Confronting the monster within: A visit to the set of ‘Grimm’, Part 2

11.04.11 7 years ago 2 Comments

Note: If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part 1 of our visit.

The man lay prone on a table. His mouth hinged open, as if he were screaming, and his bruised eyes remained shut beneath bushy eyebrows, never to open again, ever. His arms, twisted and broken, coiled down to dead hands streaked with purple and yellow and blue.

“They find a judge, an attorney, and the jury foreman all dead for a specific case. So this is the judge and there”s a gavel in his mouth when they find him.”

That’s Meghan, our wrangler on the Portland set of “Grimm”, explaining the origins of the dead man lying in Stevie Bettles’ special effects makeup trailer. Among other things, Bettles has worked on J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek”, the Clive Barker adaptation “Midnight Meat Train” and Ed Zwick’s 2008 WWII film “Defiance”. In 2002 he won an Emmy Award for his prosethetic makeup effects on the 2002 TV movie “Jack and the Beanstalk” starring Matthew Modine and Vanessa Redgrave. Stevie started in the business working with the Jim Henson Company at the age of 19, in part to get over his fear of monsters.

“I was actually terrified of horror films when I was a kid,” said Bettles, a friendly, enthusiastic character. “And so being the intelligent kid that I was, I knew it was all fake and it was movies and it was all make-belief. So I figured, well why am I afraid of this stuff. And I felt, well if I knew how they make this stuff, I would understand it better and it couldn”t scare me anymore.”

So perhaps it was fated that Bettles would eventually come to work on “Grimm”, a show whose monsters have been sprung from the inky depths of imagined childhood horrors. His favorite creation thus far?

“Definitely the pig; the pig-man,” he answered, referring to a beast that will be featured in an upcoming episode. “He was just a really fun character.”

He showed us the pig-man then – a suitably grotesque piece of work – and also a poor fellow who’d been chewed apart by rats; his body decimated, destroyed, seemingly from the inside-out. And yet somehow I was most impressed by the individual hairs on his legs – so realistic and precisely-made I felt the urge to reach out and touch them. How long must that aspect of the effect alone have taken?

“There”s been massive leaps and bounds with the material technology in the last five, ten years,” said Bettles, who nevertheless works seven-day weeks during production on the show to get everything finished in time. “There were several major game-changing types of materials that hit the market. So in the past we literally didn”t have materials that work as quickly as they work now. So instead of having to wait 24 hours for something, we can wait 30 minutes, and that”s how much faster we can produce stuff and that”s the only way that we”re able to keep up with the high demands of filming TV nowadays. You know, I think long gone are the days of getting six months pre-production on anything regardless of what it is.”

So how does he handle it when the hard work put in by himself and the rest of his team ends up buried in CGI?

“There is definitely digital versions being done and when they choose to use it and when they choose not to use it, that”s kind of a conversation they had a bit prior to me arriving,” admitted Bettles, who noted that the monstrous half of the “Blutbad” (a.k.a. lycanthrope) character played by Silas Weir Mitchell will appear over multiple episodes despite the actor only having undergone a single makeup job early on.

“I know we did that makeup – we”ve only done it once on him physically in the last nine episodes,” he told us. “And I know that they”re going to use that multiple times within a season. So we put him in the makeup, put him on green screen, we shoot it, and then the digital guys are going to use that footage and put him in various different episodes. So there is some digital changes, there”s then a combination of us and them digitally putting him in places. So it”s definitely brave new world when it comes to the kind of fusion of us and digital.”

A “fusion” – i.e. hopefully most of the creatures that will be featured on-screen going forward won’t be bogged down too heavily in computer-generated “enhancements”. Sort of like…

“Did you see the new ‘Thing’ yet?” he asked us, admitting he hadn’t gotten the chance yet. “I”m debating whether I want to go see it and after I”ve heard so many horrible things about it…I hear you hardly see the stuff [special makeup and creature effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.] did.”

And then we were interrupted…Bettles was needed on-set.

“Can you bring your hands up?” asked an apologetic P.A.

“I’m sorry guys,” said Bettles. “Can we come back to this?”

He left us then, and we stepped out into the parking lot for some fresh air – the red-brick extended living facility serving as the location of the day’s shoot looming above us, delineated against the gray-blue sky. We lingered over the man on the table for a few moments on the way out. He was still screaming.

Bettles did come back eventually, and our conversation continued on for awhile, mostly about things unrelated to the show, including Robert Downey Jr.’s horribly miscalculated old-age makeup in the final few scenes of “Chaplin”; Rick Baker’s work on “The Wolfman”, tarnished by computers; Bettles’ discovery that “Grimm” guest star Ebbe Roe Smith had written the script to the 1993 Michael Douglas thriller “Falling Down”; an explanation of the Jonas Brothers poster hanging on the makeup trailer’s bulletin board. But we don’t need to go into any of that.

