In preparation for the February 6th release of Cinderella III: A Twist In Time, Animated News & Views’ Josh Armstrong spoke with director Frank Nissen, who likewise helmed Pooh’s Heffalump Movie for Disney. Many of the points raised during the conversation regarded the Cinderella projects that have preceded A Twist In Time, such as Cinderella II: Dreams Come True and the Disney Cruise Line show Twice Charmed: An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story. Nonetheless, the principal focus of the discussion regarded Nissen’s goal to create a faithful second sequel to Walt Disney’s beloved 1950 masterpiece.
The following conversation does contain some slight spoilers, although none that would hurt one’s viewing experience of the film.
Animated Views: How did you become involved with Cinderella III?
Frank Nissen: I was finishing up Pooh’s Heffalump Movie in early 2004, and the executives asked if I would like to direct a Cinderella movie. I said, “Of course!” That’s about it!
AV: Did you feel any intimidation working on a sequel to a Walt Disney classic?
FN: I didn’t really feel intimated. It was certainly daunting, because it’s really, really revered within the Disney group. But I really jumped at the chance to be able to work with such great characters. It was certainly a great challenge, but it was one that I really wanted to see if I could achieve. Certainly, intimidation might have been there, underneath the surface. But I looked at it as a wonderful opportunity.
AV: For Cinderella III, did you consult with any of the talent involved with the first film?
FN: Well, we did sort of by proxy, if you will. I don’t know that many of them are alive – if any of them are still alive. I think Ollie Johnston is still with us. But we looked at their drawings. We have here at the company what we call the Animation Research Library, which had layouts and character drawings and model sheets and backgrounds and all kinds of stuff that we could study and learn from.
AV: What was the most challenging aspect of directing Cinderella III?
FN: Being true to the first movie – particularly being true to the Stepmother and bringing Cinderella and the Prince into a more modern sensibility. That was the biggest challenge. If you remember, in the first movie, the Prince really doesn’t have very much to do or say. In Cinderella III, he forms quite a significant part in the narrative. So we really had to build off of what was in the first movie but create a more modern hero.
But, you know, it was a big challenge keeping the evil Stepmother as suppressed as she is. The modern taste for villains is a much broader character. So the challenge was to create a really good villain but stay true to what was in the first movie.
AV: You were talking about making the Prince more modern. I read in the press notes that you looked to Hugh Grant for inspiration. Why Hugh Grant?
FN: He’s been a very successful romantic lead for some years, and he had the right combination. He’s a bit suave; he’s certainly very clever, and he has that kind of quiet humor that isn’t really broad but is definitely there – and how he looks at the world and how he speaks. We looked at other people, too. But he seemed to have, in aggregate, many of the qualities that we wanted in the Prince, in terms of the fact that he has a good heart, doesn’t take himself too seriously and has a good wit about him.
AV: For Cinderella III, why did you choose to reanimate scenes from the first film rather than just insert the original clips?
FN: Mostly technical reasons. The original stuff was at a different aspect ratio, different format. And we wanted to treat the material from the first movie in a different way. It’s all in that sort of “turning back time” thing. To do it, we just felt that to make it as seamless as possible – to blend it into our picture as best as possible – it would be good to just start from scratch. The color would be two or three generations removed by the time we processed it, if we used the original film. So, there were aesthetic and technical reasons for just redoing the stuff.
AV: Some people have noticed a difference in color between the reanimated scenes and their 1950 counterparts. Was the difference intentional?
FN: Yes, it was, because the stuff from the first movie is in that whole “turning back time” sequence. We wanted them to be blended into all that sort of green, evil magic that was swirling around.
AV: How much creative freedom were you given while directing Cinderella III?
FN: I would say I was given pretty much creative freedom. I mean, my real goal was to capture the spirit of the first movie as much as possible while still doing our own story. So, I didn’t feel I could do just anything I wanted to, because I had that template to aspire to.
But in terms of the hierarchy here – the executive levels and stuff – they got behind what I was trying to do, very early on. In their remarks, they were always asking, “Have you achieved what you were after?” It helped a lot, that way. I had as much creative freedom as I needed to get the story made as effectively as possible.
There weren’t any crazy ideas out of left field that would derail the process, so to speak. Everybody was pretty well on board. So, that was really helpful.
FN: Well, let’s see… I should be careful here… There’s a very old tradition of what are called Christmas pantomimes. They are basically more Vaudeville-type variety shows. They take a basic story like Jack and the Beanstalk or something like that, but then they just do a lot of funny songs, and they do a lot of physical humor and a lot of dancing and business and stuff. But the story itself is pretty basic.
I think the Cruise Line show was based more on that kind of a pantomime, where your characters are broader, you have more songs, there’s a lot more dancing and choreography and stage mechanics, you know, like lights – more stagecraft stuff to entertain and be a pleasant diversion from being on a boat.
[It should be noted that according to official sources at Disney, Cinderella III is not a spin-off of Twice Charmed. The film was developed around the same time as the Cruise Line show, with different teams creating each project. As DisneyToon Studios worked on Cinderella III, Disney Creative Entertainment, the theatrical and technical live entertainment production division of Walt Disney Imagineering, crafted Twice Charmed. Led by Annie Hamburger, similar credits for the division include Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular and Finding Nemo: The Musical.]
