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 Tale Hearts: Organs or Intuition?

I’ve been thinking a lot about hearts recently. They’re funny things, aren’t they? Or at least our perception of them is. When we talk of hearts, instead of organs pumping blood around our bodies they become personified; magical things capable of love and adventure. They are strong and wild, and do not listen to reason. Can’t explain why you feel a certain way? Must be your heart’s doing. They defy all rational explanation, and yet still we put so much emphasis on following them.

Susan Fletcher Witch Light

Personally, I don’t think the word ‘heart’ is the only word to use. ‘Intuition,’ ‘instinct,’ and ‘gut’ have the same meaning. Basically, paying attention to something other than logic. Something you feel rather than think.

The heart of something is the core of it; the very essence of its being. The part where the thing (or person) in question is at its most. In fairy tales, hearts are often coveted as trophies – either for love or revenge. Think of Snow White. In some versions of the story, the evil (step)mother demands that the huntsman brings her Snow White’s heart as proof that he has killed her. Symbolically, it is not just an organ she is after. The heart contains Snow White’s vitality. It’s the most personal, violating thing she can take to exert her superiority.

Snow White by Franz Jüttner. Image in the public domain – source

As SurLaLune notes, in earlier versions of the story it was Snow White’s lungs and liver which the queen requested. Connotatively, these have little difference to the heart. Lungs represent the spirit, and in medieval times the liver was the organ associated with love and erotic feeling.

In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle and the Studio Ghibli film of the same name, Wizard Howl is feared because rumour dictates that he eats the hearts of young girls. This could be a metaphor, implying that instead of literally ‘eating’ hearts he charms girls and then casts them aside. That’s bad enough, and brings in the idea of a broken heart – if you hurt someone, maybe their ‘heart’ will no longer work properly and so it might as well have been eaten. But as this is a fantasy world where anything is possible (I mean, there’s a sentient fire, a moving castle, and a living scarecrow to name a few!), there’s no reason why he couldn’t be a literal heart-eating wizard. And what an abhorrent crime! To eat someone’s heart; their private, personal emotions. To remove and destroy their abilities to love and to be themselves.

Howl's Moving Castle quote
Howl’s Moving Castle. Image my own.

If you know the story, you will know that Wizard Howl isn’t what he appears. In fact, he separated himself from his own heart because its feelings were too much to bear. In the words of the main protagonist Sophie Hatter, ‘a heart is a heavy burden’ (I won’t write any more because spoilers. If you haven’t seen/read Howl’s Moving Castle then I highly recommend that you do both!)

A heart is more than just an organ. It’s a complex, abstract entity, governed by forces we cannot understand. It contains our innermost desires and feelings. It’s fragile. Take care of it. Also, obey it. Hearts serve older laws than our modern ways of living. If you cannot explain how you feel or why you want something illogical, that is your heart speaking. You may not like what it says, but you can never deny that it is true. Because you can feel it.

Mat Devine heart quote

This year, try to listen. Is your heart telling you something? If so, pay attention, no matter how hard it is to hear. Listening to your heart takes courage. To ignore it is to compromise yourself. Make changes, and strive for what you really want. It’ll all work out, but you need to take the risk first. Just make sure no-one eats your heart before you get the message… unless it’s Howl who is offering, because let’s face it, he’s totally gorgeous…

Happy New Year my loves!

Sources

 

Snow White: The Other Sleeping Beauty

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is not the only fairy tale heroine to experience an enchanted slumber. Snow White suffers the same fate, albeit under different circumstances. Looking at the themes of these two stories, it’s interesting to note the similarities and differences surrounding sexuality and feminism, as well as the variations in their narratives.

Like with many fairy tales, the most well-known version of ‘Snow White’ is probably the one recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Theirs is entitled ‘Little Snow-White,’ a name similar to that of their version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ which is called ‘Little Briar-Rose.’ In ‘Little Snow-White,’ a queen pricks her finger on a sewing needle and longs for a child
‘as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this [window] frame.’ Shortly after, she gives birth to a daughter named ‘Snow White.’ The queen dies in childbirth, leaving Snow White to grow up with a stepmother.

The stepmother has a mirror, which she looks into and asks who is the fairest. It always replies with ‘you, my queen,’ until one day, when Snow White is seven years old, it answers that she is now ‘a thousand times fairer.’ Overcome with anger, the queen sends Snow White into the forest with a huntsman and orders him to kill her. However, the huntsman is overcome with pity and tells her to run away instead.

Franz Jüttner Snow White
Snow White illistration by Franz Jüttner. Image in the public domain – source

Alone in the forest, Snow White comes upon a cottage in which seven dwarfs live. They take her in, and she does domestic chores for them in return. But the mirror informs the queen that Snow White still lives and is still fairer than she. Outraged, she disguises herself and visits the cottage selling various enchanted objects to tempt Snow White. Eventually, she succeeds in killing her with a poisoned apple.

Upon finding her, the dwarfs encase her in a glass coffin and display her on a hilltop. One day, a prince rides by and begs them to give him the coffin, for he has fallen in love with Snow White’s beauty. They agree, and so the prince takes her. On the way to his palace the coffin is jolted, dislodging the poisoned apple from her throat. Snow White awakens, and the prince asks her to marry him and she consents.

The evil queen is invited to their wedding, and her mirror informs her that the young bride is much fairer than she. As punishment for her treatment of Snow White, she is forced to put on shoes made of hot iron and dance in them until she falls down dead.

