Maleficent (2014) Production Notes

Director: Robert Stromberg
Main Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, Thriller
Release Date: 2014-06-06

From Disney comes "Maleficent"—the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain from the 1959 classic "Sleeping Beauty." A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal—an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king's successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom—and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.

Please note: Some production notes may contain spoilers.

Disney presents “Maleficent,” starring Academy Award®–winning actress Angelina Jolie in the title role. This year, 2014, marks the 55th Anniversary of the character who put a spell on young “Sleeping Beauty” in the animated feature released by Disney in 1959. Since her introduction, Maleficent has been Disney’s all-time most popular villain. Now she returns in this live-action version of the classic story—and there’s a lot about her we never knew.

“I loved Maleficent when I was a little girl,” says Jolie. “She was my favorite Disney character. I was afraid of her and I loved her.” This duality intrigued producer Joe Roth as well. “This movie is about a character we’ve only known as hard-hearted and our story answers the question ‘Why?’ I’d like audiences to feel like they’ve entered a world they’ve never seen before with ‘Maleficent’ and I hope they come away feeling like no one is beyond redemption.”

“Maleficent” explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic “Sleeping Beauty” and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.    

“Maleficent” is directed by two-time Oscar®-winning production designer Robert Stromberg (“Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland”), in his directorial debut, and produced by Joe Roth. The screenplay is by Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and the film is executive produced by Angelina Jolie, Michael Vieira, Don Hahn, Palak Patel, Matt Smith and Sarah Bradshaw.

Co-starring in the film are Sharlto Copley (“District 9”), Elle Fanning (“Super 8”), Sam Riley (“On the Road”), Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”), Juno Temple (“Atonement”) and Lesley Manville (“Secrets & Lies”).

Behind-the-scenes talent includes Academy Award®–winning cinematographer Dean Semler (“Dances with Wolves,” “In the Land of Blood and Honey”), production designers Gary Freeman (“Saving Private Ryan,” “The Bourne Supremacy”) and Dylan Cole, two-time Oscar®-nominated costume designer Anna B. Sheppard (“Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist”), seven-time Academy Award–winning makeup artist Rick Baker (“Planet of the Apes,” “Men in Black”) and editors Chris Lebenzon (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Frankenweenie”) and Rick Pearson (“United 83,” “Iron Man 2”).

The Fable Of Sleeping Beautry

The character Maleficent was a Disney creation first introduced in their 1959 animated feature “Sleeping Beauty.” But the story of the princess who falls under a spell of eternal sleep has been told since the beginning of fairy-tale time.

The story of Sleeping Beauty evolved—under different titles—over approximately 400 years (1000 if we count some overlapping elements from Medieval times). The early written origins of the story can be traced from the French novel “Perceforest” (author unknown) written in 1527 to a tale by Italian storyteller Giambattista Basile (1636) called “Sun, Moon & Talia” from a collection entitled “The Tale of Tales,” which is generally accepted as the first collection of fairy tales ever printed.

In 1697, a version of the story, “The Beauty Asleep in the Woods,” was published by Charles Perrault in his book, “The Tales of Mother Goose.” The Brothers Grimm borrowed heavily from this version in writing their own 1812 story of a beautiful princess awakened from a spell-induced slumber, “Little Briar Rose.”

The origins of Maleficent as a female personification of evil are less clear. Basile’s story casts a Queen as the jealous, vengeful villainess but she was married to the King and not an independent outsider who inflicts a curse on the royal family. The villainess was changed to a wicked fairy by Perrault, whose version was closest to Disney’s. Perrault also introduced the element of a handsome Prince whose kiss could break the spell.

So it fell to 20th-century writers and animators and actress Eleanor Audley to invent Maleficent for Disney’s classic “Sleeping Beauty.” The film took 10 years to make and cost $6 million. It was the most expensive movie the studio had produced to that point in time.

Maleficent remains both the favorite and the most feared character in Disney’s gallery of infamy.

The Director And His Vision

Producer Joe Roth made a bold choice by placing first-time-director Robert Stromberg at the helm of such a big movie. “Rob Stromberg had just finished working with me on ‘Oz The Great and Powerful,’” says Roth. “I knew his production design work from having won Oscars® for ‘Avatar’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

“When Disney came to me with this project, I’d already done several big visual types of movies and I’d learned that audiences make decisions about going to movies long before they know what the movie’s about,” continues Roth. “They get a vibe off some visual presentation that happens earlier than anything else. So, I thought, Angelina’s an experienced actress, Robert is going to be a great director and if he can provide the distinct visual style he brought to ‘Avatar,’ ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Oz The Great and Powerful,’ I think it’s a good marriage.”

Stromberg was undaunted by the challenges of a big name actress and a big budget in his directorial debut. “I started as an artist—from doing pencil drawings as a kid to doing matte paintings to art directing and production designing,” says the director. “I think as an artist you’re always looking for the biggest canvas you can find and this was yet another big canvas to conquer. I thought it was intriguing to take on something that was bigger than anything I had already done. And this came at the right time when I was looking for the next challenge in my career.”

Stromberg came to the production with a clear idea of how the film should be visually presented. “What I wanted on this film was not only to have an element of fantasy and a surreal quality but I wanted Maleficent to be a bit more grounded in reality,” relates Stromberg. “In some of my previous films, I’ve taken the surreal elements and made them the strongest points. In ‘Maleficent’ we’ve taken the opposite approach: we started with real and augmented after the fact. So I think it’s a new look.”

Adapting The Story

“It was important to me as a director to retain enough of the elements of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ so that people who are fans of the original won’t be disappointed when they see this,” explains Robert Stromberg. “I felt it was important that people not only see this classic character realized in a new light but also see the genesis of some of those story elements that they remember from the original film.”

To blend the old and new into a finished screenplay, Disney hired writer Linda Woolverton. “In my time at Disney both as an executive and as a producer, Linda Woolverton is the most important writer Disney has had,” says producer Joe Roth. “Over the past 20 years she’s written ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Lion King’ in the animated area and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in live action. More than any other writer, she has really kind of unlocked the notion of what a Disney film is.”

Woolverton began her process of discovering the secret life of Maleficent by watching Disney’s animated “Sleeping Beauty.” “After watching the movie, I came up with some ideas that revealed more about her character,” Woolverton explains. “I created a past for her that leads to the singular moment in which she curses the baby Aurora and then takes us past that moment from Maleficent’s point of view through the ending of the film. But it’s a reinvention; it’s not just a retelling of the same story.”

In addition to the challenge of reinventing a fairy tale that has been a staple of every child born in the last 50 years, Woolverton had to honor both the iconic character that Disney created and the talented actress stepping into the role. “The character really is fantastic and once we had Angelina Jolie, my task was to seamlessly meld the two into one to recreate a classic, but wholly unique Maleficent,” says the writer.

Building The Cast

Angelina Jolie in the role of the title character of “Maleficent” was a decision made somewhere far above the normal casting confines. “Even before I became involved with this project, I’d heard Angelina’s name attached and I thought, ‘What perfect casting,’” recalls Stromberg. “You can just look at her picture and Maleficent’s image and see it is a marriage made in heaven.”

“I was really moved by the script from first reading,” says Jolie.  “It was like uncovering a great mystery. We all know the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and we all know Maleficent and what happened at the christening because we’ve all grown up with that. But what we’ve never known is, what happened before?”

Maleficent is a complex character with many layers; she is driven by revenge yet she fiercely protects the land she loves and all who dwell there. Speaking of the character and what she would like audiences to take away, Jolie says, “I hope the girls, especially, will see the importance of having a sense of justice and a sense of what’s fair and what’s worth fighting for. They’ll see that they can be warriors and at the same time soft and feminine and deeply feeling, with all the complexities women have.”

If Maleficent has long been a symbol of the dark feminine, the character Aurora has always symbolized the light and innocent. In casting the role of the Princess who falls under Maleficent’s spell, the filmmakers chose one of the most talented actresses of her generation, Elle Fanning.

“Elle is Aurora,” comments Jolie.  “From the moment I met her, she is just sunshine. She’s a wonderful, sweet, intelligent young woman.”

“Elle is fantastic and I have nothing but the highest respect for her,” adds her director. “She’s not only beautiful but she’s a tremendous actress; she’s going to be doing wonderful things in the future and she’s a pleasure to work with on the set. She just brings a smile to everyone.”

For Fanning, winning this role was a dream come true. “It’s been sort of everything that I dreamed of,” says the young actress.  “I think from the moment of putting on her first outfit, getting the hair and everything, it’s been really special to get to play such an iconic character.”

Aurora’s father in the film, King Stefan, was driven by blind ambition to become king and stopped at nothing to achieve his goal. Sharlto Copley plays the complex character whose journey from innocent young boy to vengeful monarch is a revelation to audiences familiar with the original.

“I like characters that go through a significant journey and Stefan goes through a rather profound one, from a commoner to a powerful ruler,” says Copley. “Stefan is ambitious and feels like he deserves more respect than he’s getting in the world.”

Though Stefan presides over the human kingdom, he is not without allies in the magical forest kingdom. Three Pixies—Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit, who fear and feel alienated by Maleficent—are chosen by Stefan to raise his infant daughter until the day after her sixteenth birthday. The King couldn’t have chosen more poorly when it came to selecting guardians with child-care skills.

“The Pixies are our comic relief,” says Roth. “Their job is to raise Aurora until she’s sixteen years old and they have about as much talent in child rearing as I do in piloting a rocket ship. We cast two older, experienced actresses and one younger one. Knotgrass who is the leader of the three, is played by Imelda Staunton, who was nominated for an Oscar® for ‘Vera Drake’ and was in ‘Harry Potter.’ Her partner is Lesley Manville who plays Flittle. In real life Imelda and Lesley are best friends and they have great chemistry together.

