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!