Filmmaker Chris Weitz has had a widely varied career, from American Pie to About a Boy to The Twilight Saga: New Moon to A Better Life. Now, he’s taking on the classic fairy tale of Cinderella, which he wrote with Kenneth Branagh at the helm, giving the traditional story a more modern feel to it.
At the film’s press day, screenwriter Chris Weitz spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about making the story contemporary without losing the classic feel of the Disney animated version, making Cinderella the hero of kindness, what he wanted to carry over from the original story, and why he was so excited to explore the Stepmother in a new and deeper way. He also talked about working on the script for Gareth Edwards’ Untitled Star Wars Project, the first stand-alone movie in the franchise, what seeing the first Star Wars film meant to him, and how everybody involved feels such a sense of duty and responsibility to the franchise.
Collider: This film has an impeccable blend of the classic fairy tale while also incorporating a more modern feel to it.
CHRIS WEITZ: The trick for us was making it contemporary without losing the classic feel and without losing a sense of the Disney animated version. And so, Ken [Branagh] was very keen on having a movie that wore its heart on its sleeve, and really being straight-forward about the message of the film and not ironic, which is one of the ways that people do fairy tales, these days. They’re often revisionist, or ironic or snarky, and we weren’t really interested in that.
How tricky is it to find that balance between making something more modern and timeless, at the same time?
WEITZ: It is a bit tricky because modern responses to Cinderella’s predicament are interesting. If you’re not careful, you’ll think, “Well, she’s just a big wimp. She should fight for her rights. She should call the government.” And yet, if you do that, it’s not really Cinderella anymore. So, the key is to find what we can believe in, in terms of her character. I think Ken and I were both really keen that she be a hero of kindness. That’s her superpower, and that’s actually going a bit against the grain. Once you do that, you have to understand why she behaves the way she behaves. It’s because of her parents, so we have to see her parents a bit more, and we have to understand the way that she was brought up and the fact that she was loved. We have to also understand that the choice she makes to be with the Prince isn’t just about a really good looking, wealthy, powerful guy, but is somebody who can understand her and who she can understand because he’s gone through some of the same suffering that she’s gone through. You have to try to have that sense inform how you go about making it contemporary while still not losing this notion of classicism.
This really is one of the most famous and iconic underdog triumphing stories of all time.
WEITZ: It’s proverbial as the underdog story, yeah.
Were there specific aspects of the original story that spoke to you, that you wanted to be sure you could include, were there specifics things you wanted to deviate from, or was it more organic than that?
WEITZ: It was more organic, in the sense that certainly we tried different things out, at different times. The core thing is that she’s tremendously resilient, and that’s not really the kind of thing that contemporary movies celebrate. The Hulk is resilient, in that way. But to be emotionally resilient and to overcome your circumstances, not through fighting, but through being courageous and having endurance was something I thought was of primary importance. Out of the various versions of Cinderella, and there are hundreds, Perrault was the background for the 1951 version and Grimm was more grim, with a lot of blood-letting and cutting off of body parts. There’s a real sense of vengeance in the Grimm version, and that wasn’t what we were about in this one, so that went out the window.
Because you’re responsible for giving some of these characters a life that we haven’t seen before, were there any that you were most excited about getting to explore in a really new way?
WEITZ: Well, yeah. Certainly, the Stepmother, which is to say that we wanted to give her a bit more of a rounded quality, but without making her a revisionist heroine. She’s still really not a particularly good egg, but she has her reasons. And yet, the reasons are rooted in fairy tales. The reason that stepmothers are often the bad guy in fairy tales is because people died in childbirth, all the time, so fathers remarried and there would be a struggle between the children and the new wife, in terms of who would inherit what. There’s a rationale for that. And Cate’s character has lost her husband, as well. She was very keen for her not just to have suffered, but also to be an example of what it’s like when women don’t help one another. It’s a household full of women, three of whom are very competitive and jealous and unkind. So, she is contemporary, in the sense that we know a bit more about her, but she’s fairy tale, in the sense that she is wicked because of her circumstances.
I know that you can’t talk specifics because it’s all very top secret, but what’s it like to be a part of Star Wars and to have a hand in creating a new Star Wars film? Could you ever have imagined, when you set out on this career, that you would be able to say that you had a hand in bringing a Star Wars film to life?
WEITZ: I couldn’t have imagined it. It’s a total dream job. The reason I make movies now has a lot to do with having seen Star Wars when I was seven years old. That’s the formative movie-going experience of my life. But, I don’t think I’m unique in that. Everybody who’s working on the movie was affected, in that way. I think it’s so incredibly special to be able to try to recapitulate that feeling I had when I was sitting in that theater, as a 7-year-old. It’s an extraordinary job. I’m incredibly lucky.
Is it totally mind-blowing to add that to your resume?
WEITZ: Yeah. I wouldn’t have [thought that would happen]. If you would have asked me, “What are the top 5 things you might ever want to do in your career?,” this would be one of them, for sure.
With Cinderella, the studio stayed out of it and let you do what you wanted with the script. Are they much more involved with Star Wars? Do they tell you what you can and can’t do, or do you feel that same sense of freedom?
WEITZ: It’s early days yet, I’d say. But, I think that everybody involved feels such a sense of duty and responsibility to the franchise and to their own childhood memories that everybody is heading in the same direction.
What’s your favorite Star Wars film?
Your career as a writer and filmmaker is so eclectic and all over the place, genre wise. Was that intentional? Did you want to make sure you never got stuck in one thing?
WEITZ: Yeah, that was the plan, especially having made a teen sex comedy for the first thing I directed. The plan was to switch things up, but it’s been a long uphill struggle to get to Cinderella. Sometimes I think that was a mistake because people like to be able to identify a brand, and I don’t really have one. But at other times, I think it’s been terrific to do all kinds of different things.
You’ve even added novel writer to the list, with The Young World.
WEITZ: Yeah, that’s right. The paperback of the first one is coming out [on June 23rd], and then the second one (The New Order) comes out shortly after (on July 21st). It’s been cool.
Do you have a desire to turn that into a film?
WEITZ: There is a desire. We shall see whether there is a capability. But it’s at Warner Bros., and we’re working on it. You get to flush these things out. It’s amazing.
Cinderella opens in theaters on March 13th.