[FILM: Interview] Rupert Sanders
When the first trailer dropped last November – a hallucinogenic slice of dread-laced fantasy in which ravens disintegrate into flocks of ravens, soldiers shatter into shards of black glass, Kristen Stewart wears chainmail, and Charlize Theron has the world’s most sinister milk bath – Snow White And The Huntsman quickly became one of 2012’s most anticipated films. And audiences around the world started asking – who the hell is Rupert Sanders, and how did he score such a mammoth debut feature assignment?
Sanders has been honing his distinctive, extravagant visual and Lynchian narrative sensibilities for ten or so years in the commercials industry, with work for Adidas, Nike, Absolut, and hot gaming properties X-Box, Call of Duty and Halo. Winning top gongs at peak commercial markets like Cannes Lions, and branching out creatively with sci-fi-horror short Black Hole and a grisly clip for How To Destroy Angels (aka Trent Reznor’s side project), Sanders eventually attracted the attention of Hollywood, with Universal actually pitching the behemoth big-budget Snow White production at him, rather than the other way around.
Although initially skeptical, Sanders quickly saw the potential for marrying his visual sensibilities with the script’s more masculine take on the fairytale, which brings the character of The Huntsman (a boozing, brawling axe-man, played by Chris Hemsworth) to the foreground. “And then for me it was [a case of] what do I want to see, and what would excite me about this film – so it was about creating an epic medieval war movie, with a kind of Joan of Arc/Luke Skywalker character who rallies the masses… It’s an archetypal story really; I mean, we’re not reinventing the wheel in that respect, but what we are reinventing is the machinations of the fairytale.”
Within 24 hours of reading the script, Sanders had created a virtual ‘mood board’ for the film’s aesthetic: “A lot of stuff like Gustave DorО, [British-Victorian fairy painter] Richard Dadd, some Arthur Rackham, and some pre-Raphaelite [paintings] – Ophelia, Lady of the Lake… The kinds of things that inspired me as a kid in museums and stuff.”
Sanders started his career studying Graphic Design at London’s Central St Martins. (He remembers watching Atonement director Joe Wright through the little window of his basement editing lab, cutting student films on an old Steenbeck – “It was quite magical”). After graduating, he scored a gig in the art department of American History X, directed by British commercials director Tony Kaye. “He gave me [my first] break – he sent me back to England and said ‘You should be a director’, and put me in touch with some people in advertising.” Sanders ran with the opportunity, hauling arse to shoot a commercial on spec for Sony Walkman (which they bought) and then returning to Kaye to ask for a job. “So I was there for like three years, steadily making slightly bigger and slightly better commercials as I got better and as the scripts got better.”
While his work for gaming campaigns and his background in graphic design might suggest a CGI-heavy production, Snow White was largely created ‘in-camera’, with extravagant set design. “I’d just rather be immersed in the real world when I’m photographing it; and when the actor can immerse themselves in the world – they’re in it and they can see it and smell it – that’s much more exciting to me,” says the director.
In terms of filmic influences, he cites Polanski’s hallucinatory and grisly Macbeth, and says his taste generally runs towards epics like Lawrence Of Arabia, the visually extravagant productions of Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway and Nicolas Roeg, and the blockbusters of Ridley Scott. “[But] it’s just instinctual,” he says of the process. “You don’t know what you’re doing – you just go with your gut and hope it makes sense; I mean, you’re making so many decisions every second of every day, you just hope you’re making the right ones.”
What: Snow White And The Huntsman
Where: Showing in cinemas from June 21