Maleficent director Robert Stromberg talks bringing Sleeping Beauty to Life

An Oscar-winning art and production designer steps behind the camera for the first time on Maleficent.

Robert Stromberg has been working in the movie business for over 25 years, but is just now making his directorial debut with Disney’s Maleficent, the retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story through the eyes of the title character (Angelina Jolie). Before getting behind the camera on this film, Stromberg’s previous credits were as an art director, a production designer and a visual effects designer, with two Oscars on his shelf for his production design on James Cameron’s Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

His other design, art and visual effects credits include (deep breath): Oz the Great and PowerfulThe Hunger Games, Life of Pi, The Chronicles of Riddick, Ghost Rider, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Tropic Thunder, 2012, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and many more, while also consulting on visual effects for TV series like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire.

Stromberg has been around the business his whole life: his father was a cameraman and low-budget filmmaker (The Crater Lake Monster), no doubt setting Stromberg on the path that led him all the way to his assignment on Disney’s big-budget fairy tale. Den of Geek spoke with Stromberg at the movie’s recent press day about becoming a director, working with his formidable star and the future of filmmaking itself.

Den of Geek: What did making the leap to feature film director mean to you and how did it come at this time for you?

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Robert Stromberg: As a lot of people do, I’ve wanted to direct for a long time. You know, my dad was a low budget film director. I grew up as a kid making movies, based on the love of seeing what my dad was doing. So the bug of directing has been there my whole career. I feel like I’ve been ready to do that for a long time. The leap itself was — it wasn’t a leap of fear, it was sort of a relief in a way and something I was really looking forward to because I sort of conquered in my own mind the world building part of all these big films. The missing ingredient emotionally, or completing my own personal journey career wise, was this. And so I got the opportunity. I had over several years a trusting relationship with Joe Roth, a producer who produced Alice, Oz and also Maleficent. He gave me the opportunity and I seized it.

Were you ever on your dad’s sets?

Yeah, I was even in one of them when I was a little kid, you know, just in the background. But he’s a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen and those classic special effects guys back in the day. That’s where I was introduced to visual effects. I used to do stop motion in my own garage and Claymation and all that stuff. That led to doing backgrounds and matte paintings. I started doing matte paintings professionally back before the computer, sort of painting on glass. Then I made the transition to digital and concentrated on making environments — leading up to Avatar which, of course, was sort of the ultimate environment.

But along the way I met a lot of directors. When I met Peter Weir, we did a movie called Master and Commander together and that’s when I really started to understand the power of acting, the power of directing, finding the emotion in performance. It really opened my eyes, because he’s such a classy guy, Peter Weir, and the movies that he made, you really felt something organic and real about what he was doing. So that was the first time I really sort of felt that I had learned something very valuable. And then working with Jim Cameron was a whole other set of skills that a director has that you pay attention to. And many, many others — Tim Burton, Sam Raimi.

If you’re bringing your own emotional baggage, it’s really about learning how to deliver that and, as a director, how to interpret emotion. I never felt like I was trying to teach somebody how to act. I’m really interpreting emotion. And if you’ve paid attention in your own life, just observing human behavior and conversations and the outcomes of those conversations, you have a pretty good understanding of emotional tonality. As a director the biggest job is to discern the imperfections in emotional tone, and then view it in the global picture of what you’re trying to do, if that makes sense. It’s a rhythm, like music is a rhythm or composition and art is a rhythm. Dialogue is a rhythm as well. If there’s a note that’s off and you recognize it and you can change that I think that’s what qualifies you to be able to direct.

Was there any aspect of it that maybe caught you off guard or that you felt like you didn’t quite see coming?

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I can’t say that there was. One of the pleasant surprises and one of my favorite parts of directing was getting down in the trenches with the actors and to dig down deep and understand where they go emotionally to get to the point of a brilliant delivery. But with Angelina I think we had fun in the sense that we learned from each other. She showed me some great examples of the true art of acting and I think I was able to show her how to control and how to handle a big huge visual effects film. And so I think we compared notes, learned from each other and that made it a beautiful collaboration.

Away from the mystique and the public eye and everything, what’s it like to work with her face to face?

You know, I’ve been around sets for so long and around people who are famous that that doesn’t affect me. As a matter of fact, I need to be at the same level in order to get an honest emotional reaction. Any of that other stuff is the superficial stuff would only get in the way of finding the honesty of something. And so if you’re intimidated or distracted by that sort of thing then you probably shouldn’t direct.

There is a female empowerment angle to this film. Do you see it as part of an evolving continuum where lead roles for women are coming of age in this kind of material?

Perhaps. I mean there are more and more strong female characters in real life than there used to be. I think it’s just a function of our time where the idea of the strong female character is not unusual to us, where it may have been 50 years ago. So why not take that and apply the same rules as you would to a superhero. Why not apply the same rules to a plot or a storyline? Some fun and new and interesting things may come out of that.

Why do you think fairy tales continue to have a modern resonance with people?

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Probably because fairy tales in general are just very simple stories really. Of course you can go back to the Grimm fairy tales and there was a darker quality to those things. But the Disney version of a fairy tale is a very simple thing. Light meets dark, you know, the princess meets prince, happily ever after. And I think we’ve still managed to somehow keep a lot of those elements of a fairy tale (in Maleficent). We’ve just sort of jumbled them up in a different way. There are elements in this movie which — there’s no question about it that they are fairy tale elements. It’s just maybe we’re looking at them in a slightly different way.

As someone who has worked in all areas of design in filmmaking and now from a directing viewpoint, what’s your long view of the way the visual art of filmmaking is going?

I’m always trying to — my mind is always wandering five years ahead. I’m doing what I think are some very exciting things in the technology of what storytelling may become. There are a lot of big changes ahead, exciting things. I’m trying to stay in front of the curve. I’ll leave it at that. We’ll talk again in two years.

Now that you’ve directed your first film, do you have any specific particular genres you really love that you would like to tackle for, say, your next three films?

Well I’ve always been a huge science fiction fan. Coming up through the ranks, I did a lot of work on the Star Trek films. I’m a huge fan of Ridley Scott and Alien. Jim Cameron’s Aliens. I love those types of films. I think just science fiction in general, maybe some more cerebral science fiction. My dad made monster movies, you know, so there’s a built in fascination with creatures and monsters. I’d love to one day maybe take a stab at that.

How involved were you in actually shaping the story of this film?

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Initially I was very much involved because we immediately went to London and I met many times with Linda Woolverton, the writer. We did lots of roundtable discussions and sort of cut out the fat as much as we could and sort of purified the storyline as much as we could because we had a very short pre-production on this movie. So we ended up shooting the film and assembling it, and we were a little long and decided that we wanted to get to the meat of the story a little sooner. So after the fact we rearranged the first act so that we could get to the crux of the story a bit quicker. That was really the only major change.

One thing that I realized is that you have to understand who your audience is. In our case, it’s a Disney film but we want families to come with their kids basically. To make a movie that’s two and a half hours long can be a bit much for young kids. So I was all for making the story within two hours. That’s an optimum running time if you’re planning enough time to develop the characters, find the heart of it and have enough action and adventure mixed in.

Did you have fun doing this?

Well, people have different definitions of fun. To me a definition of fun is being able to create freely, to do what you want, and express yourself freely and creatively. The unexpected pleasure was how much I really enjoyed working with the actors and getting into the trenches emotionally with them.

Maleficent is currently in theaters.

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