The year is 1953, at the beginning of the Second Red Scare, but in this universe magic is substituted for communism and the McCarthy-esque proceedings are being run by Senator Larson Crockett (Bogosian).
Lovecraft is hired by film star Kim Hudson (Cruz) to dig up dirt on her husband, producer N.J. Gotlieb (Rosenberg), who is about to replace her on his latest film with a young starlet he may be having an affair with. Gaining entry to the studio with the help of practicing witch Hypolita Kropotkin (Ralph), his friend and landlady who is working for the studio, he encounters Finn Macha (Sands), a warlock and former private investigator with whom he had once crossed paths. When Gotlieb is murdered by magic, Senator Crockett uses the crime to make Kropotkin a scapegoat for use in his Anti-Magic crusade and uses newly-passed Congressional legislation to have her sentenced to death by public burning. Lovecraft must now not only save Kropotkin and uncover the real murderer, the motive behind the murder and the secrets Kim Hudson is hiding, but also confront the demons in his own past…a past that includes Finn Macha and the reason why Lovecraft will not use magic.
“The reason I agreed to direct a sequel was that I didn’t really like the first one, which was done pretty much as a straight film noir. And I wanted just the opposite – a `film blanc’. So I rewrote the script with that in mind, took out all the Raymond Chandler wisecracks, took out all the downbeat, world-weary stuff, and I moved the time-frame forward from 1948 to 1953, into the world of Technicolor and California cool, so Dennis Hopper basically dresses like Chet Baker and Julian Sands dresses like Dave Brubeck.” – Paul Schrader
Witch Hunt, produced by HBO, was the second in a potential movie series about Lovecraft’s adventures; the first, Cast a Deadly Spell (1991), starred Fred Ward as the down-and out gumshoe. Both Spell and Witch Hunt were written by Joseph Dougherty and produced by Gale Anne Hurd, but their presence is the only continuity between the two projects. The original concept was to produce several tales if the first one was successful-and it was. But when Witch Hunt started up, it was decided to work from scratch to give the movie a completely individual look, including a new director, cast and special FX team.
According to Hurd, this strategy will hopefully keep the series fresh. “When we started Cast a Deadly Spell, we always anticipated doing more Lovecraft movies,” she reveals.
“We thought he was a wonderful character in an interesting alternate world, and we didn’t think one would suffice. But we didn’t want to make this a true sequel, which is why we went in a new direction with a different director and cast. It is a completely different world, just as the ’50s were different from the late ’40s of Cast a Deadly Spell.”
For the director’s chair, Hurd enticed gifted filmmaker Paul Schrader; as Hurd tells the story, it was as easy as showing him the script. “Schrader and I have been developing other projects, and they were coming together even more slowly than this one,” she recalls. “When he read the script, he thought it was wonderful, witty and cynical-just the kind of thing he was looking to do.”
Indeed, the movie came together faster than usual for the producer. “Most of the projects I’ve done have taken four years to get going, but it’s been only two years for Witch Hunt; that’s pretty short!” she says. “Still, everything takes longer than you’d like it to. Joe Dougherty was also working on other projects, including a stage play, and consequently the writing process took a little bit longer. But the idea was completely his to set it in the ’50s and call the film Witch Hunt, with people tracking down witches instead of communists. Once we got the script and liked it, we moved very swiftly, and put the cast together based on availability.”
Among the script’s strong points, according to Hurd, are solid female characters, a not surprising plus for the producer of Aliens and the Terminator films. “The witch is not a caricature, nor is the starlet,” she says. “I like to take stereotypes and turn them on their ears, but hopefully do it in a way people will accept, so it will challenge their misconceptions. We don’t have any shy, retiring types here. We even have some women in this film who aren’t women at all.
“There is one scene in the movie which I think is every male’s fantasy, where a man gets to design the woman of his choice,” she continues. “I don’t think this will advance feminism, but on the other hand, it is an aspect of the villainy of the piece, as opposed to the kind of white magic that we don’t want to see lost from the world.”
Schrader also understood that a belief in magic was of primary importance to make the movie work, and did some rewriting to alter the overall tone of Witch Hunt and change the emphasis of the special FX.
“Originally, this script was like the previous one, very much a parody and a film noir with a Raymond Chandler-type detective, and it relied very heavily on effects for its excitement,” he says. “I took out all of the wisecracking and then tried to get witty with the effects. Special effects now are just like dolly tracks or color or anything else; they’re another tool. They’re quite an impressive one, but that’s how you need to think of them.”
As an example, he points to the scene at the political rally, in which a monstrous alter ego was to burst out of Senator Crockett’s body. “I thought it would be funnier if a hip actor portrayed the senator as kind of a Richard Nixon character, and then came out of him as a 1995 personality rather than as an ugly monster,” Schrader explains. “It is funnier and wittier to have Eric Bogosian come out of Eric Bogosian.
“There really were no special effects for that scene.” Schrader continues. “There was a body cast dummy of Bogosian and he actually crawled and pushed himself out of it. The only effect is the latex body and head, but the scene is cut in such a way that it’s really bizarre.”
This quirky approach powers all of the supernatural sequences. “We looked at all of the effects, what we could do to make them witty,” Schrader says. “When we create Shakespeare, for example. In the original version, Kropotkin casts a spell with a cloud, and he appears in it. I changed that, and now she says the witches’ dialogue from Macbeth— Fair is foul, and foul is fair…’—and the words come out of her mouth in color and start swirling around and coalesce into Shakespeare; he’s born from his own words. That’s the intelligent twist.”
