Cast: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Olafur Darri Olafsson
Directors: Breck Eisner, Elijah Wood
Genre: Action, Adventure
Running Time: 106 minutes
Synopsis: From the producers of the 300 movie franchise, The Last Witch Hunter is an epic actionadventure starring Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie and Elijah Wood. Cursed with immortality by an evil witch queen, Kaulder (Diesel) has spent centuries hunting down rogue witches; vicious supernatural creatures intent on destroying humankind. Now, as the covens of modern day New York threaten to resurrect their queen and release a terrible plague on the world, Kaulder must face their vengeful wrath in a battle to save the human race.
The Last Witch Hunter
Release Date: October 29th, 2015
A gorgeously rendered, explosively physical and thoroughly original fantasy adventure, The Last Witch Hunter propels audiences into a complex mythological universe packed with shocking violence, unthinkable treachery and unforgettable characters. Set in a world never before seen on screen, the story spans over 800 years of one man's quest to keep at bay an army of vicious supernatural creatures determined to wipe out humanity.
Global action hero Vin Diesel stars as Kaulder, the centuries-old guardian of the human world who has lost his family, friends and perhaps even his hope in the battle against the dark forces. The inspiration for Kaulder and his story came from Diesel's days as an avid gamer – particularly his more than 20-year fascination with the popular fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. His dedication to the game is so complete that he was asked to write the forward for the book, '30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons".
Vin Diesel's favourite character to play in the game was Melkor, a dark elf and witch hunter that was not part of the original game. 'I found it in a third-party book called 'Acheron"," he explains. 'The idea of doing an action-fantasy film was always appealing to me. I met with screenwriter Cory Goodman five years ago and we geeked out about Dungeons & Dragons and next thing you know I get this amazing script about a witch hunter."
Cory Goodman brought the project to Summit Entertainment and producers Mark Canton and Bernie Goldmann, who recognised its potential as a spectacular action franchise and a vehicle for Diesel.
'Vin Diesel brought such passion and dedication to the project," Mark Canton says. 'His level of commitment is unparalleled. There is not one detail he hasn't thought through. He is all about the movie, seven days a week. He's a great producing partner, not to mention a superstar who is at his peak as an actor."
Together the producers chose director Breck Eisner to take the helm. 'I've known Breck Eisner for a long time," says Mark Canton. 'He is relentless. His work ethic is incredible, and his talent is prodigious. His imagination and attention to detail brought the story alive."
As the project developed, the filmmakers collaborated to build an immersive and surprising world for Kaulder. 'The first thing that excited me about the movie was being able to create this with Breck," Bernie Goldmann says. 'We spent a long time figuring out and understanding the mythology. It is not based on a book or a graphic novel, so we had that much more work to do. It is challenging to imagine a world from the ground up."
Breck Eisner was more than enthusiastic about the project. 'I loved the character of Kaulder right off the bat," he says. 'As a kid I was a big fan of Highlander and this reminded me a bit of that. However, it has this awesome element of an immortal witch hunter avenging the loss of his wife and daughter. Vin Diesel's character is haunted and somewhat tortured. Seeing him as a modern-day badass, as well as a medieval warrior, was very appealing to me."
Historically, witches were often scapegoats for supposed heresy. Anything outside the bounds of religion could be deemed 'witchcraft." The film's rich mythology portrays witches in an entirely new way. The witch (or Hexan) race preceded mankind on Earth, drawing otherworldly energies from the four elements: Air, Water, Fire and Earth. When humans came along and began to master nature rather than honour her, an inevitable conflict grew, sparking a long and vicious war.
'The witches see themselves as protectors of nature and humankind as her destroyer," Breck Eisner explains. 'The film is set in New York for that reason. Manhattan used to be a biodiverse island and has become a bastion of humanity, virtually devoid of nature."
During the Middle Ages, the Witch Lords, six all-powerful siblings, emerged, unleashing their ultimate weapon on the world: the Black Death, a plague that killed as much as 60 percent of Europe's population. A secret brotherhood calling themselves 'The Order of the Axe and Cross" dedicated themselves to hunting down and destroying the Witch Queen in order to save mankind.
