On the silver screen, Vin Diesel’s immortal. First in the Fast & Furious franchise, where for almost 15 years he’s dodged bullets and jumped from moving cars like a Greek demigod with a driving license. In The Last Witch Hunter, his latest opus, Diesel plays Kaulder, an immortal warrior who keeps the peace in a secret world of black magic and necromancy – a world that co-exists with our own daily grind of coffee shops and noisy commutes.
In person, Vin Diesel’s absorbing the impact of a whistle-stop press tour that has taken in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and now London, which is where we find the Hollywood star reclining on a coolly modernist sofa.
“No rest for the wicked,” Diesel says in his luxuriously low voice, which switches registers from a soft whisper to an excitable hum as he talks enthusiastically about his latest venture. So as The Last Witch Hunter opens in the UK, here’s the star himself to tell is how this action fantasy has its roots in his geeky love of Dungeons & Dragons, the inclusive spirit that drives the Fast & Furious franchise, and why his new movie absolutely, positively had to have Michael Caine in a supporting role…
When did you arrive in London?
Wow. Where were you before that?
New York. Miami. I did LA. It’s been a bit crazy, but it’s been exciting. The best part is, you slave to make a movie, and then finally you get to talk to a mortal that’s SEEN THE MOVIE! It’s like [mimics somebody horrendously out of breath] TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF IT! YOU MUST!
I really enjoyed it.
[In mock desperation] Why?
I loved the production design and the world-building.
Wow. [Nods appreciatively]
It looked spectacular. I understand you got quite involved in all of that.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I did. I mean… [thoughtfully] pfff….
It started with Dungeons & Dragons, I understand.
I think it did. In 2005 I was on Conan O’Brien, and he pulled out this coffee table book. 30 Years Of Adventure. Wow. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons. I was asked to write the foreword when they found out I was this huge Dungeons & Dragons player – it was a huge part of my life. So I wrote the foreword.
And in the foreword, I talk about a character that I play called Melkor; obviously I stole the name from Tolkien. Um, and he was a witch hunter. What I didn’t remember was, Dungeons & Dragons didn’t even offer the class – it was a third-party set of books that I took the class from. We were so into it, we’d take Dragon Magazine, which was a publication Gary Gygax was a part of, and we’d sift through it to get the monsters and new combat tables and classes sometimes as well, because there was a set of books called The Arcanum, and that’s where I stole the witch hunter. But I played a witch hunter in our Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I was on Conan O’Brien and he pulled out the book and said, “Hey, what class did you play?” And I said, “I played the witch hunter.”
I say that because you never know what influences writers. Five years ago, I had a meeting with Corey Goodman, the original writer of this, and a fellow player can’t help but geek out with me over Dungeons & Dragons. It’s like, validation time. Like, Mr Cool was also the D&D geek? Wow.A few months after that meeting, I got this script. And the interesting thing is, it was about a witch hunter. I thought, “Wow, that’s surreal. Imagine doing a $100m movie based around a character I played in a tabletop game!”
But you’re from Den Of Geek. Here’s a point for you guys: my character was a Half-Drow. And I say that because the queen witch in our movie, the writer just told me a few months ago, was inspired by Drow, which is why she talks about humans being trespassers, which is why she alludes to being of an ancient race. A race that existed before man.
There are probably multiple ways that the script is influenced – both the protagonist and the antagonist – by the character I played as a teenager in Dungeons & Dragons.
I think a different version of this film could have been a lot darker and nastier. What I liked was that it’s good-natured and inclusive.
It’s interesting that you say that. First of all, there are a lot of people who see the movie and refuse to categorise it by an existing genre. I don’t know why I’m saying this, but I feel like it’s a new genre. [sighs]
I guess we were attempting to create a character who’s amiable as he’s capable of being. And he’s probably significant for me in terms of my life, because in 2014 I was obviously going through a very dark time, mourning the loss of a brother. A cinematic brother. And quite often, finding myself trying to mask that; masking it at home in front of my kids, masking it for the public.
