Robert Stromberg started out as a matte painter in 1987 and worked his way up, eventually becoming a production designer on massive, effects heavy movies like Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Oz the Great and Powerful. Two years ago Disney hired him to make his directorial debut on Maleficent, giving him a $180 million budget and Angelina Jolie for the starring role. When I spoke to him last week, he was so excited he was weeping. Okay, maybe his eye was just irritated, but still, he seemed a mixture of excited and anxious and relieved that the movie is about to come out. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
On his path to the director’s chair:
I think you could find directors that come up from every path, it’s really about how maybe internally emotionally [sic] they are in how they connect and resonate with characters and people and how much they’ve observed real life and basic human behavior. Directors come from everywhere, from producing, editing, you know, you name it, they become directors. But I like the path. My path has been, for me it’s been sort of natural because there’s an emotional quality to creating that resonates with dialogue and they’re both sort of these rhythms.
On how his visual background helped him direct the actors in the CG-heavy film:
I think it’s also really important to have the knowledge of sort of explaining things that aren’t there. So in all of the movies that I’ve done and the creatures and all that stuff, which are created after the fact, you have to be able to really explain yourself, if, especially, we have main characters that are fully CG and were not there on the day, so it’s very important that the actors understand who they’re talking to and what that’s going to look like.
On finding his perfect cast:
Angelina was attached before I came on board, so it was right out of the box that was sort of the perfect fit. So I’m very lucky to already have that in place. I saw Elle Fanning in Super 8 and just like everybody just was blown away and I went to the producers and I said, ‘We gotta get this girl as Aurora.’ And I’m really happy we did that because she came in and she was the exact thing we needed which is the contrast from Maleficent’s character and we needed that so we could over time in the film see how those two completely contrasting elements could work together and then finally become one thing.
On the real life emotions in his dark fairy tale:
We see two characters that move down separate roads and what happens to those characters is what our film is about. and the irony is that there is this central light they both have access to. One of them chooses that light and one does not and then we see what happens as a result of that. So it’s about redemption like you said, it’s about perhaps not making the right decision because other things are distracting you — whether it’s greed or ambition those types of things — so I think it’s sort of a little study on a lot of things we can relate to in our real lives and the choices that we make. We don’t all go crazy and we don’t all fly and do all those things, but you know what I mean. The basic emotion of it, we all experience that ourselves.
On the long road to finding Maleficent’s perfect look:
[Jolie] was very much involved. We had done a bunch of artwork and we had tons of artwork on costume ideas, but I think the one thing that was important to me was that all the costumes should be based in organic things that you could pull from nature. Whether that’s the pixies or the creatures that we see, they’re all wearing things that come from nature, and it’s pretty obvious but important as a starting point. So the textures and things like that… but the graphic of the costume is the important thing. Once you have the graphic — because you want a great silhouette — once you have that, you can start to break down what it’s made of. But Angelina was extremely involved with the costumes, and we tried many many different things. She was really involved with the makeup with Rick Baker and everything, because we tried different horn designs, eye contacts, cheekbones — you know, you name it, we tried variations on all that stuff, and it was a very long time before we found the right combination of things, costume, makeup, and then when we did we all knew that this was really something special.
Maleficent also stars Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple. You can catch it on the big screen this Friday, May 30.