Behind the Scenes on 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil'
Iain Blair
October 24, 2019

Behind the Scenes on 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil'

After Disney’s 2014 dark fantasy  Maleficent,  starring Angelina Jolie became a global smash, raking in some $760 million, it was only a matter of time before a sequel would be made. And to helm the new follow-up,  Maleficent: Mistress of Evil , the studio enlisted Norwegian film director Joachim Ronning, whose credits include co-directing  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales  (which sailed away with close to $800 million at the box office) and the Oscar-nominated  Kon-Tiki.

Jolie once again steps into the title role as Maleficent, and the film begins peacefully enough for her and her goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning). Their relationship, born of heartbreak, revenge and ultimately love, has flourished. Yet the hatred between man and the fairies still exists. Aurora’s impending marriage to Prince Phillip is cause for celebration, but an unexpected encounter introduces a powerful new alliance, and Maleficent and Aurora are pulled apart to opposing sides in a Great War, testing their loyalties and whether they can truly be family.

In an exclusive interview withCGW’s sister publication, Post, Ronning, who was still deep in post, talks about making Maleficent, the challenges involved and his love of post.

Successful sequels to big hits are notoriously difficult to make. How nervous were you taking this on?

“On a scale from one to 10, it was pretty high, but I think making any movie is difficult, and there are pros and cons to something this big and complex. On the plus side, a lot of the groundwork for this had already been laid with the first film, so you’re not having to completely invent the universe and all the characters from the start. So we could take and build on all the things that worked, and a lot of the things did work — especially the characters. I also think that a lot of the success of the first film was that big surprise element. The audience wasn’t expecting a tweak like that to such a famous, well-known story. So the big challenge I had taking this on was trying to catch that magic and catch lightning in a bottle again, and continue to surprise the audience.”

What did Angelina bring to the mix?

“That iconic character that is very much her creation, and just like when I worked with Johnny Depp and his Captain Sparrow, you don’t want to get in their way too much. My job is to fine-tune, especially with the comedy, and let her do her thing.”

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“What I’m always looking for in any movie I make is an emotional core, an emotional connection, and the first film managed to do that in a very big way. And it’s really the most important thing for me, whether I’m dealing with pirates or fairies or whatever. But to be honest, creating effective emotion is also the most difficult thing to do, along with comedy, and then part of this whole universe is comedy, so I had to deal with a lot of challenging elements as well as a mix of genres.”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“These types of films are so VFX-heavy, so that also means you’re always going to have a lot of changes going on all the time, from the script to the production design to all the VFX and so on through all the departments. I come from a very small country where we make small films where I’d know well in advance of principal photography exactly what I’d be shooting, but here it’s so different. That window is so much smaller as there’s so many people involved, and then you have the studio, and then you have the huge technical challenges of creating over 1,000 VFX shots with wings on people. And as that’s all part of the acting, they were also always getting in the virtual way when you’re shooting a scene. Even the most simple over-the-shoulder shot becomes tricky as the wings are there and you have to deal with them.”  

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales must have been great preparation for this?

(Laughs) “Yes, it was the perfect training for this, especially as we had to deal with about the same total number of VFX — over 2,000 shots, and it also involved the same kind of complex logistics and huge scale. But I’d say that this is even more challenging as it has many fully-CG characters that are carrying the movie along with the actors, and I didn’t have that in Pirates. I also never dealt with that before, that full-blown animation of characters that are also full of emotions and feelings. So that’s been a very interesting learning process for me.”

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?

“Right from the very start of pre-production, and we have a great pipeline with great people. The best tool available to us for a film like this is previs.”

Did you do a lot of previs?

“Yes, quite a bit, at Third Floor, and it’s been so helpful as we start with all the previs, then use visualization during the shoot, and then it’s post-vis in the computer, in 2D and 3D, and we have a team of over 100 people just doing that, thanks to our budget. So that’s the real miracle-worker on this movie, as you can start seeing things with the actors. I love all that.”

How tough was the shoot?

“We shot for 74 days and it was very hard, as always. And we had so much blue-screen and green-screen work, which I don’t enjoy that much.”

Where did you post?

“It was all based in London, and we set up editorial offices there and then did all our VFX mainly at MPC, but we also had teams working on it at MPC in Montreal, Vancouver, Bangalore, plus we used some other houses, including Gentle Giant, Trace VFX and Mill Film. And my post production producer, and lifesaver, was Bryan Carroll.”

Do you like the post process?

“I do, a lot. On this we have about 54 weeks of post and we had even more on Pirates, so I don’t feel too rushed. I’ve often wondered what my favorite part of filmmaking is, and I think doing the music and scoring in post is the bit I enjoy the most, along with the actual shoot, as I love being in the trenches and dealing with all the problems of a shoot. And even though I’m there with 1,000 people and all the pressure, it’s almost where I have the most freedom, as I’m probably the only one on the set who knows how all the pieces will fit together in post. I think the worst part of post is the first cut — and that has nothing to do with the editors. It’s just the nature of the beast, and it can only get better from there.” 

Talk about editing with Laura Jennings and Craig Wood. 

“They started cutting stuff about two weeks into the shoot, and putting some scenes together. Sometimes I’d look at what they’d done and think about it, and see what I liked and so on. The thing is, I used to be an editor myself, so when I’m shooting I have a very clear vision of what I want. In my whole career I’ve never had to go back and do a re-shoot because I didn’t get it, so I’m pretty confident in that, and yes, I see what the editors are doing and I give them my notes, but for me the real editing process doesn’t start until I finish shooting, and then I jump right into it. The funny thing is, on smaller films you have far less time for the edit, and you really have to start the real edit while you’re still shooting, just to get through all the material. But on these huge movies, I have the time to really focus on it after the shoot. We’ve been editing this for 11 months now. It never ends. And I love having two editors. I had two on Pirates, and I love being able to go back and forth between them. We began with Laura doing the first three or four reels and Craig doing the last few, and then we swapped it around so they get to work on each other’s work, and I really enjoy that.” 

What were the big editing challenges?

“It’s always about telling your story clearly, and then on this, balancing all the drama and comedy elements, and finding the right rhythms and pace and tone. And you can’t rush editing, and it keeps changing and altering in your mind. You can cut a sequence and really love it, and then a week later you hate it (laughs). It’s not an exact science. It’s like making wine, and hopefully it keeps getting better over time. My favorite part of editing is the last 10 percent, where you finally feel it’s all coming together, and it suddenly lifts and you feel like you’re almost there.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music.

“For me, it’s half the movie experience, and working on it feels like a bonus for me as a director. I love this part so much, and both my editors are very sound-savvy, so we did a fair amount during the edit, but then when you get the real sound designers in, it just opens up the whole film and makes it 10 times bigger, and it helps so much with the comedy. And then when you add the music, it becomes so emotional. We scored it at Abbey Road with a 110-piece orchestra, and as I’ve played piano since I was six, and my dad had a record store, I am very interested in this whole part of post.” 

Where will you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“We’ll do it at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld, and it’s hugely important. I’m very involved, along with DP Henry Braham, and Stefan’s done my movies before, and getting that seamless look is crucial, along with the palette and mood and bite.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

(Laughs) “No. Some elements did, but other sequences and elements turned out differently, and that’s not a bad thing.”