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Caroline Thompson

on making "Snow White: The Fairest of Them All"

[premiered on ABC March 17, 2002]

interview by Douglas Eby

Caroline Thompson
                Kristin Kreuk         

An invitation of producer Robert Halmi to consider making a new version of "Snow White," Caroline Thompson recalls, came during the week his film "Merlin" was on television. "I tuned into it and thought, wow, this is as good a movie as anything out there," she says. 

"He asked if I wanted to do a project with Julie Hickson, and we had always wanted to work together, so I asked her to do 'Snow White' with me, which was fun because we kind of kicked off each other's imagination. 

"For example, the seven dwarves in the Grimm's tale don't have names: Happy, Dopey, Sneezy was all Disney. So we were trying to come up with what might be meaningful and fun. So we were working with the magic number seven, and I had the 'Eureka' that there's seven days of the week, so we named them after the days of the week, and their personalities were dictated by that famous rhyme: 'Monday's child...'

"Then Julie had the idea there's also seven colors in the rainbow, so we made each of them a color, and the way they travel is they get together and make a rainbow. That sort of led us to conclude that they should actually be responsible be responsible for making weather in general."

That sort of collaborating was "all fun" she says, "sort of the giddy part about writing. But the thing that drew me to the material... everything I do is kind of a fairy tale, meaning I like it to have something deeper, a sense of addressing something old inside us. This is the story of two women: a girl who is reaching puberty, and the story of her stepmother who is reaching menopause, and neither of them wants to change.

"So it's a story about basic change: how you react to change, how scary change is, how you can't stop change. It engages stuff that I thought was really powerful. That was in the original Grimm story: when you think of what the story is really about, that's what it's about."

Thompson now thinks the Disney animated version of the story is "pretty cool" but admits she used to be "snooty" about it. "But then I looked at it again. A different animator did each section, which is kind of fascinating. So it has this kind of weird wackiness to it, because the Snow White part of it is so treacly, but then the drawing in the part for the evil queen's death is just amazing, really so chilling."

She notes when she has told people she was doing this film, they've "looked at me like I'm crazy, or like, What am I wasting my time for. But I really enjoyed it. Miranda Richardson plays the stepmother and she was just delicious. 

"And we found Kristin Kreuk: that was fun. She had been on this little Vancouver miniseries, and that was all she'd done. But she has kind of a costume fetish, according to her mother, and she came into the audition, first for the experience, and then because she loves dress up.

"One look at that girl: it's not just that she's flawlessly beautiful, she's got this ancient soul inside her. You should see her hands, they're so wrinkled; I don't know how many times that girl's been here, but she's got the wrinkliest palms you ever saw.

"And she's just got this sort of wisdom inside her, and a real stillness, this kind of serenity that comes with her. She's like some kind of other animal, she's really an amazing person."

Speaking more about casting the critical role of Snow White, Thompson recalls that for a while being "terrified we would never find somebody who could sort of be timeless, because kids these days, young actors, have such a crank to them or something. I just didn't think we could find someone with that kind of clarity and innocence, and not smarmy; I can't stand that. 

"But she did fit the role. And the kid who plays the prince in the movie is also a Vancouver kid, and again has this kind of timelessness and innocence and sweetness about him. 

"It turned out his mom didn't want to raise him to be a 90s kind of kid: she took her two children to an island off the coast of Canada, that had no electricity, no running water. They grew up like that. No TV. You can feel it on the kid, he has a real lack of the warp of the era."

Asked what helped encourage her to pursue a life as an artist, she acknowledges having a "great teacher, my Latin teacher. She taught me three years in school, and let me know that life could be sparkly and fun and self invented. This was junior high school. She was an old lady then, and she just kicked our butts, and she brought out the best of me and I adored her," Thompson says.

One result of that mentoring shows in her personal style: "I try to speak my mind,'  she says, laughing. "That's a dangerous thing to do in any world, and certainly in my world. And she gave me the courage to do that."

She finds being forthright that way is an ongoing challenge working with other people in the film business: "People want to fire me on almost every job I have. They just don't like directness or something."

