Credit: Disney

Australian director Craig Gillespie laughs as he remembers the moment he captured Emma Stone in shrieking hysteria in a scene from his new movie Cruella. “It’s interesting, Emma has so many shades that she has to play in this film and she comes into it in a very dark place – and starts out in a very aggressive place,” says Gillespie who also directed the Academy Award-nominated film I, Tonya. “There is this scene halfway through the film where Cruella steps out and meets her fellow cohorts Horace and Jasper. The way that she commands the room in that scene is just delicious. It was the first time we saw full Cruella. It’s such a great introduction to her.”

Slated for release on May 27 2021, Disney’s all-new live-action feature film, Cruella, is set amid the punk rock revolution in 1970s London and tells the backstory of how a young grifter named Estella became the iconic Cruella De Vil. Estella (Stone) is determined to make a name for herself in fashion and while her flair catches the eye of terrifyingly haute fashion legend the Baroness von Hellman (played by Emma Thompson), her rebellious streak takes over her personal life. As Gillespie describes in the scene above, Estella befriends a pair of young thieves named Horace and Jasper who, with her, cue trouble for the streets of London. Like Joaquin Phoenix’s 2019 Joker, we watch Estella’s slow descent into wickedness to ultimately become the dog-hating villain we know.

In a world exclusive, Gillespie jumps on the phone from Los Angeles to fill you in on what to expect from Cruella.

GRAZIA: Cruella explores the backstory of Cruella De Vil and how she came to be the iconic villain that she was. What drew you to the project?

CRAIG GILLESPIE: I got a call from American film producer Sean Bailey at Disney and he said, “What do you think of Cruella De Vil with Emma Stone and I said, ‘That sounds amazing.” And then he said, “It will be 1970s punk London.” And I was immediately drawn to it. That whole combination sounded so exciting to me.

GRAZIA: We know Emma Stone as the sweet girl in La La Land and The Amazing Spider Man – I guess she’s not front of mind for a big villain like this. What made you say, “Emma Stone is our Cruella”?

GILLESPIE: From the work that I’ve seen her do over the years, she’s had such range between dramatic and comedic work. There’s no hesitation for me, she can have such poise and charisma and she can be intimidating in scenes and she can be strong and powerful and then she’s got this Lucille Ball quality that turns out in the most surprising of ways. She can be physical with her humour. She does it all. That was my hope as we were doing Cruella. It’s such a heightened character and such a range that we had to delve into as both Cruella and the person she is before she turns into Cruella. I couldn’t think of anybody better for the role than Emma Stone.”

Credit: Disney

GRAZIA: Glenn Close’s role as Cruella De Vil in the 1996 film 101 Dalmatians became iconic. She is now an executive producer on Cruella. How much influence did she have on scenes? And how valuable was her input?

GILLESPIE: Glenn had worked with Australian writer Tony McNamara on the film The Favourite. I had just been working on a screenplay with Tony and Glenn and I both really wanted Tony to do the script and that really set the tone of what we were going for. It was a joy to work on together. We supported each other – it was a beautifully collaborative effort – and Glenn has so much range to pull from her toolbox. It was an incredible joy to watch.

GRAZIA: Glenn is a very big voice for women. How important was it that this backstory of this female character was told? She obviously played the big villain role at a time when there were so many male superheros.

GILLESPIE: She did an amazing job in that film. Looking back on it, she really doesn’t hold back. The dialogue is really fun and she goes for it. We’re sort of in a different place and with this film, we were setting out to something that was distinctly different. We couldn’t have gone down that 101 Dalmatians road – Glenn had done it so well – and we really wanted to come up with our own character and Emma wanted to show what her version of that would be. Tony’s writing gives the groundwork for that. It’s very much Cruella’s journey and about a strong-willed, powerful personality and the challenges she faces against another strong woman, The Baroness, played by Emma Thompson. The whole story revolves around their conflict and the two of them going head-to-head. That was a great take on the story and was really exciting for me.