Following a quick peek at the day’s filming (see Part 1 of our set report here), it was off to the nearby soundstages housing many of the show’s most prominent sets. All were enormously impressive:

a) the tidy suburban home of Nick (David Giuntoli) and Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch), with its retro cream-colored sofa and matching chairs, couple’s photos (Juliette on a beach someplace, hair whipping in the cold wind), cupboards filled with assorted containers, pots and pans hanging silently in the kitchen;

b) the courthouse/police station, a duplicate of the real-life downtown precinct in Portland, with its coffee makers and large arched windows, pale green walls and cavernous hallways, hand-scrawled signs (“Please Clean Up After Yourself”) aimed at no one in particular, wooden benches and paintings and dual interrogation rooms, all set against a faux-backdrop of the city;

c) the neighboring morgue, with its pristine metal autopsy table gleaming, assorted bottles and latex gloves, swinging double doors leading into a room filled with row upon row of cold chambers;

and d), my favorite – the trailer of Nick’s beloved aunt Maureen (Kate Burton), a cool, dark space stuffed to the brim with every type of gothic knick-knack imaginable: potion bottles standing side-by-side on shelves; a weapons cabinet populated with daggers, axes, a bow-and-arrow, a morning star; animal bones and human skulls; claustrophobic maps of various places, real or imagined, plastered about the ceiling; authentic antique books gathering dust. If you’ve already watched the first episode you’ll be well familiar with the space, parked out in Nick and Juliette’s driveway, but to see it in person is to be bowled over by the level of detail worked up by production designer Michael Wylie and his team. It was truly a feast for the eyes, and something I can still picture in my mind’s eye quite clearly.

So what about the cast? you might find yourself asking. What about the pretty ones? Well, alright, let’s start with Silas Weir Mitchell, who stars as “blutbad” Eddie Monroe, as I mentioned before. Monroe functions as the show’s comic relief, and Mitchell was clearly the crowd favorite during that night’s sold-out public screening at a nearby theater. I had the opportunity to speak with Mitchell “backstage” beforehand; he told me he was brough in to audition by Jim Kouf, who had directed him in a 2010 crime comedy entitled “A Fork in the Road” co-starring Jaime King and Josh Cooke. Monroe, he said, is essentially the Big Bad Wolf from the Grimm’s fairy tales, though in the TV show he shuns his impulse to kill.

“I have chosen to live on the straight and narrow,” said Mitchell. “I want to live as a human. I don”t want to live as a Blutbad and be under the influence of these id-like impulses, you know. But every now and then, you know, like anybody, I”ll lose control.”

Mitchell told me he most enjoyed the real-world parallels inherent in the world of “Grimm” – the fact that the monsters aren’t necessarily evil; that they are subject to many of the same pyschological pressures as regular human beings, only heightened.

“It just so happens that this detective (Giuntoli’s character) can see the demon behind the human mask, which all criminals that do these terrible things are,” said Mitchell, who had admitted earlier he wasn’t a huge “genre” fan but was attracted to the psychological underpinning of the “Grimm” TV series. “Those people are monsters, you know. Monsters are real. It”s just that you take the metaphor a little bit farther for the sake of the story.”

In the show, Giuntoli’s Nick – who discovers in the first episode that he’s descended from a long line of Grimms who have been tasked with protecting ordinary humans from the supernatural forces in the world that only they can see – is as much a fantasy-come-to-life for Monroe as Monroe is a fantasy-come-to-life for Nick.

“[Monroe has] never seen a Grimm before,” he said. “I”m terrified of them, but I thought they were like mythical -“

“Just like people think the monster is mythical,” I interjected.

“Correct,” he responded. “There”s a direct opposition there. You know, [Grimms and monsters are] two sides of the same coin.”

“We all have, you know, either a meek little mouse in us,” he continued later. “We all have like a raging tiger in us. We all have these elements in our makeup as humans that could be compared to a beast…certain people have more of a, you know, snake energy, you know, some people have more of a coyote – you know what I mean?”

I told him I did.

Next up I was introduced to Russell Hornsby, who plays Nick’s law-enforcement partner Hank Griffin. Hornsby previously starred as a regular on the ABC Family series “Lincoln Heights” for two seasons; genre fans may know him from the little-seen 2007 Stuart Gordon thriller “Stuck” as Mena Suvari’s boyfriend Rashid. I asked Hornsby what attracted him to the project. He grinned before embarking on his refreshingly practical answer.

“Well, obviously, the first and foremost was the fact that it was a job that was hiring and paying,” he admitted. “You know, the truth is, it”s like, I was telling the other – you know, you”ve seen – you know, there”s pilot seats, you know what I mean, where there”s all these shows that people are trying to get made into a series, basically, right. So there”s usually about five scripts that everybody goes, ‘Man, if I can get on that one, that”ll be great.’ Right? So this was one of the five. …And you know, fortunately, this was one of the five that got, that went to pilot and then went to series. You know what I mean?”

