By Jen Vineyard | The Playlist March 26, 2012 at 5:53PM
"Mirror Mirror" is the latest in a long line of Snow White stories -- "Once Upon A Time" on ABC is ongoing, as is the saga of Snow White and her Fabletown cohorts in the graphic novel series "Fables," with the film "Snow White and the Huntsman" not far behind. The Tarsem Singh-directed film, however, is the most kid-friendly of the bunch, with the evil queen character played for laughs by Julia Roberts. Even if this film only has a touch of the dark side, its stars Lily Collins and Armie Hammer insist "Mirror Mirror" is more modern, because Snow White learns to fight for herself, her prince, and her people. "Our Snow White has no huntsman," Hammer noted, "but it's an over-the-top family comedy. We're not trying to make 'Grapes of Wrath' here." And because it's a Singh film, the visuals are everything, as the two leads and the director shared with The Playlist.
At one point in the film, Hammer's Prince Charming throws out a quip about focus testing. "There are so many stories where the prince saves the princess. It's time to change that ending!" Snow declares. "But it focus tested so well!" Prince Alcott retorts. "That line throws you for a loop," Collins said. "When Armie first said it, I went, 'What?'"
That's because the line was not in the script. "I adlibbed it as a joke," Hammer said, "but then they kept it in! And when I saw that, I thought, 'Oh, that's brilliant,' because it breaks the fourth wall. It's a joke for the adults."
"The kids turn to the parents and say, 'What was that?'" Singh said. "It's not for them. I want the film to work on multiple levels, and I don't want the parents to get bored. I want it to have charm.”
Collins said the line symbolizes how their film is a "different take" on the much-told story. "You think you know Snow White and everything that goes with it, so we're saying we know what you're thinking and we're going to play with that," she said.
Looking in an object from your home, asking for real time information, and checking your status -- as the evil queen stepmother is wont to do -- could actually have a modern equivalent, as the film's social marketing team was quick to realize. The metaphor obviously was not intended, but Collins gives the fairytale originators points for the discovery. "It's interesting that Facebook provides that same instant gratification," Collins said. "The queen is constantly seeking that, when she's seeking information about herself but only finding out about Snow. It's so weird!"
Prince Alcott might have been taught not to hit a lady, but he has no choice once Snow attacks. For their sword fighting scenes, both leads underwent extensive training for three months, six hours a day for five days a week. "I could beat Armie now," Collins boasted.
Hammer said that learning how to do a back flip with a sword in hand was his hardest task, along with his own reluctance to not hit a woman. Collins obliged him by learning to be unladylike, courtesy of some handy lessons from the actors who play the dwarves (Martin Klebba, Danny Woodburn, Mark Povinelli, Jordan Prentice, Sebastian Saraceno, Ronald Lee Clark and Joe Gnoffo). "They all wanted to initiate me into the group," she said, "so they were teaching me how to burp on cue, how to spit, how to do dirty things." Some of those things, she admitted, she already knew how to do, but it was about refining her technique. "I got it down to a science," she laughed.
Acting like a tomboy on set also helped Collins balance the fact that she was wearing a corset. "I had to fight in that," she said. "And I promise never to complain about anything after wearing that. There's nothing like fighting or eating in a tight corset."
Collins called the studio set in Montreal a "snowglobe world," but instead of snow, the crew used about "40 tons" of salt for the same effect. "They had all these different forms, coarse and soft," she said. "But whenever I was fighting or wrestling, I fell on the coarse salt, so my arms would get torn up, almost like a rash. I was constantly rubbing on salt."
The scenes when Hammer was shirtless were the worst when it came to salt burns, he said. "If I were hanging upside down, then when they'd cut me down, I'd be laying on all that salt, every take. It was a little much! I'd go, 'Towel, please!'"
To add insult to injury, the "snow" was not as pure as snow, either. "Because we had a bunch of horses on the salt, they'd use the restroom on the salt," the actor laughed, "and instead of cleaning it up, they'd put another layer of salt on top of that. So we'd have this funky, rotting salt. It was absolutely rancid!"
A crucial part of Snow White's story takes place in the woods, but Singh couldn't quite find the woods he wanted -- at least, not in nature. "How do I make the woods, a magical wood, that was my biggest problem," the director said. "Tim Burton owns that area. He always has the scary, gnarly, gorgeous trees, but what I was imagining for this was a little different."
Inspired by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's work in the films "Andrei Rublev" and "Ivan's Childhood," Singh decided he wanted a silver birch forest where the trees would look cylindrical, monochromatic, almost black-and-white. "I've always wanted to do that," he said. But the only silver birch forests he found in time were in England and in Siberia, and neither were acceptable locations. "I wanted the right graphic statement, but I didn't want real snow," he said of Siberia. "I don't want the actors to be cold."
Because the budget was tight and Singh couldn't afford to send the actors to multiple locations, he decided to shoot in Canada instead of England, since big studio stages were available in Montreal, where they could have a few trees and show the rest via a painted backdrop. "It was one of the few places that was practical," Singh said. "There was a good rebate system, big stages, and all the facilities in one building: art, post, studio, all in 20 feet of walking distance. That's why Montreal won."
After Snow White, Collins and Hammer aren't done retelling classic stories with new twists (see Hammer's prep on "The Lone Ranger"), but Collins won't be aboard the remake of Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" because her schedule got in the way. Even so, she said that the script she read by Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody was "amazing."
"It's taking a cult classic and making it a new one," Collins said. "You want to stay true to the essence of the story and make it modern and different than the original, but it's very, very gruesome, and very shocking. Maybe even more shocking than the first one, although it's going to be hard to beat, because of the way that one was shot. To find a way to shock people today is difficult."
Part of Collins' scheduling problems came about because of her commitment to an on-again, off-again, now-on project, "The Mortal Instruments." "It's always difficult to work while I'm in school, too," she noted. "I had to put school on hold for months, because this is such a totally spontaneous business. You can't plan too far ahead!"
"Mirror Mirror" opens on March 30th.