Robert Stromberg is a visionary genius. Oscar winner behind the stunning visual effects of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, he now is taking a stab at directing with his ambitious and stunning debut with Maleficent. I always like talking to the ones behind the scenes – they are the ones who make it all happen. Stromberg definitely put his mark on this film, as the directing and design are 100% his creativity.
I got a chance to sit down to talk with him about taking on the iconic Maleficent, working with Angelina Jolie, and what might be next for him.
So this being your first directorial debut, what was different from being on set compared to being in the art department?
I’ve always thought that I’ve wanted to be a director. I used to make movies when I was a little kid and I was a huge Disney fan. I had an art teacher who was an ex-Disney artist. I used to draw crazy, images, including Maleficent, when I was five or six years old. So I had always wanted to tell stories and be a director. I got sidetracked by this pesky art direction stuff. (laughs) No, no, it was part of the journey. I’m glad that I did all that stuff because it prepared me not only being around these big movies but also meeting a lot of great directors. I met Peter Weir and we became close friends on a movie called Master and Commander. He taught me a lot about how to talk to actors and to get at an emotional level with them.
And then I spent four years with Jim Cameron and that was useful in, in how to be strong when you need to be. I worked with Tim Burton and how an artist can direct. So these are all directors but they do it in different ways. So I came into this with a lot of experience and, not only that, you have to you have to have emotion yourself.
And you have to have spent your life studying human behavior and really, really paying attention to why people react a certain way when they’re told something. I think it’s all those little bits of information plus all of the knowledge I got from just my experience with other directors. And then the confidence to be at the same level with somebody in finding the emotion of that character. That’s what made me feel comfortable in being a director.
What was your favorite scene to direct?
I think there are many, many different, special moments. But, I suppose the christening scene. We’re not just doing a straight out of the box remake of that classic version. So it was very intentional that when you watch the movie you’ve learned a whole bunch of new material. When you get to that center point of the movie, we shot that scene almost verbatim, word for word, from the classic cartoon version.
And that was so that you now had all this new, fun information that you had learned and you understand why that character is doing what she’s doing. And then you get to see what happens after that. So it wasn’t challenging but for me personally, a film, Hollywood moment, just standing there, with several hundred extras in this huge set, and she [Maleficent] came into the room in that costume and I was a big fan myself of that moment and just in awe.
What was the creative process that you used creating the Moors and all the characters?
Over the years I probably have a file full of just sketches and strange creatures and stuff that you wanna use one day. I always approach a movie using the world itself as a psychological steering device. So, in other words, just for instance, at the beginning of this film we start off and it’s sort of happy and sunny and everything else. And then the mood of the whole world goes dark with Maleficent and then comes back up again at the end. So I think it’s really interesting, not just as a designer but to, to create fun things, that’s there’s no rule book there. That’s what’s fun about it is you just do a sketch and “oh, this is cool”, and three months later it becomes something real.
But the interesting thing I’ve learned over the projects that I’ve done is how you can steer the audience and make the audience feel something, even if they’re not aware that that’s how things are done. So that was where I started. I’m a big fan of Eyvind Earle, but the look of the original design was a bit too stylized for this sort of emotional, organic, grounded-in-reality story that we’re trying to tell.
So that would be distracting in this case. But it was important to me to keep the essence of what that design was that Eyvind Earle had done. So if you really look at the film you’ll see elements that you could say he would have done.
(referring to the room of bloggers) This is really intimidating, by the way. (laugh) *sidenote – we aren’t all that scary!
You said you had to stay true to the original Sleeping Beauty but did you still have creative license in what you got to do?
Linda Woolverton wrote the script. A lot of times when you’re in the moment, it looks better on paper than it does when you’re actually seeing how two characters are reacting to each other, or how a scene plays out. I think part of what you learn as a director is how to adapt in a situation and understand that something is just not right and to adjust it so that it is. I’ve always told people that whether I’m doing a painting, which is a composition, compositional rhythm, or music is its own rhythm, a dialog can be a rhythm too. And if it’s off, if one inflection is off slightly you have to recognize that because it makes a huge difference emotionally in how you’re supposed to feel watching it.
What was the most difficult thing to bring to the big screen for this film?
