It’s no fantasy that Hollywood is enjoying a torrid love affair with fairy tales, delivering some surprising results. Last year’s Alice in Wonderland grossed a pretty penny, two adaptations of Snow White are in the works, and Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood was released last month. As if that wasn’t an ample fix of fable, a Hansel & Gretel reimagining is on its way, and a Wizard of Oz prequel will hit theaters in 2013. Aside from the reliable bankability of familiar story structures, the innocent, ”ever after” idealism of these childhood tales appeals to many audiences in a cultural era corroded by calculating cynicism (see: the Twilight franchise).
Filmmakers are rejuvenating fairytale tropes — putting the grim back into the Grimms. No longer shying away from overt displays of gory violence and darker themes, the recent movies are trying to restore what is an intrinsic — and sometimes startling – aspect of the founding texts. (Though there’s something to be said for the more subtly disturbing films — like Disney’s 1937 imagining of the pallid princess, Snow White — that makes earlier, understated tellings more terrifying.) Despite the macabre designs of these revisionists, these filmmakers are often limited by the expectations of their mainstream audiences, who crave the sugar-coated certainty of a happy ending.
One filmmaker acutely aware of these inhibiting trends, and keen to eschew them, is UK filmmaker Navin Dev. In Dev’s latest film, Red Kingdom Rising — which was shot on Super 16mm on a shoestring budget — he borrows from the elaborate fantasy world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland for his character, Mary Ann — who returns to her family home upon the death of her father. “There she finds her once highly religious mother engaging in black magic. Haunting events and memories lead Mary Ann to unlock secrets of her suppressed past as she journeys from the dark corridors of her parental home into the underworld realms of her father’s otherworldly kingdom.” Dev is working with special effects make up supervisor, Mike Peel — who has worked on films such as Casino Royale, The Descent, and Zombie Diaries — to design and construct the wondrous world and dark places that Mary Ann travels to.
I recently discovered Dev’s work and wrote about his short, The Tree Man, which is based on another familiar fairy tale favorite — Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. You can learn more about the film and watch the nine-minute video over here. He’s also dabbled with the mythology of Little Red Riding Hood, and both films are festival award recipients. The writer/director/producer is already planning the festival circuit for Red Kingdom Rising, which will begin later this year.
Dev was kind enough to speak with me a little bit more about his process, what draws him to explore the dark side of these fabled fantasies, and his thoughts on the horror genre.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I didn’t go to film school or formally train as a filmmaker. I had the prestige of being able to train at the Method actors’ school Drama Centre London, which has had such alumni as Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Tom Hardy. I trained as an actor but always had the intention to write and direct, to evoke a story through a canvass, albeit film or theatre. Drama Centre enriched me with the knowledge of how to approach a text, play or film script, and how to dissect it through character analysis, through a performance perspective. This was vital in my development as a director and possibly the best form of training ever. I used my own initiative of just making short films as the development of my technical abilities for shooting film.
Who are your favorite directors, or what are your favorite films? What upcoming films are you looking most forward to?
I hugely admire the film directors who have taken their own initiative and shown what they’re made of and what they can do – Christopher Nolan, Tarsem Singh, Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky’s Black Swan is possibly one of the best films I have recently seen, particularly due to how it does adhere to the fairy tale structure. 2012 sees the release of many fairy tale based mainstream films. It’s an exciting time and I’m so glad that Red Kingdom Rising will be there to join that audience collective consciousness in re-exploring the fairy tale through the fantasy based genre of film.
Your work is loaded with gorgeous, ethereal images. Tell us a bit about your process, what you use to shoot with, and what your inspirations are.
Having trained primarily in theatre I initially found that vast difference in the transition from play writing to script writing as theatre depends vastly on the exploration of text through character. Cinema is more about silent moments and watching the characters through them. So when it came to initially making the short films I choose to strictly tell the stories through silent cinema, to evoke a story through silent images with music and sound acting as a subconscious narrative of sorts. The shorts were shot on Super 16mm, as was Red Kingdom Rising, and the decision to do so wasn’t so much the prestige of shooting on film but rather what my stories dictated to be told on. Fairy tale based stories have an organic quality about them and so does the film format as opposed to the perfect, crisp quality of digital. I grew up on comic books and graphic novels so all my work contains a highly detailed artistic foundation.
