Directed by Duane Journey, Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel & The 420 Witch updates the Grimm Brothers’ classic fairytale to modern-day Pasadena. Except now the forest is an immense indoor hydroponic marijuana farm. So naturally some liberties have been taken with the existing text. It’s being described as a bit Edgar Wright and a bit Pineapple Express but very gory.
The film is “about a brother and sister who battle a witch that uses a special drug to lure teenagers into her suburban home where she devours them to maintain her youth and beauty.”
Written by David Tillman and produced by Dark Highway Films, Black Forest stars Molly Quinn (“Castle”), Michael Welch (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse), Lara Flynn Boyle (“Twin Peaks”, Men In Black II) and introduces Bianca Saad.
I arrive at the lot at Sunset & Gower studios and am greeted by producers Eric Thompson and James Cotten, neither of whom I’ve met before but both are relaxed, gregarious and focussed. It’s the second to last day of shooting and things are naturally hectic, so I’m led from the production office right to Stage 3.
As I’m guided into the vast expanse of the soundstage all I see is weed. And all I smell is smoke. Except the weed, naturally, is fake. And the scent of smoke I’m referring to is that vaguely chalky smell anyone who’s ever been to a rock concert (or film set) would recognize.
They’re currently on break, setting up a new shot, so I’m able to grab Molly Quinn for a quick interview. She’s clad in a brown leather corset-tunic hybrid. Kinda goth, but kinda adventure as well. The whole set it being shifted and scuttled around, so we settle on a staircase at the edge of the stage where we’re not liable to be hit by any equipment.
So you’re playing ‘Gretel’. How do you think this is different from how you’d play her in the classic iteration of the story? “We’re really sticking with the classic tale, a brother and sister getting trapped in this fantastical world. But we have modernized it in that Gretel is a little more kick ass. There’s also no parental supervision, there are no parents in the picture at all.”
Is it that lack of parental supervision that leads you on a quest for weed? “Well, Gretel only really smokes because of her boyfriend. He’s the one who starts everything and gets her in trouble.”
It seems like there’s a lot of creatures in this film, witches, zombies etc… What kind of ass are you kicking in this movie? “I’m kicking a lot of supernatural ass. A witch, zombies, things like that. So far my tools have been a trash can lid, actually I’ve used that one a lot. It’s sort of my homage to ‘Captain America’. Besides that I just use my quick wit and my fists. I think this witch has met her match. Gretel kind of lives in the grey, there’s no black or white. And she’s going to do what she has to do to save her boyfriend. I enjoy that kind of determination in a character.”
That’s quite an outfit. “It’s more high end than Hot Topic. I almost wanted to do a shopping scene where she passes by a window and decides to get it.”
It’s a 21 day shoot, which is ambitious for a film with this much going on it it. What’s been your favorite part of the process? “It’s great when you can work with a crew where everyone is really open minded and willing to teach you. I’m young and who knows what I’ll actually end up doing, so it’s nice to see so many people in love with different aspects of the trade.”
VINCENT GUASTINI AND GEORGE FRANGADAKIS
I’m shown an assembly of a rough trailer for the film, which plays a bit like a brief sizzle reel. In it, I see Lara Flynn Boyle’s character oscillate between three or four drastically different sets of age makeup. I also see a particularly fun kill involving a shovel. It’s clear that, while this film certainly has fantastical fairy-tale elements, Black Forest doesn’t skip out some classic slasher tropes.
I approach Vincent Guastini (of VGP Effects) and his shop coordinator George Frangadakis about their process.
Vincent describes what attracted him to the project. “One of the things that attracted me was the aging process of Lara Flynn Boyle. But there were some challenges, she’s allergic to latex. So using any kind of foam rubber or any kind of latex whatsoever on her skin was out the door. Could not use that. So we had to use a very extensive old age appliance on her. There are three stages, one where she’s herself, one where she’s 60, and one where she’s between 80 – 90 years old. And then there’s another stage where she’s 400 years old. And that kind of challenge doesn’t often come up, aging jobs that have to be done realistically.”
