Saturday, 7 March 2015

interview: Jeffrey Sneller

In May 1999 I spent a couple of days in Luxembourg on the set of The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Among the interviews I collected was producer Jeffrey Sneller who talked about both Pinocchio movies, Kingdom of the Spiders and a whole lot more besides.

There are several producers and executive producers on this film. Where do you fit in?
“The other producers, basically: there’s a couple that are my financial partners that actually brought money into the project and are credited as producer; then there’s some local people who provided services here in Luxembourg. One is credited as a line producer - that’s Tom Reeve - and Romain Schroeder, his partner, shares an executive producer credit with others. Myself and my partner Raju Patel developed the Pinocchio franchise from its inception, beginning with The Adventures of Pinocchio which we did originally with New Line Cinema. That was with Martin Landau and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, released in 1996.

"Then as an outgrowth from that, because of the success of that film, we decided we wanted to make the leap into a new adventure, which New Line supported entirely. But we wanted to do it with an entirely different spin. Something that was filled with a lot of surprises, keeping the theme of the original but yet putting a twist on the storyline so that we were offering audiences something new and unexpected. This one is filled with a lot more fantasy, it’s a lot more fun, in effect a much more ambitious picture than the original.”

Is it called The New Adventures of Pinocchio or The Adventures of Pinocchio II?
“Well, actually we haven’t really decided what it’s going to be called. At the end of the day, New Line Cinema’s going to make that decision. We’ve sort of been going along with the idea of The New Adventures of Pinocchio, only because when you add a II or a III or a IV after something it immediately makes a statement that ‘this is a sequel’. Even though we want this to be a sequel, we want it to be conceived in the same way that, say, Batman Returns is a sequel to the Batman picture, rather than putting the II after it. So for the purposes of the production we’re using The New Adventures of Pinocchio.”

Do you see this as a franchise that could go on into other films or TV?
“In fact we’re currently preparing a television series which will be an outgrowth from the first two films, and hopefully with future sequels and spin-offs, the same way as the Star Trek franchise continued both as a series and as big-screen format as well. So that’s what our future plans entail.”

What attracted you to the Pinocchio story when you made the first one?
“It’s a wonderful fable. It’s a wonderful moral fable which worldwide audiences or readers know. In fact Pinocchio is probably the most widely read book next to The Bible. Every schoolchild knows the fable. It was an opportunity to tell moral lessons without preaching, as entertainment rather than as a teaching tool. And there’s the fantasy aspects which I think go back to my science fiction days. I felt that, even though there’s no science fiction involved in these adventures, there’s certainly the element of fantasy which is always appealing.”

Presumably Pinocchio is public domain. Do you have any contact with the Collodi estate?
“No, not at all. Collodi, as I recall, wrote his original story in around 1870 so it’s long since been in the public domain.”

How important was it get Martin Landau and Udo Kier back into the sequel?
“I felt that they were both essential elements because it keeps the continuity and it immediately says ‘this is a continuation of the series’. Udo Kier because we decided we wanted to do something very special with Udo’s abilities and talents. I won’t disclose what they are because Udo plays an entirely different role in this picture; in fact he plays multiple roles. So it was a challenge for him as an actor and it was, I felt, a unique idea for the film in the different characters that he plays. That was our reason. Jonathan Taylor Thomas of course, who was a wonderful Pinocchio, played a very limited role in the original as a live person. But he’s since grown up and we now have a wonderful, very talented young man by the name of Gabriel Thomson who’s replaced him in that role. Gabriel’s background was in Great Expectations: a marvellous actor.”

