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Mirror Mirror Director Tarsem Singh on Julia Roberts and the Snow White Rivalry

Tarsem Singh.

If you glanced at the trailers for competing Snow White movies Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, you might think that Tarsem Singh directed the latter: After all, it’s full of the dark imagery and large-scale, effects-driven set pieces that Singh has handled before in films like Immortals and The Cell. In fact, though, it’s the family-friendly Mirror Mirror that Singh helmed, and while it’s a departure in tone, it does have the same sort of cheeky humor that Tarsem is known for in his candid interviews. Vulture spoke to him the other day about the film’s misleading ad campaign, the thick eyebrows of star Lily Collins, and the pleasures of working with Julia Roberts and Armie Hammer.

What was it like to go from Mickey Rourke as your Immortals villain to Julia Roberts as your Mirror Mirror villain?
[Laughs.] Well, with Julia, everyone has to keep reminding me that she’s a star, because I’m just aware of her as a mom. The only demand was, “Make sure she gets off set in time to tuck her kids in.” With Julia, the dangerous thing about her is that she actually listens to you — and I talk a lot of rubbish in between one or two kernels of truth! Whereas on the other side when I worked with Mickey, I was really looking for a bad guy who would put everybody on edge. He’s a guy who will not ever memorize more than two words, so we had to work around that, but give him a spear and have him point it at people’s eyes, and I don’t think those people are acting anymore.

What did you have to do to win Julia Roberts for this role?
Actually, it was my battle to lose. Somebody had told me that she really liked my movie The Fall, and I thought, Well, I’d like to take a meeting with her, but I can’t see myself making a film where Julia Roberts would have any role to play. And then in comes this script, and I said, “I don’t know about Snow White and I don’t know about the prince, but I know about the queen: It’s Pretty Woman. That’s the woman I want.”

At one point, you told Moviefone that Mirror Mirror would be “sickeningly kiddie.” Do you think that’s how it turned out?
No, not at all! I think what I meant is that everyone was dying for me to say that my Snow White movie was going to be edgy or gritty, and that was my reaction to that. I just think it’s a charming movie, and that’s the toughest tone to find on paper: How do you make something charming? And I think everyone wanted me to do something edgy and R-rated, and I said, “Nah, not with this one. I’ve done three R-rated movies already.” This is a charming film that’s for a bigger audience than an R-rated movie.

Is it hard to sell “charming”? You’ve said that you’re not in love with the trailers that have been cut for this film — is it being marketed incorrectly?
Well, I’ll only make one comment on that, because I’ve already been smacked on the hand for saying it. I have nothing to do with the advertising for the movie. It’s quite true that they try to separate the filmmakers from the advertising campaigns because they think we’re too close to it, but I make the movie, not the advertisement. In the future, I might try to change that, but for now, I’m just concentrating on the movie.

Walk me through the rights issues you had with making this movie. You could use the name Snow White, but not in the title? And you had to rename the dwarves? Is that a Disney thing?
Actually, Disney doesn’t own it either — they had to borrow it from Universal, because Universal made the first Snow White movie as a silent film. I did want to use the name “Snow White,” but because the other one was coming out and they had the rights to it, we couldn’t really go there because of what they call “flooding the market.” In the end, I’m happy with the title, although I would have loved for it to be something iconic, like just Snow. But Mirror Mirror kind of tells the tone of the movie, so I don’t mind it.

Let’s talk about Lily Collins and her full eyebrows. Was there any pressure to whittle those down?
With that look, she looks kind of like a young Liz Taylor! Why change that? It’d be trying too hard, and a lot of times when you’re doing this job, you just have to get out of the way. I know her eyebrows are polarizing, and I see that some people either adore it or go, “What the hell?” I guess that just comes with my DNA, but when I looked at her, I said, “I wouldn’t fix a hair! She’s perfect as she is.”

Armie Hammer already resembles a cartoon prince, doesn’t he?
Every time he did a take, I said, “If I had a pen and I could draw a prince, it would be Armie.” When I met him and he opened his mouth? There’s this twinkle in his teeth in the movie — even though everybody told me not to use it — and every time Armie Hammer smiles, I think I actually see it! He just looks like a prince, or maybe even like the ideal person on the back of a coin. He’s made for it.

So be honest with me, Tarsem: Have you watched the trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman?
Oh, I have! It looks great! Kristen [Stewart] is so beautiful, and when I saw the trailer, I thought, Yeah, I can see why it would work. Theirs is so much more like Lord of the Rings, and ours is a family film that’s so much smaller in budget and scope. They could afford to come second, and we can’t. We had to survive the tidal wave and be before them.

Mirror Mirror Director Tarsem Singh on Julia Roberts and the Snow White Rivalry