‘Cruella’ Interview: Director Craig Gillespie on Making an Anti-Disney Movie

I was lucky enough to get an early sneak peek at Cruella at the beginning of May. The Cruella de Vil origins story was a welcomed surprise as I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Shortly after screening the film, I had the opportunity to chat with filmmaker Craig Gillespie about how he got involved with the project and how he was able to make one of the darkest Disney films to date.

Scott Menzel: Hey Craig, nice to see you! 

Craig Gillespie: Hey, how do you ever do a negative review with such a positive background?

Scott Menzel: As a film fan, I am very passionate about things, and there are things I really love and things I really don’t like.

Craig Gillespie: Hopefully, we didn’t start on the wrong foot.

Scott Menzel: No, no. You’re talking to the wrong guy if you want me to bash you because I’m a fan. I’m a Craig Gillespie fan.

Craig Gillespie: Thank you, thank you.

Scott Menzel: I would love to actually kick this off with your filmography, which I think has been so wildly impressive from Lars and the Real Girl to the Fright Night remake to I, Tonya, to The Finest Hours. What was it about Cruella that spoke to you, and made you want to do this one?

Craig Gillespie: I got a call from Sean Bailey over at Disney, and I’d done a couple of Disney films before and had a great experience with them. And I’d since then done I, Tonya, and Sean called me, and he’s like, “What do you think about Emma Stone playing Cruella in 1970s punk London, with like a backdrop of The Clash, The Who and Blondie?” And I was like, “That sounds amazing.” So that call was incredibly exciting, and what really started to take the idea off the ground. Then I got the script and it was a really beautifully done script, but it didn’t play to my strengths, which for me, I feel like a lot of the skeleton of what we have now is from those original scripts from Dana Fox in the heart of that.

But I just love to be in this world of tone where there’s humor and drama simultaneously happening. And it becomes a very personal choice to the audience of what they’re deciding is funny or not funny or tragic in a moment. And it’s a very fine line and it’s tricky and there are only so many people that can do that. So that was nerve-wracking for me, to be like, “Can I put my stamp on this in a way that is meaningful?” And one that works for Disney? And the first big step of that was that they let me bring in Tony McNamara who had just written The Favorite with Emma. And I was working on a project with him at the time, and we were getting along great, and so he jumped on board and he kind of went for it and I followed suit.

Scott Menzel: I mean, I’ve been so impressed with you as a filmmaker.

Craig Gillespie: Well, thank you so much.

Scott Menzel: When I went to see I, Tonya, which I saw at TIFF, I had no idea what to expect. And that went on to be one of my favorite movies, it’s so great. And I got to meet Paul Walter Hauser because of that movie, and he’s fantastic.

Craig Gillespie: Yeah, he’s amazing.

Scott Menzel: So I just love what you were able to do with this movie, and I love how every single movie you have done so far is so different than the last. I call this movie the anti-Disney movie. It really feels nothing like a Disney movie. It feels like it belongs under the old days of Disney, like the Touchstone banner, something like that. How were you able to get away with that? I know a lot of people probably asked you about this, it’s probably the non-stop question you get. But I have to know.

Craig Gillespie: Well, it’s funny. I love Sean Bailey and see when he came to me with this premise, and he’s coming to me after I, Tonya, and he knows me. So I’m thinking, he’s got to know what he’s asking for here, if he’s asking me to come in and have this whole punk backdrop to this and just the energy of I, Tonya. So I was like, “I’m just going to go for it until somebody tells me to stop,” and starting with every production head that came in, and this was not in a negative way because I do love the Disney films, but it was my sort of opening statements to them was like, “You’re not making a Disney movie.” It’s like, don’t think of this with those kinds of guidelines. It’s like we’re just making this sort of kick-ass 1970s punk coming-of-age story.

And I felt like we really had to lean into that in a way too because there’s no magic in this movie. There’s no fairytale. There are no special effects, there’s no 25 minute battle between monsters at the end. It had to create its own lane, in a way. And so, trying to figure out what that would be that would warrant the size of the budget that it has, and make it feel unique and interesting, I just went for it, and everybody was so supportive of it. There were certainly times when Emma Stone would say, “Have you heard from Disney?” And I’d be like no. Once we got into production, they were so supportive and I kept thinking that we’d shoot something and they’d call and be like, “What the BLEEP? What are you doing?” And they didn’t. So I kept looking for where that line was and they kept surprising me.

Scott Menzel: You hear so many stories within the industry of how a studio stepped in and interfered. And to hear that you were able to make a version of Cruella that you wanted, hey, more power to you.