Why have you chosen to shoot in Luxembourg?
“Early on, our search really took us all over the world. Partly because it is such an ambitious project and we had such limited financing available, we needed the contribution of various subsidies that are offered throughout European countries to help complete the financing that we needed. So we looked at countries such as Romania, Lithuania, the UK - very early on in Canada - and as various co-productions between the countries. And that goes back to your question about why are there so many producers. Well, traditionally in co-production arrangements there is a co-producer for the territory in which you’re co-producing the film, which could involve two or three different territories. My partner produced The Jungle Book for Disney and when we did the continuing franchise of that series, The Jungle Book II, it was the same sort of arrangement: where you put together a treaty of different co-producing countries in order to create your financing. Today financing, as you may know, becomes as creative as film-making itself.”

Is the Jungle Book franchise continuing?
“I don’t think so. I think we’ve probably done as much there as we possibly can. We dropped the ball there and somebody else picked it up and went in to do the Jungle Book TV series. I think it was a very limited run - I think they only did maybe 13 episodes - it was through Fox. And as much as my partner, Raju Patel, loved the first two pictures that were done, he felt that there was nothing more to offer in that series. Whereas with Pinocchio, it’s a fable: you can bring in new and unique characters for each of the franchise episodes, tell different stories and completely be entertaining. You’ve got a lot of different places you can go with it. Whereas with Jungle Book you’re a little bit limited with what and where you can go.”

Are you hoping to keep Martin in the TV series?
“I don’t think so. I think Martin is a feature film actor, even though he came from television. He is very selective in the roles that he plays. I don’t think he wants the gruelling regimen of a television series now; I think he’s very comfortable doing what he’s doing. Although I do hope Martin will come back in future feature film sequels, and I’m sure he will. But as far as the television series, what’s interesting for us is it gives us an opportunity to explore the same roles but with other talent.”

Will you be shooting that in America or Europe?
“It will be somewhere in Europe, that I’m certain. Where, I have no idea.”

Are you finding that advances in special effects are allowing you to make a film you couldn't have made a few years ago?
“Yes. In two different areas. One, there’s the area of the animatronic puppetry. In Pinocchio I we had one puppet which was the Pinocchio puppet developed by the Hensons, which was really a bit ahead of its time. It was sort of a milestone in creature effects. But that was a few years ago, and in those few years it’s developed even further. Now Bob Keen and Image Effects, who have now taken it to the threshold of new animatronic engineering, have given us something even more wonderful. We’re dealing with multiple puppets in this one. And the same with the visual effects. The visual effects give us the ability to do things a little bit differently here with our puppetry and with our creature effects overall. So it plays a very important part in the film. Though it’s a story-driven film and not an effects-driven film, it does provide the tools that we need to pull it off.”

You mentioned your previous science fiction work.
“The one that I’m most proud of and that I talk of most frequently because it was nominated for many awards including the science fiction award - and we lost the award only to Star Wars, but that made me very proud - that was called Kingdom of the Spiders, which I did with William Shatner. There have been others, but that’s the one that I talk about. That was 1977, it was released.”

Did you cast William Shatner because of his association with the SF genre?
“No, actually it was... I say yes and no, because Kingdom of the Spiders was more a sci-fi adventure than science fiction fantasy and it was a completely different role for Bill Shatner. He played something that was a counterpoint to the characters he’s associated with, and that was what attracted him to the role and what attracted us to him.”

Did you use effects spiders or did you have a spider wrangler?
“You know, in those days effects weren’t nearly as developed as they are today. It was done through the old process of generation of film after film, and creating those visual effects; it was done the old-fashioned way. So we actually imported I think 5,000 live tarantulas from Honduras, Guatemala, all over the world. Today of course we could have worked with maybe 50 and generated the rest through computer-generated animation, and had as good, if not better, results. It would have been more controllable than having 5,000 spiders crawling all over the country! So we relied on live tarantulas in that one, as well as background models to fill in space in the background. That’s the way that one was done.”

Kingdom of the Spiders was playing in London when Star Wars opened. When you first saw Star Wars, how did you react as a maker of SF/fantasy films?
“I was blown away. George Lucas was so far ahead of his time - as he has continued to be - that it was overwhelming. So I was really very proud when the Science Fiction Academy nominated us for best science fiction film of that year. And I didn’t feel too bad losing to Star Wars! But there was also a difference: Star Wars was a $9 million - today I think it’s $90 million - Twentieth Century Fox production, and ours was a $500,000 independent production, so I felt that it was in good company.”