I did.

“And so, it”s at the end of the day, brother, it”s the luck of the draw,” he said. “You know what I mean? I mean, I”m excited because I love police procedurals, but I think this fantastical element, this mythological element is great. …It just does – it”s a little something different.”

Unlike Mitchell, Hornsby is a major fan of “genre” fare. He told me he grew up loving “The Wizard of Oz”.

I jumped off of that with a question about whether Hornsby would describe the series as a “pulling back of the curtain” to this other world. It seemed clever enough, in the moment.

“Yes,” he answered. “It”s like lifting the veil…[but] just saying, ‘this is you’. You know what I mean? Like there is evil among us and there”s evil in us all, right?”

Hornsby went on in this vein for awhile, as the two of us perched on the edge of a counter in a room a couple of doors down from the theater. After he was finished, I asked him to talk about his character.

“You find out he”s a guy who had been married four times, so obviously you would think [he] is a little cynical about life, about love,” he explained. “Who is in love with love, but understands that, you know, it ain”t shit.

“…And so, you know, just all around, [Hank is] I think a complicated individual. …Insomuch as Russell is complicated. You know what I mean? …My [real-life] character is going to bleed into him. It”s gonna get in there, it”s gonna fuse itself into the character; it”s going to inform the character.”

Following my conversations with Hornsby and Mitchell, I headed over to the theater to watch the pilot. The response from the packed crowd was enormous; you could sense a slight buzz in the air each time a location was recognized, and the audience seemed generally delighted with Monroe’s frequent one-liners. The woman sitting next to me was tall and blonde and very pretty; a local radio host who later got up before the crowd to mediate the Q&A. Following are a few brief highlights from the animated discussion with the  members on the panel, including cast members Giuntoli, Tulloch, Hornsby, Mitchell, Sasha Roiz (as Capt. Renard) and Reggie Lee (Sgt. Wu) and co-creators David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf:

David Greenwalt on the show’s visual aesthetic: “A movie that had a huge influence on us was ‘Pan”s Labyrinth’ and we really tried to walk in that or copy that mold, depending on how you want to look at it.”

Bitsie Tulloch on shooting in Portland: “Giuntoli and I flew in together in early March to do the pilot. We hadn”t really been here before and flying over the city I remember just grabbing him and being like you”ve got to look, there is just-we looked outside and there were these trees that were just they looked like…out of a Dr. Seuss [book] and I was saying it just it has this beautiful built in eeriness to the city and I will say I love it here.”

Bitsie Tulloch on shooting in Portland, Part 2: [quoting David Giuntoli] “Portland is like Whole Foods with a mayor.”

Sasha Roiz on how his character will develop later in the series: “I”m not a Grimm descendent, but I’m a descendent of a long line that dates back just as Grimm does and we have a bit of a history and a past, so my line is a royal line and that will slowly unfold throughout the series.”

Reggie Lee on his favorite fairytale: “I’m from the Philippines. I don”t know anything. I don”t know anything about your world. Where am I right now? I was just told about ‘Pinocchio’ and I think that that”s why Sergeant Wu has such a sarcastic nature.”

David Giuntoli on not doing his own stunts: “I learned very quickly not to do my own stunts. I merely I got thrown against a wall and I was down for like a week, so I don”t do many of those anymore.”

Jim Kouf on the genesis of the series: “There is a company called Hazy Mills…You may have seen their logo at the end and it”s Sean Hayes, the actor from Will and Grace **** with Todd Miller and this is true: Todd was in the shower six years ago and he was thinking ‘what can I do that”s in the public domain that I don”t have to pay for?'”

David Greenwalt on airing against both “Supernatural” and “Fringe”: We”re not up against them so much as sandwiched in between them in the beautiful slot that ‘X Files’ once occupied, and we”re going to be here for a long time.”

David Giuntoli, answering a question about ignoring his aunt’s suggestion to leave his fiancee after she tells him he’s a descendant of the Grimms: “Yes, thereby creating tension that can last through seasons.”

Jim Kouf, on what other fairytales will be featured in the series going forward: “You can look forward to a version of the ‘Pied Piper’. There will be-this is not a Grimm Fairytale, but ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ and there will be the three little wolves, the three bad wolves in which the pigs get their revenge at last.”

Silas Weir Mitchell on how the cast members get along off-set: “We can”t stand one another. It”s horrible. It”s a living nightmare. No, it”s a big love fest. It is. It”s the best cast I’ve ever had in all the years I’ve been doing this and I’m like 107.”

You can read Part 1 of our set visit here.

“Grimm” airs tonight at 9 PM on NBC.

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