In the middle of November, 2014, Screen Rant was among a handful of online publications invited to the set of Fast and the Furious star Vin Diesel’s new movie, The Last Witch Hunter. However, this was no ordinary set visit: in order to create the world of evil witches and the hardened warriors who hunt them, director Breck Eisner (The Crazies) took his crew and cast far down into the bowels of the earth, where we would meet them for a set visit and tour unlike any we’d ever seen – or are likely to see again.
While combing through the caves, we also crossed paths with Last Witch Hunter cast members Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), Joseph Gilgun (Lockout) and Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings). Eventually we met with Vin himself, director Breck Eisner and the producers, and talked about early plans for this to be yet another big Vin Diesel franchise universe in the making (if Fast and the Furious, Riddick and now Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy weren’t already enough).
The modern world holds many secrets, but the most astounding secret of all is that witches still live amongst us; vicious supernatural creatures intent on unleashing the Black Death upon the world. Armies of witch hunters battled the unnatural enemy across the globe for centuries, including KAULDER, a valiant warrior who managed to slay the all-powerful QUEEN WITCH, decimating her followers in the process. In the moments right before her death, the QUEEN curses KAULDER with her own immortality, forever separating him from his beloved wife and daughter in the afterlife. Today KAULDER is the only one of his kind remaining, and has spent centuries hunting down rogue witches, all the while yearning for his long-lost loved ones. However, unbeknownst to KAULDER, the QUEEN WITCH is resurrected and seeks revenge on her killer causing an epic battle that will determine the survival of the human race.
The portion of Last Witch Hunter we saw being filmed was shot on location in an underground system of limestone mines about forty-five minutes outside of Pittsburgh – a location that now serves as everything from a boat storage facility, to an underground community complete with roads and street signs and medical stations. Being November, it was frigid cold in this underground world that had never seen the light of the sun, making it even more impressive to see Rose Leslie, Joseph Gilgun and Elijah Wood walking around the dark and treacherous rocky terrain in costume as their characters, while us reporters and the film crew were bundled up in multiple layers (and still feeling a cold that seeped into the bone).
Cold and darkness and gravelly rock underfoot didn’t deter the three actors as they filmed their scene over and over again. The scene came late in the film, and involved MILD SPOILER Elijah Wood’s young priest adviser, Dolan Thirty-Seven watching as Rose Leslie’s ‘good witch’ character, Chloe, uses her magic abilities to sift through the mind of psychotic wizard Ellic (Joseph Gilgun) in order for clues on how to reach the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht). Meanwhile (in a later scene we observed) Vin Diesel’s immortal witch hunter, Kaulder, hears the dark prophecy of how to reach the Witch Queen, and sets off to face her; but something horrible waits in the darkness barring his path – a monster unlike any we’ve seen.
It’s name is The Sentinel, a big wood and bone totem monster built with practical materials to make a scorpion-like monstrosity, complete with animal skins and skulls (deer, cow etc.) and pelvic bones halves for eyes. The work of sculptors / welders Vaughn Washburn and Kyle Fisher, The Sentinel’s skeletal parts are real bone, including five arms, twenty-five jaws, twenty hooves, two full cow vertebra, twenty skulls, six hides (two big, four small), wood from local parks all mounted on welded infrastructure. To call it nightmarish would be an understatement – but last we saw, Vin Diesel’s Kaulder was rushing off to face the beast, with his sword strapped securely to his back.
Earlier in the day we spoke to Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey star Rose Leslie and Lockout‘s memorably frightening insane man, Joseph Gilgun, who turned out to be a fun and (as they say) “cheeky” pair to talk to. Later on in the day – after what was likely the best lunch we will ever eat in a subterranean setting – we got to speak to geek icon Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings, Sin City, etc.), who rounds out the principal trio of protagonists as “Dolan Thirty-Seven,” the latest (and untested) man in The Order of the Axe and Cross, a sect of the priesthood that aids and advises witch hunters like Kaulder.
Can we just hear you guys describe your characters a little bit?
