'Cruella' Director Craig Gillespie On Humanizing A Disney Villain And Looking To 'Ocean's 11' For Inspiration [Interview]

Cruella is a crime movie, and director Craig Gillespie seems to relish that. Sure, this is Disney's latest live-action reboot, an attempt to bring an iconic character back into the spotlight with an expensive origin story. But it's also a tale of revenge set against the backdrop of the London fashion scene in the '70s, where One Hundred and One Dalmatians villain Cruella De Vil plots to destroy the woman who wrecked her life with the help of her criminal accomplices, all set to a killer soundtrack. While /Film's main review is mixed, I enjoyed the film – it has style to spare, and it's anchored by terrific performances that lend the perfect blend of menace and sincerity to an outlandish story.

Gillespie's career has found him jumping between crowd-pleasers like Million Dollar Arm and edgy indies like I, Tonya. Cruella lets him bridge that gap: a lavish Disney film intended for wide audiences that also asks you to spend two hours with a monstrous character. It's a fine line to walk, and when I sat down with the filmmaker over Zoom, he made it clear that challenge was part of the fun.

I'll start with a possibly tough question, because I think it's the one a lot of people had when they first heard about this movie. I think we're willing to forgive Disney villains who kidnap princesses and take over kingdoms, but killing dogs is a real hard line. That's a hurdle for people. Is that something that you had to grapple with when you realized you had to humanize a character who people view as one of our great movie monsters?

For me, I loved the challenge. They sent me a script that was quite dark to start with, and obviously killing puppies crosses a line that does not want to be crossed. So the thing to grapple with was how to stay true to the iconic character that we know as Cruella and not shortchange it in a way, but still make it palatable. I was really happy with the solution that we ended up coming up with, which I don't know that we can say here. But the general public, they think of her as a puppy killer.

To borrow a comic book term, in many ways Cruella feels like an Elseworlds tale. An alternate dimension take on the character. One who has her attitude, but not her tendency to cross that line. Would you say that's accurate?

I think there's a moment where she could have crossed that line in the middle of the film. She goes through various iterations of Cruella, and there's a very alienating version of that, and given the opportunity, she might have gone there. I think even for the audience, there's the question of, "Will she go there with those Dalmatians?" So I always wanted to keep that percolating.

I feel like there are two types of Craig Gillespie movies. There are the real crowd-pleasing, warm-hearted films that you've made for Disney before, and your other films, which tend to have a bit of an edge to them. But Cruella has that edge. I feel like it's your two worlds meeting. 

Fortunately, I was so lucky – I've had a wonderful experience with Disney over the years, and it's all been with [Walt Disney Studios president of production] Sean Bailey. He called me after I, Tonya and asked what I was up to, and said, "We've got this project with Emma Stone playing Cruella in 1970s punk London. We want to use The Clash and all this punk music." So it felt like they came to me because of I, Tonya, and knowing the relationship that we had. So with that as the backdrop, it felt like they wanted me to lean into that edge. And I did until somebody would say no, and they never did. [laughs]

It's interesting that you said the music was already on the table when you got that call, because it's such a big part of the movie. The movie is bathed in its soundtrack. Can you talk about picking those songs? I'm trying to imagine the Disney legal department being like, "Can we afford this soundtrack?"

[laughs] I never asked. I warned them. We had 48 songs in I, Tonya, and when he mentioned that as a reference, I said, "OK, we're going to have 50 songs in this. So just know that there's going to be a big budget for music. It just needs to be in there." I learned this when I did I, Tonya, but going back and looking at films that use a lot of songs, and obviously Scorsese is a massive influence there, and the juxtaposition of songs against the scenes that you're seeing. The more euphoric or upbeat songs against darker moments and so forth. But how to tell that narratively with a camera, you have to design the movie around songs. The camera needs to be moving, and you need to have space within the scene to let that music play out. So that's all designed within it, and as I'm doing that, I start looking for songs in prep. By the time we get to the set, I've got hundreds of songs on my playlist – mostly expensive songs, sort of iconic songs in some sense. But the '70s to me is such a wonderful time for music, because I get gravitating toward that a lot. A lot of songs – and not to generalize – but there's a complexity to a lot of these songs that I use where there's something that's forlorn or a sense of loneliness underneath but there's an optimist melody going on, and you get these dualities within these tracks. They're just not one lane. It was just so reflective, for me, of what's going on with our characters. We're dancing between humor and drama and there's a complexity to the performances, and the music doesn't pick a lane, either. I love that about the songs. Because in the score, you tend to tell the audience what to think. And with songs, there's a whole different baggage. They're bringing their own emotional history to it, the audience. Songs can have this duality.

