Norwegian helmer Tommy Wirkola grabbed our attention a few years back when IFC imported his gory love letter to Sam Raimi-like carnage, Dead Snow, which concerned the rise of Nazi zombies who proceeded to tear up a group of vacationers.
This week, he makes his U.S. debut with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a film that features its fare share of bloodshed and enthusiasm that is tantamount to the energy Wirkola brought to Dead Snow.
ShockTillYouDrop.com caught up to Wirkola – slightly drained from a very long flight – in Beverly Hills where he talked to us about retaining his vision for Hansel & Gretel, right down to the practical FX. We also touched on his first Hollywood experience, how Will Ferrell’s company got the project moving, the film’s delay, the actress from Cold Prey who makes an appearance, Dead Snow 2 and the comedy he produced You Said What?
Shock Till You Drop: After Dead Snow, were you instantly courted by American producers or did you come to Los Angeles and pound the pavement looking for projects on your own?
Tommy Wirkola: It was more like the latter, but Kevin Messick, who works for Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, he had seen Dead Snow at Sundance. He asked my agent to make sure they were the first people I met when I came here. My first meeting, my first day was with those guys and I pitched Hansel and Gretel to them and they took me to Paramount the day after. A lot of people saw Dead Snow and liked it, but it wasn’t like studios were coming to me with projects.
Shock: With McKay’s team in your court as well as Paramount, I’m sure casting wasn’t too difficult, but was there anyone else you had in mind early on before you landed Renner and Arterton?
Wirkola: Jeremy we got pretty early. Once I finished writing the script, on the plane ride to L.A., I had seen The Hurt Locker. When I landed, I said we’ve got to get Renner. He got the script and it was pretty fast, he really responded to it. I think he responded to the humor of it. From then on, it was about finding Gretel and we read a lot of girls and a lot of girls wouldn’t do it. I had seen Gemma in Prince of Persia and she wasn’t someone we had discussed. But then I saw The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which I thought was amazing. She’s so good. I flew to London and read with her. At the same time, we had to keep in mind we were casting a brother and sister so we had to make sure she got along with Jeremy. They met and got along great.
Shock: Was the experience leaping into a Hollywood production different than you expect?
Wirkola: Yeah, parts of it. It’s so big and so much money involved and so many people involved. The pre-production and shooting went very smooth, but the post-production was very new to me and how they do things here with testing and the studio. It was challenging at first, but luckily we had fantastic producers and knew what kind of movie it should be. Before I went off to shoot in Germany, they said ‘Tommy, go crazy, that’s why we’re doing this movie.’ It was also strange to have so many opinions and the test screening phase was something I didn’t expect. But in the end we wound up with a movie everybody was happy with.
Shock: Was it a tricky balance to find the tone of the film?
Wirkola: It was and they obviously liked what I did with Dead Snow – combing laughs with horror – but this is a little different. Hansel & Gretel is a little more grounded. Dead Snow is my love letter to [Sam] Raimi and this is kind of its own thing. In the beginning, they said go crazy. But if you go too far with the humor, it becomes spoofy and loses its impact. Too gory and it just takes you out of it. In the end, we found a good place.
Shock: You have a practical creature character named “Edward” – played by Derek Mears. Classic man-in-suit role. Did you have to fight against any push to create him entirely CG?
Wirkola: Yeah, and to be honest, there were some skeptical voices about using an animatronic troll because animatronics don’t have the best reputation. But I just love what Guillermo del Toro did with Hellboy and that’s the feeling we wanted. We used the same company he did and Derek performed as Edward. For this film, it fit perfectly. You do a movie about witches and trolls, a fantastical world, it’s important for me to ground it with some real elements. So the action was one way and the prosthetics and trolls were another and not have it go too far into the fantastical world.
Shock: How did you come to your creative decision with the witches, because you have all sorts of depictions to choose from or be inspired by?
Wirkola: I had something in mind. I really reinvent them as villains and not go the classical route. That was the most fun was finding their look and sound. For the main witches, we found one animal to represent all of them, like Muriel [Famke Janssen] is a wolf. It just helped us find the witches. In some ways, it feels like they’re the spawn of the dark places of nature. It should feel animalistic.
Shock: There’s one witch who looked familiar, the one with the horns…
Wirkola: That’s Ingrid Bolso Berdal from Cold Prey.
Shock: Ah, I thought so!
Wirkola: Her eyes are piercing. There are a lot of Norwegians in the film. Minor parts, but I knew I could get great actors in small parts and Ingrid has a great physicality.
Shock: How did you decide on casting Famke?
Wirkola: I’ve been a fan of hers since Goldeneye, and I think every boy had a crush on her after that. It was tough to find someone who wouldn’t take it too far. I think she could really pull it off. She’s sexy and dangerous and has great physicality. You feel she can break Jeremy Renner’s jaw, but in the end, she pulled it off.
Shock: What were your thoughts on the release date push?
Wirkola: Well, there were a lot of rumors about why it was pushed and the main reason is because they wanted to wait on Jeremy. He was cast before Mission: Impossible, Bourne and The Avengers. They wanted to wait until after those. I was, of course, disappointed then, but actually it helped because we came in under budget. Ever since we wrapped, I’ve been nagging the studio about putting in a scene that I had to cut from the script. When we postponed, the scene you see at the very end is something we got to shoot and put back. In the end, I’m happy about that. I was annoyed by the push, but Paramount was right.
Shock: There was a comedy you produced that I saw at Fantastic Fest called ‘You Said What?’…
Wirkola: That had a really bad time in its release in Norway because it happened the week of those shootings we had so it just disappeared. It had a tough destiny.