Sharon Maguire has gone from telling stories about a 30-something looking for love in the wrong places in Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bridget Jones’ Baby to a fairy godmother in training trying to make a woman’s dream come true in Disney’s Godmothered, which recently premiered on Disney+. I got the rare opportunity to talk with the lovely director behind one of my favorite films of all time about her new Disney fairytale and why it’s so important to her. Here is my conversation with the one and only Sharon Maguire.

Alex: I'm a big fan of Bridget Jones's Diary, it’s an annual New Year's tradition for me. Godmothered is a Christmas film and I was curious to know what attracted you to this project. Did you get to play a role in crafting the story or the final script?

Sharon Maguire: Oh yeah, I did. I came to this about a year-and-a-half ago. I was sent the script by Disney, very kindly, and I thought, "Wow, Disney! Haven't had a go with a Disney movie yet.” So that was exciting because I think what was so appealing was there are all the tropes of the Disney legacy in here. There's magic and there's wands and there's fairy godmothers and there's woodland creatures and there's even princes and ball gowns. But we get to subvert that legacy for comedy, which was very, very appealing to me. Eleanor is untrained and then she's unleashed into the modern world, so none of her spells or her formulas go according to plan. And I really liked the message of the movie, that happily ever after is delivered in a very different way than we've come to expect in previous Disney movies. So it was a bit like having your cake and eating it. You get to have the Disney legacy, but you get to subvert it too, so that was what was exciting for me.

Alex: If I'm not mistaken, the shoot ran from January to March. Did you face any complications or added pressure to wrap up early as a result of the coronavirus looming as you were filming?

Sharon: We were very lucky in that we were only four days from the end when we had to stop because of coronavirus. So there was just four days that were missing and we found very inventive ways to make them work afterwards, one of which was the animated coda ending, which had been talked about before anyway, but then we decided that we would film a live-action ending. But we didn't quite get to do that, so we went back to the idea of a little animated ending for it.

Alex: I love that animated ending. It's very inclusive as well in the final shot of the kids being trained in the next program of fairy godmothers. Did you have a lot of involvement with the animation team on what that final scene actually got to look like?

Sharon: Indeed! Yes, very much so. We wanted something that would just confirm the message of the movie in that little animation. So it was very exciting to put in the little boy who wanted to be the fairy godmother. When I first saw that, it made me very, very happy. So yeah, very definitely, we wanted to confirm that message, that in today's world, unlike in traditional fairytales, happily ever after doesn't mean marrying a prince and living in a castle or it doesn't mean a man and a woman and it's completely subjective. And everybody's idea of happiness is very different. And the real magic from life comes from the everyday things in our life that bring us joy and happiness. So that was very important. And yeah, I love that. I love that we'd never seen that before in a Disney movie, so that's great.

Alex: That's beautiful. In previous interviews, Jillian Bell and Isla Fisher talked about how you actually gave them time to bond as actresses before they really started working on screen together. I was curious to know what was your goal with setting aside that time and do you feel that it paid off for them on set?

Sharon: No, I don't think it paid off. No, I'm joking. Of course it does. I think that my goal was, it' important for me when I do comedy, no matter how broad it is or in this case, there's a sort of supernatural fantasy element to it, there's magic involved that the characters still feel very grounded and you need to feel the characters' history when they come to particular scenes. So it was important that they definitely bond. I mean, it is, essentially, as well, a sort of buddy movie, so it was important that they were buddies. We did lots of hanging around together in LA, fooling around with the script and fooling around with scenes and just talking about those two characters and how we could find experiences from our own life that would relate to those emotions in the movie and to just screw around with it a bit, really. Because we found all sorts of interesting little moments in that time that are included in the script in the end. I think out of that moment came the idea of when Eleanor eats the money, when she eats the money in the car where she says, "Here, take this. Get yourself something to eat." And she takes that literally and eats the money, eats the dollars. So I thought that came from that moment and lots of moments came from that.