I saw something with a shovel going through a guy’s head. “That’s my homage to Tom Savini. We came up with a thing called ‘pop-top’, which is the guys gets the shovel in his mouth and we made a fake head for him and the top pops up. And you can still look down below on the bottom half of his head and see the tongue wiggling around, still moving. It was pretty cool.”
How long did you have to prepare? “About six weeks. Pretty standard. And most of the effects are practical. And one of the wonderful things is they gave me free range of design.”
George, what’s your favorite achievement on the film so far? “I did one blood effect the other night I was really proud of. It was a new challenge. i was suspended 20 feet above the air and doing a blood rig on an actor. And everything was right on the mark. It was fun!”
The scene they’re rehearsing involves Lara Flynn Boyle’s witch circling three captives trapped in a cage – for spoilers sake I’m not telling which – in her vast cannabis dungeon. Boyle is not yet in wardrobe, she’s delivering a long speech and she and director Duane Journey are working out the beats before they roll film. It’s interesting to see them interact. It’s true that Journey is helming his first feature, but he seems sure of what he wants and is more than capable of articulating his needs to an actor. A process that can be more difficult than it sounds.
During a break in rehearsal I’m approached by the film’s writer, David Tillman. He’s very open, friendly and forthcoming about his process and is clearly enthusiastic about the work being done on set.
How did you come up with the idea? “James [Cotten, producer] and Duane [Journey, director] and I were sitting around drinking some beers and talking about ideas and we were talking about lower end versions of big Hollywood movies. ‘Thor’ And ‘Thor Almighty’ were on the Syfy Channel. And I knew about the other Hansel and Gretel movie [‘Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters’] and this little bird popped in my head and said, ‘make it a pot witch!’ And then the name came, ‘The 420 Witch’ and I couldn’t get it out of my head! And then we came up with the ‘Black Forest’ part. ‘Black Forest’ is the strain of weed! It all just literally flew in between sips of beer. And I looked at the guys and said the title and they were like, ‘oh my God!’ And then I was like ‘she can lure them to her house with pot and steal their youth and eat their bodies.’ And we knew we had a movie. ”
How are you balancing some of the more disparate tonal elements in the project? “Well, I like to write comedy and do funny things, but the horror actually has to be horrific.”
This film has had a quick journey from inception to execution. How long did the initial draft take to write? “I wrote the draft in two weeks. I watch all six seasons of “Weeds” as research while writing. The draft came quickly because we already are following a pre-existing storyline and adding to it.”
It seems like it’s got a fairly big scale for what was intended at first to be a small film. “I had originally written it to be a smaller movie. Hence the reason why there’s only a few locations. But it’s grown, people saw the potential in the script for a theatrical release and they wanted to give it a theatrical look and feel.”
I know the witch eats her victims in order to maintain her youth. Does she have any other tricks up her sleeve? “She skins her victims and makes rolling papers out of it.”
It’s now lunchtime, so I’m led out of the weed forest and back into the bright sunlight. I’ve already eaten so I bypass catering and meet up with Twilight‘s Michael Welch, who plays ‘Hansel’ in the film. We convene in his trailer as he munches down on a modest serving of catered chicken.
What was your approach to bringing Hansel into the present day? How does he exist in this world? “My character is a very modernized take on Hansel. The only similarity I would say is the fact that our parents are absent in our lives. So I’ve had to take responsibility and raise my younger sister and support her and be there for her in every way I can. The thing we’ve all brought to the character is a very dry, sharp, biting sense of humor. A way of dealing with life that is somewhat similar to the Jason Bateman character in “Arrested Development”. He’s just a guy who’s trying to be a rock in this storm of insanity happening around him, and he deals with it through sarcasm.”
So if he’s like Michael in “Arrested Development”, he has to be sort of reticent in accepting the reality of all the action going on. How does that affect him? “In the beginning he’s unaware of this supernatural world around him. And he’s a very skeptical person by nature, so he wouldn’t be inclined to believe any of it. But then of course he gets dragged into it.”
