As I mention to Craig Gillespie ahead, my interest in Cruella, an origin story of the villain from 101 Dalmatians, didn’t quite gran my attention until he became attached. My interest piques because Gillespie was just coming off I, Tonya, and if a movie about a young Cruella (played by Emma Stone) could have the same kind of energy that I, Tonya did, well that was certainly interesting.
And the weirdest thing about Cruella is that it does, and even Gillespie is pretty shocked Disney let him make this version. A version that Gillespie refers to as “dark and gritty.” When I mention a phrase like “dark and gritty” can also produce eye-rolls, Gillespie counters that, yes, that’s true, but “dark and gritty” works when a movie is also entertaining. And there are some strategies he uses to achieve that. And let’s not forget, this is a character whose mission in life will be to skin puppies, so how do you get someone like that on the audience’s side? Ahead, Gillespie explains.
When I first heard they were going to do this movie, I was like, “Oh, okay, sure.” But my interest piqued when I heard you were attached, because I really liked I, Tonya.
Similar to me, I got sent it, it was [president of production at Disney] Sean Bailey called me. And this was after I, Tonya obviously. He said, “What do you think about doing Cruella with Emma Stone and punk rock London with The Clash, a whole bunch of punk music?” And the fact that he was calling after I, Tonya, I felt like I could really sort of almost kind of do the PG-13 version of that. I just felt like that’s what they were looking for, and it ended up being the case, I think, and they were really supportive.
Well, you said you think that’s what they’re looking for. How far were you on the think scale? Because that could have gone poorly?
Literally, it’s like everybody would come in, all my production heads, and they start, in some cases, even presenting some stuff and I stopped them. I was like, okay, I just want to set the record straight. And this is no offense to Disney, but we’re not making a Disney movie. We’re making a 1970s punk English coming of age story. Just think of it that way. It was going to be gritty. It’s going to be dark and messy. I brought my DP with me from I, Tonya, Nicolas Karakatsanis. And so I just went for it. And I have to admit, at times I was kind of surprised I didn’t hear from Disney.
Even in a pitch where you hear, “Oh, I want to make a dark and gritty Cruella,” that on its own could get eye-rolls from people.
Well, the first thing was it had to be entertaining. The dark and gritty, you can do on the side. But the first thing I had to figure out is the script. And I’ve sort of learned over the years and say I’ve got to lean into what I’m really comfortable with: and oddly that’s this high wire act of this dance between humor and comedy and drama. But I need the writing to be there for that. And that was Tony McNamara, who I was actually working with on a script at the time. And he had just done The Favourite with Emma Stone and he agreed to dive into it. And then that’s when, for me, it really came alive. And then it was like once we had that to run with, it got really excited for me.
Like a lot of people, my parents took me to see the animated 101 Dalmatians. So I guess Cruella has been a part of my life that I haven’t thought much about for a long time until now.
I mean, that’s fair.
But once I did, right before watching this movie, if you really think about what this character does, it’s really fucked up. Skinning dogs…
Puppies, right. There’s no real way around that. This is screwed-up stuff.
It’s kind of mind-boggling the lack of backstory there is about Cruella that she’s become so iconic. And I sort of just went back to the animated series. And it’s just that introduction of her in the animated series and she comes bursting into the room and she’s got that green smoke trailing her. And she’s so abrasive, but funny. I mean, I think that’s where the world fell in love with her. It’s just literally that three minutes scene and that was kind of my touchstone for this.
So you’ve kind of done this two movies in a row – and obviously one involves a real person, Tonya Harding – but you’ve taken people and/or characters that the audience is kind of starting out going “I’m not sure I like this person.” And you have to make us sympathize with them, and you’ve done it twice now. Which one was more difficult to do to? And what’s the trick to that?
I don’t know which one was… It’s funny. For me, I feel like everybody in life, there’s a set of circumstances that gets them to make the choices that they’re doing. But when you track that, that’s where you get the empathy because you see what their journey has been, why they’re emotionally where they are, or damaged the way that they are damaged. And I think it’s hard not to have empathy for any individual in that case. And there’s still the old adage of good people can do bad things. But even villains, when they’re doing their evil things, they always feel justified for any set of circumstances. So I’d always hope that with I, Tonya, we would get to that place. I always had that moment in time where she does the skating at the Olympics – that I designed it around landing there. And that was the thing I was most concerned about in that film, that we would land there. But through the performance and just the stripping away of other characters, we got to that sort of beautiful moment with her, the mirror. With this one, I think it’s a different dynamic. Although, I guess you could say it was a similar parallel to Allison Janney: the worst we made the Baroness, the easier it was to empathize with anything that Cruella did.
Okay, there’s the answer. I don’t want to call it “a trick,” but that’s how you do it.
Yeah because the Baroness does some heinous things, obviously. So it’s like, yeah, get her. It’s like maybe you’re not going to actually go out and commit crimes like Cruella does, but you kind of root for her to bring her down and use any of her facilities to do that.
Your last three movies, on the surface all three could have been pretty easily not great. Like with The Finest Hours with Chris Pine…
I think we always start with character for better or worse. And sometimes it can be scary. Like on that one with Chris Pine, it’s like we could’ve just done a conventional action film…
Yes, conventional, you’re wording that question better than I did.
I was like, you know what? Let’s make him like Rocky. And just trying to put Rocky into action situation where it’s just kind of this sweet guy that’s just trying to get by and maybe not up to speed on all the angles here, but he knows his craft really well. It just gave a whole character to Chris Pine that gave me a little trepidation leaning into it, but it just made it more interesting to me.
Even though you said that Cruella wasn’t your style of movie, then you made it your style.
I think, well, the interesting thing with that one, if we are going to gut that, it was my wife. Because I had trepidation, trying to figure out: All right, how do I crack this? And my wife was like, “It’s Emma Stone playing Cruella. Figure it out.”
You have an Oscar winner.
Yeah. I mean, she’s just such a versatile amazing actor and she really is. I said if I knew we would crack the story, she should be amazing in it. And that was the excitement. It was the constant – I wouldn’t say challenge – but it’s like I did more wrangling on this, of the script, and getting it ready literally to the day of shooting. Every morning, I’d be in a nice 45-minute drive to the set and I’d be sitting there reworking things and changing, adding stuff and looking for opportunities every day with every scene that we were doing.
You had a lot of needle drops in I, Tonya and you obviously have a lot of needle drops in this. And you mentioned punk, but not every song in this movie… actually the overwhelming majority of the songs in this movie are not punk. You’ve got Tina Turner’s cover of “Come Together” in this, which is not a punk song.
No, truly I was surprised when I went back and really listened to the punk music from the 70s. It’s not that aggressive, outside of the Sex Pistols. Who, for lyric reasons, was the one thing Disney wouldn’t let us use. But if you listen to The Jam or some of the other English punk, The Kinks, it’s not as aggressive as the speed metal and stuff that came along after that, surprisingly. So it sort of works in some ways, but then there’s something the rock music to me of that era had such a duality to it. It was something that was so full-on or poignant with so many melodies and so many songs, but it was still optimistic or had the strength to it. And I throw music on the day we shot that first scene with the Baroness, and I wasn’t expecting The Doors. But just the way she’s getting out of the car and the power that she has, and just the fear within the stores, everybody’s running around, but it should have The Doors track on. And I thought, Oh, that’s it. And it never changed.
‘Cruella’ opens this weekend in theaters and will also stream via Disney+. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.