JoBlo goes underground to visit The Last Witch Hunter set! (Part 1 of 2)
One thing I took away from my visit to the set of Lionsgate's THE LAST WITCH HUNTER in November of last year is that the cast and crew are very proud to be working on a film not based on a pre-exisiting property. It isn't an adaptation of a novel/comic book/video game, nor is it a reboot or remake. In fact, Cory Goodman wrote the original script for the film after hearing Vin Diesel use to play Dungeons & Dragons with a witch hunter character. It also definitely won't be like Tommy Wirkola's HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER has been in the works since 2012, with director Breck Eisner (THE CRAZIES, SAHARA) heavily involved with the development of the project. Vin Diesel plays Kaulder, a witch hunter cursed with immortality who must prevent a group of witches from releasing a deadly plague that would wipe out humanity, and the film also stars Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) and Joseph Gilgun (LOCKOUT, E4's Misfits).
I was, of course, excited to be invited to THE LAST WITCH HUNTER set in Pennsylvania, and even more so when I found out it was located in a former mine shaft near Wampum, the same place the underground scenes were filmed for George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD. The day after arriving in Pittsburgh, a few other journalists and I pilled into a van to go to the mine, which from the outside looks like an end-of-the-world shelter.
Since I haven't had much experience inside of mines, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I certainty didn't expect to find an office area that reminded me of the underground facility in CABIN IN THE WOODS. Hoping we weren't going to stumble upon any merman, we drove deeper into the mine, where we discovered dozens of cars, RVs and boats. However, they weren't there because of THE LAST WITCH HUNTER. As it turns out, some people pay to store their vehicles in the mine so they don't have to winterize them.
We finally arrived in the "real" area of the mine, the setting for a witch prison featured in the film. The underground chamber was dimly lit with work lights, and you had to be careful not trip over the extension cords. We were led to a tent, where we watched a sequence being shot involving Vin Diesel's character (the actor wasn't scheduled to be on set until later that day, so a stand-in was used) pulling Gilgun's Ellic, a malicious warlock, out of the prison wall so Leslie's good witch Chloe can enter his mind to stop the Witch Queen (played by Julie Engelbrecht) from unleashing the ghastly plague.
The scene was filmed several times, and after a little while we were given a book of concept art to check out, which included different types of witches, the Witch Nest (the massive tree pictured below), Kaulder and Chloe's apartments and Chloe's memory bar. We were joined by designer and Fractured FX owner Justin Raleigh, who told us that Breck Eisner had a wall of "not what to do" for the designs of the witches, because he didn't want them to look similar to those from other movies. Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński and his "organic surrealism" paintings had a big influence on the overall look of the film, with a mythology based on a bit of everything, including Celtic and Norse lore.
The witches from the medieval period have moss and odd textures that feel like things have been growing on them, and the witch "attackers" (the queen's minions) have an "image of pain that's been addressed on them," such as incarnation scars that "project their magic through their own self-suffering" and animal bone piercings. Most of the modern day witches don't look as nasty or are as powerful, due to mixing with regular humans, but they still tried to give a few of them an "element of something ornate that feels part of the witch world."
While the effects for the attackers and the queen are almost completely practical, visual effects were used in some instances, like flies and other insects buzzing around the queen. Raleigh also talked a little about the Sentinel (a protector of the prison made up of bones and skulls that Kaulder jumps through in the trailer), and how witches can move around by summoning portals to a purgatory-like world.
The cast and crew broke for lunch, and Breck Eisner stopped by the tent to chit-chat about THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, who said the "awesome element of witches" drew him to the project, as well as the story taking place on multiple planes of reality and seeing Vin Diesel playing a different type of character (and one with hair!) as the tortured and haunted, but still badass Kaulder.
He described the movie as a "dark adventure" flick with scary, tense action, and says one of the more terrifying aspects of the film is how the dangerous witches can "get in your mind and f*ck with your perception of reality." Playing in "the witch world" was both liberating and challenging for Eisner because he had to set limitations and stick to them, but it allowed him to do stuff like a fight scene between Kaulder and the villain while Diesel's witch hunter is stuck between reality and a memory of the 1200s.
According to Diesel, a sequel to THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is already being planned, and although the actor didn't reveal if Eisner will return to helm the follow-up, the director says he would love to come back and do another movie.
There's so much story to tell, and we only scratch the surface in this one. We have a character that's existed from the 1200s through today, imagine all the different time periods. In the history [from the movie], there have been seven witch queens who existed on each of the inhabited continents and he's defeated each of them. So this journey that he's gone on has been this global, multi-century journey, and there's a just lot of great material to pull from.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER opens on October 23, 2015.
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