Universal Pictures released a new trailer and extended preview for their upcoming, dark retelling of the classic Grimm fairytale Snow White earlier this week. Sprung from the mind of innovative commercial director Rupert Sanders, Snow White and the Huntsman has faced comparisons to Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror for the past several months. The release of the Disney film along with the footage from Sanders’ offering has made it clear that these are two very different films.
The trailer and preview answered many concerns that fans had about both the casting and tone of Snow White and the Huntsman. We had the opportunity to sit down with Sanders in a small roundtable discussion at WonderCon this weekend to discuss his aesthetic approach to the story as well as the backstory for the characters in the film.
Reinventing fairy tales has become fairly popular over the past several years whether on the Syfy channel or now on network television. What was it about the Snow White story that especially appealed to you?
Rupert Sanders: “I think it’s because it’s the best fairy tale. I don’t like them when they get too princess-y. I don’t love balls and sleeping beauties, that kind of thing. I think the great thing about ‘Snow White’ is those images have scarred me since I was a child with the Queen, the mirror, the taking of the heart, the huntsman and the enchanted forest. So really, my goal was to re-appropriate those myths and those symbolic devices. Each of those ideas is so deeply psychologically embedded and that’s why the stories have lasted so long. People still have a thirst for them internationally. So it was a great opportunity to go back to that source material and create something very new and contemporary with it but in keeping with the Grimms fairytale version of it. We’re not polishing it up to make it something that it isn’t.”
You say new and contemporary, can you talk about the scope, tone and mood of the film?
RS: “I think what we’re trying to do as filmmakers is make a big, gritty, raw, epic movie and within that show things graphically in a way that they haven’t been seen in that world before. It was really nice to find new ways of telling the story. Everything in there comes from the story. All the visual effects, all the ideas come from us asking ‘how do we show the mirror man? What does the mirror man like? What does he mean to the character of the Queen? What does that character mean to him?’ And just more rich tapestry you can build of a world.
One of the first things that I did was I went out and found a group of fifteen contemporary artists around the world and I’d give them an idea and they’d start to sketch it. I’d call them again, we kept up this kind of constant accumulation of imagery in which we created a bible. And then I made everyone who came into the film read the bible, understand the world and understand the mechanics of the world, the physics of it, why the dark forest is what it is, why the enchanted forest exists. What is the spell? What are the three drops of blood? What’s the symbolism? What’s the mythology? So once everyone had that, I think they really were able to go into a very rich world that was already kind of designed for them. Knowing that as an actor is like getting into costume. Once you know the world you know how your character fits into it.”
So you really took the tale and created your own mythology for the film?
RS: “I took inspiration from everywhere and, you know, I actually haven’t seen the Walt Disney one because I didn’t want to be tarnished by it. I’ve read that book a lot. I’ve looked at a lot of other filmmakers like Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth,’ I watched ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ I think I set out trying not to make a big commercial fairytale movie but I wanted to make a big kind of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ a kind of medieval tale and that’s really what I think the film is.”
Outside of the magic mirror, how much do you play with the magical elements of the tale?
RS: There’s quite a lot. There’s a great sequence in the dark forest, which is really a forest that plays on the mind. Snow White runs in and she falls into a patch of spore-like puffball mushrooms that are hallucinogenic. She falls into that and instantly the trip starts to take her and she’s like trying to run away but then the whole forest starts to turn in on her. To me, as a hallucinator, when you do watch Snow White and that forest scene, they’re very hallucinogenic and I think we really tried to actually say that the forest is dangerous because it’ll play with your mind.
The first five minutes in the forest is quite a mental acid trip but designed to kind of protect itself. The forest protects itself. There’s a lot of magical realism in there, there’s a lot of great symbolism in the enchanted forest. We created a world that was protected by the dark forest where the Evil Queen’s poison hasn’t reached and that’s where the magical fairy tale exists, where there’s still fairies and strange creatures. So it’s a very rich journey, you go into so many different worlds and see so many different things and hopefully every scene you go to there’s a new discovery of something else that is happening.”
Can you talk a bit about casting Charlize Theron as the Queen and also just exactly how evil is she?
RS: “When you’re playing an Evil Queen you can go into pantomime very quickly. I think what she did so well and what really we all felt was the best kind of root for the character was that she wasn’t playing pure evil. I don’t think anyone’s born pure evil. Things happen to them growing up that make them who they are and I think that’s very true with her backstory that you see later in the film. She’s a very disturbed character who’s desperately got to find this heart because she needs to live forever. It’s as simple as that. She’s dead on the inside but she’s determined that she will avenge her family and the tribe that she was with that was constantly brutalized by kings and other kingdoms. She’s determined that the world will feel the suffering that she felt and she will stop at nothing to do that. She’s driven by some dark machinations but she’s also incredibly wounded and fragile underneath that. You can relate to her, because we understand the things she’s gone through and why she’s become evil. She’s not just sitting around with a white cat on her lap and hacking people’s heads off. Her evil comes because of how distorted the character has become. So she plays it very real and I think that’s really the success of the character. She’s incredible to watch.”
