How Snow White and The Huntsman is taking the fairy-tale princess back to her dark roots – with a Lord Of The Rings-sized budget.
Ah, Snow White.
Such a charming Children’s tale. Remember the lovely bit when the adult Huntsman can’t kill Snow White because he’s fallen in love with her, even though she’s seven and that’s disgusting?
Or the jolly little sequence in which the Queen cheerfully devours what she thinks are the child’s liver and lungs? Or when the girl raids the dwarves’ alcohol stash? Or the prince insists the pre-teen marry him because he’s in love with her lifeless body? Or the rousing climax in which the Queen dances in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead? Aren’t children’s stories adorable?
When it was unveiled at Comic-Con in 2011, just before it began shooting, Snow White and The Huntsman was described in most reports as a revisionist take on the fairy tale, swapping the traditional twee events for something more violent. But got back to the Grimm brothers’ telling of Schneewittchen Und Die Sieben Zwerge, from which all the above details come, and it’s saturated in blood, hatred and, frankly, some very questionable pre-teen adoration. If anything, Snow White and The Huntsman is closer to the wicked Grimm tone than any that have gone before. You can’t truly be faithful to Snow White without a little torture.
“I think we’re actually doing quite a classical telling of it,” says Kristen Stewart, who plays Snow White. Although, talking to Empire on the Pinewood Studios, set, she’s not exactly looking like a classical version of the character. Her long, dark hair is pulled back in a functional ponytail and she is dressed in grubby trousers, shirt and a long jacket that looks like it’s been through the machine on ‘sump oil wash’. No wafting skirts or even a hint of anything puffy.
“I don’t think I traditionally knew anything of Snow White other than the Disney version, and that is really quite different from the original story, which is much more [sinister and bloody]. There are obviously real changes to our story, but in terms of who she is, which is very much the innocent, I think we’re really in keeping with the original character.”
Evan Daugherty’s script for Snow White and the Huntsman was one of the most popular in Hollywood back in 2010, appearing on the Black List, an annual collection of the most liked screenplays yet to go into production. After Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland had turned a twist on a classic children’s tale into a billion-dollar box office, it also happened to fit the mould of a newly attractive subgenre: the kids’ classic that’s, y’know, not for kids. It was so desired that it sold for a reported $3 million, a huge amount for a spec script.
Daugherty’s story started much as the Grimm Brothers’ version does, with an Evil Queen who is consumed by her own beauty and when her mirror, a sort of eerier version of Tyra Banks on “America’s Next Top Model,” tells her that her beauty has been surpassed, orders the death of her stepdaughter, Snow White. Her eternal gorgeousness is her defining characteristic and must be maintained at all costs.
Then it veers a little from the original text. The Huntsman ordered to kill Snow White spares her life, but becomes something of a mentor and trainer to the girl, who is considered by a band of dwarves (this version has eight, rather than the traditional seven) to be the one person who can free their world from the Queen’s poisonous reign. There follows a fight to reclaim the throne and absolutely no singing or heigh-hoing whatsoever.
This script has landed, surprisingly, in the lap of a director with precisely no feature film credits to his name.
On set, Rupert Sanders, is as mellow as can be, a youthful but wearly- looking fortysomething standing calmly in the midst of a fake forest which, despite being covered in ‘Snow’ (extra-fine grade, according to the boxes), is sweltering. Dwarves of varying sizes are milling about (though full-size actors, such as Ian McShane, Ray Winstone and Nick Frost, are playing the roles, all have smaller doubles for long shots – including one, disarmingly, with a beard which emanates the inmistakable voice of a woman), swords are being waved at absolutely nothing, and Evil Queen Charlize Theron is fretting about accidentally stabbling Chris Hemswort in the face (“I like you, so I don’t want to do that”) Among it all, stands Sanders, a man steering a $200 million ship and of whom very few outside this set have ever heard.