It was Kaulder who finally slew the Queen, but the price was steep. With her dying breath, the Queen cursed him with immortality. Kaulder has lived for eight centuries as humanity's last protector, policing the remaining witches who hide in plain sight, constrained by the draconian rules of the Axe and Cross and their own Witch Council. As the story opens, he suspects a scheme to resurrect the Queen and destroy the world is afoot.
In The Last Witch Hunter, Breck Eisner depicts witches in a totally new way. 'In most movies, they either have a pointy nose, a wart and a broomstick or they are depicted as monsters. Here, they are more like humans with spectacular abilities to play with your mind. The witches can make you think that you have returned to the past and your loved ones are still alive. They can project images that will convince you that you are insane. They can change their appearance. All of these different planes of reality converge in our hero's mind." While some of the witches are evil, others practice a more benign magic, Vin Diesel explains. 'This movie suggests that there are people who possess magic among us now. It introduces the idea that they are an ancient race that existed before us, who have seen humanity grow and destroy the natural world as they knew it."
To keep track of the complex action and backstory, multiple levels of reality and a time span of over 800 years, Breck Eisner worked with a group of talented artists to create extensive storyboards that documented the entire movie virtually frame by frame. 'I've worked with many masters of film and many great emerging filmmakers, but I have never seen storyboards which were so comprehensive and cohesive," says Mark Canton.
'With a film like this you need a director who pays attention to every detail," adds Vin Diesel. 'We go in and out of multiple realms and Breck Eisner had to lay down the rules of magic. With an original mythology like this, it's up to the director to translate it for the audience, for the actors and for the crew, and that is something Breck Eisner has done brilliantly."
The Last Witch Hunter has something for everyone, according to Mark Canton. 'On one hand we have the epic, almost apocalyptic feeling of movies like The Lord of the Rings series. On the other hand, we have a modern James Bond-like character in New York City. Kaulder is the coolest guy in the world. In over 800 years, he's learned everything there is to know about the arts, music, culture, architecture, but more importantly, about people and the difference between good and evil. He's a super cool, modern guy who has stood the test of time."
The Witch Hunter And His Prey
The cast of The Last Witch Hunter has deep roots in the action-fantasy genre, featuring alumni of Games of Thrones as well as the Lord of the Rings, Dark Knight, Hobbit and Riddick franchises. 'No one has ever put together a cast that features so many heroes of other mythological adventures," says Mark Canton.
First and foremost, of course, is Vin Diesel. His muscular charisma is crucial to Kaulder, the last surviving fighting member of The Axe and Cross, the fellowship dedicated to keeping sorcery in check. Made immortal by the Witch Queen's final curse and driven by the pain of the past, he fights on endlessly. The idea of immortality appeals to many, but while it affords Kaulder a tactical advantage, it is a solitary existence.
'It makes him a formidable soldier, because he has no fear of death or injury," says Vin Diesel. 'But he must go on existing despite the fact that he wishes he didn't. For him, 800 years is too long to have lived."
'His immortality makes it impossible for him to connect with other people," adds Mark Canton. 'There's inevitable loss for him in that. Vin Diesel created a character who lives behind a mask of perfection, pretending that everything is okay. Now the layers have begun to peel off and he begins to understand that his pain is holding him back as a human being."
Kaulder has been accompanied on his long journey by a succession of priestly advisors, all known as Dolan. Members of the Axe and Cross, the Dolans have documented Kaulder's activities throughout the ages in handwritten journals that are passed on, so each Dolan is intimately familiar with his history. 'It's as if the same person has been by his side for the full 800 years," notes Eisner. 'The Dolans are a way to keep Kaulder sane. They're like an artificial best friend."
As the film opens, Dolan 36th is retiring. 'Kaulder has a special bond with this Dolan," says Mark Canton. 'It is his one true connection to another human being. They have a 50-year relationship. There's a tremendous amount of respect and dignity"and quite a bit of affection"between them."
