Back in November 2014, I got the opportunity to visit the Pittsburgh set of Breck Eisner’s The Last Witch Hunter. It was absolutely freezing outside so it was quite the treat to get to join Vin Diesel and co. in their slightly warmer shooting location for the day, a coal mine.
Diesel leads the film as Kaulder, a man who was once part of an army of witch hunters. Back in the day, Kaulder managed to slay the Queen Witch, but just before she bit the dust, she cursed him with her own immortality. Now, in modern day, Kaulder’s the last witch hunter left so when the Queen is resurrected, it’s up to him to save the human race.
After a much-needed soup break, I got to take part in a roundtable discussion with Diesel during which he discussed his infectious love of Dungeons and Dragons and how much it influenced this film. You can check out the trailer and the full chat with Diesel below. The Last Witch Hunter is due in theaters nationwide on October 23rd.
Question: At this point it’s pretty safe to say that you have an eye for picking great franchise characters. Can you tell us what grabbed you about this one?
VIN DIESEL: Sure, it’d be my pleasure. I’m gonna go way back. For the 30th anniversary of a game called Dungeons and Dragons, the company at the time had asked me to do a foreword and write the foreword on the cover of the book and I talked about my experience growing up playing Dungeons and Dragons religiously, and I even talked about a character that I had named Melkor, a name that obviously I stole from The Silmarillion, and that character was a witch hunter. About four years ago or three and a half years ago, I met with this writer named Cory Goodman and I think he wrote Priest, he wrote a bunch of great things. We started talking and someone put us together because he was a Dungeons and Dragons player and thought that could be interesting and I guess he went off to write a whole film around my character Melkor, which was a witch hunter.
And just the very fact that I would be playing a witch hunter speaks to how nerdy I was about the game, how committed I was to the game Dungeons and Dragons because what people may not realize is that the witch hunter class wasn’t offered by TSR at the time. It was a character that you could get from a third party book of characters called The Arcanum. And so even if you played Dungeons and Dragons, you couldn’t play a witch hunter because the witch hunter class didn’t exist in Dungeons and Dragons, but I guess that there were these third party books that allowed you to find and become other characters that you were able to incorporate into the game, and there were a few characters that started there that eventually Dungeons and Dragons took over, but one of those characters was a witch hunter. So I play the witch hunter because I was a huge fan of rangers and this was a class that was somewhat like a ranger and had a small spell class called mysticism at the time. [Sighs] Way too much information.
What edition were you playing?
DIESEL: I was playing the second edition. When I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons, I think maybe a thousand people in the world knew what the word “internet” meant. [Laughs] I heard some fact [that] in the late 70s there was only a thousand people in the world that ever heard what internet was. And I say that just to kind of contextualize how far back that experience was for me and how much of a pioneer Gary Gygax was at that time because now we take it for granted and we get to play MMOs online and video games have gone to another level, but at that time when we started playing, we were just a bunch of artists and I was living in an artist community in Manhattan, in downtown Manhattan, so all the kids that I played with were sons of artist and so we had access to all kinds of great material. We would go to the hardware shop, obviously we’d go up to a place called The Complete Strategist on 33rd street or something at the time, and we would go to the hardware store and buy these huge sheets of canvas and we’d slave over creating this world and we created worlds, which you often hear a lot of directors boast about how they can create worlds. Well, there’s no training that you can think of that sets you up better than creating these fantasy-like worlds with just paper. and we’d get old pieces of canvas and we’d treat it and so we would make it look aged and then we’d have these huge maps and we’d be able to delve into this thing. [Sighs] I know, it’s too much.
Okay, so, Cory Goodman went off to write this movie The Last Witch Hunter and was attempting to speak to the D&D character but also attempting to set it in a modern [time], which is kind of fun because we don’t get to think of that. We don’t think of that as even possible, really. How could a D&D-influenced genre live in a Bond-like cinematic world? And that’s what he did. And then about two and a half years ago, they got Breck on because he was a forward thinker in all of this and was very, very ambitious.
