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It’s the second version of the well-worn fairytale to hit screens this year after Mirror Mirror, and spearheads a slew of incoming nursery story adaptations… Can the ‘Adult, action-led’ Snow White & The Huntsman create happy endings?
WORDS: JAMES MOTTRAM
It’s the climactic scene of Snow White & The Huntsman, and Total Film has just walked in on a major bitch fight. Kristen Stewart’s eponymous heroine is lying on her back while Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen Ravenna is standing over her, sworn in her ready to show just who is the meanest of them all. “By fairest blood it is done.” Yells Theron, as she plunges the blade towards the Twilight star’s chest.
Somehow Stewart stops it going in: Theron stunned, falls back onto the stone floor. From somewhere in the darkness, a voice yells: “Cut.”
A few minutes later Stewart strides over in full body armour. Her “hair black as night”. As Ravenna herself terms it, this Snow White is bruised and battle scarred. So how was that little tete-a-tete? “Getting the crap kicked out of me by Charlize?” She grins. “It’s been good. She’s not afraid to take a hit. And she keeps telling me to try and hit harder. We’re similar in that we shut off when the cameras start rolling. I think she hit my stunt double today. Not to blow my cover, but we both go in a zone and it gets fairly dangerous.”
That say’s it all: scratch what you know about Snow White, ditch what you remember about dwarves called dopey, for SW&TH is all about returning a classic fairytale to its Grimm roots. Gothic, bloody and twisted, this medieval madness is enough to make Uncle Walk blanch.
“People think that Snow White is Disney,” says debut director Rupert Sanders, after he steps out of the shadows to join us for a natter over coffee. “Disney really made the [Brothers] Grimm’s fairytale very family orientated. But it’s actually is a very dark story about so many deeper issues that were ever in the Disney film.”
We’re at Pinewood studios, day 76 if a four-month shoot. With a week to go Sanders is looking remarkably calm for a man not only working on his first blockbuster, but making his first feature debut. Then again, just take a look at her commercials: the spot for Halo 3, with its eerie tableaux-like scenes of carnage or the explosive ad for call of duty, as school kids, nurses and concierges go to war on a real life battlefield.
“His work is very cinematic, very bold and very cutting edge” says producer Sam Mercer. “We wanted the movie presented in that way.”
It’s why nobody is panicking that SW&TH has been beaten to the starting gate by Tarsem Singh’s colourful adaptation of the fairytale, Mirror Mirror, featuring Julia Roberts’ Evil Queen. “They’re very different,” says Sanders. “Tarsem and myself have very different styles. I never saw us looking at each other embarrassed going “We’re in the same dress!”
Theron concurs. “Studios wouldn’t be willing to throw money towards two films if they didn’t believe they didn’t feel like there was a market for both.”
Kicked off by Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood reboot and modern twists like Hanna, fairytales are in vogue. On the way is Bryan Singer’s beanstalk bonanza Jack the Giant Killer and gingerbread scrumptious Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, not to mention TV shows like Once upon a Time and Grimm. “The great thing about these stories is that there’s so much in there that has heart, especially Snow White,” Says Sanders. “Snow White is that heart – she’s bringing light back to darkness.”
Written by newcomer Evan Daughtery back in 2003 while she was still a student, SW&THs myth-mashing sees it’s psychotic, maniacal Queen pose her looking glass that eternal question: who is the fairest of them all? “You are the fairest,” it replies. “But there is another destined to surpass you. Consume her heart and you shall live forever.” Forcing the huntsman (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth) to do her dirty work and dispose of Snow White in the dark forest. Ravenna finds her wishes shattered when he decides to tutor his target in the art of war.
The result? Stewart’s Snow White is more Joan of Arc that Disney’s princess. It’s cool to play a character who’s able to step outside of herself and consider others in an almost supernatural way. But, at the same time know that she’s human and has those struggles and still fights for herself as well. She’s the essential leader. The definitions of a hero… so many of our heroes are assholes. They find pleasure in hurting people. She doesn’t. Yet she can seriously take care of business.
The question is, Will Stewart? Her first major blockbuster away from the Twilight franchise, can she propel SW&TH to similar numbers without the support of R-Pattz, Vampires and the Twihards?
