Frank Nissen Revisits a Classic with "Cinderella III"
With a career spanning for 30 years, odds are pretty good that you’ve seen a cartoon that Frank Nissen has worked on. After an apprenticeship in commercial and educational programming, Nissen began his directorial career on such cult classic TV specials as Cosmic Christmas and The Devil and Daniel Mouse. His touch can also be found in George Lucas’ Droids and Ewoks, and in Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s adaptation of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. He was also the lead animator for the 1983 feature film Rock and Rule.
In 1996, Nissen moved to Los Angeles to fulfill a childhood dream of working for the Walt Disney Company. In the years since, Nissen has worked on feature films such as Tarzan, Dinosaur, and Treasure Planet, and also on direct-to-video features such as Mickey’s Christmas Carol and The Three Musketeers. Nissen’s feature film directorial debut came in 2005 with the critically acclaimed Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, for which he also contributed the character designs of the Heffalumps.
Nissen’s latest project is Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, a direct-to-DVD movie that revisits Disney’s classic animated fairy-tale adaptation. Toon Zone News checked in with Nissen (and Michael Rola of Disney Public Relations) via telephone to talk about the direct-to-video feature.
(NOTE: This interview contains spoilers for the movie.)
TOON ZONE NEWS: The first reaction I’ve seen from nearly every Disney fan when they hear about Cinderella III is, “Why bother?” So: why bother?
FRANK NISSEN: Well, that’s a good one. I think because she’s a great character and she’s a very popular character within the Disney pantheon, and we felt that it was worth telling a different story to try and resurrect the feeling of the first movie. We felt there was a strong love for the original movie , and if we could recapture that spirit that it would be worth doing again. And that’s what we set out to do.
TZN: It’s a pretty high standard to live up to, though. Did that ever intimidate you?
NISSEN: It was daunting, but it was also challenging. My attitude is that I’d rather climb the mountain than stand at the bottom of it and look up.
TZN: How do you react to the critics? A lot of the Disney direct-to-video sequels haven’t gotten a very good reputation among some of the fans. Do you react to that at all? Did that cross your mind?
NISSEN: Oh, it’s there, but I…(laughs) I try not to live by what other people worry about. I want to make a good film, and I tried to make a good film and I had great people working with me. When you go into one of these things, you always go in hoping that you’ll make the best movie you can. We had a wonderful precedent to try to live up to, so that was really inspiring.
There’s bad movies and good movies all over the place, and you’re aware of the context you’re working in, but you try and do a good movie. Try to do the best movie you can.
TZN: Well, I think you succeeded, because I enjoyed the film a whole lot. You had mentioned elsewhere that you really wanted to try and update the original film in some ways, because as wonderful as it is, it’s still a product of its time…
TZN: So how much did that drive your thinking in the new movie?
NISSEN: Well, that certainly was a strong element in the shaping of the movie, particularly with the Prince. In the first movie, he’s little more than her dancing partner. He says a few lines and you know he’s a nice guy, but that’s about it. He had so little screen time that there wasn’t a need to develop a full character. But in our new story, he did have to play a much more important part in the narrative and the structure of the story, so we knew we had to bring a little more to him. Make him a more fully developed personality. And that was a real challenge because…again, we were very, very conscious of trying to keep the spirit of the first movie, so how do you make him a nice guy without making him feel like a sap? Today’s modern sensibilities are much more, shall we say, sophisticated. We’ve seen in the intervening years, we’ve seen a lot more character types, we’ve seen a lot more different types of heroes in films, so there’s a lot more expectation on what a Prince Charming can be, and what a Prince Charming should be. So we were very aware of trying to shape a character who still had the charm and the elegance and the reserve that the original character did, but also would be a character who would appeal to a modern audience and modern sensibilities. We were thinking about contemporary actors, modern romantic comedy heroes, who people really liked because of their sensibilities, and we tried to make a blend.
The other characters like the stepmother and Lucifer the cat – they’re really our typical characters. We didn’t feel we had to do much with them except capture them again.
Cinderella was a very delicate character to try and bring into a modern era because of something I felt very, very strongly about. The reason people love her, the reason why she’s one of the most popular princesses that the company has – that people still have a very special place for the movie in their hearts – is because of who she is, and the kind of character she is. How she responds to things. Her attitude toward life. And they brought it out brilliantly in the first movie, very simply, with what she sings about, and what she talks about. How she talks, how she responds to being abused by the stepmother and the sisters. People love her for that because of who she is, and I very, very much wanted to keep that in the modern story.