Watching it, it's very clear that you had a '70s crime thriller in your heart before you made Cruella. Was this your chance to make that?

Yeah, what is her superpower? It's a little daunting. We're doing something that is quite unusual: a film of this scale that has no visual effects to speak of. There's no 25 minute battle scene at the end, there's no transformation. There's no large CG imagery going on that you would have in some of the fairy tales and so forth. So what is the superpower in this? I actually gravitated toward the Ocean's Eleven look with the heist stuff and how to tell that story in a film and how much the audience needs to understand what the plot is or be ahead of or behind it. All those situations. That is another layer to this whole story.

It's funny you mention Ocean's Eleven, because for me the grand appeal of that movie, in addition to its style and its soundtrack and liking those actors, is that you get to watch a team of professionals, each with a specific job, do that job. And Cruella, Horace, Jasper, and even their dogs all have specific jobs, and you get to watch the team click. Can you talk about building that team and making sure each one stood out and had a job to do so it was fun to watch them be good at their jobs?

Yeah, it's not only about their jobs, but also them as characters and what their characters bring to it. Horace was the mechanical one in the group. He'd work on the bikes and cars and put together contraptions and the physical stuff. With Jasper, he was more about the brains behind it, good with electronics and security cameras and thinking on his feet. He was more the mastermind. And of course, Cruella is the leader of the whole pack and she's putting all this together. But also Jasper was the heart of the film. He was Cruella's conscience in a way, and he would call her on stuff and make her culpable for things. Jasper is played by Joel Fry, and for Paul Walter Hauser, he obviously has a lot of comic relief, but he's doing it with this complexity and this heart and this empathy with some pain underneath. We know the history. We know he grew up without parents. So there's a lot of dancing going on within their characters as well.

So Cruella seems to be part of a trend for you. Tonya Harding, soon Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, Mike Tyson; you like to explore people who have been labelled in pop culture as villains. You want to get under their skin and examine them. Should we consider Cruella a part of that trend of films for you, or is it an outlier? What interests you about this stuff?

It's two things. One, we get a chance to examine humanity. You get these villains that, I think people are more complex than just black and white. No pun intended there. I love to not necessarily have sympathy for the characters, but empathy, where you can understand where they're coming from, how they got to these choices that they made in their life, and understand the choices they're making moving forward. You might not agree with them, but you get to see people as human beings rather than just headlines. Then the other interesting thing with that is challenging peoples' preconceptions. Even Cruella, to an extent, and we do that with the narrative of the newspapers telling everybody she's a puppy killer and her embracing that narrative, which I love that idea, that social commentary. It happens in I, Tonya and Pam and Tommy, where the media and our consumption of that media, we've made these choices about who these people are without really thinking about it. Without really looking at who they are as human beings. In all these cases, it's like they're distilled down to these Snapchats and headlines and clickbait. We get to step back and go, "This is what we're doing in our society, and this is the way that we're treating people at large." It's an interesting thing where we come into it being complicit because that's what we're expecting. We're expecting to sort of devour this pop culture in this stuff that I'm working on, but I get to hold a mirror up and go, "No, we're doing it literally right now in this meta way we did in the show. You've come to the show for those reasons, and now we're going to surprise you with the idea of humanizing them."

You mentioned Ocean's Eleven and Scorsese. One thing I like to do is ask directors what movies or TV shows should people checking out Cruella watch before and after? Some '70s crime movies, some heist movies – can you program some movies to go alongside Cruella?

Certainly Ocean's Eleven would be one. In terms of the Cruella aspect of it...man, you've stumped me. I didn't do much in the way of research outside of the plot design of Ocean's Eleven on this. I went back to some Tallulah Bankhead, because that's supposedly the inspiration behind Cruella. But outside of that, I'm watching Mare of Easttown right now. That's an amazing show.


Cruella hits theaters and Disney+ Premier on May 28, 2021.