Director Robert Stromberg Talks MALEFICENT, Joining the Film, Finding the Look for the Title Character, Casting Angelina Jolie, and Editing the First Act

     May 31, 2014


Every villain is the hero of their own story, which can certainly be said for the title character in Maleficent.  This untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty shows the level of betrayal that ultimately turned Maleficent’s (played to wickedly delightful perfection by Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie) pure heart to stone and led her to place an irrevocable curse upon the infant Aurora.  Directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton, the film also stars Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Brenton Thwaites.

While at the film’s press day, Collider spoke to director Robert Stromberg at both a roundtable and 1-on-1 interview where he talked about how he ended up directing this film, that he’s always been a Disney fan, the process for finding the look of the character, why Angelina Jolie was the perfect choice for the role, that his initial cut was about 15 minutes too long, and how he had to rework and condense the first act.  Check out what he had to say after the jump. 

maleficent-angelina-jolieQuestion:  How did this come about for you?  Did Joe Roth just approach you about doing this because he knew that you had experience in creating worlds?

ROBERT STROMBERG:  I’ve done three films with Joe Roth, starting with Alice in Wonderland, and also Oz.   Obviously, he was taken by the world creation part of our relationship, but over that time, we also started to get into talking about emotions and characters and story.  After some period of time, he realized that there was more to it than just creating pretty pictures.  It’s really interesting to be a part of a segment in Disney history where I’ve been a part of the look of that period of time.  That’s fantastic and unbelievable for me because I grew up admiring the Disney world and the artistry.  To be somehow connected to that is pretty cool. 

Have you always been a Disney fan? 

STROMBERG:  Yeah.  Something happened when I was in elementary school.  A Disney artist named Bruce McIntyre retired, and he had done drawings for Pinocchio and Snow White that was just classic stuff.  He moved to the town I grew up in, Carlsbad, and he became a part-time art teacher at our elementary school.  He took a liking to me because he could see how passionate I was about art and drawing.  So, at seven years old, I had a Disney artist showing me how to make Disney art.  The fantastic irony is now coming full circle and being a part of that history, myself.

Had you been putting it out there for awhile that you wanted to get into directing? 

STROMBERG:  I’ve been talking about it for years, to be honest with you.  I moved out to Los Angeles with the idea of becoming a director, which thousands, if not tens and hundreds of thousands, of people do, every year.  It’s a very competitive field, of course.  I immediately got swept away into the visual side of things, starting with visual effects, and then designing.  Literally, the last 10 years have been back-to-back designing worlds.  There was never time to go off and prove to people, by doing an independent film or something else, that I could direct.  I’ve always felt ready to do that.  Part of that is just being on set for 28 years, and the other is hanging around directors who I respect and have learned from.  And then, the key thing is that I feel that I’ve paid attention to human behavior and emotional situations enough to understand and apply that to storytelling.

Any film is an undertaking, but this one is a particularly huge undertaking.  Do you feel like you could have survived taking on something like this, if you hadn’t had the background that you have? 

STROMBERG:  There was probably no way, if not for the experience of these big films.  There was a whole part of it that wasn’t a learning process, which is the fast track to getting to where you want to be.  It’s actually really perfect to direct a film that is this big because I understand the building blocks of it.  That’s something I didn’t have to worry about.  I could keep an eye on that and know, instinctually, that it’s going in the right direction, and then really focus on the story and character.

elle-fanning-maleficentWhat surprised you most about directing?

STROMBERG:  To be honest with you, as boring as it sounds, nothing.  I feel like I’ve been ready to do this for a long time, and it was really a matter of getting the opportunity.  I don’t mean it to sound the way it does, but I looked at this film and went into it with excitement, not fear.  It was really about finally getting to play with all of the toys and work with actors.  That was the one thing that I was really looking forward to.  And then, I got to tie that together with the thing I already know, which is creating the world.  Completing a piece of art and using all of the elements of making a film, was satisfying, for sure.

What do you think it is about the character of Maleficent that’s made her such a lasting character for people?

STROMBERG:  It’s hard to say what iconically will hit, resonate and stay with people.  There’s a dark quality to the character, but there’s also a playfulness to it, in a weird way.  As Angelina says, there’s a delicious evil quality to her.  I can’t explain why people gravitate towards this character, but it’s been fun for me and Angelina to explore other dimensions of this character.  The actual character that we all know and love is very one-sided.  The fun is breaking it apart and finding the other angles that are interesting.  

