Interview with Tom Albanese: Director and Writer of Fairy Tale Film Charming

Charming is an independent short film about the ever-present fairy tale hero, Prince Charming. In many popular stories, he swoops in to save the princess by aiding her escape from a tower, providing true love’s kiss, vanquishing the monster, or finding the foot that fits the slipper. But what about his story? Why does he save all these princesses, and what is his happy ending like?

charming short film

Pondering these questions led Tom Albanese to write and direct Charming. After no success with the script in Hollywood, he wasn’t about to give up. Instead, he recruited help from some friends to bring it to life. If you ask me, this was infinitely better than anything Hollywood could have done! Charming is the result of a dedicated, caring, and passionate group of people, and whilst watching it you can see their enthusiasm. This film was made because they were determined for it it to exist, which is a story just as inspiring as Prince Charming’s quest for true love.

I was able to interview Tom about his journey with Charming to learn more about his ideas behind the film and his thoughts on fairy tales and storytelling.

So Charming was originally a feature length film. I’m assuming it had to undergo a lot of change to become a short film. What was that process like? How did you go about rewriting the script?

Yes, my writing partner (Christopher Jones) and I got the rights back to our feature script Charming after optioning it to a production company several years ago. It was tricky adapting a 105 page feature to a 15 page short, which ultimately became a much different story. What I wanted to keep in tact from the feature was intertwining characters from different fairy tales, the King’s pact with the witch (which kicks the story into gear) and the theme of ‘true love’ coming around in an unexpected way. 

In some ways, I think writing a short is more challenging than writing a feature because you have such a short amount of time to A) Develop your characters and B) Tell a good story. Things that worked in the feature weren’t working in the short because while we had 105 pages to explore Charming’s problems, now we only had 15 to wrap that all up. But there’s nothing I love more than figuring out how to solve a story problem (besides the possibility of a date with Daisy Ridley), so I had a blast figuring it all out.    

What was it like working alongside with friends to make Charming? Do you think you will work together again on other projects?

Totally. I have a production company with Tiago (who Assistant Directed Charming) and Francisco (Captain Hook). We have several projects in the pipeline. Joey Long (Charming’s Assistant Director & Aladdin) is my story guy, so whenever I’ve got something written that I need some thoughts on besides my own, he’s the man. We brainstormed how to frame Charming so we got more of Charming’s POV in a clever way, which ultimately led to the story being told to his big fan Gus (Lucas Royalty).

Tom Albanese Charming
Tom Albanese as Prince Charming and Lucas Royalty as Gus

From watching Charming, it’s clear that you all had a lot of fun making it. I really enjoyed the funny, creative scenarios, like the witch pretending to be an estate agent and King Triton in his retreat. What was your favourite scene to film, and why?

Thank you!  Ah, favorite to film. Well, haha there was a lot of stress that came with directing/producing and acting in most every scene (you can’t make it too easy for yourself), but the most fun was shooting the Snow White bits. We had a full day for that, so it allowed us to joke around and come up with stuff. Poor Bea (Snow White) had to put up with me kissing her for 8 hours, but I think she understands that it was all in service of a beautiful story  (love you Bea!) And poor Joey had to try to move that day along in between all the outtakes. But at least I had fun!

I love the idea of Prince Charming being the same person in multiple fairy tales, just going around trying to save princesses. What made you think of this? And what first interested you in Prince Charming as a character?

I was studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City when we put on a performance of Into the Woods. I played Cinderella’s Prince. I had a blast and was shocked to find out not many people had really tackled the Prince Charming character or given him a well-rounded backstory (save for maybe Shrek) on screen. I loved the idea of taking existing public domain stories and their characters (Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) and tying them into his own tale. Because really, what the hell is going on with this guy who’s running around kissing all these princesses? 

Charming Lex Kilgour
Lex Kilgour as Rapunzel

Charming makes references to many well-known fairy tales, including Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast. Why did you choose to use these particular fairy tales?

It came down to “how many references can I get in here without being annoying?”  Haha, the ones I chose had to be well-known enough for people to get quick references, could somehow tie into the story, and, most importantly, be affordable and/or doable. We had to skip The Frog Prince.  

What is your all-time favourite fairy tale, and why?