Rose Leslie: OK. My character, her name is Chloe. And she is incredibly independent. She’s a young woman who loves in modern day New York. And she is a witch. A good witch. Hopefully we like Chloe. And Chloe, she runs a bar. She’s formidable. She’s a formidable character and, as I say, incredibly kind of like…she’s self-reliant. She’s dependent upon herself. And she has worked up her bar business, her dream…her concoctions, which allows one to escape, another witch into another realm and kind of see their past. So she has been able to build this business herself and that is how she and Kaulder first meet because he walks into her bar.
So she runs the memory bar?
Rose Leslie: She runs the memory bar.
Joseph Gilgun: She’s a drug dealer.
Rose Leslie: She’s a drug dealer. Exactly. Do not mess with her.
The good witch is a drug dealer.
Rose Leslie: Yeah. Exactly. There’s a twist for you. We like the memory bar. The memory bar is kind of like where we get to explore different parts of our brain. I mean Breck is fantastic. And he’s got such a fantastic vision about it for the memories. So it’s going to be very cool.
Joseph Gilgun: Ellic is mentally insane, not dissimilar to myself. He is a child killer. He has also murdered a priest. Ellic works on behalf of a queen. I think his family sought about this very proud past of working for this queen, who, to The Council’s knowledge, doesn’t really exist anymore. Is that fair to say?
Rose Leslie: Yes. No, you’re right…
Joseph Gilgun: I think he feels very honored to work for this queen and to be doing the things he’s doing. He’s a zealot. So he truly believes that what he’s doing is right, so sacrificing the children, killing the priest. I think he knows that it’s probably wrong by society’s standards, but he knows that he needs to get it done in order to pursue his sort of goal for this queen.
Rose Leslie: For you it’s a noble cause.
Joseph Gilgun: Yeah, absolutely. He’s quite a brave soul. But he does stand alone and what he’s doing is atrocious. So he’s the bad guy, basically, or one of the baddies.
So are you the one with the gummy bear tree in the cupcake shop?
Joseph Gilgun: Yeah.
So definitely a warlock, then.
Joseph Gilgun: He’s a shapeshifter, so he’s an unusual one. He practices very old practices. Tends to shapeshift. So I think he becomes people he’s murdered, so he can become children he’s killed. He’s a total swine of the highest caliber. He’s a nasty bastard.
Has it been fun playing a nasty character like that?
Joseph Gilgun: It’s been fantastic. I absolutely love it. I tend to play a lot of nasty characters… Because secretly I’m a terrible person. No, I love playing nasty characters. I don’t know how I’d get on playing a nice guy. I’d probably end up quite bored.
Rose Leslie: Yeah, because I think nasty is fun or entertaining.
Joseph Gilgun: God. It’s fucking wonderful to play. How much can we swear? Can you just go ball’s deep on the swear words?
What’s going on in this scene? We were hearing little words and trying to kind of piece together…what like you’re doing to him I think…
Rose Leslie: Oh, OK. So the scene that we’re shooting at the moment? We are currently in the witch prison, which obviously you won’t be able to tell with all the kind of dark and damp surroundings. But we are here. We have just pulled Ellic out of a hole that Kaulder has managed to smash open. JG is doing stunts. It’s terribly impressive.
Joseph Gilgun: I didn’t do it right, though, did I? They had to bring in John in.
Rose Leslie: Oh, really?
Joseph Gilgun: Yeah. I was so rubbish at it they had to get John back in. They let me have a go and I climbed in the hole feet first. Who climbs in any hole feet first? I climbed in feet first, screwed it up. And John had to come and do a proper job on it.
Rose Leslie: You’re absolutely right. John did come in. So we are trying to…I’m a dream walker. And so, I’ve realized that I need to penetrate inside Ellic’s brain into his mind to stop his chanting so the witch queen can’t summon enough power for all of the witches within these prison cells to be released. Still with me?
So your character [Joseph] is an evil witch that has been imprisoned by The Council, I assume, since The Council is in charge of witch prisons. Why does The Council imprison evil people instead of just killing them and being done with it?
Joseph Gilgun: I don’t know. I think they try…I guess it’s to show that they’re civil. They don’t just murder you…
Rose Leslie: We can relate to today’s world.
