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THE BLACK SHEEP INTERVIEW: CHRIS WEITZ (CINDERELLA)

cinderella_ver2THE FAIRY GOD-WRITER

An interview with CINDERELLA screenwriter, Chris Weitz

Little princesses everywhere will be rejoicing on September 15 as director Kenneth Branagh’s stunning live action version of CINDERELLA comes home to DVD and Blu-ray. Starring Lily James (Downton Abbey) in the title role, with Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as her prince and the divine Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, the screenplay was penned by Chris Weitz (who also both wrote and directed 2002’s ABOUT A BOY). I recently spoke with Weitz about turning an animated classic into a live action film and about his stellar cast and crew.

To start off with something of an obvious question, how do you approach a classic story such as CINDERELLA and make it fresh for a whole new audience?

I think there are a few ways to do it. The way that we didn’t want to go was to be revisionist; we kind of wanted to be radically classical about it. Which is to say, to treat it in a somewhat old-fashioned manner, but to intervene at various points and flesh things out that in the 1950’s animated version hadn’t been developed. For instance, the relationship between Cinderella and The Prince – we really wanted The Prince to be an important character who was worthy of Cinderella. To a lesser extent – because it’s not as much of a change – we wanted to go to the character of the wicked Stepmother and try to understand why she behaved the way she did. We didn’t want to go full-on MALEFICENT with it, where she’s the heroine of the piece…but it was interesting to me that stepmothers were the villains in a lot of these fairy tales. In fact, it was because of childbirth – a lot of mothers died giving birth. And so the stepmother in the traditional stories became the heavy.

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We’ve all grown up with these visions of Cinderella, The Prince, The Fairy Godmother…how did you approach character orchestration? What did your cast bring to these classic characters?

When you’re writing one of these things and the casting comes through, it’s really wonderful. Because you start to write not just for the character, but for specific voices. Especially in the case of Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter, we were able to rehearse with them and sit down and talk about the characters. We had a bit more freedom with their roles than with Cinderella and The Prince, so it was really fun to make sure that we incorporated some of Helena’s humour and the tone that she wanted to strike into it; and also to sit down with Cate and talk about how she saw the character. She saw the Stepmother as someone who viewed women as rivals, and so she and her daughters were really supposed to be an example of a household in which women don’t help one another. Whereas Cinderella and her parents are a much more ideal, loving family unit.

Did you have a so-called “target audience”?

I think you get a chance to reach pretty much everybody…I think we’re probably not appealing to “bros”, but we didn’t think we were ever going to get that!

To me, there was one particular sort of “bullseye” target that was really important – we knew that little children were going to see this movie and that they were going to take something from it. They could either take something useful or something negative. When you’re making Disney’s CINDERELLA, it means that you have a particular access into a little kid’s brain to begin again, and it’s going to be the way that they remember the story. So you have to be very responsible with how you use that character.

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Tell me about working with Kenneth Branagh, who is also very familiar with the process of adapting classic works.

It was great! I wish it was more interesting than saying how much fun it was and what a lovely guy he is. I think it’s really rare that someone can take on that much responsibility; it’s not just the responsibility of this film, but you know that while he’s in post-production he’s also planning to play Macbeth in New York in a few weeks. For the amount of time pressure he is under – and these kinds of films are really monsters that want to eat your life – he’s such an incredibly gracious, nice guy. The actors know that and they also know that he’s been in their position, so they trust him and feel collegial about that. And that’s true of writing and directing as well. So it was really a terrific experience for me.

Could you talk a little bit about the trend to convert animated classics into live action films? What are some of the challenges involved in such a project?

There are a few reasons, I think. CG is capable of doing what animation used to be able to do solely. It’s also that the studios feel that it’s so expensive to make films that they want to make movies where people are already at least a little familiar with the premise.

The challenge, I think, is that once you have live actors in a scene, the audience demands a bit more in terms of understanding what they’re doing and why than they do with animated characters. So you’re suddenly in a world where people’s emotions and actions have to be justified to a greater extent than they are in an animated film. That’s something that I’ve found in terms of adapting – the question “why” is actually bigger once you’ve got live actors. Sometimes you get a bit of a pass with animated films.

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CINDERELLA is available to own September 15.

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