If you are going to inject a classic fairy tale with contemporary relevance, it helps to have as your leading lady an actress who speaks to her generation.
Director Rupert Sanders admits that he has seen only the first Twilight film – but he knew when it came to finding a girl who embodied all the qualities of the gutsy heroine at the centre of his first feature film, Snow White and the Huntsman, there could be no one better suited to the role than Kristen Stewart.
“She’s very contemporary and very spirited,” Sanders says of the 22-year-old star who has become a household name playing Bella Swan in the hit vampire film franchise.
“She carries a lot of weight on her shoulders and does it with far more years than she has under her belt. There was just something about that spirit that was undefined and raw that drew us to her. It’s very unbridled and kind of un-manicured.”
It’s the morning after the Australian premiere of Snow White and the Huntsman (or SWATH as the film is known on Twitter), Sanders’ ambitious, big-budget adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, featuring a stellar cast including Australian Chris Hemsworth and Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron.
In the plush confines of Sydney’s Park Hyatt Hotel, Sanders is sitting alongside his leading lady whose casual leggings, old grey t-shirt and flannel shirt, believe the fact she has, just that morning, been named by Forbes as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.
“Well, she’s worth every penny,” he adds, giving the uncomfortable- looking actress a reassuring smile.
Sanders, a respected commercial director whose resume includes advertisements for Sears, Toyota and the video game Halo 3: ODST, had been considered for several prominent films, including The Hunger Games, before he was hired by Universal to direct the $170 million Snow White reboot.
After reading Evan Daugherty’s script – which is more along the lines of the original fairytale first published in 1812 than Disney’s 1937 animation – the 41-year-old Brit realised that he had an opportunity to “create a world people hadn’t seen before”.
The “new” Snow White tells the story of the daughter of King Magnus (Noah Huntley). After his wife’s death, the king falls in love with the captivating Ravenna (Theron). The two marry but on their wedding night Ravenna murders her new husband, seizes control of the kingdom and locks her stepdaughter, Snow White, in the castle.
Years later the queen learns Snow White holds the key to eternal youth, but before she is able to consume her heart which will make her immortal, Snow White escapes into the dark forest.
Ravenna sends out the Huntsman (Hemsworth) who, on learning he has been tricked by the queen, ends up helping Snow White in her effort to defeat Ravenna and end her reign.
There are elements of the story which older generations will identify with – a mirror, a red apple, an evil queen and, of course, a merry band of dwarves – but thrown into the mix are massive battles, a rebellion, stunning special effects and an underlying message “teaching us to understand mortality and not bury ourselves in jealousy or rage” and it becomes an altogether visually sumptuous and mature affair.
“It’s certainly darker than Disney but I don’t think it’s darker than the Grimms’ version,” Sanders says. “It’s like an original fairytale – they scare you to inform you. And people like to be scared a bit.
“We’re not scaring people in a gratuitous way. It’s peripheral fear, not horror. It makes you tingle and it makes the ride more intense.”
Stewart, whose films outside the Twilight franchise include Into the Wild and The Runaways, admitted at the Australian premiere of SWATH on Tuesday that she never really liked the original fairytale.
“It’s not that I wasn’t a fan,” she says. “I just couldn’t connect with Snow White growing up. So when I first heard about the project I thought, ‘Snow White? Why?’”
Like Sanders, she changed her mind upon reading the script and identifying with a character who was not prepared to be relegated to being saved by someone else. Sanders describes her as a “female Luke Skywalker”.
“There has been a void of women being strong in movies and finally it’s been done well,” Stewart says.
“You recognise Snow White but it’s like all her perfect qualities have been put at the bottom of a pit of mud to see if she can find them and take them and polish them.”
Indeed, Sanders pushed all of his stars to their mental and physical limits during the 80-day shoot in sheeting rain and miserable mud in some of the remotest areas of Britain during winter.
For Stewart, who at one point during filming had to jump into a freezing lake, the most uncomfortable part of her role was having to ride a horse.
“That was by far the highest hurdle for me to get over,” she says. “It terrified me. I think that’s good though – genuine fear and discomfort is cool on screen.”
For Sanders, the discomfort came early on in the piece when he contemplated the enormity of adapting such a beloved fairytale for the big screen.
“You are a bit nervous whenever you do anything in life where you are opening yourself up,” he says.
“I don’t think my job was any more nerve-racking than Kristen’s or Chris’ who are the face of it. I could have probably slid away into anonymity and never worked again if it had been a disaster. I guess there’s pressure for all of us.”
With strong reviews and box office results and talk of a sequel, Sanders doesn’t have to worry too much about his future. As for Stewart, she will take a month’s break before starting work on her next film – a thriller named Cali by The Notebook director Nick Cassavetes.
“It’s hard to talk about because I haven’t got into the zone. Literally as soon as I get home, we need to cast it … sit down with the script,” Stewart says.
“But it’s pretty extreme in every way. It reminds me of movies from the 90s – weird cult movies.”
She will next appear on the big screen as the uninhibited Marylou in the screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, On the Road, which opens in Australia in September.
Then of course there’s that little film opening in November – the final instalment in the Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn: Part 2.
While keen to press on with new and challenging roles, Stewart admits it was hard saying goodbye to a character she has lived with for the past four years.
“It’s always the same feeling at the end of something you have invested in,” she says.
In this case it was just longer.
“I will probably have to talk about (the role) for the rest of my life but I am lucky because it’s a fond memory.”
Read more of this interview from previous post here