When you've had the biggest box office opening for a female director, how does your life change?
That was kind of mind-boggling, for sure. When it happened, we were already in Europe, Robert [Pattinson] and Kristen [Stewart] and I, doing the international press. We were just in a crazy whirlwind. We were walking into the London premiere and it was almost like this surreal blur. It was just crazy—unbelievable—brain cells were popping.
And after that, you had your choice of interesting projects. What made you decide that Red Riding Hood was the one that you wanted to dedicate your time to?
First of all, when I first came to LA, my first job was working in Pasadena. Upstairs, second floor, with Tim Burton. I was sculpting little, tiny, miniature things for a bizarre, little stop-motion project he was doing and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That's my childhood. I have always made little tiny things, built little sets and done drawings and I'm like, "This is what I want to do! This is why I came to Hollywood so I could make my own world!" But most movies are based in the current day. I've done set design on so many movies and I love it, but usually you're doing things that have to fit into the present reality. One thing I love about Red Riding Hood is we could make our own kind of reality, our own medieval village. The architecture is like an architecture of paranoia, which is fun. Because they've been menaced by a wolf for so many years, the houses are raised up on stilts above the ground. There are ladders up to them and spiked logs sticking out and barbed totems on the roof and the windows all get shut at night with shutters. There's lookout towers all around the cityyou feel like it's banged into their DNA to be paranoid and nervous about the wolves. Even the costumes and music, we created our own medieval world. We have this amazing Swedish band named Fever Ray and they wrote this song that is just crazy for this festival sequence. Musically, it's this ancient yet modern kind of feelingquite an original sound to create. Actually, pretty inspired by Bosch and Bruegel paintings. They were wild—wilder than you'd think.
I read that you wanted it to look and feel like Burning Man, that wild festival in the middle of the desert.
Wow. Did I say that? I think that Burning Man obviously harkens back to medieval times. If you look at the crazy paintings of Bosch and Bruegel, it's like Burning Man come to life. In a way that's what I was doing. We're not in Victorian stuffy times; we're in medieval times when people actually knew how to have fun. We built this big wooden effigy with a creepy skull. There's a big party, people are running across coals and dancing. Actually, we recreated Bosch's painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights' There's a bunch of bizarre musical instruments in it and we built them so that our musicians could play them.
I can only imagine if you did the last panel of the Bosch painting: hellfire and damnation.
I wish I could have gone that far. And I will someday! Someday I will.
I wonder what sort of parties Bosch went to where he dreamed them up.
My God. I would give anything to meet that guy. He's like my hero.
Rumor is Leonardo DiCaprio, a producer on the film, had the idea to age up Red Riding Hood and turn the wolf into a werewolf—a werewolf was actually in one of the original forgotten versions of the story way back in the 1500s.
Exactly. The idea of burgeoning sexuality is in the Red Riding Hood story. The little girl goes out, picks flowers when she's supposed to be going straight to Grandmother's house. She's getting in touch with her sensuality when the wolf finds her and says "Where are you going?" She tells the wolf, "To Grandmother's," and she implicitly invites him to meet her. All that stuff is in the story and the original tales, which is really fun—a fun thing to explore for the screenwriter, David Leslie Johnson and myself.
When you direct a classic fairy tale, you have a story that everyone knows and the ability to shape it to fit what you want. What do you think is relevant about Red Riding Hood today?
