If you pour over Rupert Sanders’s rich collection of commercial work, you’ll see a consistent theme of art and imagination embattled with commerce. It also proves he can tell just about any type of story—from the jaw-dropping futuristic war scene from Halo ODST to the short, comically charming fable for Monster.com to bringing delicate, artful beauty to the creation a slogan for Absolut Vodka. So while film geeks and other trade-perusing industry outsiders may have been collectively scratching their noggins when Universal brought in Sanders to direct the epic Snow White and the Huntsmen as his first feature, those on the inside like producer Joe Roth and top Universal brass were betting it was the young, soft-spoken Londoner’s time to finally put his wide array of advertorial proven talents together. The gamble clearly paid-off: the reimagined Snow White epic opened at number one at the box office, made a cool hundred mill worldwide over its first weekend in release and generally thrilled audiences by reinventing a tale we had all grown up knowing by heart, yet somehow making it feel new.
Sanders now finds himself on the less traveled by track of names like David Fincher and Michael Bay—top tier commercial directors who have risen to the top of the feature world, albeit in vastly different styles. What a difference a weekend in Hollywood makes. Sanders chatted with me a day after his debut film’s successful opening about the experience of making Snow White, making grown men look like dwarves, Charlize Theron and where, exactly, he comes from.
Congratulations on the film. Were you nervous last week?
Friday was a very tense day. I’m glad it’s over. I haven’t gotten a patch or anything to say I’ve accomplished something. I’m just happy people went to see it and the response has been good. You can’t plan for a successful film; you just have to try and do what inspires you and is close to your heart and see what happens.
Let’s start with how you became a director, since most people have no idea who you are.
Hello, I’m Rupert. I’m from London. I went to an art college called St. Martins. I’d grown up loving films—David Lynch films, David Lean films—but I never thought of myself as doing that. I wasn’t shooting cardboard cutout characters with my dad’s Super 8 since I was 4. It wasn’t till I came to America after college and ended up on a set with a guy named Tony Kaye.
Right, he directed American History X.
He was still shooting it at the time, but I was working with him on a Tag Hauer commercial. He was dangling out of a helicopter shooting a MIG jet flying 12 feet above a Formula One racecar racing around a track in Palm Springs. It was intoxicating. I remember watching him and saying to myself, “I want to be that dude.”
So he was an inspiration of sorts?
Yeah, he kind of took me under his wing. He showed me the mayhem of filmmaking—that he was using typography and tracking vehicles and poetry and weird casting and artistic people from all walks of life bundled together in this sort of massive circus. So I went back to England, wrote a commercial for Sony Walkman, shot it for about 600 quid over a weekend and then sold it to them for 35,000 pounds. That was the start of it.
Had you made any narrative films before this one?
I’d done a couple of shorts, one called Black Hole based on Charles Burns’s graphic novel of the same name, and a couple long form commercials that were about three minutes and were mostly narrative. But no, technically, this was my first long-form piece.
Was it daunting at all? I mean, was there that moment when the dog catches the car and it’s like, “Now what?”
Every day was a challenge. Dealing with eight dwarves, dealing with big armies, complicated locations and sets. The thing is though, you don’t really have time to sit around and be nervous about it. You just have to keep going.
How different was the script from the film we are all seeing now?
Quite different. What was great about Evan’s [Daugherty] first draft was the character of the huntsman, the vampiric queen and the escaping Snow White, but it had a different lighter tone. I wanted to include some of the classic iconic images from the original Grimm story. However, the script was constantly evolving and changing while we were shooting. The tone is what changed more then anything else.
Did a lot hit the cutting room floor?
Not really. I’m quite honored most of my original cut stayed intact.
Did you have to walk a fine line with the violence in the film, considering there is so much throughout?
If you see someone stabbed, you don’t need spurting arteries. Less is more. You know what’s happened, as the audience. Hitchcock did it so well by showing the implication of violence and the audience puts their own perception of fear into it.
How did you pull off making grown men look like dwarves?
A lot of random techniques really. Each shot was different. The toughest part was getting those eight great actors to remain still, as they all wanted to move and express themselves in each scene. So we were walking this fine line of making them appear to be dwarves and not limiting their full performance. That—and the troll, I suppose—were the toughest parts of the film.
How was it working with Charlize Theron, especially with how dark and intense she was as the Evil Queen?
She’s actually incredibly funny and ballsy, not nearly as intense as she may seem onscreen. She’s got a bit of a dirty mind and was constantly joking around.
Not only was this a monumental first film but you had a competing project out there at the same time (Mirror, Mirror). Was there any concern about this?
Yeah, there was concern the whole time. At least until [producer] Joe [Roth] pulled me aside and said, “Just make your film. Don’t worry about anyone else or anything else. Just make your film.” So that’s what I did.