The character of Cruella de Vil captivated audiences with her exuberance, camp sensibilities and quick wit since she was first seen on the pages of Dodie Smith’s book in the 1950, and makes a welcome return in Disney’s Cruella, an origin story, revealing the fascinating tale of how gifted, non-conforming young girl evolved into the stylishly villainous Cruella de Vil.
“Cruella De Vil is arguably the most iconic of the Disney villains because she is so deliciously evil. She is extravagant, fashionable, verbose, manipulating, conniving, and quite clearly a little bit mad, all qualities in a character that you love to hate. She is sort of Disney’s Hannibal Lecter, says producer Andrew Gunn who produced a number of earlier Disney hits including Race to Witch Mountain, The Haunted Mansion and Freaky Friday (2003).
“What we wanted to explore, he continues, “was why was she the way she was, what made her become Cruella De Vil. We tackled this like an origin story of a supervillain in a comic book; who was she as a child, where did she come from, etc. All that audiences really knew about Cruella was that she wanted to make a coat out of dalmatians, so early on we decided that in order to give them something new we would need to upend their expectations.”
Having enjoyed tremendous success with its “Sleeping Beauty” live-action prequels that focused on the fairy tale’s antagonist Maleficent, Disney was eager to explore origin stories of other malevolent characters from its library of animated classics. Along with Maleficent, one of its most memorable and intriguing villains was the coat-happy, dog-napping Cruella De Vil, who was first voiced by Betty Lou Gerson in the animated original and then brought to larger-than-life, live-action magnificence by Glenn Close. But none of these versions presented any backstory to the character, except for her having once been a schoolmate of the dalmatians mistress, Anita Darling.
Ultimately, thanks to the contributions of number of creative minds, a plotline was constructed that revealed how an inventive child, Estella, became the revenge-bent Cruella with the majority of the action taking place in 1970’s London, a time of disruption in the music and fashion worlds due to the emerging punk movement. We see her metamorphosis from a scrappy Dickensian-like orphan into a rebellious, resourceful, bold and ingenious anti-hero. Along the way, she learns who she really is and to be true to herself.
“Cruella has all of my favorite things in life: fashion, dogs and revenge,” says producer Kristin Burr. She recalls, “Early on, we decided to set the movie in ‘70s London. It was so exciting because it was our first live-action character based on animation that we were setting in the real world. (As opposed to fairytale land.) It was such an opportunity to push the envelope. London was the center of fashion and anarchy at the time. What a nice parallel to Cruella!”
The studio’s first and only choice to portray the title character was Emma Stone.
“I met with the folks at Disney. They were playing around with the idea of an origins story of Cruella de Vil and wanted to know if I would be interested. There was a lot to figure out and to see if it made sense to tell a story about her. But the character’s so much fun and so intoxicating, they had an interest in finding what that story could be,” says Stone.
“When Emma called me and asked if I would consider producing this film, I was instantly interested. I thought,” says producer Marc Platt, “this is a fantastic marriage of actress to character. I can think of no other actress who could define the journey from Estella to Cruella as specifically and vividly as Emma Stone, who brings so much fun, so much edge, so much deliciousness, and yet so much truthfulness to that character.”
“For the role of Cruella, Emma Stone has a wonderful ability to play a nasty, selfish character (as she did in “The Favourite”) and have an audience root for her,” says Gunn. ” She can go from evil to heartbreaking in a matter of seconds. She is an actor that audiences want to come out on top at the end of the film. She has impeccable comic timing and truly inhabits the characters she creates, making each one distinct and memorable. We knew that she would create something riveting and timeless with Cruella.”
Says Stone, “It’s fun to see the origins of Cruella, and we’ve had fun exploring what makes a villain. How people can be affected by the events that have happened in their lives, or how they can choose to kind of crumble underneath the weight of something, or rise up above it and maybe, not always, take it to the best or most “moralistic” place. It is all of those things, but in this kind of fun, Disney, over-the-top, you know, crazy way, that also happens to be full of great ‘70s punk music.”
