Snow White: Reimagining the Epic Tale

Joe Roth, former chairman of 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios and producer of Tim Burton’s fantastical global hit Alice in Wonderland, knew that his team had found something incredible when Evan Daugherty’s script for what would become Snow White and the Huntsman arrived at his Los Angeles-based production house, Roth Films. At the time, Roth’s head of development (and executive producer of this film), Palak Patel, saw the potential in Daugherty’s story, which was an innovative take on the age-old Brothers Grimm tale, originally published in 1812 in the text “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (“Children’s and Household Tales”).

Roth and Patel were also responsible for finding the man who would helm the company’s next epic action-adventure. Rupert Sanders, a highly decorated commercial director, had made his way to the top of his game with a unique visual style that distinctly branded ad campaigns such as those for the juggernaut video game Halo 3. Roth, Patel and fellow executive producer Gloria Borders grew fascinated by the uncompromising tone and impressive variety in Sanders’ work, as well as the depth of soul to his commercials.

When Roth’s team had a draft of the script with which all were comfortable, Sanders was the first and the only filmmaker to whom they sent the idea. A veteran of imaginative gaming spots, Sanders believed it was as important to reimagine the story as it was to open up a filmic Snow White to both genders. Everyone felt that Sanders’ vision and skill set offered a deft balance that would guarantee the production its green light.

Roth reflects that with this time-tested story and Sanders’ visual arsenal, he knew they were on the right track: “I loved the idea of turning this story on its head. What I realized after making Alice in Wonderland is that if you find the right story and you put a visionary filmmaker on it—someone who’s got a real eye—and you have a modern take and use all the modern tools, you have the best of all worlds.” He tells that he found that man in Sanders: “When we looked at his commercial reel, it was clear he had a fantastic eye. I was impressed at how bright he was, and I knew he would be a fast learner.”
Admittedly, it wasn’t initially an easy sell to the British filmmaker. Recounts Sanders: “I’d been looking for a project, and I’d been close on a couple of things. Then I was sent the script, and I thought, ‘Snow White? Are you having a laugh?’ But after I read it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is an incredible opportunity to create a world that people haven’t seen before.’ What touched me about the story was that it drew on something that so many people have within them. We all read it as a child and saw the cartoon that was done in 1937—the first Disney foray into fairy tales. I loved the idea of a reinvention.”

Sanders acknowledges that he was also excited by “the chance to do something more masculine with the story.” He says: “Snow White has an arc that is a very mythical rise of a hero. She’s almost the female Luke Skywalker. We’ve built a universe that touches on her themes, including the iconic metaphors and imagery, but everything is skewed. We still have the mirror, the red apple and the evil Queen, but we’ve thrown into that massive battles and a rebellion. This story is much bigger, and the stakes are much higher. It’s a battle of life against death.”

Within 24 hours of reading the screenplay, Sanders put together a library of ideas for his producers. He presented his preliminary vision the next day, incorporating into Daugherty’s story visual concepts for that borrowed from English and French sculptors, as well as German artists. Sanders had no interest in delivering a fragile Snow White who was relegated to being saved by someone else; his heroine was as laser-focused upon her mission as her antagonist was.

As the script developed, the director found the symbols in the Brothers Grimm tale to be quite imperative in moving along the narrative. He notes: “They’re very potent. Everything in that story—the mirror, the apple—is iconic and has so many deeper themes. The apple is the knowledge in the tree of life. The Snow White story helps us to understand mortality and teaches us not to bury ourselves in jealousy and rage, because that stops your living. It teaches that you should enjoy your life and not try to seek something that is ultimately irrelevant.”

To demonstrate to executives at Universal Pictures the action and emotion of which a first-time features director was capable, Sanders took a skeleton cast and crew in January 2011 and filmed select visual scenes that would be captured in his vision of Snow White and the Huntsman. Pulling in several favors from friends and colleagues in the industry, he cut together a short reel, added a few special effects and relied upon a friend to conduct the voice-over. When the studio saw the tonal guide that took Sanders approximately a week to complete—with the Queen dissolving into ravens, her apple disintegrating to its core, and fairies emerging from the breasts of birds—it green-lit the film. Everyone recognized that the young filmmaker was more than capable of helming and delivering an epic with a distinctive vision.

Sanders sums his thoughts on the visual style for this film: “I wanted to make a very rich, fantastical world, but I wanted to separate fairy tale from fantasy; they are very different to me. I wanted to create something that was muscular but very emotional and to make a grand, epic-scale film that carried as much emotion as it did scale. A lot of the times, you see a film of this nature that is very heavily visually affected but has very little heart. I wanted to find that emotion in the story.”

As preproduction took shape, The Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock and 47 Ronin’s Hossein Amini contributed to what would become the final script based upon Daugherty’s story, and Roth requested that a seasoned filmmaker and longtime M. Night Shyamalan collaborator, Sam Mercer, join the team as a fellow producer.

Mercer describes that his interest in coming aboard the production was due to how this reinvention still honored the lasting appeal of this character. He reflects upon our heroine: “Snow White is on a journey, but she hasn’t yet accepted it. She’s got to take control of the kingdom and ascend to what her father left her. The character is someone who is out for her people, and those core issues fundamentally resonate with us. With Rupert’s aesthetics and eye for cinematic detail, we knew he would give this material a contemporary feel and make it into a big, fun summer action movie.”