Robert Stromberg makes his debut in feature film directing with the Disney fantasy adventure, Maleficent. With the enchanted movie set to cast a wondrous new spell on Blu-ray, Digital HD, Disney Movies Anywhere, DVD and On-Demand platforms, we catch up with the iconic filmmaker to get a deeper insight into the making of the live-action version of the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty.
Q: How would you describe the visual appeal of Maleficent?
Stromberg: Not only did I want to have an element of fantasy and a surreal quality – but I also wanted Maleficent to be a bit more grounded in reality. In some of my previous films, I’ve taken the surreal elements and made them the strongest points. In Maleficent we’ve taken the opposite approach: we started with real and augmented after the fact, so I think it’s a completely new look.
Q: What research did you undertake in order to bring the story of Maleficent to life?
Stromberg: I always like to look at a lot of reference material on a subject. In this case, I looked at a lot of classic paintings, particularly by artists in the 17th and 18th centuries. A big influence were the Hudson River School artists who went out and painted landscapes but heightened them a little. That became interesting to me, to create this classic look that is mostly based in realism and see where we could push it. It’s actually turned out to be something that’s quite elegant and beautiful, yet it never loses the sense that there’s fantasy involved.
Q: Was it also imperative to incorporate elements of the story of the 1959 Disney animation, Sleeping Beauty?
Stromberg: As a director, it was important to me to have enough of the elements of Sleeping Beauty so that people wouldn’t be disappointed when they saw this movie. It was also important to me that those fans of the original classic would also see the genesis of some of the things they saw in the original film. Our story is a new spin on Maleficent, but at the same time, we’ve woven in enough elements that people will immediately recognize it to be from the original film Sleeping Beauty.
Q: What can you tell us about the character of Princess Aurora in Maleficent?
Stromberg: Aurora, played by Elle Fanning, is absolutely wonderful. She brings the heart of the movie. Everything revolves around her. In our film, the relationship that grows between Maleficent and Aurora is something that’s very unexpected.
Q: What did Elle Fanning bring to the role?
Stromberg: Elle is fantastic. I have nothing but the highest respect for her. She’s not only beautiful, but she’s a tremendous actress. She’s going to be doing wonderful things in the future and she’s a pleasure to work with. On the set, she brought a smile to everyone’s faces. Everybody who has the privilege of being around her, you can’t help but smile. She just has something about her that makes you really happy.
Q: What was it like to work with Angelina Jolie?
Stromberg: Angelina Jolie is obviously perfect for the role of Maleficent. Even before I became involved with this project, I’d heard Angelina’s name attached and I thought, ‘What perfect casting.’ You can just look at her picture and Maleficent’s image and see it is a marriage made in heaven. Angelina is amazing.
Q: How did the cast tackle the challenge of working with blue screen filming technology?
Stromberg: Acting against a blue screen background is a special challenge but we have such a talented cast that they make you forget there’s not actually a fairy world around them. We’ve gotten amazing performances from actors who have to imagine the world they’re in, and even the size of the bodies they inhabit.
Q: Can you give us an example of the blue screen work involved in Maleficent?
Stromberg: The pixies are a good example. For part of the movie, they are actually just two-and-a-half feet tall and they fly around – but we have these wonderful actresses bringing their humor and personalities to the roles. I can be sitting there watching them perform and I’ll completely forget they’re saying their lines dangling at the end of a wire, whilst wearing outfits that look like space suits with all these painted dots on their faces.
Q: Maleficent is your feature film directorial debut. What did you enjoy most about the directing experience?
Stromberg: Growing up, my father was a low budget filmmaker, so I’ve always loved the filmmaking process. I love filmmaking; I always have. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to do some big films as a production designer – but to have this opportunity as a director was very exciting. In my mind, there was nothing frightening about it. It was a big challenge, but it was something that I wanted to have fun with.
Q: What surprised you the most about your directing experience on the movie?
Stromberg: I was able to really connect with the actors emotionally and work together to bring out their performances. I always imagined how I would do that, but actually doing it was a pleasant surprise. It’s something I always thought was inside me, but to find it was actually there was fantastic.
Q: What words of advice would you offer aspiring directors?
Stromberg: I think you have to be emotional and you have to be a great observer of the world. My job isn’t to teach people how to act. My job is to interpret emotions and then distribute them properly in a certain order that makes sense for an entire scene or an entire film. If you become an observer of life, then you can understand emotions and you can direct.
Q: How did you draw upon your background in production design for this movie?
Stromberg: I think I’m a huge observer of the world and nature and reality. It sounds corny, but I like to pay attention to the details where everybody else just walks by. Over the years, maybe those little bits of information add up into something that feels unique and original – but it’s actually right in front of you.
Q: Even though Maleficent is set in a fantasy world, was it important to ground the film in reality?
Stromberg: There are elements of the story and the characters that we can all relate to because they have the same problems we have in our everyday lives. It’s fun to do a film where you can relate to the same problems that the characters are having but you set it in a fantastic world that you’re able to immerse yourself in. It’s fun to step out of your own life for two hours and to explore a world – not only visually, but also emotionally. There’s something special about that.
Q: What was your favorite set to work on?
Stromberg: We had many sets, but I think I love the great hall that we built the most. It was very ‘old school’, right out of the days of the 1930s swashbuckler movies. It was cool to see one of those big, real Hollywood sets. Seeing that with your own eyes and with this great character was fantastic.
Q: How much are you a fan of the Disney classics?
Stromberg: As a kid, my dad used to take us to see the re-releases of a lot of the classic Disney films. I remember seeing Pinocchio, Snow White, Cinderella and, of course, Sleeping Beauty. Disney films were actually a big inspiration for me to get into film. It all had to do with those types of films and those experiences I had with my dad. I’d never in a million years have thought I would actually wind up directing an adaptation of one of these classics.
Q: What can audiences expect from Maleficent?
Stromberg: Maleficent will take us to a place where the audience can see where this character came from, but we’ll also have some fun. There is a lot of darkness and a lot of light in the movie. There’s even humor in this film, too. I think there’s a little bit of something for everybody.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from the movie?
Stromberg: I want people to step back into their own lives and, hopefully, they may have learned something about the definition of what they consider love to be. If that happens just one time, I will be happy because that was the intent.