Tonally, what would you compare this film to? “It’s so hard to categorize this film. The name I’ve been using more than any other is Edgar Wright. We’re not making a film that’s similar to anything he’s ever done, but this idea of combining genres to create a new world and new feel. And it’s the kind of film where, tonally, you’re not sure if you’ve seen anything like it before. If nothing else, we’re definitely going to have a unique product. ”
Straight off my interview with Welch I head to the makeup and hair trailer for my interview with Bianca Saad, who (coincidentally or not) plays ‘Bianca’ in the film. She’s a petite spitfire of a woman, and definitely dressed to do some supernatural damage. In a way she appears to be playing a more traditionally feminine version of “the Michelle Rodriguez character”. It’s also her very first film role, and she’s naturally excited that she’s been given so much to do in it.
It looks like we only have about two minutes to talk. How are you enjoying the shoot? “My character is so fun! She just doesn’t care. She’s very determined, free-spirited and hilarious. I literally have to hold my laughter until after we cut.”
I’ve heard you cause some serous damage in the film. “It’s cool. I get to play ‘The Woman With The Plan’, which is cool. Even if her plans don’t always work out.”
The movie has witchcraft, zombies, lots of kills. What’s been your favorite element to work with so far? “Everything that happens after you get in the house. You literally don’t know what’s going to happen. The makeup is crazy, the visual effects are nuts. It’s awesome!”
And this is your first feature, has it been intimidating to have so much put on your plate? “I love that this is my first feature role. I’ve done everything in this movie. i get high, I do my own stunts, I break into houses, I have a lesbo scene! All awesome experiences that I can take onto the next project.”
The next day I return to the set to find director Duane Journey is assembling another set piece. The rows upon rows of giant marijuana plants are shifting and converging into each other – forming a giant hydroponic maze that keeps moving. A few rehearsal takes are done of a character fleeing through the ever-shifting corridors of cannabis.
And once the feeling is right, Journey gives the order, “bring in the dog”. To which the crew responds by bringing in a highly trained Doberman Pinshcer to pursue the victim. A hound of hell.
Journey is a confident and relaxed guy, clearly working hard at getting everything right but not taking himself too seriously in the process. Even though this is his first feature, he’s a veteran of television and commercials. We’re able to chat a bit between set-ups.
A fairy tale update about a weed dealing witch is ambitious for a first feature. How did you get involved? “Originally I had wanted to do a fun little horror film and I turned to James Cotten, the producer who’s an old friend of mine and David Tillman, the writer. And we all sat down and challenged Tillman to come up with a story right there at dinner. And he came up with it right then, and within weeks we had people interested.”
It’s the last day of shooting. Have you been feeling a schedule crunch? “It’s a tight schedule considering how big the film is in terms of set and story. But the majority of the story is in the pot forest in the witches house. And we found a great house in Hancock Park with an eight room basement to base a lot of it in. We didn’t have to build it. It was a little tricky filming in a tight space. But yeah, for a 21-day schedule it’s ambitious in terms of cranes and steadicam shots and setups.”
As a director, you have the final word on the tone of the film. How would you describe it? “The film starts off very crisp and bright, but very quickly moves towards a dark, edgy, tone and stays there throughout. Everything gets deeper.”
It’s an inherently humorous conceit, but the film also has some definite straight-up horror moments. What’s the scariest theme for you? “One of the real themes is, anything can happen. Even in an all-American neighborhood. You’re in Pasadena, the kids are playing and then a guy behind them gets killed instantly [in the film]. And the kids don’t see it and are still playing. To me the joke is what’s really happening on the other side of the fence. We’re taking a fairy tale that takes place in a forest and placing it in your neighborhood! Which you don’t often see.”
And with that, I head back out of the weed forest and into the daylight. Knowing for the first time that, only a few blocks from my apartment, there’s a witch, a weed forest and a hound of hell tussling things out on a soundstage. In my neighborhood. I guess Duane Journey was right.
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