CINDERELLA hits UK this Friday. A traditional take on the classic fairy tale, Kenneth Branagh directs Downton Abbey‘s Lily James as the titular heroine. The film is a true live adaptation of Disney‘s iconic cartoon and features a plethora of fine actors and actresses, most of them British. Kenneth Branagh’s name on the directors chair obviously helped get a few to sign the dotted line; the film stars Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgard to name but a few.
Ahead of CINDERELLA’s cinematic release (which feature new FROZEN short film FROZEN FEVER) we were invited to the luxurious Claridges to attend a very special press conference. We felt just like Cinderella as we walked through the historic building. There were many questions that people were dying to ask, but we had but one – had Prince Kit not learned anything from Rob Stark’s marital choices? Here’s what happened in full:
Who did you set out to make the film for?
KENNETH BRANAGH: I felt as though it was for pretty much everyone. When I told people that I was perhaps going to do the film I got a tremendous reaction from lots and lots of grown-ups as well as every variety of man, woman and child, that made me feel the story was very personal to people. Whatever their age they might have seen, or read, or currently being read to them an account of the story. In a strange way, although people are talking about how it’s been done many times, there seems to be a ritual in that, that’s necessary. Whatever level, were it people asking ‘Is Gus-Gus in the movie?’, ‘How many parents are going to die?’ ‘What was the period’ etc., the level of interest was high and a personal sense for the story made me feel we could do it for everyone without alienating most.
Richard [Madden], forget that it’s every girls dream to be a Princess, you’ve just played a Prince, you can tick that one off the list…
RICHARD MADDEN: Tick Royalty. I didn’t really think about wanting to be a Prince when I was a kid. But I did play at soldiers and he is on of them also, so I focussed on that.
Richard, there’s a lovely warmth between you and your on-screen father (Derek Jacobi), you seem very natural together, was that scripted or were you able to improvise?
RM: We did a little bit of improv, I think that was what was good about bringing out the sense of humour between them. I just loved working with Derek, he’s wonderful, and we had fun with it. That was part of what we wanted to do, make sure that these two had a sense of humour and, particularly for me, I wanted to take my sense of humour from my father. It was great that Derek was so good and warm and funny as well which allowed me to feed off of.
KB: There was a lovely scene where they meet, where there’s this lovely repetition ‘no I wouldn’t’, ‘yes you would’. Then when we got to the bit on the swing one of these lovely people came up with the idea to do a kind of call back to it. For the tone is about adding these tiny things that add human texture.
Sandy [Powell], is this a costume designers dream?
SANDY POWELL: I have been saying that – it’s a costume designers dream, it really is. What I think was thrilling for me is that it’s a film about the girls. Of course there are the boys but really predominantly women, which doesn’t happen that often. I had also just come from WOLF OF WALL STREET which couldn’t be further from this; all men, and none of the women have clothes on. It was a dream.
With everyone knowing the story and the characters did that make it easier or harder to cast?
ALLISON SHERMUR: We were certainly very aware that these characters brought with them great archetypal histories but Ken’s approach to this movie was always about mining a complex psychology for all of these characters and really looking into the depth and to expand their stories based on those kind of emotional explorations. I can’t imagine it was ever easy, but I know that Ken had very clear ideas for casting, and we were always very much in sync because we were very much involved in the conversations about who these characters are.
David, is this a story that people still want to hear?
DAVID BADDON: Well I was very worried when Ken came to me and told me he wanted to do a live action version of CINDERELLA. I asked ‘how do we do something that feels relevant for a contemporary audience?’ Ken is a very good salesman so within about fifteen minutes I was on board. It has this central message of courage and kindness, it just seemed that, if it worked, he would pull it off, and he did.
Holliday, you’re one piece of this amazing comedy duo. That must have been a lot of fun to bring to life?
HOLLIDAY GRAINGER: Yeah, as an actor you’re usually quite insular so it was great for the first time to be part of a double act. Ken wanted to play with the idea of us speed reading lines and finishing each others sentences. Sophie [McShera] and I spent so much time together by the end we literally were finishing each others sentences.
