Extreme Version: Tommy Wirkola on Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Tommy Wirkola's doing pretty good right about now. His first Hollywood studio film, after years of Norwegian flicks like the Nazi zombie horror comedy Dead Snow, is #1 at the box office, despite scores of critics not getting on board with the film. I was one of the handful of Rotten Tomatoes critics who actually admitted to liking Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which I thought was an entertaining and occasionally clever bit of fairy tale revisionism, so when I was offered an interview with Wirkola following the stellar opening weekend I took the opportunity to find out more about the film's best elements – like the practical effects, atypically strong heroine and unusual tone – and even give Wirkola an opportunity to talk about some of the criticisms about the movie, like the potential accusations of sexism, since all the supernatural villains are women.
Wirkola also promised an extended, "extreme" version on Blu-ray, which may also include his original short film about the heroes, and mentioned how Gretel originally had an eating disorder because of the whole "candy house" incident (a plot point that was cut for perhaps obvious reasons).
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is in theaters now.
CraveOnline: I imagine you must be feeling pretty good right now, after last weekend.
Tommy Wirkola: Yeah! I do. It’s actually down in Australia now. We attended the premiere here as well, and yeah, we’re really happy with how it’s performed so far. It did well in the U.S., it also really well overseas so far. So it’s been exciting so far.
Were you nervous about how it was going to do? Obviously you had big stars, but it’s been a little difficult selling this genre to American audiences.
Yeah, yeah, of course. Yeah, you’re really nervous about that kind of stuff because it’s out of your control. It’s up to the audience if they embrace it or not. So yeah, it was nerve-racking the week leading up to it, but it’s good that we succeeded in what we aimed for.
Did you develop this from the start, or what was your first introduction to Hansel & Gretel as a potential project?
It was my favorite fairy tale growing up. I had it on one of those old cassette tapes that I used to listen to when I was very young. It was very scary, dark and twisted. People forget how gory and scary those original stories are. The story just leaves those two characters in such a great place. It kind of stayed in the back of my head, I guess. I did a few films in Norway, and I had this idea… I can’t remember exactly when I got it, but I remember the first time I pitched it to somebody. It was in school. I actually studied in Australia, and we had a pitching class where the teacher pretends to be a Hollywood producer and you have one minute to go up and woo him. And I pitched my idea. I said it was basically Hansel & Gretel, fifteen years later, and they’ve grown up to be bounty hunters for witches. And my teacher said to me, “Tommy, don’t ever speak of this idea again until you’re in front of a Hollywood producer, and I guarantee you will sell it.” It was good teacher advice. So I kept my mouth shut for I think, six or seven years ago now. I did a few movies in Norway. I did Dead Snow and that got picked for Sundance, and got me into meetings. The first meeting, the first day, I tried it and they went for it.
Was the tone part of it? Because it’s very comical in a lot of respects about the historical anachronisms, and I imagine some executives might get nervous about that.
Yeah, that was always in my pitch when I pitched to the studio, because I loved movies growing up that mixed tones. I love [Sam] Raimi and Peter Jackson, and how they mixed extreme gore with action and humor, and that was always what I wanted to do. And I wanted to make it R-rated, with they always supported, and the modern elements were a part of that. One thing, it gives it a timeless feel. I didn’t want anyone to be able to pinpoint and say, “Alright, this movie is set… then.” But I thought it would lend itself to the tone. I thought it would actually add to the fun that we’re trying to have with this film.
At what point did steampunk become a part of that?
Yeah, again, it’s part of that modern element that I wanted in there. I just wanted this crazy, mashed-up world where you can’t pinpoint where it is, or when it is. We wanted the modern elements in there because we thought they would add to the fun and tone of the film, and even though we have these modern elements we always make sure that they look like could belong from hundreds of years ago, but… I don’t know, I just always thought it would be a fun world, and help the tone that I was trying to pull off with the film.
I imagined, when I was watching the movie, you or whoever it was who came up with idea, at a computer, typing it up, and coming up with the idea that Hansel would have diabetes and just giggling to yourself maniacally.
[Laughs] Yeah, that was actually… When I had this idea, when I started back in school, I also made a tiny little short film based on it as part of a school thing, and that idea was always in there from way back then. I just thought it would be fun to use the fairy tale as much as you could, and have fun with it. It’s a fun little thing. Actually, when I originally wrote it six or seven years ago, that original short film, Hansel had diabetes because of the candy, and Gretel had developed an eating disorder. That was never part of the pitch to the studio, but way back then they were both kind of hurting because of them eating so much candy.
