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Coming off of I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie was a bold and inspired choice to direct a Disney origin story about Cruella de Vil, the evil heiress from the 101 Dalmatians stories. But now it’s hard to imagine anyone but the Australian filmmaker at the helm of Cruella, which has been praised for its unique identity within Disney’s oeuvre. Gillespie, who’d previously worked with Disney’s president of production, Sean Bailey, on 2014’s Million Dollar Arm and 2016’s The Finest Hours, couldn’t resist Bailey’s pitch involving Emma Stone, 1970s London and the punk rock movement.
Gillespie tells The Hollywood Reporter: “As every production head came in to join the film, I would immediately stop them and say, ‘We’re not making a Disney movie. Don’t think of this like a Disney film. Think of this like a coming-of-age punk story in London with all the grit.’ And then I’d show them these images, and very quickly, everybody got it. So we just ran with it.”
Gillespie is currently shooting the highly anticipated Hulu series Pam & Tommy, which chronicles the fallout of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s stolen sex tape. On May 8, the first character photos of series leads Lily James and Sebastian Stan were released to massive fanfare. Even the set of the show could feel the reverberations of social media.
“I was in the middle of shooting that day on Pam & Tommy, and every time I stepped out of the set, everybody was kind of going nuts about the response that was happening,” Gillespie shares. “I actually wasn’t even sure they were dropping photographs. But they were the photographs that I had wanted them to drop, particularly that black-and-white one. I just so felt that it encapsulated their relationship, in the show as well.”
Gillespie can’t say enough about the transformation of James and how she’s achieving something far greater than an impersonation.
“It’s such a tall order whenever you’re taking on iconic characters in the media, and they’re going to be scrutinized a lot,” Gillespie explains. “And trying to take on a character like Pamela, who’s so familiar, and to be able to do what is not just an impersonation, is a daunting task for an actor. I think audiences will be incredibly surprised by just how much Lily’s been able to bring that character to life as a fully formed person, as opposed to an impersonation.”
Stan, who previously played Jeff Gillooly for Gillespie in I, Tonya, is also showing off his dramatic range in a way that is markedly different from the rest of his filmography.
“He’s so talented and is absolutely killing it,” Gillespie raves. “Tommy Lee has this energy and this spontaneity to him that I just haven’t seen in Sebastian’s work, necessarily, before. It’s a completely different version of anything I’m familiar with in regard to him. But innately, I felt like he could get there, and he’s done so much work, even physically transforming himself to get to that place. The two of them in scenes together, I’m finding them quite electric.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Gillespie also discusses the last-minute changes to Stone’s most important scene in Cruella, as well as society’s role in creating the Pam & Tommy story.
Cruella enters into territory that is unique from most Disney movies. In hindsight, are you surprised that you were allowed or able to go to some darker places?
Sean Bailey — who I’d done a couple of Disney films with and had a great experience — called me after I, Tonya, which obviously goes to some dark places. And he said, “What do you think about Emma Stone playing Cruella in 1970s London and doing a whole punk soundtrack with The Clash, The Ramones and Blondie?” That was so intriguing to me, and the fact that he came to me with that proposition, immediately you could hear that they wanted to do a darker version. Trying to find where that line was was sort of exciting and daunting at the same time. They came to me after I, Tonya, so they seemed to really want to lean into the darker side of the Disney villain universe. So I seized the opportunity, and I waited for somebody to say no to me. All along the way, I just kept leaning into it and going for it with all our production heads, and they were incredibly supportive.
The punk rock underpinnings really were a nice touch, especially since it’s intrinsic to the time and place.
Literally, all my reference that I started pulling was photography of that era and the club scene in that era like King’s Road and the squatters in Notting Hill. There was a real grit to it. So I felt like we had this opportunity with what Disney was asking and it being a villain. This was not a negative, but as every production head came in to join the film, I would immediately stop them and say, “We’re not making a Disney movie. Don’t think of this like a Disney film. Think of this like a coming-of-age punk story in London with all the grit.” And then I’d show them these images, and very quickly, everybody got it. So we just ran with it.
Historically, Cruella is known as a villain, but you humanized her in the same manner as the vilified Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. When you were putting this movie together, did you find yourself approaching Cruella in a similar manner as Tonya?
