A Norwegian director’s zany horror thriller had its genesis at Australia’s Bond University
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has the fairy-tale siblings (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) as grown up, kick-ass bounty hunters who arrive at a medieval town where children are being abducted by – well, you can guess. The movie is fast, short and pretty dumb, but its director, Tommy Wirkola, and producer, Kevin Messick, are smart Hollywood players – their film has done big business in its international opening weekend. Time Out met them in Sydney on the day of the Australian premiere.
You guys have an Australian connection I believe?
Kevin Messick: Yes, I grew up in St Ives [Sydney] when I was 11. I was born in the States but I was here long enough to have a good Aussie accent when I was a kid.
Tommy Wirkola: And I studied media and film at Bond University on the Gold Coast for two and a half years.
How did you end up at Bond Uni?
TW: A friend of mine recommended it but also I come from the very north of Norway, as far north as you can get, a place called Alta. I just wanted to go somewhere warm!
Hansel & Gretel has opened at number one in the States. Congratulations, you must be thrilled.
KM: Not only in the States but in 30 different territories.
TW: Thirty? I thought it was 20.
KM: Twenty different territories.
TW: You keep saying 30.
TW: It opened in 19 territories and went to number one in 18 of them.
What was the genesis of the idea?
TW: I loved fairy tales growing up. I used to listen to them on tapes and Hansel & Gretel scared the hell out of me and it always stayed in the back of my head. I always wondered what happened to those characters.
In film school in Australia we had a pitching class where you have one minute to go up and pitch an idea to the teacher who is pretending to be a Hollywood producer. And I went up and said: “Hansel and Gretel. Fifteen years after the gingerbread incident. They grow up to be witch hunters.” And my teacher, Simon Hunter, said “Tommy, never speak of this idea again until you are in front of a producer and I guarantee you’ll sell it.” So I kept my mouth shut and went back to Norway, made a few movies, and Dead Snow got to Sundance and Kevin saw it.
KM: I was dragged by a buddy of mine to a midnight feature of an unknown Norwegian Nazi zombie movie and I walked out having had a blast. So I got back to LA, where I had just started with Gary Sanchez Productions, and I thought Tommy was the kind of filmaker we should be in business with. So I tracked him down. We were his first meeting. He pitched the idea, we all fell in love with it and we sold it to Paramount.
What were you looking for when casting it?
TW: I saw The Hurt Locker on a plane and was blown away by Jeremy Renner like everyone else. Jeremy’s a funny guy and the Hansel character has a lot of humour. We got him on board really early before he was cast in Mission: Impossible 4 or The Avengers or Bourne. Gemma Arterton I saw in a film called The Disappearance of Alice Creed. She was amazing in it.
There’s a lot of blood and gore and practical effects. What’s it like to direct a film with so much real viscera on the set?
TW: I come from Norway where we can’t afford CGI. But this is a fantastical world of witches and trolls and I wanted to ground the movie where I could. The blood should look real. I love gory movies, there’s no hiding that.
When the guy gets his head flattened by the giant troll – it’s refreshing that you didn’t cut away.
KM: It’s a great audience moment, sure.
TW: That was always the pitch from me – I wanted to make it really R rated [in the US]. They had seen Dead Snow so they knew what I liked. Of course there are some things on the editing room floor that you’ll see on the Blu-ray.
TW: There’s some nasty stuff. There’s a scene where they burst into a witch’s house and there’s a tiny baby hanging on a rope. The baby survives but people were shocked. There’s more gore and more humour in the DVD version as well.
The film’s release was delayed a year. Why?
KM: We’d finished it but we were still discussing adding a coda scene, which we were able to shoot. And there was always the consideration that Jeremy had Avengers and Bourne coming out. So the studio made a wise strategic move in finding a good release date for us. I think they picked wisely. There’s an art to picking release dates. We were really fortunate.
Audiences have embraced the film but critics have been harsher...
KM: We expected that. It’s an easy target! It’s a genre film.
TW: It’s dangerous to put humour in these kinds of films because either you’re going to laugh and love it or hate it.
KM: Some reviews literally checked out at the title. We didn’t even have them at hello.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters screens from Thu Feb 7.