She was born bad, and a little bit mad… but it took a great and creative team to bring her to life. “Cruella,” now in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access, tells the story of one of Disney’s most wicked villains, set in the gritty punk rock era of 1970s London.
Director Craig Gillespie, costume designer Jenny Beavan, hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey, production designer Fiona Crombie, and stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson recently got together over Zoom to discuss the film and why this story felt like it needed to be told.
“Cruella” follows a young grifter named Estella who has a talent for fashion and an appetite for mischief. One day, her unique eye garners the attention of the Baroness von Hellman, a fashion legend who is as cruel as she is chic. Their competitive and tumultuous relationship leads to a series of events that will cause Estella to embrace her darker side, and let Cruella take over.
When asked about why he wanted to make a film that centered around such a sinister Disney figure, Gillespie had this to say:
“Villains are always so fun to portray, because you have more license to do things that aren’t quite appropriate or push the boundaries and create these larger-than-life characters,” said Gillespie. “It was really important to me that this was not black and white. Obviously, no pun intended there with Cruella. But I wanted there to be this gray area and be able to empathize with the choices that she was making and the situations that she was responding to, and I wanted to do it in a way that was really fun.”
“They really let Craig and Tony [McNamara] kind of write and make what they wanted to make. I think it’s definitely dark for a Disney movie,” said Stone. “Maybe not for a really intense kind of R-rated film. It was darker than I’ve seen a Disney movie for a good long time.”
The chance to step into the shoes of Cruella and get to experience her life was an enticing one for Stone, especially to be able to start with her origins as “Estella.”
“It’s interesting, because there is a sort of rejection of Estella that comes at a point […] Estella is sweet, but she’s not fully embodied. So I would say there is something about Cruella that is pretty enticing, because she just kind of is who she is,” said Stone. “She’s in full acceptance and autonomy there. So I am kind of interested in that Cruella world. But that said, she does some things that — some lines that I don’t think I would necessarily cross […] It’s so much fun to do. For a lot of roles, you sort of have to, if you’re someone like me that kind of has a face that’s made of full rubber and is always trying to sort of contain a little bit — teaspoons a little bit instead of buckets — when you get to throw buckets, it’s a joy.”
Stone wasn’t the only villainess in this story, but Thompson was able to sink her teeth into a cruel matriarch as well.
“I had such fun doing [the Baroness], because I think I’ve been asking for quite a number of years if I could be a villain, a proper villain. And I spent decades playing what my mother used to call, ‘Good women in frocks.’ And now I got to play a really evil woman in frocks. But, oh boy, the frocks,” said Thompson. “I mean, they wore me, actually, really is what happened. I had just the best, best time. Every time Em and I would come on set, we’d just look at each other and walk around each other, like we were sculptures or works of art or something, which we were! It was in a way, everyone created the Baroness, and then I sort of just stepped in and just said the words!”
For both leads, there was something fun and intriguing about playing a woman who didn’t have to be nice, and Thompson articulated that feeling well:
“I am very interested in the dark side of a female character, because they’re so rarely allowed to be dark. You know, we’re all supposed to be nice and good, aren’t we? And bad mothers are simply unforgivable,” said Thompson. “I mean, nobody can find words for the bad mother. We don’t know about where they’ve all come from and how they’ve developed, but the Baroness is just so single-minded, and she says this wonderful thing. She says, ‘If I hadn’t been single-minded, I might have had to put my genius at the back of the drawer,’ like so many other women of genius, who died without producing anything and without using their genius. And what did they do? And actually, it is a very good point. So whilst, as Em says, I wouldn’t necessarily walk that path, her commitment to her own creativity is rather admirable, I think, and difficult, probably.”
The world of “Cruella” is very different from that of past iterations of the character, whether it be the original animated feature or the live-action films with Glenn Close. This film is also the first time we see the character as a child, which, according to Gillespie, finding the perfect actor was quite the search.
“It’s pretty formidable to try and find Emma Stone’s child version, because she’s such a nuanced actor, and she’s got such a strength and a humor to her performances all the time. So we did a pretty exhaustive search in London looking for that. And Tipper [Seifert-Cleveland] really had that sort of spunk that we were looking for; that sort of defiance and that sort of conviction to her beliefs,” said Gillespie. “That was really critical for this child growing up in a system that didn’t allow for that in the ‘60s. Just that fire in her eyes that was really critical to find that and be able to translate that to when she grows up. So I was thrilled with everything that Tipper brought to the party.”
The soundtrack for “Cruella” is almost a character in itself, highlighting Estella’s entire arc and joining her in transforming into the queen of mean — and it was designed just as such.
“I actually designed the movie knowing we [were] gonna have music,” said Gillespie. “So you have to design shots that give space for music […] I cut on the set as I go, so I’ll be putting music on the scenes as we’re shooting them. So, like, that [The] Doors track, when we first meet the Baroness, that I threw on the day that we were shooting it and it never changed […] There’s always music in my mind as we’re going through it and looking for opportunities throughout.
The fashion was also a unique storytelling tool for both Cruella and the Baroness, as both fashion mavens expressed their character arcs through their clothes — created by costume designer Beavan, who also worked on “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“I always say, in case people get the wrong impression, ‘I’m not a fashion designer, I’m a storyteller with clothes.’ In fact, in my real life, I have no interest in clothes. I just love telling stories with them,” said Beavan. “There were these beautifully written characters that you could just get your teeth into. And the Baroness is actually terribly clear once you get into that mindset of who she is and where her influences came from and her current situation […] And she’s a very good designer. She’s just slightly past her ‘sell by’ date.”
Dogs are obviously a major part of Cruella’s story, and including them in this portion of her tale — but in a realistic and believable way — was crucial.
“Obviously the dogs are a large part of all of ‘101 Dalmatians,’ but I wanted to bring them in a more grounded way. We worked on story a lot with the dole of the dalmatians and her relationship to them in terms of, you know, which you get into at this age. You get to know the plot of the story,” explained Gillespie. “They’re very intertwined with her emotional journey. And then also, having these mutts that were part of their crew, and just being able to have fun with that and design these set pieces that were almost grounded in reality, and plausible for dogs to do. They were supporting characters in a way, and they had their own personalities and concerns.”
“The dogs are — there’s quite a bit of dog CGI, but those dogs were always on set,” added Stone. “There were as many scenes as we could possibly have those dogs be comfortable, they were in, which was amazing.”
Thompson even had a little playful jealousy toward Bluebell, who portrayed the iconic Wink in the film.
“I’ve been jealous of Wink since day one, and I’ll say it right here,” joked Thompson. “I tried to get Wink fired. I told stories. I said he’d come and ‘widdled’ on one of my costumes, and nobody believed me. They just knew I was lying and that it was just a vicious attempt to get rid of this dog that was, frankly, upstaging me and getting in my light […] The dog was an obstacle.”