Joseph Gilgun: Absolutely. Exactly. Like the death penalty today is under question by an awful lot of people and scrutiny. So two wrongs don’t necessarily make a right, and yet, Ellic has murdered children and he’s killed this priest that was near and dear to them. But is it going to make it any better? Or maybe it’s better that he suffers…When he kills them and they’re gone that’s it. They’re suffering is over. If you are being put…For me, personally, as Joseph, if you are being punished, I see you need a life sentence. You need to be in there for a while. You need to realize your wrongs. You can only do that with time. And that’s what prison gives you, time to think on what you’ve done.
So you are conscious while you are trapped in the prison?
Joseph Gilgun: As far as I know. So all the witches in this prison are in a dreamlike state. They are all chanting these…we had to learn a passage of ancient Greek and it’s a spell that’s sort of…I mean it’s perfect for where we are, isn’t it? Bend the bars, crumble the stones. It’s talking about feeding them poison and eventually we’ll meet in a bloody mass, crying out loud for locking us…And we’re all chanting this in unison. So as you walk through these mines…I don’t know how much I’m giving away or if I’m completely ruining the film…but as you walk through these mines, you can hear not just Ellic’s voice. There are all these hundreds of different witches that Kaulder, over the last couple of centuries, has imprisoned. So there’s people here. There’s witches here that have been here for centuries. They’ve been locked in the walls for centuries. There’s roots growing into their faces. It’s just remarkable.
So these spells are being…So I think they are all in a state of…they are sort of trapped in themselves going through this mantra over, and over, and over again. For centuries and centuries they’ve all been doing this.
Rose Leslie: And the queen has kind of awoken them. That’s how I’ve always read it as well. They were, as you say, just trapped within themselves feeling fairly numb, barely existing. And then this is her…
Joseph Gilgun: Way of going, “Get up…”
Rose Leslie: “Get up you lazy buggers!”
Joseph Gilgun: “It’s time. It’s time to do it. Time to do the damn thing.”
You guys are both working with Vin, but I assume in two very different capacities, the more violent physical side and maybe the softer, more charming side. Can you talk about what it’s been like just kind of working with him?
Rose Leslie: Working with Vin has been great. He is…when we’re in scenes together there is that kind of joyfulness. It’s a very lovely thing to be able to have that collaboration who you are on the screen with. And we get off off-screen as well, which is nice because you can then incorporate that into what you are doing, into your work. You’re right. It is. It’s a fun, more charming softer side of things. Whenever Kaulder is in scenes with Chloe, it is far more sentimental. It’s not as aggressive, hopefully until we reach the end when things really start kicking off and we’re here in the witch prison. But yeah, I get the kind of gentle side as Kaulder, as it were.
Joseph Gilgun: I don’t. Every time I see Kaulder he kicks my ass. Every single time. I would get savagely told off, or head-butted…I’m just trying to think what he’s done to me. He’s kicked me in the chest. He’s stabbed me through the leg.
Rose Leslie: What did he do in the gummy bears?
Joseph Gilgun: He hit me with a plank of…He pinned me to a wall with a plank of wood. So he threw this dagger. It went through the back of my leg into the wall. He then smashed the back of my leg with a plank, so I was pinned to the wall. And then he elbowed my head into the top pillar and then knocked me out. So that was the first time I met him… Vin plays around a lot with his lines as well. Vin likes to do his off-book thing. I think that’s probably inspired some of the improvisations that have gone on. But it’s been nice working with him. It’s been a massive experience working with someone like Vin.
Rose Leslie: Yeah. And it’s an education as well, I think, for Joe and myself to be working on a project that is of this scale where every single department is on top of their game. I mean look where we are. Look at the Sentinel. He looks insane. It’s this wooden, horrifying creature. So it’s an education for me just to…an experience just to be here.
Is this the biggest scale production you’ve ever been on? I mean Game of Thrones I’m sure is huge, but in terms of film…
Rose Leslie: In terms of film, definitely. Yeah, definitely. It’s my first ever studio film.
Is there anything about the experience that’s kind of blown your mind or surprised you?
Rose Leslie: But this is what I’m saying. It’s about the scale. The scale has just blown my mind. And, as I say, the art. So, the art that we see, and then also to the costume, and to the hair, and to the makeup…
Joseph Gilgun: Catering.