What other SF films have you worked on?
“Oh, many many many. There was The Devil’s Toy Factory that I did with Orson Welles which preceded Kingdom of the Spiders; there was an adventure film which I shot in Russia in 1992 called The Ice Runner; good Lord, I can’t even remember. Followed by The Adventures of Pinocchio and then this one. Then there was Jungle Book, Jungle Book II and so on and so on.”

How long have you been working in films?
“Since 1968.”

How did you get into the industry?
“My interest started with watching early 1950s sci-fi films. My mother was an avid sci-fi watcher on television. Things like Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was directed by Jack Arnold who later became an associate of mine in a picture called The Black Eye for Warner Brothers. They were more story-driven back then, sci-fi adventures. They didn’t have a lot of money to rely on; they didn’t have the same kind of effects to rely on; they just told very good stories. And that’s what captured my imagination. And of course my father’s 8mm movie camera was the way to achieve it. My first sci-fi adventure, was The Odyssey from Homer’s book, which I did as a school project.”

That’s a bit ambitious!
“It was very ambitious! Of course, my sister still remembers to this day that I took her favourite doll and I cut its eyes out to make the Cyclops to do my stop-motion animation. She hasn’t let me forget it and that was 35 years ago!”

What level did you start at in films?
“I started out as a producer, actually. I did have some flirtations with acting. My home base was Tucson, Arizona; that’s where I grew up. And we got a lot of the wonderful westerns - John Wayne westerns and so forth - that would come to shoot there. I would frequently get cast as an extra and occasionally some small speaking roles, so I thought I wanted to be an actor. But then somebody, a friend of mine, convinced me that the way to go is to start at the top and be a producer, so that’s how I started.”

Getting back to Pinocchio II, why did you choose Michael Anderson to direct?
“For a lot of reasons. Michael has a lot of experience in fantasy film-making. Michael Anderson has a wonderful, rich history of film-making going all the way back to pictures like Around the World in 80 Days. He’s a seasoned professional that knows every trick in the book, who has probably forgotten what most people haven’t even learned yet. And with a film like this one, on a limited budget and an ambitious schedule, in an attempt to create much more than we have in Pinocchio I with less resources, it really took somebody of Michael’s experience. Not to mention that Michael is a wonderful ‘people director’: he knows how to get performances out of actors; he knows how to tell a good story. And I’m very pleased to say that our judgement wasn’t wrong because Michael is wonderful. He’s got some terrific sequences for this picture. Neither myself nor my partner Raju could have been more thrilled with the way this picture’s turning out.”

When do you expect the film to premiere?
“Our delivery date to New Line is November 1st and they’re hoping to have it released for the Christmas holidays. I must also say that Sherry, who happens to be my wife and the writer of the first one and the writer of this one, is also a member of our little team and continues to develop new and exciting projects.”

Is this going theatrical?

Have you sold it in any foreign territories?
“It’s been licensed to most of the European territories where the first one was very successful, like Germany, Italy, Spain, many of the Latin American countries. We will probably have licensed it soon to the UK. And Scandinavia and so forth - throughout the world.”

What’s the next film after his?
“Good question. Certainly the Pinocchio television series which is in the final stages of development and will go into production this Fall. The results of this one have been so good in terms of the way it’s going from page to screen that we’ve already started developing the third in the series of feature pictures of Pinocchio. We have another one that is in development called The Enchanted Castle, based on the Edith Nesbitt book, which will go into production sometime during the Fall. So we’ve got a busy schedule. And my partner and I are also doing Thumb, which is the Tom Thumb fable, and that is scheduled to shoot here in Luxembourg in the Fall as well.”

Interview originally posted 28th November 2004

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