Stakes on a Plane: Creating the Vamptastic Thriller BLOOD RED SKY with Producer Benjamin Munz and Special FX Legend Mark Coulier

From greenlit to grounded, and back again.

By Heather Wixson · @thehorrorchick · August 18, 2021, 5:03 PM PDT
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BLOOD RED SKY (2021)

Since its debut on Netflix late last month, the sky has been the limit for Peter Thorwarth’s Blood Red Sky. The horror/action hybrid in Germany has become an international streaming sensation since its July 23rd debut, racking up more than 50 million views globally. Blood Red Sky also cracked the top 10 in more than 90 different territories and it even hit the number one spot on Netflix’s platform in 57 different countries during its first week of release as well. And while the film that has been affectionately dubbed “Vampires on a Plane” has become something of an overnight sensation with streaming audiences worldwide, it may come as a surprise that Thorwarth’s first foray into the world of horror was nearly 16 years in the making.

According to Blood Red Sky producer Benjamin Munz, the concept of the film was actually a subplot that had been part of a German sitcom pitch that Thorwath had been trying to get going decades prior which was centered around an up-and-coming filmmaker who had the “ridiculous” idea of making a movie about vampires taking over a transatlantic flight. The sitcom never got picked up, but Thorwath realized that he might be onto something with the outlandish movie concept at the center of the series, and decided to write a script anyway, despite the fact that German audiences tend to appreciate more serious drama-driven cinematic fare.

Eventually, the script for Blood Red Sky ended up in front of an executive named David Kosse at Universal International nearly nine years ago who was immediately taken by the concept at the center of Thorwath’s script. But Kosse moved on from Universal, the project languished in limbo for years, and both Thorwatch and Munz thought that Blood Red Sky would never get to take flight. Despite feeling like the deck was stacked against them, Peter and his producing team at Rat Pack, led by Christian Becker, decided to purchase an old airplane that had been used for a TV series back in the nineties, just in case Blood Red Sky might eventually come together. And in 2019, fate finally intervened.

“Weirdly enough, Peter gets a call out of nowhere, and here this is when the circle closes, '' explained Munz. “The call was from David Kosse, who is now the new head of Netflix original international films. He asked Peter what happened to that weird script that we were trying to do like eight years ago with the vampires. Peter told him that we were just in turnaround with this sales agent for it, and David said, ‘Okay, please don't sign the paper. I want this to be the first movie that I do out of this department. How much money do you need?’ We couldn’t believe it was finally happening.”

After waiting more than a decade and a half, Peter Thorwarth was finally getting to make his action/horror movie. But just as production was getting underway, that’s when the news about COVID-19 began to spread worldwide, and once again, Thorwarth and everyone involved with Blood Red Sky was grounded mid-flight, so to speak, and left in limbo.

According to Munz, “We started to shoot the movie at the start of 2020 in Prague, finally. We had shot something like five to 10 days, I'm not sure anymore, but it was all the stuff outside at the military base. Everything was going great; I did some of the second unit directing outside with all the SWAT shots, Peter was handling everything with the actors, and Netflix was happy with the rushes. Then, most of the actors finally began arriving and everything was coming together. It was fantastic.”

“Suddenly, I get a call on a Friday night from my line producer, Mark Nolting. He was like, ‘Ben, we're sending you a van right now, and you're going to get on that van and you're going to drive back to Berlin. I'm not sure if we can ever finish this movie, because there's a thing going around the world. It's called COVID-19, and the Czech Republic is actually closing all the borders, so I don't know what’s going to happen.’ And after all these years of working on this movie, I was back at home in less than 24 hours, not knowing if we were ever going to finish Blood Red Sky.”

While that feeling of uncertainty that Thorwarth and his team were experiencing at the time of the shut-down, for special effects legend Mark Coulier, the delay ended up being advantageous since it gave him and his team more time to prepare for the ambitious number of effects that were going to be needed in order to bring all the bloodthirsty vamps to life for Blood Red Sky.

“There were lots of challenges with this one, but we were very lucky in some respects,” said Coulier. “We had just come back from doing Elvis for Baz Luhrmann in Australia. And that was just about when COVID kicked off. We came back to the U.K. and just as we were about to go out to Prague, filming got canceled. Flights were grounded, and the whole thing was shut down. And while no one wanted to be in this situation, for our team, it was a bit different because it gave us more time to prepare for everything. So we spent about another four to six weeks during that shutdown getting more work done.”

Eventually, Thorwarth and his Blood Red Sky cast and crew got the go-ahead to start production up again in Prague during the summer of 2020, and that’s when the real work began for Mark and his team, who were all excited to bring Peter’s distinctive blood-soaked vision to life.

“Honestly, I was excited to do a film with vampires, even if we did have to wait a few extra months to get started. From my point of view, getting to take on vampires is always a good thing. I've done a couple of vampire movies, but not one like this. As soon as somebody mentions vampires, or werewolves, or anything like that, I’m already on board. We do a lot of old age makeups and a lot of character makeups, too, but now and again, a good old-fashioned action horror movie comes about, and I'm straight away in there.”