But again, we’ve had 50 years of history since then and a lot has happened in society and what we feel about what a modern heroine can be, and what a modern heroine should do. So, we had a very pivotal turn in the development of the story in the middle of Act II, where Cinderella actually says, “I’ve got to fix this myself.” She makes that choice and she makes that commitment, which is a very modern thing in our day and age. We want people to do that – we want our heroes to do that.
TZN: It does make her a much more active participant in her own story. She was always one of the more appealing Princesses because she had to deal with so much adversity before she gets her happily ever after.
NISSEN: Yes, exactly.
TZN: But at the same time, she also gets everything handed to her, by her friends or by the Fairy Godmother, so in this movie, she really becomes a much more active character.
NISSEN: Yes, because she has to fix what went wrong. That’s the other thing, too, that’s very important, is that the stakes are high. A lot of movies and modern day comedies, particularly in romantic stories, don’t make the stakes high enough. And it’s a time-honored tradition that if the stakes are high enough for the hero or the heroine, then you’re really going to root for them when they go after it. So the fact that she had her happiness stolen away from her…she’s dreamed all her life of having true love, and now it’s just snatched right out from under her. The difference is that now, in this day and age, she goes after it. She doesn’t just sit there and weep – she goes after it.
TZN: The other thing I noticed is that Anastasia, the redheaded wicked stepsister, becomes really interesting in this one, too. She becomes more sympathetic. It’s another pretty modern thing to try and color characters in more shades of gray, even your antagonists.
NISSEN: Yeah, and give them more texture. We’ve had so many new stories and new sensibilities about the layerings of the characters, and we knew we could get a lot more story dynamics out of having one of the other two characters go through more change rather than just focusing the whole story on Cinderella. Again, if you think about the first movie as the origin myth, so to speak, that’s the core emotional dilemma. Cinderella wants love and she eventually finds love at the end of the first story. So what we wanted to do was create another story that had a strong emotional core, but that gave more characters within the little universe more complexity.
TZN: One funny thing that happens is that you know exactly where this movie is going to end up. You know by the end of the film that Cinderella is going to get her prince back. But at several points during the movie, you really start thinking to yourself, “Boy, how is she going to DO this?”
NISSEN: Well, thank you! Again, that was one of many joys of working on this project. Because we knew the essential core of each character and we really could concentrate on getting them into situation and getting them out of situations. There’s this famous writing axiom, if you will, that you get your character into a tree and then you throw rocks at him (laughs). So, the thing that was great about this project was we didn’t have to worry about creating the character of Cinderella — it was already there. We didn’t have to worry about shaping the character of the stepmother – we already knew who she was. So we didn’t have to worry about that basic dynamic. We could just play with it. We could develop it and really concentrate on twists and turns in the story because we weren’t spending our energy just figuring out who the characters were. That left us with a lot of energy to come up with those twists and turns.
(NOTE: A fairly major spoiler for the end of the movie follows in the next paragraph — ed.)
The trickiest part of the whole thing was leading up to the pivotal moment in the wedding, when Anastasia has to decide what to do. That was really tricky – how to modulate Anastasia throughout the story so that you’re not sure. You know fairly early on that she’s not quite like her sister, and then gradually through the story, you get more and more sympathy for her. You realize she’s maybe a little different, and she’s got a warm heart, but we had to hold off so that at that pivotal moment, you’re not sure.
TZN: There’s a lot of subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle points that have a surprising amount of depth in the film, especially in Anastasia’s story. Did you ever run into trouble with that? Did you ever get to some point when someone looked at something and asked, “Is our audience going to GET this?”
NISSEN: Hmm…that’s an interesting question. I would say…no. I’d say that we had …everybody was getting the ideas pretty clearly, because the real nuts and bolts of the logic of how things happened happily was worked out in the script. Our writers really did a good job of giving us a solid logical structure for the basic idea of the story. That left us free to really sort of fine-tune the emotional stuff within that structure, so we didn’t have to worry about solving why something happened or the logic behind how someone was feeling. That was already done in the script, so what it left us free to do was figure out how we were going to show that in the film cinematically. And, of course, polishing the dialogue and directing the actors and the performances.
It was amazing that in so many of the sequences, particularly the stuff between Cinderella and the Prince, I had to keep asking him to deliver the line softer and softer. Like the one where he comes up running up on the deck, and he says, ‘Remember me?” C.D. Barnes (The Prince’s voice actor – ed.) is a great actor. He really was brilliant in giving the price the right mix of classical hero plus modern guy, but it was amazing how we kept asking him to say it quieter and quieter and quieter, so that in the recording booth, it sounds like he’s barely above a whisper. But when you put it in the film, and he’s standing there and you get the right pause before it, and she’s looking at him, and that really, really soft delivery works. So, again, the structure of the story was well in-place in the script, so it gave us time and energy to spend on crafting all these lovely little nuances and twists and things.
