“Cinderella” was certainly a comfortable fit for director Kenneth Branagh, containing the same connective tissue as his acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations or “Thor.” And production designer Dante Ferretti (currently making Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”) certainly knows his way around period pieces. In fact, they used “Gone with the Wind” and “The Leopard” as inspiration for designing and choreographing a new take on the iconic ballroom sequence featuring Lily James as the faux princess (watch the clip below).
“For me, it’s about the concentration on performance and the human dynamic that makes sure that even the most spectacular visual worlds are rooted in some kind of… dysfunctional family—or at least on the road to being functional, perhaps,” Branagh quipped.
“One of the big moments when I joined the project was to visit the art department for the first time, see the layout of this kingdom and where all the inspiration was coming from, and then walk into a special room with an entire white box model of the ballroom,” he continued. “And that was a real indication to me in the shaping of it, in the size of it, in the splendor of it. And in the architectural inspirations for it we were really going to create something quite distinct, even though we were in a familiar vernacular of a ballroom from a fairy tale.
“And along the way there’s the fanatical devotion of maestro Ferretti. We tried to find a way of giving a masculine edge to it despite its decorative opulence. We wanted to use every bit of space. I wanted to shoot from every conceivable angle up, down, across these beautiful, big set piece balconies: one for an orchestra and one for the king were important areas for us. The idea that interrelationships in a world where being seen and being seen to be seen was important.”
For Ferretti, it was about being faithful to the fairy tale origins and the Disney animated feature but finding something fresh.
“When I was first approached about my involvement I went back to re-watch the animated film and was immediately struck by its grandeur, so I set out to create a world that is based in historical realism but is mixed with fantasy as well… an atmosphere that was both believable and fantastic at the same time,” Ferretti said. “Since this is a fairy tale we didn’t have to remain faithful to one specific time period, but Ken wanted the look to be sort of 19th century, which gave us the opportunity to incorporate earlier styles of architecture into our designs.
“The palace had to be magical, so I looked at a lot of French architecture, like the Louvre, the Opéra Garnier and the Palace of Versailles, which all had these great long staircases. So we started with the stairs and then created everything from there, like the main entrance with its big arch and the fountains inside. Then we added our own touches, like the frescoes, the sconces and all of the set decoration, which included 5,000 oil candles which had to be lit by hand and 17 enormous chandeliers.”
“And that staircase was wonderfully constructed for her entrance,” Branagh added. “And the marriage between what Dante Ferretti and [costume designer] Sandy Powell did was crucially important so there wasn’t too much richness fighting each other. Richness had to be conveyed in different ways. In her case, in a blue dress that was full of texture and layers. Both Ferretti and Powell are crafts people who take care of both the micro and macro. So they have the artist flourishes but they have the methodical, scientific, step-by-step version of collecting materials. And we were going for that same epic sweep as ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘The Leopard,’ and shot anamorphic on film [by DP Haris Zambarloukos] so that the camera was often aping the sweep of a dress. We were in a sense trying to dance for and with the audience to let them join in.”
The dance is essentially a waltz, but since they were borrowing historically across a period that extended from the middle of the 18th century through the end of the 19th century, they didn’t want to be enslaved to historical accuracy.
“[W]e wanted movement and nearness in this piece and to show off both the people and the costumes, particularly Cinderella’s costume,” Branagh said. “So at the end there’s a tango flourish with literal lifts, which strictly speaking are not waltzian lifts. But we wanted to avoid anything that could be physically distancing. We are in a world that now watches ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ so people are more aware of dancing in a strange way so we have a bit of license to invite them in.
“We had a pre-planned idea of standing outside to watch that main dance but then realized that we wanted to get closer so I remember running around the place with the steadicam operator because I knew the dance and he didn’t and they suddenly turned around on us and they were going to be catching us basically. The sweaty reality of 500 people dancing away put us in five, six, seven camera modes there.
“I hate to use the word old-fashioned,” Branagh summarized, “but it seemed from another time in the way that we were working and the approach with film and the overall way we were aping the golden age.”