Director Paul Schrader describes his latest movie--"Witch Hunt," premiering Saturday on HBO--as a film blanc.
Set in 1953 Los Angeles, 'Witch Hunt" finds a world that is magical--quite literally, in fact, because magic is part of everyday life.
Shamus Phillip Lovecraft (Dennis Hopper) is one of the few people who doesn't use magic, even when a glamorous starlet (Penelope Ann Miller) asks him to find out who is sabotaging her career.
Sheryl Lee Ralph stars as a licensed witch and friend of Lovecraft's; Alan Rosenberg plays an egotistical studio head; Eric Bogosian is a Joe McCarthy-like senator who heads up the Congressional Committee on Unnatural Activities, and Julian Sands plays Lovecraft's archenemy.
Written by Joseph Dougherty, "Witch Hunt" is a sequel to his 1992 HBO thriller "Cast a Deadly Spell."
Viewers tuning in and expecting to see a detective thriller filled with the film noir trappings of that era--shadows, darkness and smoke--will be in for a big surprise. "Witch Hunt" owes it look to the lushly beautiful Technicolor movies of the '40s and early '50s.
"I suppose someone will call it a film noir simply because of the limited vocabulary of writers and reviewers, but it certainly isn't," says Schrader, who has directed such visually evocative feature films as "Cat People," "American Gigolo" and "Mishima."
"I am not quite sure what it is," he adds. "It is fresh. It is hip and I don't think there has been anything quite like it."
Schrader says he "assiduously avoided all the cliches of film noir. Film noir parodies have become a genre unto their own, like (Showtime's) 'Fallen Angels.' There is no life left in those parodies. I needed to do something fresh, so I took it into 1953 and into the world of international style and architecture, what they called the 'New Look,' which was sort of the '50s Miro-shaped coffee tables and color schemes."
This look, he adds, also was referred to as "California cool"--the world inhabited by such jazz artists as Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck.
"In addition," he says, "we used a special lighting package to try to emulate the three-strip Technicolor look, where you get these very, very saturated colors which would just pop off the screen as they did when they had Technicolor."
The system, called Kino-flow, is a pattern of color Florissants, "which if you have one really bright color and an essentially monochromatic background, that color will just jump. Kino-flow also gets rid of shadows, so you don't have shadows which is the stock and trade of film noir."
"Witch Hunt" marks the second time costumer designer Jodie Tillen has collaborated with Schrader. She previously designed costumes for his 1987 film "Light of Day."
"He has such a visual sense," Tillen says with enthusiasm. "The interesting part is that I read the script and then came in for my first creative meeting with him. He walked in and had a stack of books on film noir. He threw them down on the desk and said, 'You see all of this. I don't want any of this.' He had a completely different take."
What he did want was something more akin to the rich images found in the 1945 Technicolor film "Leave Her to Heaven." That Gene Tierney vehicle, Tillen says, "had these saturated primary colors. The skin had that airbrushed, solid, perfect skin look and that is what he wanted."
Not only did Tillen design the clothes, she also designed hair and makeup. "He lets you design the graphic of the person, the whole person, which was fabulous," she says. "The wrong hairdo and makeup can kill it all. He had a vision. We also made all of Penelope's clothes so we had a chance to really control the graphic of what he wanted to see."
The actresses' outfits are saturated in color. "They are the flowers of the piece and the men are sort of the background," she explains. "They are sort of a tone. The women are the focal point, which is not how they do things today. The use of makeup--it was like pancake. We had these flawless skinned-control shapes.
"Our color palettes were, like, saturated primaries and black and white and gray," Tillen adds. "There were a couple of pictures of Chet Baker when he was burned out and young, and that is sort of how he based the look of Dennis Hopper on. So it was more, instead of like '50s music, it was like the birth of jazz in Los Angeles. It was a real hot time of jazz and Chet Baker was part of that. He based Julian Sands' character on Dave Brubeck. Look at the glasses. And Eric Bogosian is Richard Nixon in the '50s when he had, like, a pompadour."
Production designer Curtis A. Schnell ("Defenseless") designed more than 30 location sets and 11 studio sets. "The fun part was to try to get the same feeling of those films in the '50s that were dark in character, but what we wanted to do was create something new and different and liven it up a bit," he says.
One way he achieved that goal was that he "pulled way back in the color of the walls of the structures and dropped in a lot of shadow lines with the architecture--over-accentuating certain trims. We brought in bits of color here and there."
Schnell's designs also have a sense of humor, especially when it comes to the film mogul's office. "If you look closely at the film, all of the contour lines point at his desk, so subconsciously that your eye is traveling to him. The furniture and the architecture were absolutely correct (for that time), but how we applied them is that we tweaked with your head a bit."
"Witch Hunt" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.