In the live-action adaptation of “Cinderella,” Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Chris Weitz, 45, (“About a Boy”) takes a classic fairytale and creates a more contemporary story without losing the magic of the original 1950 animated film. The newest version features actress Lily James (TV’s “Downton Abbey”) as the title character, an orphaned young girl who finds herself sharing a home with an evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two equally awful stepsisters. During a phone interview with me to promote the recent DVD/Blu-ray release of the film, Weitz, whose grandmother was Mexican actress Lupita Tovar (“Drácula”), talked about creating a character much more independent than the one in the original animated movie and shared his thoughts about the Disney princess culture and whether he thinks little girls should idolize these types of characters.
Talk a bit about taking this very well-known fairytale and reinventing it. Where do you even begin?
I think the trick was to present a classic version of the story. It’s not ironic. It’s not postmodern. We also didn’t want to tell it in a way that a contemporary audience would think of Cinderella as a doormat. She puts up with a lot of stuff, but she doesn’t run away from home and she doesn’t hit her stepmother. In other movies, that’s something characters might do. Also, we wanted to ask, “Why does she love the prince?” In older versions of the story, it’s just kind of an afterthought that she would love him because he’s a prince and he’s good looking and charming and all those things. That’s kind of not keeping with how people view romance these days. We wanted to give a good reason why someone would fall in love beyond status. We wanted to tell a story of resilience as opposed to reaction and to show what it is like for two people to really fall in love.
Yes, I really loved that you gave Cinderella more control of her own life in this version. In the original Disney cartoon, I don’t like the fact that the prince is the ultimate goal and that marrying him is the only way she will find happiness. She’s more independent and strong here. Is that what you hoped to have come across?
Definitely. I think a lot of that is Lily James. She really pulls it off in terms of being able to present this character whose actions are very restrained in some ways. She doesn’t have a scene where she tells off the wicked stepmother, but Lily still manages to do that without seeming like a goody two-shoes. That’s really impressive. That’s definitely what we wanted, but it wasn’t something that was necessarily a foregone conclusion.
How do you feel about the princess culture in general? Do you have an issue with little girls idolizing these types of characters?
I think it’s a double-edged sword. Obviously there are aspects to [the princess culture] that seem to be very old-fashioned. But I think you can take the real estate of the princess story and use it to emphasize really important aspects of emotional development like resiliency and decency and honesty. Cinderella is not aggressive or hostile in any way. This is a story about getting through loss and difficult circumstances with dignity. There’s room for that story. I think it’s good that there are other types of stories, but there is room for this one, too. And I just want to point out that in this story Cinderella is never a princess. She is an orphan and then a queen. By the time she marries the prince he is the king. In the animated film she becomes a princess, but in this film she is ready to rule.
A few years ago, Disney said they were not going to make any more princess-themed films. Do you think that is possible for a studio that has such a strong following when it comes to these types of movies?
I think before there were princess stories there were fairytales. Those are kind of evergreen. The Disney princess industry is a huge industry, obviously. I think it would be a difficult thing to move away from that because it’s something people care about so much. But maybe the way things are going to go is to reexamine the idea of these princess stories in more modern ways.
Disney introduced audiences to their first Disney princess in 1937 with Snow White. Almost 80 years and 13 princesses later and we still don’t have a Latina princess. Earlier this year Disney announced they were working on a new Latina princess named Elena of Avalor who will be featured on the cartoon “Sophia the First” and will later get her own animated spin-off TV show. Is that enough?
You’re pointing to an issue that is in American pop culture, especially in movies. It’s something I really care about. As you probably know, Latino audiences, per capita, buy more movie tickets than any sector of society in the country. I don’t think it’s ever quite enough until it is. It’s good that there will be a Hispanic Disney princess-type character, but I want to see more. I also think Latino audiences should demand that as well and examine their film-going choices before they put down their money.
Personally, are more live-action adaptations of these animated Disney films something you’re excited about? We’re going to get quite a few over the next few years.
If you’d asked me this about 10 years ago I would’ve said I had no interest whatsoever. (Laughs) But now that I’m a parent, I really think it’s important that there are movies children want to go see and that parents won’t want to shoot themselves in the head while watching. So, yeah, I’m very much in favor of it and hope I can keep my hands in it as well and continue to work with Disney.