It was back-to-back panels for Charlize Theron at WonderCon on Saturday. Already there for the Prometheus presentation, she joined fellow Snow White and the Huntsman actress Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders for a chat with moderator Ben Lyons on the ballroom stage. It was part of the Universal Pictures preview, which also included Battleship director Peter Berg and stars Alexander Skarsgård and Brooklyn Decker.
Sanders admitted that the most challenging aspect of the film was "staying true to it for a contemporary audience." He started by going back to the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, explaining, “There's a difference between fairy tales and fantasy movies.”
The next step was illustrating to Universal his vision, accomplished by shooting a trailer on a tight budget. "We had one horse and one suit of armor," Sanders recalled. "We showed it to the studio and they could see what we were doing."
Lyons asked Stewart what she was most proud of about the film. "I'm really proud of this guy," she said, gesturing to the director. "It's so incredibly rare that everything I wanted see is in there."
Lyons then asked Theron, "How evil is the Evil Queen?"
"Is there an evil meter I don't know about?" she asked, revealing that everyone she knows has called the character everything from "the Evil Stepmother" to "the Wicked Witch." She realized that most people have an idea of who the Queen is and "it's kind of nice that I can fuck with that idea."
When asked about Huntsman Chris Hemsworth, Sanders replied, "It's rare to find a guy who can do the action and get the emotional part, too. Audiences are not expecting to cry, and Chris is part of that."
Besides emotion, the film also features plenty of action, and Stewart was right in the fray. "I hurt myself a lot," she recalled. "It was a cool thing about her. [She's] able to shatter guys in armor, [and] I got to jump off cliffs and ride horses, and that terrifies me."
Sanders then presented footage from the film that revealed the dwarves as played by actors Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones and Nick Frost. At one point, the Hoskins character notes that Snow White is "the one" while a few of the other dwarves look at her with more lascivious eyes. We also see Snow White's escape from the Queen's castle and a few examples of the Queen's wrath.
After the reel, Lyons opened the floor to questions. The first followed up on Stewart's trepidation about riding horses. "I broke and dislocated my elbow when I was 9," she admitted. "I was really not happy about having to do it. I just had to not think about it because I wanted to do this. If I perished by horse, that was okay."
Theron was asked about the apparent "inner darkness" coming out in recent roles like her characters in Young Adult and Snow White. "That's 'cause I'm a bitch," she joked, suggesting that, just as Picasso had his blue period, this run of films is her "bitch period."
The next fan asked Stewart if she liked playing Snow White. "We're true to who she is, brass tacks," the actress answered. "We respect who she is. As soon as I read the script and talked to Rupert, [I saw] we weren't just playing archetypes and that changes her right off the bat."
Then she was asked how she felt about portraying a "take-charge lady instead of the victims that you play?"
"I will refrain from a Twilight conversation," she said with a laugh. She said part of the appeal of Snow White for her is its apparent lack of awareness of its own badassery. Stewart shared that she was always looking to be in such a film, but hadn’t found the right role until now. "She's brimming and she doesn't know why, and I can relate to that and love that and ... yeah ... it was cool to have all of that behind kicking the shit out of someone," she explained.
"She's explosive in action," Sanders added. "This is a tough movie and she's a tough girl in charge."
The next fan, a young boy, tried to ask Stewart how she felt about switching from Bella to Snow White, but Theron hijacked the moment.
"Are you single?" she asked. "I think you're adorable."
After a few moments, Stewart attempted to answer. "Everything I've done always feels really different," she explained. "Snow White couldn't be further from Twilight, [and] I like that it feels big in scale and I would love to look back and see Snow White as much as I love Twilight."
As the boy walked away from the microphone, Theron mouthed, "Call me."
Sanders explained his decision to "size-down" actors instead of employing little people for the dwarves. "We wanted to use great British actors," he explained. Before Snow White, Sanders was working on a British gangster movie and hoped to cast many of the same actors in it. "These [dwarves] are British gangsters, but little," he quipped.
He also said the scale of the film drew him to the project.
A young girl then asked the group whether it was fun to be in the movie. "So much fun!" Theron answered. "It's amazing that we get to do this. Does it look like we're having fun? It's the greatest job ever."