Did you look at any of the Alice in Wonderland illustrations (Lewis Carroll’s or John Tenniel’s) for Red Kingdom Rising?
When approaching Red Kingdom Rising there were many graphic novels and art forms I turned to and indeed the Tenniel illustrations were inspirational. They were used more as designing shots in the film to honour his work and adhere to what we all visualise Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to be. For example there’s a shot in Red Kingdom Rising in which the main character Mary Ann approaches a mysterious little girl, Alice, sitting on a tree which is directly taken from the Alice meeting the Cheshire Cat Tenniel illustration.
Were you always drawn to fairy tale stories?
I grew up on films like Star Wars, Superman and even the 1984 He-Man animated series. The irony is that if you distil those three down to their true essence you have coming of age stories – the path and destiny of the hero. It’s highly evocative of mythology and the traditional tale of the evolution of the hero through fears, hopes and success. This lies in the core of the fairy tale. Fairy tales have always evoked a sense of truth of who we are and how we journey through our own psychosis and development in life. The analytical works of Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim firmly illustrate that. One of the very first books I read was the Grimm’s Little Red Riding Hood and the imagery told through the narrative struck me. It’s a timeless tale we can all relate to, no matter what our generation and backgrounds are. Red Kingdom Rising, along with keeping to Lewis Carroll’s themes of reality and dreams, divine mathematics and psychological evolution, does adhere to traditional mythology. It tells the coming of age journey of a woman coming to terms with her past through this dark journey in her wonderland.
Do you plan on exploring others in future works?
I indeed plan to continue exploring the fairy tale and mythological structure through the mainstream fantasy genre of film – it’s great to reach out to vast commercial audiences and to share meaningful stories through an entertaining way.
Do you work in the short film format to intentionally match the stories, or is it just a preferred way of working? Do you have any plans for a feature length film in the future?
My short films were mainly built to develop my technical abilities in how to aesthetically tell fairy tale stories in an entertaining way, but yes, they do match the structure and short time frame format of the generic fairy tale. What’s advantageous about the short films is that they use the time efficiently and tell the audience all they need to know within their short form – they’re short, sweet and powerful. Red Kingdom Rising’s story however demanded a bigger canvass, so the story dictated itself to be feature length. I wanted to fully explore the protagonist Mary Ann, along with her fears and her eventual epic sense of closure. I would be grateful to have the opportunity to continue with the feature length format and I do indeed have another story to tell.
You’re obviously drawn to dark and unsettling (inherent in most of your source material) subjects. For you, what makes a horror film truly effective? What’s your opinion about the state of horror today?
The irony is that I’ve never been a horror film fan! The reason Red Kingdom Rising falls within the horror genre is entirely due to its story – I wanted to fully immerse the audience into a sincerely horrific experience. And what is truly horrific is always something factual, like the untold horrible things people can do to one another, such as the parental betrayal in child abuse. Mary Ann in Red Kingdom Rising is an adult survivor of child abuse and she has to relive those memories in order to let go of her guilt. I could have chosen to tell the story like a fly on the wall type of film where we watch it all unfold in a real time sense, or in a way like the film Precious. But to immerse the audience into a fantasy horror genre – Mary Ann’s nightmares – is to directly invite them into her psychological space and it opens up the audience’s perception of personally sharing that horrific journey with Mary Ann. Psychological and emotional truth in turmoil always makes a horror film effective which is seen brilliantly in The Exorcist and The Shining. That’s what makes those films timeless, much like the fairy tale, since they always tap into what our profound and private nightmares hold. Horror films have kind of lost that touch and fallen too prone to genre based storytelling. Whilst this is important commercially, it’s nonetheless also of more importance to take the audience onto the horrific journey and eventual resolution they can relate to. It’s something I plan to do.
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