For Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, fantasies actually do come true.
After helping to breathe new life into the enduring fairy tales of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White as second-unit director on “Maleficent” and visual effects supervisor on “Snow White and the Huntsman,” the filmmaker takes full creative reins as the director of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.”
A key collaborator on director Rupert Sanders’ 2012 action-fantasy, Nicolas-Troyan was a natural choice to helm the Universal Pictures follow-up. It’s unique narrative split between prequel and sequel that both explores the backstory connecting Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman with Charlize Theron’s cruel Ravenna and leaps forward as the ax-wielding hero heads toward a confrontation with the queen’s more cold-hearted sister Freya (Emily Blunt) as she wages war against love itself.
As he continues the reinvention of the traditional fairy-tale landscape, Nicolas-Troyan joined SPINOFF for a revealing look at the elements he brought together, including an ode to ‘80s fantasy cinema like “Willow” and “Legend,” a sensibility toward female empowerment and a charming, capable but not too cocky leading man.
Spinoff Online: The trickiest thing for a new director coming into a franchise is maintaining a spirit of what had gone on before, but putting your own stamp on it as well. What was your philosophy coming in?
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan: Well, because I was very close to Rupert [Sanders] on the first movie, the whole visual part of it, I thought, I’m going to be in that realm. We wanted to make a movie that was going to be able to stand alone, but also that could fit within what the first movie was. So visually, I knew I was going to depart a little bit, but I knew I was going to stay close enough so you can watch the two movies and not seeing like something, like the first movie, “The Bourne Identity” kind of thing. It’s like all of a sudden, you’re like, “What is that?”
The biggest challenge, and the biggest I guess risk that we took, is the tone. The first movie was a lot darker. It was a lot more serious, in a way. In the first movie, the Huntsman was not all dark. He had this swagger going on. He was going in and out. We wanted to transport that into the movie, so making it a movie that was much more like those ‘80s fantasy movies.
I never talked to Ron Howard about it, but I talked to Ron Howard about it, but not about this. We talked about Chris [Hemsworth], but Ron did “Willow,” and that’s a movie that was very dear to me when I grew up. And Ridley Scott did “Legend” – I loved that movie. In the ‘80s, there were those fantasy movies where the hero, where there was a lot of humor in it. It was very light-hearted. Fantasy movies got darker as the years went by.
For me and for [producer] Joe Roth, and for Chris, it was very much trying to get in a more lighthearted, popcorn fantasy romp, if you will. So that was the biggest departure and we did it. For better or worse, we did it.
Tell me about achieving that narrative leap where you have a little bit of a prequel, and then a sequel, and making sure the audience knew how to fill in the gap where the first movie fits in between.
Yeah, that was always tossing a coin. When you do movies like that, eventually you hope, like, most of the people are going to run with it, and you know some won’t. We talked about the first movie and the opening scene, and then we resumed that on that long time-lapse sequence. Most of the people probably were going to be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s fine.” Especially the ones who have seen the first movie – they’re like “Oh, yeah, that goes in between.”
For the people that have not seen the movie and have not paid attention when the movie started, they were, like, going around eating their popcorn or coming back from the bathroom, it might be a little bit more challenging, but it might be OK. The script was like that when I came about. We wanted to be with Chris, with the Huntsman, before and explain where he was coming from, but we wanted to pick up where we left off. So that’s sequel part of it. So it was just like, we’re going to do it like that, and hopefully it works.
You’ve got four actors top of the bill that are right in the prime of their careers. Tell me what was fun to learn about them as you got to play with them on this movie.
Well, I think the best thing for me is because they’re all different as actors, they have different needs. Some need a little bit of time, some don’t need time. They all come on to their craft from a different door, in a way. For me, the most interesting part is to figure out what it is, what version of myself I can be in order to be the best director I can be for them. I don’t know if that’s the right way to do it or not – I mean, future will tell!
Jessica [Chastain], when we do a scene, she doesn’t need the same feedback as Charlize [Theron] or Emily [Blunt] or Chris. Some actors, you have to talk about where their character is, and some actors you’re just not going to talk about that. You’re just going to say, less, more, very simply one-word kind of thing. And then some you can have much more verbiage. So it’s trying to find what it is that works with them, and trying to find that voice that’s going to work for them. That’s a lot of listening, a lot of paying attention, and also a lot of love for the actors.
I think for me, I wouldn’t be able to do this job if I was not really in love with actors. Loving to see them doing what they do, you see what I mean? I would feel like it’s very hard for me to do this job and pretend that I’m loving them if I don’t love them for real, you see what I mean? I think that’s the essential part I think that I’m getting at which was like, I don’t know how a director can be a director and be thinking like, “Oh, actors – they don’t matter.” That’s just beyond me.
Is this a world that you want to continue to play in? Do you see more adventures in the fairy tale realm that you can draw in this particular kind of landscape that you guys have created?
There is always stuff that we’ve created that are never in the movies. There is stuff that we created in the first movie that were not in the first movie, and not in this movie. There is stuff that we created for this movie that were not in this movie because we didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the money, we didn’t have the resources or whatever. So there is always tons of stuff that are living around the movie that you’ve seen and that can be explored.