A large part of that respect and affection comes from the fact that the actor portraying him is a close friend of Vin Diesel's in real life"Oscar winner Michael Caine. 'Part of our friendship is rooted in the fact that we're both street kids," says Michael Caine. 'We never went to academies, never been to drama school. We just pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps."
Despite his personal relationship with Diesel, Caine was taken aback when he was approached for the role. 'When they called me, I thought, well, I'm not a very good driver," he says. 'What the hell does Vin Diesel want me to do? Truthfully, I've never seen Vin in a movie like this. I have never been in anything like this. It's great entertainment with tremendous action and imagination."
Of his character, Michael Caine notes, 'I'm rather like the elder statesman. Dolan knows everything, has everything and organizes everything. He's much like Alfred, the butler in Batman. He and Kaulder have an extraordinary relationship, more like father and son."
Michael Caine's character is passing the Dolan's mantle on to a young priest played by Elijah Wood, best known for his role of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 'The script surprised me," says Elijah Wood. 'I thought the storytelling was fresh and compelling. It is a largescale, original take on our world"one where we co-exist with witches. I'd never read anything quite like it. When Breck Eisner showed me all the amazing artwork that had been created, that cemented my interest."
Michael Canton compares Dolan 36th to the Pope for Kaulder, while his replacement is more like Jimmy Olsen. Wood acknowledges the comparison, saying, 'Michael Caine has such a pedigree, a sophistication and a legendary status; it really helps the storytelling to have him be the audience's introduction to a long line of Dolans."
Kaulder is not quick to warm to the young Dolan. 'My character has some challenges connecting to him," Elijah Wood admits. 'But he recognises that Kaulder doesn't really connect with anyone and that he has big shoes to fill."
Kaulder finds an unexpected new ally in his quest when he meets Chloe, a modern-day witch who runs a Memory Bar, a bohemian paradise hidden behind a magic door. 'It's a new take on what happens at a bar," says Rose Leslie, who plays Chloe. 'You don't go there to forget. You go there to remember. It's a beautiful space, rather like an opium den with little alcoves where you can relax and enter another world."
Patrons partake of potions and spells that allow them to dive into their pasts, which is what leads Kaulder to Chloe. 'Dolan 36th has given Kaulder a directive to remember something important that he's been blocking for centuries," says Diesel. 'He has to seek the magic he has been trying to stamp out in order to accomplish that. It sets up an interesting relationship between the hunter and the hunted."
Chloe has a formidable ability that she has managed to keep hidden, even from other witches. 'She is a dream walker," says Leslie. 'She can enter the dreams of others, but she has always been told it is a black art used by evil witches. She is afraid of just how strong she may be."
Dream walkers have served as key lieutenants of the Queen, explains Breck Eisner. 'There are not many of them. They're very powerful, because they have the ability to send you back into a memory as well as to get into your head. They have the ability to twist your mind, to make you see and think things that might not be reality."
It is at the Memory Bar that Kaulder first encounters a deadly enemy, Belial, a witch who who has gone over to the dark side. 'The majority of witches in our world are not evil," notes Breck Eisner, 'but there are a few that still long for the days when witches were the dominant species on the planet. Belial is one of them."
Belial is played by Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, whom Eisner first saw on the hit HBO series True Detective. 'He played this terrifying biker. He's an imposing figure with an imposing voice"as Vin is. I wanted to make sure the physical stature of the man standing against Vin was equal."
'Belial is a warlock who has been working to bring the Witch Queen back for many years," explains Olafur Darri Ólafsson. 'He believes the world belongs to the witches, not to humanity. He's doing everything he can to bring the world back to a time that he never was part of."
The conflict between Belial and Kaulder provides an opportunity for the two actors to stage a shattering battle scene. 'We had a pretty amazing stunt team who prepared a terrific fight scene for us," says Olafur Darri Ólafsson. 'But I have to say it's pretty surreal to be doing a fight scene and realise it's you and Vin Diesel."
Kaulder must contend with many dark-side witches, including Ellic, a shape shifter who turns himself into children to lure young kids into his basement of horrors. British actor Joe Gilgun plays the character as a terrifying zealot. 'He works on behalf of the Witch Queen and truly believes what he's doing is right," Gilgun says. 'Besides shifting his own shape, he shifts that of a tree in his yard so that it appears to grows gummy bears, making kids an easy catch. It becomes the quintessential midwestern backyard, with a dark Pee-wee Herman magic twist. But if you look, there are hints of the dark world underneath."
