There are so many reasons why I love Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, but the film’s commitment to practical effects ranks right up there. With a narrative squarely focused on the conceit of the transformative power of creating art, it’s only natural that the special effects work would be amongst some of the best I’ve seen in any movie to be released in 2018. And the man behind it all is prosthetics designer Mark Coulier, a two-time Academy Award-winning artist (with a few other awards under his belt to boot) who has more than 70 film credits on his résumé, and a career that now spans over the course of three decades.

Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Coulier about the incredible amount of effects work that went into bringing Suspiria (2018) to life, from the photo-realistic creation of Doctor Klemperer to the audaciously grotesque design of Mother Markos, and a few other harrowing moments of effects, too. Coulier discussed the collaborative process he shared with Guadagnino as well as some of the inspirations behind the FX-heavy characters in this iteration of Suspiria, how much he enjoyed having Tilda Swinton in the makeup chair for the film, how he managed to handle the wholly ambitious effects in the finale, and so much more.

***SPOILER WARNING: It’s impossible to go into the special effects of Suspiria (2018) without revealing certain aspects of the film’s plot, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and would like to remain unspoiled about certain events to this story, definitely come back and read this once you’ve caught up with Guadagnino’s masterpiece for yourself (the film hits Blu-ray and Digital platforms next month, so the wait is almost over).***

So great to speak with you today, Mark. I would love to start at the beginning of this process. I know these days with modern filmmaking, sometimes directors will pull back from doing a ton of practical effects, but there is a lot of really great stuff in this film, and a lot of opportunities to do an impressive amount of work. As you were coming into this project, did you just have a sit-down with Luca, and he broke down all of these different things that he wanted to achieve within this movie? Or was it something that sort of evolved over time as the process evolved while Luca was making Suspiria?

Mark Coulier: I had descriptions very early on from Luca of the certain key sequences which were in the film. But they were all very vague descriptions. So it would be something like, a), we want to do this old Jewish man and we want to cast Tilda Swinton to play this man, so, can we do that? And then, b), there's an actress who gets pulverized in a sequence where her body gets twisted and contorted all out of shape. Then there’s, c), which is everything in the ending, which at the beginning of our discussions, there was a brief description of what was happening, but it wasn't very clear. Luca was seeing in his mind's eye what he wanted everything to look like, but it was a case of, as always, dissecting information from him and turning it all into a reality. Like, with the Helena Marko character, he wanted her to have a mouth that looks like a frog, and her head to be wider than normal, with her neck to be completely growing out of the rest of her body. You have to kind of find a way to distill his ideas and make sense of them. So, we did a lot of research and took photographs and made sculptures of what we thought these things could look like. And the project evolved from there.

Diving into Dr. Klemperer, in a lot of cases the actor behind the makeup can either make or break it. Because if you have an actor who's not willing to give themselves over to the makeup, it can fall flat on screen. I'm curious, how much did it help having somebody like Tilda, who's so willing to be so transformative in her performances, be the person behind this character, and help bring that vision of who Dr. Klemperer was alive on the screen?

Mark Coulier: That's an interesting point. Some actors don't like to wear makeup. They don't like sitting there in the chair for three or four hours. Tilda's a real artist, a creative person, a performance artist. She loved the process. She's very creative and very artistic. And she loved the concept of what we did for Klemperer. She's one of those people who comes into the workshop and she's excited to see all the stuff that we're making for other projects, too. She's very interested in that sense. Some people have come around the workshop, and they're not really involved, or they don't really look at anything. Tilda is definitely in the former category. It's a pleasure to work with her because of that. You get this person who's really enthusiastic about what you do. And so was Luca. Luca is a real artistic, creative director, too. He draws and paints, and he loves those aspects of the practical effects and what you can do with them. It was a great project from that point of view.

But the process of creating Klemperer was quite tricky. Because normally, it is difficult to completely get rid of a performer's face. They usually shine through the makeup no matter what I do, really. And it's one of those makeups where you're trying to disguise Tilda, you're trying to hide it. You don't really want Tilda's real face to come through. So we did a lot of that. We took it in at the neck and jawline, and we're making her look older, so that was great because you're adding to the face and creating all these wrinkles that Tilda doesn't have. It's one of those makeups where you're trying to hide the performer. It's like Eddie Murphy when he's playing an old, white Jewish man in Coming to America or something like that. You want audiences to go, "Is that Tilda Swinton under there?"

And the idea was that nobody would ever find out. But then the paparazzi took some pictures and it came out in the news. But the original intention from Tilda and Luca and myself, and from everybody really, was that it would be kept quiet, forever. But unfortunately it came out. I'd prefer it if people said I watched the whole movie and didn't know that it's Tilda Swinton under there. I've met a few people who watched the movie and didn't know that, because they hadn't read the newspaper, or saw the article about it. So I think it does work in that regard.

It's a testament to what you guys were able to achieve with that, that people are still wondering and aren't able to really immediately tell. I'm with you, though. I do wish in some ways that we didn't know, but I do think it's also a great way to be able to celebrate what you guys were able to achieve, too, by pulling back the curtain a little.

