Over the past few days, you've probably been reading along as I shared my interviews with Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning and Sharlto Copley - or at least I hope you have! When we watch a powerful movie like Disney's Maleficent, it's easy to focus on the scenery and special effects, and of course the actors bringing these characters to life on the big screen are largely responsible for the success of a film. But...with a live action film such as Maleficent, it is easy to overlook the Director - in this case, Robert Stromberg.
While in LA attending the press junket for Maleficent last week, we also had the opportunity to interview Director Robert Stromberg and I think what he shared with us really helps to paint the whole picture of the making of the film.
Once you see the movie - you're going to see Maleficent on opening night tomorrow, RIGHT? - you'll understand how pivotal a role the director really plays in bringing a movie like this together, even when he has a seasoned actress like Angelina Jolie in the lead role.
Now, we interviewed Director Robert Stromberg before we interviewed Angelina Jolie later in the day, so it was nice to speak to them at different times and hear different portions of the story. He said she was already signed to play Maleficent before he came to work on the film - and she told us later that she contacted Disney as soon as she heard about the project. It's funny the way things work out!
Was Angelina your first choice for the role of Maleficent or did you write this with her in mind?
She was actually already attached when Disney hired me. They were looking for a director, but she was already engaged with the character. She had wanted to do this character for a long time. So, lucky for me, I didn’t have to do much digging on that part. It was sort of this perfectly made iconic combination that I was blessed to have. What really surprised me, which was great, was the emotional depth and the richness of the emotional part of the character when you combine that with the image, it is what made it powerful.
Now, Robert Stromberg has previously never directed a film, so it was really cool to meet him and ask him questions about directing such a big movie on his first go-round!
So this being your directorial debut, what was different from being on set compared to being in the art department?
I’ve always wanted to be a director. You know, I used to make movies when I was a little kid and I was a huge Disney fan. I had an art teacher who was an ex-Disney artist. I used to draw like crazy, images, including Maleficent when I was five, six years old. And so I had always wanted to tell stories and be a director. I got sidetracked by this pesky art direction stuff, but it was part of the journey. I’m glad that I did all that stuff because it prepared me not only being around these big movies but also meeting a lot of great directors. I met Peter Weir and we became close friends on a movie called Master and Commander. He taught me a lot about how to talk to actors and to get at an emotional level with them. And then I spent four years with Jim Cameron and that was useful in how to be strong when you need to be. These are all directors but they do it in different ways. So I came into this with a lot of experience and not only that, you have to have emotion yourself. You have to have spent your life studying human behavior and really paying attention to why people react a certain way when they’re told something. It’s all those little bits of information plus all of the knowledge I got from just my experience with other directors. And then the confidence to be at the same level with somebody in finding the emotion of that character. That’s what made me feel comfortable in being a director.
What was your favorite scene to direct?
I think there are many, many different special moments. But, I suppose the christening scene because it was in the original film and we’re doing a retelling. It was very intentional that when you watch the movie you’ve learned a whole bunch of new material. When you get to that center point of the movie we shot that scene almost verbatim, word for word, from the classic cartoon version. And that was so that you now had all this new, fun information that you had learned and you understand why that character is doing what she’s doing. And then you get to see what happens after that. So I think it wasn’t challenging but for me personally as a film, Hollywood moment, just standing there, with several hundred extras in this huge set, and she came into the room in that costume and I was a big fan myself at that moment just in awe.
What was the creative process that you used creating the Moors and all the characters?
Over the years I have a file full of sketches and strange creatures and stuff that you wanna use one day. I always approach a movie with using the world itself as a psychological steering device. So, in other words, just for instance, at the beginning of this film we start off and it’s sort of happy and sunny and everything else. And the mood of the whole world goes dark with Maleficent and then comes back up again at the end. So I think it’s really interesting, not just as a designer but to create fun things…there’s no rule book there. That’s what’s fun about it is you just do a sketch and three months later it becomes something real. The interesting thing I’ve learned over the projects that I’ve done is how you can steer the audience and make the audience feel something, even if they’re not aware that that’s how things are done. So that was where I started. I’m a big fan of Eyvind Earle, but the look of the original design was a bit too stylized for this sort of emotional, organic, grounded-in-reality story that we’re trying to tell. So that would be distracting in this case. But it was important to me to keep the essence of what that design was that Eyvind Earle had done. So if you really look at the film you’ll see elements that you could say he would have done.
What was the most difficult thing to bring to the big screen for this film?
It’s just getting through the film and still carrying a big, beating heart under your arm as you make it through this jungle. Someone once told me, directing is like painting in a hurricane. And it’s true. I can’t pick one thing that was challenging because just making a movie at this scale, you’re constantly juggling chainsaws and trying to draw pretty pictures at the same time. I think the challenge is to make it, bring all these huge elements together and at the end of all that, have something with heart, soul and emotion. I’m always amazed at how movies get made at all. There’s so many pieces that have to come together that it really is a fascinating process. I’m still fascinated even though I’ve been doing this for twenty-eight years. I’m still as fascinated today as I was when I was five years old.
Were there other things you felt absolutely had to be captured in this movie that was in the original movie?
We had to steer away from certain elements but it was really important that you walk away from this film, as a fan of the original film with enough that you can relate to the comparison. You could walk away saying, “You know, I learned all this new, cool stuff, but,” it was still Sleeping Beauty. We changed a certain amount of things, but that was another delicate path. Because when you’re telling or retelling a story, you have to do things that are different to make the dots connect. It was really important to keep enough elements from the classic that, hopefully, the fans would respect that we tried to do that and also you would walk away saying, “I just saw Sleeping Beauty but I saw so many different new sides of it.” That was the intent.
You said you had to stay true to the original Sleeping Beauty, but did you still have creative license in what you got to do?
Well, Linda Woolverton wrote the script. A lot of times when you’re in the moment, it looks better on paper than it does when you’re actually seeing how two characters are reacting to each other, or how a scene plays out. So, part of what you learn as a director is how to adapt in a situation and understand that something is just not right and to adjust it so that it is. I’ve always told people that whether I’m doing a painting, which is a composition, compositional rhythm, or music is its own rhythm, a dialog can be a rhythm too. And if it’s off, if one inflection is off slightly you have to recognize that because it makes a huge difference emotionally in how you’re supposed to feel watching it.
You mentioned possibly hearing the original Maleficent’s laugh. Are there any kind of Easter eggs for us to look for in the movie?
Good question. I’m sure there is. I know we did some stuff because I would tell the prop people to just put a little thing here that looks like… There are some things. I love adding little bits because when you catch it, it’s like, oh cool, look what they did.
Note to self...look for Easter Eggs! If you don't know what an Easter Egg is, it's a term where there's a little bonus item hidden in a movie scene. Like in Oz the Great and Powerful, there was a little Tin Man hidden in one scene, as an homage to the original Wizard of Oz movie.
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MALEFICENT is rated PG and releases in theaters everywhere on May 30th!
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