Discover the story that came before Snow White.
In 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman breathed new life into the fairy-tale genre with a dark, epic take on the classic story. The film, which starred Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, earned nearly $400 million at the worldwide box office and delighted audiences across the globe.
When it came time to consider a return to the dark fantasy world the creators had imagined, the producers decided to explore a story touched upon in the original, which alluded to Eric’s past love and her tragic death.
In Hemsworth’s capable hands, the Huntsman proved to be such a popular character, and the notion of two parallel stories in this newly created universe appealed to all involved.
Taking that sideways look at the franchise also offered the filmmakers a chance to reflect on the success of the first movie, and identify areas of improvement. “We didn’t want this one to be as dark as the first picture,” advises producer Joe Roth, who has reimagined fairy tales such as Maleficent and Oz the Great and Powerful—and whose expertise and storytelling in this genre is unparalleled. “We also really wanted to deliver on the romance.”
The script, by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, based upon Evan Daugherty’s characters, does just that, telling of Eric’s doomed first—and only—true love, how they were brought together and how they were torn apart. Nested in this universe, it also serves as an origin story for the Huntsman, who arrived in the first adventure not as a mystery, but fully formed.
With the evil Queen Ravenna apparently defeated, everyone is living happily ever after in the kingdom under the reign of the rightful queen, Snow White. But when she banishes the Magic Mirror from her castle and it goes missing, Prince William can rely on only one man to bring it back: Eric the Huntsman. As Eric journeys to keep the Mirror’s power out of dark hands and uncover the mystery of the one responsible for its theft, ghosts from his past return and he faces the greatest adventure of his life.
Hemsworth explains that his draw to the prequel story had very much to do with the themes it explores. “We don’t survive without love in any form,” he notes. “This movie asks the question about what love means to Eric, and what he’ll do for it.”
The performer thinks the success of the first film lay not just in our familiarity with the Snow White legend, but also in the extraordinary production design that turned a once-chaste fairy-tale girl into a powerful warrior fighting for what she believes in. “With this one, while staying in the same world, we have had the chance to lighten the tone in many ways. The aesthetic palette has been lifted.”
It was important to the filmmaking team that this chapter unveils even more for the audience. Truly, the story tells another piece of the puzzle—one that’s always been there, but unknown until now. “The greatest thing about this world,” notes Nicolas-Troyan, “is that it’s this wonderful in-between. It’s not a full fantasy world, and it’s not a fully historical one. Anchored within this pseudo-historic world, you can throw in magic and romance and more.”
In Hemsworth’s Eric we saw a capable warrior and man of the woods—someone loyal and true, but not quick to share his feelings with the world. The Huntsman: Winter’s War explores Eric’s past, and we come to learn that he is far from alone. In fact, he’s been fighting his whole life, at first for Freya, Ravenna’s sister.
While Ravenna is a wicked devourer of souls and uses her dark magic to drain the life force of her prey, her little sister Freya is a good queen of snow and ice who has built her own frozen kingdom over the decades…quietly watching Ravenna’s rise to power.
When the evil and power-hungry Queen Ravenna betrays the Ice Queen with an unforgivable act, the heartbroken Freya flees home and builds a kingdom as cold as her heart. No one can touch her ever again, and by amassing an army of Huntsmen—who were plucked from their families at an early age—she has ensured her protection…and neither she nor her soldiers will endure the pain of love again.
Eric was one such child soldier, conditioned to believe in his queen and to fight for her, yet too young to fully realize the pain within Freya’s heart. But when he meets Sara, and they fall in love—something forbidden in Freya’s realm—he quickly comes to learn that some things are more important than power and dominion.
“Freya’s theme is that love kills,” explains Roth. “But despite all her warnings, Eric and Sara can’t help but form an attraction. The movie becomes about how we can get Eric and Sara together, despite the fact that Freya will do anything to stop it. In fairy tales, after all, love conquers everything.”
“When you first saw Eric in Snow White and the Huntsman, he was a drunk and a lost man,” reflects Hemsworth. “He had been living in despair and pity due to the loss of his wife. When he meets Snow White, he’s reborn, and so when you pick up with him in this movie, he has his soul back and is living a quiet life in the wilderness.”
But he’s soon drafted in to help the queen once more, and without realizing it, to face his past as well.
The filmmakers didn’t need to look far to find a director with optimism, vision and creativity to tell Eric’s story. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a well-respected visual effects supervisor who was instrumental in the stunning visuals of the first film, had long harbored a desire to direct his own feature one day.
Nicolas-Troyan confirms: “I was always more concerned with story and character than visual effects. Now that I’m working directly with my cast, it’s all about the emotion—first and foremost.”
The director agrees with Hemsworth that the appeal of this universe lies as much in its heart as it does its muscle. “It’s not about saving the world,” announces Nicolas-Troyan. “This is emotionally driven, and it’s a love story. I can put in all the monsters and all the cool shots in the world, but if—at the end of the day—I’m not being carried away by the characters on screen and the emotional content of what they’re doing, I’m not going to have anything to grab onto.”
