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Director Craig Gillespie Details His Foray Into Cruella's Menacing World - Exclusive Interview

As soon as Craig Gillespie signed on to direct the Cruella de Vil origin story "Cruella," the renowned filmmaker behind "I, Tonya," "The Finest Hours," and "Million Dollar Arm" agreed to shoulder some massive expectations. To begin with, Gillespie was saddled with the daunting responsibility of living up to the animated and live-action versions of "101 Dalmatians," which of course first introduced audiences the famed Disney villain. 

On top of that, "Cruella" had to feel like it was naturally progressing into the spotted dog tale fans know and love, but have the origin story establish its own identity at the same time. Gillespie was more than confident that he could make "Cruella" feel very much a part of the overall "101 Dalmatians" story because he had "La La Land" Oscar winner Emma Stone in the title role from the beginning. 

In the film, which is in theaters May 28 and dropping the same day on Disney+ with Premier Access, we meet Stone as an orphaned street grifter named Estella who has big dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Thanks to her longtime partners in crime Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), Estella finds a way to get hired at the Liberty London fashion department store. Starting with menial tasks at the store, a happy accident highlighting Estella's creative sartorial sensibilities that reflect the punk rock craze of the 1970s catches the attention of high-society fashion legend Baroness von Hellman (Oscar winner Emma Thompson), who in turn hires the promising designer to work for her.

But when Estella begins to discover the Baroness' conniving ways — and worse yet, a dark secret involving her late mother — she shifts her dream of owning a design empire into overdrive to outdo the insidious tastemaker at every turn. Unbeknownst to Estella, however, her burning desire to destroy the Baroness has caused her to lose her way, turning the once-innocent young woman with a dream into the feared fashion force known as Cruella de Vil.

In an exclusive interview with Looper to discuss "Cruella" — which also stars Mark Strong, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and John McCrea — Gillespie discusses how he tackled the huge creative challenges making the film. In addition, Gillespie talks about the collaborative process when working with Stone and Thompson, and gives a peek into his next project, the miniseries "Pam & Tommy."

Finding the right tone for the Cruella script made all the difference, Gillespie says

It must be really intimidating to take on a job like this — obviously you want to get it right, because it leads into the iconic story that you see in the animated and the live-action film versions of "101 Dalmatians." But I would imagine that those worries somewhat melt away when you look at this script, because it's brilliant, with some unexpected turns.

It is, and it wasn't quite there when I came on board — that was the stress of trying to deliver it. It is an iconic character and really the piece of the puzzle that was missing for me was Tony McNamara, who had written "The Favourite" with Emma Stone, and she loved him. I had been working on something with him when this came along, and we got Tony to do a rewrite on it. That's where the dialogue really came alive and the tone of it for me really came alive. Once I had that I was like, "Okay, now I know how to do this and execute this." Obviously, you've got the enormous talent of Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, but it's always scary when you're doing a heightened character — someone so as large as life as the villain of Cruella — and trying to find where the sweet spot for that performance is. So that was something we honed for the first week or so.

Honoring 101 Dalmatians while creating an original tale with 'Cruella'

Again, because this is an origin story, how difficult was it to not think about the versions of "101 Dalmatians"? It's a tricky balancing act, because you bring in certain elements of Cruella's character from those films — the black and white hair, her sense of style, and of course, you have the Dalmatians.

It's funny, when you really get down to it, there's not much backstory on Cruella de Vil, which was kind of liberating [laughs]. There's so little to know about her, other than Anita [Darling] and her went to school together. So it was enormously liberating to figure out what our version of that would be and then setting it in '70s punk London, which reinforced her character journey ... Then it really informed her whole style.

The interesting thing with Emma, which I actually haven't touched on yet, is that she had a very complicated performance to do because it's an evolution for her to become Cruella. The first time we meet her as Cruella, she's doing a character at the black and white ball. She's not quite there yet, and then she goes through this emotional epiphany that informs her. She then sort of transforms into this other version of Cruella and eventually she becomes this sort of hybrid version of the character. So she's constantly modulating her performance and what kind of Cruella she wants to be.

