Reader report from the set of Hansel & Gretel : Witch Hunters

hansel3

‘Benjamin’ tells us he visited the set of “Hansel & Gretel : Witch Hunters” in Germany this week.

The Tommy Wirkola directed film goes a bit like this : Hansel & Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, respectively) hear there’s been quite a few witch sightings in – largely the forests of – their home town of Augsburg, so head back there to hunt and, if necessary, kill whatever they can spot.

Augsburg, it seems, burned at the stake many, many witches in it’s time – some of whom never confessed or were never proven to be anything other than local townspeople. Upon arrival, Hansel & Gretel catch the town sheriff trying to execute another potentially innocent woman.

With guide Jackson (who knows the woods better than anyone, naturally), our skilled hunters stalk the forests of Augsburg in search of kid-nabbing witches, led by the evil Muriel (Famke Janssen).

Here’s Benjamin’s report :

I – The Location

Very few details were known to the people of Brunswick (Lower Saxony, Germany) when Paramount Pictures and their production crews started building up a medieval marketplace on Thursday March 29th 2011 right in the heart of Brunswick – the castle square and Münzstraße. Above stands the castle Dankwarderode with its impressive lion statuette, built in 1160 by Heinrich the Lion. Adjacent to the castle square and connected with the castle itself is the Brunswick dome built in 1173, the most important church in the city.

Because of its setting, the round-shaped castle square is a very popular place for festivities and events such as the much loved annual Open-Air-Opera presentations, a real medieval marketplace in May and the Christmas market.

II – Preparations on Thursday, March 29th 2011

Without any barriers or exclusion zones for pedestrians, German and American production crews meticulously started to prepare and build something that looked like the annual Brunswick medieval market – and most citizens actually thought that to be the case so little notice was given to the preparations.

The crews started around 5am on Thursday and within just a few hours, a 38m x 34m (124ft x 111ft) area on the Münzstraße, aside the castle, was transformed into the 12th century with very detailed weaponry, pottery, tents, fruits, vegetables and a notice board with a missing child note supposedly relevant to the plot. On the castle square itself, a funeral pyre for a witch burning was piled up.

According to a member of the production crew, Brunswick (which is “Braunschweig” in German) was chosen as a location because Paramount was looking for the ideal medieval castle surrounding which they couldn’t find in Saxony but right here. Furthermore, Brunswick is still relatively close to Berlin where the film is shot in Babelsberg Studios.

III – Preparations on Wednesday, March 30th 2011

Wednesday morning, preparations for the filming began at 9am with the closing of one of the busiest bus lanes in Brunswick – the Münzstraße. 95 meters (311 ft) of film set were closed off for pedestrians and cars which were directed around the exclusion zone. A total of nine bus lines had to be re-routed around the pedestrian zone of the city.

Around 11am, the tall lighting cranes were tested and provided a stunning view from afar.

The area on and around castle square was getting busier and busier with huge Hertz and Avis Trucks unloading the sheer unbelievable amount of filming equipment. Now, Paramount had the undivided attention of the Brunswick population on their way to work, strolls and their shopping trips. According to local newspaper information, the filming was scheduled to take place between 2pm and 7pm and the exclusion zone to be in place until 4.30am the following day.

At around 1.30pm some 230 extras arrived in full costume and ready for action. They were first called onto the set for filming at 2.48pm but went in and out for the next 15 minutes. Due to the exclusion zone very little could be seen of the actual filming on the marketplace set but when I returned to the set at 5.30pm, preparations for the witch burning scene were in full swing on the castle square which had been encircled by barriers.

Still, one could get a very good and close look at Hollywood in Brunswick. A crew member was tied to the funeral pyre to adjust settings for the puppet that was put in place a few minutes later. The local fire department was always present to monitor everything. At 5.50pm, the production crew asked the interested public to move away from certain access points and closed them off as well.

IV – Filming of the witch burning

With the sun slowly setting above Brunswick at 7pm, the film crew seemed to wait for the right lighting conditions to make the fire look good. A “powermoon” lighting balloon was filled with helium and taken to the darkening sky above castle square, so were two lighting cranes with two spotlights each. The barriers were widened so that people coming from the pedestrian zone could just squeeze through.

The only place to get a glimpse of the spectacle was a small 25 meter area (82 ft) right by the Brunswick dome and some 60-80 citizens tried to do so. Their view was mostly blocked by production trucks, tents and equipment. I quickly secured myself a spot on the balustrade of a shop window so that I could see the stake for the burning of the witch.

 

The sun had set at 7.48pm but still nothing was happening. The extras were standing around the stake for quite some time now and it was getting cold. When it suddenly started to drizzle at around 8.20pm the production team had to speed things up to avoid aborting the entire scene because of weather conditions. They wouldn´t get another day of shooting.

At 8.50pm, the puppet witch finally burned for the first time.

It was quickly extinguished and burned again a few minutes later – then, a third and fourth time with director Tommy Wirkola shouting “Action” and “Cut” each time. Sometime between the first two takes, actors Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton must have entered the set. It wasn´t until the sixth take that the extras began shouting their lines – “Burn witch! Burn!”.

Most of the citizens left around 9pm but the castle square was still illuminated and smoke rose above the historic place. Paramount had done a good job keeping the public away from the action as it happened so catching a glimpse of the leading actors was indeed impossible.

After filming was complete, the production crew did their best to clear the location for daily traffic and on Thursday morning, all was clear as if nothing had happened.

- Benjamin

Update! : There’s better pics from the set here!