It was five years ago that Disney released Maleficent, a new live-action take on the classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale told from the point of view of the seemingly wicked title character. With Angelina Jolie (Eternals) starring, and the Disney marketing might behind it, it was no surprise that Maleficent was a hit, but its $758 million worldwide gross was startling all the same.
With a sequel being inevitable, Disney set out to move beyond the well-worn fable and into an original story. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil finds Maleficent and Princess Aurora (Teen Spirit‘s Elle Fanning) presiding over their relatively peaceful Moors and its population of magical creatures. But a marriage proposal to Aurora from Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) threatens to upend their lives as Phillip’s mother, the villainous Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) hatches a plan to wipe all the fairies out.
Taking over behind the camera is Joachim Rønning, the Norwegian-born filmmaker who, with his partner Espen Sandberg, co-directed 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales for the Mouse House. While that film had its share of troubles (and then some), Disney must have liked what they saw from Rønning enough that they felt comfortable handing him the keys to the potential Maleficent franchise.
Den of Geek had a chance to speak in person with Rønning, who came up in the world of international independent film, about moving from one tentpole movie to another, working with Angelina Jolie, and the roots of both the Maleficent: Mistress of Evil story and the mythology behind it.
Den of Geek: Did it seem like a natural segue for you to move from the last Pirates movie into this?
Joachim Rønning: Yeah, I think it did actually. I was very happy working with Disney. You hear horror stories about working for big studios in Hollywood, and Pirates being my first studio film, I was of course a little bit aware of that. But I had a very good experience, and I worked with the top people over there, and a lot of them were a part of Maleficent.
So for me, it’s probably a big part of me saying yes to doing the film, that we could continue our relationship. But then of course, I was very intrigued by the story and the characters. I was curious to what was it that made the first film into such a big hit. I think that it was because it surprised the audience and it was really a very emotional story. That became the most important thing for me in continuing to tell the next chapter in the story–just to follow the Maleficent-Aurora journey. And as a parent myself that’s what I can relate to.
Finding the emotional core regardless of what movie I’m doing has always been the most important thing for me. That said, it’s also, of course, a big spectacle and an event, and you have all the money in the world to make this movie. But at the end of the day, if you don’t relate to the characters, you don’t care.
What aspects of the story spoke to you the most?
Absolutely, that parent/child (relationship). Probably one of the biggest fears you have as a parent is that the day will come when you are not the most important person in that person’s life anymore. My daughters are now in their early teens, so it’s coming and I can totally relate to that.
There’s also a story about how much are you willing to do for your kid, and how much you change as a person for them. Maleficent, in this movie, tries to change. She tries to make Aurora happy. She goes to the humans, she goes to the dinner, she tries to be something she’s not. And then that backfires. But I think it shows the level that you’re willing to go to, because you love your child.
The template for Maleficent can be found in the earliest evil fairy godmother or evil fairy stories, which came out of 14th century France and Italy. I’m just curious if there’s any sort of counterpart in Norwegian folklore mythology to this character or these stories.
Yes. I think a lot of these original stories originated in France and Germany. I do believe Sleeping Beauty is a thousand-year-old story. It used to be so horrible. It was basically a story about necrophilia. It was horrible, horrible, horrible. And then it was rewritten throughout its history.
But in Scandinavia, we have a lot of mythology and we have a lot of folklore. We have fawns and trolls and all of that ourselves. I think those kinds of stories, in my experience from my own culture, originate in nature. It comes from nature somehow. And we have a lot of that in Scandinavia, so for sure.
What from the world of the first film did you perhaps want to enhance, change, or put your own ideas into?
It’s always a fine line, doing a sequel. And this is my second sequel, and also the next installment in such a beloved story. But you see what worked in the first film. You can kind of hand pick the elements that you love, and the fans love. And obviously, Angelina Jolie creates that. She brought this Maleficent character to life in live action like no one else could probably.
It’s important for me to keep some of that stuff, but at the same time, I want to make an original film. I want to take it to the next level and expand the universe. Maleficent 2.0, so to speak. That becomes important too. So we are adding other characters. This is also not based on any fairy tale. This is an original story. That was fun too. We have more freedom in that sense. You get the best of two worlds.
When you work with an actor like Angelina, and you get past the public perception and the mystique, what’s the working day-to-day relationship like on the set?
She’s very hands on, very thorough, very script savvy. I would say she’s very good at working on the script. And we did that a lot. We sat for four months working on the script together, with the different screenwriters, of course. But she never stops, it’s constantly working, constantly working, getting it better, getting it better. And it’s very inspiring to see that.
We spent every morning in her makeup trailer working on that day’s scenes. I spent my lunches rewriting the scenes. It was really grueling, but at least at the end of the day, you know that this is the best it can be. It’s a lot of hard work and she’s a hard worker.
Do you have to adjust the way you direct to working on a production this large?
Yeah, I feel there’s more compromise of course, when you have so many moving parts and so many elements, big stars involved, producers, studios, and all of that. But the reason why I’m doing a second Disney movie is that I can navigate that somehow. I’m good at navigating and picking my battles.
So it’s different, because I come from independent films. And although you have much less money to make them for, you have much more freedom in that sense. But then on these big movies, I have the best people in the world to help me also and make me look good. But very often, you compromise and you realize when you see it cut together that the thing you didn’t fight too hard for actually turned out for the better.
It’s a complex art form, filmmaking. I love it and I picked it because I love it. But there are a lot of people involved and you need to somehow be able to navigate that and concentrate on the important things.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is out in theaters this Friday (October 18).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye