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.