In 1988, George Lucas attempted to do for fantasy what “Star Wars” did for sci-fi with the blockbuster adventure film “Willow.” With Ron Howard on-board as director, “Willow” told the tale of a diminutive sorcerer-in-training (the titular Willow Ulfgood) that must protect an infant child, who will fulfill a prophecy and overthrow an evil Queen. Willow is aided in his struggle by Madmartigan, a wise-cracking bandit played Val Kilmer; together the duo encounters sword fights, magic spells and dragons — a standard day in a magic kingdom . To play the part of the Frodo-esque hero, Lucas cast none other than 18-year-old dwarf actor Warwick Davis, who got his start playing Wicket the Ewok in “Return of the Jedi” and two follow-up TV movies.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary, “Willow” arrives on Blu-ray this week for the first time in a pristine HD upgrade — overseen by Lucas himself — and packed with never-before-seen deleted scenes and retrospective diaries from Lucas, Howard, and “Willow” himself. Moviefone spoke to Warwick Davis about the pressure of his first starring role, his admiration for Lucas’s storytelling abilities, and the still-possible plans for a “Willow” sequel on the small screen.
First off, I want to confirm or deny one of those pieces of movie trivia that have been floating around on the Internet: Is it true that Val Kilmer improvised a lot of his dialogue?
No, I really don’t think it is. All great actors will bring something with them to the character. Val certainly gave a very unique spin to the character that wasn’t necessarily written in the script. But as far as dialogue went, he was saying what was written in the script, he was just giving a little bit of a quirk, a little spin that made this character quite individual… I wouldn’t say Val’s approach to it is any more extreme than any other actor I’ve worked with. It’s just what he does.
When you look at Ron Howard’s filmography, he seems like an unusual fit for the high fantasy of “Willow” — and I think some audiences still feel like he was a strange choice. What was unique about his style?
I think Ron was a great choice. He’s a very good “actors’ director” having been an actor himself. He knows exactly how to empathize with an actor and communicate with an actor, to bring the very best out of them. He is all about creating characters that the audience will root for.
It’s not about how epic we can make this, or about how amazing we can make the special effects. Those are there to create the backdrop for the characters to tell their story. For Ron it was about being a good storyteller. Fantasy directors can get carried away at making it epic and making the special effects great, and those films feel very empty, don’t they? You go, Oh, it looks lovely but I just don’t get it, I’m not getting anything from this. Ron is a very unique filmmaker that can do both.
It’s interesting that you bring up directors getting carried away with special effects, because you’ve had a long working relationship with George Lucas. Post-”Star Wars,” Lucas has been criticized for putting an emphasis on effects over story. In your experience with him, how did you interpret his approach?
George has always been very interested in effects. Without George Lucas we wouldn’t be where we are today with special effects. I don’t really think that there was ever a point where he changed his approach or anything like that. He has always used effects to tell the story. He has been adamant about that. He enjoys playing with those tools he has at his disposal, those that he has developed.
Since you got to work Lucas on on “Return of the Jedi,” did “Willow” feel like familiar filmmaking or was it still overwhelming?
It was a huge experience but not overwhelming. It was fairly intense, physically and emotionally. I was facing new challenges whether it was a difficult dialogue scene or a big action scene. I had great training, not only the training they gave me in that film, but having done “Return,” the “Ewok” movies, “Labyrinth”; I was tucked away inside a creature suit at those points, but all the time learning about being on the film set, the process, what was required of actors.
You’ve got so much experience in those roles that require a lot of costumes and makeup. But so much now is done with CGI, whether it’s the Hobbits or how the “Star Wars” prequels did Yoda. I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney presents the Ewoks using CGI in a future “Star Wars” movie. Is there still a place for performers who use practical effects?
I think very much so. If you look at something like “Harry Potter,” I think they used them in a way that was very balanced. There are some things that you simply cannot achieve with makeup effects. But using CGI just for the sake of using it isn’t necessarily a good thing. I think an audience can discern whether there is some living presence within a character or whether it is CGI.
When I’ve done work in those projects, I am collaborating with makeup artists and designers, and every day I am having my makeup applied by these people. I look at it as a team effort when I go out on the set. The character is all of our work, I’m just the one that gets to go out and perform it. The best CGI is the stuff that you don’t see and is used to enhance. But I am still a fan of the traditional process of prosthetic makeup because it has gotten to such a brilliant level.
How far have conversations gone in terms of expanding the universe beyond that initial movie?
There have been conversations throughout the years — hopefully some of them joking ones. I had a conversation with Ron and George and said “You know people would love a sequel to the movie.” George said, “Yeah we thought about it, but if we did it, we would have to recast ’cause you are too old.” [Laughs] And that’s where the conversation ended. I think he was joking. I don’t look that different. Ron and I were together a couple of weeks ago and we look the same.
It would be fun to see if Willow is going to become better as a sorcerer. Is he the apprentice? What has happened to him? Has Madmartigan calmed down a bit or is he still this crazy character? Has Elora Dannen become the queen who would rule over the land? The recent success of the fantasy TV series has been phenomenal. “Willow” could easily sit in that category quite nicely.