Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, readers! With today being March 17th, I thought it was the perfect day to celebrate everyone’s favorite pint-sized purveyor of gold, the eponymous Leprechaun, who was portrayed throughout the original film series of the same name by the indelible Warwick Davis (with the first movie recently celebrating its 25th anniversary). Dreamt up and brought to life by veteran special effects visionary Gabe Bartalos, the memorable Leprechaun design helped establish the fiendish foe as one of the most memorable characters in horror from the last 30 years, turning the creature often associated with Lucky Charms into something more than a popular cereal mascot.
So, before you start kicking back that 12-pack of Guinness and donning all of your greenest apparel, let’s dive into the inspirations behind Leprechaun with Bartalos to find out how he embraced the bolder side of character design as an artist looking to do something completely against the grain:
Before I started on Leprechaun, I think everyone’s vision of a leprechaun had been reduced to ridiculous images in either traditional fairy tales or what you would see on a cereal box. I didn’t think any of those were interesting. If anything, they were off-putting, and so my approach to this character was almost like a way of me saying, “F you.” When you take on a creature like this, you have to embrace that absurdness and then just jackhammer it into a very bold conceptual area.
The punchline to that idea was that they had Warwick, who brought his acting chops and seriousness into this, because he’s such a professional, and he was the cherry on top of my absurd ideas. I was listening to the producers say what they thought they wanted, and they had even done two clay sketches before I came on board, and one of them had a clover hanging off of his derby hat. I had no interest in doing that kind of character at all. I was very interested in doing the film because the title character, for better or worse, that’s your monster, and that’s cool, that’s branding. And if you can make that interesting, you’re onto something.
But the guidance I was being given from the production company was not interesting at all to what I wanted to see, and I realized that. I kind of said, “F--- it,” and pushed them aside. I remember I did a full miniature body sculpture, right down to the little German straps in his shoes. If this character is real, it has to swing the pendulum in a really different, tough way. I sculpted this ultra-aggressive sculpted brow and gave him a chipped tooth, too. He had to be menacing. I thought that if we were really going to do this, I would make it this disgusting, vicious character. I did the hat on him conceptually with the big lapels and not a hint of green on him either, and I remember that the producers were confused about it. I was like, “Green sucks! Get green out of there!”
In Leprechaun, there are actually three different stages of makeup to him. If you look at the first images of the Leprechaun in the movie and then what he looks like at the end, you would clearly see it. But we ended up doing a cross-pollination with those pieces from the three different stages, so he actually has almost six to eight guises in the film. By the end, subliminally, his finally look is what they kept for the rest of the films. I almost submitted it with a little bit of tongue in cheek, like, “What are you going to make of this?” Then they were like, “That’s it, that’s what we should go with,” and I give them all the credit.
Then again, having Warwick Davis bring his magic to it, it became this fully actualized character. And having that kind of talent working in your makeup is huge, because if you step away from even the strongest makeup, your canvas is the actor’s face and their performance is going to make or break it. It was broken into nine pieces, including the ears, and every piece was glued to him, so he mastered how to move in this thing. We quickly realized that we were in good hands with him.
Warwick totally understood the makeup, and he worked it in front of a mirror for a very long time. He wanted to see what 10 percent of him read on it and probably realized, “Oh, I have to do 16 percent to get that snarl or to move the brow.” I remember that first film was the Holy Grail for a studio, because they wanted a monster franchise, and they got it. So that’s really cool in that sense of what a studio wants and needs, because they got everything they were looking for. There’s a lot of winking and playfulness with the Leprechaun, but to have it land as well as it did with fans is really cool, and the fact that it spawned all of those sequels is still really incredible.
Photo courtesy of Gabe Bartalos:Next: Practical-ly Perfect: Celebrating Todd Masters’ Ambitious Special Effects in SLITHER (2006)