And then I was going to do this film in 2012. I had promised my fans on Facebook and the greater world that I would deliver a rated-R Riddick, so I filmed the rated-R Riddick in the beginning of 2012, and then because of the tag we put at the end of Fast and Furious 5 with the photo of Letty that was probably one of my biggest feats in Hollywood was getting that passed through and making that a reality, we quickly had to go to work for Fast and Furious 6. And then when we were doing Fast and Furious 6, I had the studio hire Jason Statham for one day to do a tag ending at the end of 6 that I knew would speak to the audience and excite the audience, and it was wonderful, but in some ways it bounded me to go right back into shooting Fast and Furious 7. So this film was gonna have to wait until last year. And then of course we had the tragedy a year ago from this month of my brother Paul [Walker] and we had to continue shooting until this year, just a few months ago, we had to continue shooting Fast and Furious 7 to make that amazing and an incredible honor. It’s such a fucking great movie. [Laughs] And then because of that experience, I was gonna take a year off and get to this movie in 2015 and then I said to Lionsgate, ‘I’ve been wanting to work with Michael Caine for a long time and if you make that work then we can shoot right now,’ and lo and behold, they stepped up and next thing you know, Michael Caine was ready to shoot now and we began.
The lore is so heavy in this universe. Is there any chance that you might go to your buddies at Dungeons and Dragons or Wizards of the Coast and we might see a role playing table top based on the universe of this movie?
DIESEL: It’s funny that you say that because when you see me in the story meetings, especially regarding films like these, I’m always the guy in the room saying, ‘Okay, just stop for a second and talk to me as though I’m about to play the game.’ [Laughs] ‘Which character would I play and why would I be attracted to that character?’ Yeah, I think that there very easily could be a table top game and I feel like this is just the introduction to the world. I’ll tell you something since you’re here this week and I should give you some fresh stuff, we’re not done shooting the movie and just last week they sent down Cory Goodman again, here, for the whole week, to discuss the next two chapters of this movie. And I thought that’s pretty remarkable, that we haven’t even completed filming and because the studio’s been watching the dailies, they’ve been so excited about this that they’ve commenced on the two follow-up chapters. I thought that was pretty cool.
We were just talking before you came in here about how you guys need to do tie-in graphic novels to fill in the 800 years.
DIESEL: We are doing that. We are doing that. That was one of the first things we wanted to do because there’s such rich story. This character gets to be your guide for the last millennium and in such an interesting way with such an interesting perspective. There’s so much depth to this movie. It’s fun on so many levels and it attempts to bring fantasy into kind of a very familiar modern-day setting.
Looking at the concept art, how your character takes to immortality and how he deals with that situation seems interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DIESEL: Well, it’s interesting that I’d just come off a real life tragedy and to go into a character that’s dealing with loss and simultaneously dealing with a perpetual kind of existence. I think in many ways that this movie is going to be that much more profound because of the time in my life that I filmed this. When I filmed Groot I needed that for another reason, to kind of awaken a death inside of me, to awaken my spirit, and Groot was very therapeutic for that. And in some strange way this film has been therapeutic in its own way because I’ve had to deal with loss throughout filming here because it’s a constant in my character and the uncertainty of the future, that’s one thing. The irony is that an immortal, you would think is very confident or very sure about what the future holds, but it’s the opposite when you really start to think about it because there is no finite ending. There is no end of the road like we’re so accustomed to, so this character starts to think about everything and the cyclical life of everything and the expiration date of a fly or the expiration date of a human or the expiration date of a mountain or anything because he’s seen so many aspects of life rise and fall.
But what’s interesting about playing an immortal character that has 800 years is, like what I was saying before, it gives us an opportunity to follow somebody that we’re familiar with as they recount history. The very title of The Last Witch Hunter is a very strong title because on a fantasy level, you get it and it’s kick-ass, but when you start doing the history and you think about really what a witch hunter is, you know that if you’re committing to a saga like this and if you’re committing to a mythology like this, you know that there is some kind of responsibility that you take on by doing this.
A witch hunter initially was somebody that was an executor of heretics. The very word ‘heretic’ is so open-ended that you really have to think about what you’re playing and you have to think about, like I always do with movies, there’s a script and there’s a plot and there’s a genre, and then there’s something beyond that that makes a movie magic and that makes a movie significant beyond the shots, beyond everything, and it’s something that nobody ever talks about in Hollywood, but it’s some kind of thing inside that translates to the audience when they see the movie. I should think about it someday so I can write about it because nobody talks about it, but there’s a transference of something that happens with a good movie.
DIESEL: It’s beyond the thematic narrative. The thematic narrative is imperative, but there’s something else and I don’t think a lot of people have ever talked about it, but there’s something else that happens inside that projects to the movie, that is projected in the movie and it’s not easy to explain, but it’s something more than what the film is even about. The Fast saga is so much about family but something else is happening.
Just like the emotional connection between humans?
DIESEL: Maybe there’s a universal emotional thing that happens, yeah. It’d be interesting to see someone do a test someday of a movie where they just have that and no narrative, no script, and just see, what is that thing that someone can do inside that projects to an audience or somehow connects to an audience?
