Q&A: Director Zach Lipovsky on “LEPRECHAUN: ORIGINS”
It’s not easy being green, and it couldn’t have been easy rebooting a campy franchise about a little green monster into a serious horror film. But Zach Lipovsky took on that challenge with LEPRECHAUN: ORIGINS, and discussed the experience—and his previous creature-feature gig for Syfy—with FANGORIA.
Now in theaters and debuting on VOD and digital today, LEPRECHAUN: ORIGINS was scripted by Matt Venne and Harris Wilkinson, and produced by Lionsgate and WWE Studios as a starring vehicle for the latter’s star wrestler Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl. He plays a new incarnation of the Irish minimonster, alongside a cast that also includes Stephanie Bennett, Andrew Dunbar, Melissa Roxburgh and genre regular Brendan Fletcher (from the GINGER SNAPS sequels, RAMPAGE, FREDDY VS. JASON and others). It’s the second monster movie in a row for Lipovsky, who started out in the visual FX world and previously helmed the Syfy original TASMANIAN DEVILS, and who recently signed to direct the film version of the hit Capcom video-game franchise DEAD RISING.
FANGORIA: What was your mindset when it came to rebooting the Leprechaun character?
ZACH LIPOVSKY: The way I approached it was that maybe the Celtics, thousands of years ago, met this creature in the woods, and started telling stories about it. Now, 1,000 years later, it has become more of a silly thing, but the origin of those tales was quite terrifying. So that’s the way we approached it: How can we make something legitimately scary based on elements of leprechauns that people are familiar with, but with a much more grounded and frightening take on it.
FANG: How did you land in the director’s chair on this film?
LIPOVSKY: Basically, WWE has been shooting a lot of their movies in Vancouver, and they need Vancouver natives to be able to afford to do that. So they were looking for someone from that area who had been doing interesting work, and I had produced a film called AFFLICTED that they had seen and were impressed by.
FANG: What was your first reaction when they came to you and said they wanted you to be the man to reboot the LEPRECHAUN series?
LIPOVSKY: The first thing I thought was, ‘OK, if I’m going to do this, I want to do something completely new and fresh and that will be exciting to me.’ I went to the meeting and said, “If I’m doing this, it’s not going to be like the other ones; it’s gonna be scary, it’s gonna really express the craft of filmmaking and I want to do it like a real movie,” and they were like, “That’s exactly what we want.” Then I said, “I don’t know the franchise that well; I don’t even know wrestling that well,” and they were like, “That’s exactly what we want.” [Laughs] So in the end, it ended up being a really good fit.
LIPOVSKY: It’s a totally new world and new mythology. There are little nods to the original; they’re so subtle they’re almost subliminal. There are a bunch of things in there where if you know where to look for them, you’ll be like, “Oh, they’re at least making a bit of a homage to the franchise that came before.”
FANG: Did you dig deep into Celtic mythology when you were developing the story and the Leprechaun’s origins?
LIPOVSKY: I would say we were more inspired by that. We wanted to create our own mythology, but also make it feel like it was based on something credible. So we looked into Gaelic and Celtic terms and stuff like that.
FANG: Do we see a lot of the Leprechaun up front, or is there a lot of suggestion before you show him in his full glory?
LIPOVSKY: It’s very JAWS-oriented [laughs]. It’s a slow reveal of what he looks like and what he can do, and that kind of builds over the whole film.
FANG: Is this Leprechaun tailored to Postl’s ring persona, or did you aim to create a completely different character?
LIPOVSKY: It’s completely different from what he’s known for. The first time I met him, he was like, “I’ve always wanted to play a villain. As soon as I got into wrestling, that’s what I wanted to do.” From the very beginning, he’s always been more of a comic-relief character [in the WWE], so this was a dream come true for him. He’s hoping, obviously, that it will lead to more villainous storylines for his WWE character.
FANG: What was involved in coming up with the look of the Leprechaun, as far as the makeup was concerned?
LIPOVSKY: It was a long process. I have a strong visual background, so my first step was to do a bunch of concept art showing the direction I wanted to go, using a lot of references. Then we brought on the makeup effects team, led by [THE X FILES’] Toby Lindala, who’s done a lot of great work, and collaborated with them on what was actually possible. They did test builds to determine how all the skin and muscles would work, and then Dylan came in and it was customized into his body shape and how he moves. It was kind of an developing process; it kept evolving even on set, finding out what looked good and what angles worked and how to light it, and so on.