Obsessed with the Punk movement of the late 1970’s, Gunn feels that the character of Cruella is representative of the rage of the youth culture at the time and a great opportunity to show how difficult it would have been to be a woman and a genius in a society that didn’t necessarily respect either. He believes that seeing young Cruella breaking the bonds of society and pushing back against its limitations feels particularly current.
Stone was especially delighted by the challenge of playing two sides of a character.
She says, “It’s been fantastic. How much of Cruella is in Estella, and how much of Estella is in Cruella? “I think it interesting to think about whether Cruella is part of her, or the real her, or whether it’s some of the tragic events that shape her life, and shape Cruella. I think part of what the story is saying is, every human being has all of it within us, and we can access all these different parts, but different events do happen to us that can bring certain things out. I think It’s a series of events that have happened to her, and some of it is just kind of deep in there, and she’s accepting it rather than fighting it.”
“I loved this dance between the humor and the drama, and Emma (Stone) has such good instincts on both the comedic level and where to land the drama. And I can’t think of anybody that can do it better. She’s like our generation’s Lucille Ball where she can do both. it’s this unbelievable delight as a director that there’s really nothing you can’t do with her. It was just a joy all the time,” says director Craig Gillespie.
To play the character most responsible for Estella becoming Cruella, the filmmakers chose two-time Academy Award-winner Emma Thompson, whose role as The Baroness is just the latest addition to a career made up of memorable characters in superior films, from “Howard’s End” to “The Remains of the Day” to “In The Name of the Father” to “Sense and Sensibility” to “Saving Mr. Banks,” to name just a few.
Says Thompson, “The Baroness is the reason for Cruella unfortunately. And that’s very sad but it’s a wonderful idea to see why someone becomes what they’ve become. She’s the figure behind this extraordinary house of fashion and so when Estella sees her, she’s overwhelmed and dazzled by her, but it doesn’t take long before she understands quite who she’s dealing with. The Baroness sees that Estella’s got talent and then just takes it and uses it.”
She continues, “It’s very different to other characters I’ve played that have been living in the real world and who wear a lot of normal stuff. She’s not. She’s one of these people who I’ve never been, for whom the outward show is everything – there is nothing else. The Baroness is someone who wouldn’t be seen dead in a pair of old boots or a sweat pant. She’s put everything into this display. So, it’s fascinating to play.”
Says Gunn, “Emma Thompson brought a timeless elegance and a sense of class to The Baroness. She also found a measured, calm, “ice in her veins” sense of evil to her character. I feel like she is sort of what would happen if you rolled Coco Chanel and Vladamir Putin together into one. Like every great villain, Emma is the hero of her own story. She feels completely justified in all the actions she takes. She would never accept the point of view that she is the bad guy and Emma Thompson has a way at times of making us understand why she is doing what she is doing.’
Brought to life on the big screen in Disney’s 1961 animated and in Disney’s 1996 live action remake and its 2000 sequel, Disney’s Cruella is is directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), with screenplay by Dana Fox (Couple’s Retreat) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite), story by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) and Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) & Steve Zissis (The Front Runner) based upon the novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith.
Dana Fox (Screenplay) graduated from Stanford University with a degree in English and Art History and went on to get her MFA in film and television producing from USC Film School’s Peter Stark Producing Program. She is a television and film writer, producer, showrunner, and director. Best known for her feature films What Happens in Vegas, Couples Retreat, How to Be Single, and Isn’t It Romantic (which she co-wrote with Katie Silberman), Fox also created and served as showrunner on the Fox comedy series Ben and Kate, and made her directing debut on an episode of the Fox series New Girl. Fox most recently wrote Lost City of D, and is currently the co-creator, showrunner and executive producer of the Apple TV+ series Home Before Dark.
Tony Mcnamara (Screenplay) is the creator, showrunner, and executive producer of The Great on Hulu, McNamara wrote the critically acclaimed film The Favourite.