How Osgood Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ Son, Became a Horror-Movie Maestro
The director of the exciting new film “Gretel & Hansel” opens up about his influences, film-icon father, and much, much more.
It’s never easy escaping the shadow of a famous parent—especially when you’re a horror director and your father is none other than Psycho icon Anthony Perkins. Nonetheless, in only a few short years, Osgood Perkins has established himself as one of the genre’s most distinctive and daring auteurs. That trend continues with this Friday’s Gretel & Hansel, a reimagining of the classic fairy tale that, like his prior The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, is a saga about a young woman grappling with loss and abandonment, and struggling to regain a measure of sanity—and agency—in a world where unholy threats lurk around every corner.
After two smaller-scale indie ventures, Gretel & Hansel is a step up to the studio big leagues for the 45-year-old filmmaker, although that transition has done little to diminish Perkins’ uniquely haunted voice. In his latest, Gretel (It’s Sophia Lillis) and her younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) are forced to abandon their plague-ravaged home and trek through a forest to seek refuge at a convent. Their journey is interrupted by the discovery of an eerie, triangular woodland home where a cunning witch (Alice Krige) welcomes them with opulent feasts that defy logic, and entices Gretel with lessons about how to wield the magic within. Loneliness, need and empowerment collide, and in Perkins’ hands, they do so with ominous menace and trippiness—the latter quality materializing literally, when the discarded kids munch on some mind-altering mushrooms.
Gretel & Hansel continues Perkins’ thematic preoccupations but amplifies them to mythic scale, and speaking with us before the film’s Jan. 31 theatrical premiere, he confesses that the familiarity of his story was a big part of its draw. Having long wanted to tackle a fairy tale, the project proved a natural fit for his creative instincts, and the resultant work is dark and malevolent, lyrical and hallucinatory, not to mention slyly funny. Those elements, along with creepy pagan and demonic imagery, make Gretel & Hansel an early-year standout.
This is your third feature, but your first studio production. Why now? And why, in particular, the legend of Hansel and Gretel?
I think the “why now” question is the easiest one, and it comes down to: I assume no matter who you are, if you’re in the business that I’m in, the object is to get people to see what you’re doing. It’s becoming increasingly impossible to get that to actually happen in a way that’s gratifying. So theatrical studio movies, as maligned as they’ve become—and in some cases, certainly deserving of that derision—if you want to be seen and if you want people to experience what you care about and want to express, you have to make bigger movies for studios. You hope for theatrical, and the fact that we’re getting such a generous theatrical run out of this is really very exciting.
Gretel & Hansel came to me as a script; it wasn’t something I generated, it already had steam behind it. The truth is that, since I started cutting my teeth in this profession, I’d always fantasized, loosely, about doing a fairy tale. And Hansel and Gretel was always the one I’d wanted. So when it arrived at my door, it was like, OK!
Was it a daunting challenge to reinvent such a well-known fairy tale into a feature that still had the power to surprise?
Honestly, the quality of “everybody knows it” is, for me, one of the most appealing aspects. Obviously, you and I both know that, especially in today’s marketplace, everything is IP [Intellectual Property]. Everything is something that we’ve heard of. It’s Joker or a Scorsese movie about a Scorsese movie, or something that’s once removed from a classic. Even Joker, which is not only source-materialled from 50-60 years ago, but is also Scorsese—it’s like, that whole thing of pastiche, and what’s familiar but what’s new. The IP craze that’s currently happening—and maybe will be forever, and maybe always has been forever, since Olivier did Hamlet—we want that. It’s power for us. It’s electricity for the machine. So that was the best part, that everybody knows the story.
You’ve said your second film, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, was about your relationship with your father, Anthony Perkins. And all three of your films—including this one—are about people dealing with loss and/or parental abandonment. Is that thread a conscious thing on your part, or is it just an instinctive draw?
Probably a combination of both. At the very least, I want to be doing things I know about. I don’t want to feel like a tourist. Sometimes in Los Angeles, you drive alongside one of these tour buses that’s pointing places out, and the person at the microphone is always talking in a soullessly-touristic way, like they’ve never been to any of these places. They have no meaning for them. For the artist making a movie, it’s the old adage of “write what you know.” If you’re “lucky” enough to know something that’s worth investigating… although in my case, lucky is maybe not the right word. I’ve had a couple of bad hands dealt to me, and as traumatic and difficult and painful and heartbreaking as they were and are, they’re also hugely informative about what it is to be living, and experiential. So to not make movies about the loss of parents, or about the fact that you can’t know your father, or about the fact that it’s fucking hard out there, would be ridiculous. I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d be visiting somebody else’s house, and I’d rather not be doing that. I’d rather be manifesting what I understand.
Do you feel like your dad’s work and legacy, and your relationship with him, still figure prominently in your creative process?