FANG: How did the rest of the casting go?
LIPOVSKY: That was really fun for me, because it was an all-Vancouver cast, and since that’s where I’m from, it was a lot of people I had worked with over the years. Vancouver is an interesting city, because a lot of stuff shoots there, but often it’s films from outside Canada who bring their own cast from L.A. or New York. There are incredible actors in Vancouver who have been working for over 30 years, who you would recognize from tons of TV shows and movies, but they’re always supporting background players. So this was awesome; I even got to write in a few parts for people I knew who are really talented. To have a 100 percent Canadian cast—other than Hornswoggle, of course—and build it from the ground up to show off what Vancouver people can do, myself and the cast included, was great.
FANG: Was it a relief after TASMANIAN DEVIL, where all of your creatures were digital, to have a physical Leprechaun to work with on set?
LIPOVSKY: Yeah—and I’m a visual effects guy, but I knew from the first second I came on board that it was gonna be a fully practical creature. I mean, there are visual effects in the film, but they’re the kind of used to remove stuff to make the practical effects work. It’s the same way Pan in PAN’S LABYRINTH was done, creating body shapes that are impossible otherwise, but always having a practical base. I come from a compositing background, which usually involves combining several different real elements. That was the approach from the beginning, and very satisfying on set, because I actually had something to film and for the actors to play off of. We even did a lot of scenes with the Leprechaun off-camera for the actors to react to, because there are some really scary scenes where their characters can’t move, and for them to be able to react off Dylan and deal with his physicality was very cool.
FANG: On TASMANIAN DEVILS, you had another pro athlete, Olympic speed-skating medalist and DANCING WITH THE STARS champ Apolo Ohno, in a major role—a bit of stunt casting. How did that work out?
LIPOVSKY: It was really fun to work with him. It was his first time on a narrative film set; he had done TV commercials and reality shows and stuff like that, but it was his first acting role, and he was very dedicated, focused and professional—he only ever wanted to do his best. We had one scene—and it’s a SPOILER ALERT—where he ends up being eaten alive by a giant Tasmanian devil, and ends up with half his body torn off. We did the trick for the reveal where we made a false floor, with part of his body above it with makeup on, and the rest of his body underneath to make it look like he’s been bitten in half. It took a lot of work, because we had to put all the gore on him and build the floor around him, and the whole time he had to be there. It took almost an hour just to set that up, and some actors might say, “Well, can’t a double do this?” But he was like, “What do I have to do?” and went into this focused, athlete-like state. We kept asking, “Are you OK? Can we get you anything?” and he was like, “No, I’m good.”
FANG: How about working with THE WONDER YEARS’ Danica McKellar on DEVILS?
LIPOVSKY: She was really fun, too. She’s been acting her whole life, and wanted to do something that showed her in more of an action role. At the beginning of the film, she starts off in kind of a Winnie Cooper zone; she’s a forest ranger who is very knowledgeable, but doesn’t seem like an action hero. Then by the end, she’s totally Ripley with a flamethrower and dynamite, blowing shit up and really going for it, which was a great transformation for her.
FANG: Were there any restrictions or particular guidelines when making TASMANIAN DEVIL for Syfy?
LIPOVSKY: It’s interesting when you’re doing something for TV, because there are commercial breaks and that really changes the form of the narrative, because you don’t know when someone’s gonna tune in, right? [Laughs] With a feature film, you’re pretty sure that at least they’re gonna start at the beginning—though they may tune out at some point—whereas in TV that’s not always the case. So you have to build these kind of ministories within every act, as opposed to features, where there are traditionally three acts. In TV, there are more like eight acts over two hours. So you can’t really do the slow build like we did in LEPRECHAUN, because someone might only watch the first two acts and be like, “Oh, there’s no monster in it, I’m tuning out!” You’ve got to show the monster in the first few minutes, and always end on a cliffhanger so they come back after each commercial break. There’s a narrative form that’s born out of working in TV.
FANG: Are there any plans for further adventures of the Leprechaun?
LIPOVSKY: There’s definitely the possibility for them. It obviously comes from a long-running franchise, so there’s an eye toward doing more. It would be fun to explore where it can go from here, and do even bigger, crazier kills and stuff like that. We made this movie kind of run-and-gun, so hopefully, it will start another surge in the franchise and we can do more with it.