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Interview with 'Snow White and the Huntsman' Director Rupert Sanders

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Poster for 'Snow White and the Huntsman'

Poster for 'Snow White and the Huntsman'

© Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures' Snow White and the Huntsman is a dark fairy tale with everyone character suffering from the loss of someone of importance to them. Even the Evil Queen is motivated by loss and the need to avenge the deaths of loved ones, according to director Rupert Sanders. And at the 2012 WonderCon, Sanders talked about how his cast handled their roles in this gritty version of the classic tale.

Charlize Theron plays the Evil Queen and Sanders told us in an interview after Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman panel that she plays it straight, grounding her performance in reality. Kristen Stewart, best known to millions of Twilight fans as Bella Swan, is Sanders' Snow White and the director (who's making his feature film directorial debut with Snow White and the Huntsman) said she's nothing like Twilight's Bella in reality. Stewart handles a sword, an English accent, and had to get over her fear of horseback riding to play this armor-wearing Snow White, and Sanders had nothing but compliments for her ability to tackle the film's lead role.

Director Rupert Sanders Snow White and the Huntsman Interview:

What made you decide to tackle such a huge film as your first feature?

Rupert Sanders: "Yeah, it is a big film. I couldn’t get a small film, ironically. It’s much harder to get a small film off the ground than it is to get a big film off the ground. But, the high stakes gamble on the roulette table is that, if it doesn’t fall on your color, you’re in a small prison in Burbank for the rest of your movie-making days. Hopefully, that would happen."

You've done big-scale commercials. Did that help prepare you?

Rupert Sanders: "Yeah, if you think of the money we spend on a minute, I’m actually making a fairly low-budget film. I’ve definitely loved doing commercials. I’ve had so much fun. I’ve traveled the world and I’ve gotten to really take on a lot of challenging projects. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s not dissimilar. It’s like riding a bike. Once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, then you can get on a motorbike. It gives you confidence, knowing that you can work with a thousand extras or a massive fight sequence with 600 horses on a beach or whatever it is. I wouldn’t have done it, if I’d been wetting myself every morning, going in there scared. But, life is about taking those risks. It was a high-stakes risk, for myself and for the studio, who very kindly wrote a large check to me to get it done. And they weren’t there whipping me into line, which was great. I was really expecting to be shuttered in, but they were great. They trusted what we were doing and they let us go, which is all you can really ask for in a partnership with a studio."

As you got to know her and work with her, what were the discoveries you made about Kristen Stewart as an actress, especially with how people perceive her from the Twilight Saga movies?

Rupert Sanders: "I think what I realized is that she’s such a good actor that everyone thinks she’s Bella Swan. They believe that that’s her. Obviously, an actor is playing a role. She is nothing like Bella. And, I got on really well with Kristen. It was great. As I was writing stuff, she was there. We had a lot of conversations, seeing through her eyes. We really worked hard on developing that character together. I was just amazed at her talent, really. She’s incredibly good at her craft. She’s incredibly instinctive. She’s incredibly intuitive. She will overcome fear, like no one I’ve met, when it comes to it. She didn’t really want to ride a horse. She had a bad horse-riding accident as a kid. When you’re riding fast on a horse, with 200 others soldiers on horses riding behind you, through surf on a beach, that’s terrifying. She really went there. She crafted the accent, and it’s flawless. She’s a stunning actor. I saw her first in Panic Room. Then, I saw her again in Into the Wild. I loved her in The Runaways. I loved her in Welcome to the Rileys. I think she’s going to be incredible in On the Road. She’s a great actor and people just go, 'Twilight girl,' which is a testament to her. She’s kept this pipeline of interesting projects going on the side, so she’s not just going to be that girl, forever more. She’s a great actor and she’s made incredibly shrewd decisions for someone who’s half my age."

Considering that, what were the challenges in ensuring that your film didn’t get distracted by the fact that this is the girl that so many people see as Bella Swan?

Rupert Sanders: "I’ve never seen the Twilight movies, so I didn’t really care that much. I met her, I really got on with her, she’s a great actor, and she was right for the character. That’s it. It was as simple as that, for me."

People haven’t gotten to see too much of her Snow White in the trailer footage thus far. Is that indicative of the movie, or are you just being really selective about how much you show?

Rupert Sanders: "No, she’s the lead. I’m not a marketing expert, but the way it’s positioned, I think we’re starting to bring her in more and more. We don’t want to give too much away. We just want to say, 'Here’s the bad person, and here’s someone who’s trying to get to her.' We’ve only done teaser trailers. The more stuff people see, the more they’ll see of her and the more they’ll be pretty blown away by what she did."

Charlie Theron is known as being a great actress. What did she bring to the role of the Evil Queen, which could have ended up being camp in the wrong hands?

