Interview: Tommy Wirkola (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters)

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By Simon Miraudo
February 5, 2013

Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola made a name for himself with the undead Nazi horror flick Dead Snow, but pitched the premise of his first English-language feature Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters years earlier (while studying in Australia, no less). His teacher worryingly advised him to not “ever speak of this idea again,” before finishing: “until you’re in front of a Hollywood producer.” The first bigwigs he would take it to, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, snapped it up immediately.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters here.

Ahead of the film’s release – of which you can probably discern the plot – we spoke to Wirkola about any worries he may have had about the studio toning down the movie’s gore, as well as his frustration over the picture’s 10-month delay in hitting cinemas (on account of star Jeremy Renner‘s growing fame). And though he’s unsure as to whether or not there’ll be another Hansel & Gretel flick in the future, he revealed a Dead Snow sequel is indeed in the works, promising it’ll be “crazy and f***ed up.”

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SM: Where did you get the idea to combine the Hansel and Gretel fable with an all-guns-blazing action film?

TW: I always loved the fairytale growing up. It was my favourite one. I had one of those cassette tapes and I always used to listen to it to death when I was going to bed. It was so scary and so frightening. People forget how dark those stories are. It just stuck with me, that story, because it left those characters in a great place. What happened to them? Where did they go? And so on. I think the first time I actually remember pitching/talking about it with anyone was in film school. I actually went to film school in Australia. I studied at Bond University on the Gold Coast, and we had a pitching class where you basically go up to your teacher and you have one minute to sell an idea. He’s pretending to be a Hollywood producer, and he’ll ‘buy’ or ‘not buy.’ So, I went up to the teacher, and all I had at that moment was, “Hansel and Gretel, fifteen years after the gingerbread incident, have grown up to be bounty hunters for witches.” And my teacher told me, “Tommy, don’t ever speak of this idea again until you’re in front of a Hollywood producer, and I guarantee you’ll sell it.” That was the first time I remember talking about the idea. It just made sense. You left them in that house, burning that witch alive. What happened to those characters? The realistic answer is probably, “Years of therapy,” but in the action-style version in my head, they grew up to be bounty hunters.

SM: You can deal with that in the next film, maybe, because they definitely need to exercise some demons. Now, you did get the idea sold; the movie is made. Was there any resistance though, to the idea, as you were pitching the film?

TW: I wouldn’t say I did, pitching this film. I – and I don’t mean to sound cocky – knew going in that this was an idea that would appeal here to people in Hollywood. It’s very simple; it’s based on something that everyone in the world knows; it’s public domain, so you don’t have to pay for any rights; and it just takes something very familiar and puts a new spin on it. So, I knew I had something strong going in, and people liked the pitch. The first meeting, on the first day, was at Gary Sanchez productions, with Will Ferrell and [Adam] McKay and those guys. They liked the idea, and took me to Paramount two days after, and we pitched it there, and they went for it. It’s surreal to think how quickly that went and how fast they were on board. They really saw the potential from day one.

SM: As you said, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay did produce the flick. What kind of involvement did they have in the final product, or was it just taking it to Paramount?

TW: What can I say? Will is all across the world doing movies, so of course he has limited direct involvement. But he read the script and gave notes; saw the film and gave notes. McKay and the rest of the producers were really active. For example, I gave them the script, and they go through it and write 10-15 lines I can use here and there. They really supported me in the editing room. McKay is, you know, a very experienced director and a super funny guy. You’ve got to use those guys as much as you can, and as much as they want. Most important for me is that they understood what I wanted to do from day one. They knew the mix I wanted between gore and action and humour, and always supported me. I have to say they’ve been amazing producers.

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SM: Well, tell me about getting Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton involved. You managed to score Jeremy just before he was cast in every action franchise under the sun.

TW: Yeah, we were lucky. Paramount invited me over to cast the film after I was happy with the script, and on the plane ride over I saw Hurt Locker, and was blown away, like everybody else. It’s an amazing performance. I called the producer and told him, “We gotta send him the script.” He read it, liked it, and I met him. When I met him, I realised what a funny guy he is. He’s got a great sense of humour. I think that’s a part of the reason he responded to the script; because he got to show a funny side of himself. He got to use those skills that he maybe hasn’t used too much, so far. Obviously he was a great catch for us. He was on board really early. Then we looked for Gretel; we looked for a while. It took a while before I saw The Disappearance of Alice Creed; a small movie that Gemma did in England. She was amazing in it. I went to London and met her there; she was great. But, of course, when you cast a brother and sister, you’ve got to make sure they like each other. That they get along and have a chemistry. We got them together, they met, and they just clicked straight away, and we knew we had them.

SM: I understand you tested two cuts of the film in the US before release. Obviously the more violent cut with swearing, and then a more toned down version. Ultimately, that R-rated cut tested better. Was there a moment of concern, where you were worried, “Oh, what if the PG cut is preferred?” What would we have lost in that version?

TW: I saw that rumour myself on IMDB, and it’s not completely true.

SM: Okay.

TW: We tested two versions, and one was more violent than the other, but both of them were R. But, one was toned down. Luckily, the audience preferred the more heavy one. Of course I worried; I’m a big fan of gore, and I always thought that should be an important part of the film. But it was always trying to adjust the balance of things. How far do you go with comedy? How far do you go with gore? My goal was always to make it an action-adventure first, and then throw in horror and gore elements, along with humour. We also tested a version with a lot more jokes in it, and another version to see what worked? At the end, we just tried to look at everything and see what worked the best. And yeah, there is some stuff that was cut, and there will be an Extreme version on the DVD with heaps more gore and other stuff, but overall I think we ended up with a really great mix for the best movie.

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SM: Alright, that’s nice to hear. I’m glad for your sake. Well, the movie was originally set to be released in 2012, but it was delayed so that it could be converted to 3-D. How was that delay? How was it to sit on the film for 10 months?

TW: Actually, again, there were different rumours as to why. It wasn’t really the 3-D. We shot half of the movie in Real 3-D, and the rest was always going to be converted. What happened was, there were two things. One of the smaller reasons was, the original date, we were right next to Hunger Games, and the studio started worrying about that, which of course is a smart thing because it devoured everything around it. The second reason was, as you said earlier, after we got Jeremy, he got Mission: Impossible 4, he got The Avengers, and most importantly, he got Bourne, which was his leading role.

SM: Sure.

TW: His starring role in an established franchise. The studio, wisely so, decided to hold the film until all those films had been released, so we could use his newfound stardom to market it as well. Of course, that was frustrating to me in the beginning, because I was really eager to get it out there. It’s been a long ride, and you want to share it with the people after you work so hard on it. In hindsight, I think they were right. We have a great month across the world, and the US, so they were right. But yeah, at the time, it was frustrating.

SM: Absolutely. It seems like the wise decision now. Do you think you’ll get to make sequels to the movie?

TW: I dunno. We haven’t really thought about it. I know a lot of people ask that because it is left pretty open, and looks like we’re going on new adventures. Who knows what’s going to happen these days? It’s about what people think and how it’s received around the world. Certainly it would be a fun world to explore more of. But who knows what’s going to happen?

SM: What about a sequel to Dead Snow, the Nazi-zombie film that had quite a cult reputation built behind it?

TW: Yeah, no, we’re hoping to shoot it very soon actually. Maybe this year, if not early next year. We have a script already written. I truly love that script. So crazy and f***ed up, and I can’t wait to do it actually. That will, for sure, happen. I’m just not sure when.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters arrives in Australian cinemas February 7, 2013.

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