There are a lot of quite interesting books written on Red Riding Hood—I actually have one in my hand right now, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale. It's kind of neat. It's by Catherine Orenstein. And then there's of course, The Uses of Enchantment, the Bruno Bettelheim book, which is amazing. They break down what fairy tales mean to people and why they've been around for 700 years. Every kid and every girl goes through the same kind of explorations—doubts, fears, desires—and then a fairy tale helps you figure out a way to address, not deny them. Don't deny that you have sexual feelings, don't deny sibling rivalry like in Cinderella. Grapple with it and come out strong on the other end. That's why fairy tales end happily ever after as opposed to the Greek Tragedies: you learn your lesson, but yikes! When I read the script, I was really engaged because Little Red had problems that I had, that other people have had: dealing with your parents, dealing with your sister, issues with her family, issues with her heart. She's trying to figure out the right direction to go. Do I go with the good guy who's solid and would be really there for me and take care of me? I'd never be surprised by him, but he'd always stand by meor do I take the risk and go with the bad boy? We all think about that every day to some extent, or we wish we do. Or at least I do. And the other thing is, as the story unfolds and you start trying to figure out the mystery of the murder in the town, you find out a lot of stuff she has been living with and the town has been living with is a lie. You start discovering the truth behind all these secrets and lies and I think that's pretty common for us in different relationships and ways that our parents told us, "This is how life was and this is why Aunt So-and-so did that." Suddenly you get a little older and, "Oh, that was the real truth." The scales drop from your eyes.
I came of age with the idea that the old fairy tales were sexist. You have princesses—the Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White—getting saved by men. But when I think about it, all of these stories that the Grimms popularized and passed down to us are the only collection of legendary stories that star women.
Exactly. All of them are women. Red Riding Hood is one of the few who doesn't end up married happily ever after to a prince. She stays independent in every version of the fairytaleit never ends in a wedding. I think it's kind of cool. She's the independent fierce one of all the fairytale girls.
You mentioned your designing background. You did nearly 20 films—what did you learn as a production designer that you were able to use when you started directing?
Oh my god. So much. Directors are super busy trying to cast the movie and get the script right and all the other political issues we all get to deal with. As a production designer, you take the lead and go forward and try to find a beautiful, great location. For example, I did the movie Three Kings. Where the hell were we going to shoot Iraq? And it had to be two hours away from LA because at the time, George Clooney was still shooting E.R. I had to build a whole Iraqi village. So how do you figure out how to make that real? To build it, create this world? The production designer is very involved in the concept and the whole construct of the movie. We could build this set, we could do it against green screen, we could go to an abandoned copper mine in the case of Three Kings. I could build everything there and create a mini-studio for David O. Russell, who was the director. That was great, and then you immediately get to have all these meetings with David O. Russell and Lisa Cholodenko, two directors I worked with where you're their collaborator helping them figure out how we can make this movie look good and real and powerful and interesting. All that stuff is all the skills I have to use every day as a director. "How can I make Red Riding Hood work?" It's supposed be snow, but you can't shoot in the snow because you can't count on the snow, so that part will go on stage. How do we tie it in to the exterior? Let's do this beautiful backlighting through mist and fog and beams of light on the stage in the exterior so it becomes one world, not "Oh, they're on a stage now." You're learning all those kind of pieces.
Is it intimidating for production designers who work with you knowing that you know what you're talking about?
Well, Ridley Scott comes from production design. James Cameron is even more radical and I would still, as a designer, have died to work with one of those guys. I would write Terry Gilliam letters, "Please, hire me! I'll cut off my right arm!" He's somebody that's going to push you hard and inspire you more. I hope the people I work with feel that I get them going. The production designer on this movie, Tom Sanders, is Academy Award-nominated for Saving Private Ryan. He also did Braveheart, he did Dracula, Apocalypto. He is just off-the-charts fantastic. I don't think he would be intimidated by me—he could kick my ass.
You gave him a big challenge: the only red in the film is the cape. How hard was that to do?
It's really cool. As soon as there is a palette for a movie and you give it to the prop master, the costume designer and the production designer, it really helps you get a focus. We'll usually find beautiful paintings. I'll find paintings and they'll find me paintings, too, and say, "Here is a palette that we love." In Twilight, there's no red, no yellow, no orange. I had a very strict palette for Twilight. It may not be noticeable, but Bella is in the blues and grays. The Cullens are all in the blues, the grays, the whites, the silvers—colors of a silver Arctic Wolf. That's what gives it a consistency. I think that it is actually liberating and inspiring when you get a color palette because then you start going, "How can I make that beautiful?"
