Chris Weitz lived with Cinderella for three years. No, not in the attic of her family home where her evil stepmother banished her, but with multiple drafts of scripts that eventually became the screenplay of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic fairytale that is currently blowing up at the box office.
Weitz, best known for co-writing American Pie, About a Boy, directing Twilight: New Moon and currently working on the upcoming Star Wars standalone origin story, spoke about his experiences on the Disney blockbuster after a screening at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills a week after the film opened, and crossed $250 million in global ticket sales.
“I was in as long as it wasn’t going to be ironic or snarky. I wanted to do a classicist version of the story,” he said, explaining that he had first been brought on for a six week gig by the Mouse House to do rewrites on a previous version of the script when it was in the hands of director Mark Romanek.
But the latest version of Cinderella is definitely revisionist, a modern retelling of Disney’s 1950 animated theatrical version. The 2015 edition stars Lily James as Cinderella, Richard Madden as the Prince and Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine.
Cinderella’s backstory with her parents is fleshed out, as is Lady Tremaine’s motivation for being so cruel to her.
But most importantly, the budding relationship between Ella, as she is known before her stepsisters dub her Cinderella for the ashes on her face from cleaning the fireplaces, and Prince Kit is shown to be one of equals. They are shown to be attracted to each other more on an emotional and physical level over a series of interactions before the iconic ball and the search for the woman who fits into the glass slipper left behind when her carriage turns into a pumpkin at the last stroke of midnight.
“Yet she doesn’t feel like a contemporary heroine,” said Weitz. “The production has elements of the 18th and 19th centuries but with bits of the 1930s and 1940s and generally feels old-timey, but not retrograde. We had to find Cinderella’s story as realistic as possible but not going to options of running away or calling the cops. Dante Ferreti’s design makes you understand why she wouldn’t want to leave where she grew up.”
Weitz grappled with the balance between false restraints keeping her in an abusive situation and having more character development about her upbringing and how she was lavished with affection and care by her parents – and her promise to her mother to “have courage and be kind,” which becomes her mantra.
“Everyone knows how the story ends,” he said. “So it was about how you make the experience not feel old hat, and not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We took her potential weakness – taking punishment – and made it her strength, with the rusty virtue of kindness at the heart of the movie. To have courage and be kind becomes her motto and emblem.”
Asked about that line, which is repeated many times in the film, he said he initially thought he’d come up with something better, but it stuck. “We say it too many times,” he admitted. “But if you bang something over the head, it’s good.”
With two young children and a third on the way, Weitz felt an immense pressure for the movie to be a positive influence on kids and to show that grit and resilience are good qualities for them to learn about.
“We may have reached peak irony,” he said about other pop culture influences in our society. “For kids, we’re trying to make it all about virtues instead of negative things and I don’t want to mess that up.”
Asked about comedic elements of the movie and his background in comedy, specifically the American Pie films – which he said will be on his tombstone –Weitz noted that he has been cautious about broad comedy ever since and especially in Cinderella.
“A lot of the humor is due to the British actors who are used to shifting between television, film and the theater,” he said. “Sometimes you wonder why Cate doesn’t make a move on the Prince herself.”
That could be a whole other movie. But of course in this one Blanchett’s character gets her own happy ending with the Duke, as Cinderella and Kit live happily ever after.
As for Weitz’ new chapter, it’s in a galaxy far, far away. He has traded in Cinderella for Chewbacca, in a film directed by Gareth Edwards, scheduled to open December 2016.