Once Schrader had an idea of what he wanted, he called in the best special FX people he could find and explained his vision. After the initial meetings, they were virtually left on their own to perform their magic. Sometimes this meant going back to the basics, which gives a hands-on, 1950s feel to their work.
One of the first people hired for the seven-week shoot was visual FX coordinator Michael Muscal, whose job was to schedule and coordinate all the FX with the various departments. This was a daunting task that involved every type of effect: makeup, puppeteering, bluescreen, morphing, computer animation, prosthetics and even live magic.
“There are 30 shots that are going to be optically or digitally composited,” he says during shooting. “I supervise all of the plate photography done during the main shoot. There’s going to be a 2nd unit that will shoot most of the bluescreen material. In this case, the plates are just for any photography which is going to have any sort of effects in it; a background plate for bluescreen, morphing or CGI, maybe with some enhancement such as clouds, rain or lightning.”
Other FX are being done right in the camera, which can prove time consuming and nerve-wracking even if the results provide that special element of magic. For those “real gags,” Muscal picked Criswell Productions, which took care of such tricks as shrinking the producer, creating the dream date and Sands setting his hand on fire to light a cigarette. As Muscal explains, the final movie will involve a combination of these live gags and modern FX technology. “Most of Criswell’s stuff is really going to be in camera, but we have shot three or four plates of the producer shrinking which we will later add some bluescreen elements to,” he notes. “They’re going to give us a shrinking suit and we will add, by way of bluescreen, the shrinking head.
“One of the other hard effects is the dream date scene, in which this girl’s hair changes styles from long to short,” he continues. “We’re going to film the actress with the long hair and then short hair, but in between, Criswell is going to give us a prosthetic head which matches her face with hair that is retractable, almost like a venetian blind-you pull on it and the hair goes up. All three of those pieces will then be blended together to make the final effect. You won’t see them one at a time, but you’ll see a blend. This is the best of both possible worlds.”
Criswell’s on-set representative is Larry Finch, an expert who blends enthusiasm with years of practical experience. The team is working on Bogosian’s emergence, a scene that had been moved up a few nights. “This whole body has to be ready: he comes out of it like a snake shedding its skin as a slick kind of guy,” Finch says. “What’s nice about Schrader is he’s letting us do all of it live. This does have that ’50s feel to it because we’re doing everything, which has been a lot of fun for me.
“We storyboarded the whole sequence with Senator Crockett, then we did a body cast of Bogosian and sculpted his head,” Finch continues. “Then we made a foam mold which is all hollow. That’s the best way to put the pieces together because we have to have three puppeteers working it. Crockett falls to the ground, and as he falls his back starts hunching up and his suit starts ripping open and we cut to him on the ground as the alter ego comes out. Everything pretty much happens right before your eyes. We don’t have to do a lot of computer generated stuff.”
An additional concern for Finch was the “design your own date” scene, since it involved much more than just a change in hairstyle. “They’re in a brothel, and one gentleman has a picture of a girl he wants to be with,” he says. “She comes in and she’s a little bit small in the chest area, and he wants a little more up there, a little more down here. What we did was create a body cast of the actress (Kristin Kahler), and then we built a chest piece that goes from her neck all the way around to her back. She wears this sheer white outfit so you can see the cuts, which is very rare. I’ve never worked with anyone who does that.”
Schrader also had a few ideas as to how Lovecraft should look and dress, and Hopper not only agreed with the costume suggestions but even lost 20 pounds for the role. “Lovecraft has an interesting wardrobe,” the actor says. “Schrader styled my clothes after Chet Baker, who was photographed by Bill Claxton in the ’50s. He wanted Lovecraft to look different from the normal gumshoe.”
“I don’t have anything against any kind of genre as long as it’s well done. I was amazed at how much production value Schrader could get into this low-budget film. It’s just amazing the sets, the costumes and the care that he took.
“I was really impressed with the ’50s sets he found,” Hopper continues. “We worked in a lot of old Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and the look of the picture is just sensational. There is a house in Los Feliz (a district of Los Angeles) which was magnificent and another place out in Pasadena which was wonderful.”
Not all of the sets were so upscale and well-preserved as the Wright mansions. One of the Witch Hunt locations, a house on Malibu beach, threatened to fall into the Pacific Ocean during shooting. “One of the reasons we were able to use this beach house was because it was condemned,” Hurd recalls. “The constant battering by the water had destabilized the pilings. Here we were making a movie about magic and you would walk in and have about a five-to-six-degree incline that threw you right towards the water. It seemed like we were shooting in the Knott’s Berry Farm Mystery House. The actors looked even more interesting working in there, because half the time they were either walking uphill or downhill. They were supposed to carry on a scene as if they were walking on flat floors and were shooting in a conventional building. It was pretty interesting to watch every actor walk in and wonder if it was their contact lenses, or maybe someone spiked their coffee.”
Dennis Hopper – Harry Phillip Lovecraft (same initials as Howard Phillips Lovecraft)
Penelope Ann Miller – Kim Hudson
Eric Bogosian – Senator Larson Crockett
Sheryl Lee Ralph – Hypolita Laveau Kropotkin
Julian Sands – Finn Macha
Valerie Mahaffey – Trudy
John Epperson – Vivian Dart (as Lypsinka)
Debi Mazar – The Manicurist
Alan Rosenberg – N.J. Gotlieb