GRAZIA: What can audiences expect?

GILLESPIE: It’s an incredible rollercoaster of a movie. It’s emotional in places but it’s also got a punk rock n’ roll vibe to it. It’s fast and aggressive in places and ultimately is a lot of fun. We’ve actually got close to 50 songs featuring in this film, from The Doors to The Clash to Queen and Doris Day. I was really, really happy with the tone that we landed on. We’re really trying to create something unique and it feels original and that’s what I’m most proud of.

Credit: Disney

GRAZIA: Music plays a really big role in the film – but in Cruella, it’s matched by her the wardrobe department. Cruella is very fashionable. Did you work closely with the costume designer?

GILLESPIE: The costume designer Jenny Beavan is absolutely amazing – and this project was a behemoth for her. There were so many wardrobe changes and you’ve got two lead characters – Emma Stone and Emma Thompson – who are playing fashion icons. So, on top of the enormous amount of wardrobe changes and gala scenes – I think there were 400 extras all in 70s-inspired, elaborate, contemporary garments – Jenny also had to design two lines of clothing and that was so challenging. People can be so critical of fashion and if it didn’t feel authentic, and worthy of how we were trying to set the characters up, it could really take away from the film. Trying to design two very separate fashion lines which felt of the 70s and were still contemporary was an enormous task and she killed it.

GRAZIA: What was Emma Thompson like to work with?

GILLESPIE: She’s had such a career, she’s also a writer and I felt like I was fairly familiar with her as an actor. But then she came out with a character and these mannerisms and traits that I had never seen before in her work. It was so exciting to see this character come to life and the nuance, and how specific it was. To see that performance, and then watch Emma Stone react off of it, it’s honestly my favourite scenes when it’s the two of them in a room together. Fortunately, we have a lot of those scenes!

Credit: Disney

GRAZIA: Did COVID-19 change your filming schedule?

GILLESPIE: We were very lucky. We finished filming in November of 2019 so I got to do all the post production during lockdown. In some ways, it gave us more time to perfect things. It was a very luxurious post schedule.

GRAZIA: You would be part of very few films releasing at the moment that got the full set experience. Day-to-day, what was the vibe like on set?

GILLESPIE: It was very ambitious. I like to keep it very loose and spontaneous, so as much as we were always going off Tony’s words and scripts, there was room to improvise and have fun and throw things out there and see how actors respond to each other. We got time to play.

GRAZIA: Was there a particularly challenging scene to film?

GILLESPIE: It’s quite a large film. Literally every week, we’d go “Oh, it’s quite a large week this week!’ [Laughs]. Every week there was some scene that had 400 extras, a complicated moment and it seemed to be week after week after week. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where we are introduced to Cruella at a big gala and there’s a very complex situation going on in that scene that lasts for about 13 minutes. That was really a lot of fun.

Credit: Disney

GRAZIA: You have had such great success – I, Tonya was incredible – as your success rises, are you any less nervous the night before the release of a film ?

GILLESPIE: [Laughs] I’m less nervous as we sit here right now. If I was sitting in a theatre watching it, I get so anxious!  It’s so nerve-racking. All I can say is I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do what I love and make projects that I’m confident and happy with. I set out to really make something that I can respond to – and I was thrilled that we got to do that again on Cruella. I feel really, really happy with it. We will see how people respond. Bizarrely, because of COVID, we haven’t really had a chance to show it to many people.

GRAZIA: How much of your work do you take home with you at night?

GILLESPIE: All of it, all of the time. When I’m on the project, it’s 24/7.

GRAZIA: Last question. Let’s pretend GRAZIA readers are in the cinema and are about to watch the film. What do you say to them?

GILLESPIE: [Laughs]. Basically, I’d just say, “Sit back and enjoy it. It’s really a fun ride.” I think that’s going to be the surprise, it just doesn’t let up.

Cruella is released into Australian cinemas on May 27.