In some ways, Kaulder’s doing the same thing. He’s masking, as we see, as we uncover. He’s masking this sorrow and this pain. Which means maybe 2014 was the best year to play this character. [Smiles wanly]
Do you think that’s why the Fast & Furious franchise has done so well, because it has that warmth and inclusivity? People think it’s just about cars crashing, but actually it’s about family and people from different backgrounds pulling together.
Yeah, sure, sure. When I came on as a producer, I had big ideas. One of them was elevating the multi-culturalism of the movie. Do you remember the first movie? It was still a multi-ethnic movie, but it was done in a West Side Story way.
Yeah, it was like West Side Story.
It wasn’t what it became after the fourth one, when I started producing. The sense of family didn’t span across it. Old stereotypes. That’s something that I’m the most proud of in terms of the Fast & Furious franchise, because I think one of the reasons it’s so successful is that you can be anywhere in the world and look up at that screen and feel like there’s a place at the family table for you.
One of the best cinema experiences I’ve had was watching [Fast Five] in a packed theatre. So many people from different backgrounds and ages and everything, and we all laughed and gasped…
Together. Yeah. There’s a sense of unity about it that’s refreshing, and refreshing for Hollywood. I remember after the fifth one, there was a popular radio station in New York that called the Fast franchise the most progressive force in the world because of that very thing.
Do you think some of that same spirit runs through The Last Witch Hunter as well?
Yes. The Last Witch Hunter… I guess the title could be misleading? Because it’s kind of a polarising profession. And I think The Last Witch Hunter will work best with its multiple chapters. If you were to think about it in biblical terms, you might refer to something like the road to Damascus, and you might think of the sequel to this movie as being about St Paul rather than this movie’s Saul. Do you see where that’s going?
So he persecuted Christians and then he converted to the faith.
Yeah. You can see that theme running through this. It’s hard to mention witches without evoking our knowledge of the last thousand years. Evoking the concept of what a heretic is, how we’ve…
Yeah. So there’s something really refreshing to take something that could be considered ugly like witch hunting… and I chose a witch hunter in Dungeons & Dragons purely because I liked hybrids. And before there was that third-party book, I liked the idea of playing – not a Palladin, because I was never holy, but I would’ve played a Ranger. Anyone who played Dungeons & Dragons would know that a Ranger uses both a combat table and a spell table.
But if you’re at all conscious of the history, and you do a film like The Last Witch Hunter, you have to be responsible and show the evolution of the character, and the idea that the Rose Leslie character, the Dream Walker, is instrumental in awakening Kaulder. As we talked about [before], it’s the road to Damascus. It’s fascinating.
This is an original film, not based on an existing book or franchise. I know you worked hard to get Riddick made. So was it as difficult to get this one going?
This was different. This wasn’t the same as Riddick, because Riddick was a property that was owned by Universal, and called for some very clever bartering to get them to release it. And then to answer what the overwhelming request from the Facebook fans was, which was, “Please give us a Riddick rated R”. The first one, Pitch Black, was rated R. That became a very tricky thing to do. You’ve read all the stories about me putting my house up to make that.
This was a studio that was very excited about making The Last Witch Hunter, and yet because they were coming into my realm, of fantasy, my standards were so high. I’ve been waiting 10, 15 years to make a fantasy movie. Even longer. Trying to find something in the fantasy space that would be exciting, something that I could do that would speak to that Dungeons & Dragons nerd that I enjoyed being for so much of my life.
Because the standards were so high, I don’t know if it made it harder for me, but it might have made it harder for them [the studio]. They had to get Elijah Wood. They had to get Rose Leslie. And then most importantly, they had to get Michael Caine.
When I said we had to get Michael Caine, they said, “Well, we’ll have to adjust the role.” I said, “Adjust the role.” “Well…”
“Guys, I’ve always said we have to get Michael Caine in this.”
They were at a point where if they didn’t have Michael Caine, they weren’t going to have a movie. And now Lionsgate’s going to have a franchise. So if I were to compare this to Riddick, I’d say Riddick was harder for me to make, to make an R-rated Riddick, and then The Last Witch Hunter, again because they were coming into the fantasy realm, that burden of acquiring the Holy Grail fell on Lionsgate.
With that, our time is sadly up. Vin Diesel, thank you very much.
The Last Witch Hunter is out in UK cinemas on the 21st October.
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