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 producer Mark Canton, to talk 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), looking 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.
Question: How long have you been filming down here?
BRECK EISNER: This is our third day in the mine, I think? Second day in the mine. Yesterday was our first day in the mine. But we’ve been in Pittsburg for 50 odd days.
Just feels like three days.
EISNER: It feels like three days. It’s what, 15 degrees out? In here it’s about 30, so I guess that’s a benefit.
Can you tell us a little bit about the scene we’re seeing? It seems like somehow this affliction of the mind is chained to this very vague event that’s happening.
EISNER: We’re in a witch prison here, which is why we’re in the mine, of course. In this scene, Kaulder knows that the witch queen which is the big baddie of the movie, I don’t wanna give a way too much, but she has returned and they have to come down to this witch prison to stop this cataclysmic event and they’re going into the mind of one of the prisoners to try and stop the event. So it’s an event just talking about these multiple plains of reality that being able to exist in different time periods and also different mental periods, and we’re gonna follow this scene from here and go with Chloe as she goes into the mind of this madman, or this mad witch, and this is the setup for that.
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 [Joseph Gilgun] out of a hole that Kaulder has managed to smash open… 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 why this one? What was it about the script that drew you to it?
EISNER: I loved the character Kaulder, first off the bat. I’ve always as a kid loved Highlander. It reminded me a bit of it, but it had this awesome element of witches and this eternal hunter who has been avenging the death of his wife and daughter to no emotional success, and it was just a really, I think, challenging story to play in a genre movie and I was just really looking forward to that challenge. Also all the different time periods and worlds that it explored I really was interested in.
We heard you had a very, very specific vision for this movie and that you wanted it to be separate from other visions that have come before it. Can you talk about how you came up with that vision and where you drew from for inspiration?
EISNER: Sure. I mean, obviously it’d take a while to answer that whole question. [Laughs] One of the things I wanted to see [was] Vin differently than I’d ever seen him before, a character who is haunted, who is somewhat tortured but who’s also still bad-ass and kick-ass. The idea of seeing him in the mediaeval period as a warrior was really appealing to me as well. And seeing him with hair and a beard, that seemed cool. But the other thing is I’ve never really seen witches portrayed in a way that is satisfying from a genre point of view, you know? They’re either a pointy nose, a wart and a big hat on a broom or the other extreme, depicted as a monster. But our point of view was that they are still humans but these kind of self-bastardized versions of humans who have power that is more of the mind than of the physical world. So it was a movie that really plays in multiple plains of reality and witches were able to project images in your mind that make you think you’re insane or maybe think loved ones are alive or make you think you’re in places you’ve been in the past, and that idea of being able to converge these different plains of reality into our hero’s mind, that really drew me to the project.
VIN DIESEL: So, what gravitated me to this character? [Sighs] Let me go way back. For the 30th anniversary of a book called –The 30th anniversary of a game called Dungeons and Dragons the company at the time had asked me to do a forward and write the forward on the cover of the book and I talked about my experience growing up playing Dungeons and Dragons religiously, and I even talked about a character that I had named Melkor, a name that obviously I stole from The Silmarillion, and that character was a witch hunter. About four years ago or three and a half years ago I met with a writer name Cory Goodman and he wrote a bunch of great things, and we started talking. Someone put us together because he was a Dungeons and Dragons player and thought that something could be interesting and I guess he went off to write a whole film around my character Melkor, which was a witch hunter. Just the very fact that I’d be playing a witch hunter speaks to how nerdy I was about the game, how committed I was to the game Dungeons and Dragons because what people may not realize is that the witch hunter class wasn’t offered by TSR at the time, it was a character that you could get from a third party book of characters called The Arcanum at the time. So even if you played Dungeons and Dragons you couldn’t play a witch hunter because the witch hunter class didn’t exist in Dungeons and Dragons, but I guess that there were these third party books that allowed you to find and become other characters somehow that you were able to incorporate into the game. And so there were a few characters that started there that eventually Dungeons and Dragons took over, but one of those characters was a witch hunter. So I play the witch hunter because I was a huge fan of rangers and this was a class that was somewhat like a ranger and had small spell class called mysticism at the time. [Sighs] Way too much information.
Was having Vin in that lead role an absolute must?
EISNER: Oh, yeah. Written for him. Even before me, written by Cory [Goodman] for him, with him in mind. We chased him with it until he said yes. Yeah, it was Vin or nobody. He was the only person we ever pictured.
[Mark] were there any red flags for you as a producer jumping into this? Maybe things where you said ‘if we can’t get this and this, this isn’t gonna work’?
MARK CANTON: Well, we actually only wanted Vin, that’s true. That’s the needle in the haystack. We never talked about anybody else, which is crazy, not to say someone else couldn’t have played the role, but we never talked about anybody else. So it was sort of like we did reach the point which is Vin or no movie, because we were so committed to that he was the right character. But one of the things that’s most exciting is the cast, even the little role. This queen, which is unbelievable, the whole cast…I think what we’ve done and we did it on purpose was tap into the whole zeitgeist of the mythological culture on social media. Having Elijah Wood and having Rose Leslie from Games of Thrones and then of course Dean Semler was the DP on Mad Max [2: The Road Warrior], I mean it’s so crazy, and Apocalypto and also having Michael Caine, from Alfie on in his career, so I think the fan base that movies can be cool certainly is going to….there’s going to be a lot of curiosity blending all of those and from the producers of 300. So I think it’s sort of like a perfect storm in that sense, you know? Now we just have to do our jobs. And Breck’s great. I think of Breck as like the guy in sports where often there’s the best player to never win a championship, that’s who Breck is, sort of like the best director who so far has not really made that movie or had that shot quite, he’s just killing it now. So it’s great.