Moving from being the writer to the director of her own screenplay required her to be "so articulate" Thompson says. "I've always felt, well, just look at the page, but that's not true. But I had a great team on this. The production designer was David Brisbin who designed My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy, and he has a real twist to him; he was just great. 

"And we found this costume designer, named Nancy Bryant, who made the most beautiful and incredible clothes for Miranda and Kristin. They really loved her garments because they were really light weight, because she was used to working with people [stage actors] who had to wear them every night. She had the best eye, and had the most incredible fabrics, and so imaginative."

Asked about the difference for her between the relatively solitary work of writing versus being a director, which involves so many others, Thompson says, " I love the contrast. We finished this movie in June [2001], then we went on a holiday, and I've been home, basically writing since September, and loving that. I can see in another six months to a year, I'll get restless and say it would be fun to go be with other people for awhile. 

"I would never want to direct full time. There's so much that gets frittered away. And I get tired of talking and of questions. As satisfying as it is, it's also dissatisfying in lots of ways."

Writing continues to be a passion. She created a novel that came out in 1982, noting, "That's how I started as a writer. It was called First Born and it was definitely a horror novel about growing up in suburbia.

"I didn't really catch the bug to be a writer until I was a teenager. I didn't like books as a kid. I think part of it is there was always something punitive about them, they were either connected with school, or having to go to bed or something.

"But then I got completely snatched by the throat by reading when I was sixteen, and I never stopped. And reading so much made me want to write. I spent a summer in London when I was sixteen and the people my parents rented the house from -- he was a journalist and he had an entire wall covered with Penguin paperbacks, everything from Faulkner to Fitzgerald to Hemingway to Virginia Woolf. 

"All those greats were in front of me and I spent the whole summer reading. I always wanted to be a fiction writer, and books grabbed me before movies did."

Writing that first book was a "dream come true" she recalls, but there was also a kind of 'Now what?' or 'Is this all there is? feeling to it, Thompson says. 

"Then I became fascinated by how beautiful screenplays are: they're like poems in how simple and expressive they can be as a form. I know that sounds nutty, because they're never as they are; something comes of them because they get made into a film. 

"Anyway, I got fascinated with them, and started writing screenplays. My first was an adaptation of my novel. At that time, I was in love with the work of three directors: David Lynch, because I thought 'Eraserhead' was genius; Penelope Spheeris, because I thought 'The Decline of Western Civilization' was absolutely brilliant; and Brian de Palma, because 'Carrie' is my favorite movie.

"So I wanted to get the book to those people to see, and the person who was my agent at that time knew it was easiest to get it to Penelope Spheeris, because she was a client of the same agency. She loved it and wanted to make a movie of it, and I gave her the option to it for a dollar if I could write the script with her, and that's what we did. We actually set it up a couple of places, but it never got made.

Asked about the idea that there are a great many unproduced scripts around, Thompson admits she has been very lucky. "At one point, I had seven movies made and no unproduced scripts. I now have a few unproduced scripts," she adds, laughing. "It was my turn."

Currently doing an adaptation of a book she has been wanting to do since the mid-80s, she found out the rights had been bought by a producer. "I told my agent to get me a meeting. So I cajoled and wheedled and got the job.

"I know what I want, and I'm a terrible employee. I still have enough of an adolescent streak in me to rebel against authority. I've never had kids of my own, and never really had to grow up. I still see the world as I did as a teenager. Nothing is really asked of me to turn a corner in my perspective. I'm insecure about a ton of things, but I'm not insecure about saying yes and no to things. I'm not insecure about saying, Oh thats a good idea, I'll do that.

"I don't know if I'd had kids, that would have changed me. I suspect that it changes you profoundly. I don't know for sure, never having had the experience. 

"But I do know that basically the things I loved as a twelve year old I still love, like horses and dogs. And I've built my life around the obsessions I had as a preadolescent and adolescent. The adolescent love of reading has never left me, and there are lots of people that leaves.

"I probably don't read with the same dedication as then, because I'm not hiding from as much. But my boyfriend and I went to Mexico for three weeks to this island I love off the coast of Cancun, and I read twenty five books. Just swallowed them like candy."

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 earlier interview:  Caroline Thompson: on directing "Buddy"

<< interviews by Douglas Eby - resumé

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