquettes, as well. We used these two techniques to design all the makeups, really. We had Sebastian Lochmann, another great sculptor, doing the Death character, and then we brought in a whole team of people to do all the other gags—the full-body dead girl makeup on Chloë Moretz, a bunch of makeups on Mia Goth, and blood gags. Another big rig that we did was the shin getting broken, and the bone sticking out of the fake leg.


What is it like working with an actor like Tilda, who is willing to go to such great lengths to become the character she’s playing?

Tilda’s amazing. She’s very artistic and creative, a real artist in her soul, and she’s very keen on creating these characters, and inhabiting them to some extent. I think the creation of Lutz Ebersdorf is almost like an art piece. You’re not just creating a makeup; you’re creating this thing that gives some satisfaction, somewhere along the line, if you can pull it off. Tilda and Luca’s idea initially was that nobody would ever find out about this, that everybody would think that it’s Lutz Ebersdorf. We managed to keep that going for a while, but I think paparazzi got pictures and it came out. But it would have been very cool to have this as a hidden secret. That was the plan, but alas, in this day and age, it’s hard to keep something like that secret.

How did she respond to the experience of being completely ensconced in prosthetics? It seems like it would be claustrophobic.

Tilda’s a real trooper. The difficult thing for her was that she’s playing these three characters, so once she’s not playing Madam Blanc, she’s playing Lutz Ebersdorf, or Markos. They’re all tough. Even getting Madame Blanc ready was not super easy; she still sat there for a couple of hours, getting that on, and then the Klemperer makeup took about four hours, initially. We got it down to about two and a half, but it was four for quite a while. We did her about 15, 16 times as Lutz, and then the Markos character, we did five or six times, and that was a big, long makeup, probably more like five-and-a-half, six hours to get all that because she’s completely encased in it. That’s not a comfortable thing to wear, so I think if you’d done any one of those makeups for somebody unfamiliar, it’d be quite tough. But Tilda never complained once, and she’s fun as well. It’s nice when you’re doing all those makeups to have someone fun in the chair, who’s very animated and interesting and interested.

What was the process in crafting all the gruesome injuries we see throughout the film, and bringing that into choreography for the shoot—like when Mia Goth’s character breaks her leg in the Room of Holes?

It was only tricky in the sense that we didn’t have access to Mia, really. We got a lifecasting, and then we didn’t see her until we got over there, and we’ve got to match the skin tone as well, because we made a full fake leg for that shin bone cracking. That was totally a fake leg; she steps in the hole, and then we built this rig so that the thing can lift, and the bone pops out, and we had blood shooting. They’re never easy, those gags; there’s always a ton of things that can go wrong, but I have a good team and they planned it really carefully, and we rehearsed it. We got up there and shot it really easily, and really simply.

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Same with Sylvie Testud, when she stabs herself in the neck. We’ve got blood shoots that are 30, 40 feet long—they’re hiding in the corner of the room, and we’ve got two blood pumps because Luca wanted to squirt the blood through. I’ve got a photograph of that blood squirting like eight or nine feet across the room, which you don’t really see in the film, but it’s all there. Then the older character played by Elena Fokina, her getting beaten up, that was a whole series of gags. You have a fake silicone arm that’s twisted up behind her neck. I’d seen Deliverance years ago, and there was an actor in there who could dislocate his own shoulder in the scene; there’s a scene where one of the actors gets washed into the river, and he ends up being caught in a dam with his arm twisted behind his neck, and it looks really creepy and gruesome, and I said to Luca, “Why don’t we do something like that?” So we created a fake arm for her and attached it onto Elena, so it twisted behind her back. Then we did the same with the leg, and twisted it right up behind her back—it’s this unknown force that’s twisted her in a weird proportion. Then, I did a broken jaw prosthetic, and made her teeth stick out since she got whacked in the chin. We did a ribcage prosthetic, and then it was just a long time with Luca, trying to work it out. What if we do the arm first, and then the leg, and then the jaw? We just worked out which way round to do it, and she’s an amazing dancer, and performer, and movement artist, so she really sold all that stuff. It’s quite a bit of Elena doing her stuff, with a little bit of added stuff. The visual effects department then removed her real arm and legs, so we had those in a green Lycra, and when we shot her, she had six limbs rather than four. Luca wanted that first major death scene to have a lot of impact, and it really does.

How did you hone the film’s gory climax in the Room of Feasts?

That whole sequence was interesting because it was really hard to imagine the descent into the hellish scenario that Luca ended up with in the film. We had the outline of what was going to happen, that this character of Death appears. Markos is there, the Markosites are all there, and the Death character wreaks vengeance on the Markosites. The description from Luca is that the girls were being eviscerated; the witches are eating their intestines. There’s a lot of crazy stuff that we talked about that Luca wanted in there. The girls are all dancing at the same time, performing this ritualistic dance, and then we had to break it down into its elements—where people are standing, what people are wearing, when do you cut the women’s stomachs open and pull the intestines out. When does Death appear? We just had to choreograph it. We didn’t have a great deal of time on this film; we only had about 10 weeks prep, so it was quite difficult to get all that stuff ready. We were working frantically over in Italy, and we’d worked amazingly fast over in the UK to get everything ready, so it was pulled together quite dramatically at the end.

Stan & Ollie
Sony Pictures Classics

This season, you’re also on the circuit with Stan & Ollie. Could you describe that creative experience?

That was another one I was really excited to do, especially when I found out that Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly were going to be playing the two leads. Because that was the first question—who’s playing these guys, and do you think you can transform them? I knew instantly that we could enhance their looks and get a good character development from that. They’re both super talented actors, and Steve’s a great choice for Stan’s role, both visually and performance-wise, because that’s a really tricky one to cast.

We did a chin prosthetic on Steve, ear prosthetics. We did a nose prosthetic initially, but after testing, Steve felt that he didn’t really need the nose prosthetic, and I agreed. I think it was enough of a transformation without it, but the chin really did help him achieve the look. For the Hardy character, we did two fat suits, two levels of fat makeup, sculpted by Josh Weston. I sculpted the Stan Laurel one, and he did Hardy. When they did the tour in the ’50s, Hardy had become extremely overweight; he was quite unhealthy at that time. We got waist measurements from the time, and we actually made the suit a little bit less fat than Oliver Hardy actually was in real life.

But we went to a lot of effort to create a believable looking fat suit—John C. Reilly was very adamant about that, initially. He’d seen fat suits before, and he didn’t want to look like he was wearing a suit at all. We built weight into them; we made sure John could sit down and it didn’t ride up. They’re quite tricky to make, and it looked totally real. When you’re watching a film and see a bad pregnant belly on someone, or a woman looks like she’s got a cushion stuffed up her jumper, that’s what a bad fat suit looks like, and we didn’t want that.

Then, there was the heavy prosthetic make up that we did on John for 40 or 50 days. Again, you don’t want them to look like fake prosthetics; you want them to move beautifully. You want them to move with the actor’s skin. We did have a nose piece in there initially that made him look more like Oliver Hardy, but actually detracted away from the amount of expression that he was able to give, so we decided, after a lot of discussion back and forth with John, that we’d get rid of it. In the end, it would be better to give John a bit more of a free reign. We had fat hand prosthetics all the way through the film, as well; we had to fatten his hands up. We had a cool suit developed for him, a little vest underneath the fat suit with water tubes going through it. We’d plug that into a pump and cool him down in between takes, because they did a lot of dancing on stage, and he would get very hot. And sweat would be an issue, so we just had to try our best to keep him cool during all that.

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