Lily, were there any of Cinderella’s qualities that you identified with?
LILY JAMES: I would like to say all of them, (Laughs) .When I auditioned there was a breakdown of the character and there was just this line that said she had a generosity of spirit. I just felt ooh (shivers), that felt like something I, as a kid, he’d say those words. I felt that it just spoke to me and I wanted that idea of this character having such warmth, and such an open heart. She lives in the moment, and sees the good in people, these qualities that are amazing. I guess you always have to draw from yourself.
I have a question from a three year old and a seven year old. Firstly, from the youngest, this is for you Holiday – Why did you and the bad mummy rip Cinderella’s lovely dress? And Richard, did you feel shy in those trousers?
HG: I feel like the Stepmother was the leader of the pack and her two daughters sort of follow in her wake. The two sisters want to do anything to please mum. But actually in my defence, Anastasia didn’t actually rip the dress.
RM: There was a certain degree of self consciousness that you have to get over. When you first have the trousers on you feel like you want to stand with your back to the wall but then you’re exposing the front, so you want to turn around, but then your backs exposed. Luckily all of the guys were in the same boat together so we all felt as silly as each other. But actually when you get on set those costumes made you feel really manly, and they fit in with these beautiful sets that Dante made, and you feel regal, and it actually gives you a confidence once you get over the initial embarrassment.
I haven’t seen a film as ravishing as this since maybe Powell and Pressburger. Are they a visual influence?
KB: Sandy had been working on the film before I arrived so one of the joys was to have the first conversations, and as I recall Sandy laid out for me influences really across the centuries. First of all we established that I wanted to blur across the 18th and 19th century, blur even with shapes and maybe add some of the 20th century. The invitation was for Sandy to go away and do this amazing work that she has done. Make it exist in the Cinderella world, but try and borrow from wherever we felt a shape, a colour, a texture, revealed character. We talked about Powell and Pressburger, I revere that partnership.
SP: For me it was all over the 19th century with bits of 1940’s and 1950’s thrown in. For the Stepmother I was looking at those 1940’s actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and when they were in films in the 1940’s set in the 19th century and how it looked. It’s all a bit wrong, you can still see the 1940’s and I really liked that element for Cate. Then for the sisters I went a decade higher so 1950’s 19th century. But in terms of the overall look I was thinking very much of children’s storybooks and colours, being bright and appealing to kids. Being able to sum up a character in a colour straight away.
There have been some concerns raised on more than one occasion about the corseting in Cinderella’s dress and how incy it makes her waist. The animated version has been a family favourite for decades, but parents have concerns about body image and the impression that the dress could leave on children. Do you think those concerns are fair and do you have any concerns yourself?
SP: I don’t understand what the concerns are actually. I mean Lily does have a small waist, so do the other girls in the film, all the girls in the film are wearing corsets, that’s what you wear with period clothes. That’s what creates the silhouette for the period. Holiday and Cate, everyone else had small waists too. Lily’s dress in particular is an optical illusion I have to say. The diameter of the skirt is about two metres and it’s got the width on the shoulders which really does make the waist look smaller than it actually is.
AS: Can I just say one thing? I’m a mom and was one of the producers of the film, and I think it’s gotten a lot of attention, but the funny thing is it’s kinda paying attention to the opposite theme of the movie. The message is that your strength and beauty is what’s on the inside. Sandy’s right, I was there for all of the early fittings and I would look like I had a two inch waist. There’s a giant set of shoulders with butterflies and it was customary for women to be corseted back then. There’s also, is it two miles of fabric in the skirt? (Sandy nods) So it’s an optical illusion, but I think it’s interesting that the conversation has been about the outside because this is a movie that focuses on the inside, so as a mom I’d really encourage us to focus on that. My twelve year old daughter thought the dress was really pretty, but what she took away from the film the priority of courage and kindness.
