Robert Stromberg Makes his Directorial Debut with Disney’s Maleficent #MaleficentEvent
*Disney provided me with an all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles to attend advance screenings of Maleficent and Planes: Fire and Rescue and to attend press junkets for both films. No other compensation was received. All thoughts are 100% my own.*
Robert Stromberg makes his directorial debut on May 30th when Disney’s Maleficent opens in theaters, but this is not his first time working on a Disney film. Stromberg also has credits working in visual effects on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and as a production designer for Oz the Great and Powerful.
“I’ve always wanted to be a director…I used to make movies when I was a little kid and I was a huge Disney fan. I had an art teacher who was an ex-Disney artist. I used to draw like crazy, including Maleficent when I was five, six years old. I had always wanted to tell stories and be a director. I got sidetracked by this pesky art direction stuff. I’m glad that I did all that stuff because it prepared me not only being around these big movies but also meeting a lot of great directors,” Stromberg said, sharing with us his how he went from working on the artistic side of movies to directing his first film.
Stromberg credits having studied human behavior his whole life for why he was so comfortable stepping into the role as director for Maleficent. “You have to have spent your whole life studying human behavior and really, really paying attention to why people react a certain way when they’re told something. It’s all those little bits of information plus all of the knowledge I got from working with other directors. And then the confidence to be at the same level with somebody in finding the emotion of that character. That’s what made me comfortable in being a director.”
Stromberg offered advice for anyone whose children have an interest in working as a director or in the art department. “It’s obviously very competitive. I’ve never done this because I wanted to be recognized. I’ve never done this because I want to make oodles of money. You do this because you’re passionate about it. You do this because creating is your world. And I thought that was my world until I had my own kids, and then that opened up the reason why I’m really here on this planet. It’s not to make movies. It’s to understand the love, you could say true love, you have as a parent.”
There were many scenes in the film that hold special meaning for Stromberg, but the first one he mentioned was the christening scene. “We’re doing a retelling. So we’re not just doing a straight out of the box remake of that classic version. So it was very intentional that when you watch the movie you’ve learned a whole bunch of new material. When you get to the center point of the movie, we shot that scene almost verbatim, word for word, from the classic cartoon version.”
In Disney’s live action Maleficent, Stromberg and his team also got to explore the Moors, the land where Maleficent was born and that she works fiercely to protect from the humans. “I probably have a file full of just sketches and strange creatures and stuff… The mood of the whole world goes dark with Maleficent and then comes back up again at the end. It’s really interesting, not just as a designer to create fun things…there’s no rule book there. What’s fun about it is you just do a sketch and oh, this is cool, and three months later it becomes something real.”
When asked what the biggest challenge of making this film was, Stromberg said, “Just getting through the film and still carrying a big, beating heart under your arm as you make it through this jungle… Someone once told me directing is like painting in a hurricane. And it’s true. I can’t pick one thing that was challenging because just making a movie at this scale you’re just constantly juggling chainsaws and trying to draw pretty pictures at the same time. I think the challenge is to make it, bring all these huge elements together and at the end of all that have something with a heart and soul and emotion and something that means something.”
This was the first time that Stromberg had worked with Angelina Jolie on a film. She had already been involved with the film when he was brought on as the director. “I went to her house the first day I met her and what was really great was we didn’t talk about the movie for the first hour, I think. I’ll never forget, we just sat on some back steps in her backyard and watched her kids play in the backyard. And we talked about life and being a parent and just normal stuff. And I think that’s why we connected is because we had to find out that we were both human beings first before we tackled human being problems. That was a special moment for me because…I had never seen the human, motherly quality in there before.”
Disney’s Maleficent stays true to the original animated classic Sleeping Beauty, but there are a few very surprising twists. “Linda Woolverton wrote the script…a lot of times when you’re in the moment, it looks better on paper than it does when you’re actually seeing how two characters are reacting to each other, or how a scene plays out. I think part of what you learn as a director is how to adapt in a situation and understand that something is just not right and to adjust it so that it is… I’ve always told people that whether I’m doing a painting, which is a compositional rhythm, or music is its own rhythm, a dialogue can be a rhythm, too. If it’s off, if one inflection is off slightly you have to recognize that because it makes a huge difference emotionally in how you’re supposed to feel watching it.”