Interview: Hansel & Gretel 3D Director Tommy Wirkola and Producer Kevin Messick
When it comes to clever horror, Tommy Wirkola, Director of the extremely cool zombie-Nazi movie Dead Snow, knows how to put it all together. The Swedish-born, Australian-taught filmmaker was in Sydney to promote his latest movie, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Joining him was Producer Kevin Messick – another Aussie ex-pat.
The pair are fronting one of the most outrageously brutal and hilarious horror-adventure films of recent years - a reimaginging of the classic Hansel and Gretel fable about two young kids who run afoul of a witch. The twist? Now they’ve both grown up as total witch-slaying bad-asses.
Check out our interview with Tommy and Kevin below.
Were you thinking about doing Hansel & Gretel back when you were competing Dead Snow?
Tommy Wirkola: I guess I had it in the back of my head when I studied film in Australia. We had this pitching class in school and my teacher said, “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.” And I did, I kept my mouth shut.
But always in the back of my head was this idea and I kept going back to it and adding a few things to it here and there. So when Sundance screened Dead Snow, I went to LA and I got to pitch the idea I’d been waiting six years to pitch!
So you went to an Australian film school?
Tommy Wirkola: Yeah, I went to Bond University on the Gold Coast. When I studied in Australia, for the first films I did, I actually recruited a lot of people that I studied with and they’re still in my crew!
I know a lot of directors, particularly very visual ones, tend to keep visual diaries – guys like Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton in particular. Do you?
Tommy Wirkola: No I actually don’t! But I guess I have most of them down in my computer in either art work or synopsis. But I don’t have an old sketchbook!
I got the impression that the original vision was quite a bit darker and more violent than the final cut. Did you have to tone it down? What got cut?
Tommy Wirkola: Like you said, the movie is very gory, but there is stuff that is cut out. There will be a Blu-ray version that will be much more extreme.
There’s one scene, where Hansel and Gretel burst into a witch’s house and this witch is sitting there and they tell her to step aside. When she does, there’s this tiny little infant baby girl hanging upside down. It’s still alive though, but it turned out that was too visceral for the American audience when we tested it! But it was all about balance and we wanted to get the feel right. We wanted to keep that hard-R rating (in the US) because that’s what I love; this is the genre I love – that mix of gore and action and humour.
How important was it to you to shoot the film on location in Germany?
Tommy Wirkola: I really pushed hard to shoot it in Europe because the forests there are really alive and it couldn’t be faked somewhere else. The forests in Germany are just amazing and they’re so old and have so soul. So yeah, I pushed hard for that. We have a German fairy-tale and German actors and a European writer/director.
I wanted the world to feel European, so I cast a lot of Germans, Finnish people, Swedish people – I just wanted to make it feel authentic. And I mean—“authentic”—we have a world of witches and trolls! [laughs] And I wanted Hansel and Gretel to feel like the outsiders in that world. That’s why they have an American accent and everyone else does not.
Who are your biggest influences, stylistically?
Tommy Wirkola: Definitely Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson – their early stuff, just because I remember seeing their films growing up and it was an awakening seeing them; seeing how they mixed gore with their unique sense of humour. I just remember seeing Brain-dead, for example, and being blown away by the gore. But the movie was just so fun; it felt like a fun, fun ride.
So those guys have influenced me of course. And like del Toro, you know, there’s a troll in my movie. He’s an animatronic creature, which was important to me. And del Toro uses a lot of animatronics in his movies – in Hellboy, for example. In fact, we used the same company. I just so valuable for the actors to have a troll to act against on set! They don’t have to act against a tennis ball or a guy in a green suit!
I always, always love practical effects – and if you can use practical effects, I think you should.
How did you get involved in producing Hansel & Gretel 3D?
Kevin Messick: It was actually when I saw Dead Snow. Three or four years ago I made a little film for Sundance (nothing like Hansel & Gretel) and my director was a huge horror fan. And he told me there was this Nazi-zombie horror film and we had to go see it. So he dragged me to that film and I loved it. I thought it was fantastic! So I started working for Adam McKay and Will Ferrell at their production company and I thought, “I have to meet this guy! He’s like a young Sam Raimi-type filmmaker!”
So Adam and Will loved the film and I believe we were his first official Hollywood meeting. He came in and pitched the idea and we loved it and sold it to Paramount. And our role as producers, in the bigger picture, is about protecting the vision of the filmmaker. And with Tommy as the writer/director, we were there to help support that all along the way.
Can you take me through a little of the production process?
Kevin Messick: Sure! We hooked up with ‘Spectral Image’, the effects house who worked with Guillermo del Toro on the Hellboy movies. So when Tommy was still writing the script, we asked the studio, “can you give us a little bit of money for some production art?” When we got all the images, Tommy got all of those images and put them together to Metallica music! [laughs]
So when he had the first draft of the script, he came with this DVD that would set the tone for how you were supposed to think and feel about it. And we did those types of things all along the way with Tommy—from production design to costume design and character design to help explain, to the bigger system of a studio, where this film lived. All of those tools that Tommy helped create were really helpful.
Clearly it worked, because the film has this rock-and-roll tone to it now.
Kevin Messick: Absolutely! There was a song at the end of the movie that, I’m sure to the rest of the world is obscure except to Tommy. It was this Norwegian band that I believe doesn’t exist anymore. So in one of those early mood reels that we were putting together about how it was supposed to feel and look like, that was the song that Tommy used two years ago. And we always joked that was the song we’d used as the end titles. And it actually was! [laughed]
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