Ah, tough one, but I have to go with ‘Beauty & the Beast.’ The original is much darker (as most of these fairy tales are) than the Disney version most of my generation grew up with, but I love the idea of two people who are at each other’s throats, have a million outside forces keeping them apart and absolutely shouldn’t fall in love… still do. In my mind, that’s a fairy tale and a great story. And that prologue from Disney’s version in 1991 still blows me away.  The music, voiceover, images, everything.  It’s an incredible introduction to a fairy tale. 

Charming Matt Cordova
Matt Cordova as the Beast

The set design of Charming is very realistic, but also unmistakably fantastical. For example, you can tell the buildings and rooms are just ‘normal’ places, but the decor, props, and costumes give them an unquestionable fairy tale feel. What were your artistic decisions behind the sets? Did you have a vision for them, or did you just create them naturally with your given resources?

The apartment complex I lived in at the time was built in the 1920s (give or take a few years) and a bunch of creatives/artist types made it their home before Hollywood’s Golden Age, so it naturally had that ‘fairy tale’ feel to it.  It was one of those things where the pieces were all there and I thought ‘it’s stupid not to do this’. We had nickels and dimes to shoot the film, so, yes, while I would’ve loved an actual ‘castle’ and spinster’s shop, we took advantage of the resources we already had, or else the film probably never would have never been made!  

Also, a major shout out to our costume designer and make-up designer Irving Green.  He went above and beyond putting together the wardrobes and greatly helped give the film its ‘fairy tale’ feel.

The witch is a great character, and I would have liked to have seen more of her! Why didn’t you expand her role, or show her defeat? Personally, what do you think happens to her at the end of the story?

I love the witch. Particularly in that she’s not your typical, evil villain. She’s really a hot mess who just wants to get out of her crappy hut. My friend Patricia Castello-Branco nailed it on the head with that role. She plays a much bigger part in the feature version Chris & I wrote. As for not expanding her role — in the short, she’s a villain, but needed to get the plot rolling. She’s like the bad boss in a romantic comedy, a thorn in the hero’s side, but the real problem is the hero’s relationship with his co-star(s). Expanding her role would’ve been fun, but ultimately unnecessary to Charming’s quest for true love. We shot a longer scene with her trying to trick Snow White with the apple that’s hilarious, but at the end of the day it stopped the movie instead of pushing it forward.  

I think at the end of Charming, she throws on a bunch of make-up, goes to Captain Hook’s brothel, downs ten fairy dusts and tries to seduce a Merry Man.

Charming Lucas Royalty
Lucas Royalty as Gus

Regarding the ending, without giving away any spoilers, I love that you left it so open. Why did you choose to leave the story like this, instead of going for the traditional fairy tale ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after’ ending?

I love stopping a story early. I read Dracula a couple months ago for an upcoming project, and it just ends. I wanted more, but eventually realized, yeah, that’s it. The story’s over. (Dracula spoiler alert) It’s called Dracula and Dracula’s dead. The rest is just filler. Leave the audience to fill in what happens afterwards. There’s nothing worse than watching something knowing it should’ve ended 10 minutes ago.

I think whatever your ending is, it needs to solidify the story’s theme and wrap things up in a way we didn’t see coming but makes sense.  Whether that be ‘happily ever after’ or leaves an ellipsis or is a combination of the two, which I think Charming is.  

Karla Bucker Charming
Karla Bucker as Cinderella

What are you planning to do in the future – another fairy tale project, or something different?

I’m shooting a comedy pilot in May/June that my prod. co’s planning to pitch to networks later this year. It’s called No Actor Parking and explores the hysterical madness of the ‘wannabes’ stuck on Hollywood’s bottom rung as they all struggle to ‘make it’. As for fairy tales, I’ve got a short about a demon, a feature about a vampire, and one about a mythical creature. We’ll see who bites first.  

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A massive thank you to Tom for providing some wonderful creative insight into this project!

After months spent touring international film festivals and racking up awards (just look at how many are on the poster alone!) Charming is now available on the Charming Short Film website and you all totally need to go and watch it! You can also follow @CharmingTheFilm and Tom Albanese on Twitter, and check out Adam’s post on Fairy Tale Fandom and Gypsy’s post on Once Upon a Blog for more behind the scenes information.

Fairy Tales in Chicago: Blogger Meet Up and Colleen Moore’s Castle

A vast, bustling metropolis like Chicago does not seem a likely place to find fairy tales. But there is magic everywhere, if you take the time to look for it. During this trip, it came in the form of a Christmas market and a visit to the Museum of Science & Industry.

