New ‘Willow’ Disney+ series was inspired by Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan
Of all the life-changing cinema films that premiered in the 1980s, Jonathan Kasdan singles out “Willow” as the first film that “marked time” in his existence. “It just had this psychological significance for me in my development,” Kasdan explains Variety. “You’d be shocked how many people say, ‘Oh, I saw that movie, it scared me when I was a kid.'”
The 1988 fantasy, directed by Ron Howard (then 34) and executive produced by George Lucas, centers around a miserable wizard named Willow (played by a 17-year-old Warwick Davis) who is tasked with protecting a magical baby from all ways. of betrayal. Its collection of revolutionary visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic – including the transformation of an army of men into squealing pigs – along with powerful performances from Jean Marsh, Val Kilmer and Davis, all delivered with a hint of charm, are what helped to keeping “Willow” ” in the hearts of the VHS generation.
In fact, it made such a lasting impression on Kasdan that he continued to record it on the set of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
“He was always talking about death hounds and Bavmorda and Raziel,” recalls Howard, who directed the “Star Wars” prequel from a script by Kasdan and his father, Lawrence Kasdan. “I tried to focus on the galaxy far, far away.”
Between his direct contact with Howard and Davis (who plays a small role in “Solo”), and his unabashed enthusiasm for all things “Willow,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was convinced Kasdan was the obvious candidate to shepherd their new ” Willow” series and its fantasy world for Disney+.
The big question was: How?
After several viewings of the original, the answer became clear in the character of Madmartigan, the sword-wielding heartthrob played by Kilmer.
“Val is such a specific and critical part of the magic in it because he was such a weird thing for a fantasy movie to have,” Kasdan explains. “You look at Tom Cruise in ‘Legend’ and he does Puck in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Or Rutger Hauer in “Ladyhawke”, and there is all this English-y leaning into the ideas of fantasy. Then Val comes in and he’s a surfer boy from California who literally stumbles through the movie with this incredible physicality and humor that couldn’t have existed at any moment before the moment it happened.”
Kasdan used Madmartigan as the tone set for the series, leaning into that youth, angst, and drama—all
, familiar qualities to him from his years writing episodes of “Dawson’s Creek.” He also brought a youthful vibe to the new “Willow,” with Gen Z slang and rock covers playing over the credits. But while Kilmer couldn’t be at the center of the series due to health reasons — Kasdan called his involvement “limited” — the star’s absence is part of the story.
More importantly, Kasdan honored Kilmer’s youthful spirit by casting a new group of actors, starting with newcomer Ruby Cruz, who plays Madmartigan’s daughter Kit Tanthalos.
“Ruby appeared to me as the antidote to many of the challenges of this,” says Kasdan. “When she came in to read, it reminded me in spirit of Val. Not that she liked the thing at all, but that she was a modern actress in a fantasy, and that was cool to us.”
Kasdan continued to tweak the script with each new cast member, even Erin Kellyman, who had already worked with Kasdan on “Solo.”
“I had no idea how funny [Kellyman] was, says Kasdan. “As the season progresses, she has more and more opportunities to do what she does naturally, which is very dry, deadpan comedy.”
Cruz and Kellyman join Tony Revolori, Ellie Bamber, Amar Chadha-Patel and original cast members Joanne Whalley and Davis two decades after the first film ended. Keeping things as close as they could to the original, the new company filmed in the same locations as the first “Willow” throughout Wales.
Kasdan spent 11 months abroad trying to revive the Magic Kingdom, aggravated by COVID complications and pre-production. When the going got tough, Kasdan found himself seeking advice from another Hollywood realm: the “Game of Thrones” show
, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who shot a lot in the UK. The duo helped “Willow” come together and even connected him with horse master Camilla Naprous, whose father worked on the original film.
While Kasdan knows “Willow” will court “Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings,” he’s also well aware of the differences. Where “The Rings” often requires a backlog of elven knowledge, and “Thrones” includes bracing acts of violence, Lucasfilm has a lower bar for entry and enjoyment.
“These were for everyone,” he says. “If you just had a casual love of the genre, you could go on a ride with the characters. I hope [that] sets the show apart a bit. It’s much more meant to be just fun – eight hours of diversion.”
While much of the humor and antics were inspired by Kilmer, Kasdan emphasizes that the heart and soul of “Willow” remains with Davis. The series continues the story of the struggling wizard, “but his magic, his real magic is his heart and devotion to the people around him, his family and friends,” says Kasdan.
20 years later, a lot has changed for Davis. The actor now has grown children, who joined him on the production of “Willow”. His daughter, Annabelle Davis, plays Willow’s grown child Mims, while his son, Harrison Davis, worked as a body double for a future episode. But wizard Willow is still struggling.
“Back on the set, I always said for Willow [that] magic hurts, says Howard. “There were times when he would cast spells and use the wand and it would actually feel like it had burned his hand or hurt his arm or something. So there has never been anything Willow could do and perform randomly. He had this capacity, but there was a price to pay with it.”
That pain will be explored when the Wizard and the Chosen Baby (now a young adult himself) reunite to continue their story in the Disney+ series. That’s all longtime fan Kasdan wants — to keep telling Willow’s story.
“There was no mechanism that pushed this to happen,” says Kasdan, referring to the mass of old IPs being rebooted or revived in Hollywood. “The only thing that made this happen was that we loved it. That Ron had love for it and that Warwick felt it was [right]. It was born purely out of a desire to continue telling the story.”