When it was announced that Charlize Theron would star in Prometheus (a sci-fi epic from legendary director Ridley Scott) and Snow White & The Huntsman (a gritty fairytale from commercial director Rupert Sanders), there weren't many people who thought Snow White would end up being the better film. And yet, here we are.
Sanders has pulled off something of a minor miracle with Snow White, infusing a visually spectacular blockbuster with three things films of that ilk so often lack — humanity, humour and heart. It's a tall order for a first time filmmaker, but perhaps not such a surprise when you consider his award winning commercials for Microsoft, Nike, Adidas, Nokia, Activision and Sears (highlighted by his stunning work with the Halo franchise).
I asked Sanders about assembling his all-star cast, reinventing a classic and making his own blood sacrifice.
This is your first feature, Rupert — why did you pick Snow White to be your entrance into feature filmmaking?
I think, a lot of the time, the material picks you. I've been working on other projects that have been very close to happening and then got pulled back at the last minute. I'd fallen down and dusted myself off a few times. Then I read this, and I saw an opportunity to create a world and to change a story that we know well, and to work with solid material. All of those things were very intoxicating.
Obviously everybody already knows the Snow White fairytale, but the way you've laid it out in this film, it's very much a classic hero's journey, isn't it?
Yes, it's very Joseph Campbell, you know, Hero With A Thousand Faces. It's an archetypal rise of a medieval figure. I think fairytales deal with archetypes well, and that was an instinctual decision, to follow that kind of journey in the fairytale world. I think the mixture of 'medieval epic' and 'magical fairytale' is something we haven't really seen before.
Audiences have seen so many fantasy creatures and fantasy landscapes. How did you go about showing them something new?
You know, I didn't draw up a chart of what had seen before and what hadn't. It was about following the journey, and that journey felt like it needed brightness and it needed a sanctuary so we understood what we were fighting for. They're really just artistic, instinctual decisions, you know?
Everybody knew this movie was going to look great, but I don't know if people expected it to have as much heart as it has. Was it a challenge for you to find the soul and the emotion in this story we've all seen before?
Yeah. I mean, when I first pitched the studio, I told them I wanted to make an emotional blockbuster, because too many blockbuster films take and they don't give anything back. What was important for me was to find the heart of the story, and ironically the heart is Snow White's. But I wanted something that would stay with people after they left the cinema; I wanted an emotional piece of film. They're so often separated, blockbuster and emotion, and I don't see why they need to be.
Charlize Theron's Queen Ravenna might end up being regarded as one of the all-time great villains. But she's kind of the hero of her own story, isn't she?
Yeah, I think it was important in the genesis of the story to create someone we understood. I wouldn't say we empathise with her, but we have to understood why villains are who they are, and I think that makes them more frightening. Seeing her becoming unhinged, and knowing why she is, is really fascinating.
Obviously Charlize's performance is amazing; did she bring anything to the role that you weren't expecting?
I think the wounded quality was something she was always really excited about. This idea of someone who is backed into a corner like a wounded animal, and therefore far more vicious. Especially in her death scene... she really dies like a wounded animal.
Kristen Stewart, as Snow White, almost has a White Swan/Black Swan thing going on in this film. She's an innocent beauty at times, but she also has to be a hard-as-nails warrior. That can't have been easy to cast.
We looked at a lot of young actors in that age group early on, and I think when I first met Kristen... I saw a spirit that I hadn't seen in some of her films. That really captured me. When I got to spend more time with her, she and I crafted the Snow White we felt was right, that would be a contemporary version of the character. A character who's so weak and scared but strong, and really finds in others what they've lost.
Chris Hemsworth plays The Huntsman. This is maybe the most challenging thing we've seen him do so far. What was it about his other performances that made you think he'd be right for this?
I think, you know, again, you have to meet actors. You can't just look at the work and take everything from that, because you have to be instinctual in the room. Obviously, I saw Thor quite early on and I thought he was very good in that, and then when I went to meet him I saw that he has an incredible presence. He's much darker than what you see in Thor; he's got a brooding quality to him. But we really cast the die with each other, because he didn't really know what I was capable of and I didn't really know what he was capable of.
His first scenes with Charlize... that was the first stuff he did, and I remember watching the dailies that night and saying, 'wow, Chris Hemsworth is fucking good'. And that continued throughout. He gives a very rich and emotional performance, which I do think is something we haven't seen from him yet.
Yeah. My favourite part of the film, and I suspect a lot of people's favourite part of the film, is the dwarves. These are veteran talents [Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Johnny Harris, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost and Brian Gleeson]. Was there ever talk of hiring actual 'dwarves', or was the plan always to get guys of this stature on board?
Well, it's kind of a complicated question. What is an 'actual dwarf'?
Well, somebody with dwarfism, obviously.
To me, we were casting mythical fairytale dwarves, and I wanted to get the best group of actors that was humanly possible, and a group of actors who'd worked together and came with that kind of camaraderie. When they come on the screen, the audience just goes, 'wow, that's amazing!' It's not something that hasn't been done before, of course. Lord Of The Rings did a lot of that kind of work. We're not changing anything, we're not groundbreaking any rules.
It's interesting, though, because you used practical effects wherever possible to achieve the look of the dwarves, rather than CGI.
Yeah. Yeah, we chose practical effects for 90 per cent of the film. There's very little green screen. It's the same with the dwarves. I didn't want their performances to be limited by us, so it was important their whole body was part of the performance. We had to figure out ways of working in camera with them, with a bit of smoke and mirrors and Hollywood magic.
Speaking of Hollywood magic, you literally put your blood into this film. How did that come about?
At the end of a big film like this, you end up with hundreds of little inserts you have to do in the last couple of nights, and they're all very laborious. One of the important ones was the blood drop. We were shooting at a very high speed, and the fake blood just kept looking like raspberry jam. I asked them if they had anything else, and they said no. So I asked if anyone had a syringe. They had some syringes, so they just took me behind the set and took out a couple of vials of blood, and then we used my blood. It worked really well! It was congealing quickly, but we got the shot and everyone got home on time. And it looks like blood!
Funny, that. We're out of time, but best of luck with the film!
Thanks, Rohan! See you.
Snow White & The Huntsman is now showing.