People were very skeptical when Kristen Stewart was initially cast in this film. But now seeing the trailer and all the footage, you really get why she’s perfect casting.
RS: “Yeah, I think we were looking for someone who was obviously a great actor first and foremost but also someone who’s incredibly physical. Everyone thinks she is Bella from Twilight. I think she’s such a good actor that she encompassed that role so well that people think that’s how she is. When you meet Kristen, she’s so far away from that character. I’d first seen her in ‘Into the Wild’ and I was really blown away. I remembered that she was the girl from ‘Panic Room,’ ‘Welcome to the Rileys,’ ‘The Runaways,’ and now ‘On the Road.’ She’s one those actors who does these smaller films and then she does these big movies and she’s really managed her career so well in that way. She’s incredibly spirited and very kind of wild and also she’s got this kind of this alchemy to her. You’re not quite sure what it is about her but on screen she’s just incredible. And when you see her act you realize why she is such a huge movie star and why she’s going to continue to get bigger.”
You mentioned the mirror and obviously there are the dwarves in the film, what were some of the other aspects of the Grimms’ fairy tale that you really wanted to make sure you brought into your version?
RS: “God there’s so much of it I don’t know where to start. Snow White’s ability to interact with nature, her ability to find the light in the darkness of other people. She’s great at being able to draw the best out of people. There’s something about her that we can’t quite understand why things are drawn towards her. They’re like moths to a flame. There’s a lot of ravens in fairy tales and the ability to shape-shift and the three drops of blood are something that symbolically comes up three times in the movie. It’s kind of a device that we use to show three different things happening to three different characters which keeps kind of repeating itself, which is always in fairy tales. They’re always pricking their fingers. Our film opens as the fairytale opens with a queen wishing for a child, pricking her finger and three drops of blood fall and she decides to have a child who’s hair is as black as a raven’s wing. I think when you see the film there’s obviously a lot of other stuff because it’s only seven pages long but there’s a big world we created out of those seven pages.”
Does the fact that you have a framework make it somewhat easier?
RS: “That’s why we did the film. Because it’s such a great story underneath and it’s not like we have fifty volumes of it where people go ‘Oh, why did you leave out the bit where she meets this and that?’ It’s nice to work with a short story rather than a massive volume. Look, it’s one of those stories that’s about the human condition. It’s about so many of those emotions that we go through. Jealously and the way we look. I think in a way it’s gotten more relevant today than it was early on. Everything is so image-obsessed. I hope it does what those fairy tales did to those audiences in the fourteen hundreds. I hope it has the same lesson in life to our young people. It teaches you a lot of how to cope with the human condition, how to cope with death basically. They’re big ideas, all of those fairytales, and they’re kind of crafted in a way that people love to hear them but they’re taking on something subconsciously about the human condition which I think is great. It’s nice to be able to work with something like that rather than something kind of vacuous or beauty-orientated.”
Where would you like to go from here?
RS: “I’d like to do sci-fi next to be honest. I think it’ll be hard for me not to go back into the ‘Snow White’ world if that world appeared again. I’d love to make something contemporary or sci-fi, which is probably my favorite genre. I think what’s great about sci-fi is that you can make a film that’s socio-politicial without it being a ranting kind of thing.”
What are your favorite genre films?
RS: I think probably ‘Blade Runner’ is one of my favorites. (Andrey) Tarkovskiy’s ‘Stalker’ is another one. I like realism, reality-based, I like it gritty. I’m not such a big fan of the high concept ‘what if you only had two days to live’ kind of things. That doesn’t interest me. I want to see how the world’s going and how we’re treated as humans. But we’re in a pretty sci-fi world as it is. You can put a bigger magnifying glass on our world now if you move the story a hundred years into the future. Anyway, who knows, I’ve got to finish this one first. We ain’t finished yet.”
You said that you could return to Snow White, is this really a self-contained story?
RS: “Look I think it would be really rude to kind of leave it with a ‘to be continued.’ It’s its own story. If there’s a desire for people to want to continue with those characters, there will be. They’re such great characters, they’re so well played and the world can only keep expanding. I think when you make a sequel and then a trilogy, the first film is really the first toe in the water and it’s kind of discovering the world. Then you can really start to get deeper into that sort of world. We’ve got so much stuff that we didn’t even use in the film, there’s so many ideas. So we’ll see.”
Well, along those lines, if you were going to, would you take on other characters from other stories?
RS: “No, I don’t think so. I think this is its own world. I think a couple of people would end up dead so we’d have to fill those shoes. There’s so much great source material in all of those fairy tales. It’s not like Snow White’s suddenly going to be running through the woods on a horse and meet Sleeping Beauty, wake her up and find Rapunzel. I don’t think it’s going to be that. But it definitely will be inspired by some of the events from other fairy tales.”
Snow White and the Huntsman opens in theaters on June 1st, 2012.
Follow me on twitter @JRothC.