FN: Exactly, and on top of that, we really wanted to make the new story an organic outgrowth of the first story. Bringing in an extra character like that – even if we had known about him – I don’t think we would have used him.
AV: So, you didn’t know at all what they [the Twice Charmed team] were doing.
FN: When the cruise ship was out here for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, that was the first time we’d even heard of it.
[A Disney rep says it was a coincidence that the Twice Charmed songwriters, Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary, were the same ones used for Cinderella III.]
FN: That’s a good question. I don’t know that I have a good answer for it. There are a lot of times when we see two movies come out that are very similar in theme. It’s just because, I think, certain ideas kind of waft through the movie-making community – or the entertainment community – and people kind of pick up on them. It’s just a coincidence. I don’t think there’s any real plan.
There’s a new Sandra Bullock movie coming out. It’s called Premonition or something like that. It’s exactly the same idea as the Denzel Washington movie that was just out a couple of months ago, Déjà Vu. It’s just the same idea, done from a different viewpoint. I think that goes on a lot. There are just certain themes that keep floating around in people’s heads. They just happen to find fruition at generally the same time.
AV: Most of Disney’s direct-to-video sequels have a somewhat short run time, such as less than 75 minutes. Is that due to a studio request?
FN: I think it’s just a general time slot that is partly budgetary and partly time. I mean, an animated movie takes a very long time to make. If you’re going to make an 80-minute movie, it just means you’re working on it six months longer and spending a lot more money. I think, at least in the past, there’s been a general cycle in which we’ve had so many projects in the pipeline, and they’ve had to be kept moving along at a certain pace, they’ve almost by default become within a few minutes of each other.
AV: Were there any scenes or concepts intended for Cinderella III that you cut?
FN: For a short while, we had a little parallel story with Gus the mouse, where he finds a whole parallel universe within the castle, of what we called “castle mice.” We actually took that all the way to story reels. But we realized that it was taking time away from Cinderella and the Prince, and we wanted to see them. So, we cut that idea out, so Gus and Jacque really concentrate on helping Cinderella. You know, it kept the story more focused and let us have more screen time with the characters we already knew and cared about.
AV: Considering her “Happily Ever After” in Cinderella II, why did you choose Anastasia instead of Drizella to play such a major role in Cinderella III?
FN: To a certain degree, because of the groundwork already laid in Cinderella II. For the people who were aware of Cinderella II and who had Cinderella II, we wanted to follow the threads that had been laid there. It just seemed the natural choice to make Anastasia the sister that we took through the story.
AV: How much were the events, characters and set designs introduced in Cinderella II taken into consideration for Cinderella III?
FN: None – only the idea that Anastasia is the sister who has the character arc. That was the only thing that came out of Cinderella II.
I was very concerned with trying to create the feel of the first movie, because it is one of the best-loved pictures that Walt Disney ever did. That was a very great challenge. I wanted to really respect that, so I went right back to the first movie, looked at all the drawings, watched the movie over and over again, and really tried to guide everybody – the story people, the art direction and everything – so that it felt like that first film.
I don’t know if that’s answering your question. I hope it is.
AV: Yes, sir. I noticed that during Cinderella III‘s credits, when you’re showing the portraits, we see a brief cameo by the baker introduced in Cinderella II.
FN: Oh, that was an homage to the second movie. That’s why we chose Anastasia – because there is a certain percentage of the audience out there who will remember that. So, I wanted to make that connection, however briefly.
AV: For Cinderella III, why did you decide to go with the same voice cast used for Cinderella II?
FN: Because everybody knows those voices. They are the voices that the company uses throughout everything. Whenever they have a need for Cinderella to be in any venue, if it’s a radio ad or if it’s something at the parks, where the voice is going to be part of the show, they use those people. They know the characters really well, and they’re really good actors. It’s just a continuity thing.
AV: Because some have a negative view of direct-to-video sequels, what would you say to folks who might criticize Cinderella III before seeing it?
FN: Fortunately, I haven’t met any of those people yet. I’m not sure. I would just say that I’d appreciate if they would watch the film and judge it after they’ve watched it rather than before.
AV: Could you provide any details on your next film?
FN: Only that I’m working on Tinker Bell, which is a new franchise for DTS [DisneyToon Studios]. We’re just getting it off the ground, developing the feature and some shorter format pieces to get everybody interested and tantalized before the actual movie comes out, which will be in the fall of 2008.
AV: So, you mean you’re directing Tinker Bell?
FN: No, I’m not directing it. I’m directing the short pieces, what we’re calling “webisodes,” but Brad Raymond is directing the new Tinker Bell feature. I’m on the story trust of Tinker Bell.
Special thanks to Frank Nissen for participating in the interview. Likewise, thanks to Michael Rola for facilitating the discussion, and to Mac McLean for arranging it. Furthermore, thanks to Animated News & Views’ own Ben Simon for his involvement in preparing the piece.