Of course, vampires have been a long-celebrated creature in cinema for nearly a century now, which means that creating bloodsuckers that can stand out from a stylistic standpoint is no easy feat. But Coulier collaborated closely with Thorwarth on making sure they were able to design something that felt new and different for Blood Red Sky, but also reflected the realistic undertones of the story at the heart of the film.

Mark discussed how he and Peter approached the look of Peri Baumeister’s character Nadja, the sickly mother who is headed to New York in hopes of curing her vampirism once and for all. “I think Peter had a very specific idea of what he wanted for Nadja. The bald head was part of the design because, at the beginning of the film, you're not sure whether she has cancer or whatever. But the specific look, we did some maquettes and drawings and went back and forth just trying to establish something that looks a little bit different.”

“The interesting thing also about Blood Red Sky was that Nadja transforms into a vampire, but she never goes back. It's a cumulative thing. She never goes back to being human again. So every step of the transformation was going to be happening to her throughout the rest of the film. I thought that was intriguing because that’s not something you see very often,” Mark added.

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While Coulier and Thorwarth had created their own designs for Nadja, Mark explained how Peri’s own facial features ended up changing their approach to how their heroic vampire was going to appear in the film. “I think always you can have an idea of a prosthetic and a design that you want to do, but when you get your actor, it's always going to morph a little bit more into their features. And Peri has a very striking look. She has these wide cheekbones and a very specific look, so we did end up tailor-making her vampire to accentuate her features. And I think she looks really cool.”

“For me, taking someone like Peri and shaving her head, putting contact lenses in and giving her some vampire fangs, that's going to do a lot already,” Coulier continued. “So, the stage one makeup was just us mostly working with Peri's features. And then when her character Nadja transforms, we had about four different stages of transformation, which included three main sculpts. The first stage one included eyebrow blockers, a set of teeth, her shaved head and contact lenses. Then we moved on to a forehead piece, just to enhance her forehead a bit, and we added cheekbones and ears and gave her some different teeth.”

“In fact, Nadja had bigger teeth each time she would transform that were created by Chris Lyons. There’s a scene where Nadja pulls out her fangs, so Chris was responsible for that, and that gag came out so great. I think one of the interesting things Peter wanted for his vampires, and specifically Nadja, is that they had the vestiges of human teeth. The vampire teeth would grow behind the human teeth and the human teeth would then fall out. So we had these hybrid vampire/human teeth where you see both and I thought that was really interesting and was something that we hadn't seen before. It's just a little detail, but all those little details add up to something very unique.”

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“Also, I must give credit to Robin Pritchard and Susie Redfern for their great work because they handled Peri’s makeups throughout production,” Mark added.

While Baumeister’s character may have started off being the only vampire aboard the ill-fated flight at the center of Blood Red Sky, things of course take a turn when a hijacker named Eightball (played by Alexander Scheer) decides the best way to fight fire is with fire, and injects himself with Nadja’s blood, transforming him into a dangerous foe that had his own individual look to him.

“With the character of Eightball, that was a chance for us to really have some fun. He turns into a vampire and then he gets burnt, so that was a great challenge from a design perspective. Also, Eightball transforms from stage one directly into a stage three vampire so we were able to push the boat with his design. I called Nigel Booth, an old friend of mine, to do the sculpting on Eightball and he was applied by myself and Stephen Murphy. And because Alexander was playing him as this larger-than-life character, when we were sticking the makeup on him, he immersed himself in the part.”

“I think for me, the reason the film works so well, is that both Peri and Alexander were so invested in it,” said Coulier. “Especially Peri; she was so committed to her performance. From my experience, it’s always great to work with actors who really throw themselves into their parts and enjoy the makeup process.”

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Mark and his team’s work didn’t end with just creating two vampires though. In Blood Red Sky’s final act, all hell breaks loose as many of the passengers stuck aboard the plane end up becoming bloodsuckers as well, which presented the effects crew with a huge workload where they had to be ready to transform dozens of actors into vampires as well.

“To create all the other vampires, we sculpted about five or six different forehead pieces and ears,” Coulier explained. “We made something like a thousand nails and Chris Lyons made up a bunch of teeth that were on a little dental plate that we could fit into people with some silicone materials. Then, we had some great backup from the makeup team over there, Ivo Strangmüller and Sabine Schumann. We hired a few other local makeup artists as well, including prosthetics artist Jakub Gründler, and these other guys who ran their own shops, like Tomas Metz and Martin Kleist. So, we had six of us stuck on just three characters, and then it was all the local Czech and German artists who did a great job handling all the other characters.”

“Despite how much work was involved, [Blood Red Sky] was a fun shoot. It wasn't one of those horrible, painful shoots, and Prague was absolutely beautiful. We had a really great crew and even though it was intense, everyone there really came together to make something that feels really different from other films these days.”

“Mark was just amazing to work with,” added Munz. “Not only is he one of the best makeup artists in the world, but he’s also one of the nicest geeky guys that you could ever imagine. At one point, I found out that Mark actually has a role in Episode One as one of the pod racer guys. I thought that was so cool. And Peter would go into the trailer where Mark was working during production and he was like a kid in a candy store in there. Mark and his team made our set feel like a really big playground with grownups where we could goof around but also get things done. It was such a great experience for everyone - and most of all, for Peter, who finally got to see his dream come true.”

Blood Red Sky is now streaming on Netflix. Click the link below to watch.