Mathematician-turned-actor Isaach de Bankolé portrays blind herb merchant Max Schlesinger, who supplies Chloe's bar with esoteric items. Eisner originally pictured him as a door-to-door diamond salesman"except his briefcase is filled with bugs and maggots. 'It's funny, my character was originally written as a 60-year-old Jewish guy," notes de Bankolé, an Ivory Coast native. 'But it's not that far from my background. Where I come from, people often would communicate with the dead. It's part of my culture."
The most powerful of all Kaulder's enemies is the Witch Queen, the most ancient and powerful witch of all, played by Berlin-based actress Julie Engelbrecht.
'I found the script very appealing," the actress says. 'It's a totally original story we haven't seen before, a way I've never seen witches portrayed. And it actually has quite a bit of humour. Death and humour are a good mixture to have when it comes to understanding humanity."
The Witch Queen has a primal connection to nature that drives her fury. 'There is has something very grounded and earthy about her," Englebrecht explains. 'Witches were on the Earth before humans and they are trespassers in her world. From her point of view, she is protecting her kind. Humanity has come into her home, destroyed her race and is bent upon destroying nature itself. Her rage is inspired by the injustice and cruelty that has been directed at her and her family."
Engelbrecht had to study Ancient Greek in order to deliver her curses and spells with authority. 'I love languages, and it's such a perfect fit for the Witch Queen. I was glad to do it."
The allure of witches and magic has existed throughout time, the actress observes. 'Magic is what science can't explain and I think people are always afraid of things they can't understand. That's the fascinating thing about magic"you can't explain it."
The Roots Of The Witches' World
The Last Witch Hunter was shot from early August to early December in 2014 on location in Pittsburgh, which stood in for New York City. Production designer Julie Berghoff built on Eisner's comprehensive storyboards and notes to create the eerie environs of the Hexan, as well as the rest of Kaulder's foreboding world.
'It was the most visual script I have ever read," Julie Berghoff says. 'It is based on nature and takes place in all the dark, creepy places that I am so attracted to. It lured me in with all the different worlds that I would be able to create. I soon learned that Breck Eisner has a great eye and a wonderful imagination. His idea of modern witches was a new way of thinking. It is a beautiful world of fantasy, where maybe your neighbor is a witch."
The Witch Queen's costume and makeup design, as well as her home, take inspiration from the late Polish painter, photographer and sculptor, Zdzisław Beksiński, whose work incorporates abstracted biomorphic shapes in a style known as dystopian surrealism. 'He was a crazy, dark, twisted guy who created very beautiful, very forward-thinking artwork," says Julie Berghoff.
The thorny, knotted Witch Tree that serves as her nest is one of the mainstays of the film's mythology, a fortress for the Queen and her followers that threatens to swallow up any human reckless enough to enter. 'It's one of the driving forces of the film," says Berghoff. 'It's the Queen's home and the beginning of Kaulder's immortal journey. Breck Eisner was very clear about the energy he wanted from it. That was the beginning of the process for me. I felt that if I understood the tree then I would understand the rest of the film."
Julie Berghoff created a thicket with a bunker at the bottom surrounded by a tangle of roots, mosses and strangler vines. 'You have to journey into the different levels of it," she says.
'There is a massive shaft that leads to the underworld. It is filled with totems collected over hundreds of years. There are all kinds of creatures living in it and at the top is a clearing full of altars where the witches perform their sacrifices."
The Witch's Tree set was constructed on a soundstage and was designed to withstand both fire and water. 'A lot of thought went into every detail," says the production designer. 'Part of the floor was constructed to look like roots. We also constructed soft branches to make sure no one got their eyes poked out, as well as waterproof and fireproof branches."
