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 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.
Vin Diesel's scene was filmed later in the day (around 6pm), when we (and the crew) were thoroughly brittled by the cold. We met Vin inside of one of the lone trailers available in the underground mine, complete with luxuries like working lights, heat, and wifi. In real life, Vin Diesel is indeed just as imposing as he looks onscreen, entering the trailer in thick hooded jacket, boots, and his character Kaulder's "modern look" of dark slacks and a dark, form-fitting shirt.
Diesel was in the midst of enjoying some piping-hot Italian wedding soup (as we all had), and his manner was surprisingly laid back and pensive. What was supposed to be our briefest interview of the day ended up being our longest, as we probed what The Last Witch Hunter is all about, plans for a bigger future for the franchise, and how Diesel's secret love of Dungeons and Dragons role play games led him to embrace the role of Kaulder.
Question: It’s pretty safe to say at this point that you’re one of the foremost actors to have an eye for picking great franchise characters, roles. Can you tell us what really kind of grabbed you about this one?
VIN DIESEL: Sure, It’d be my pleasure. 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.
What edition were you playing?
DIESEL: I was playing the second edition. I was playing the second edition long before –When I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons I think maybe a thousand people in the world new what the word internet meant. I heard some fact that like in the late ‘70s, we would never imagine that, but in the late ‘70s only a thousand people in the world had heard what internet was. And I say that to kind of contextualize how far back that experience was for me and how much of a pioneer Gary Gygax was at that time, because now we take it for granted and we get to play MMOs online and video games have gone to another level. But at that time when we started playing we were just a bunch of artists living in an artist community in Manhattan, in Downtown Manhattan, so all the kids that I played with were sons of artist. And so we had access to all kinds of great material, we would go to the hardware shop, obviously we’d go up to a place called The Complete Strategist in 33rd street or something at the time. And we would go to the hardware store and buy these huge sheets of canvas and we’d slave over creating this world and we created worlds, which you often hear a lot of directors boast about how they can create worlds, well there’s no training that you can think of that sets you up better that creating these fantasy-like worlds with just paper, and we’d get old pieces of canvas and we’d treat it and so we would make it look aged and then we’d have these huge nets and we’d be able to delve into this thing. [Sighs] I know, it’s too much.
Ok, so, Cory Goodman went off to write this movie The Last Witch Hunter and was attempting to speak to the D&D character but also attempting to set it in a modern time, which is kind of fun because we don’t have to think of that, we don’t think of that as even possible really. How could a D&D influenced genre live in a Bond-like cinematic world? And that’s what he did and then about two and a half years ago they got wrecked on because he was a forward thinker in all of this and was very, very ambitious. Then I was going to do this film in 2012, I had promised my fans on Facebook and the greater world that I would deliver a rated-R Riddick, so I filmed the rated-R Riddick in the beginning of 2012. And then because of the tag we put at the end of Fast and Furious 5 with the photo of Letty that was probably one of my biggest feats in Hollywood, was getting that passed through and making that a reality, we quickly had to go to work with Fast and Furious 6. And then when we were doing Fast and Furious 6 I had the studio hire Jason Statham for one day to do a tag at the end of 6 that I knew would speak to the audience and excited the audience and it was wonderful, but in some ways it bounded me to go in right back and shoot Fast and Furious 7. So this film was gonna have to wait until last year, and then of course we had the tragedy a year ago from this month of my brother Paul [Walker] and we had to continue shooting until this year just a few months ago, we had to continue shooting Fast and Furious 7 to make that amazing and incredible honor.. It’s just a fucking great movie. And then because of that experience I was going to take a year off and get to this movie in 2015 and then I said to Lionsgate, “I’ve been wanting to work with Michael Caine for a long time, and if you make that work then we can shoot right now” and lo and behold, they stepped up and next thing you know Michael Caine was ready to shoot now and we began.
Now the war is so thick and heavy into this universe, is there any chance that you might go to your buddies at Dungeons and Dragons or Wizards of the Coast and we might see a role playing table top based on the universe of this movie?
