That time I descended into the bowels of hell (Pittsburgh) on the set of ‘The Last Witch Hunter’

09.30.15 2 years ago

Visiting a movie set is always an adventure into the unknown. Will you be on a sound stage or oudoors? On location or in the comfort of a climate controlled warehouse? In the case of Lionsgate”s “The Last Witch Hunter” last November, the answer was weirdly…”yes.”

It was a cold day in Pittsburgh when the publicist herded us onto the bus to see Breck Eisner”s vision for a world of witches and those who hunt them. I”d been told to dress for the weather and be prepared for a long day, none of which sounded appealing. Who wants to be outside for twelve hours in sub-freezing temperature?

No one. Driving through a Pittsburgh forest stripped bare for the winter, Lionsgate had other plans. We were about to enter the literal underground world of “The Last Witch Hunter.” Pittsburgh is rich with abandoned limestone mines like the one converted by Wampum Underground. For a small fee, boat owners can winterize their vessel in a naturally climate-controlled environment that just happens to look like a place where Vault Dwellers would emerge from in the aftereffects of nuclear fallout.

Wampum Underground was massive. Our bus was able to drive straight in and down two levels where an office building sprung from the hewed rock. It was disconcerting to say the least, walking across a huge cave and through glass doors to a reception area that could be any reception area across America. It was even more disconcerting when the nice receptionist told us to load up into a glorified golf cart to head down to the set and I realized we were literally under ton of rock carved out a century ago.

Cool.

The upper level of Wampum was a pristine white to detract from the reality of being underground. The lower levels where “The Last Witch Hunter” had set up shop? Not so much. The electrical lighting and paved roads gave way to sporadic standing lamps and actual caverns. Trailers and tents had paths lit by glow sticks, while craft services was a rat”s nest of power cables and extension cords. As we traveled deeper, the temperature dropped significantly and it wasn”t just to due to eerie prop animal bones strewn about haphazardly. Different tunnels disappeared into the darkness, labeled as “streets.” A perfect opportunity for both a photo op and to capture how freakin” creepy it was down there. Pitch blackness waited just outside the lights to devour any journalist unwary of their footing.

Lionsgate set us up in a tent to watch filming and have easy access to the crew for interviews. Our concerns about a soft “thud” on the roof of the tent were explained away as rocks falling.

Oh. Okay.

Between takes of Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, and Joseph Gilgun reacting to things in the darkness that would be added in post-production, Justin Rawlins of Fractured Effects Make-Up to discuss the inspiration and logistics of creating witch lore from the ground up.

“When I first started meeting with [director Breck Eisner,] he basically had a wall of what not to do. It was all these different witches you've seen throughout movies. He didn't want to do anything remotely like what people have seen before. What he wanted was something very organic and felt like if you look at the concept art. It feels like the nest that they live in is almost camouflaged to their environment. That was our goal from day one. The organic surrealism of Polish artist Zdzis?aw Beksi?ski was a huge inspiration.”

Once a look was settled on, it was up to Rawlins and his team to take the witch designs and make them work within the physical limitations of reality. After all, something that looks amazing on the page can fall apart quickly once it becomes three-dimensional. Rawlins discussed the full body costume he created for the Witch Queen:

“[The Witch] Queen [is] almost completely practical. She may have some augmentations during one of her sequences. She always has flies and things that are flying around her, so that type of visual effect will be added in. But her skin and her body is practical. It's a full foam rubber suit and has eight appliances for her face. It's about a five hour make-up application. [The suit is] designed in a way that her joints are free. She has full function even though there's prosthetic in-between.”

[Check this space later for a link to the full interview with Justin Rawlins!]

Director Breck Eisner also stopped by to talk about his vision and the benefits of filming in an underground cavern in the middle of the Pittsburgh winter. Sure it was around thirty degrees in the tent, Eisner reasoned, but that”s better than the fifteen degrees above ground!

When asked what it was that drew him to the project, Eisner quipped it was the idea of seeing Vin Diesel with hair and a beard before expanding on his desire to give witches a fair shake.

“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.”

Eisner also helpfully explained the reason we were in a cave was because it”s a witch prison. Obviously.

[Check this space later for a link to the full interview with Breck Eisner!]

The human body has a limit to how long it can handle freezing cold and the actors didn”t even have the luxury of wearing fleece coats and gloves. Between takes Wood, Leslie, and Gilgun were wrapped head-to-toe in thick coats and given self-heating hand warmers to take the chill off. Given the option of escape by the publicist, we all quickly agreed. A trailer might not be the most glamorous setting – what with the wood paneling and narrow spaces – but it had heat. It also had more concept art and set photos from scenes filmed in the previous 50 days of shooting.