Mark Coulier: Exactly. It's a Catch-22, isn't it? You kind of want people to know what you've done, but you want to be able to play dumb at the same time. I totally understand that.

I would love to talk more about the design of Helena Markos, because that is one of the wildest creations I think I've seen in a film in years. I don't even remember the last time I've seen something so audacious and so creepy and so effective. Just the different sort of folds of skin, with the tiny baby hands, and the pus oozing out everywhere. That alone is such an insane make-up for you guys to do. Can you talk about the anatomical inspiration behind the design? Because, despite the chaotic feeling to it, I do feel like there's a rhyme and reason there.

Mark Coulier: It’s interesting hearing your take on it. It's exactly what we tried to create. It's audacious, with this twisted, distorted woman that's been corrupted over hundreds of years. Luca had this picture of a larger, older lady, with round sunglasses on, and I think she was wearing a wig, and it's a very grainy, old, black and white photograph, from probably the 1920s or something. It looks like she's been burnt or something like that, with a twisted sort of mouth. That was our starting point.

Luca was like, “I want it to look like this, but I want it to have the mouth of a frog, and I want it to be twisted and contorted with small body parts of children growing out of her skin.” It was all down to these images we collected and the conversations we had with Luca. He loved that we're delving into his mindset and trying to get in tune with him and what he wanted. Luca's also a huge David Cronenberg fan. He loves David Cronenberg movies, and he loves body horror. He wanted to create his own version of the corruption of human flesh in this film. He wanted to create this otherworldly witch that you've never seen before, so when she comes on screen, it's a shocking and disturbing image.

In terms of the finale in Suspiria, I'm guessing with everything going on in that entire sequence that you and your team had your hands full those days. How challenging was it and how did you manage to break down all those setups so that you could get everything done in the moment?

Mark Coulier: So, I think we only had about five days to shoot that entire finale. It wasn't shot over a very long period of time, and trying to work out the logistics of having to shoot everything with first Tilda playing Madame Blanc. And then with Tilda playing Markos, and then with Tilda playing Klemperer. So, you have all three characters in the same sequence. We just separated them out into their separate elements and then we shot them accordingly. But we had a whole variety of things going on. We had the full body Klemperer makeup, the dead version of Patricia—that was a full-body makeup, and we had Sara’s disembowelment. We had other girls being killed, and we also had the character of Death played by Malgorzata Bela, who also plays Susie Bannion's dying mother. I had somewhere around 15 or 20 people working during that scene, and it was just a crazy time, just whooshing around, dressing entrails onto set and squirting blood everywhere.

Before we go, I wanted to hear more about the Olga sequence, because it is one of the most horrific things that I've ever seen, and it's all done in a very different manner than anything else in the film. Can you discuss your approach to the things that happen to her character in that sequence? Were you breaking down each of the beats of her movements versus how her body would respond?

Mark Coulier: That is an interesting question. There was a description from Luca, originally, where he just said that he wanted to pulverize this woman, and turn her into a mass of flesh by the end of it. And he had made some references to a blob of flesh with a head sticking out of it. Initially, we didn’t know how we were going to get from A to B in two minutes, so we had to get into the beats, and figure out what happens to her first.

Her jaw gets broken, then her arm gets twisted down her back, then her leg gets twisted up. And for the arm, I mentioned Deliverance to Luca, and actor Ronny Cox, I think it is, twists this guy’s arm, and the guy gets washed down the river. The other characters come across him and he's dead, with his arm twisted behind his back, and it's a really shocking image.

So I said to Luca, "Why don't we just twist her arm behind her back like that, and then do her leg as well?" And slowly but surely he came up with the whole sequence. Luca had her twisted over backward and urinating on the floor. He's a big fan of ’70s horror movies and Luca knows everything about horror movies and what disturbs people, and he wanted to come up with something that we've never seen before. He wanted to make something that's gonna grab the audience. And it does. It's a really shocking sequence and it really does unsettle you when you watch it in the movie. You're like, "Wow, this is what the characters can do." That's establishing the horror behind what is going on. Then you're on tenterhooks for the rest of the movie.

How personally satisfying is it to have this film come together with all these amazing makeups and effects and see how well it all works in the end, especially in service to the story?

Mark Coulier: The first time I saw it, it was really satisfying on several layers. One is that people can watch the movie and not realize that it's Tilda Swinton playing the Klemperer character. And like you said, people find that Olga death sequence really effective. It's great to create a sequence that has such an effect on people. It's a gut-wrenching sequence, so that's really satisfying, too. We're like magicians. We do a gag and we want to fool the audience, we want to make this stuff, and we want it to have an effect. We want someone to be amazed, or shocked, or terrified, or fooled—fooled into thinking Tilda Swinton is 85 years old or she's this witch character. We're trying to fool audiences, and if we're successful in that, then it's really rewarding. It’s the best part of our job.


In case you missed it, check here to catch up on all of our Suspiria (2018) coverage, including interviews with the cast and crew.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.