Acclaimed filmmaker Tarsem Singh wants moviegoers to know that, despite the mere coincidence that his Snow White film "Mirror Mirror" and the upcoming "Snow White and the Huntsman" have some of the same characters and are being released within a month of one another, the similarities end there.
"It was never was a competition," Singh told me in an interview Wednesday. "Ours is a family movie, and theirs was always along the lines of a 'Lord of the Rings'-type of adventure film. 'Mirror Mirror' is a completely different film. I knew the film I was making and didn't know want to know what kind of film they were making."
Of course, looming over both productions was "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the Walt Disney animated classic upon all other "Snow White" films will always be judged. But in an odd sort of way, Singh said, he had an odd sort of advantage because he hadn't seen the Walt Disney version until about six weeks ago, after his work was done on "Mirror Mirror."
"I knew of the original Grimm's fairy tale, of course. It's a very dear tale," Singh said. "So my thoughts for 'Mirror Mirror' were to take the story beyond the Brothers Grimm stuff. I don't think anything would have changed in my movie if I had seen the Walt Disney version before making mine. The Disney version is such a different film. The animation was groundbreaking, and the animation now is in a completely different space. I'm glad I didn't see it before making mine, and when I did, I loved it."
New in theaters nationwide, "Mirror Mirror" retells the legendary tale as comedic adventure, where Snow White (Lily Collins) -- a princess expelled from the kingdom by her stepmother the Evil Queen (Julia Roberts) -- enlists the help of seven scrappy dwarfs to fight for her birthright and perhaps win the heart of a handsome prince (Armie Hammer) in the process. The film also stars Nathan Lane as the Evil Queen's hapless servant.
"Mirror Mirror" begins with perhaps one of the most creatively inspired opening sequences in years, where Singh tells the back story of Snow White; her father, the King; and her stepmother, the Evil Queen. Using what appear to be porcelain dolls, the sequence almost looks like stop-motion, but is instead CGI with an added twist.
"They are CGI dolls, but their eyes are of humans," explained Singh, who rose to prominence as a music video director before exploding onto the film scene with "The Cell" in 2000. "I did animation like it in school, but for this, I told the guys who did it for me specifically what I wanted, and they did an amazing job."
While the scene provides a stunning invitation into Singh's version of the "Snow White" tale, he admits getting it approved by the powers that be wasn't an easy task.
"There was a lot of friction because everybody wanted the beginning to not be animation because they thought it should be a scenario where the audience could feel something for Snow White and relate with her," Singh recalled. "I said 'OK,' but then I told them how much doing it that way was going to cost to shoot and it would be a problem with Julia Roberts' schedule and our schedule. They then said, 'Do what you want,' and I said, 'I'll go with the animation that I always wanted.'"
Hail To The (Evil) Queen
It takes no more than a few seconds of the trailer of "Mirror Mirror" to know that Roberts fully embodies the role of the Evil Queen. Singh knew that she would and told me that she was his only choice for the part.
Surprisingly, Singh said, the idea of wanting Roberts in his film and actually getting her in his film wasn't as difficult as it seemed.
"I thought the chance of meeting Julia Roberts was really unlikely, and the chance of finding a film for her was even more unlikely," Singh said with a laugh. "But then the script for 'Mirror Mirror' came along, and I knew exactly what I wanted her to do. Once I got a meeting with her, she asked me, 'Why do you want to do this story?' and I said, 'I have a new take on it. I'm not going to have the classic Disney look for the Evil Queen.' She read the script and signed on immediately."
Perhaps the thing that impressed Singh the most about Roberts was her demeanor.
"I never really felt like I met a star," Singh said. "When I met her, I just met a mom. Her whole thing was about being home in time to be with her kids."
Professionally, Singh loved how Roberts became a queen that wasn't an out-an-out loathsome villain. Turning the audience off was never the filmmaker's or actress' intention.
"I didn't want it to be a negative part, but instead a person that you loved to hate," Singh said. "It wasn't about pure evil, it was just about a queen who did what she did to stay in power. Vanity is involved, too. She's broke, and the rich prince comes along and he's younger, so she needs to look younger. She needs to have him fall in love with her, and that's what she goes for."
That's not to say Singh doesn't love "pure evil" in movies. It's just that here, he was looking to highlight his star's legendary beauty.
"I just wanted the queen to be everybody's idea of a pretty woman," Singh added with a laugh, in reference Roberts' hit 1990 film.
After casting Roberts and Hammer, Singh found his perfect Snow White in Collins, who attracted audience attention as Sandra Bullock's and Tim McGraw's daughter in "The Blind Side." Oddly enough, it wasn't that film where Singh met his future princess, but on his film before "Mirror Mirror" -- the action-fantasy "Immortals."
"I had met Lily before 'The Blind Side' when she came in to read for 'Immortals' and really liked her, but I felt she wasn't right for the film," Singh said.
His feeling for whether Collins was right for "Mirror Mirror" were quite different. One look of an audition of hers on video and Singh was sold. As a bonus, he got a singer, too, as the daughter of legendary rocker Phil Collins performs a Bollywood-style number during the film's closing credits.
"I saw her completely as the character -- eyebrows and all," Singh said. "I said, 'Lily looks like a complete mix between a young Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn,' and that's exactly what I wanted."