Snow White Arthur Rackham
Snow White illustration by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

Both ‘Little Briar-Rose’ and ‘Little Snow White’ feature an unconscious girl in the forest, but their symbolism varies. Blood is also referenced in both stories. In ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ the girl pricking her finger to draw blood can be interpreted as a metaphor for premature sexual awakening. Therefore, it induces the sleep until she is ready to deal with motherhood. In ‘Little Snow White,’ when the queen pricks her finger and draws blood she becomes pregnant, showing that (unlike Briar-Rose) she is ready to accept maturation. The two incidents also reference the two stages during life in which females bleed: at menstruation and during initial intercourse. I find it interesting how, as Kate Forsyth points out on her blog, that the colours used in ‘Little Snow White’ are very significant:

‘White, representing birth, is for purity, virginity, and innocence. 

Red, representing life, symbolizes blood, in the menstrual flow and the breaking of the hymen and childbirth.

Black, symbolizing death, connotes the absolute and eternity.’

This reminds me of the Pagan symbol of the triple goddess: the maiden, the mother and the crone (I also referenced this in a previous post about spinning wheels and their connection to the cycle of life). White for the maiden, who is pure like Snow White herself, red for the mother who menstruates and is able to bear children, like the queen, and black for the crone. The crone is absent from both stories, but in ‘Little Snow White’ this colour reference to her seems to be a subtle hint at Snow White’s future. She is the maiden, moving towards motherhood by the end of the story and crone is what she will eventually become later. Moreover, the fact that she embodies all of these colours throughout her life implies that she is one and all at once (and women in general are, too). We all start off being the maiden, but motherhood and croning are part of our future and therefore part of who we are. Also, once the later stages have been reached, we can still remember being the maiden, so she too remains with us later in life.

Snow White Darstellung von Alexander Zick
Snow White illustration by Darstellung von Alexander Zick. Image in the public domain – source

Where Sleeping Beauty stories can be interpreted metaphorically as coming-of-age stories, Snow White tales instead show the power struggle between (step)mother and daughter (in some versions Snow White is persecuted by her biological mother. The Grimms changed this in order to preserve the positive image of motherhood). The queen is jealous of her (step)daughter’s youth and seeks to destroy her; a sharp contrast to parents in Sleeping Beauty stories who seek to protect their child from the curse.

In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar makes some interesting comments about this in her analysis of the story. She writes that ‘the voice in the mirror may be viewed as a judgmental voice, representing the absent father or patriarchy in general’ and that as the story progresses it ‘turns on the (sexual) rivalry between stepmother and daughter, with Snow White positioned as the classic “innocent persecuted heroine” of fairy tales.’ The mirror initiates this conflict by judging beauty. In society, people are constantly doing this to one another, resulting in pressure to conform with current trends or outdo everyone else to gain recognition. This is not exclusively a female trait, either. Whilst Snow White herself is oblivious to her beauty and the danger she is in because of it, to her stepmother it is a clear threat. Without even knowing it Snow White enters the battle for the mirror’s favour, and ultimately she wins because it is her beauty that secures her rescue by the prince. Her innocence is rewarded, and the queen’s vanity and wickedness are punishable. In the Grimms’ version I mentioned above she meets a very grisly end, but the fact that she pays for her crimes gives the story closure. This is different to ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ in which the bad fairy never suffers any consequences for cursing the baby girl and vanishes from the story.

Also, whilst I’m on the topic of endings, in both of these Grimm stories (and indeed in other, older variations I’ve come across) neither girl is awoken by a kiss. Sleeping Beauty wakes up naturally because the hundred years is up, and Snow White wakes up when her coffin is accidentally jolted and this dislodges the poisoned apple. Yet in both Disney versions, it’s true love’s kiss which awakens them. In fact, in the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), near the beginning Snow White sings about wishing for a lover. It just so happens that a prince is passing by during this song and, of course, he immediately falls for her. The evil stepmother is watching and shuts her curtains in irritation. I think this sets the scene nicely; Snow White as a pretty, naive girl and the stepmother is jealous of her beauty and youth.

There is also another song later in the film which she sings to the dwarfs called ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’ Doesn’t take much imagination to work out what that’s about. Whereas the Grimms Snow White doesn’t have anything to do with the prince until the end, the Disney one explicitly asks for him from the very beginning. This move the emphasis from the mother-daughter conflict to romance, which is a big change from the older versions of the story.

The final point I want to make about ‘Little Snow White’ concerns the mirror again. At the beginning of the story, Snow White’s biological mother is looking out of a window. Compare this with the stepmother who constantly looks into a mirror, and there’s some interesting symbolism. Looking out of a window implies that the biological mother is aware of the world and thinking beyond her own existence. On the other hand, the stepmother only watches herself. Maria Tatar makes an observation about this in The Annotated Brothers Grimm‘that Snow White is put on aesthetic display in a glass coffin seems to refer back to both the window and the looking glass.’

At the end of the story, Snow White becomes like her biological mother: trapped behind glass, dreaming of a different life. Glass is transparent, so you can see through it and watch the world. But mirrors aren’t, so you can only see yourself. The glass in ‘Snow White’ becomes a symbol of their approach to life, and shows that if all you see is reflections then it will lead to ruin.

Studying ‘Little Snow-White’ has been fascinating, and I’ve found much more information than what I’ve shared in this post so I will definitely be returning to it in the future. It’s amazing to see how stories which have similar elements can be so different, and to note how themes can alter depending on the symbolism used.

Sources

  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, ed. by Maria Tatar (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012)