Okay, that’s not normally the way we would kick off an interview, but Warwick Davis, star of Willow and an actor in countless other sci-fi and fantasy franchises ( Harry Potter , Star Wars, Leprechaun , Merlin and – soon – Doctor Who , to name a few) has thrown down a challenge. He’s been interviewed about Willow about a thousand times over the years, and today, as he promotes the Blu-ray release ( reviewed here ) – some 25 years after its theatrical release – he tells us, “I’ve been talking Willow for a couple of hours now already.”
“Ah,” we respond, “we’ll try not to bore to with the same old questions.”
“The bar has been raised very high,” he says, “because you’re the last interview of the day…”
“Okay… erm, how about, ‘Did you never want to see another pig in your life after making Willow?”
“Good work. You’ve hit the jackpot,” he laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question, so well done.”
We would take pride in the fact, except that… well, why would anyone else ever have wanted to ask Warwick Davis that? After all, Willow was film written by George Lucas, directed by Ron Howard, co-starring Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley; it has magic and dragons and brownies and witches; it has stunts and action and the first instance of CG morphing in cinema history. All that to talk about, and SFX kicks off with pigs.
“Um, there were a lot of pigs,” agrees a surprisingly game Davis. “Real pigs. Prosthetic pigs. Half pig people. Big pigs, little pigs. Actually quite frisky pigs at times as well. Something about the night air, or something, they got a bit frisky. Lots of unusable shots.”
“Yeah, there were a lot of animals in the film,” he carries on. “What have we got? The pigs. Horses. Goats. You see a tortoise, briefly. Some possums. A two-headed dragon, if that counts. Death dogs. Birds. They say never work with children and animals, and I was more a less a kid, I was working with a kid and there were an awful lot of animals.”
But for the then 17 year-old Davis it was just one big opportunity of a lifetime.
“It was a challenging project, yeah, but one I took on whole-heartedly. It was a great opportunity and I had the most amazing team there along for the ride with me, in the form of Ron Howard, George Lucas, Val Kilmer. These were all great people who were integral to me being a success in that film. It was an adventure making the film as well as the story being an adventure.”
At the time it was the latest step in extraordinary rise to stardom that, if Davis is to be believed, largely happened as a series of fortunate events.
“I never had any ambition to be an actor. My grandmother heard a radio announcement by Lucasfilm in London that they needed short actors to be in Star Wars. And she knew I loved Star Wars , and I was short, obviously. So my mum phoned the studios, but they said, ‘Well, we’ve got everyone we need, you’re too late.’ And I don’t know whether she offered them cash, but they eventually agreed to see me, at Elstree Studios in London. I met with a production assistant. And she said, ‘Do you like Star Wars ?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ ‘Do you want to be an Ewok in the film?’ And I said, ‘What’s one of those?’ And she said, ‘You're about to find out – go and get measured up for a furry suit.’ And that was it.”
Somehow, though, he managed to make an impression on George Lucas despite being dressed as an overgrown Teddy Bear. “He liked what I was doing with the character, so he invited me to American to carry on filming over there. And while we were over there, I got my second lucky break. Because Kenny Baker, who is normally in R2, was also an Ewok, and he went down with food poisoning and couldn’t come and play the scene you see in the film with Carrie Fisher, where she was discovered by an Ewok. So they drafted me in that very morning as an emergency, and I did the scene. From that moment I was known as Wicket and the rest is history. I got lucky from Kenny’s misfortune.”(opens in new tab)
George Lucas first mentioned the possibility of Davis starring as Willow to Davis’s mum back in 1983, “when we were doing the Ewok movie,” recalls Davis. “It wasn’t until 1987 I guess they thought I was old enough that they decided that this was the time to make it. Even though it was created with me in mind and everything else, it wasn’t cut and dried with the casting. Ron Howard, being the director, wanted to make sure that I was indeed the right man for the job. So I had to audition several times, finally winning the role. Which is nice, actually having gone and won the role, as opposed to just being handed it on a plate, though having George Lucas in your corner obviously helps.”
The production used New Zealand as a backdrop long before Peter Jackson has rechristened the country Middle-earth. “It is such an amazing landscape,” recalls Davis, “and the light is unique there, so it does lend itself to obviously to fantasy. It can’t be beaten for fantasy landscapes. We were down there for about eight weeks. I’ve actually been back to the same location on other films, which is weird. It’s a lovely place. One of the most beautiful countries.”
The new Blu-ray release performs some celluloid archaeology, with a couple of enticing extra features that date back the filming of Willow.
“There is a deleted scene on there,” Davis enthuses. “The deleted storm sequence. It was pretty epic. We did two weeks of filming on that and it wasn’t used. Because, a) it was something that would have been really expensive to finish in post production and b) it really didn’t have any particular bearing on the story; you could lose that and it didn’t make any difference to the plot.
“The thing is, if you watch the film closely, you do notice that my hair is all wet at one point, because the scene before it was supposed to be this big storm.
“I actually saw the storm footage for the first time ever only last year. It’s only been cut together in a temporary way, it’s not been completed, but that’s the beauty of it: it feels like lost footage that’s been rediscovered! And it’s a quite exciting moment in the film, one I think the fans will enjoy seeing.”
There’s also a video dairy, shot by Davis himself, from the days long before anyone even really used the term video diary, let alone specifically shot them for use as shiny-disc extras.
“I used to have a video camera permanently attached to my hand around that time, for my own kicks, really. I thought, ‘This is a great adventure I’m having here, it’ll be good to remember this and something to show my friends.’ Little did I know that in 25 years time it would be used a feature on Blu-ray for millions of people to see.(opens in new tab)
“There wasn’t the prospect of DVD extras back then. There weren’t even DVDs. Nowadays if you film something behind the scenes there’s always a purpose. That was me just documenting it for me. I hadn’t watched it for years. It’s been in the attic. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to include this on a Blu-ray,’ and Lucasfilm thought the same. Lo and behold there it is.”
So, how many times does think he’s seen Willow over the years?
“Well, my son went through a phase of watching it about six months ago, so I saw it on and off a few times then. It was always on in the background. It was weird constantly hearing my voice. But I have seen it a lot of times over the years. It’s nice to watch again. I went to an open air screening of it last year for charity in Dulwich Park. It was fantastic sitting out of doors, in summer, with an audience, watching that film. I enjoyed that a lot.”
Willow is out on Blu-ray for the first time this week.