Rose Leslie: And the catering. God, Americans know how to cook! Wow!
Joseph Gilgun: Usually on projects there’s at least one guy or one girl that you can sort of go, “I’d rather avoid that one.” But there’s very few on this. There’s none on this for me. Everyone is really lovely and really accepting. It will be sad to go off. I’ll put it that way. It’s bloody cold here though. My god. I thought Britain was cold. My god!
Can you tell us a little bit about your character in the film?
Elijah Wood: Sure. Yeah. Dolan the 37th. He’s effectively a priest of some description. He’s part of a long line of priests that are associated with an organization called The Order of the Ax and Cross, which effectively is an organization in the world that we’ve sort of created that assists and sort of aids in the process of ridding the world of the blight of dark witchcraft. And their function is effectively to sort of have the back of Kaulder, who is the witch hunter, of which there were many back in the past and he is sort of the last, as the name implies, the last of his kind.
And so, in the film we meet Dolan the 36th played by Michael Caine. That’s our sort of introduction to this notion of sort of long priesthood that has been serving him through time. He retires and I kinda come into the fold as the new guy of the 21st century because he sort of comes from the past and he’s not up to technological advancements. And I sort of come into that world. That’s sort of how you are introduced to me and my function.
Is Dolan a title?
Elijah Wood: Dolan is a name. Basically, they hall have their sort of given names. And then when they are signed into The Order of the Ax and Cross they are given a longer sort of…it’s vaguely sort of Catholic or Jesuit sort of name. It’s a long name of which Dolan is one of them. So, Dolan is the sort of title, but effectively it’s the name as well.
Is there a lot of backstory on this order that you know that won’t make it into the movie?
Elijah Wood: Yes and no. I think you are going to get a sense of it. I think in order to provide context for the world that we’re in, there’s plenty of information that is sort of distributed throughout the film. I, perhaps, no more than what will make it to the screen. But I think it’s definitely in there for sure.
So he’s fighting these bad guys with Vin Diesel’s character. Does he experience any sort of personal journey or arc?
Elijah Wood: Yeah, so…Wow. I’m not sure I’m at liberty to say. Yeah, he has his own backstory, which is revealed throughout the course of the film and sort of early on in his relationship with Kaulder sort of in the introductory phase. And it’s an interesting introduction for the character because he starts right when the 36th has retired. When he retires, he’s killed. That sets forth the series of events that the film sort of deals with. He didn’t just die. He didn’t just have a heart attack. He was murdered. And he was murdered for a specific reason.
And so, myself and Kaulder sort of pull back the onion and realize that there’s actually the threat of sort of a plague upon humanity and the rebirth of the queen, which he had killed centuries prior. So that’s sort of first day for my character. Bad first day. Things get really intense. And the crux of the story sort of unfolds a little in the first day.
Do Kaulder and The Order always see eye to eye?
Elijah Wood: Good question. Yes, relatively. Kaulder and The Council don’t always see eye to eye. The Council is a separate thing. The Council are a series of witches and there are multiple councils around the world. It’s so interesting to describe all of this, because there’s actually a great amount of detail within the construct of the film, which I think is what I really responded to when I read the script. It’s rare that you read something at this level at the scale that’s not based on a preexisting license, or is not a sequel, or is not a preexisting franchise that’s being brought back. The fact that it was an original concept was really exciting. But I had my doubts and fears as well.
And I read it and I think I was just so struck at how much information was there and how well-crafted this version of our world…because, effectively, it’s about our world now. It’s just a revisionist’s history. It’s like as if we had always been existing with witches and all along there’s been this sort of Order making sure that they keep witchcraft at bay and we’ve been none the wiser. So it’s sort of getting a peek into what that world is.
I’m getting off track. What was your question?
It’s a good answer. I said do they always see eye to eye.
Elijah Wood: Right. I was explaining the witch council. So, the councils not so much. The councils are actually made up of witches. They are the ones that The Order of the Ax and Cross ultimately, if there are any witches that they’ve found that are practicing witchcraft that is not allowed, dark magic, they are brought in front of the council and ultimately sentenced to some kind of sentence, more often than not put into a witch prison.
