‘Turning into a wolf was fantastic’: how we made The Company of Wolves

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Neil Jordan, director

I met Angela Carter in 1982, while we were in Dublin attending a week celebrating the centenary of James Joyce’s birth. She’d written a script based on a short story of hers called The Company of Wolves, itself an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. It wasn’t long enough for a feature film but I proposed a kind of portmanteau structure, with a girl dreaming herself as a fairytale character and her dream grandmother telling cautionary tales. In that way, we could incorporate elements from other traditional tales in Angela’s collection The Bloody Chamber.

I flew to London and met Angela at her house in Clapham. Every morning we’d sit and describe scenarios to each other, then go off and write separately, comparing what we’d done the next morning. Within about two weeks the script was finished.

We built this extraordinary set on the two main stages at the Shepperton Studios in Surrey: a forest and an 18th century-style village, partly inspired by the paintings of Samuel Palmer. Our budget was tiny but Anton Furst was a designer of genius. He created a forest using about 12 trees, which moved around on rollers. For long shots we used bonsai trees. The crew had worked on Star Wars films and thought what we were doing was absolutely absurd.

Chris Tucker, who had done the makeup for John Hurt in The Elephant Man, devised the effects showing men turning into wolves. Animatronics were coming on, but Chris wanted to try something different to films like An American Werewolf in London. Changing the shape of a human face became a conceptual puzzle, and he came up with two very different transformations. In the first, Stephen Rea’s character tears off his own skin, then you see his musculature change. Later, Micha Bergese’s huntsman has a wolf come out of his mouth, a wonderful idea. But I think one of the most effective moments is when a chopped-off wolf head falls into a vat of milk and bobs up as Stephen Rea’s face. That shot was simple to do but really effective.

Sarah Patterson, who played Rosaleen, was only 12 or 13 when she auditioned and hadn’t acted before. She seemed to instinctively understand the fairytale terrain, while Angela Lansbury made a wonderful Granny despite only being in her 50s. She only got upset once, when we dropped some spiders on her in the church scene.

We used lots of real animals, whose handlers had to be kept out of shot during takes, but most of the wolves were actually malamutes with their fur silvered. We did have two real ones, though. Sarah didn’t have any fear around them, but you should always remain conscious that a wolf’s jaws can crush a baseball bat.

A few ideas didn’t quite come off. We couldn’t do the ending as originally conceived, which would have seen Rosaleen diving through her bedroom floor and vanishing. I wanted the wolf girl played by Danielle Dax to cry tears made of glass that smashed on the ground, but we couldn’t get that to work. And in the scene where the devil appears in a Rolls-Royce, I wanted Andy Warhol. He agreed to do it, as long as we shot the scene in New York, which was logistically impossible. I’m kind of glad, though, as we got the wonderful Terence Stamp instead.

Exploding head … Sarah Patterson and Angela Lansbury in The Company of Wolves.
Exploding head … Sarah Patterson and Angela Lansbury in The Company of Wolves. Photograph: ITC/Allstar

Micha Bergese, played the huntsman

I’d been a professional dancer since 1970 but The Company of Wolves was my first film role. Neil wanted me to use my dancer’s instinct. I did a test shoot with Sarah. I think they wanted to check that my physicality wasn’t going to be overwhelming, that I wasn’t suddenly going to turn into Rudolf Nureyev.

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There were a few people quite new to the industry, which created a great energy. Everybody was geared up to give their best. Angela Lansbury took me for lunch and gave me advice on creating my character’s story in scenes where I had no dialogue. That is what one does in dance, so she helped bring those two worlds together.

Later, of course, I got to knock Angela’s head off. I enjoyed watching the crew film the shot where it seems to smash like porcelain. I remember going to Chris Tucker’s house to have my own head cast, for when a wolf’s snout comes out of my face. His shelves were full of the heads of actors from other films he’d worked on.

Turning into a wolf was fantastic: I got to go from the acting world back into my dance world. I wore contact lenses that had to be taken out every 15 minutes, though much of the transformation was just done with makeup. Having it applied was a kind of meditation, because I couldn’t move for hours. The long tongue was Chris’s work, of course, but the makeup department didn’t have to do much to my eyebrows, which are very bushy. My daughters have always described them as my eyebrow, singular. That may have worked in my favour. Whatever it takes to get a role!

‘Turning into a wolf was fantastic’: how we made The Company of Wolves

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