That Time I Transformed Into a Witch for ‘Hansel & Gretel’

By David Weiner

In January 2013, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton headlined a decidedly different shoot-’em-up fantasy on the big screen: HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, a radical twist on the classic Grimms’ fairy tale.

When the film was released on Blu-ray/DVD in June of that year, I had an opportunity to meet the film’s director, Tommy Wirkola, alongside suit actor Derek Mears and the artistic wizards behind the prosthetic makeup and creature-effects for HANSEL & GRETEL.

The only catch? I had to interview them as a gruesome witch.

Let me back up a bit. At the time, I was working at Entertainment Tonight, and I was scheduled to attend a special HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS home video junket at Spectral Motion in the afternoon. Late that morning, Paramount publicist Alan Meier gave me a last-minute call asking if I could bring someone along with me to sit in the makeup chair for a special transformation.

For the record, Alan’s junkets were never just traditional sit-and-interview-the-talent affairs. They always had a memorable, creative theme connected to the film being promoted, and they never disappointed in terms of outrageousness.

Over the years, Alan’s put me in a choreographed stunt brawl to promote Tom Cruise’s JACK REACHER; gifted me sexy Wadiyan sandinistas escorting a live goat to promote Sacha Baron Cohen’s THE DICTATOR; sat me at a dinner table at the Roosevelt Hotel alongside Octavia Spencer, Bruce Greenwood, and director Jay Roach to chat up DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS while contortionists and sword swallowers performed for us; sent me in a Humvee to WORLD WAR Z survival training; invited me for “Tea with Toby” and conversation with the cast of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 on Friday the 13th; and even enrolled me in Spy School for a day with real-world training exercises to promote Chris Pine’s JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT.

When I told Alan that I would unfortunately not be able to find anyone to accompany me to the HANSEL & GRETEL junket on such short notice, he asked me if I’d be game to sit in the makeup chair to be transformed into one of the witches from HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. “Wow!” I replied, then thought it through a bit more. “After I interview everyone?” Alan laughed and replied, “Before. You can interview everyone as a witch!”

The Glendale, California-based Spectral Motion, founded by Academy Award nominee Mike Elizalde, is one of Hollywood’s top makeup and creature effects studios, having created pieces for many of Guillermo del Toro’s films including PACIFIC RIM, HELLBOY and HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, plus work on MALIGNANT, ATTACK THE BLOCK, R.I.P.D., LOOPER, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, FANTASTIC FOUR, LAND OF THE LOST and much more. A haven for talented sculptors, artists, animatronic engineers and craftsmen, their incredible work keeps on-screen effects tangible and realistically grounded in an industry that has been overwhelmed by an over-reliance on CGI effects.

Elizalde and his team welcomed me into their world to discover a little movie magic and to transform me into the same horrifying witch portrayed onscreen by actor/stunt performer Zoe Bell, best known for her work with Quentin Tarantino. An hour-long demo process with a less detail than my big-screen counterpart — so fewer hours in the chair — my evolutionary experience was performed by talented makeup artists Ryk Fortuna (whose work includes THE HOBBIT and KING KONG) and Lufeng Qu (whose work includes I AM LEGEND, THE HUNGER GAMES, and turning Jennifer Lawrence’s mug blue in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS). The wonderfully kind and friendly Lufeng and I continue to be pals to this day following our bonding experience.

It’s quite an experience watching yourself transform in the mirror into a hideous creature — just like the many behind-the-scenes featurettes all of us film fans watch to learn how particular film effects are made. A bald cap, latex, lots of cosmetic glue and gum, prosthetic teeth, latex hands, a black wig, and a finally a grubby tunic completed the “witch effect.”

Once transformed, I conducted interviews with Wirkola, Elizalde and Mears “in character” — and with as straight a face as possible.

HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS casts Renner and Arterton as the classic title fairytale characters – only this time, they’re all grown up and making up for that “traumatic gingerbread-house incident” that went down when they were just kids. Armed with an arsenal of medieval weapons and playthings, Hansel and Gretel must face off with a new, evil witch (played by Famke Janssen) and her coven, who are kidnapping children for a nefarious plan.

The film’s fearsome troll, Edward, turns out to have a heart of gold, and the towering Mears (whose creature credits include the title character of the short-lived SWAMP THING 2019 TV series; a Predator in 2010’s PREDATORS; and Jason Voorhees in the 2009 FRIDAY THE 13th reboot) was on-hand at Spectral Motion to not only talk about his character and the transformation process, but to once again climb into the specially designed animatronic Edward suit for fun.

Watch my makeup transformation, and then my awkward “witchy” interviews with director Tommy Wirkola, suit actor Derek Mears, and SFX maestro Mike Elizalde below:

The HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS home-video junket turned out to be an afternoon that I would never forget.

And in a post-script note, I found out that the staff at Spectral Motion also have a heart of gold, having recruited Ron Perlman in 2012 to don his HELLBOY makeup and costume for the sole purpose of helping to make a wish come true for a six-year-old boy named Zachary, a leukemia patient who told the Make-a-Wish Foundation that he wanted to “meet and become Hellboy.” Lufeng Qu was there to not only transform Perlman, but also Zachary himself into his favorite Big Red crimefighter. You can see more fun pictures HERE.


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