I think that, as I gain confidence and my footing in this—because as you said, this is my third movie, and they’ve all been close together and late in life, because I didn’t start doing this until I was 40—my dad’s presence in what I’m now doing is more in his very wry, sophisticated, cheeky humor. You have to look for it, you have to be hip to it, and you have to want it, and be sensitive enough to find where these things are really cheeky. Gretel & Hansel, there are a lot of moments in it which are very cheeky and sly, and that’s very much my dad, who was a shape-shifting trickster. That spirit is very much alive in what I’m doing.
J.J. Abrams and Zachary Quinto have plans to make a movie about your dad (Tab & Tony). Are you involved with it, or would you want to be?
Zach Quinto has a project called Tab & Tony, and I think that also falls under Bad Robot’s shingle, which is all fine—it doesn’t mean anything to me. To be honest with you, it’s like an inert gas: it has no value to me. To extend that, people are like, “Do you watch Bates Motel?” And I’m like, errrrr, what? Why would I? It doesn’t make any sense. I find biopics to be kind of low-common denominator. Biopic doesn’t interest me. I have had a project that I’ve been developing that is about my dad in a way, but so obliquely, it’s almost like a fake biography of him that would highlight certain aspects that are important to me, but would involve none of his actual life. My friend Steven Shainberg had a brilliant approach with Fur, which was about Diane Arbus, but it also wasn’t. It was untrue, but it was about her. I think that’s super-cool. But to track the events of someone’s life and pretend to be them? As successful and happy as that makes people, I don’t get it.
You’ve flipped Gretel & Hansel’s traditional title, which is in keeping with the film’s focus on Gretel. And that, in turn, makes this your third straight feature with a female protagonist. Where does that interest come from?
I’m asked that a lot, and every time I’m asked it, I’m like, oh, I should probably think of a good answer for the next time. And then I forget and other things happen. [Laughs] I think where I land with it is, as long as we’re in the horror genre—although Gretel & Hansel is more of a fairy tale than a horror movie to me—the quality that is richest in a horror picture is embracing the unknown. Horror movies/novels/poetry is so much about what we can’t know. Elementally, we can’t know what death is—that’s what horror means, in a way. Whether it’s, am I going to die because there’s a killer at my camp that wears a hockey mask, or am I going to die because people come into my house at night, or am I going to die because the devil’s inside of me – whatever concept it is, it’s always, am I going to die, or I know it’s going to happen but I can’t see it. The quality of looking beyond something that you can understand—Robert Motherwell, the great painter, calls it “un-hiding” something. The quality of un-hiding these dark mysteries is really intriguing to me.
The straight line between that and female protagonists is, do I know exactly what women feel, think, want? I have impressions, I have experiences, I can observe. But elementally, a woman in the protagonist seat for a male director of a horror movie enables another layer of mystery and darkness and curiosity and hiding. Movies are a collection of aspects, departments, art forms, and impressions. They’re a collage. One of the elements I like to use in the palette is the mystery of the female. You have someone like Sophia Lillis—and granted, she’s 16—who when she opens her eyes and the camera looks into them, I can’t help but say, I really wonder what is there!
Your films’ female characters are also, generally speaking, more nuanced, empathetic and active than most typical victimized horror women.
I think filmmakers have come before me who have really highlighted that, in one way or another, and the best example that no one really talks about (or no one I talk to talks about) is The Shining. When you see that movie enough times, and people like me wind up seeing it 500 times, [you realize] that Shelley Duvall, if she’s not doing what she’s doing, if she’s not emoting the way she is, and hanging in with the story the way she is, we would certainly lose a lot. I think the strength of Duvall’s presence is one of these immeasurable quantities which is so powerful. Then obviously you have Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Sigourney Weaver in Alien. There have been these brilliant movies where women switch off the victimhood, and go into personhood. We want to feel that undoing of victimhood, and we all want to feel.
You have Gretel and Hansel eat mushrooms and experience a less-than-totally euphoric trip. Were there any objections to depicting kids in that way?
I kept expecting it—I was sort of half-ducking the whole time, expecting the MPAA to say, “No, no, no.” But frankly, I don’t think they even know what that is. Not to undermine the MPAA, but that’s not important to them. When we were struggling to get our rating from an R to a PG-13, I kept saying, they’re bothered by the mushrooms, right? And I kept hearing, no, they don’t mind the mushrooms. They care about the color of the blood, or the shot is four frames too long, or some shit like that. The mushrooms bit was a little bit of fun, and a little bit of a touchstone—like the sounding of a tuning fork—to say that this is what our world feels like. This is the texture of the world. I felt like it was a nice little side street we could take to show the neighborhood. And yeah, the fact that no one seems to mind that 8-year-old Samuel Leakey is high on mushrooms, well, all the better.