That time I descended into the bowels of hell (Pittsburgh) on the set of 'The Last Witch Hunter'
Visiting a movie set is always an adventure into the unknown. Will you be on a sound stage or oudoors? On location or in the comfort of a climate controlled warehouse? In the case of Lionsgate’s “The Last Witch Hunter” last November, the answer was weirdly…“yes.”
It was a cold day in Pittsburgh when the publicist herded us onto the bus to see Breck Eisner’s vision for a world of witches and those who hunt them. I’d been told to dress for the weather and be prepared for a long day, none of which sounded appealing. Who wants to be outside for twelve hours in sub-freezing temperature?
No one. Driving through a Pittsburgh forest stripped bare for the winter, Lionsgate had other plans. We were about to enter the literal underground world of “The Last Witch Hunter.” Pittsburgh is rich with abandoned limestone mines like the one converted by Wampum Underground. For a small fee, boat owners can winterize their vessel in a naturally climate-controlled environment that just happens to look like a place where Vault Dwellers would emerge from in the aftereffects of nuclear fallout.
Wampum Underground was massive. Our bus was able to drive straight in and down two levels where an office building sprung from the hewed rock. It was disconcerting to say the least, walking across a huge cave and through glass doors to a reception area that could be any reception area across America. It was even more disconcerting when the nice receptionist told us to load up into a glorified golf cart to head down to the set and I realized we were literally under ton of rock carved out a century ago.
The upper level of Wampum was a pristine white to detract from the reality of being underground. The lower levels where “The Last Witch Hunter” had set up shop? Not so much. The electrical lighting and paved roads gave way to sporadic standing lamps and actual caverns. Trailers and tents had paths lit by glow sticks, while craft services was a rat’s nest of power cables and extension cords. As we traveled deeper, the temperature dropped significantly and it wasn’t just to due to eerie prop animal bones strewn about haphazardly. Different tunnels disappeared into the darkness, labeled as “streets.” A perfect opportunity for both a photo op and to capture how freakin’ creepy it was down there. Pitch blackness waited just outside the lights to devour any journalist unwary of their footing.
Lionsgate set us up in a tent to watch filming and have easy access to the crew for interviews. Our concerns about a soft “thud” on the roof of the tent were explained away as rocks falling.
Between takes of Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, and Joseph Gilgun reacting to things in the darkness that would be added in post-production, Justin Rawlins of Fractured Effects Make-Up to discuss the inspiration and logistics of creating witch lore from the ground up.
“When I first started meeting with [director Breck Eisner,] he basically had a wall of what not to do. It was all these different witches you've seen throughout movies. He didn't want to do anything remotely like what people have seen before. What he wanted was something very organic and felt like if you look at the concept art. It feels like the nest that they live in is almost camouflaged to their environment. That was our goal from day one. The organic surrealism of Polish artist Zdzis?aw Beksi?ski was a huge inspiration.”
Once a look was settled on, it was up to Rawlins and his team to take the witch designs and make them work within the physical limitations of reality. After all, something that looks amazing on the page can fall apart quickly once it becomes three-dimensional. Rawlins discussed the full body costume he created for the Witch Queen:
“[The Witch] Queen [is] almost completely practical. She may have some augmentations during one of her sequences. She always has flies and things that are flying around her, so that type of visual effect will be added in. But her skin and her body is practical. It's a full foam rubber suit and has eight appliances for her face. It's about a five hour make-up application. [The suit is] designed in a way that her joints are free. She has full function even though there's prosthetic in-between.”
[Check this space later for a link to the full interview with Justin Rawlins!]