Obviously Kaulder’s aim…he kills witches. So there is a little bit of a chip on the shoulder of The Council. They understand his function is ultimately to keep the wrong kind of witchcraft around, and they also have that interest. But they feel like they are doing the same job. So there is conflict there and you see that within the film as well.
Earlier you said that about it not being a preexisting franchise. It’s not a reload. It’s not a sequel. Was that one of things that attracted you to the project?
Elijah Wood: Totally. Yeah, totally. Yeah, especially at this budget level, like this size. You just don’t see…it’s seemingly increasingly rare…we have exceptions to that rule every rule and it’s great to see that. But it’s just really refreshing to sit down and read something that was crafted and conceived from a completely original, unique place.
I find witchcraft to be interesting. It’s something that doesn’t often get explored in cinema or hasn’t been in a while. I think the approach is interesting in that it takes a sort of more…it’s not a horror film. And it doesn’t really have horror film elements. It’s more of an action-adventure film, fantasy adventure in a way. That was something that was kind of intriguing. I didn’t quite know tonally what it was going to be before I read it.
Again, I think for something that is original to be as fleshed out as it is. You could almost imagine delving into…We meet Kaulder in the 14th century, I believe, at the beginning of the film. So it cuts from the 14th century until now. So you can imagine all that time that had passed and the various sort of adventures that he’d come and gone on. It’s just kind of interesting.
I see you are peeling a little bit. Can you tell us about what’s going on here?
Elijah Wood: I can’t. I will say that it pertains to my character’s backstory. It’s about what happened to him in his past.
Perhaps what drove him to join The Order?
Elijah Wood: Perhaps, yeah. Well, almost certainly.
While we were watching the scene being filmed we saw that you are a priest who is packing heat. Do you have any more extensive warrior training behind that?
Elijah Wood: No. In fact, ultimately, a Dolan’s job is to never really do fieldwork. They don’t join Kaulder on the field. They typically do the background and the sort of research; all of the assisting they can do sort of…not really an office job. But they do a lot of research to sort of back up Kaulder’s fieldwork. So they are not really there on the scene with weapons ready to fight, effectively. But the scenario is such that things have kind of gotten out of control and it’s a very different playing field now. So yeah, a Dolan would typically not be carrying a gun.
Does he have to learn this world at all or does know all the information?
Elijah Wood: Well, I think in order to be…I would imagine it would be the same if you were going to be a priest, right? So you would do an extensive amount of school and research, training. Effectively, you’d probably go to some kind of university or some kind of school specifically to learn how to be a priest. It’s the same kind of thing.
So the world that he knows…like, he understands the world and probably knows a lot in regards to what a Dolan is supposed to know. But in terms of actually being on the scene with Kaulder that’s a different thing altogether. I think it’s one thing to know and do all the research and have a vast understanding of the world. It’s another thing entirely to actually jump into the world and go like, “Fuck! It’s way more intense than I thought it was going to be!”
Speaking of intensity, do you do any stunts or anything that was a little outside of your comfort zone? Or has it been mostly run and gun from monsters of various…?
Elijah Wood: There hasn’t been any stunts for me. But we had a Sentinel, which I’m sure someone will describe to you. It’s like this creature that ultimately is the one that…it’s a creature that takes the prisoners into the witch prison and puts them away for life. There’s a scene in The Council where one of the witches that is captured is taken away. That was a whole kind of stunt rig thing that was really cool. But I specifically haven’t had any real stunts yet.
How do you like shooting down here?
Elijah Wood: It’s cool! I’ve never shot in a mine before. We’re only in Day 2. [laughs] Ask me in a week.
Are you stuck here all day?
Elijah Wood: We have some breaks, but they’re not long enough…I mean the crew is here all day. Lunch is really the time where people can step outside because it’s close enough to the entrance where they can get fresh air. But it’s bitingly cold outside. But it is kind of refreshing to see sunlight when you are stuck [laughs] inside all day, because the hours pass and you have no sense of time or bearing on time, so it’s a bit crazy. But it’s cool. I’ve never been in this kind of environment before that wasn’t a set. So to actually be in a real mine is awesome.