Tell me about the wolf. Is he Team Jacob or worse?
Oh my god. The wolf is so scary and vicious. I can't wait for people to see it. The wolf has gotten so mean—just feral and radical.
What would the Grimm Brothers say if they could watch your take on Red Riding Hood?
I think in terms of their more simple tale, we've added so many more characters and so many more layers. Their heads would probably be spinning around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, or something. Like, "What? Where did that all come from?!" And our set is pretty steamythe one that we've made is a lot steamier. You wouldn't have a little girl in this role. Amanda is pretty smoking hot and so is Shiloh [Fernandez, the male heartthrob] so, yikes, the brothers would probably be going out for a cold shower.
Did you see Twilight as a fairytale while you were making it?
Yeah, I would say so in a way. Certainly, Edward is the prince, the dream, the most gorgeous man in the world that falls in love with you, the every girlat least in the book. I mean, obviously Kristen Stewart is a little more beautiful than most of the planet—a lot more beautiful. He is this gorgeous, intense, amazing person that is there to protect her and love her and love nobody else—who has eyes for no one else no matter who throws themselves at him. You know that's a fairy tale. That's a good one right there: best-looking man in the world loves only you and will be true to you throughout the rest of eternity. Hmm. I'll take it.
I have to ask, when you were shooting that were you looking ahead and thinking, "How on earth would I handle Breaking Dawn?"
Well, you know, Breaking Dawn wasn't written when I started it. In fact, Eclipse came out when were prepping the movie. So, I hadn't even read Eclipse at the time I was already deep into making the film. Then I read Eclipse and was like, "Whoa, I've got to wrap my head around new information." And then toward the end of our schedule, Breaking Dawn came out and I was like, "Whoa!" Even silly, little technical things like, "Oh my god—the Cullen house that we chose would not be big enough to have this giant wedding. That's going to have to be increased by visual effects." Stephenie had given us the first five chapters of Midnight Sun. That was the only kind of advancing that we had, so we read that and at least I think we knew more about Edward. We knew to make him grounded, and intense and dark. I think that having that helped a lot because that was the basis of all the rest of Stephenie's understanding of Robert's character. But no, I had no idea where Breaking Dawn was going to go.
It's the big great, morbid question: "How on earth are they going to handle the birth?"
I just can't wait to see it, can you?
Your resume is so diverse—Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, The Nativity Story—what genres do you have left to do?
I've got a couple projects. The Maze Runner was an interesting book, this one set in the future. There's great concept art in there. And also Maximum Ride, another one set in the future. Then I've got my really radical current day version of Hamlet I'm trying to get made. So, I'm hoping one of those three will go.
Hamlet is one you've been working on with Emile Hirsch.
That's one of the coolest projects because we've taken the four-hour play and made it a 95-minute thriller. It's basically when you look at it: a kid that goes mad after his father died and within three days there are eight people dead. I hope, I hope, I hope we get to make it.
I heard it might be a musical?
Oh, no. It's not a musical. But it has very interesting music in it because we actually start experimenting with a lot of Shakespeare's lyrics. We have Emile's character performing them in a little, tiny guys' club trying to pour out, "O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt resolve itself into a dew!" He did sing some words in one song but it's sort of like an angst-y Kurt Cobain-radical, little performance in one scene. But it's pretty cool. Emile is a really good actor and the lyrics just work. It's just amazing. But it's not a musical. People do not jump up and dance.
There's no great Bob Fosse number.
Any other fairy tales you would love to revisit?
I was so excited when I started to do this because I thought maybe I'd get to do a bunch of other fairy tales. I was dreaming about all of them, but as you know, every studio in the world is trying to make their own. There are like five Snow White projects going and a Hansel and Gretel. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. I think that it'll be fun to see those. I would love to see some of those madeI guess I've got to move on to something else!