LJ: Yeah I’ve had friends kids, my friends little boy, Daniel who’s nine years old, and he came up to me and said ‘it’s amazing how you promised your mum to be kind and good and you remembered it’. I just thought, that’s the message, why on Earth are we focussing on something so irrelevant?
Cinderella is an iconic character loved by generations. In an era where Disney are trying to reinvent the Disney Princess, how do you feel that Cinderella is stepping up to this and what does she have to say to young girls today?
LJ: I think it’s what we’ve already been talking about, this strength that comes from within. This dignified strength and grace and in doing so she finds such happiness and love in her life. Regardless of her situation even if it’s just talking to little Gus. When I read the script I was bowled over by how much it was retelling of the fairytale without any tricks to twists. It felt really strong and was a girl I wanted to play.
KB: It’s a different kind of empowerment, but it is empowerment, and she makes proactive choices even if those choices are to be thoughtful, to be considerate. It’s maybe a question of reconsidering the notion of action and empowerment. I have a quote, this might be quite strange at a press conference, but I’m about to quote Ghandi right? These are quotes that were at the memorial service for the late great Richard Attenborough the other day. Some lines from Ghandi, two apply. It seems like a crazy thing to talk about in relation to Cinderella, but I think that it gets to the heart of the question. Ghandi said, amongst other things, ‘When I despair I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, think of it always.’ In relation to why someone like Cinderella doesn’t do some of the things that some people might expect us to do, but does them in a different way, he may have some light to throw on it in when he says ‘There are many causes I would die for, not one I would kill for. An eye for an eye only turns the whole world blind’. We try to find in a much lighter way the soul of the piece in there. The truth is, something like Cinderella has the ability of encompassing that amount of detail which we never need to spell out to a five year old child. It’s just in the fabric of the doing of it. When people talk about the sincerity of the movie it comes from that sort of place. Not because we are trying to be holier than thou, but just because I believe it.
This film looks visually stunning, big palaces, great special effects, and a central character with beautiful blonde hair. Did your experiences making THOR influence you in knowing how to go about making this?
KB: Obviously I’ve become obsessive about blonde hair. I think trying to combine worlds that have some fantastical elements, a supernatural or a magical element with human situations which are familiar to us. Where the motivations are recognisable. Situations – the loss of parents, challenges in love and human dynamics, also exist and that the two don’t jar in the wrong way and might add up to something entertaining are an unusual combination of things but they are very friendly to cinema where that kind of thing offers a visual immersion that stimulates the emotional connection.
Sadly there’s no singing, would you all still have auditioned if there had been?
LJ: I would have still done it for sure! (Laughs) I’d have loved it! In fact (turns to Kenneth) why wasn’t there song?!
KB: Sequel, the sequel.
HG: I’d have loved to do it with music, but I’m pretty sure that Ken wouldn’t have wanted me (laughs).
RM: I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got cast. But there is actually singing, at the end of the movie Lily sings a song. As does Helena.
LJ: Bippity boppity boop.
KB: The Disney animation is full of singing and cat and mouse action, we have so much else going on in the movie that we just felt this was the natural way to go. We do however have what in my view is a sensational score by Patrick Doyle, so there is a strong musical element. I’m going to be in very great trouble after this, they’re all going to asking me ‘why weren’t there any songs?’.
LJ: Patrick’s score music wins for sure.
Richard, I know that you toned down your Scottish accent, I was wondering if that was a requirement for the role? Was there anything you could take from your role as Rob Stark, maybe the horse-riding that helped in CINDERELLA?
RM: If I’d have been Scottish it would have been a bit of a statement about where the Kingdom was. It worked a lot better without I think. In terms of Rob Stark, yes there’s horse riding and sword fighting, but I suppose one of the parallels with Kit is this sense of responsibility being thrust on you that you’ve not asked for. I think that’s something I could relate to the two of them. I think it’s a really strange unique position in royalty where you have no choice over what your duties are.
Richard, following on from that mention of Game of Thrones, did Kit not learn anything from Rob Stark? He also chose to marry for love and not advantage?
