As a critic, I obviously see a lot of movies, and a drawback to that is I sometimes suffer from a certain fatigue of PG-13 acceptable cinema. Aiming to get as wide an audience as possible, studios try to make so-called "edgy" movies that won't rile the MPAA into an R-rating that could hurt commercial appeal. Look at almost every superhero movie, and even Fast& Furious 6. Of course, you don't need an R-rating to make a great or deeply thrilling movie (again, look at Fast & Furious 6). Still, there's a special illicit joy I feel when watching a movie that proudly proclaims, "This is for adults only, FUCK yeah!"
This bawdy boldness was just one of the reasons I enjoyed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Written and directed by Norwegian horror auteur Tommy Wirkola, this R-rated horror-comedy took the fairy tale we knew as kids and made it something so dark and demented it's just for adults. Having escaped the cannibalistic witch and her candy house, brother-sister team Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) make it their life's work to track down and destroy every witch they can find. While the critic community of which I am a part largely sneered at this pic, audiences turned out worldwide to the tune of $225 million, spurring plans for a sequel.
As one of the film's fans/defenders, I was eager to revisit it on Blu-ray, and talk with the flick's producer Adam McKay, who also happens to be Will Ferrell's partner in Gary Sanchez Productions. In a phone interview, he and I discussed how Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters came together, what's in store for its sequel, and how this midnight movie might be remembered.
Adam, I got to start off by telling you I really love this movie.
Adam McKay: Isn't it fun, man? It's a blast.
It really is! In my review, I described it as "the honey badger of movies" because this movie doesn't give a shit if you get it or not. It just does what it's doing.
(Adam laughs hard.)
What drew you and Gary Sanchez Productions to this project?
You know it was really just Tommy Wirkola. After we saw Dead Snow—one of our producers Kevin Messick turned us on to the movie—we brought Tommy in (for a meeting). Kevin really found this project from the beginning, and then I sat down with Tommy. The second I heard the premise (for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) and having seen his work before, and knowing how he was going to filter that premise, it was immediately one of the more exciting ideas I had heard. And then Tommy let us look at the first draft. And Will and I thought it was one of the best first drafts we'd ever read in our producing career. So, yeah. It was really Tommy.
Tommy is just a pure, pure film-lover sort in that same category as Quentin Tarantino and Sam Raimi and those types of guys who just love movies and the fun of movies, and have just nurtured their 12-year-old self and not let it slip away, always remembering what kind of knocks you back in your seat when you're 11 or 12 years old. So that was it. We kind of followed his lead. And then Adam Goodman over here at Paramount was perceptive enough to see the same thing and got behind it as well.
Yeah, there's definitely an element in this movie of taking things that got us excited as kids—like fairy tales—and then knocking it up a few notches to make it just for adults.
Exactly, exactly. That darkness to it was also the trickiest element of the movie too, because there is a constant balancing act. Because obviously Tommy—if you've seen Dead Snow you know—can go pretty far. So we were always trying to find that line where we could play but it still kept its edge and kind of walking on the razor's edge with that. But you know ultimately, what Tommy ended up doing was even more than we had hoped for, making a movie that would play for like the whole world, which was so cool. Well, not the whole world, but a chunk of the world let's say.
There was a report at one point claiming that a PG-13 rated version of the film was screened for test audiences. Is that true?
No. We never did that. We did a version where we cut out all the unnecessary violence cursing to kind of see what a stripped down version would look like, a kind of cleaner version. But we never did a PG-13 (cut). I always give Adam Goodman a lot of credit here at Paramount. He made that promise (to commit to R); he stuck with it and that's how he's got the allegiance of Tommy Wirkola now. Because a lot of people would have seen dollar signs and said, "forget it, we're going PG-13." But the promise was made. He stuck with it, and I actually think because he stuck with it, the movie ended up being better than it would have been had we stripped it clean.
What's your favorite part of the movie?
I love details. That's probably what we all love about movies, but I love the things like the fact that Hansel is diabetic, the missing children (flyers) on the milk bottles, I even love the nose Band-Aid the sheriff's wearing that's sort of oddly strapped around his face, and the weapons and how specific the weapons are. Probably my favorite scene is the stone circle when all the witches show up because you get to see Wirkola's imagination on full display and all these specific witches he designed. And when they are all flying and landing, that specific moment in the stone circle where all the witches arrive I love just visually how they all look and how specific they are.
The witch designs are stupendous. How did they come about?
That was Tommy and our designer (Ulrich Zeidler) collaborating very closely. And he put together an amazing crew. I mean I was really floored by what these people did. You see these certain directors that have that ability. Obviously, Tommy is very new, so to compare him to any big names seems not right. But I feel like (Guillermo) del Toro does it too, where you see this very specific look to what he does. And I think Wirkola is going to end up, in the long run, proving to have the same ability.
