Known for his work in the commercial industry – Sanders has taken his first step into directing with this epic take on the much loved fairy tale, featuring a star-studded cast with the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart. Sanders discusses with us his work in getting this film off the ground, as well as working alongside such talent. Sanders also admits to finding equal difficulty in directing his very own wife Liberty Ross, who also stars in the film.
Not many first filmmakers can boast a film of this pedigree, how much did you have to push to get it made?
Joe Roth developed the script internally and I came on board and worked on it and we went out to all the studios and Universal were the most excited about it, and they wanted to make it quickly so we kind of had what they call a “proceed to production,” so they’d buy our project as a means to make it not just to buy it and warehouse it, and I think once I made that three minute piece that showed my take on the film, they really started to hit the gas so I wasn’t out there for years trying to get this made, it wasn’t one of those labour of love films. It was something I discovered, really wanted to do, the studio really wanted to do it, so it pushed forward quite quickly and we started filming in September last year, and here we are 8 months later with the film finished. It’s about a third of the time it usually takes so its been a really quick process.
Were you at all surprised that it all went ahead given that your lack of Texperience in film?
Yeah you know you’re always waiting for someone to go “Er, excuse me mate” but once you’ve got the green light, you’re always pushing forward until you’re told that its actually not happening, so once you’re on set and once things are constructed you realise it is happening and you just keep pushing forward each day and hope no one is going to stop you.
You must be thrilled with your three leads, but was it difficult getting the cast together?
It was amazing. I think it was just a great time for all of them and they were all looking for something like this, and none of them had ever really done anything like this. You know Kristen was looking for something different and interesting coming off Twilight, Charlize had had some time off and wanted to come back to do something different as she’ss never done a kind of big period movie, and Chris is still known as Thor, so to be able to naturalise him a bit and give him something to work with to get a great performance out of him was great.
As a Brit yourself it must have been wonderful casting those dwarfs to work alongside?
Yeah it was and thee great thing about it is that you are star struck in your first meeting and in the next one they are all really professional and get down to work. They worked really hard those guys, it wasn’t easy to train to walk and move and it wasn’t easy to wear prosthetics every day and they were always up at three in the morning, long before we got to set, getting their make up done, so it was grueling for them.
It sounds like everyone worked really hard just to get this going.
They did you know, I think the important thing that we did, was that we created enough material, ideas and enough illustrations. I came to them armed with the world, the journey, the story and the characters, so I think all of them came on board because of that and were excited because of that. Nick Frost said Tthis is real film making” when he turned up on this massive set. Everyone did get on board, it was a hard shoot, and it is hard shooting in the British climate outdoors with all the elements thrown at you, and the lights constantly changing and you’re under the Heathrow flight pass so its an intense 95 days or whatever it was.
As a director, did you feel more pressure taking a well-known and well-loved fairy tale that people are so familiar with?
Yes, I think the awareness of the title, which in this market place is something you need badly, were in a time where studios are making less films, bigger films and they’re looking for sequels, properties that exist which have that awareness, so this was a kind of left field version of that. People know it so well but also its nice to play with those expectations and ultimately you’re making your own interpretation of it. If you put on a Shakespeare production, you know you’ve got to do your best with the material but you’ve also got to try and find yourself in it, otherwise there would have been a million versions of Hamlet over the last couple of hundred years, but everyone’s done their own interpretations of it.
From the ageing of the Queen to the troll, there was a fair amount of special and visual effects used – was it quite difficult to get a feel for how it was going to look when shooting, and does it look like you expected it to?
I’ve worked with the same visual effects supervisor for eight years and we both know visual effects very well. He was a very crucial part of the film for me, he designed the troll, the fairy things at the end, and you go into it with previews and concept art so you know what the creatures going to look like. It’s great when you see the details and the troll come to life because it’s easy to make a CG I character, but its harder to make one which you are scared of and emotionally connected to which the troll needed to be. I love visual effects, I love special effects but they’ve all got to come from the story and they’ve all got to feel real for me because they’re fantastical.
Obviously your wife Liberty Ross is in the film as Snow White’s mother – what was it like working alongside her and directing her? Was it easier directing her because you’re so close to her, or was it actually more difficult?
It was certainly one of my most nervous days to be honest, because I didn’t want everyone going “Oh you know, he put his wife in there”. But I was so excited to get the chance to work with her and she did a great job and I was really proud of her. She is very like that, she’s a mother and she’s quite aristocratic, so it wasn’t like she was playing something that I’d never seen her do. It’s hard because when you’re directing someone you know very well, its hard to separate them from the character. It’s like when you see a friend of yours acting on the TV, there’s something you can’t quite see correctly because you know them so well. She did an incredible job and I think she really epitomized the heart of the royal.