The whole “Huntsman” thing, we talked about this when we were still on set on the first movie. Because we had created all the things. We had created the polar bear, but we couldn’t really fit it in, the polar bear that Emily Blunt rides – which is actually a hybrid between a polar bear and a snow leopard, but that’s technical – I had designed it on the first movie. I had sketched it on the first movie. But there was no room for him in the first movie. And there’s tons of stuff like that.
Also storyline: What happened with Snow White [in this film], why do you see the shot when she does that – what is this? Well, there is a whole thing going on there that we never show in this movie, but we know it’s there and exists. There was a whole storyline.
Some people argue like, “Oh, should they have done a sequel of the first movie?” Was that something that was wanted, and this and that? Most likely, you’re going to find a lot of 35-year-old males that’s probably going to agree with that. But there is a lot of 17-year-old girls that are going to completely disagree with that.
I think we’re living in a world where the standards are male-driven. There’s 80 percent of the movies are made for men. Movies that are made for girls are very, very small. And most of the time they don’t have much money. They don’t have big casting. You know what I mean? And when they come out they’re “Ugh, this movie’s a chick flick,” or this and that.
So I would say that probably some girls like Colombia or in Europe somewhere, or in Russia are probably going to be really happy to see this movie because there’s not a lot of movies that are made like that for them. If those girls and women want more of it, then we’ll make more.
Tell me about those female characters. One is full-blown bad guy, and the other two are kind of in a gray area. They can go either way at any point in the movie. So tell me what it meant to you to create a little bit more nuanced kind of characters than maybe another movie in an action kind of realm would offer.
That goes from what I was just saying about women in movies. One of the things Jessica always says is what she was attracted with the character of Sara is she was not there to be saved or she was not a damsel in distress. She was on an equal part. There are very little movies like that. There’s a lot of countries that don’t offer what we offer. Those girls, when they see a character like Jessica’s character, it means something for them. So it might not mean much for a 35-year-old English man, but it might mean a lot more for a 17-year-old, or a 16-year-old, or a 13- year-old Chinese girl.
And I think that’s why for me, I’m making the movie for her. That’s who I’m making the movie for. Because she’s going to look at Jessica and she’s going to be like, “Wow!” She’s going to look at Emily, and she’s going to be like, “Wow!” And she’s going to look at Mrs. Bromwyn – we talk about the beautiful, Emily is beautiful and Jessica is beautiful, but Bromwyn is beautiful in her own way. She’s really funny, Sheridan Smith’s character – she’s like snarky, she is a force to reckoned with by herself and she’s short. We have to put a lot of prosthetic because Sheridan is a pretty attractive actress, so we had to really put a lot of stuff for her to kind of dampen that.
But that’s also made for a little girl out there that has self-confidence issues or stuff like that. We’re making the movie for those girls. And all those women, they all represent different choices, different facets of women. There is no strong women, there is women. They’re all strong. They all gave birth to us. They’re all strong. Every woman is strong. All the characters in the movie, they’re just illustrating different sides and different facets, if you will, of what a woman is. Hopefully, the girls out there, other women out there are picking up on this. Maybe mothers are going to pick up more on Freya. Then young girls are going to pick more up on Sara, or on Bromwyn.
Chris has that iconic screen heroic quality, and this character he plays very differently than he’s played other kinds of heroes. So tell me about getting the Huntsman out of Chris, in a sense.
It’s funny because that’s something that Chris really wanted to do, and I wanted the people to be able to see him like that. He's a very charismatic guy. He’s very charming. Also, when you talk about all those women, and you talk about changing the way women are perceived as damsel in distress, when you’re trying to say “Let’s put those popcorn flick, fantasy romp, fun, light-hearted character so the girls can enjoy them,” we have to talk about the men also. Because if all that goes through men, and how men need to change and how they behave themselves also around women.
And one of those things that may fly over the head of a lot of people, especially men watching this movie, is they’re not going to realize that the Huntsman character is somebody that is not afraid to be open and to be silly. I always say he’s a lover that if you kick out by the door, he comes back by the window. But he’s not trying to do that in a machismo, testosterone-induced, like “Hey, girl – I’m going to show you!” You’re going to swoon over me.” He doesn’t do that at all. He does that in a very kind of modern way.
We always talk about Val Kilmer and Madmartigan in “Willow,” because he was the epitome of that. He was this kind of like swagger-y guy and very charming in his shortcomings. I think Chris was like that about the Huntsman: to be charming in the shortcomings. But that’s also to make it very modern.
So when you look at the movie, and because it’s like this big visual roller coaster, you don’t realize that. It might fly over your head. But if you pay attention, you realize that he is that guy, he is that modern guy that’s just going to try to get back his love. That might not mean a lot for a lot of people, but it’s a fairytale, and fairy tales are very simple. It’s like good/ bad, love conquers all. It sounds simple, but fairy tales are like that.
“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” opens Friday nationwide.