“We decided to go with someone much younger for the third one, Thistlewit. We cast Juno Temple, who was in ‘Batman.’ I knew her because she was one of the finalists to play Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ So I kept her in mind, and when we decided to go for a younger, kind of blonde curly-haired bombshell Pixie, that was her.”

“Knotgrass is the most important Pixie in her own mind,” says Imelda Staunton. “She’s very bossy, very organized and has to control everything. So she is the self-appointed grownup amongst them.”

“Flittle’s thing is she can turn things blue,” says Lesley Manville about her Pixie. “And she thinks everything should be blue. There’s a scene in which she turns someone’s dress from yellow to blue and is indignant when the person wants their dress turned back to yellow.”

“Thistlewit is the youngest member,” explains Juno Temple. “She is naïve and innocent and distracted by nature; she just wants to smell the flowers and dance around.”

Maleficent has a constant companion who was seen only as a raven in the animated original but who this Maleficent transforms into a man when it suits her—or a horse or a dragon or a wolf. In any form, the character Diaval, played by Sam Riley, is Maleficent’s loyal companion. During the 16 years that they’re together watching Aurora grow, he develops a fondness for Maleficent.

“My character is essentially a raven but he’s quite a proud raven—bordering on vain,” says Riley. “He’s saved by Maleficent from a farmer and his dogs and he becomes her loyal ally who can fly to places and spy for her. Their relationship blooms and Diaval develops an affection for her. He’s the only character who’s capable of telling her when she becomes a little overwrought and who really knows what she’s thinking.”

Rounding out the cast, the filmmakers chose Kenneth Cranham for Stefan’s benefactor, King Henry, and newcomer Brenton Thwaites as handsome Prince Phillip.

Behind-The-Scenes Magic

“Maleficent” began production on June 11, 2012, at England’s famed Pinewood Studios where most of the filming took place. It took five months of shooting on six sound stages and thousands of yards of back lot and paddock area to complete principal photography.

The production had a number of extraordinary physical sets. Production designers Gary Freeman and Dylan Cole, along with set decorator Lee Sandales, worked with Stromberg to create interior and exterior backdrops worthy of epic filmmaking.

“This is possibly the most impressive set I’ve ever seen,” Oscar®-winning cinematographer Dean Semler exclaimed in the Grand Hall of the castle where Aurora’s christening took place. The castle was in fact a physical realization, both interior and exterior, of the castle in the 1959 animated film. “The original animation is a fabulous piece of design,” says Freeman. “It was very avant-garde when it came out. The artist really had an extraordinary approach to color and the conflicts of color. You look at each item individually and you think, ‘that shouldn’t work’ but when it’s all brought together, it does.”

“Besides the scale, we used more luxurious materials than you tend to see in typical Norman castles,” says Freeman. “We went with marble floors, for example, so it’s a very rich, strong pallet and architecturally the original animation was really sort of collective of every kind of period castle. We couldn’t really do that because the modern audience really can’t walk through a sort of Victorian/Gothic/Romanesque castle because it just doesn’t make sense.

“So we had to zone in on one look and we did. It was also a hybrid but a more logical one: sort of Prague-style architecture with strong Romanesque shapes. Then we took the idea of the flying buttress and it became a sort of theme that linked all the spaces together.”

Making a movie where much of the background and many of the characters exist only in the imagination is a challenge on many levels. “Acting against a blue screen background is a special challenge but we have such a talented cast that they make you forget there’s not actually a fairy world around them,” says Stromberg. “We’ve gotten amazing performances from actors who have to imagine the world they’re in—and even the size of the bodies they’re inhabiting.”

The challenge of creating costumes for a hybrid reality, bleeding the borders of the fairy-tale world and the world of medieval humans, fell to two-time Oscar® nominee Anna Sheppard. “My first impression was that I would have to base my costumes on a particular period of time,” explains Sheppard. “But it quickly became clear to me that I should forget that and let my fantasy run with Rob’s visions because he’s incredibly visual and can describe things very well. So I knew I was going to have to cross the line and go into fairyland in a big way.”

The challenges for Sheppard were unprecedented in her distinguished career. In addition to alternating her designs between fairy and human worlds, there were numerous categories within those worlds that had to be created. Overall, she and her team created more than 2000 costumes by hand.

To become a raven or a forest creature or even a King who ages 16 years while waiting for his daughter to survive a curse, prosthetics and makeup were key. The prosthetics team, led by seven-time Academy Award®–winner Rick Baker, had a specialist dedicated exclusively to the application of horns and artificial cheeks to Maleficent and a team of other experts who spent hours every morning working on the other characters.

Coming Soon

When “Maleficent” opens in S.A. theatres on June 6, 2014, audiences will find themselves face-to-face with Disney’s most iconic villain on an exciting adventure through a fascinating world that will unveil more about Maleficent than they ever imagined.