Judging by the stunning teaser footage, as she leaps through games with a shield on her arm the 21-year-old has come of age. “It’s definitely the most action I’ve ever had to do,” she says, Think Lord of The Rings meets Alice in Wonderland, as SW&TH blends big battled with vivid visuals – a landscape filled with ink-black ravens, writhing snakes, majestic white stags and trippy turtle.
Put that with some stunning outfits by triple Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood, and Sander’s game plan becomes clear. “I wanted to create a world where this all felt very tangible and didn’t feel like fantasy,” he says. “In these times, people believed there were fairies in the woods, and dark spirits, and people could shape-shift and they were all eating hallucinogenic mushrooms in pagan rituals… so the toy box was open really.”
Before the shoot, Sanders filmed a three-and-a-half minute concept trailer – featuring voiceover, music, sound design and some key images of the film (notably Ravenna exploding in to the aforementioned birds). Calling it “hugely impressive”, it was enough to convince Hemsworth to sign on, even if it meant going directly to set from reprising Thor on Avengers Assemble. “[After I saw the teaser and] read the script, I started to get really excited,” he says. In his eyes, SW&TH was gritty, dark and epic, “as apposed to neat, cute and fairytale”.
Originally due to be in Australia filing Mad Max 4, Theron is only in SW&TH because that film’s start date got pushed back – yet the statuesque South African seems delighted to get the chance to help. “Take this story we know well and slip it around a little bit”. Never mind that she’s also in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, out the same day as SW&TH – She’s very aware of what’s been achieved in a film and had over 90 sets built for it. “When people go and see this,” she smiles, “it’s going to be spectacular, huge.”
From literally sucking the life out of her victims to bathing head-to-toe in milk. Theron also gets the chance to go badass, even making her real-life murderer Aileen Wuornos in Monster look sane. To prepare, she watched Jack Nicholson in The Shining and David Fincher’s Se7en. “Trust me, she’s dark!” She whispers. “She does horrible things. She’s a serial killer.” Channelling her inner bitch, she qualifies that thought. “It was important to understand where she came from and what drives her to get to where she is… I don’t just want to be evil!”
What makes SW&TH so tantalising is the prospect of watching this full-on-face-off between two females – a highly unusual dynamic in Hollywood. “it’s so rare to have a lead [female] character to be proactive and push her own story forward, rather than be affected by all of the outside elements.” says Stewart, “Hopefully we do that. I’m really proud of it. It’s always good for women to feel empowered.” Noting it’s very much a story about the transition in to womanhood, sanders wants to make one thing clear: “We didn’t make a spice girls movie.”
While Hemsworth’s axe wielding huntsman ensures SW&TH isn’t without its testosterone, he’s got some help. Enter the dwarves – disenfranchised by Ravenna, they team up with Snow white when they recognise she can defeat the Queen. With names like Muir, Gort and Beith – played by a raft of British stalwarts, including Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Nick Frost and Ian McShane – they’re about as far removed from the diminutive Disney characters as you can get. Oh, and there are eight of them. “That was in the original draft,” says Sanders. “It seemed like a good idea, to be a little different.”
Then, for those craving for a more traditional love story, there’s Prince William (no, not that one), played by British actor Sam Claflin, the good-hearted missionary Phillip in Pirated of the Caribbean: on stranger tides. “He and Snow White are ripped apart as children,” he explains. “Ten years go by and he sort of gets word she’s escaped from the clutches of the evil Queen, For him, it’s like ‘Oh My God, she’s still alive, I thought she was dead!” and he goes everything to find her and track her down and be reunited with the love of his life.”
With the cast dwarfing the rival Mirror Mirror in the cool stakes (sorry Julia), it’s a little wonder that a trilogy is already being suggested. “I’d love nothing more than for this to be so big a success that they’re able to make another one,” says Hemsworth. For Stewart, it means starting a new franchise just after freeing herself from the jaws of another one. But she’s ready for it. “Well, I am the fairest in the land!” she says, tongue firmly buried in cheek. “And I seriously have a good heart, for people that don’t know me!” The happy endings start here.