I love Gretel as a character. I think you did a really good job making her a strong character, but the film has a very interesting depiction of femininity, because all the villains are women, because they’re witches.
I was wondering if you could talk about developing that sort of mythology for it.
As far as Gretel, I always loved that strong female heroine, and I wanted to make her the brains of the witch hunting outfit. Her the smart one, Hansel’s the loose cannon who kind of runs into everything without thinking, while she stays back and assesses everything. But she also gets dirty. And I also thought it was a little fun that Hansel is the one that gets entangled into a romantic subplot, not Gretel. I just wanted to create a really, really strong and fun female character.
As far as the witches, we wanted to try to do something new with witches. I don’t think witches have been dangerous or scary in a long time. We wanted to make them like animals almost. They could explode at any minute. They were born somewhere dark in nature. We actually, in the process, for many of the main witches we attached an animal to each of the witches, just for ourselves to help us when it came to their powers and their look and sound and design. Yeah, hopefully we did something new with witches and made them dangerous again.
I think some people might be kind of scared of making witches scary again, in some regards, because there’s this perception that it might be interpreted as sexist. Were you worried about that at all?
No, I never worried about that. For me, that’s a classical villain from hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Yeah, I never worried about that, to be honest.
You said that Hansel’s the one who gets a romantic subplot, but I don’t know. I sensed a little chemistry between Gretel and the troll…
[Laughs] Yeah, there’s a little thing going on there. A little beauty and the beast story in there with them. He was always meant to be our Chewbacca, I guess. That huge beast of a character who you feel could explode any minute, but he’s got a heart of gold deep underneath. Yeah, she connects with him for sure in the film.
Tell me about creating that troll, because it looks like a practical effect. He looks fantastic.
Yeah, it is. It is an animatronic creature. We had an actor, Derek Mears, inside a suit performing, and then on top we had a head that five people controlled with remote controls, and they controlled his face. It was a company called Spectra Motion, which did a lot of work for Del Toro in the Hellboy movies. I fought hard for keeping that troll animatronic, and not CGI. I thought it would it the world better, and make it gritty and more real. You can actually get the troll out on location. You can shoot him in the forest, you can shoot him on set with Gretel. It was important to me, getting him to be animatronic, and I have to say I’m so happy with how he turned out. Kudos to Spectra Motion for pulling that one off, and of course Derek performing the troll.
It’s interesting, because as good as the troll looks I didn’t see him in the trailer at all. Were they trying to keep that a surprise?
I think so. Yeah, they wanted to keep him a mysterious creature. Marketing is a little out of your… You’re not connected to the marketing. They do their own little thing and we trust them.
I really do like the overall look of this film. It does feel very practical. It almost feels like a Monty Python movie in some ways. Very practical, lived in, a lot of humor in the details. What were some of your influences in creating the world of Hansel & Gretel?
This is what I like to do. I’m from Norway, and making movies in Norway that’s just how you have to do things. You can’t afford to CGI to help you out of every situation. I do think CGI is overused in cinema today. For me, obviously there’s some fantastic CGI work being done, but I think we rely on it too much. For me it’s just too perfect and clean and glossy at times. I really wanted a gritty and real feel, and hopefully it paid off.
Without giving anything away, I feel like there’s sequel potential. Have you thought about that? Has there been any talk?
We haven’t really thought about it. I didn’t think about it when I wrote it, and when I directed it and cut it. It was never… I mean, obviously you think it could be a fun world to go into, and do more with, but it’s all in the hands of the audience now. We’ll see how it does, and maybe we can go back in there, but it’s still too early to tell.
Are you working on anything right now, for a follow-up?
I’ve been developing another thing with Gary Sanchez Productions. I’m writing a new thing for Paramount, but I’m also hoping to do Dead Snow 2 pretty soon. So we’ll see what happens first. We’ll see where we get the money. It’s all about juggling twenty things in the air, and what happens first. But yeah, I really want to get back directing again. It’s a long, slow post process on [Hansel & Gretel], so hopefully I can get started on something soon.
About that post process. The film is a very lean 88 minutes. Is there going to be a longer director’s cut out there somewhere, or is this exactly what you wanted?
We decided always to we wanted a really fast-paced, fun, energetic ride. Of course there will be an extended version, an extreme version. There will be more guts and blood and gore, stuff that didn’t make the cut. It will be even crazier probably, but this was a cut we wanted because it’s all about balance. We wanted to try to reach as many people as we can, but still keep the edge and what we wanted to do with the film. But yeah, there will be a longer version, and the short film maybe.