When Ashley Levy was summoned to head the makeup department on The Exorcist: Believer, she didn't actually know what movie she was being summoned for. "They didn't tell me what it was," she reveals. "But whenever I hear it's Blumhouse, immediately, you don't have to tell me what it is, just give me some vague coordinates that I should ship my kit to and I'll be there."
Levy has worked on such Blumhouse projects as Happy Death Day and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, and Insidious: The Red Door. "I'm known as 'Beauty and the Beatdown,'" she says of her specialty. "Like, I'll beat a face and make you beautiful, and then I'll murder you." Still, nothing could have prepared her for the opportunity to, as she puts it, "amp up" The Exorcist for "this new generation."
In Believer, Ellen Burstyn reprises her role as Chris MacNeil for the first time since 1973's The Exorcist, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. This time, Chris has been sought out to help the parents of two young girls who disappeared into the woods and returned possessed. David Gordon Green directs, with Oscar-winning makeup artist Christopher Nelson (Suicide Squad) designing and heading up the special effects makeup department.
"As a monster kid, all I've ever dreamed of my entire life is to get somewhat adjacent to something like this — not to be an active part of it," Levy says. "So, to say that it was a pleasure, a treat, and every single day was like a dream, it sounds so corny and contrived, but it is true."
A.frame: Once you did find out it was The Exorcist, how early in the process is makeup getting involved? And what are those conversations like?
By the time I come onboard, Chris Nelson had already been working for a while with the girls' designs. So right away, we jumped in and had a good talk with David Gordon Green. One of the reasons why I love and appreciate him so much as an artist, and I think people don't give him enough credit for this, is that every single thing had an important level to play in the movie. There is no person's makeup design that goes untouched or unthought about, down to the color polish on some character's fingernails, or how much dirt this person has on them. So, when it came to distinguishing the makeup designs, we had to take into consideration, 'Okay, we want to see over the course of time the wear and tear of the mental and psychological deterioration, indicating that they're losing faith and losing spirit and joie de vivre of it all.' Those were important aspects that we discussed right out of the gate, so by the time we started filming, it was almost listening to a symphony play this beautiful, beautiful interlude.
What did your collaboration with Christopher Nelson look like, who is not only a legend in the field but has also become a close collaborator to David Gordon Green? [The two previously worked together on his Halloween trilogy.]
Well first of all, my big running joke — but not really — is now that I've worked with Chris Nelson, I'm totally putting 'Chris Nelson-adjacent' on my resume, and that's going to open all the doors for me. So, thanks Chris Nelson! Working with him was amazing, because it was artists facilitating artists. We had to work closely together to figure out which phases that I had with the girls, and at what point do we turn them over to him. So, we got to work hand-in-hand to figure out the exact moment of deterioration that no longer was going to be accomplished by mere paint and powder, so to speak, and we needed to then go on to that next level. And the best part of working alongside Chris and having our trailers next to each other was every single day was like Halloween.
And then watching the relationship between Chris and David was amazing too. A lot of times on these kinds of horror movies, special effects is everything, and then anything else is an afterthought. You just have some lady with a MAC powder and a brush chasing people around while we look at the special effects, so it was a beautiful thing to see that collaboration. I was in complete awe of the artistry he brought to the makeup alone. With a movie like this, I think we're slowly leaving the realm of horror being a genre and more horror being respected as a storytelling aspect, the way it should be. And if you pee your pants a couple of times, it's fine, too.
In regards to the point where the girls switched from you to Chris, what was that specific point? I've heard the phases described as 'naughty,' 'nasty,' and 'gnarly.'
We sat down with the breakdown of the script and said like, 'This is the last scene where we see a close-up on the girl's eyes, and we can see the humanity leaving her in that final gaze. So, from this point on, they go over to Chris, and Chris is going to add these little, tiny fade appliances here and there, and that is going to be the beginning of that journey up until the very end." So, it was like a handing of the baton. But the best way to describe where they were in their journey on a particular day, was like, 'Stank level, what are we looking at here? How stanky are we getting? Is it Chris stank or are we still staying at Ashley stank?'
David Gordon Green has said the work of Dick Smith, another legendary makeup artist who worked on the original Exorcist, was a huge influence and inspiration here. How did that inspiration manifest?
With Dick Smith's makeup, it's something you can't touch, but there are elements you can take from it and put into your new design that says, 'Hey, I see you. I'm giving my respect. I'm kissing the ring. And I'm also creating my own new thing. But I also know you're going to take a look at this and you're going to remember exactly where you were when you saw Dick's makeup for the first time.' It doesn't have to be a competition. Taking inspiration from the greats immortalizes them in the long run and keeps that lineage and that name going, while allowing yourself the creative freedom to use all of the technology and the inspirations and everything that you have artistry-wise and make it your own. But you're still paying proper respect and reminding the young kids, 'This guy ran so that we could walk.'