It’s something about the likability of characters and being in a world. When you enjoy existing in a world, I feel like that’s what gives people the feeling that they need to experience it over and over.
Like Guardians. A lot of people weren’t even aware of the comics and they instantly were like, ‘This is awesome. This is great!’
DIESEL: Nobody knew. Nobody knew what Guardians was.
We were calling the sentinels evil Groot. That’s what it looked like in the concept art.
DIESEL: [Laughs] Oh, come on! [In Groot’s voice.] ‘Groot would behave!’
You said that your D&D character had a small amount of magical ability. Does that translate into his spiritual successor on film?
DIESEL: Great question, and something we’ve debated. I mean, for anyone that knows D&D, a witch hunter is obviously a hybrid character and I guess if you really map it out, it would be impossible to fight magic without some form of magic, and the great thing about Dungeons and Dragons was that it was able to categorize different forms of magic. So we’ve definitely played with that and attempted to incorporate different levels of it, even for the Michael Caine character. It’s not a full blown priest character, but you have to assume that there’s some things, a bonuses constitution or something, that it comes from years and years of prayer and what have you. So I think as the saga continues, as the mythology unfolds, I think we will see.
Is it more wizard or more sorcerer? I’m sorry I’m asking the nerdiest D&D question.
DIESEL: No, no, he would have more of a mysticism spell base because the people that he’s fighting are the ones employing sorcery and necromancy and all those things, and so his would be kind of more – when I think of mysticism, I think of more of a spiritual-based power.
Shamanistic kind of?
DIESEL: Kind of shamanistic.
Almost like Constantine where he has some abilities and can use them to fight the evil.
What is his style in this movie? Are there certain things that your character can do that the others can’t to dispel the witches?
DIESEL: Yeah, because my character is the only one. My character is the only witch hunter, the last witch hunter, without giving away the end. The title will play very much into the ending. But he’s a bounty hunter that has lived forever and has learned every fighting style and has been able to pick up things from combating these witch lords. Another thing that we’ll see in the future. We’ll see the different escapades of Kaulder fighting witch lords in different continents.
We have a burning question.
DIESEL: Uh oh. Okay! It’s burning a hole in my pocket.
How did he kill the witch queen in Antarctica? They said there’s one on every continent, so there’s one in Antarctica. How did he get there to take her out?
DIESEL: A cup of soup? I don’t know! Good question.
So is he like level 20 or has he gone into prestige classes?
DIESEL: He’s a bad motherfucker. My god. How many level 20s have you played?
We only played one and it was so that we could go take on the huge dragons and other things. We died anyway.
DIESEL: There was a campaign when Deities and Demigods first came out where we attempted to build our characters to such insane power so we could walk into Asgard and just beat the fuck out of everybody.
It doesn’t work.
DIESEL: [Laughs] It never works. You think you want it and then after about three weeks of playing that you’re just like, ‘Umm, let me go back to my second level.’
Do you only play D&D or do you ever play any of the other table tops like Shadow Run or White Wolf?
DIESEL: There were war games that you played obviously and Gary Gygax would play war games a lot where he got the point system and the die system was really influenced by the war games that parents were playing initially where they were reenacting WWII. He’s an interesting guy. Obviously he passed away, but he wanted me to tell this story, which was so surreal. So fucking surreal. It was like this was a God at the time and asking me, ‘How do you know me?’ Man, I wish I could tell you more shit!
You have to come back and tell us camping stories, like D&D nonsense.
If you ever make the game version of this movie, maybe I’ll try it.
DIESEL: It’s hard right now in the face of technology. You can tell that Gary Gygax was kind of fighting the wave of technology because that’s something that you’ll never get again because when we played you never had that option. You could never just take on an MMO. You could never download an MMO, so it was it. If there were humans that you knew that were willing to commit to going into this fantasy world, it was just priceless. I mean, I used to ride on my bike when I was 15, I grew up on the west side of downtown New York, and in the middle of the night I would ride to pick up my friend just so he would D&D me, just because he didn’t want to walk home and he was on the other side of a bar called Holiday, which was on St. Marks, and I’d ride my bike at like midnight just to go put him on my handlebars and bring him back to D&D me. And I was like, ‘When I’m rich, [in a deep, creepy voice] I’ll pay you!’ And he’d say to me, ‘Well Vin, what would you want in return,’ and I said [in that same voice], ‘Everything.’
You can check out more of my Last Witch Hunter set visit coverage using the links below:
- ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ Set Visit Interview: Breck Eisner on Dark Magic and Witch Prison
- ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ Set Visit Interview: Mark Canton on Developing an Original IP