DIESEL: It’s funny that you say that, because when you see me in the story meetings, especially regarding films like these, I’m always the guy in the room saying, “Ok, just stop for a second and talk to me like I’m about to play the game” [Laughs] “Which character would I play, and why would I be attracted to that character?” Yeah. I think that there could very easily be a table top game, and I feel like this is just the introduction to the world. I’ll tell you something since you’re here this week and I should give you some fresh stuff, we’re not done shooting the movie and just last week they sent down Cory Goodman again, here, for the whole week, to discuss the next two chapters of this movie. And I thought that’s pretty remarkable, that we haven’t even completed filming and because we’ve just been watching the dailies and they’ve been so excited about this that they’ve commenced on the two follow-up chapters. I thought that was pretty cool.
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, with people talking in the background.
Just piggy-backing off what you’re saying, It seemed interesting looking at the concept art about how your character kind of takes to immortality and how he deals with that situation, can you talk a little bit about that?
DIESEL: Well it’s interesting that I come off a real life tragedy and to go into a character that’s not dealing with loss at all and simultaneously dealing with a perpetual kind of existence. I think that in many ways this movie is going to be that much more profound because of the time in my life that I filmed this. When I filmed Groot I needed that for another reason, to kind of awaken a death inside of me, to awaken my spirit, and Groot was very therapeutic for that. And in some strange way this film has been therapeutic in its own way, because I’ve had to deal with loss throughout filming here because it’s a constant in my character and the uncertainty of the future, that’s one thing. The irony is that an immortal, you would think, is very confident or very sure about what the future holds but it’s the opposite when you really start to think about it because there is no finite ending, there is no end of the road like we’re so accustomed to, so this character starts to think about everything and the cyclical life of everything and the expiration date of a fly or the expiration date of a human or the expiration date of a mountain or anything, because he’s seen so many aspects of life rise and fall. But what’s interesting about playing an immortal character that has 800 years is that, like I was saying before, it gives us an opportunity to follow somebody we’re familiar with as they recount history.
Because the very title of The Last Witch Hunter is a very strong title because on a fantasy level you get it and it’s kick-ass, but when you start doing the history and you think about really what a witch hunter is, you know if you’re committing to a saga like this and if you’re committing to a mythology like this you know that there’s some kind of responsibility that you take on by doing this. And the last millennium has been –A witch hunter initially was somebody that was an executor of heretics, the very word heretic is so open-ended that you really have to think about what you’re playing and you have to think about, like I always do with movies, there’s a script and there’s a plot and there’s a genre, and then there’s something beyond that that makes a movie magic and that makes a movie significant beyond the shots, beyond everything, and it’s something that nobody ever talks about in Hollywood. It’s some kind of thing inside that translates to the audience when they see the movie…I should think about it someday so I can write about it because nobody talks about it. But there’s a transference of something that happens with a good movie, like I said.
DIESEL: It’s beyond a thematic narrative. The thematic narrative is imperative but there’s something else and I don’t think a lot of people have ever talked about it, but there’s something else that happens inside that projects to the movie, that’s projected in the movie and it is… It’s not easy to explain but it’s something more than, it’s more than what the film is even about. The Fast saga I so much about family but something else is happening that…
Just like the emotional connection between humans?
DIESEL: Maybe there’s a universal emotional thing that happens…yeah. It be interesting to see someone do a test someday of a movie where they just have that and no narrative, no script; and just see what is that thing that someone can do inside that projects to an audience or somehow connects to an audience.
Something about the likability of characters and being in a world, like when you enjoy existing in a world, I feel like that gives people that feeling that they need to experience over and over.
And it doesn’t even have to be a likable character, you just have to connect. Like Guardians, a lot of people weren’t even aware of the comics and they instantly were like, “This is awesome, this is great!”
DIESEL: Nobody knew, nobody knew what Guardians was.
We were calling The sentinel like evil Groot, that’s what it looked like in the concept art.
DIESEL: [Laughs] Oh, come on!