Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has had a troubled journey getting to screens. Originally slated to arrive in cinemas last year, the film was delayed for a year and underwent substantial editing changes. According to the film’s director, Tommy Wirkola – this was all due to a dispute over the level of violence in the film – which is surprising considering just how very red and wet the movie being released this Friday actually is. The reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm tale cast Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) as adults who have made it their lives work to hunt and kill the broom riding, child eating witches that almost ate them as children. Head squashing, bodies torn limb from limb, and just good ol’ fashioned decapitation ensue. So how much more violent could the original cut have been?
In the following interview with Wirkola, he discusses just how violent the film used to be and the scene that was just too much for test audiences. He also talks about his affinity for blending horror with comedy, shooting the picture in 3D and his just-finished-written sequel to Dead Snow. For the full interview, hit the jump.
Between both Hansel and Gretel and Dead Snow, you seem to have an affinity for blending horror with comedy. What about that particular mixture, do you find appealing?
Tommy Wirkola: I guess it stems back to me watching the early Raimi and Jackson stuff, which I remember seeing and it being able to scare me and make me laugh out loud at the same time. It’s just they have their own really quirky sense of humor in their films. You can really see it there. I always loved that.
Do you have favorite films by them?
Tommy Wirkola: Well – I love Dead Alive and the Evil Dead series of course. I actually loved Drive Me To Hell too. It was always something about that mix that fascinated me…
How do you balance those separate tones – the horror with the comedy – and for Hansel and Gretel – the action-adventure as well?
Tommy Wirkola: Yeah I guess [Hansel and Gretel] is more an action adventure with horror and comedic elements. It’s tough. How far do you go with comedy? If you go too far, it can turn into a spoof almost. I don’t know. We shot a lot more than what is in the movie of course and it’s just balancing it when you’re cutting. It’s a tricky one to get right. Hopefully we got it. But you have to look after it so you don’t go too far into comedy.
You’ve made a number of spoofs – the Kill Bill spoof (Kill Buljo) and in many ways Dead Snow functions as a spoof on zombie films. Do you see yourself doing more of those sort-of spoofs?
Tommy Wirkola: Kill Buljo is for sure a dead on spoof. Like the Zucker Brothers. I love those movies. And Dead Snow – I would say is more of a tribute – I’m stealing a little bit… But yeah – I don’t know if I’m going to do more of [those]. I do like that sense of humor. When I grew up, I loved Top Secret and The Naked Gun films. Those were my favorite comedies growing up — so I do have a love for that as well.
If you could spoof one movie what would it be?
Tommy Wirkola: …The Shining – that could be an interesting spoof.
What films did you try to emulate when making Hansel and Gretel?
Tommy Wirkola: Hopefully – you can see what I’m inspired by: Raimi and Jackson. Actually I’m a big fan of Spielberg and the way he shoots action scenes. I think in a lot of modern action movies, it’s hard to see what’s going on. Shaky cam… Hopefully what we strived for was to go a little retro in how you shoot action scenes. You just storyboard the hell out of it. And you try to keep it clean and nice. And at the same time: fast and fun. I just want in our action to see what’s going on every second.
It’s hard to think of really good witch horror films – the only one I can think of is Suspiria…
Tommy Wirkola: It is hard. I wanted to reinvent witches as villains. I do love Witches of Eastwick. We wanted to try to avoid the classical witch with the long nose stirring the pot. I really wanted them to be almost like animals. Dangerous, fast – They’re stronger than Hansel and Gretel. We had a few extreme scenes that got cut. Witches – they like children. It’s just there. It’s a good basis for a villain…
You’ve mentioned the long editing process on the film – I’m interested: how did the film change through various cuts?
Tommy Wirkola: The post process was new to me in the studio system. I had never been involved in testing before — which was ‘fascinating’. I don’t know what to say about that. The first version we tested was for sure the most extreme. Some stuff stayed in, some stuff got cut out. It’s just a different process of getting there: dealing with the studio and the testing process. But in the end, we ended up with something that I think I’m very happy with. But just the idea of a forty-year-old woman from Burbank that works in a supermarket telling [me] how to cut a movie, that was new to me.
This movie’s not going to be her forte to begin with…
Tommy Wirkola: Exactly. It was a very strange process. But in the end – I do think it helped. I wanted to make an R-rated movie that could hit broad. I didn’t want it to be just for the fan base. So I do think it helped. It was just getting used to it that was hard. And the studio before the shoot started – the last thing the studio head said to me was ‘Tommy, go crazy – that’s what we got you for.’ We always knew it was going to be R. We always knew it was going to be an extreme film. It was just balancing everything.
Was there ever talk of making it PG-13?
Tommy Wirkola: No – thank god. I was afraid. I actually made sure they could never cut it to PG-13.
I mean the film that exists now is fairly violent – Was it more violent than this and how so?
Like Dead Snow-level of violence?
Tommy Wirkola: Never that extreme. But there was a scene where [Hansel and Gretel] burst into a house and there’s a witch. She puts up her hands and they tell her to step aside. She steps aside and behind her is a tiny little baby hanging from a rope that’s she’s about to eat. [Hansel and Gretel] end up saving it – but people were shocked. Again – I’m not stupid. I see that’s too much. So it’s about balancing those things.
Will we see this footage on any sort of DVD or Blu-ray?
