The original plot of Red Riding Hood, the centuries-old fairytale and inspiration for the new Warner Bros. movie, which opens this week, is hardly the stuff of which classic film adaptations are made. A girl goes out into the forest to deliver a package to her grandmother, meets a talking wolf on the way, later encounters said wolf in the guise of the her grandmother, is swallowed whole by him, and is eventually freed from his stomach when a friendly hunter traps and kills the wolf. That’s it. Tossing aside the weirdness of the cross-dressing bit, the gross irresponsibility of the girl’s parents, whose daughter clearly suffered from some sort of developmental disability (one that prevented her from distinguishing between human and canine) and should never have been allowed to leave the house, much less cross a forest apparently stocked with predatory talking animals, and the gruesome details of her eventual release from her gastrointestinal prison, the storyline seems a bit thin, even by the less-than-rigorous standards of modern Hollywood blockbusters.
And so the task fell to Catherine Hardwicke, director of the 2008 teen vampire blockbuster Twilight, to transform this simple and vaguely disturbing children’s fable into a scary and sexy and relatable Hollywood film. Hardwicke responded with a supernatural mystery-thriller, one with a shape-shifting werewolf, a steamy love triangle, and a protagonist, played by Amanda Seyfried, who is strong and independent and certainly not the type of dim bulb who would fall for some hairy forest creature’s crude impression of Grandma. In an exclusive interview, Hardwicke talked about adapting the beloved fairytale, the “insane” Ms. Seyfried, and the similarities between her new film and Twilight.
You’ve turned the "big bad wolf" into a shape-shifting werewolf. Is there a basis for that in the original story?
The folk tale, or fairytale, had all of these different origins around the world. Charles Perrault put down his version and the Brothers Grimm put their version down, but there really were versions before that had werewolves. Because the wolf has always been that intriguing creature … there was a werewolf trial in Germany in 1589 of this one character [Peter Stumpp]. People are so freaked out by wolves that they make them into these mythological beings. And that’s been going on for hundred of years. But David Leslie Johnson, our writer, he did expand on it. In all these stories, [the character] doesn’t have a name, and we don’t know the mother or the father or anything. He really built a whole rich world around her, with all the secrets and lies and the intrigue and stuff.
This version is certainly far sexier than any that I can remember.
Well, in a weird way, [the original stories] are kind of sexual. Like in this version [points to an illustration from a Red Riding Hood book] the wolf is in bed, and he’s trying to get her to get into bed with him. The wolf is cross-dressing. The little girl invites the wolf. She’s in touch with her sensuality. She’s out picking flowers and not staying on the path like her mom told her. She meets the wolf and the wolf says, “Where are you going?” And she admits she’s going to her grandmother’s and where the house is. She’s inviting that dark side, the dangerous side, into her life. So the seeds are all there, even in the original tale.
Red Riding Hood has a lot of aspects to it that are inevitably going to draw comparisons to your previous film, Twilight. Was it a conscious effort to explore those similar themes in a different setting?
You know, I sometimes wonder if maybe Stephenie Meyer was inspired by the original Red Riding Hood stories with the werewolf. There are some themes that keep coming up in life. Every romantic comedy has a love triangle. It’s kind of hard to have a romance without some conflict in it. It’s boring when two people are happy at the beginning of a movie and happy at the end! So pretty much you’ve kind of always got something like that going, some kind of obstacle or conflict. It’s kind of the basis of drama.
I think there are things I think you can feel are parallels [with Twilight]. All kinds of movies have things that we relate to. But I loved a lot of things in this that gave me new things to explore. For example, in Twilight I had to convince you that a vampire could live in the real world, show up at your high school and you wouldn’t even notice. In this case, I had the chance to create a whole new world that we haven’t seen and convince you of that reality, suspend your disbelief and escape into a fairytale world.
Was Amanda already attached to the project when you came aboard?
No, but she was really the first person I thought of for this project. I knew Amanda; she had been to my house a few times with Emile Hirsch. She used to go out with Emile for a while. And I loved her when I saw her at this benefit for autism. She was up there speaking and there were 10 speakers and with everybody else you were kind of dozing off. And she gets up there and reads a simple little passage and she’s very compelling and emotional, and she just kind of drew me in. So I kind of clocked her and just started watching all the cool, different things she does: Mean Girls – funny; Chloe – sexy; Mamma Mia! – charming. I’m like, man, this kid can do anything. She’s like insane. She kind of had to be it for me. She’s really a positive force.
And then you have Gary Oldman, who’s another force entirely.
Yeah, that was a really big honor for me, to work with Gary, because Sid and Nancy, The Professional, there’s so many things he’s done that have just blown my mind. He had read this part and gone after it and said, “I wanna do that.” I think he liked the ride that that character was going to be on. For me, at first I was a little bit intimidated – it’s Gary F*cking Oldman!!! It’s like, how badass is he? Even his first scene in Harry Potter, you go wow, he’s just got that presence. Whatever the part is, you can’t take your eyes off him. So the ability to work with him on this character, who felt like he’d been deceived, who had a personal connection to this werewolf thing, and who wanted to do the right thing but his obsession just grows and grows, how fun would that be?
And he eventually almost displaces the werewolf as the villain.
Exactly. I loved working with Gary – he’s very funny. You’ve gotta be on your toes with Gary. That was quite a challenge. He loves to work in just jeans and a t-shirt. He did not like wearing the armor or handling swords.
Really? Because he looks to me like he probably wakes up wearing a suit of armor.
Yeah. But he really likes to be comfortable. If he could do every movie in jeans in a t-shirt, I think he’d be pretty happy.
Throughout your career, you've demonstrated a considerable knack for working with young actors - Emile, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, etc. Where do you think that comes from?
Well it started, of course, with Thirteen, and that was just like an organic thing. I’d written several other screenplays and had been trying to get them made. But none of them were getting made, and then suddenly my friend, Nikki [Reed], she had a lot of problems. She was thirteen at the time and she had a lot of issues … and that turned into a film, trying to find a sort of creative therapy to help her do something positive.
That’s a really dramatic time of life. The first time you get to drive a car, or drink, or kiss a boy, or whatever. A lot of fun sh*t happens to you! And your body changes. And the most dramatic stuff, the most suicides, the most car accidents, the most unwanted pregnancies, murders, everything happens when you’re like a teenager. It’s not boring. So I think that’s one reason why a lot of dramatic writers are drawn to that time. A lot of people make their first film based on their own teenage years and stuff. For me, I wrote that script [for Thirteen] with a thirteen-year-old. I didn’t try to write a script about a thirteen-year-old; I wrote it with her. I guess from the beginning I’ve just always listened to that voice, or those people, instead of just trying to say, “This is it.” I think that it’s more participatory, to make people a part of the process. Having Kristen [Stewart] part of the process of casting the guy, having Amanda part of the process guys in this movie, to make sure they have that chemistry, instead of me trying to dictate to people.
Red Riding Hood opens everywhere March 11, 2011.