TZN: There seem to be a lot of revisionist fairy tales coming out these days. The novel Wicked got turned into a Broadway show, and there’s a bunch of different comic books and novels that take fairy tales and give them more modern spins. Were any of those an influence on the development process of Cinderella III?
NISSEN: Not really, no. I wanted to keep it as true to the spirit of the first movie as I could. There was a little talk at the very beginning of possibly modernizing the stepmother, but I really tried to steer everybody to think of her as she was in the original movie because she’s one of the strongest villains that Disney’s ever come up with.
TZN: What were some of the ideas being bandied around at the time?
NISSEN: Oh, there was the thought of having even more songs in the story, and so the stepmother would have a song. Stuff like that. Making her a little more of a diva. And I just felt, “Man, this is such a powerful villain that you need to really keep her that way.”
TZN: She’s really best when she’s being thoroughly and unrelentingly malicious.
NISSEN: Yeah, just those eyes boring into you. So happily, everyone agreed, so that’s how we got her to the screen the way she is.
TZN: Speaking of the music, I understand the germ of this whole thing got started based on a stage show?
NISSEN: No, I think the movie started…Michael, correct me if I’m wrong, but.I think that the movie started…
MICHAEL ROLA (Disney Public Relations): The two projects started separately and sort of in parallel universes. I haven’t seen the stage show. Ironically, we have the same set of song writers, but it’s sort of not a similar concept. The stage show is a bit of a “What if?” but no, completely different writing teams and development processes in terms of the film.
NISSEN: And the stage show on the boat is a lot more like a Christmas pantomime, if you remember the real old-fashioned Christmas pantomimes, where it was a lot more just visual spectacle and songs. You have the pratfall team, so it wasn’t able to get into the subtleties in the way the film was.
TZN: So even though there’s a feature on the DVD about the stage show and the songwriters between the two projects were the same, the two projects grew up independent of each other?
NISSEN: Yes, they did.
ROLA: Annie Hamburger, who heads the Walt Disney Imagineering Entertainment Group, was recruited with much fanfare from the Broadway world about 3 years ago. That show was developed completely independently by her group. Whereas ours, from nuts and bolts ground up, came through the creative process here at Disney Toon Studios.
TZN: Then the general belief that the film came from the stage show is incorrect, then?
NISSEN: Yes. There’s a lot of things like that. It’s amazing sometimes when you’re working on a movie and you’re sort of going along and you’re about 2/3rds of the way through it and you realize that somebody across the street or across the world is doing a very similar movie. I mean, a case in point is over the last 2 or 3 years, how many movies have we seen about a group of animals encountering the world in some way? I’m sure all those people thought they were doing something that nobody else was doing.
TZN: The classic film school advice is that you have to be ready to cut your favorite scene for the sake of the film. What was your favorite thing that you had to cut?
NISSEN: Well, I think we actually had a great team. They stayed focused. I had a great producer, Margot Pipkin, who was really good about keeping the story and keeping us all on-track, so I would say that more than cutting anything out, my regret was that we couldn’t have had a two-and-a-half hour movie (laughs) so we really could have had some more fun with the stuff we were having fun with. You know, like Lucifer’s transformation into the evil coachman. There’s a lot of great stuff that it would have been great to have had another 3 or 4 scenes to play out stuff with. There were scenes that got cut out and stuff, but we were all so focused on making the story work and making the story right that it wasn’t hard to make the cuts. When you know you’ve got a strong story, the choices that are right just so stand out that you can do it.
TZN: This is also one of the last direct-to-video sequels, isn’t it? I think Little Mermaid III is coming, but that’s it, isn’t it?
ROLA: We still have Little Mermaid III in production. Disney Toon Studios has sort of shifted our focus onto Disney franchises overall. That’s not to say that there won’t be any more Princess sequels, prequels, or things like that, but that’s still to be determined.
TZN: Our last question is: what’s next?
NISSEN: Well, for me, Tinker Bell. I’m working on the CGI Tinker Bell right now. Coming out in November 2008.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Frank Nissen for taking the time to chat with us, and also to Mac McLean and Michael Rola of Disney’s PR department for arranging the interview. Cinderella III will be released on DVD on February 6, 2007.
All images in this interview are © Disney. All rights reserved.