Rupert Sanders: "When you’re playing an Evil Queen, you can go into pantomime very quickly. What she did, and what’s indicative of the film we tried to make, is that she grounded that in reality. She found a way of playing this character in a very modern, realistic and gritty way. She’s not, 'Off with her head!' She’s not the Alice in Wonderland kind of Queen. It’s not that kind of film. She’s playing it pretty straight, as a very disturbed character who’s desperately got to find this heart because she needs to live forever. It’s as simple as that. She’s someone who’s dead on the inside, but she’s determined that she will avenge her family and the tribe that she was with, that was constantly brutalized by kings and by other kingdoms. She’s determined that the world will feel the suffering that she felt, and she will stop at nothing to do that. She’s totally dead. She doesn’t feel anything of life, but she has to get that heart and she has to live forever and she has to avenge her people. She’s very driven by some very dark machinations. She’s also incredibly wounded and incredibly fragile underneath. It’s an incredible performance."

Will there be backstories for all of the other characters?

Rupert Sanders: "Yeah, all of them have very rich backstories. They’ve all suffered a great deal of loss. This queen took over a kingdom. She’s someone who’s suffered a lot of loss. She lost her family, she lost a tribe, and she found her way into this kingdom. Like a Trojan horse, she moves from kingdom to kingdom, hollowing them out from the inside. She’s like a siren who attracts these people to her beauty. The dwarves lost everything. They were down in the mines. They’re noble goldminers who see light in the darkness. When they came up from the mines, the world was blackened and they lost all the other people in their race. The Huntsman lost a wife. Snow White lost a kingdom, both her parents, and the love of the people. Everyone’s dealing with loss, in very different ways."

Fairy tale re-imaginings have been a staple in literature for some time, but now they’re also hot in Hollywood. Why is this the right time for that?

Rupert Sanders: "These things are cyclical, and they come and go. There’s been a lot of superheroes and this big scale of movie. They’re always looking for something that they know something about, whether it’s a comic book or a fairy tale. It just happens to be that this is the time for fairy tales. Also, it’s a financial thing. Once one makes a lot of money, then everyone gets on the bandwagon. The same producer that did this, did Alice in Wonderland previously. He started this up again."

How do you feel the tone of this differs from Alice in Wonderland?

Rupert Sanders: "That was very hallucinogenic and it was very CG-based and very otherworldly. Ours is a very realistic film. It’s really a big swash-buckling, knights in shining armor movie with lots of castles on hilltops and horse battles and shattering black armies. It’s a medieval fairy tale, the kind of scale of those films that people love, like Gladiator or Lawrence of Arabia. It’s got those big, sweeping vistas, and it’s a big, imaginative world."

How much are you aware of Tarsem Singh's Mirror, Mirror and what is your perspective on his vision for Snow White?

Rupert Sanders: "We used to be represented at the same company, so I know of Tarsem. It’s definitely a big veering from what he normally does. It’s comedy, which is something that Tarsem is not known for. We’re probably both getting a lot more publicity because both films are out there, but they’re very different. I think there’s room for both of them. I hope we both succeed, and I hope that people want to see two versions. People love to go, 'Oh, Hollywood is making two movies about the same thing. They’re so dumb.' So, everyone talks about it and I think it helps the awareness of the projects."

Do you plan on seeing his film?

Rupert Sanders: "I don’t know. [Laughing] If you see a hooded man in the back of the theater, [it will be me]."

Fairy tales have themes that speak to people, throughout generations, even though there are different spins on them. How do you think your film is going to speak eternally and specifically to what’s happening right now?

Rupert Sanders: "It’s a film that was made by a lot of people who are in their prime. You can’t really hope to make a film for any other reason then it turns you on. I say, 'This is what I want to do, and this is how I want to tell it.' You can’t sit down with a flow chart and go, 'Well, 90% of the people want to see a raven and 10% want to see this.' I’ll leave the focus groups to the marketing department. We just got on and made the film that we wanted to make. It was as simple as that."

Initially, fair tales functioned as parables in a broader sense. What is the particular message you’re telling with this?

Rupert Sanders: "The messages aren’t dissimilar. No one sat down and wrote the parables; they were word-of-mouth that were transcribed later over generations. These were stories that were told around the campfires, for God knows how many years before the Grimms wrote them. They are parables. They’re Biblical tales."

"The themes in ours are quite similar to the themes in the original. We’re dealing with a lesson in how to deal with some of those things that are difficult about the human condition, like loss and death. I hope that we haven’t been preachy and said, 'Our parable is this.' I hope there’s enough in there that people take their own lessons from it. What we really wanted to do was make a film that touched people and stayed with them. I didn’t want to just create wallpaper that looked pretty and dazzling, and then it was forgotten as you walked out into the street and got a taxi. I hope that it’s something that stays with people, and I hope that people get something from it. We did a test screening for a couple hundred people and there were a lot of young people there, and a lot of the response was very positive. People said, 'I really want my kids to see this kind of film because it’s not telling them to shoot people and drive fast cars.' It has moral messages, but it’s not like we’re saying, 'Here’s your moral message: You mustn’t wear make-up. You mustn’t have plastic surgery. Beauty is within.' All those things are obviously part of it, but it’s not like, 'Here’s our big message.'"

Before this, you were well known for your video game commercials, particularly for Halo. Was there ever any talk about you attempting to resurrect the Halo film?