Tommy Wirkola: Yeah – of course. It’ll be on the Blu-ray. Of course there’s stuff you debate about but overall, I’m really happy with the cut we ended up on. Like you said — it’s pretty violent and what we set out to do is still there. The core of it is still what we wanted it to be.
How long was the testing process?
Tommy Wirkola: It wasn’t that long. I think it was a few months. Three months. Obviously you test it and then you go back and then you test it again… But I can’t remember actually because we had a pause after we push[ed] the movie back and then we did nothing. But it wasn’t too long. I think it was a normal three months.
Was this the biggest difference you found between Norwegian cinema and American films?
Tommy Wirkola: Yeah – the biggest difference was the post process. The shoot, of course, is so much bigger – but the problems are still the same even though you’re making a bigger movie. It’s just magnified by ten. But the post process was new to me. I mean in Norway, when we have a cut that we’re happy with me: it’s me, the producer and maybe the distributor and we say ‘Alright – let’s put it out there.’ But here – no it’s a big system. Of course I fully understand there’s a lot of money involved and the studios put a lot into it. It’s a big film for them. It’s just a process, it took awhile for me to get used to and understand it. But in the end, it makes sense.
Do you see yourself making more American films or going back to Norway?
Tommy Wirkola: Hopefully I can do both. I have a few things in Norway that I might do and also a couple things in America. If I’m lucky, I can do both.
What would be the Norwegian things?
Tommy Wirkola: I want to do the sequel to Dead Snow. We just finished the script for that actually. And we’re aiming to shoot it – not this March but next year.
Would it be set directly after the first film?
Tommy Wirkola: Actually – yeah [Dead Snow 2 begins] the minute [the first one] ends – with the guy coming through the window. I love the script. The first one was kind of split in two – the classic horror film and then it goes crazy in the second half – but this one is just crazy from the first second. It was really fun writing the script with my friends and I can’t wait to shoot it actually. Hopefully next year. It’s just a film series and universe where we can do whatever we want. We can get away with anything.
What about the American films you’re working on?
Tommy Wirkola: I don’t know. You can’t really say anything. But I’m writing another thing for Paramount and I’m attached to a couple of things. But it’s about getting as many balls in the air as you can and maybe one of them goes. It’s a strange profession. You never know what’s going to happen.
As writer/director on Hansel and Gretel, how do you balance those roles?
Tommy Wirkola: I’ve never experienced not doing that. For me it’s so easy – if there’s a problem, if the actor has a problem, I can just go in and fix it right away. I think it speeds up the process. So I do like it. It’s not really a problem. I’m not that precious. And Jeremy and Gemma always had a lot of good ideas. They’re really good. And also fantastic producers: Adam McKay and those guys are the best in the world when it comes to funny one-liners and zingers. They can give you ten if you wanted. It’s a fun process – all those different voices.
I’m interested how did Adam McKay and Will Ferrell – Gary Sanchez Productions – get involved with this film. Because it does seem out of their wheelhouse to a certain degree…
Tommy Wirkola: It’s because Kevin Messick, who is a producer, saw my film Dead Snow at Sundance and then he contacted my agent and said when this guy comes to LA, I want us to be the first people he meets. So my first meeting, my first day in LA was with those guys and I pitched Hansel and Gretel and they loved it. And they took me to Paramount two days after and we sold it. And for me, of course, it was absurd – I’m such a huge fan of them and Anchorman is brilliant, so I was thrilled by it. What was important from day one, they really understood the movie. They knew I wanted to make it R-rated and they knew what kind of balance I wanted between gore and humor.
How did you approach shooting this movie in 3D?
Tommy Wirkola: We shot half of it in real 3D and they other half was post converted. Actually the 3D thing wasn’t there in the beginning. It was something the studio suggested later on. We embraced it and I think it actually really helps in getting people into this fairy tale world. When you’re doing a film like this and creating a world, it helps immerse [the viewer].
Why only shoot half the movie in real 3D?
Tommy Wirkola: We shot everything we could with a real 3D camera on the set and the back lot – but we didn’t drag them out to the middle of the forest. They’re just too big. It was for practical reasons really. I wanted to shoot everything in real 3D but it was just impossible to. You can’t run with those cameras either. It’s challenging with big rigs. Wherever we could control a set, we used them.
The film does a really nice job intermingling CGI and practical effects…
Tommy Wirkola: I’m a big believer in just using CGI to polish what you get on camera. For me that’s the ideal use of CGI. We have a troll in the film that is animatronic. I loved him. It took some convincing to get the studio along with the animatronic creature. There have been bad experiences with animatronics throughout various productions but I saw this company Spectral Motion. They did the Hellboy movies and I just loved it. I thought somehow it just made sense that this troll should be [animatronic]. It just feels so real and it fits into the world perfectly. And yeah it brings extra challenges. It’s a little more extra work but it’s gold for Gemma to act against a troll. It’s not some tennis ball. It makes a huge difference and I’m so happy with the troll.
Is there any genre besides horror you would like to work in?
Tommy Wirkola: Yeah – I love everything. I don’t see myself doing a really serious drama in the next five to ten years. I don’t feel mature enough for that yet. But I’d like to make a pure action movie one day or maybe I can do a comedy again. I do like everything. But I don’t feel ready for a musical or something like that. That’s not my thing yet.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters opens everywhere this Friday.