Snow White and the Huntsman (in theaters now) isn't the sing-along fairy tale you remember from your childhood. There are no tuneful bluebirds, no adorably named dwarfs, and no fragile princesses (in this case, there's a sword-swinging one played by Kristen Stewart). Rather, any trace of happiness and sunshine the Disney version had is substituted with a scorned queen (Charlize Theron) with no qualms about literally sucking the youth out of girls and a bleak, desperate landscape covered in innocent blood, dead soldiers and barren forest.
The darker take on the Brothers Grimm story arrives thanks to first-time feature film director Rupert Sanders, the man responsible for several visually-enticing Halo commercials and edgy Nike TV spots. Tasked with a major studio (Universal Pictures) blockbuster, Sanders doesn't disappoint. The soldiers exploding into shards of iron, the birds birthing sprites, and the molten magic mirror coming into near-human form are just some of the eye-grabbing tricks that earns Sanders the right to be called a "visionary."
Complex got the chance to chat with the filmmaker about his newfound fame, what Kristen Stewart brings to the rebellious Snow White character, and why people should stop reading a Twilight-esque love triangle into the film.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
How are you adjusting to all this media attention ?
I wouldn’t say I’ve become like Kristen Stewart, but I certainly have to talk a lot more than I am used to about my work. [Laughs.] But I am very proud of it and I am proud of making it and I am proud to work with so many great people. It's good to talk about it.
Since this is your first feature film, how did you land the job?
I had been making commercials for a decade and my work had gotten me into the eyes of the Hollywood executives. They’re always looking for new storytellers and new people with a different vision. I had been offered other jobs, but then when this job came, I had a great meeting with [producer] Joe Roth, who I think saw the same dark story that I did. He took me on and we went to write a script and put together a visual presentation. We went around to all the studios in town and found our home at Universal.
One of the things that really cemented it was that me and my group of collaborators made a three-minute short film, a kind of trailer, that had the themes and the tone and the spots of the film, which we filmed for cheap here in L.A., in its shops, gardens and forests by the 405 freeway. We created a kind of magical and poetic version of what the film was to help them understand what it was that we were doing.
I heard that the original script was totally different from the way it turned out on screen.
[Laughs.] In fact, the original script was quite lighthearted and kind of Shrek-like. That was the original goal and I think it was a little bit of a stretch for me. We wanted to figure out how to make a medieval movie along with having those original, fantastical fairytale qualities.
What made you decide to make it grittier? No one really refers to the Grimm fairy tale as much as they do to the Disney version.
To me, instinctively, I much prefer the wicked realism to the kind of cartoon-y, magical qualities. I wanted to create a real world where the real fairytale existed, I guess.
When the studio presented it to you, did they tell you which audience they wanted to target or did you have any influence over that? Given that it is a darker movie than the kids version.
For me, kids read scary fairy tales and scary literature, and I think a lot of the time we feel we need to dress down some of those in order for them to be applicable to children. I grew up around Grimm fairy tales and, although most of them scared me, they also impacted me. They left a message with me, and I think that Snow White is one of the strongest, most powerful of the fairy tales. That was an exciting thing to work with.
You talked about making a reel prior to beginning filming. Were there any elements of that reel that made it into the final product?
Yeah, all of them, in fact. The trailer we put out was basically a remade version of what we had done with real actors and instead of having two knights—one knight against another knight—we had a couple of hundred. So the scale changed, but the ideas stayed the same and just came out to be so real.
Were there elements of the original fairy tale that were definitely important for you to keep in this new film?
I think everything, and we did keep everything. The fairy tale is a 12-page story, so we didn’t have to struggle to put everything from the original story into this work. From a 600-page novel, you have trouble trying to get a gist of the story.
Was there any kind of research you had to do to enhance your vision of the film?
My real goal was to make an emotional film that had an epic scale, intense action and also had a message to it. I think a lot of films take from the audience but don’t give anything back, and that’s what I did not want.
A lot. You watch another film, you look at a lot of paintings—all of those things kind of go into your creative subconscious and your own imagination comes up with how you want your product to develop. It’s a life-long process, your image bank.
Were there any paintings or films in particular that came to mind when you were putting the film together?
I went to a lot of galleries and looked at a lot of Jacobian paintings and medieval war etchings; just going back to what makes this fairytale like real-life. I looked at a lot of old, medieval films just to immerse myself in that medieval world.
Obviously we see the uncharacteristic toughness of Snow White in the film, but how different did you want to make Snow White and what do you think Kristen Stewart brought to her?
I think Kristen Stewart brought a lot to it. I think she is very brave and rebellious. She has a weight on her shoulder, she’s really in the spotlight, and she deals with everything on her own. I think she’s inspiring, and all of those qualities made her what I wanted in the role of Snow White.
There’s also this added element of her spiritual predestination. Can you talk a bit about that choice?
I think that she is one of the classic heroes that’s so historically known. I alluded to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and I think Snow White definitely symbolizes all of that.
As for Charlize Theron, she makes the queen more human. She toes the line between making us hate her and making us pity her. Did you expect the queen to be portrayed that way?
Yeah, very much so. It was very important that we didn’t have a terrible cut-out villain. We had someone who was doing evil things from a fear and weakness. I think it is important that you do sympathize with her to a degree, but also really understand why she is the person she’s become because she wasn’t born evil. It was a journey for her to become evil, and I think it was very important to myself and Charlize to play a realistic version of the queen.
Also, you don’t entirely indulge in the love triangle between Snow White, the Prince and—
We really didn’t go out there to make a really romantic film. There’s no time for making love. They’re making war. It's just a mood. It’s just a part of the story, but a lot of people are focusing on this Twilight love triangle. It’s a story about a young girl protecting and obtaining her kingdom. She's helped along the way by many men and I think all of them are inspired and all of them are drawn towards her. There’s no dwarf triangle. [Laughs.]
Speaking of the dwarfs, the most surprising element of the movie was the fact that the dwarfs added a sense relief to this very serious film, and they were also played by huge British actors.
It was very important to find a group of guys who I felt would be already kind of bonded and I wanted them to be forged out of hardship together. I wanted them to be able to have unconditional heart under their exteriors and to try to find that sense of humor within and despite it all. They’re like British soldiers. Even in battle they were able to crack a smile. I think that is very much the dwarf.
Did you want it to be more of a British film?
It was unavoidable. I don’t think the American fairytale version would have worked so well. And I’m British. I come from there. I love the idea of the plague in them and the burns and the ruins. It was the sort of thing I grew up with, so it was my intention to make the film that way. So much of it is a part of me, same thing when anyone is doing their own thing. You have to immerse yourself in it; put yourself up there on the screen.
I watched some of your commercials and a couple of your short films and I noticed they all have this edgy, evocative aesthetic that Snow White has. What draws you to that?
I guess that’s kind of what I’m into. I like to be provocative. I’m not directing any comedy; I don’t watch them, they don’t excite me. I mean, I like all films, but there’s a point where they push you and make you question. My real goal was to make an emotional film that had an epic scale, intense action, and also had a message to it. I think a lot of films take from the audience but don’t give anything back, and that’s what I did not want.
When you were presented with this feature film, just having come off doing commercials, was it really daunting to approach it? How was it being your first time?
It was kind of like losing your virginity. Obviously, you have the anxiety of “What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?” All of those things go into it, but if you take out all the challenges in life, then you won’t progress.
So yes, I was anxious and scared, but the adrenaline was there and I was confident in myself. I had to show that confidence at all times because if people see anxiety, they get worried. You have to be a strong leader, even if you’re scared rigid.
Most people would start off with a smaller, independent project but you went straight for the blockbuster.
I can’t say I sat down and said, "I’m gonna buy out and start this blockbuster." But for me, it was much harder to start on the ground than it was with this. This was the opportunity to really create my own destiny.
Do you have any upcoming projects in the works or that you're newly attached to?
There’s a lot of stuff zooming around and there’s a lot of stuff being written and being developed, so we’ll just see what pulls first, I guess.
With the film already premiered and seen all over the world, what do you think about the reaction it's getting?
A lot of people have really enjoyed the film and have come up to me and said, “Thank you so much for the film." That’s an incredible feeling. I hope a lot of people get to see it because I think they will be fulfilled emotionally and visually. All they want in the film, it's there.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)