Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Willa: An American Snow White

With all these recent Snow White film adaptations coming out of Hollywood (Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, and another recently canceled Disney live-action version) it reminded me of a project I worked on several years ago. I had kinda forgotten about it. Although it was a wonderful project and a fun experience. Stroll with me won't you, down memory lane. For we have to remember where we've been, to understand just where we are. 

Tom Davenport is a wonderfully talented filmmaker and the nicest guy you'd ever hope to meet. He made a  series of films based upon The Brothers Grimm folk tales. All adapted to a "period" American setting. Castles became mansions. Spooky German forests transposed to rural Appalachia and the green rolling hills of Virginia. These old stories now had settings as familiar (to us Americans anyway) as the characters have become.

When we began work in 1993, he had already made about 10 "folk tale" films, each more ambitious than the previous one. But his adaption of Snow White would be his biggest production yet. It would be a full-length feature, produced with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The project would span several years of production. During this period of development, the film had the working title of The Stepchild, but would later be released asWilla: An American Snow White.

I was brought in at the beginning of pre-production as the storyboard artist. My task was to take the script and visualize how each finished shot would look. Before any set is built or dressed. Before lights and cameras are placed and actions blocked out. The cast and crew need to know exactly what is to be seen by the camera in each shot. So working with Tom I did a simple "comic-book" style drawing of the entire film. Shot by shot. "How about we show this and then cut to that?" *sketch sketch* "Then maybe we dolly the camera over to this?" *sketch sketch* Tight shot. Wide shot. Cut to storm clouds and lightning flash, etc. Unfortunately only the first HALF of the script was written at that time. More on THAT later.

Storyboarding is probably the cheapest method to determine what works and what doesn't to tell the story. Most film directors today use this process. Some even draw the boards themselves (Ridley Scott). While other directors like to work spontaneously on the set and avoid using boards (Werner Herzog). But Tom sensed early on that storyboarding would be crucial for this large a production. Since films are typically shot out-of-sequence (unlike a live play which is linear) the boards helped us immeasurably. Films are made up of tiny pieces that only create the illusion of continuity when edited together. Therein lies the bulk of the storytelling (along with costumes, sets, music, etc. which contribute to story). It can be daunting just keeping it all straight in everyone's minds as to what we are shooting and where we are in the story at any given moment. When viewing the drawings in sequence, as if watching the movie play out, we could see where we should consolidate shots and determine exactly how much film set we even needed to construct based on what the camera would actually see in each shot. No sense in building four walls if the camera only aims at three.

Here's an example of a single storyboard and the accompanying finished shot. Then imagine hundreds more.    
Another blog writer happened to catch something we did with the role of the "evil stepmother". Her character was inspired by Gloria Swanson's over-the-top performance in the classic Sunset Boulevard. The aging actress clinging to her fleeting fame, and the young beautiful up and coming actress seen as a threat to her status as the "fairest in the land". It's a clever modern twist on her motives that fits so well into the story you almost don't realize the evolution. And Caitlin O'Connell was a natural in the role of Regina. She got to chew some scenery and of course... oops almost spoiled the ending.
Sunset Boulevard (left), Willa (right)

And why Mark Jaster hasn't been cast as Chaplin in a remake of City Lights I'll never know. That's a shame and a real missed opportunity. The guy is amazing. He plays Regina's butler, chauffeur and eventually Willa's accomplice.  

Not to rehash our plot, but we don't have a character who IS actually Snow White, we have a character who is the embodiment of Snow White (from her jealous stepmother's perspective) and is a young aspiring actress who finally portrays the character of Snow White in a performance for a traveling medicine show, that has taken in the little run-away. She helps to entertain the masses and hold their attention while her colleagues pitch tonic water, snake oils and other useless "medicines" to the audience. She's an innocent and partakes not knowing the true value of the so-called "miracle elixirs". She sells illusions, not unlike us film-makers. To her, it's simply a way to avoid her frighteningly oppressive stepmother and escape into her beloved make-believe. And yes, one of the members of the medicine show is a little person.

In the title role, playing Willa, we were blessed to have Becky Stark, in her final year of High School. She did a great job in a pivotal role. And she fit nicely into Davenport's plucky leading lady types (ala Robbie Sams' genuine performance in Mutzmag, who troopered through the production only to sadly lose her battle with cystic fibrosis shortly after that film wrapped). 

Becky has gone on to have much success with her band Lavender Diamond (seen below touring with The Decemberists) as well as writing, acting and performing. She hasn't changed much at all. If we needed some pick-up shots of Willa... she could still pull it off I think.
Normally her work with Lavender Diamond is bubbly and fun-spirited, some might say even goofy, full of bright colors and puppets. But I thought I'd post a link to this more subdued piece. In case you hadn't heard this side of her work. FYI: That's NOT Becky in the video.

I also have a cameo in the film as a... well, how about I just let you find me. ;-) Many of the crew contributed ourselves to the crowd scenes. I'm the one over-acting. 

Now because of location scheduling issues (we only had access to the interior of the mansion in winter) and the fact that our lead actress was soon heading off to Brown University, we had to quickly shoot the first half of the film. But we did not have a finished script for the second half once Willa runs away from home! We toyed with various ideas much more closely aligned with the folk tale. But for various reasons (many of which Davenport discusses in the nice lengthy interview on the DVD) when we resumed production, we grounded the "fantasy" story back down to reality a bit more. Starting a project without knowing how you are going to end it (ala Apocalypse Now) is scary, but it also pushes you to think creatively and logically. It puts more importance and weight on your creative decisions. So you think twice about everything whereas before you might've just plunged on ahead as if your ideas were set in stone. Also it can become a more collaborative endeavour as various cast and crew make contributions to the story. In the end, because we had that break in the middle of filming, the finished product benefited.       

We had our 1997 gala premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Willa went on to win the Parents Choice Award and the ALA Carnegie Medal for "Best Children's Entertainment Film". Film-making is typically a grueling amount of effort. But sometimes, you get lucky and the various elements come together properly and the movie just works. And based on audience response, it seems this film works. Tom Davenport has a knack for making his films work. His attention to detail really comes through on screen. Personally I can't detach myself and just enjoy the film as a movie. Everything in it triggers feelings of "Oh I remember shooting that. I was hiding behind the camera there. Oh that was a long cold night. I wonder what he's doing now. I wish I could've done that differently. Everyone looks so young." etc. And of course, the passing of my mother during production affected me greatly. But the experience of the production itself remains a pleasant memory. And the film continues to do it's job well... to entertain.  

I still do a lot of storyboards. Both presentation and production boards. Mostly for commercials. The process hasn't really changed that much in 20 years. But with CGI you are now freed to move the camera anywhere you want. But that doesn't mean you should. You still have to keep thinking about the message or story you are trying to convey. Do what best serves the story.

For those interested in learning more about the art and process of storyboarding I suggest this blog. And a book I highly recommend is Daneil Arijon's Grammar of the Film Language. It's essential reading for those getting into the film industry in general. 

Here's a short preview. 
Unfortunately the image quality here is not great.  

You can preview more of Tom Davenport's films here. And of course there's

Well... that's a wrap.

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