Well, just in terms of humanizing, obviously, there’s the headlines about Tonya Harding, and there was the logline about Cruella. So that’s all we know about her, and that’s all we’ve ever thought of her. I find when you really get to analyze people and the choices that they’ve made that get them into the situations that they’ve gotten into — and you really see the backstory of what’s informed those choices — you might not agree with them, but you get to empathize. I think, for the most part, people aren’t necessarily evil. I actually like to think that there’s good people that do bad things, and obviously with villains, they always think they’re doing the right thing. They always think they’re doing it for the betterment of something or whatever their cause is. So trying to analyze that and have the audience go on that journey, they don’t have to condone what she’s doing or necessarily root for it, but understand it. And then maybe they’ll be conflicted with empathy, which is really interesting to me. It makes the characters much more nuanced.
With Emma Stone on board, I’m sure you knew exactly what you were getting, but was there a particular scene or moment on set where she outdid herself even more?
She was on board before I was, and I was thrilled with the possibility of working with her. And there was the comic side of her, which I was familiar with, but she just has that really goofy, almost Lucille Ball kind of style. So the Estella-Liberty’s stuff was just so fun to sort of escalate that and those extremes. And then on the Cruella side, it was just the versatility that she had because Cruella was a much more complicated character than I’d even thought of at first. With Tony McNamara’s writing, there are various emotional iterations to Cruella. So the first Cruella we meet at the ball in the red dress is a little bit more heightened and cartoonish because it’s her putting on a character and she’s not embodying that Cruella. She’s coming at it from the outside as a performance. And then she goes through this emotional trauma, and it’s a very internal, dark Cruella that comes up almost in the very next scene. So seeing her have to go through all of those nuances, it was amazing to watch.
Let’s pretend you’re producing next year’s Oscars. Are you choosing the third act monologue in front of the fountain as Emma’s Oscar clip?
(Laughs.) I love that you mention that clip because that’s the heart of the film for me. And it’s also, in an odd way, the scene that really almost brings me to tears when I think of her and her performance and how vulnerable she is in that. On the day we were doing this enormous tentpole film, there’d been a lot of energy and a lot of camerawork going on at all these different places, and this scene had always been looming. It was really the big emotional set piece of the film, and Emma knows she has to deliver. I designed it with my DP, Nicolas Karakatsanis, and we had technocranes and coverage. And then I’d been listening to a piece of music that I really thought set the mood for that scene, and I sent it to Emma on the morning of that day. We were going to be shooting it at dusk, and I said, “This is the mood of what I’m thinking about for this scene.” And as I was listening to the music that morning, I decided, “You know what? I think this just needs to be one camera, handheld,” which is not what you’d expect for a film of this size. And it’s almost a 270-degree move, so there’s no crew around and it’s just Nicolas with a camera and a gaffer with a bounce board for light. So I called her and I said, “Look, I think I want to do this one camera, handheld. I’m going to shoot it at dusk, so you’re going to have 20 minutes. And I’m going to keep rolling until it’s dark, so don’t think that you’re doing anything wrong. I’m just going to get as many takes as we can get.” And I just knew she could deliver. And every performance was just astounding, and there were just all different nuances. So she just carried that on her shoulders, and it really was a highlight for me.
Estella, Horace and Jasper become quite the grifters. Did you have a pickpocket coach or a swindling specialist on set to help orchestrate these tricks?
You know, there was somebody. We did have somebody that came in for a day and consulted and talked about various techniques and grifts that people do on the streets, which we could work with. So that was something that we checked into. (Laughs.) I know the differences and the very colorful descriptions of them. (Laughs.)
The department store oner. Was that precision drone operating? How did you pull that off?
It was three different locations. It was a drone outside that goes through the glass, and then it was a cable camera on a set that we built for Liberty’s because we couldn’t shoot inside the real Liberty’s because they couldn’t turn them into a 1970s version overnight. So that was a cable cam. It comes down and turns into a steadicam, and then turns into a movicam on a third location, which is all the basement work that was done with a different camera operator. So yeah, it was all stitched together.
Thanks for letting Paul Walter Hauser be Bob Hoskins.
(Laughs.) Paul’s amazing and I had wanted him from the get-go for this. We had such an amazing experience on I, Tonya. And he has such a complexity to his comedy that it’s never just on the surface, and I was so excited that he could bring that to this.
The already-iconic trash dress was practical, right?
Ultimately, there was a little bit of CG, even though we shot it practically. We gave a little bit of movement to the dress in the wide shot. But in the shot where she’s on the back of the garbage truck, there’s a 60-foot train that’s completely practical with wires giving it movement that we augmented. We added another 40 feet to it, I think, in post. But the first 60 feet of it is on the streets of London at 3 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night. (Laughs.)
Was it painful to have to destroy or fold up these sets?
Yeah, Fiona Crombie did such an amazing job. There’s some massive sets on this. But there’s just such a scarcity of space that literally two days after we finished shooting a set, they would be tearing it down. That was hard to see because of the craftsmanship involved and just the detail and the scale of them. The Baroness’ hall was the largest of the sets, but also the Baroness’ work space with all that raw iron, glass and tilework. They were just magnificent.
As far as composers go, Nicholas Britell is as good as it gets right now. What’s he like as a collaborator?
It was honestly an amazing experience. When we talked about the film, I kind of warned him that from our experience on I, Tonya and having so many rock songs in the movie, it puts a whole different weight on the score because the score’s got to compete with that. It surprisingly has to be more aggressive and even paced up in a lot of places. So I sort of gave him the heads-up that there was going to be 50 songs in this film. And he saw the temp film with the songs in there, and he came up with this brilliant approach, which was to do a rock’n’roll score. And I couldn’t really point to another rock’n’roll score in a film. It’s a difficult thing to do because you don’t have the same kind of manipulation with being able to stop and start like you would with an orchestra. There’s a rhythm to it that he had to deal with, but he laid in this very complex score. At certain times, it’d be a piece of music that had 132 tracks on it, and it was rock’n’roll; it was orchestral with so many different instruments. But the really interesting thing about working with Nick is his collaboration and the way he likes to approach it, which is to really sort of get into my head. So for four months, every week, I would go and sit on his sofa, and we’d sit there for hours. And sometimes, we’d work for six hours on one cue and really break it down and try to figure it out. He would literally be composing in front of me, adding instruments and building it and building it. And then he’d take that framework and build on that through the weeks. So it was such an intimate process and such an amazing journey to be able to see him bring it to life in person, which is so rare.
Well, Craig, you broke the Internet a few weeks ago when the first Pam & Tommy photos were released. Have your hair and makeup department heads already started writing their Emmy speeches?
(Laughs.) I was in the middle of shooting that day on Pam & Tommy, and every time I stepped out of the set, everybody was kind of going nuts about the response that was happening. I didn’t expect it at all. I actually wasn’t even sure they were dropping photographs. But they were the photographs that I had wanted them to drop, particularly that black-and-white one. I just so felt that it encapsulated their relationship, in the show as well. So it’s been an incredible journey for them to do that transformation, physically with their training, but also what they’re doing as actors. It’s such a tall order whenever you’re taking on iconic characters in the media, and they’re going to be scrutinized a lot. And trying to take on a character like Pamela, who’s so familiar, and to be able to do what is not just an impersonation, is a daunting task for an actor. I think audiences will be incredibly surprised by just how much Lily’s [James] been able to bring that character to life as a fully formed person, as opposed to an impersonation.
I just love how Sebastian is capable of playing both Jeff Gillooly and Tommy Lee.
(Laughs.) How’s that for range!? He’s so talented and is absolutely killing it. Tommy Lee has this energy and this spontaneity to him that I just haven’t seen in Sebastian’s work, necessarily, before. It’s a completely different version of anything I’m familiar with in regard to him. But innately, I felt like he could get there, and he’s done so much work, even physically transforming himself to get to that place. It’s been so much fun to do, I’ve got to say. The two of them in scenes together, I’m finding them quite electric.
Did you set out to give Pam and Tommy the I, Tonya treatment, or did you not think of it in those terms?
Actually, I honestly did. There are similar parallels to the journey of this. There’s this very public persona of what that was, and people kind of know it and think they know the story. So we’re able to delve into it and actually really look at them as human beings in this. The true story was so destructive to their lives, and we’re able to hold a mirror up to ourselves as being culpable in the way that we devour media and people’s lives without any concern for the repercussions that it’s having on those individuals. The showrunners, Rob Siegel and D.V. [DeVincentis], have done a really interesting job. And so in a similar way, I think you come into this show because of the salacious nature of it, and then you get to realize that we’re culpable in even watching it for those reasons.
I was telling Paul that I’d love to see a Chris Farley biopic that’s led by the two of you, even though Paul had to move on from that idea. But are there any other ‘90s stories you’ve set your sights on?
(Laughs.) It’s funny because it’s always the material. It’s never the decade in all these cases. They just wrote incredibly compelling scripts for Pam & Tommy, and I immediately was like, “I just have to be involved in this.” Cruella was a bit of a journey because it was an incredibly enticing idea. We had to sort of get it into a place tonally so that I felt like I could bring something to it, and bringing Tony McNamara on board got that tone that I could gravitate towards. But it’s always the material. It’s always the script.
Cruella is now available in theaters nationwide, as well as Disney+ Premier Access.
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