Craig Gillespie: And to them, honestly. They’re so supportive and they were happy with what they’re seeing, and I mean, honestly, there were times where it’s like, if I was pushing it too much, the compromise would be like, “All right, let me shoot that and a different version,” but to their credit, all of those more extreme versions are in the film.

Scott Menzel: Wow. That’s great. So there’s not much left on the Blu-ray special features, then?

Craig Gillespie: There really isn’t, it’s kind of crazy. My AG pointed out, we shot almost 2,700 setups in this film in 65 days, which is every twenty-five minutes that meant we lit and shot a shot, which is much more of an indie pace. It’s literally the same pace as I, Tonya. And you can only do that with such an incredible support team, both the production heads and the actors who are up for that kind of pace. But it created a lot of spontaneity and freedom, and I love the actors to be able to add stuff to it and improvise and feel loose, and so it had that kind of indie spirit to it.

Scott Menzel: You can feel it! You really can. Another thing that a lot of people have probably commented on is the soundtrack. But my question for you, in regards to the soundtrack, is how did you pick the cover songs that you picked? Because the music is easy but those are iconic songs, how did you pick which cover song to use?

Craig Gillespie: You know, in some ways, the most laborious part for me, is the music. It starts very early on. First of all, we’ve got to design the film to hold music. There’s a style. The camera has to be moving. There has to be space within the scenes for transitions. So everything’s plotted out, the whole movie is plotted out. Okay, there’s a song here. And I actually designed the movie instead of in this rhythmical way where it’s like, we have energy, energy, energy, and then we’re going to sit still and be locked off, and then we’re going to go back into flowing and music again. So it’s all mapped out in prep. Then I’m just collecting songs, and it’s the most impossible thing for somebody to try and figure out, like a music supervisor, when they keep trying to pick my brain and help because I have no rhyme or reason to it other than just an emotional response.

So literally I listen to thousands of songs and I’m dumping them into a playlist. And it’s mostly 45-second intros of songs because you never really get that much further into a song, but it’s something happening in that melody or the way that the song’s building or the duality of emotions between something that’s forlorn and optimistic at the same time. And it was all just candidly in the best sense of learning from Scorsese, where it’s like it’s the juxtaposition of a really upbeat song against a very dark moment, like Smile in the middle of a fire sequence, or Doris Day when they’re breaking into the baroness’ house. So I’d say it’s constantly looking for those things, and sometimes it comes together incredibly quickly, like on the day, because I cut on the day and I throw songs on as we’re shooting. Like The Doors was on the day, These Boots Were Made For Walking was on the day, like The Stones, the devil song was on the day. Some things took months, like finding Supertramp to open the movie was months of trying songs.

Scott Menzel: Wow. So I know I got to wrap soon, but I have to ask this because it’s become such a big conversation online. Did you have any reservations about doing a Disney movie about a character that is so iconic, because of the way fandom reacts to things now? You’ve seen it with Star Wars, you’ve seen it with Justice League. You have seen it with all these popular things. Did you have any reservations because of fandom?

Craig Gillespie: No. Maybe that is incredibly naive of me, but I think if you start thinking that way, you’re kind of doomed. I think for me it was more the reservations of like, “Well, how can I bring a movie to the screen that is my version, that’s pretty, as you say, it’s dark and kind of kick-ass?” And I tried to approach this movie literally, I know it’s a Disney film, but in the same way that I approached I, Tonya, which was kind of fearless. And I did keep challenging Disney and then pushing the envelope and waiting to lose that battle, but doing it in a respectful way that it still looks like it’s somewhere in the Disney universe, that umbrella. But we had a lot of freedom because it’s such a dark character and it’s a villain and you get so much more license with villains. And so, first and foremost, I had to make a movie that was … it’s funny, it’s a very simple way to think, that of late I’m like, “What would I literally go out and see at a movie theater on a Saturday night? What would I find entertaining?” So I was trying to create moments and scenes that do that, that are really fun. And then at least if I fail, it’s on my terms.

Scott Menzel: I’m telling you, you nailed it. I mean, when I watched Maleficent and I’m just using this, and I’m just saying, that movie was dark, but it kind of copped out at the end. You stuck to the landing. You stuck to the landing, so.

Craig Gillespie: Well, thank you so much.

Scott Menzel Yeah, no problem. Have a great day. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

Craig Gillespie: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure, Scott. See you.

Cruella is now playing in theaters everywhere and is available to purchase on Disney Plus with Premiere Access.

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott D. Menzel has been a film fanatic since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associates Degree in Marketing, a Bachelors in Mass Media, Communications and a Masters in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com, which he founded. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name changed occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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