Home Film The Filmmakers of ‘Cruella’ on Reforming her Disney Identity

The Filmmakers of ‘Cruella’ on Reforming her Disney Identity

by A. Felicia Wade
Emma Stone as Cruella posing in a red dress at a glamorous ball as seen in the new Disney live-action film.

Cruella has already received solid praise for setting “a new standard for Disney live-action films.” Credit not only due to a colorful performance from Emma Stone, but from the team of creatives at her back. The notion of an origin story for classic Disney villain Cruella de Vil was initially met with doubt, most of which went away when more got revealed about the project. A big-budget film from I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie and The Favourite writer Tony McNamara? Unorthodox choices for Disney, but just taboo enough to fit a character as defiant as Cruella.

Attending the global press conference for the film, we managed to get more insight into how Disney managed to reform Cruella’s image. Not only did her image have to be re-shaped to where it wasn’t mainly about being evil to dogs (who wants to watch the origins behind that?), but it had to be molded strong enough to warrant its own feature film. Director Craig Gillespie was the first to tackle this question that has loomed over every single villainous origin story put to screen…

Craig Gillespie: “Villains are always so fun to portray, because you just have more license to do things that aren’t quite appropriate or push the boundaries, and create these larger-than-life characters.

It was really important to me that it 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 I wanted to do it in a way that was really fun.”

Emma Stone as Cruella sitting at a desk in a black leather outfit as seen in the new Disney live-action film.
Emma Stone in ‘Cruella’ courtesy of Disney

To further distance themselves in their own direction, Cruella uses the punk movement of 70s London to propel its title character into chaos. Being a young fashion designer destined for greatness, Cruella must break the norms of the fashion industry of her time if she is to succeed in leading the style of “the future.” The film takes an almost Devil Wears Prada-esque turn when The Baroness (expertly played by Emma Thompson) is introduced. Cruella goes to work on her latest collection, and the two form a rivalry once Cruella starts to rise in notoriety.

Such instances of Cruella crashing red carpet events with her inexplicable looks are accompanied with recognizable needle drops, featuring the likes of iconic Punk bands like The Clash. Director Craig Gillespie explains that this signature musical element was always a part of the plan…

Craig Gillespie: “I actually designed the movie knowing that we were going have music. So, you have to design shots that give space for music. So like that Doors track, when we first meet the Baroness, I threw that on the day that we were shooting it and it never changed.

Oh, there’s a great Nancy Sinatra song, which was kind of spontaneous when we were shooting, [Emma’s] in an elevator… we did like four takes. And then I thought, I feel like you’d be singing here?  I just went to my phone and was like, how about Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’? And she came out dancing to that. So there’s always music in my mind as we’re going through it and looking for opportunities throughout.”

Cruella can talk the talk, but she’s gotta walk the walk. This is where Costume Designer Jenny Beavan and hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey come in. Beavan is an Oscar-winning Costume Designer who more recently struck gold with Mad Max: Fury Road. Stacey also returns to work with Emma Stone after her award-winning styling work seen in The Favourite. The two come together to truly elevate Cruella from past Disney films, and their collaboration goes hand in hand with this being an origin story.

It wouldn’t be a real origin story without a name change though, for Cruella was once Estalla. Emma Stone travels between both personas as she dives deeper into villainy. This duality goes hand in hand with her iconic black and white aesthetic (dalmatians aside), but as revealed by Beavan and Stacey, it was much more complicated when visualizing her look. The two elaborate on how they formed their designs to coincide with this being an origin story…

Jenny Beavan: “I think she comes out of the script, actually, and the story.  Because we know where she ends up about 15 years later as, you know, Glenn Close, obviously. In my mind, it had to just be possible that this character could become that character.

I think the inspirations were various because she’s so diverse in all her different looks. People have spoken of punk things. I just looked at so much stuff.  And then out of it, you kind of pull what appears to be the narrative thread… but I also just wanted to do a homage slightly to this modern thing where we are now, thank God, reusing stuff, and making [new designs].”

Nadia Stacey: “I think the biggest thing for me is that hair and makeup in this, which has never been-come off in a film before for me is that it’s kind of used as a tool of deception. You know, she got to disguise herself from The Baroness [foe played by Emma Thompson]. And so when we first see Estella, it needs to be believable that she’s a girl that’s growing in the time in London. And then she’s creating this persona in Cruella.

So when she first starts arriving to these red carpet moments, there’s a kind of mask-like quality in all the makeups as well, because she has to disguise herself. So I needed the difference to be huge between the two looks. I needed to keep Estella quite simple so that we had somewhere big to go for Cruella.”

3 evil looking dalmatians looking ready to attack as seen in the new Disney live-action film
‘Cruella’ courtesy of Disney

On a final note, as far as the team went to differentiate Emma Stone’s iteration of Cruella, they couldn’t ignore how the character’s iconography is undeniably connected to dogs. An origin story about Cruella de Vil was never going to revolve around her twisted obsession with dalmatians, but the filmmakers still found a way to include dogs in the narrative, because it wouldn’t really be the same without them.

Craig Gillespie: “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 the story a lot with the role of the dalmatians and her relationship to them… and they’re very intertwined with her emotional journey. 

Then also, having these mutts that were part of their crew, and just having been able to have fun with that and design these set pieces that were almost grounded in reality, and plausible for dogs to be able to do. They were supporting characters in a way, and they had their own personalities and concerns. It was great to just always be keeping an eye on that, and be like, you know what, we should cut to a reaction shot of them here.”

Cruella debuts in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access May 28

Read our review: Emma Stone Breaks the Disney Mold

Follow writer A. Felicia Wade on Twitter: @becomingfelicia

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