How did a director with only ads to his name secure a film that had nine studios vying to make it? “I don’t really know, I sort of winged it,” says Sanders, extricating himself from a tangle of dwarves. ” I met with Joe Roth, the producer, and told him how much I loved the original fairytale and how ripe I thought rhia was for something grand, and I left that meeting and he wanted me to make it.” Sanders has been working in commercials and short films for around 12 years, starting out on a Tag Heur ad with American History X director Tony Kaye, and has attempted to kick start his feature film carret for around years (most of his work is collected at rupertsanders,com; check out the freaky short starring Monsters‘ Whitney Able- with a tail).
“I came close on a lot of big films, which have since been made, but didn’t find the right fit until this. I just saw something in this that could be amazing. It has timeless themes of loss, power, death and destiny.” He secured most of the cast and backing from Universal by putting together a short reel of test footage, screened at Comic-Con, to show how his film would look. “It was very impressive, the way he saw it,” says Stewart. “You could see what the movie would be straight away.”
Although Daugherty’s script was well liked, Sanders has made major changes since coming on board. Hossein Amini, a writer of Drive, was commissioned to rework with it, with Sanders keen to push it towards an older crowd. “I think Evan’s tone was perhaps a little more for a younger audience, and what I went back to was the Grismms’ fairy tale and just started playing with those themes of morality and fear of morality…
Those themes are powerful. Every country around the world has its own version of Snow White.”
With the maturing tone came even greater scale. The production has take over huge swathes of Pinewood with immense sets, one a near full-sized castle, which saw horses dashing through it for several weeks (it remains the heady aroma).
At Comic-Con the producers cited The Lord of the Rings as a touch stone. For a first-time director, Sanders is building his hurdles ever higher. “But although this is my first film, Im not new to directing,” he insists. “Commercial directors get a bad rap and I think there are a few different schools. I was always interested in the script and story. It’s very hard to tell a story in a minute, and though there’s a different structure to telling a story over two hours, it’s the same grammar. Joe came out to watch me working on a commercial for DirecTV where we rebuilt part of the Iwo Jima battle, and he saw that I could captain the ship.”
“He’s an impressive guy,” says Charlize Theron of her director. “He was very, very open to having an asshole like me step in and do some really risky things. A lot of first-time directors, especially on a movie this size, would be scared. If you’re in the indie world then it’s easier to be in control, but making a film of this size for Universal and being okay with me coming in and saying, ‘I’m going to be referencing Jack Nicholson in The Shining,’ or, ‘I think she’s the serial killer in seven’? That takes some balls”
Sanders may be captaining the ship, but the thing that’s drawn most attention is its figurehead. Coming off the back of one of the biggest franchises in history, Kristen Stewart had mixed fortunes. On the one hand, Twilight had given her box-office clout and meant she could cherrypick almost any project she liked – her name now probably enough to greenlight a movie. On the other, her fanbase knows her as a romantic lead’ an almost equally lage group know her as “That girl from Twilight, which I hate”. Her next step was to prove that she can carry a movie that doesn’t have an in-built hyperventilating audience.
“My first reaction was, ‘No Way. I’m not doing the franchise movies,’” Stewart says, coughing through an early winter cold. “I’m used to doing smaller-scale movies. Twilight was my first experience of that scale, and I never expected that to be so big. But it’s weird what speaks to you… It certainly wasn’t like (adopts stern voice), ‘What is this going to do for my career?’ The film’s about identity issues and stepping up to the plate. I’m pretty impulsive and it just grabbed me”.
Stewart’s nemesis comes in the not unappealing shape of Charlize Theron, as the wicked Queen whose beauty is her powe and who will quite literall such the attractiveness out of anyone who doesn’t look like the back end of a bus. “She’s not just the ‘wicked Queen’, she has a name: Ravenna,” says Theron, mock haughtily. “Actually, I think her having a name was important. I’ve not interest in just playing ‘bad people’. I’m kind of intrigued by why people do the shit they do.”