Lots of comedy can come from the actors themselves having the time to mess around with the script. I think that, when we did Bridget Jones's Diary, the fight came from Hugh [Grant] and Colin [Firth] being in a rehearsal room and messing around with that… And it just came from the truth of the situation that two middle-class men had never really been in a proper fight and they wouldn't know what to do if they were, so that's the stuff of movies. So they came up with the fight sequence that we came up with and I was hoping that we would have a similar experience with Jillian and Isla, and we did.

Alex: That's awesome. I love that fight sequence in Bridget Jones, by the way. I was going to ask how much of the comedy ended up being improvised because Utkarsh Ambudkar talked about it briefly and you just mentioned a funny moment that came out of spontaneity. I know actors like Stephanie Weir are great at improv. Also, how do you keep it cool on set when an improvised moment becomes so funny?

Sharon: I cast those actors because they can do that, that's the exciting bit. You've got a script, but alchemy happens when the cameras are on and even if you don't have the time, just find the extra few minutes to let them improvise and to let them go. And Utkarsh and Stephnie are geniuses at that, so they were brilliant. And Stephnie did improvise lots of stuff. And the stuff we used that you might hear, Stephnie's stories, in the scene where Mackenzie comes home for the first time into the house and to see the kids, you'll hear stuff that Stephnie improvised, the news stories that she improvised underneath, playing all the way underneath it. She came up with some fantastic stories. We were all quite obsessed with the idea of local news and when I lived in LA, I was obsessed with the local news. Me and my kids watched the local news because you can't believe some of the bizarre stories that are on the local news. You can't believe they're true. And so that world was very inspirational to us all and Utkarsh and Stephnie took it to a new level in improvising in that world.

Alex: There are a lot of visual effects in the film. Did that bring any new challenges to your role as a director?

Sharon: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I'd done quite a number of visual effects, but nothing like Star Wars or anything like that where it's so many blues screens. But I was very excited about the idea of the viz effects to do with magic. That was a kind of a world I'd never really got to grips with and so that was a big learning curve for me and very exciting it was, too. Obviously, we had the budget to do one woodland creature, which was Gary, in viz effects. That was a fascinating process, to see that go from a sock puppet into a character, iteration by iteration, was kind of fascinating and to try and get him to a place where he was A, believable and B, funny. So that was gripping. But then the other woodland creatures that we weren't able to do with viz effects, that was the pig, that was Yanni. She was a bit like Eleanor, she wasn't quite trained because she was only a piglet, right? I don't think I've ever had the experience before where I popped up from behind the monitor and been looked at with such contempt by the cast and crew when I said, "One more time for the pig, please." She didn't sit still, obviously, because she's a piglet and she chose her moments to truffle into the crotches of the actors. I don't know what she was looking for. Made those scenes quite challenging to shoot, but it's something I will remember for all time as being one of the funniest things I've ever tried to shoot, with a piglet and some human beings.

Alex: Godmothered was filmed in Boston where the story is set. Was there a specific reason Boston was chosen?

Sharon: It was very important for us to try and shoot in a city that just didn't feel like Anywhere, USA, that felt like a local city with a local news station and also a city that offered us the chance of snow because we are doing sort of like real life comedy, but the idea of there would be snow in the winter, brings a fairytale element to it, which I was quite excited by.

Alex: I'm always obsessed with deleted scenes so for my last question, I was curious to know if there was a particular scene that had to go that was really hard to part with, that you would have included if you got to do a director's cut.

Sharon: It's always gutting when they go and you can never believe that you're dropping it. You think, "I waited so long to do that scene and I can't believe it's going!"… There was a gorgeous little scene with the kids that went and they're on their way to school. And the little girl, Willa Skye, who plays Mia, she's on her way to school with Mary Elizabeth, the aunt, and she says, "I wonder if she'll magic me a pony." And Mary Elizabeth, the character, says, "When have you ever wanted a pony?" And she said, "Well, I don't, but I don't know how far we can take this thing." And I was really sorry that didn't end up in there. It was a really good scene and she was going to school in a little fairy dress that she found, her play fairy dress, and she put it on to go to school. And I was really sorry that that didn't go.

You can see Godmothered whenever you wish on Disney+.

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