Cuckoo: Hunter Schafer and Dan Stevens on Getting Creepy for Tilman Singer’s New Horror Film


Whatever one thinks of the highly controversial TV series Euphoria, there’s one thing no one can deny. No show of this era has been a better launching point for the careers of young movie stars. Zendaya is currently enjoying huge success on the big screen, thanks to Dune: Part Two and Challengers, while Sydney Sweeney is just on the other side of a rare rom-com box office success with Anyone But You and has also just produced and starred in the excellent horror flick Immaculate. Jacob Elordi received a bit of praise for his portrayal of Elvis Presley in the Sofia Coppola film Priscilla last year and will next play Frankenstein’s Monster for Guillermo del Toro.

Next up is Hunter Schafer, who is set to splatter the screen in blood with the very creepy-looking horror film Cuckoo. This isn’t her first film role, of course. The young actor lent her voice to the English dub of the anime Belle and had a supporting part in the well-received The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. But Cuckoo marks her first leading role, something she chose with a great deal of deliberation. What convinced her to take on horror on the big screen? Watching Luz, the 2018 debut feature from German filmmaker Tilman Singer.

Schafer tells Den of Geek in an exclusive interview from SXSW 2023, alongside Singer and co-star Dan Stevens, “I wanted to work with [Singer] on any degree and it was that much more of an honor to take on the lead.”

In Cuckoo, Schafer plays Gretchen, an American teen who goes to live with her father (Márton Csókás) and his new wife (Jessica Henwick) and daughter (Mimi Lieu) in the German Alps. There, she meets the strange Mr. König (Stevens), and begins to suspect something strange is afoot. It’s a compelling premise, one that gave both Schafer and Stevens plenty to work with.

The Horror of Cuckoo

“They are just the supreme assholes of birds.” That’s how Schafer describes the creatures that give the movie Cuckoo its title, an animal that she had not heard about before taking on the role. “It was a huge revelation for me and made doing the movie all the more exciting.” Cuckoos destroy the eggs of other birds and replace them with their own, so that the other bird raises the cuckoo’s offspring.

Assholes they may be, but are cuckoos scary?

In short, Singer doesn’t care. When asked about how much horror he includes in his picture, the filmmaker responds with a grin, “I don’t really think about it that much.” Instead, it’s the emotions that drive his process. “I start with feelings first,” he explains. “I have the sort of structure of feelings I want people to feel, and horror lends itself to really big, really violent emotions.”

While Singer chose the German Alps as Cuckoo‘s setting to take advantage of the terror they can create, Stevens sees another genre at work. “It’s also a fairy tale setting,” he observes. “Germany is where all the the old fairy tales come from, and there is a real fairy tale magical realist element to this film… a heightened reality to setting it there, that’s automatically kind of mysterious and fantastical.”

Already a big television star, Schafer knows her jump to movies comes with some very high expectations from fans.

“It can be dangerous, in creating mode, to be thinking about how a work is perceived,” says Schafer of taking on a movie like Cuckoo. Euphoria may be known for pushing the envelope, but Cuckoo promises something even more mind-bending and weird, something that Schafer’s fans might not be ready for.

To her credit, Schafer knows that and expects some pushback. “You can try and create things in a vacuum but ultimately if you’re putting it out into the world, it’s not going to be the case.”

While crafting her characters, however, Schafer does try to create something of a vacuum for herself. “Then I can be in that headspace and not encumbered with the thoughts that might come if you’re thinking about how it’s going to be perceived.” After the performance, she explains, Schafer can then “jump into the other headspace and contextualize.”

Schafer didn’t have to go too far to find inspiration for her character Gretchen. “I think there’s a sector of me that is still an angsty teenage girl and it’s pretty easy to access,” she admits. “I think most of the work that I had to do in preparation was figuring out the emotional head spaces and landscapes that I was gonna have to enter, because she’s been to some pretty dark places.”

That said, some of the best things that Schafer did for the movie happened outside of the confines of her mind. “Tilman sent me [a butterfly knife] pretty quickly after I was cast, so I got to practice that for two years,” she enthuses, “it became like a fidget toy for me.” However, not all of her new skills were so lethal. “I got to learn sign language,” she observes. “It was like free school you know it was really fun.”

For his villainous Mr. König, Stevens drew inspiration from “a kind of German” that he knew, who would run the weird resort in which the movie takes place. He pitched the idea to Singer, who loved the concept immediately. “It makes us both laugh,” says Stevens, “to make this character very particular, very exact, a real German scientist … charming, but exacting.”

That precision extends even to the way that König says the protagonist’s name, twisting the word “Gretchen” into something neither English nor German, but wholly uncanny. Taking on his character’s perspective for a moment, Stevens explains, “If you pronounce it correctly in German, that is how it should be said. König knows this.”

As strange as his character sounds, Stevens says he keeps him grounded in a type of reality. “I don’t think monsters ever think they’re monsters,” he observes. Stevens knows all about monsters on the big screen, of course, pointing out one of the joys of playing a character who spends time around giant kaiju in Godzilla X Kong. “I got to take Kong’s tooth out and there’s not many people can say that,” he adds with a laugh.

Crafting Cuckoo

According to Singer, the attention that Schafer and Stevens give their characters helps his creative process.

“I’m writing for myself and I’m not really sure where it’s going,” he says. That doesn’t mean that he forgets about the future viewers of his movies; quite the opposite, in fact. “I always think of the audience,” he explains. “I think that’s very important when you create something so you really feel super strong about it, but I always think of the audience and what kind of ride they will have.” Of course, as a viewer himself, Singer’s favorite movies are those in which “I’m not really sure where it’s going and I’m not really sure what it means and… I’m just being forced to understand it for myself.”

To recreate that feeling for his audience, Singer embraces the free flowing nature of movie making. Rather than insist that “whatever is in your mind is the movie,” Singer prefers to allow it to evolve, to “allow yourself to make those changes.” Those changes, of course, involve the material that his actors bring. “All the people collaborating with me are enriching it with their spirit and and their souls,” he says, so that “you have a finished movie in your mind, but it is ever-evolving.”

Part of that evolution includes the sound design for Cuckoo, which has earned praise from everyone who’s seen the movie so far. “I wanted to have these sounds that were musical in a way,” complete with a vocalist whose voice he “twisted a little bit with AI so her voice could attach to other sounds in the room and be transported.”

But where Singer gets to unnerve his audience, a young actor like Schafer, one who is so tied to her Euphoria character Jules, has a different relationship with the fans. She must walk the line between continuing to provide her fans with the experiences they expect while also challenging them. But then again, that’s why she chose Cuckoo as her first film lead. “Jules is also an angsty teenage girl,” she allows, while insisting that “Gretchen feels very different.”

Stevens is much less philosophical about the relationship between a performer and their fans. “I think we owe audiences a good time,” he declares. “In this post-COVID era, I certainly don’t take for granted that people will want to gather in a big black box and have lights and noises flashed at them. I think it’s really cool when that happens.”

That audience response is what drives Stevens to make a movie like Cuckoo. “Whether it’s a comedy or a horror… you get that reaction, you know if it’s working. In the live experience, an audience can collectively decide that a scene is bonkers enough to laugh out loud and that’s really magic.”

Cuckoo comes to theaters on Aug. 9.

The post Cuckoo: Hunter Schafer and Dan Stevens on Getting Creepy for Tilman Singer’s New Horror Film appeared first on Den of Geek.

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