Rupert Sanders interview: Snow White and the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart, Lord of the Rings

Rupert Sanders’ feature directing debut, Snow White and the Huntsman, is a visual tour de force. We spoke to the director the day after its world premiere…

Taking on a $70 million blockbuster on as your first feature directing gig is no mean feat, but British director Rupert Sanders seems to have taken it in his stride. Coming from a world of high-budget commercials for the likes of Nike, Call of Duty, X-Box and Halo 3, Sanders took five years to choose his first full feature, and Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron is the result.

We chatted to Sanders about his vision for the picture, his cinematic influences, fellow directors, the quite literal blood, sweat and tears he gave to Snow White and the Huntsman, and er, covering his Y-fronted nephew in talcum powder…

I’ve asked this question to Chris and Sam too, but yours is the answer I’m really interested in. Huntsman has been described as “a big, fun, summer action movie”

Yeah, and then you saw it…

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Is that how you view the film?

I’d describe it more as an emotional blockbuster. We tried to do something different in the format of the blockbuster. I think so many blockbusters are a bit empty, they don’t really take you anywhere and I really wanted this to be different and not just a gimmick but something that was rich and something that was beautiful and frightening and exciting and to try to give it a lot of facets rather than just one note, which tends to be action or comedy, which doesn’t really do it for me.

A big, fun, summer action movie about death and loss maybe?

Yeah, well it’s all about loss really. Every character has lost so much and it’s really how each of them deal with loss and it’s really the parallel between Snow White and the Queen, they’re both running on these two tracks of the same kind of loss at the beginning and these three drops of blood connect them all the way through the story, the Huntsman’s lost his wife, the dwarfs have lost everything. I think the original story really is how do you deal with mortality, how do we as humans cope with the fact that we’re all going to die?

And you packaged that for what audience?

Anyone who wants to see it really. We didn’t say, right, we’re going to cast Kristen Stewart and only want the Twilight fans, it wasn’t the choice for us. We chose Kristen more for her other body of work than Twilight. To me I think it really is 12 up to whatever. People who are my parents’ age, who came and saw it last night and were really blown away, and then my little nieces and nephews who are 10-14 were bouncing up and down with excitement.

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It’s got the big, epic scenes that I love in those kind of films, it’s got the battles and scale of Kingdom of Heaven, or Lawrence of Arabia and then it’s got the small detail of richer dramatic films. To me it felt like an older film, like The Lion in Winter, you know, those Beckett kind of stories?

Probably the easiest comparison for people to grasp at will be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Is that something you’re happy for Huntsman to be compared with?

I think they’re incredible films and there’s definitely overlap. There’s overlap with this film and a lot of other films because we’re reworking a fairy tale and the fairy tale is an archetype and that archetype is borrowed throughout literature and cinema. I think ours is definitely very different to The Lord of the Rings, but I think it’s probably closer in the genre than anything else really. We’re very different directors though, with very different visions of our worlds.

Are there elements of older children’s fantasy films in Huntsman would you say?

I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam, there’s a lot of him, there’s a bit of Nic Roeg in there, there’s Peter Greenaway, there’s a bit of Peter Weir, you just kind of collect those images and those motifs. I definitely borrowed a shot from Nic Roeg of blood on slides, I did this thing with Ravenna when she falls to the floor she knocked over this thing of black ink which kind of pours over a map of the kingdom, and that was definitely inspired by Roeg, but you just don’t know quite what goes into that brain or where it’s going to come from.

It took you five years to decide on this feature, is that because you’re very selective or because other projects had to be moth-balled?

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I went out to LA and I started just reading everything that was out there that was going to other directors, what were the directors I admired working on, who was writing for them. I tried to educate myself. You can’t just walk into a business like that being naïve, so I met every studio head, I met most of the executives and the bigger producers there and just a lot of reading material that was coming to people like me, they were looking for smaller, well, some were big projects. I came very near to a couple of big projects recently, but they were too much part of an existing franchise and I didn’t really want to do that.

Can you tell us what you came close to?

There were a few… I was trying to make this thing, Black Hole, that I made a short film based on with my own money to try and get something to pitch with, so I was actually pitching for projects. I wasn’t looking necessarily for a big film, I was looking for something that excited me.

Is that the comic book series [by Charles Burns]?

Yeah. It’s on my website. It’s kind of a really twisted hallucinogenic graphic novel about teenage kids in Vancouver in the seventies who get a sexually transmitted disease that mutates them, so the girl’s got a lizard tail and the guy’s covered in skin and tadpoles.

That sounds fantastic. Is it still a possibility now?