Rupert Sanders: "No, no one called me. The industry is always looking for the next big thing. They’re always trying to take people from commercials and music videos and film school, and find that. It’s hard to find a project. I didn’t want to just make a film. I waited five years until I found a project that I really wanted to do. I was close on a couple of other things, and they didn’t work out. You put a lot of work into something, and then it just goes by the wayside. It’s a tough business and you have to stay strong, but you should never do something that isn’t within you. When I first read this story and started to work on it, I found that it was within me and it was a story I felt I could tell, rather than just going to do some comic book that no one was doing. It’s dangerous when you make a first film. You put so much of your life into it. I’ve done nothing but Snow White for over a year. It’s all-absorbing, and you have to do that, so you better make sure that you’re in love with it. It’s a marriage."

How appropriate is Snow White and The Huntsman for kids?

Rupert Sanders: "Well, it’s not for six year olds, but it’s for eight to 80. I think there’s a message in it for everyone. It’s certainly not for the kids who wear Snow White diapers."

What was your first exposure to the story of Snow White? When did you learn about the darker elements of the Grimm fairy tales?

Rupert Sanders: "I read that before I saw the Disney one. The Disney one is still pretty dark, even for Disney. It’s got, 'Bring me the heart, the lungs and the liver.' It’s a brutal story. In the original, she eats the heart, the lungs and the liver, and then finds out that it’s a deer. And then, at the end, to really rub in her jealousy, Snow White invites her to the wedding and makes her dance to the death in molten steel shoes. It’s a dark story. I don’t think we’ve shied away from the darkness, and Disney actually didn’t either. They just took a very different approach than we did, but the heart of the story is the same."

There are iconic elements to the Snow White story, like the apple and the mirror. How do you incorporate those elements, while also keeping the film grounded in reality?

Rupert Sanders: "You take the root of that idea: what is the mirror doing to the character of the Queen? Why is she asking it these things? What is it telling her? What does the apple symbolize? Going back to the parable, there are so many Biblical images in the story. All of those things are so laden, if you read a lot of Jung or Freud. With the mirror, the apple, the snake in the tree and the dark forest, it’s a very rich world. We’re still scared of dark forests, for some bizarre reason. There’s nothing scary about trees or birds, but if you put someone in a dark forest, they get scared."

What does it add to the mythology to make this version of Snow White a warrior princess?

Rupert Sanders: "Warrior princess is something that’s external, rather than being internal to the character. She wears a suit of armor, but she’s not suddenly Bruce Lee’s adopted sister. She is wearing armor for protection, and she has to kill a queen. She’s not beheading people. She doesn’t suddenly acquire these skills. It’s very instinctual and defensive. She knows she has to kill someone, and that is abhorrent to her. That sword lies very uneasy in her hand."

How did Kristen Stewart take to the sword work?

Rupert Sanders: "I put that sword in her hand, as I would put it in any of your hands. If I told you someone was going to come through that door who had done something terrible to you and you had to kill them, I’m sure you’d f**king give them a good run for their money. That’s really how she fights. She’s no ninja or samurai. It’s purely reactive."

What was it about this story that resonated the most for you?

Rupert Sanders: "For me, it was about loss and being pulled away from somewhere you were safe and you were exposed to something terrifying. You have to find that within you, in order to tell a story properly. A lot of my process, going into it, was to find those things that really connected to me, and that was a recurring theme. You’ll see a lot of people being pulled away from each other. Those things really resonated with me, and that’s what I put into the story."

Why did you decide to have eight dwarfs instead of seven?

Rupert Sanders: "I don’t know, really. It’s just weird, how those things happen. It wasn’t like, 'We’ve gotta have eight dwarves!' It was like, 'F**k it, let’s have eight dwarves.' The Snow White story, or Snowdrop story, just had dwarfs. We weren’t trying to beat Disney. We just wanted one more."

What role do they play in the film?

Rupert Sanders: "Mythologically, dwarfs are latent sexuality. They are half-men, so they’re about sexual awakening. There are no dwarf gang-bangs. It’s really about another group of people who have lost everything, and they are touched by Snow White, and they decide that they will fight for their pride again alongside her. They’re very instigative, in taking her kingdom back with her."

Are they still the comic relief?

Rupert Sanders: "They are funny, but it’s not slapstick humor. They’re funny because they’re funny guys. Ray Winstone delivers this beautiful, allegoric speech about what’s happened to them, as a tribe of people, and it’s really heartfelt. And then he goes off and is really funny. We just let them go. They’re a hysterical bunch."

How did you go about finding Kristen Stewart’s British accent for the role?

Rupert Sanders: "If you’re amongst the forest and there’s knights in armor, all looking chivalrous behind you, and then Snow White says, 'Is that, like, my castle?' So, it was important that she wasn’t Californian. To fit into the world, all of the characters have accents from that part of the world. Chris Hemsworth’s accent is Scottish, and Kristen’s accent is very royal English. She was really great at it, and she did the work. It’s easy to do an accent for a few minutes, but to be able to do it without thinking about it, so you can concentrate on the performance is very hard. She worked with one of the best British dialect coaches. It’s hours of work, and she did the work so that she was flawless. She didn’t need to worry about it and could get on with the performance."

* * * * *

Snow White and the Huntsman hits theaters on June 1, 2012.

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