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Director Series: Ella Enchanted

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By Mary Ann Skweres
Filled with magic and music, elves, ogres and giants, wicked stepsisters and a charming prince, Miramax Films’ Ella Enchanted puts a 21st century twist on the classic fairy-tale. Directed by Tommy O’Haver, the film is based on the best-selling, Newberry Honor-winning novel by Gail Carson Levine and stars Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries). Usually Cinderella stories are about wish fulfillment, not empowerment, but in this tale a young woman under a curse finds the power within herself to break the spell. This twist appealed to O’Haver who wanted to have fun and break a few rules. To bring the fantasy world to life with exuberant colors and adventurous fun, O’Haver chose collaborators who shared humor, playfulness and a touch of magic.

Below The Line: With three Academy nominations under his belt, Norman Garwood, your production designer, is a big hitter. How did he create “medieval mod”?
Tommy O’Haver: I really wanted to work with him from the start because he worked with Terry Gilliam on Brazil and Time Bandits, one of my favorite films. He has a great dry British sense of humor, which the film needed. He also had a kind of cartoonish visual sense that was important. It wasn’t quite The Flintstones, but it did border on that.
BTL: What he did with the mall was inspired.
O’Haver: Exactly. The hand-cranked escalator was a brilliant touch. We had templates in the script for these plays on contemporary society that we envisioned in a new medieval way. He took all that and just ran with it. Working with somebody like that, he and his team come up with as many ideas as possible. It’s my job to say yes and no. This one may be too much, but this one is brilliant. It was a great collaboration. I was honored to work with him.
BTL: Did John de Borman manipulate the colors to get the right look for the cinematography?
O’Haver: That became a whole interesting process. John shot the film in a very specific way—high saturation, but low contrast —so it had this pastel look. We were trying to mimic Technicolor. When we saw it all together, we thought it was sort of working, sort of not, so we pushed the colors in the lab to give it a richer look. We went through a digital color timing process at Efilm, which was great. You can get so specific with areas of your frame. Adding a little more blue to the skies. Making some of the night skies a little bit more purple. Once you’ve gone through that, you put it to film and certain inconsistencies show up. So you go through a traditional grading process. We worked really hard to get the look. I think John, Efilm and Deluxe did a great job.
BTL: The Ogres were obviously a collaboration of wardrobe and make-up, but who came up with the outrageous butt cracks?. I wondered, “Did I really see that?”
O’Haver: That was all Neal Scanlon, a British effects designer. He deals mostly in animatronics. He designed the Kangaroo for Kangaroo Jack. We said, “We want ogres. What do you have?” He started doing all these sketches. We said, “Maybe a little less ugly. Maybe a little more funny.” Somewhere along the line those butt cracks came into play.
BTL: How did you sell the studio on musical numbers?
O’Haver: Two musical numbers were written into the first script. We added the third on Harvey’s [Weinstein, executive producer] suggestion because he likes musical numbers as much as I do. Our choreographer, Bruno Tonioli, was great. It was a challenge, especially the giant wedding sequence because he had to choreograph giants in one area and our featured cast on a blue scene stage, then put it all together and make sure it worked. He did an amazing job pulling off those musical numbers.
BTL: Can you talk about the visual effects?
O’Haver: MPC [Moving Picture Company, in London] did an excellent job with Heston, the talking snake. He’s one of the best digital characters I’ve ever seen. Double Negative did the opening shot and the elf village musical number. The actors were shot on a blue screen stage and added into a model set; it was huge and we couldn’t build a set that big. We had Cinesite handling Benny, the digital face inside the book. Angus Bickerton [VFX supervisor] was coordinating all three of them. We had an in-house VFX department doing a lot of the composites, some digital landscapes and adding blue skies because shooting in Ireland we didn’t have blue skies very often. The castle interiors were practical except we wanted the castle to feel very tall, so we did a lot of extensions, especially in the hall of records, so that it looked like a huge set. Again that’s coordination between Angus, Norman and John.
What was challenging about that way [of working] is they’re making effects shots as we’re cutting the film. They’ll create a brilliant shot and you say, “It’s not in the film anymore.” It’s something you don’t think about because you storyboard everything, but by the virtue of the process, your film’s always getting tighter. Luckily we were in the same office during post, so there was constant communication between me and Masahiro [Hirakubo, editor] and Angus and his team.
BTL: How did you get involved with Hirakubo?
O’Haver: He had done some great films with Danny Boyle. He came in for an interview and I thought he had a brilliant dry sense of humor. So we hired him. I’d never worked with him before. I’d worked with my editor, Jeff Betancourt, on Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss and Get Over It, but because we were doing this in London, it became about tax breaks and things like that. I would have loved to work with him again, but I had to find somebody with a similar sensibility. I was lucky to find Masa.
BTL: Any surprises during editing?
O’Haver: When we started to test the film, it was obvious that the younger audience—15 and under —were reacting the most strongly to it. We gave up on trying to please teenagers early on in the process and geared it more towards our core audience. That’s the main thing that came about through the editing.
BTL: What did you want from Ruth Myers’ costumes?
O’Haver: Again it was looking for that balance between contemporary and medieval. She had some great ideas about painting the costumes on, giving them patterns, the crochet, things like that. Giving the sisters a hippie look was really unusual. I especially love what she did for Anne (Ella). It’s very reminiscent of Snow White and Judy Garland’s costume in The Wizard of Oz. Ruth gave it that quintessential fairy tale look, but with a little bit of a modern twist.
BTL: Who came up with the color scheme?
O’Haver: We both talked about that early on. I’m trying to remember how that worked out…
BTL: With the give and take, it’s sometimes hard to figure out where the idea came from.
O’Haver: Exactly. Making a film, I always look at it like flying a kite. The film takes on a life of its own, courtesy of all these other people that are around you. It’s my job to pull the string this way and that way just to keep it all [up in the air]. It’s a magical experience, making a film. It’s a truly amazing thing.

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