She does look like she could be Snow White’s mother as well…
I know she does, it just works. Look, I wouldn’t have cast her if she was blonde and hugely buxom and didn’t look anything like her. It was actually Joe Roth who really cast her, so it was great that everyone agreed with that and she did a great job.
You spoke earlier about about working in Britain, was that a conscious decision to try and find places to work in your home country or is that just what worked out best?
To be honest it’s purely financial, the British government has given a tax credit to the film industry so big Hollywood movies can come with huge amounts of money and get a tax break, so we were shooting in between Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and Ridely Scott’s Prometheus at Pinewood and Les Miserables were going on, so Pinewood is busy at the moment. It was brilliant for me not having to go to Latvia or somewhere. I drew a lot of inspiration from England, I love the British countryside and the Pagan standing stone side of England and its nice to incorporate some of that into the film.
How did the weather hold up?
It wasn’t too bad, we had two scenes when we needed good weather, obviously the enchanted forest would have looked bad if it was dreary and raining – but it did, it held for us. We were damn lucky.
Talking of the enchanted forest, in terms of the narrative, it wasn’t that important as such, but it was beautifully arranged, what was your thinking behind that?
I just wanted to find something that felt like what everyone was fighting for and what we were prepared to die for, and for it to be a spiritual awakening in her and the Dwarfs realization that she meant something. Really the idea was that the fairies travel in these avatar birds and rabbits so they can go out of the enchanted forest into the real world. Really those fairies are leading her to the great father who is the white heart who will really bless her and say that nature is behind her, giving her that acknowledgment. It’s not a massive plot point but it just seemed like a let up in the film and more of a magical, spiritual element rather than just dialogue.
However the general ambiance to the film is actually quite dark. Was it always to your intention to make it that way inclined?
I think the story is pretty dark and the medieval times were pretty dark, there wasn’t much fun times going on in the 1400s and 1500s which is when we loosely set it. People were dirty, there was no light, so I just wanted to let it feel real to that. The fairy tales to me, the most exciting bit of them is the darkness but I think what we did is manage to balance that with the Dwarfs breaking out of the darkness. I find films that are dark visually all the way through, thematically get very oppressive. You need to keep changing the palette but there’s a lot of brutal stuff going on but at the same time – you need the dark to see the light as well. She’s getting out of a dark world and I think it needed to be there.
Do you think this is the path you’re going to go down now? Or can you see a smaller drama in you?
Yeah, totally. Although this is being marketed as a blockbuster that’s big and epic, its got something different to it, it’s not shouting from within the film, “I’m a blockbuster, I’m a blockbuster “. It’s ironic that other people think it’s pretty amazing that you made a film like that, in that budget, for a summer audience, because it isn’t treating the audience like idiots, it’s giving a lot to them to take away, and it’s rich and it’s letting the people do the work. It’s not wall-to-wall dialogue and ultimately it just pops out as being a different film, and I’m happy that way but it just depends on the script really. But whatever the script, this needed to be this size, it wasn’t a kitchen sink drama that I said “there’s a blockbuster in here”, I’m just really excited at the prospect of making film.
Although being completely different productions, it is quite strange that Mirror Mirror came out recently, making for two Snow White adaptations within the matter of months. Were you aware of that being made, and if so, did you know it was going to be quite light-hearted?
It’s not nice when someone else is making a film around the same things at the same time as yours, but there was a lot more politics going on than I really cared to get involved with. Joe Roth who has made 200 movies and run two studios said just make your own movie and forget about it and it wasn’t until I saw that first trailer that I realised how different they were, and I never steered from my course at all, I just made my film.
Was there ever any desire to go down a more pantomime route?
I think I’ll leave the pantomime aspect to the other one, I wanted to make a very serious medieval epic that had this kind of fairy tale element to it. A lot of the previous types of films in this realm are serious medieval epics which are based on fantasy – ours was different because it was based on a fairytale. There are just slightly different thematics and rules between fantasy and fairytale, I just wanted to make a big historical war movie really, and the only way to make that at this scale is to bring something different to it, which is the fairy tale element and also in the name.
So what’s coming up for you now? Have you got anything lined up or are you just happy to revel in Snow White and the Huntsman for now?
I wouldn’t say reveling, I think it’s more recoiling in the exhaustion of it. I think I will take a few weeks off and then probably do a couple of commercials to try and get my eye in again, then we’ll see whats going on. I’ve got things I’ve been working on and I’m working on, and there’s obviously talk of a sequel and we’ll figure out if we’re going to do that in the next few months. I’m going to be open to stuff and read stuff, and maybe see how things have changed a bit and I might get another shot out. It’s an exciting time.
Is a sequel to this a possibility then?
I’d definitely entertain the idea because I enjoyed making this. If it was going to another world with a great story then it would definitely be something I’d do.