It’s just getting through the film and still carrying a big, beating heart under your arm as you make it through this jungle is something. Someone once told me directing is like painting in a hurricane. And it’s true. I can’t pick one thing that was challenging because just making a movie at this scale, you’re just constantly juggling chainsaws and trying to draw pretty pictures at the same time. So I think the challenge is to make it, bring all these huge elements together and at the end of all that, have something with a heart and soul and emotion and something that means something.
I’m always amazed at how movies get made at all. There’s so many pieces that have to come together that it’s really a fascinating process. Even though I’ve been doing this for twenty-eight years, I’m still fascinated today as I was when I was five years old.
Were other things you felt absolutely had to be captured in this movie that was in the original movie?
We had to steer away from certain elements. But it was really important that you walk away from this film as a fan of the original film with enough that you can relate to the comparison, saying, “you know, I learned all this new, cool stuff,” and it was still Sleeping Beauty. We changed a certain amount of things, but that was another delicate path, because when you’re telling or retelling a story, you have to do things that are different to make the dots and connect. So it was really important to keep enough elements from the classic that, hopefully, the fans would respect that we tried to do that and also you would walk away saying, “I just saw Sleeping Beauty but I saw so many different new sides of it.” That was the intent.
Was Angelina your first choice for the role of Maleficent?
She was actually already attached when Disney hired me. She had wanted to do this character for a long time. So, lucky for me I didn’t have to do much digging on that part. It was sort of this perfectly made, iconic combination that I was blessed to have. Just because you have this sort of thing that looks really good in the costume, this iconic figure, that wasn’t it. What really surprised me was the richness of the emotional part of that character, when you combine that with the image, is what made it powerful.
Had you worked with Angelina Jolie before? What was it like to work with her and direct her?
I hadn’t. I went to her house the first day I met her and what was really great is we didn’t talk about the movie for the first hour, I think. I’ll never forget we just sat on some back steps in her backyard and watched her kids play out in the backyard. And we talked about life and, and being a parent and just normal stuff. And I think that’s why we connected is because we had to find out that we were both human beings first before we tackled human being problems. And that was a special moment for me because I wasn’t necessarily intimidated by her, but I had never seen the human, motherly quality in there before.
What advice would you give to parents of children who may have an interest in going into film either directing or working in the art department, working in any capacity in this industry?
It’s a competitive – but follow your passion. I’ve never done this because I wanted to be recognized. I’ve never done this because I wanted to make oodles of money. You do this because you’re passionate about it. You do this because creating is your world. And I thought that was my world until I had my own kids, and then for me personally it opened up the reason why I’m really here on this planet. It’s not to make movies. It’s to, sort to understand the true love you have as a parent.
If you could get your hands on any other Disney classic film, what would you grab for first?
What do you guys wanna see?
Just out of curiosity I’ll ask you a question. Were you disappointed in Snow White and the Huntsman?
Yes, for the most part.
Yeah. So somebody who didn’t probably stay more true to the Snow White that you love, I agree with you on that. As far as other projects, somebody else asked me that. I started looking at them again and I didn’t realize how much tragedy and, and just suffering there is in those things. We always just sort of look back and remember these sweet movies. So looking at Maleficent there, there are these similar things going on, which is why, I think, it’s more interesting as a film to show the dark and the light and how it would — if you were to mention, if you were to boil down this film in one sentence I would have to say it’s human beings trying to find the essence of true love and what that means and what that is.
Maybe it’s not the puppy love thing that you think it is. Maybe we should look to our parents and, and, and maybe there’s a deeper love that we’re not seeing. And hopefully there’s a message in this movie that it can open up some young one’s eyes to see a love in their parents that they didn’t see before. That’s kind of the message. And it’s really based on looking at my own daughter and, and feeling that feeling that I want, I hope that people will feel.
There’s a moment when Elle pricks her finger, and I thought I heard the original laugh of Maleficent, from the original movie. Are there any kind of Easter eggs for us to look for in the movie that are nods to the original or to other Disney films?
I would have to talk to the sound, we had played with that. I can’t remember if it ended up there, but we did play with that in the sound design. So it’s very possible that it’s still there.
Besides the Eyvind Earle elements, I’m sure there is, I know we did some stuff because I would tell the prop people to just put a little thing here that looks like… Because I love that stuff. I love, I love adding little bits, because when you catch it then it’s like, oh cool, look what they did. I did that in Oz and I did that in Alice. Like in Oz, we put like a little figure of the Tin Man in the corner and just to see if anyone would notice. Things like that. There are some things. Log them and remind me, ’cause you guys are gonna find them, you know.