What genre would you put this in? Action-adventure, horror?
EISNER: It’s a bit cross genre, which is always fun and always a challenge. It’s not horror. It’s definitely more towards dark-adventure, although the action is slanted towards scaring, dark tension, tense action, rather than bombastic like Fast and Furious action.
Are the witches all female?
EISNER: No, no. There’s warlocks and witches and it’s pretty much an even mix. Some of our leads are female and some of our leads are male.
Is it black and white where the witches are decidedly bad or is it more of a gray area?
EISNER: Well, in Kaulder’s mind it starts out that the world is black and white and clearly, like anything, the world is never that simple and via his relationship with Chloe who happens to be a witch, he realizes that what he saw as black and white truly is a more world of grays, absolutely. Magic is good, magic is bad, magic is neutral, it’s neither good nor bad, it is part of the fabric of the world in our movie. It’s kind of the DNA of the planet. Definitely more in the world of grays, but the fun is watching the perspective of magic from our hero’s point of view shift as the movie goes via his relationship with the female lead.
ROSE LESLIE: My character… she is a witch. A good witch. Hopefully we like Chloe. And Chloe, she runs a bar…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… 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.
JOSEPH GILGUN: [My wizard character] Ellic is mentally insane, not dissimilar to myself. He is a child killer. He has also murdered a priest. Ellic works on behalf of the queen… He’s a zealot….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… 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.
Do you guys have a lore bible with all of the history in it?
CANTON: We have everything. We’ve created everything and we’re gonna continue to do that. The storyboards on this movie are fantastic. I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but Breck has…I’ve never seen such seamless storyboards from anyone. He really lays out the entire journey of the movie, and of course if you’ve met with [Vin] Diesel, which I think you did, right?
CANTON: I’m sure he told you that we’re looking forward to continuing this.
That’s my question. Obviously, going in today we’ve heard how much lore has been built up then alluded to – and a little bit about what could be coming down the chain. This is a franchise starter. You don’t get somebody like Vin for something like that. Can you talk a little bit about maybe some of the plans you guys have been talking about?
CANTON: I’m sure Vin told you the plan. I don’t do that because my attitude is truthfully always you got to get the first one right. That’s my plan. My plan and the studio’s plan, and all of the filmmakers is to get the first one right so that we can go forward, but we definitely will end the movie with a sense of ‘there’s more to come’, so it’s been designed that way. I feel very confident about it. The quality of the crew, from the production design to the DP [Director of Photography], there’s so many high-end talented here that we’re sort of set upon to create something that will carry on with characters and a lot of surprises and stuff. I wouldn’t really want to talk about that because we don’t even want to tell people how this one’s gonna end. It’s good, we’re almost there, you know?
One more question about that. Is there a pressure at this point to always have that in mind when you start a movie like this?
CANTON: When you start a movie like this, yes. I just came back from New York because I had the diametrically opposed, my little movie called Cake which we just said we’re doing our Academy and Golden Globes and all of the screenings for Jenn[ifer] Aniston and Sunday night we had the Tastemakers screening in New York and it was like a hundred and fifty Tastemakers. This movie’s not about the Tastemakers. This movie’s about the core franchise audience, so of course with a movie like that it’s one end of the spectrum. With a movie like this…I don’t feel pressure. I’m very confident about it, but it’s a hard marketplace, so we have to get in between now these other humongous competitors and the studio has got to step up in marketing and distribution, but you know they’ve announced next October 23rd, and that’s a big date. So I think that was the first step in their relief, and of course they’ve had at Lionsgate fantastic success with Twilight and now with Hunger Games. I know they had the premiere last night in LA, I heard it went great. So they know how to definitely build and market a franchise, and that’s their intention with this.
I know you guys said there’s going to be a graphic novel to accompany this. Is it going to come out ahead of the movie?
CANTON: Of course.
Do you guys have any idea on a timeline for that?
CANTON: We’re working on it. I’m not hiding from it, I don’t know the answer.
Do you guys know who you’re going to publish through? Are you going to do in-house?
CANTON: Lionsgate is organizing it. They haven’t signed the deal yet, but it’s a big place.
We were just talking about, before you came in here, how you guys need to do tie-in graphic novels to fill in the 800 years.
DIESEL: We are doing that. We are doing that. That was one of the first things we wanted to do, because there’s such rich story, this character gets to be your guide for the last millennium and in such an interesting way, such an interesting perspective. There’s so much depth to this movie, it’s fun on so many levels and it attempts to bring fantasy into kind of a very familiar modern-day setting. But because… [Laughs] Sorry guys I forgot what I’m saying, (people talking in the background)
The Last Witch Hunter will be in theaters on October 23rd.