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I don’t know, I think it’s probably gone to someone else now. I was out there actively trying to get projects and it’s hard, trying to get any project off the ground, it just so happened that when this one came along I saw the opportunity to build a world on a scale those other ones probably didn’t have so I took the plunge.

You mentioned other directors there, who would you position yourself amongst?

There’s a few of us who’ve gone over there, Rupert Wyatt, Duncan Jones, Chris Nolan and the sad thing is we all have to be there to get the jobs, and then all come back to England to shoot them. It’s great for me to come back to Pinewood and make the film, I loved working here, I think the studios are the best in the world and it was great to come back and do the premiere here, but there isn’t the studio system here to support it.

Ironically, we’re all making very British movies. I think Snow White and the Huntsman feels very British, it’s mainly a British cast and it’s all filmed in Britain. We shot in Scotland and Ireland, we tried to create a feeling of this being in a kind of Britain and it’s inherent throughout it. If this had been funded in Britain, it would be a British movie, we did the world premiere here but it was funded from America.

In the very early days of Huntsman, you edited together a sort of tone poem show reel for the film didn’t you? What were the key visual ideas from it that made it into the final cut?

That had the low-tech guerrilla version of what you see in the trailers now. We did a bit circular black mirror that was concave and full of black liquid and we rocked the set so all that liquid poured out, and it was filmed at very high speed. We did a very low-rent version of the woman coming out of the milk bath and the shattering knights, so all those things. My little nephew had to wear his Y-fronts and we covered him in talcum powder and he came out of the bird’s chest. So a lot of what you see in the film, those key ideas were in that.

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Am I right that the blood on the snow you shot was actually your blood?

Yeah it was. It was the last thing we shot actually, and you end up when you’re shooting a massive film like this, you end up with this day that goes into 4 in the morning that’s just like ‘cup falls over’ ‘foot on floor’, ‘blood on…’ and we were shooting very high speed these blood drops onto the armour and the snow and they were using fake blood which at high speed just looked like this kind of transparent, globular strawberry jam so we tried a couple of other things, and then I said, look, we all want to get out of here, we’re all too tired of this shit, but it’s got to look like blood because it’s an important image so I went round the back and took a couple of syringes then I gave it to the special effects guys, and then we just had to shoot really quickly because it was coagulating, it was really nasty in the hot light.

I wonder how many other directors have literally given blood for their films…

I gave a lot more sweat and tears, the blood was just a small part of it!

What else survived from the first day you saw the script to the film that was screened last night?

Not much. I think the original idea was tonally and dramatically very, very different, but the blueprint was there of a vampiric queen needing to stay young, being created by a spell to kill kings, and this Huntsman character who kind of led the way through the story.

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What do you mean tonally, was it more comic?

Yeah. Evan [Daugherty, script writer] was trying to make something a bit more Shrek-like to be honest, it was a bit of a live-action Shrek world, a little bit more tongue-in-cheek.

Wow, I’m just trying to imagine that next to the film you’ve made, it’s quite different?

Yeah [laughs].

Do you relish the thought of terrifying kids with this film?

There were a lot of kids there last night who didn’t seem as though they were shaking afterwards. I think fairy tales are scary, I mean Shockheaded Peter gets his fingers cut off, the stories are scary. Kids can deal with that, we can try and blanket them too much from the stuff. I think if it’s gratuitous violence for no reason then I wouldn’t show it to my kids, but because I feel there are themes and ideas in there that are relevant, I think it’s fine.

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You filmed 90% in physical locations as opposed to green screen, what was your thinking behind that?

I just don’t like green screen, it’s hard to compose, it’s depressing, if you’ve ever been in a green room it’s not fun and as a filmmaker I want to immerse myself and the actors in a world so I like to build a world. Obviously you can’t do everything practically, but I’d much rather be out there in the thick of it than be on a green screen stage imagining what’s going on behind everyone. I just don’t think you get very good performances that way either.

Give us your take on Kristen’s character. Do you see her as a Christian hero?

There’s definitely a spiritual side, I’d say. It’s the Joseph Campbell The Hero With a Thousand Faces you know, she’s the archetypal mythical hero, so they are always given those characteristics. In hindsight, there’s a few things in there, in that she’s walking on water and these things are quite religious but I think ultimately she is a spiritual being, she is drawn by that and people are drawn to her because of that.

That’s the reason I cast Kristen, she is kind of wild and spirited and rebellious and she’s so young, she’s got so much weight on her, she’s out there on her own and surrounded by all these people guiding her and steering her and she’s a tough little thing and that’s what Snow White needs to be.

Rupert Sanders, thank you very much!

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Snow White and the Huntsman comes out on the 30th of May.

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