WonderCon 2012: 'Snow White and the Huntsman' Director Rupert Sanders on Charlize Theron, Classical Adventure and Contemporary Values
The first-time feature filmmaker talks about his Snow White arriving second in theaters, adapting iconic source material successfully, and choosing to use CGI to create his Dwarves.
Because neither Snow White and the Huntsman nor Mirror Mirror has been released yet, it has yet to be decided whether director Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of the Snow White story has the easier, or the more unenviable task of being the second of the two to arrive in theaters. But early trailers and images from both suggest that Sanders’ film is dramatically different than Tarsem’s, indicating that the success of the respective films won’t come down to their release date but whether audiences prefer MIrror Mirror’s funny, fantastical interpretation, or Sanders’ decidedly more serious approach to the source material.
Sanders appeared at the 2012 WonderCon in Anaheim, CA on Saturday to premiere new footage from the film, which opens nationwide June 1, 2012. After his appearance in front of a capacity crowd in the Anaheim Convention Center’s exhibition hall, Sanders spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of coming (chronologically) second to another Snow White interpretation, setting the tone for his film, and finding the right balance between classic adventure and contemporary values.
The Hollywood Reporter: This of course is your first feature after directing several big commercials with mini-narratives. Is the difference between commercials and feature films as big as people seem to assume?
Sanders: To be honest, no. A commercial is a sprint – you have an idea, you work on it, you work on a story, and then it’s like bang! You’re going for three weeks. This is a year, so it’s a very different [process,] and we were working exceptionally hard. We had 45 setups a day, and we had a big story to get in quite a small space of time, so it wasn’t a walk in the park, but when you’re doing what you love, you’re willing to take the knocks, and it was a lot of fun doing it.
THR: Are you having to keep an eye on what people are responding to in Mirror, Mirror as you’re finalizing your film and maximizing what people might like?
Sanders: Not really. I think the best thing you do is you get on and you make your film and you market your film to the strengths of that film – as though there was no other film. I think Mirror, Mirror has been great because it’s been talked about a lot and both of our projects have been talked about a lot, but I think obviously they’re different films and we’re obviously aimed at a very different target audience. It’s made by two people with very different tastes, and ours is ours and theirs is theirs – it’s like chalk and cheese.
THR: Talk about the tone that you were specifically interested in for Snow White and the Huntsman.
Sanders: I think as a filmmaker, if you don’t make something from the heart and something to your tastes, then you’re doing a disservice to your material. I did the film because I found myself in those pages and I found something that I loved, and so I made the film that I was excited to make, and I made the film for my audience. And I think that you have to make a film for yourself and hope that when people see it they get excited by it. And it’s a big medieval, knights-in-shining-armor, tattered battle flags, castles with trebuchets and arrows in the neck – a big, gritty action-packed adventure with a lot of kind of magic and magical realism and symbolism and it’s a very rich tapestry. We created a big bible going into it of the world, and how the world looked and felt, and so it was a big journey creatively to amass that kind of material.
THR: What sort of direction did you give Charlize Theron in playing the Queen, since that character can be interpreted in so many juicy sorts of ways?
Sanders: You don’t want an actor who’s a puppet, you want an actor who challenges you creatively. And that happens with all actors that are good – we always have a conversation about the scene. A director is a kind of sculptor of those performances, rather than like, “you’ve GOT to lift the cup like that or I’m walking off of the set.” We made the film very collectively and very collaboratively, and we were a very friendly and close group of people. I’m a very collaborative director and very collaborative with actors, and that’s when you get the best out of each other.
THR: Why did you opt to create dwarves using CGI-augmented versions of full-sized actors as opposed to finding little people for those roles?
Sanders: It’s like there’s not that many little people on earth. And if you took the amount of full-size people versus the amount of little people and you figured out how many great actors there are who are full-sized people and then you work that into little people, the pool of little-people actors is actually quite small. And I really wanted to go after the best British actors. But we worked with a lot of little people, and that was actually some of the most fun we had with the film – listening to those guys cackling and they were really the life and the soul of the party. But I wanted to work with Bob Hoskins, I wanted to work with Ian McShane, I wanted to work with Ray Winstone; I basically took my line-up for a gangster film I wanted to make and I made them my dwarves. So it was great to work with those guys. And it wasn’t like, well, we have to shrink them, but we just felt it was a way to go that was different. Plus, Tarsem had cost all of the other ones.
THR: Did casting those actors instead of little people allow you to do anything differently when it came to the action or physical demands of the film?
Sanders: No, and to be honest, a lot of the action was done by real little people. Basically, what it allows you to do is work with eight incredible actors and you let them go and they do what actors of their caliber do – which is one in a million, and that’s why we cast those guys. A lot of the little people have their prosthetic faces on and they’re doing the action, so there’s like great photographs of the eight dwarves of with their eight body doubles. It’s the best of both worlds, really.
THR: How tough was it to balance a sense of classicism and then a heroine that audiences would think was not a victim but was instead empowered?
Sanders: Because she leads by example – she’s a leader, not a follower. She’s actually, ironically, the victim; everyone in the film has suffered a great loss, and she’s the one who’s dealing with the loss in a reactive way. Everyone else has shied away into alcohol or becoming highwaymen like the dwarves have, or the queen is basically taking life from everyone else. She’s suffered the loss of her kingdom, and the loss of her parents, and she’s going back to get it. She’s the only one who’s not a vulnerable victim, ultimately.
THR: What in terms of the iconography of the Snow White story did you want to either avoid or reinvent to give it a new identity for your film?
Sanders: I think that ironically Snow White is one of the best-known fairy tales, but actually it’s been told very few times successfully. I think everyone talks about the Disney version which was , so 60 years later we’re allowed to make another version of it. But I went back to those symbols, like the drops of blood, the mirror, the sense of loss, the sense of jealousy, the poison apple, the kiss of a love, and all of those things are in there. And to me, you have to go back to that source material because that’s what people want to see – and you have to tell it in a way that feels right for your tastes. I didn’t sit down and go “well, what would people want to see,” I thought, what would be a cool mirror man, and how would that work? How would the character learn from it and how would we learn about the character through those interactions with the mirror? So everything in the film comes from the narrative and blossoms out into the story; there’s no kind of ‘we’ll slap loads of CGI on it and hope that something great comes of it’.