This movie didn't get a lot of critical love, but it did really well in the box office, especially in the international market. And there's a sequel in the works. What do you think will be Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunter's legacy, like 10 or 20 years from now?
You know I think the reason it got bashed critically, which we all sort of predicted when it was coming out, was because it had the misfortune of (opening) after a long line of fairy tale movies, and some of them actually didn't do so well. So it from outside it looked like it was a cynical money-grab from a studio going, "Let's do another one of those!" When in truth, the real development of it was that it was being developed well before any of those projects. So, coming into the release we knew we were going to get bashed critically. We were fine with it though. We stood by it and how fun it was.
I think the legacy will be really good on it. I think it's going to prove to be one of the funnest and most enjoyable of all these fairy tale adaptations that came out, if not the most fun. I think it will play great once it hits television regularly. You're going to see a lot of people latch on it and comments like "I didn't know this was this good!" So, I sort took the critical reviews as almost kind of lazy, when they said it wasn't any good. It's just from a distance you could tell certain critics were just going to write it off immediately. But the real fans, people like yourself, who were actually watching the movie, you could see the hand of an original filmmaker behind it with a great sense of humor. So we were most excited to see the true fans really get that part of it. And for the second one we'll get to elevate those elements even more, which will be exciting for us.
Speaking of the second movie, are Gemma and Jeremy signed on for the sequel?
I don't think deals, and dates and schedules have been done. In fact, I'm positive that hasn't been done. But there have been early discussions, and both of them loved working with Tommy. So, you know, Jeremy and Gemma are both very busy actors and we're just starting on the script right now. So, everything is in its early stages. But I know they had the best time doing the movie and really loved the way it played worldwide. Everyone feels like as good as the first one is, we can really jack it up a level with the second one. So, fingers crossed everyone will come back.
What might fans expect from Hansel and Gretel's next adventure?
Well, I'm not going to tell you specifically. I know what the storyline is but I will say—I'll give one hint. Think of different kinds of witchcraft.
Yeah. That's your hint.
I don't know what to do with that! Um…Can you talk about why it took so long for this movie to come out?
It was a series of kind of odd things that we bumped into. A lot of it had to do with release schedules. A lot of it had to do with because Tommy was a first time director (in the US), because we're a production company that hasn't done movies like this (before), there was just a long period of gestation at the studio before they pulled the green light trigger. So that took a while. Then, once it was shot, it kept running into bad release dates against giant movies. Then, there was also a belief that once we'd missed a bunch of release dates it seemed like Jeremy Renner was really about to pop as a big star. So the feeling was that, "Well why don't we put it out after the Bourne movie and after Avengers, too?" So, that delayed it even further. Every delay was a smart delay on the studio's part. It was all very good strategy as far as getting the best play out of the movie, but as it was all happening we all said, "Oh this means we're going to get critically beaten up." Well we all kind of agreed who cares? Let the movie play as the movie plays.
Can you talk a little bit about what the inspirations were for this movie?
Tommy and I talked a lot and we both love a lot of the same films. He was definitely inspired by the Sam Raimi movies, you know Army of Darkness, Evil Dead II, and the kind of sense of humor you see in (those). Also John Carpenter's movies, which we all love. A little bit of Assault on Precinct 13, a little bit of They Live in there. And then on the more darker badass side, we're all hugely influenced by the first Matrix—obviously a really big one—also the Bourne Supremacy movies and the way Oliver Wood shot those. You kind of throw in all those, mix 'em up in a pot and that's what you get. And also you've got Tommy's Norwegian, small town filter that he has in there as well. Indiana Jones I know is a big influence for him as well. He's a big Heavy Metal fan as well so even though I don't think we play a Metallica song in the movie, Metallica kept being played while we were making and working on the movie. So that sound kind of inspired it.
Well, thank you so much for your time. I'm excited for the next one; I really like this one. I watched the Blu-ray twice already.
I love it! It's so great to talk to someone who really enjoyed it like that.
Oh, I can tell you I went to see it with three other bloggers on opening day because we had a hard time getting a screening for it. Most of us had a blast and so did the audience we saw it with. So there's some of us (critics who enjoyed it) out there.
Yeah! Well, it played like gangbusters! It kept playing and playing in all the different countries. So the people in the seats definitely. Like I said, the critical response was very predictable. I mean we knew it was coming in kind of a lazy way so we didn't really care too much. And the second one's really going to frame it I think. That's going to be the fun thing.
Now that people know what the setup is, it'll be a little easier to jump in?
Yeah you can get over the premise now. Exactly. Now it's just going to be about the execution of the film, which that's where Tommy really really excels. So I can't wait to see the thing start shooting.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters will hit Blu-ray and DVD on June 11. You can pre-order an Unrated copy of the movie over at Amazon, now.