That is especially true when we consider the titular character. Reflects Nicolas-Troyan: “What was important about this film was to bring a little more je ne sais quoi to the Huntsman character. He’s changed, now; he’s not the same guy.” He pauses. “I loved the dwarves in the first movie, and I wanted to expand that and bring some more humor to the world.”
Bringing together an A-list group of performers on the first film was a challenge, but the cast assembled for The Huntsman: Winter’s War is even more stellar.
“They’re all artists,” commends Nicolas-Troyan. “When you talk to this caliber of actor about their character, they’re all-in. It’s transporting, as a director, to work with them. I have a tendency not to storyboard emotional scenes, but rather to leave the flow to the actors and see what they come up with. There aren’t many that can pull it off, but this cast can.”
Hemsworth admits that he was always drawn to the idea of exploring Eric’s backstory. “Why was he that drunk and despondent when we met at the beginning of Snow White and the Huntsman?” he asks. “Finding that out is what appealed to me about this story.”
Reuniting with Hemsworth was no chore for Theron. “It says a lot about an actor when you get back together with him several years later and it feels like you saw each other the day before,” she explains. “He’s just so consistent, because he really is who he seems to be, which is a great guy who understands his job and how to enjoy it. He blows you away.”
Finding an actor of an equal caliber to play alongside Hemsworth as Sara, his true love, was perhaps the production’s greatest challenge. Indeed, a great warrior with a heart as true as Eric’s, Sara required an actress with true power.
Sara finds it impossible to believe that Eric has remained true to her all these years apart, and refuses to forgive him for what she believes he once did. When she is left with no other choice, she joins him on an epic journey; but she’d just as soon take a knife to his throat as she would trust him again. “She’s trying to figure out if she’s worthy enough to be loved,” explains Chastain, who took on the role. “That’s a big hurdle for her, and she has a lot of trust issues to overcome.”
Chastain admits that she responded immediately to Sara’s journey. “I liked where she began and where she ended,” she states, “and I liked the secrets she holds. It was a character I’d never played before. I like the physicality, and I’ve done a lot of films that are dark and heavy, so I wanted to do something where I’m having a good time. This might be the most fun I’ve ever had.”
As Theron made such a terrifying impression on the world with her rendition of Queen Ravenna in the first chapter, it was just as challenging to find an actress capable of playing her sister, Freya, who is quickly revealed to be Eric’s lifetime antagonist. Producers alighted on Blunt, who responded immediately to the material.
“Freya’s an interesting villain because who you meet at the beginning of the film is not who she becomes,” Blunt offers. “When you meet her, she’s this incredibly kind person. She’s a young girl who’s in love with the wrong guy, but then she loses her child and becomes so grief-stricken and hardened by the loss that she discovers her power. Her hair turns white, and she goes completely pale and discovers an ability to freeze things.”
After such a betrayal, Freya determines that love must be a wicked and villainous thing, and she sets out to eradicate it from the world, kidnapping children from their parents and raising them to believe that love is dangerous. “I think she truly believes she’s doing the right thing,” Blunt reflects. “She thinks she’s saving these children by putting them into her child army and raising them without love. She’s saving them from ever going through the devastation of what she went through.”
Confirms Nicolas-Troyan: “She’s not a villain because she wants power or she wants to dominate. She’s more complex because she thinks she’s saving these kids by turning them into great warriors. She doesn’t realize how cruel that is…that she’s ripping them away from everything they know and love.”
Theron’s Ravenna proved such a popular villain in the first film that even though we believed she died, the notion of incorporating her into this picture was one upon which everyone agreed. None more so than Theron herself, who had relished her time as the Evil Queen. “What I like about Ravenna is that she’s a bit of an enigma,” Theron notes. “She’s definitely being explored more as we go, but she’s somebody who has come from circumstances where this life, and this way of treating people, would have been just normal. She wasn’t given much choice. She’s her own worst enemy.”
Theron admits that she loves Ravenna’s broken nature, noting: “She’s a person functioning with a tremendous amount of fear at her core.”
Bringing her back was less challenging than it might have seemed initially, because the story covers a period before the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, as well as after. “The writers came up with a brilliant idea for bringing her back,” says Theron. “So it was immediately interesting to me.”
“In this film, Ravenna is actually two different characters,” notes Nicolas-Troyan. “We see her before the events of the first movie and we see her evil, but it’s not without a human side. We’re getting a more relatable Ravenna. In the second part of the movie, she comes back after the events of the first film. She’s a different character altogether, because she’s died and yet the soul and the darkness and the magic of Ravenna remain.”
The casting of these three core female roles demonstrates the emphasis the filmmakers placed on writing strong, complex characters across the board, especially for women. “One of the main reasons I wanted to do the film, in addition to working with Chris, was that it showcased incredible parts for women,” says Chastain, who has long campaigned for more inclusive cinema. “I knew Charlize and Emily were attached when I got the script, and I’m tired of being the only woman on a set. Stories, even fantasy like this, should represent our world, and I was really, really pleased with the fabulous roles for women that were written into this film.”
Agrees Nicolas-Troyan: “This is a female-driven film, even more than the first one. The great thing about Jessica’s character is she doesn’t need saving by the Huntsman. They can be there for one another and kick ass together, but they’re as strong as each other…and stronger together.”