Makeup and prosthetics artist Mark Coulier is having a hell of a season. The two-time Oscar-winner (for The Iron Lady and The Grand Budapest Hotel) has a pair of attention-getting vehicles in late 2018: Stan & Ollie (out December 28), where he transformed Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly into Laurel and Hardy, and Suspiria—in which his most significant contribution wasn’t supposed to be noticed at all.
Luca Guadagnino’s reconception of Dario Argento’s horror classic casts Tilda Swinton as sinister dance-academy overseer Madame Blanc, and also, under extensive appliances by Coulier and his team, as psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer. This role, the biggest one added by Guadagnino to Argento’s scenario, was originally credited to “Lutz Ebersdorf,” allegedly a German psychoanalyst making his acting debut. But as Suspiria began playing festivals and neared its release by Amazon Studios earlier this year, the cat escaped from the bag, Guadagnino and Swinton came clean in October, and Ebersdorf’s IMDb bio disappeared from the site. (His name appears nowhere on the packaging or publicity for Lionsgate’s Blu-ray release of the film, out January 29.)
If it was up to Coulier and co., however, only a handful of people would have known about Swinton’s second part in Suspiria. “None of us wanted it to come out,” the artist says. “We were all very keen on the idea that this would be a secret—especially Tilda, she didn’t want anybody to know. We talked about it a lot, because there hasn’t been a character in film before played by someone nobody knows about. Unfortunately, the word got out and we weren’t able to pull it through. It’s very difficult, in this day and age, to keep a secret like that. That’s life, I guess, but it would have been nice to have it be a total secret forever.”
Coulier, a fan since his youth of ’70s horror who started out bringing Clive Barker nightmares to life for Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Candyman and Nightbreed, jumped at the chance to help reimagine Suspiria and to work with Guadagnino. “I initially got a telephone call from Luca with the question of whether or not we could successfully turn Tilda Swinton into a man,” he recalls. “I told him, ‘I think so, but I don’t know for sure. The only way we’ll know is to do a test makeup, really, and see if she’s happy.’ So 18 months before the film started, we did a test makeup on Tilda. We already had her head cast from The Grand Budapest Hotel, so we could start sculpting straightaway.”
The artist had turned the actress into an elderly woman for Grand Budapest Hotel (and also worked with her on Danny Boyle’s The Beach), but aging her up and changing her gender posed particular and obvious challenges. “Tilda’s got a very feminine face, with high cheekbones and the longest, slender neck, and we had to work against that,” he notes. “My theory has always been to keep prosthetics to a minimum and make them really thin so that the performance will show through, and this was one where we had to hide Tilda. The neck prosthetic was very thick, more so than we would normally do, and we had to fill out her jawline and try to make her look as masculine as possible, but also keep it realistic. It was quite tricky. I had a great artist on my team, Josh Weston, who had a big input into the makeup and the way it was designed and sculpted.”
For her part, Swinton embraced the complicated process and had no problems sitting for the lengthy application. “It’s all about character creation, and if it helps that, Tilda is totally up for it,” Coulier says. “Some actresses don’t like wearing prosthetics; they don’t like hiding themselves, they don’t like sitting in the chair for three or four hours, whereas others totally embrace what we do, and Tilda is one of them. She’s an artist, she’s a creative soul; if it takes five hours to get the makeup on and achieve the look she wants, then she’s happy to go along with it.”
He recalls only one instance where things became problematic: “She did have a reaction to the contact lenses she wore for Klemperer at one point. So some of [the change to her eyes] is the lenses and some of it was done digitally, just because of practicalities.”
And then there were the practicalities of preserving the secret of Swinton’s presence as “Ebersdorf.” “We didn’t tell anyone who didn’t need to know,” Coulier reveals. “Even people on the film who didn’t have to be privy to the information weren’t aware of it. We kept that going throughout the whole shoot; the core crew knew, obviously, but any extras or people who came in for the day or weren’t on it very much all thought it was just this old guy. On set, we had to call Tilda ‘Lutz’ when she was playing this character, and while she was in makeup, she would be Lutz Ebersdorf; she wasn’t Tilda Swinton.”
Swinton was so devoted to the craft of makeup transformation, in fact, that she wound up playing a third role that completely covered her in prosthetics. At Suspiria’s climax, she appears as the monstrous Helena Markos, the source of the evil permeating the academy (as seen in the photo above and video below). “Tilda wore a full-body costume to play this corrupted, haggard old witch that Luca wanted in the movie. She endured a five- or six-hour application process for that, which we did over several days. We really put Tilda through it. She was on set every day; when she wasn’t playing Blanc, she was playing Klemperer, and when she wasn’t playing Klemperer, she was playing Markos. I don’t think she had a day off during the whole thing.”
Particularly difficult was the lengthy climax in the bowels of the academy, where Swinton appears as all three characters; those and the other grotesqueries seen in the sequence required the efforts of Coulier and about 20 other makeup artisans. As remarkable as all the movie’s twisted flesh (also including the shocking death of Elena Fokina’s Olga early in the film) and spilled blood may be, Swinton-as-Ebersdorf-as-Klemperer remains Coulier’s crowning achievement in Suspiria. Yet it’s one that, if all had gone as planned, he would never have been acknowledged for—and he says he would have been fine with that.
“I know from talking to Tilda that she would have been much happier if it was never revealed to anyone, that only a few people knew about it, and to everyone else, this character ‘Lutz’ existed in reality. And personally, I would have loved that too—that nobody would know, and we could have this little snicker and this little secret that it was actually Tilda. There is a part of me that wants to tell everyone, ‘Hey, guess what? I did that!’ But my preference would have been for it to be kept quiet forever.”