They say history repeats itself. If that’s true, then it was only a matter of time until Disney would make another adaptation of Cinderella. The tale is so timeless and universal, and yet it is the Disney version that most people think of first. When director Kenneth Branagh was approached to direct the film it was “a great big surprise.”
Transforming the Story
According to Branagh, “Disney is under a reinvention,” referring to their new approach to adapting fairy tales into live action films. Disney has the same sort of atmosphere he felt at Marvel Studios when he directed Thor. He approached the project with a classical point of view because the story has been working for 2.5 thousand years. He didn’t want to change it, but felt they could do something significant with the story while keeping true to the classical tale. The ultimate vision was that it would be an immersive experience for the audience.
Chris Weitz was brought on to the project as writer. He researched all of the written versions that came before, but in the end chose to remain close to the classic tale by Charles Perrault with some of the Disney elements thrown in. While the story is mostly everything you expect it to be, there are a few changes. “The modern urge is to have the most important people present at key moments” said Weitz referring to the Prince’s absence when the shoe fits. Chris felt not having the prince there to place the slipper on Ella’s foot would be a mistake, so it was important for him to find a way to get the prince to her chateau.
Cate Blanchette was the first person cast, which inspired Weitz to make the character more rounded for her. Cate really wanted her to be an example of what happens when women compete. It explains everything about why she is the way she is.
Producer Allison Shearmur felt it was important for Cinderella to be an unknown actress. In one of her auditions, Lily James remembers having real mice to talk to in a kitchen set with boiling pots. She had to run around pretending to cook, which was a feat because she can’t cook. She describes it as being “mayhem.”
Kenneth Branagh knew that Lily was his Cinderella early on, but Disney had to feel comfortable with the casting choices. It took about five or six auditions before Lily was officially cast as Cinderella. “She needed generosity of spirit, lightness of touch, a lovely voice and sense of fun… Lilly had all of that.”
Lily James says it was “terrifying” to think about the part. “She’s so iconic and everyone in the world has this picture of what she’s like.” She is so grateful to Kenneth Branagh for his vision of who she was and how she should be portrayed. Referring to the character, Branagh said “She sees the world as it could be, not necessarily as it is. She’s a beautiful dreamer.” Lily remembers being “bowled over” when Ken called to offer her the part.
A Masculine Prince
Richard Madden won the part of the prince, who goes by the nickname Kit. It was easy to be drawn to the character, who is much more fleshed out in this version. “He’s a son, a soldier, a friend and a character that’s worthy of Cinderella’s affection.” He loves that the prince doesn’t really save Cinderella. It’s more about two people bringing out the best in each other and she saves him just as much as he saves her.
His work on Game of Thrones came in handy for the fencing, horse riding and the similarity of playing a character that has power that he didn’t ask for. It was important to Richard to retain masculinity as the prince. He worked with costume designer Sandy Powell to find something that was regal, intricate and beautiful, but also masculine. He was so impressed at the practicality of the costumes. His riding jacket and pants are practical for riding a horse. His costumes were rooted in reality, while still being fantastic and masculine. Richard felt like he was in a fairy tale while making this film. “The sets and costumes made it all so magical.”
“We’ll Make a Lovely Dress for Cinderelly”
Costume designer Sandy Powell didn’t start thinking about the costumes until each actor was cast. She watched every version of Cinderella she could get her hands on, but took very little from them and chose to create her own vision. For Cate Blanchette’s Lady Tremaine, she was inspired by the 1940’s style of the costumes in the animated film and chose a similar theme for the character.
Sandy approached Ella as a simple character. She is never overly made up, even during the ball (she never wears jewelry). In contrast, the stepsisters are always overdone. For the ball gown, she chose butterflies for the dress before realizing they were part of the story. She initially tried flowers, but since Cinderella is at one with nature and animals, she wanted nature to be part of the dress. Nobody ever told Sandy the dress had to be blue. She initially approached it with different colors, but eventually decided blue worked best. But it was important to her that she use a shade of blue that hadn’t been done before on the character. Eight ball gowns were made for production, each requiring five hundred man hours to make.