Finding the perfect way to introduce the Baroness

To define the Baroness, there's that grand entrance with Emma Thompson when she steps out of her limo at Liberty's. How difficult is it to conceive those sorts of splashy entrances?

Obviously, we have this big push in on [the Baroness] coming out of the car, and I've got the traffic behind her in London, the red buses, and she's got just a great fashion style and the glasses on, and then the whole walk through the Liberty's of London. I do these big sweeping moves that are really actor-centric. The camera is always right in front of them or right behind them, and they have to be the focus of the frame.

But then on top of that, I cut a song in on the set as I'm shooting. So on that day, I threw the Doors [song "Five to One"] on, and the scene just sort of comes to life in a way. There's just this grounded sort of wave of boldness that's coming along with her walking into the space, and everybody is racing around, but the camera is always centered on our hero, and at that point, it's the Baroness. I'm not cutting to reaction shots. She carries the whole frame.

Craig Gillespie was blown away by the work of the 'generous' Emmas

How collaborative are Emma Stone and Emma Thompson on the set? Because again, they have such command of their characters. There are so many elements that are coming together — the screenwriting, your direction, and their acting.

They're absolutely amazing to work with. I think they're the most generous actors in the sense of they know it's a tricky tone that we're going for. They would modulate their performances to figure out where that balance was, and it's something that we explored more at the beginning. And then, because I'm cutting [the film] as we go and I show them what we're working on, and the characters get very defined very quickly, the thing that we found out was for the Baroness, less was more. 

So it became about these very minute gestures, just an eyebrow or just the cock of a head that was so much power for her against Cruella — who's just kind of like this bag of energy bundling around and always like non-stop and very gregarious. So having that juxtaposition worked amazingly well with the two of them.

Picking the songs to best suit the story (and hoping to acquire the rights to use them)

I love the songs in the film. They seem to fit the atmosphere perfectly, from Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walking" to "Livin' Thing" from ELO, and obviously, "Sympathy for the Devil" from the Rolling Stones is a perfect song. Are those songs ticking around in your head when you're making the film? Because obviously, there are rights issues and there's a lot to securing those songs for the movies.

Yeah, I asked for forgiveness to get those songs. [Laughs] Literally on the day we were shooting in Liberty's, I designed the shots knowing we were going to put music in places, and while dropping music in there, I threw the Doors in on the day and then hoped that we were going to get it. But even more specifically, when we were doing her [drunk scene] in the Liberty's with Emma, we shot like five takes of her coming out when she's drinking. I walked over to her and I'm like, "I feel like you should be singing a song through this." She's like, "Sure." And I just went to my phone and I'm like, "How about Nancy Sinatra?" She's like, "How's it go?" I just played it for, like, 30 seconds. She was like, "Okay." And she just came out singing that song, so we basically committed to that song in the shoot, which was fun. With "[Sympathy for] the Devil," which is on when she's walking in at the end, that was a song I found very quickly on the day of shooting as well. Luckily, we got them all.

Next up for Craig Gillespie is the true-life tale of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson

Speaking of music, in the past week the world was treated to a couple incredible photos of Sebastian Stan and Lily James as Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson in your next project, "Pam & Tommy." What can you tell me about the project at this point?

We're four weeks into shooting. They're both amazing. It's a sort of an interesting story. Again, it's not dissimilar to "I, Tonya" in the sense of looking at how society's being complicit. We get to hold a mirror up again, so it's about our role in this and the destruction that it actually has in their personal lives, but we get to look at all the characters. Again, I think from more of a nuanced place. It's not black and white. Everybody is culpable in certain ways and we understand all the motivations going on, and it's kind of a fascinating, wild ride.

Also starring Joel Frey, Paul Walter Hauser, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, John McCrea and Mark Strong, "Cruella" opens in theaters and begins streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access on May 28.