RM: (Chuckles) It works out a bit better for the Prince. I think he learns not to go to Westeros.
CINDERELLA obviously features Fairy Godmothers and magic, do you guys believe in that?
HG: Oh yeah I still definitely believe that fairies are real. I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland recently and I’m definitely convinced that the forests there are filled with magical creatures. But that might just be me (giggles).
LJ: No I’m with you, I believe (giggles).
KB: I like the fact the film allows for people to maybe have a think about that. We contain our magic a little less than other accounts of the story to just the central single visit of the Fairy Godmother to allow for the idea that different kinds of internal transformations can occur maybe without that extra help. I think occasionally that the universe, in some form, will come and help us out when we need it.
In terms of inspirations for your characters, did you look more towards the recent INTO THE WOODS or was it more towards the traditional side?
RM: I’ve still not seen INTO THE WOODS.
LJ: I have, it’s great. I didn’t look at INTO THE WOODS for inspiration, I mean we’d already shot CINDERELLA. I’m familiar with the music, I love it, but I tried to draw from a lot of things. I watched the animation a LOT (laughs), too much maybe. I read all different versions of the fairy tale and tried to make it as rich as possible where I drew from.
RM: I think the tone of the animation yeah, but the Prince only has one or two scenes. We don’t even get to learn his name in the animation. This was something much more that me and Ken got together to try and create this young man because we don’t actually know who the prince is. I think everyone’s got an idea of who he is but we don’t actually have much to go on.
The ballroom scene was absolutely supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, were there any films that inspired you?
KB: Well particular congratulations on pronouncing supercalifragilisticexpiaildocious the way you did, uninterrupted there. Along the way we talked about various things and shared various things. It was a conversation that Sandy and I would have along with Dante Ferretti our production designer, and Haris Zambarloukos our cinematographer and extended across the whole family of our creative team. The kinds of films that were wonderful to go and visit, apart from Powell and Pressburger, we looked again at THE RED SHOES, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ. We also looked at Cyrano Debergerac, AMELIE actually for some wonderful camera work. The swooping shots that ended up as close ups on our heroine. AGE OF INNOCENCE is a Scorsese film that I particularly love for the immersion into a world that you feel you can see and taste and touch and smell. We basically went to the classics, but I hasten to add that Ms Powell, Mr Ferretti and Mr Zambarloukos were out there on their own in terms of forging our own particular version of it. We were allowed to as Rich was saying about the relationship between the Prince and the King. We were able to get inside this classical tale nevertheless to forge our own rules, colour schemes, everything about it we could rewrite. So we were inspired by those, but felt also very free.
What went into the preparation for the first dance?
RM: (Laughs) I like to think that there were three of us in this relationship; the Prince, Cinderella and the dress. I had to learn a new technique of dance which was kinda like skiing so you don’t destroy it [the dress]. It was a couple of months before Sandy would let us near the actual dress. I managed to take out a couple of practice ones in the process.
LJ: It took a lot of work, but there were a couple of moments. I came in and came down the steps and it all happened real time. I’m in a real ball room, everything feels real – it’s just there. I walked in and I meet the Prince and we dance and we didn’t know when (to Ken) you were going to shout ‘cut’. You did it all the way through so wide, so no one knew whether we were going to stop or not and this energy was building to the point where I was just giggling. Then we did it all the way through until we ran out. The work we then did mean that when we were filming the other bits I had completely forgot it was only the dance. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had filming. It was amazing.
KB: Also because of the preparation that Lil’s and Rich both did in the ball room itself. I think it was very special for all of us in the ball room. The event of that happening, just the two of them dancing always with the rest of the ballroom watching them. Always with this idea of a couple of things at play, the lavishness of the world and the sumptuous nature of it and yet we were all overhearing this very intimate conversation. I swear to God, despite all of that, that as a group the moment that Richard’s hand went onto the small of Lily’s back everybody in the room gasped, even the boys. That sequence was always about that tiny thing.
CINDERELLA is released in UK cinemas on Friday 27th March.
Press Conference images by Kat Smith.