For the glass slipper, the first thing Sandy did was look for a shape. She knew it had to be enclosed so nobody could get their foot into it except for Ella. The shoe she chose was from the 1890’s and she borrowed it from a museum to make a template for the glass slipper. She tried lots of types of glass, including colored glass, before deciding that crystal was perfect because of its prismatic effect.
The wedding dress was the hardest one to do because it had to follow the ball gown. Sandy changed the shape and chose embroidered flowers, realizing that you can’t outdo the ball gown. Sandy also hates white, so she tried to make it what people expect a wedding dress to be, but also original at the same time.
A Chance Encounter
The first scene they filmed was the meeting between Ella and Kit in the woods. According to Kenneth Branagh, it was a deliberate choice to make their introduction feel less polished. The woods they filmed in were part of Windsor Great Park and the trees in that scene are ancient. To put it in perspective for his cast, Branagh gave a speech about how these trees were there before Hamlet was written. They had to get special permission from the Queen to film there.
This scene is Lily James’ favorite part of the film. She and Richard barely knew each other and the forest made it feel so alive. She also says it’s a profound moment for both characters. “They both change each other so much in that scene.” For Richard, shooting this scene was terrifying. He’s always worried until a film is 50% complete because that’s when it becomes too expensive to recast an actor. He felt like he was going to get fired. In addition, Lily James didn’t have horse-riding experience and he was trying to calm her horse while the production crew filmed from a distance.
The transformation scene was filmed at night during winter and Lily James describes it as “freezing.” Lily says it was actually great fun because of Helene Bonham Carter, who plays the Fairy Godmother. She added so much in the moment and changed things frequently, keeping the shoot interesting. They were both in huge dresses after the transformation and they would joke about how they could barely touch hands with their big skirts. Helene’s dress had a lighting rig with four thousand LED lights woven through the skirt. A man frequently had to tweak things under her skirt and Helene made a lot of jokes about it.
While computer effects are primarily responsible for the transformation scenes, there was still a lot of technical wizardry on set. The pumpkin was partially a practical effect, inflating in the center of the green house and pressing Lily and Helene against the glass. The horses were so well trained that they would lie down and stand up at the same time to help the effects team transform the mice into horses. While sitting in the carriage, Lily felt like a “marshmallow” and kept having to push her dress down around her. She remembers the carriage crashing once on a take when it pulls up to the stairs.
You Shall Go To The Ball
The ball scene took a lot of planning. Lily and Richard spent every weekend for two and a half months rehearsing the waltz prior to shooting the scene. They always rehearsed in sweatpants and when Lily was put into the ball gown, she felt like it would be impossible to do it. The gown was so fragile that if Richard Madden stepped on it, it would rip. Richard, who had no dance experience prior to the film, had to “ice skate” to avoid damagin the gown.
While it was Richard’s least favorite scene to do, Kenneth Branagh has some fun memories from it. Each waltz was shot many times over several days, but there was one day where they decided to run all of them together. He described it as “an endorphin storm on the 007 Soundstage.” He said everyone left that day “walking on air.” Lily’s corset was very tight and she struggled breathing during the shoot. Like Richard, she was relieved when it was over, but looking back on it she describes it as “magical.”
A Family Affair
Since this is a Disney film for the whole family, it was important to pay homage to the original animated film. Kenneth Branagh approached subtle nods to the animated classic with trepidation. He didn’t want to go too far, but also wanted to insert some subtle moments to connect the two. His favorite moment in the original is when Cinderella brings the stepmother’s breakfast and her green eyes glow from the shadows. He knew he couldn’t recreate that, but it did inspire the way the stepmother hides in the shadows when Cinderella finds her in the attic.
The cast also formed their own family on this film. Kenneth Branagh has an informal repertoire company that go with him from medium to medium. Because Lily and Richard have a unique chemistry, they’re all planning to work together again on Romeo & Juliet, a West End stage production that Branagh is directing. He has welcomed Lily and James to his theatrical family. Richard is “dying to get back on stage.” This production is set to open in 2016, so if Disney’s Cinderella casts a spell on you, a 2016 trip to London might be in your future.