The Christmas market was German-style, meaning there was lots of cute wooden toys and lebkuchen (nom!) One wooden hut even had signs made from gingerbread, and inside there was a carousel-shaped display of it. Very Hansel and Gretal! There were also glass Christmas tree ornaments inspired by fairy tales, such as Cinderella’s slipper and Little Red Riding Hood. I had the pleasure of attending this market with Kristin, who runs the blog Tales of Faerie. Her posts are so insightful, and have inspired me a great deal. When I knew I was going to Chicago, we arranged a meet up. We went out for tea and explored the market, and it was lovely to chat in person instead of via email for a change! You can read Kristin’s post about our little outing as well.

Chicago Christmas market

 

On the last day of my trip, I went to the Museum of Science & Industry with friends. Again, a science museum doesn’t sound like a very fairy tale place, but it was here that I found Colleen Moore’s castle. Colleen Moore was an American actress, most famous for her parts in silent films during the 1920s. Aside from acting, Moore had a passion for dolls houses. The castle was made by her father in 1928, and decorated with help from one of Moore’s set designers as well as a host of artists, authors, jewellers, taxidermists, and Hollywood’s most skilled crafters. Moore continued adding artefacts to it until her death in 1988.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle

What I found most captivating about Moore’s castle is that everything inside it is real. The miniature bearskin rug is made from real animal fur, and the bear’s teeth are actually from a mouse. The books in the library are tiny novels, written by famous authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. The world’s smallest copy of the Bible is in there, too. The toiletry set features a tiny razor which actually cuts, and the hairbrush has bristles made from strands of fox hair. The princess’s bedroom furniture is adorned with real gold and diamonds, the murals and pictures on the wall were painted by artists and designers (including a portrait of Mickey and Mini Mouse from Walt Disney Studios), the tapestries were hand-sewn by a master needle-worker, and the castle has electricity and running water.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle
Left: Kitchen. Top right is the grand hall, and bottom is the bathroom.

 

The castle is not short of fairy tale references, either. There are two bedrooms, one for a prince and one for a princess. The princess’s bed linen is adorned with patterns of cobwebs, which is a nice nod to ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ In the entrance courtyard stands a silver coach and horses, all ready to take Cinderella to the ball. Beside it is a weeping tree, reminiscent of ‘Ashputtel’ and ‘The Juniper Tree.’ There are no banisters on the staircase in the Grand Hall, because faeries can fly so they don’t need to hold on. In the kitchen, a mural of a witch decorates the wall behind the pots and pans. On the right-hand wall is another mural of the Three Little Pigs.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle
Top: The entrance courtyard with Cinderella’s coach and the weeping tree. Bottom left is the prince’s bedroom, and bottom right is the princess’s.

The fairy castle arrived at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry in 1949. It receives an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year, and is worth around $7 million. This video shared on the museum’s website shows the castle undergoing some conservation work:

As well as a valuable exhibit and exquisite dolls house, Colleen Moore’s fairy castle is a living manifestation of her dream. She worked hard to create it exactly how she imagined it. Moore and the hundreds of people who contributed to her project are proof that you’re never too old for fairy tales, and if you’re going to follow your passion then you might as well pull out all the stops. Thanks to them, the fairy castle is now alive for everyone to enjoy – children, daydreamers, historians, artists, and fairy tale fans alike.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle

 

 

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella: A Different Kind of Heroine

I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘Cinderella,’ but all the studying of fairy tales I’ve done for my dissertation has made me warm up to it a bit. I was willing to give it another chance, and so yesterday I went to see Disney’s new live-action version, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Not gonna lie, a big part of what drew me to it was the costumes. I’m a sucker for pretty dresses…

Actually, I’m going to discuss the dress first. In case you missed it, there’s been a massive controversy over the corset and how small Lily James’s waist appears. Just… really? It’s a freaking corset, the whole point of it is to exaggerate the shape of your body! Plus, look at the cut of that gown. When compared with a skirt that puffy, anyone’s waistline would look a bit lost. Both Branagh and James have also denied claims that her body was airbrushed. Whether that’s true or not who knows, but does it really matter? This is nothing to do with body image. Clearly people these days are just clueless about what a corset actually makes you look like.