Was there one of those homages that was particularly meaningful to you or that you were happy to see here?
First of all, the makeup on the girls. I don't think I was prepared for how perfect of an homage plus a little reinterpretation it was. And I did have a moment where I'm just like, 'Oh, s**t! This is amazing!' Like, 'What am I looking at?' Now, I will say I do feel that with Ellen Burstyn, that was a big, huge moment for me. Because I know that diehard fans of the original Exorcist and her performance in that, we all remember her a certain way. So, I knew we wanted to keep her looking like her. We don't want her to look like a Kardashian version of herself.
You weren't going for yassified Chris MacNeil, with a full contour beat.
[Laughs] And her lip liner is up to here, with a sweet, juicy pout. It was one of those things where it really meant a lot to me to make her look as beautiful as she could, without losing the essence of who she was. But I soon found I was overthinking it. The second she sat in my chair, she let me know the exact same thing. Like, 'We're going to snatch it, we're going to make it look fabulous, but we're going to keep me as me.' And not only to do her makeup, but also we had to do the flashback version of her. That makeup was insanely fun and more challenging than any mutilation or beat down or anything you can do. Because most people don't really know what a bone sticking out looks like — because they've never seen it — but everybody knows what age looks like. Everybody knows what good makeup looks like. So that, to me, was one of my more challenging things. But to be honest, most of my time was spent marveling over the work that Chris was putting in, but keeping a deadpan face like, 'Yeah, very good, very good.'
Beyond working on an Exorcist movie, beyond getting to work with Ellen Burstyn, was there something you knew you would get to do on this or something that you'd never gotten to do before that particularly excited you?
I started off as a fine artist, I did water color and sculpture and then through my love of horror and being vain, somehow came into the makeup artistry, but my main prerogative has always been storytelling. I love it. I don't care to beat a face so someone feels beautiful on the inside. Go get a life coach. I want to tell a story. On this show, because these were mainly theater actors, everything was about telling a story, and everybody contributed. Everybody weighed in on things here and there. So, in addition to what David wanted for the character, the [actors] would bring something to the table. I would present it to David, he'd be like, 'I love that, let's do that.'
You feel this camaraderie and this teamwork of really telling a beautiful story aesthetically that is so satisfying in a way that I think a project of lesser intensity may not have come through on. It's so silly, but to get there, we all had to have a lot of intense conversations and really break it down. So, at the risk of sounding like a total douche, I learned a little bit more about myself along the way while on this journey with them. I learned every powerful stroke has a meaning. Every color placement has a meaning. The continuity of sweat, whether it's the stress sweat where you're just a little shiny but you haven't broken out into a sweat yet to a full drip, everything has a powerful meaning if you're telling a story with it. That was beyond the coolest thing that I'd ever experienced, and yeah, I might have to lock it up and call it a day and just retire. [Laughs]
On Instagram, you said this movie 'literally involved the most blood, sweat and tears per cubic inch than any other movie' you'd done. What was the bloodiest, sweatiest, teariest day for you?
Oh, man, that's got to be the exorcism. There's just so much body fluid happening that we have to keep continuity of, too. One of my favorite aspects, when it comes to tears, is I've yet to meet a group of people who are better at bringing on the tears themselves than this group of people. As makeup artists, we were prepared. We have a menthol blower that blows crystals into your eyes that will make you cry if you need to. We have actual fake tears we can paint on your face. We've got all these things, and we do that saying, 'You bring the emotion, and if you can't make the tears happen, we'll give that to you.'
I remember one particular day, one of our actresses, Jennifer [Nettles], we had to do a close-up of her. She'd been crying maniacally, and I felt really bad and I was like, 'I just want you to know, I have some stuff here. You let me know when you're ready and I will bring those tears for you so you don't have to do it right now.' She was like, 'I'm good. I can bring it.' And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' so I bend over into my bag and I pull out my materials. And by the time I look up, she's looking straight ahead, tears pouring down her face. I was just completely blown away at the talent and the emotional elasticity of all of these people. Everybody was crying. Somebody was always bleeding. There was so much sweat going on but at different levels. My team and I, we were just trying to keep up with all of the blood, sweat, and tears that went on during that scene. But it was one of the most refreshing and redeeming blood-sweat-and-tears moments I've had. And I've done some pretty gory things. So, that was the one that broke the bank like, 'Well done, Exorcist, well done.'