On the day Empire is on set, Theron is delivering a speech that seems to make Ravenna’s motives clear, perversely extolling the luck of those who die young, that they will never know the misery and loss of seeing their beauty and vitality evv away. “Ha. That Speech you saw is literally the only time that’s referenced,” laughs heron when we speak later. “In the original story that’s very much the theme, about her being so vainly obsessed with her beauty and growing old.
But while we keep some of that, out version is about a woman whose mother instilled in her that if she doesn’t remain young and beautiful then she won’t be powerful. This isn’t about wanting to be pretty just so she likes what she sees in the mirror; it’s about the belief that in order to be the best leader she can be and hold on to her power, she has to remain beautiful. Whats it like to have lived that life? She needs fuel.” Theron pauses, “So People have to die.”
Sanders’ leading man, meanwhile, is one who barely figures in the original story. Asked to nale all the characters from Snow White, only the most studied or really cheaty, would remember the Huntsman. He’s a bit-parter, a calyst, a role that barely used up any paint in the Disney anomated feature. In this version, he’s the key. Sanders explains the Huntsman’s increased presence thus (it may help to use condiment pots to illustrate, like the offside rule, or possible draw yourself a little diagram – use as man different colours necessary):
“One of the great things about Evan’s script was the creation of this male character. As I see it, the Queen is death and Snow White is life. The Huntsman us galfway between the two. He’s suffered a great loss and he brings life and death together to find their equilibrium, so the world can turn again. The Queen has stopped death; therefore nature is repulsed and has turned in against itself. The forests have turned black; things that shouldn’t be eating each other are – the world’s a mess. He, not knowingly or willingly, takes like to death. He’s a very important part of the film,” Please remember this, as it will be in the test.
Playing the Huntsman is Chris Hemsworth, anointed a movie star after the success of Thor. ” I honestly can’t say I did a huge amount of reasearch on him,” he laughs. “I mean, really how could I? I just read the script and liked what was in there. He’s a drunnken mercenery, a bit of a lost soul, and doesn’t quite know what mission he’s been forced into. Then through the film he comes to find this light in this dark world. And he sobers up a bit too, which is good.”
You probably already know that Snow White and the Huntsman is not the only Snow White movies out this year. Early in 2011, there was some terribly unseemly business in which Universal and Relativity Media battled to get their Snow White movie out before the other. The latter eventually won the release war, snagging April 6 for Mirror Mirror, which has Tarsem Singh directing, Julia Roberts as the Queen and little-known Lily Collins as Snow White. It’s probably fair to say that the trailer for Mirror Mirror, with its musical numbers and a slapstick tone bordering on ‘wacky’, has won less favour than Snow White and The Huntsman‘s darkly epic teaser.
“I think it’s very obvious the films are very different,” says Sanders, even though both posit Snow as the leader of a band of rebels. “I always knew they would be different and I’m glad they’re as different as they are. Nobody wants to be involved in a comepetitive movie. You want to be original….. They’re so clearly not the same movie at all. I suppose if anything, it’s helped us. It’s got people discussing the movie already.”
Snow White and the Huntsman comes midway through a very busy summer, sandwiched between The Avengers, Ridley Scott’s is-it-an-Alien-prequel-or-not Prometheus (also starring Theon– see page 60) and Spider_Man and Batman. Standing out in that group will take something very special. And no studion is investing a couple of hundred million in a film it expects to be a one-off… Although the answer to whether this is a potential franchise is brushed off by everyone Empire asks. What Snow White and the Huntsman is bamking on is anyone over the age of 12, and even more crucially, men, coming round to the idea that Snow White means more than mooning animal friends and romantic endings.
“I get that,” says Sanders. “This isn’t a sequel. It isn’t a spin-off of a cartoon character and it has a title that people know, but I think if you look at the trailer, we’ve got a very different – looking film. I don’t think it’s like any other world I’ve ever seen before. And there’s something in these stories that’s universal; that speaks to every age. There’s a reason they’re still being told centuries later,” And any fairytale has to have a happy ending. Right?
Written by Olly Richards – Empire Magazine