A lot of people also seem to be criticising this film because Cinderella is too much is a passive heroine, especially when compared with Disney’s recent feisty females in films such as Brave and Frozen. I think this a very unfair and naive perspective to take, and one which misses the whole point of the film. Cinderella is not, and never has been, an active character. But that doesn’t mean she’s weak, either. Her story is about endurance, about remaining strong and hopeful through bad times. Branagh’s Cinderella certainly does that, and never once does she complain about her life. She just gets on with it in the best way that she can. Her lack of complaint isn’t a weakness — if anything, it just displays how solid her willpower is. A lot of people could do with taking a leaf out of her book. Too many of us like to moan about inconsequential things, when there is always someone who is worse off.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Lily James even makes collecting water look glamorous! Cinderella may not have the most amazing tasks to do, but she just gets on with them. That’s life. We can’t always do what we want. Image from Huffington Post.

Kristin over at Tales of Faerie wrote this fabulous post a few months ago exploring what is expected of Cinderella. She points out that realistically, if Cinderella had been defiant then she would probably have received a beating. Which, if you think about it, is true. ‘Cinderella’ is an old fairy tale. To put it into context, think of the thousands of servant girls throughout history who were just like her. They had no way out of their situations, no chance to be the active, feisty heroine. Sometimes real life just doesn’t work that way. In this respect, Cinderella’s perseverance is quite remarkable. Many would have despaired much sooner. As Kristin says, ‘her courage makes her a good role model.’ Just a different sort of role model. Those who criticise her for being passive are not paying attention to this. It’s all in the mantra repeated throughout the film: ‘Have courage, and be kind.’ It will pay off in the end.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Cinderella and Prince Kit meet in the forest, where else? After all, this is a fairy tale! Image from Collider.

One thing I will say, though. Whilst I don’t believe she’s weak, Branagh’s Cinderella is sickeningly good. I know this is a stereotypical trait of fairy tale heroines, but he’s taken it to the extreme. Cinderella spends her days feeding and playing with animals. She reads to her father, and hums or sings all the time. Her hobbies include sewing and gardening. None of this is bad, but it just gives her character too much of a perfect image. It wouldn’t hurt to give her a few flaws, or a few grittier skills to make her more interesting.

Of course, her sickening-goodness means that when she meets the prince (who is called ‘Kit,’ and considering I’ve recently watched the asylum season of American Horror Story I’m sure those familiar with it can imagine what my mind conjured upon hearing that name!) she is suitably awkward. And so is he, for that matter. It works, because it fits their characters, although after awhile it feels a little too twee. However, I do like that they meet in the forest before the ball and spend a lot of time alone together on the night itself to get to know one another. This somewhat banishes the insta-love vibe of Disney’s original 1950’s film.

Story-wise, Branagh’s adaptation stays very true. Thankfully, the stepmother isn’t given too much backstory. Just enough to make her sufficiently malicious. Any more would have been straying into Maleficent territory, and the less said about that the better. The whole giving-villains-backstory-thing is getting a little wearing.

When the stepmother and stepsisters leave for the ball, Cinderella cries in the garden and calls to her mother. I thought this was a nice touch, as it harks back to the Grimm Brothers ‘Ashputtel.’ In this story, instead of a fairy godmother appearing the girl cries on her mother’s grave and leaves offerings, and is helped by her mother’s spirit in the form of a bird.
Cinderella Elenore Abbott
The spirit of Ashputtel’s mother helps her to go to the ball. Artwork by Elenore Abbott. Image from SurLaLune.

Speaking of the fairy godmother, she also narrates the story throughout the film. Personally, I thought this worked really well. It made it feel like a fairy tale; like it was being told instead of us just seeing it happen.

The final thing I have to say about this film is that the imagery is stunning. The sets and costumes are so realistic, it’s like watching a period drama. Compared to Maleficent, Disney’s other live-action offering so far, Cinderella is far superior in terms of visuals. Maleficent looked very CGI and fake, but there’s none of that here. The fairy godmother’s magic looks natural — not overdone, just pretty. I hope that their future live-action remakes follow suit.
Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
The ballroom scene looks very grand yet authentic. Image from Bails of Hemp.
Overall, I really enjoyed Cinderella. It’s a great feel-good film, and is very bold in that it offers a new kind of heroine. Okay, she’s not as interesting or outspoken as Merida, Rapunzel, or Elsa, but that doesn’t mean her story is any the less significant. See for yourself. As a previous Cinderella skeptic, I think I’ve been converted…