Everything from the creepy gummi bear tree to the decadence of modern witches secret society was on display. All sans context of course, less we have a major plot development spoiled for us. It was into this safe cocoon of climate control the rest of the interviewees were brought as time slipped away. Without the cues of the sun moving across the sky, everyone quickly lost track of how long we”d been there. As far as our brains were concerned, we”d been here since before time began. It must have been even more discombobulating for the crew, some of whom had barely come up for air since beginning the process of building set pieces.

And what spooky set pieces they were. Boxes littered the ground with labels like “Bones” of and “Skulls” or “Human Bones.” Every few feet strange totems of nightmare creatures stood out against the darkness as a flurry of people in winter gear tied fibulas to tree roots and figured out the optimum number of teeth to fit onto a creature. Over all this loomed the Sentinel. Created by artists Vaughn Washburn and Kyle Fisher, the practical creature looked like a scorpion from a distance. Closer inspection however revealed a Lovecraftian horror. 25 jaws, 20 hooves, 20 skulls, and two complete cow spines were welded to an metal infrastructure. The artists then haphazardly covered their creation with six hides, wood, and moss. The final result was a monster that would be terrifying in any circumstance, much less stumbling across it in a dark cave lit only by handheld flashlights and glow sticks.

I may or may not have screamed a little.

But back to the interviews! Vin Diesel got sidetracked (sorry) with discussion of Dungeons & Dragons but it was all technically on topic, I swear! It turned out Diesel”s character of Kaulder was based on his own witch hunter character from 2nd edition back in the day.

“Cory Goodman went off to write “The Last Witch Hunter” and was attempting to speak to [my] D&D character but also attempting to set it in a modern time, which is kind of fun. How could a D&D influenced genre live in a Bond-like cinematic world? And that”s what he did […] because he was a forward thinker in all of this and was very, very ambitious.

[Then]when you see me in the story meetings, 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?””

For every tabletop nerd out there, keeping on believing in the dream. Perhaps one day you too will be famous enough for someone to turn your best campaign into a high-budget LARP!

[Check this the full nerdy interview with Vin Diesel!]

After watching Elijah Wood film in his priest garb earlier in the day, the actor was more than happy to explain his role in this world of witch cloak and dagger.

“[I play] Dolan the 37th. He's effectively a priest, he's associated with an organization called ‘The Axe and Cross” which is a world-wide group that assists and aides in the process of ridding the world of the blight of dark witchcraft. There's function is effectively to have Kaulder's back. Dolan the 36th is played by Michael Caine and he retires and I come in as this new guy. A 21st century priest. Caine”s [character] is not up to technological advancements. [laughs]”

[Check this space later for a link the complete interview with Elijah Wood!]

But what about the others? How did Rose Leslie and Joseph Gilgun fit into this world? They”re both witches, duh.

Rose Leslie:

“My [character's] name is Chloe and she is an incredibly independent young woman. She lives in New York and she's a witch…a good witch. Chloe runs a bar [where] here concoctions allows witches to escape into another realm. Which is how she and Kaulder first meet, when he comes to her Memory Bar.”

Joseph Gilgun:

“Ellic is mentally insane. He's a child killer and he has also murdered a priest. He works on behalf of the [Witch] Queen and his family has a proud past of working for her. The [Witch] Council doesn't think the Queen exists anymore. So he sort of feels very honor to work for the Queen and be doing [her bidding]. He's a zealot. He believes what he's doing is right. He knows it's wrong by society's standard but it needs to get done for his Queen.”

[Check this space later for a link the complete joint interview with Leslie and Gilgun!]

But it wasn”t until producer Mark Canton sat down with us that it became clear how much “The Last Witch Hunter” had hinged on getting Vin Diesel on board.

“We actually only wanted Vin, that”s true. That”s the needle in the haystack. We never talked about anybody else, which is crazy. [That”s] 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.

[Kaulder is] stuck in his journey, in his immortality, stuck in what he needs to do in terms of freeing himself from…you know everyone wants to be immortal, unless you are, because then life keeps passing by. I think it”s thematically more interesting than many of those movies that you might mention. I”m not worried about the monster movies, this is not a monster movie. It”s more a people movie, [it”s] a combination of genres in an interesting way…we”re confident.”

[Check this space later for a link for more with Mark Canton!]

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