Are the locations all over the place? Or is there any stage stuff?
Elijah Wood: They are. There’s some stage stuff. Julie, our production designer, is extraordinary. She’s done dressing and buildouts on locations, so to sort of embellish a space that already exists. And then we’ve got genuine sort of from the ground up sets as well that are incredible. The witch council is a set. Actually, Dolan’s apartment was a set, Michael Caine’s apartment. So a lot of things like that. But there’s also tons of location work, too. It’s got a real organic feel to it, I think.
Based on the context you were describing for your character, kind of not being persistent in the field and kind of not using weapons, does that allow for there to be kind of humor in the dynamic between you and Vin’s character?
Elijah Wood: It’s there a little bit. I think that that dynamic we’ve seen in films before, and the humor specifically. There were bits and pieces that I was reticent to do that just because I feel like, “That will just feel clichéd,” or, “We’ve sort of seen the…” It’s like the cue a James Bond scenario.
So it’s not quite. But there’s levity. Certainly there is levity. There are a few sort of semi-comic moments to a certain degree, especially considering the fact that I suppose, initially, my character is a bit of a fish out of water. He’s thrust into the world in a pretty intense way pretty quickly.
We saw some pictures of previous sets, the Memory Bar, in particular.
Elijah Wood: Yeah! It’s awesome! I didn’t actually get to see it in person.
That answers my question I was going to ask. Vin gets to visit the past and the past also comes back with him. And if your character got to have any…
Elijah Wood: They get to have all the fun, man. They get to have all the fun.
In the sequel.
Elijah Wood: Right. Yeah, they get to have all the fun. So no, I didn’t get to experience…I don’t get to experience a whole lot of witchiness. There are certain elements that I get to experience. But no, I missed the bar. That’s a major centerpiece to the film, actually. And reading it, it was such an exciting sequence to read, because of course there would be a bar where witches hang out. And it was a fun way to sort of explore modern witches in the world that get to just express themselves amongst their kind. It was really cool and I think it will play out to be a really fun sequence. The production design is so amazing. It’s really cool.
How’s it working with Breck? We were just watching you guys film that last scene. He was taking the time to change lines of dialogue and stuff like that. Is there a lot of freedom to play around and figure stuff out?
Elijah Wood: Yeah. I mean I think we’re always trying to make what we have better. He’s always up for that, I think. And he’s great. He’s super enthusiastic. He’s been working so hard on this for so long. And I think one of the things that really impressed me about him was his sort of dedication. He’s sort of tireless. When I first met him it was via Skype. It was months, and months, and months ago, sort of midsummer, I think. And he had already done so much work, because they’ve been planning this for quite some time. I think initially they were going to try and shoot it much earlier in the year and it got pushed for a variety of reasons. So he’s really been crafting this and working with Dean in regards to what the actual sort of tone, the color of tone, and the palette of the film would be in regards to how it would be shot and the look of it, and then also the production design. And it comes right down to the character work as well, and that’s always something that’s important to him.
So it’s been great. I mean I love working with him. I think he’s happiest when we’re on the floor working and working as a team to get this thing kind of crafted in the right way. It’s awesome.
I’ll ask a fun question. What is the most important thing to know about hunting witches? If you are going to hunt witches, what should you bring with you or know about them in order to live through the night?
Elijah Wood: Wow. That is a Dolan question. It’s Kaulder, too, but it’s a Dolan question. Well, you can always tell a witch…If you have iron on you or if you touch iron to a witch that will reveal that it’s a witch. So have an iron ring or something of iron with you. That could be an asset. And also, look for…if you are in a scenario with a witch, you’ll know if a witch is around if you see one of five elements. So, fire, water, earth, air, because all witchcraft comes from those natural elements. And it has to be at least one of those things present.
In terms of how to protect yourself, that I don’t know. [laughs] Witches are crafty, crafty folk. Keep some iron with you. That will burn their skin.
Thanks, guys. This is definitely a cool place for you all to hang out. It’s not your normal set. That’s for sure.
The Last Witch Hunter will be in theaters on October 23rd.