Did it feel like a big responsibility to take such a hugely iconic Disney character and bring her to life, in this way? 

STROMBERG:  There was a lot of comfort in knowing that Angelina was Maleficent, going into this.  In many ways, I’ve always felt she was perfect for the role.  And then, I found that she just brought so much to the character, emotionally.  So, I wasn’t worried, at all, about the character.  I feel that she brought to it something that was already classic.  Not once did I question her as Maleficent.  Not once did I question the character that we were doing.  It just always seemed right.

Was there a process for finding the look for the character?

STROMBERG:  We started with the real character, of course, and re-engineered it from the cartoon version.  One of the very first things we did was meet at Rick Baker’s studio.  Like a department store, we were trying on different shapes of horns and cheekbones, and trying different combinations of things.  At some point, the right combination hit and we just all agreed that that was it, and it was perfect. 

Did anything about working with Angelina Jolie surprise you?

maleficent-angelina-jolieSTROMBERG:  No, it was no surprise.  She was attached when I became the director.  Immediately, you look at her visually and say, “Yes, perfect.  She’s great.  This is ideal.”  But, it didn’t surprise me.  The pleasant thing that I discovered was that she brought this emotional depth to it, and such a deep understanding of what the character should be.  And then, she brought that to the visual thing.  All of a sudden, it became this really powerful explosion.  It just felt like something special. 

Why was she perfect?

STROMBERG:  I didn’t know her at the time.  I met her soon after I became attached.  But, I know that she’s a strong person, and strength is something that Maleficent would need.  I know that she works around the world and has children of her own, so I know there’s a heart there, as well.  The first time that I met her, I went to her house and we spent about an hour just talking about life while we watched her kids play in the backyard.  At that moment, I saw the strength and the beauty of what this character was gonna be and need, but I also saw the heart there.  That’s when I knew it was the perfect combination. 

And what was it about Elle Fanning that made you choose her?

STROMBERG:  I had seen Super 8 and, like all of us, I was just infatuated with what I saw.  She came in, and I loved her immediately because she defined this bright light.  She was what life is.  She exuded life itself.  There was this light, and the contrast of that with this dark character.  The cross pollination in this film was the fun and interesting part.  It was about discovering dark and light, and how that intermingles.  I had to find the theme in that. 

Is there an expanded mythology for all of the creatures that are under Maleficent’s control?

maleficent-movie-imageSTROMBERG:  It’s very hard to invent creatures, these days.  I wanted to do a mixture of everything that felt organically based, and not too much animal.  I wanted it to be a whole range of things, from things that you want to hug to things that you were afraid of.

What did you read, when you were a child?

STROMBERG:  My father was a low-budget monster movie maker, so he made classics like the Crater Lake monster.  There were always creatures around.  And my dad was a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen.  One of our neighbors, who went on to win several Academy Awards, was close friends with my dad.  His name is Phil Tippett.  So, I grew up as a little 4- and 5-year-old kid, watching Phil Tippett and my dad make monsters in our garage.  That’s what I did, as a child.

How long was the first cut of this film?  Did you have to cut quite a bit?

STROMBERG:  We did, yeah.  We were running about 15 minutes too long.  We wanted to have a film that was under two hours, so we ended up reworking the first act and condensing it, to get to the meat of the story quicker and to get to Angelina’s character quicker, as well.

Did you have to go back and do any reshoots?

STROMBERG:  We did what I guess you would call additional photography, but none of the principals were involved.  It was just about reconfiguring the front end of the movie, where Maleficent is younger.

Will we see a lot of deleted scenes on the DVD?

STROMBERG:  I think so, yeah.  I’m trying to find that out, but we did compile the deleted scenes for the DVD. 

Do you have any idea what you’re going to tackle next, as a director?  Are you going to stay on this path and do another giant movie?

STROMBERG:  I don’t know.  As long as they let me, I suppose.  It remains to be seen how the world accepts this.  If they do, then I hope to do bigger and better things, always.

Would you like to also do smaller projects?

STROMBERG:  Sure.  To be honest with you, it’s absolutely not about the budget.  It’s about the content.  I would be perfectly happy doing an indie film that had some really cool creative ideas.  That would be just as fulfilling as the scale I’m working with now.  

Maleficent is now playing in theaters.


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