Asked about research, Sanders joked that he read the "seven pages" of the Grimm version of the story. "It was a lot of research in those half-an-hours."
Stewart added, "He gave me a book about Joan of Arc because he didn't want to read it."
"I watched The Shining," Theron said.
After a few moments, moderator Eric Morrow replaced the trio with Battleship director Peter Berg and stars Brooklyn Decker and Alexander Skarsgård. The latter received an appreciative cheer from a predominately female contingent of the audience.
Berg explained his connection to the Navy, saying, “My dad was a Marine and a huge Navy war historian. They would go on trips to every Navy museum across the country, and his father would interrupt the lecturers about their facts. "Usually, he was right," Berg laughed. The director's own love of Navy history led him to a project about The Essex, a whaling ship that provided Herman Melville with the inspiration for Moby Dick. The story also has an interesting, if commercially poisonous, wrinkle. "The boat got sunk and all the crew had to eat each other," Berg revealed. "That wasn't popular with the studio."
He admitted there's a certain amount of skepticism surrounding Battleship, as the children’s guessing game doesn’t lend itself to obvious interpretation. He countered with the game's emotional engagement. "What I love [is] the simplicity of the game," he said. "When I say, 'Hit', I'm trying to kill you as brutally as possible, and you're trying to kill me, and that's a good start for a movie."
The director then teased a clip from the film. "We want this movie to be fun, we want it to kick ass,” he said. “It's meant to be a piece of summer popcorn madness.”
The scene itself revolves around Alex, played by Taylor Kitsch, and his attempts to get a burrito for Decker's character Samantha. It involves crashing through a convenience-store ceiling, the police, and a severe tasering.
"You see the seeds of determination in that young man," Berg said.
Morrow asked Decker what her character sees in Alex. "I think every woman can relate to falling for a fixer-upper," she said. "It's attractive when you're in your early 20s."
Skarsgård, who plays Kitsch's older brother Stone, described their relationship on screen: "Stone's philosophy has always been to let Taylor's character make mistakes."
Asked about the scale of the action scenes, the actor recalled how Berg created a certain reaction shot that appears in the trailer. "He wanted a shot of me when the glass hits my face," Skarsgård recalled. "I show up on the day and there's what looks like a World War II cannon, and Pete said to look straight into the barrel and we'll shoot you with air and it'll blow you off your feet." The shot required little acting, as the cannon did exactly what the director said it would.
Decker also experienced Berg's unusual way of eliciting a reaction. In one scene where he wanted "snot bubbles" from her, the director hid in the bushes with a machine gun. When he called action, he started firing. "I think he got the reaction he wanted," she said.
Calling the story a "perfect segue into the next clip," Morrow showed a scene in which Alex come face to face with an alien – one that’s recognizably humanoid with facial hair resembling porcupine quills. The two tussle, and Alex is fed telepathic images of an alien battlefield. After the alien escapes, Alex is left with the feeling that, "We're going to need a new planet."
For Berg, the aliens were key to keeping the picture fun. While trying to avoid a real-world enemy, he drew inspiration from a Stephen Hawking documentary. "He talked about Goldilocks planets, [which are] similar to Earth and, in theory, have a climate that could support life," he said. According to Berg, space agencies are targeting these planets with high-frequency signals. "Hawking said that this a stupid, horrible idea." This gave the director the notion that the aliens are answering an invitation. Instead of peaceful contact, though, "things just went south."
Morrow asked Berg about shooting on the ocean. "It's the stupidest thing you can do," he answered. "You should never do it.”
The director remembered a call he received from Kevin Costner shortly before filming began. "I feel compelled to come and tell you all the things we did right on Waterworld and all the things we didn't," Berg recalled Costner saying. They talked for three hours about the perils of that movie’s ocean filming, which included a seasick cinematographer, and crew member appropriating a dinghy, quitting, and yelling, "I hate the water!" as he sped away.
"He got me prepared mentally, and we had our crew ready," Berg said. "To be able to go out in to the ocean is something I really love about this movie."
Battleship opens May 18, followed by Snow White and the Huntsman on June 1.