Julie Berghoff also created the sinister chamber where the International Council of Witches convenes to pass judgment on those suspected of practicing black magic, as well as the Witch Prison in which those convicted of wrongdoing are embedded by magic into cells in rock walls. The prison scenes were filmed in a limestone mine in Wampum, Pennsylvania, a huge 2.5 million-square-foot underground complex. 'It's creepy and dark and beautiful," Julie Berghoff says. 'We wanted the prison to be like the Gates of Hell, so we looked to artists like Gustave Doré for ideas."
Makeup designer Justin Raleigh of Fractured FX met with Eisner a year and a half before filming to start developing the witches' look. 'The challenge was doing something completely different in terms of what a witch should look like," he says. 'Breck Eisner shared some dark, frightening, surreal images of Beksiński's work with us to help design a look unique to the Queen and her world. I was enchanted by the challenge of what these creatures were going to be. Still human, but very, very organic, which Beksiński's style really captures."
Transforming glamorous Julie Engelbrecht into the terrifying Witch Queen character was a time consuming and exacting process. 'We wanted to allow her beauty to shine through," explains Justin Raleigh. 'I think we came up with something very successful. It's about a four-anda- half hour application. The design needed to be highly functional and very form-fitted to her body. From the neck down, she wears a prosthetic suit with a corset built into it. She wears an exterior spine piece that hangs down from the back of her head, appliances on her legs, arms hands and feet, contact lenses and dental prosthetics."
The result, he says, is surprisingly organic. 'The Witch Queen is almost like a piece of camouflage," he says. 'Her followers have a slightly more human quality to them, but they are very feral, vicious-looking creatures"covered in dirt, like they are part of the nest."
While The Last Witch Hunter does not stint on high-powered, state-of-the-art special effects, Eisner put emphasis on creating a reality in the otherworldly realm by shooting as much in camera as possible. In addition to Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Nicholas Brooks and his crack team, the filmmaker relied on Special Effects Coordinator Peter Chesney to create countless striking and frightening practical effects.
'Peter is incredible," says Brooks. 'I've never worked with a brainiac like him. He created everything from enormous intricate rigs to smaller, but still very complicated gags like cracking walls or pentangles burning in the floor."
The creation of the Sentinel, a fifteen-foot guardian of the witch prison, was one of Chesney's biggest challenges. Sculpted out of wood, bone and hide over a metal core, the Sentinel was mounted on a section of roller-coaster track to make it mobile. A cart holding a piece of green screen was integrated into the sequences as well.
Many of the effects were conceived and created especially for the film, including a complicated gimbal system to simulate an aircraft in the grip of a violent storm, the exotic potions Chloe serves her customers and the snowstorm in the Memory Bar. 'That's the fun part of special effects," says Chesney. 'You don't often do the same thing twice."
Dressing a Witch Hunter wasn't a straightforward matter, even for a creative designer like Luca Mosca. A man of sophisticated tastes and enormous resources, the modern day Kaulder had to have a timeless sense of style. 'He dresses in the current fashion, but with the hint of other eras," Mosca explains.
The warrior costume was particularly tricky to create, says Luca Mosca. 'It had a base layer of leather pants, a blousy shirt, and a collar like a dickey. We took a 3-D cast of Vin's body and created the armor out of an injection-molded polyurethane composite. The design was created in the computer. I found a texture I liked, added dots to look like rivets and then we printed it. Each part was then painted to give an ancient metallic finish. We added a cape made of fur to give him a very imposing warrior aspect. It took over an hour just to get into it."
Kaulder's medieval costumes also proved extremely challenging because of the many layers involved, he notes. 'There were three different looks for the medieval period that represent how he looks when he is at home with his family, as a hunter and as a warrior."
According to Canton, who has produced such visually rich and original films as Immortals and 300, realising the visual aspects was both the most difficult and the most appealing part of making The Last Witch Hunter. 'What a crazy challenge it was," he says. 'It's taken a tremendous amount of work and a great team effort to achieve this. Creating an entirely new world for a story that spans some 800 years requires not only good storytelling, but also a director with the vision to connect the dots. Breck has all that. He made a movie that is a visual feast unlike anything you've ever seen."
The Last Witch Hunter
Release Date: October 29th, 2015