The writer/director of 'Hansel & Gretel' and the writer of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'
I was aware of the films almost from their inception in New York. Menahem Golan and Patricia Ruben had the idea for the productions. Cannon Films was expanding and had recently purchased a chain of movie theaters in the UK. Menahem, who had begun his career directing children's theater, was interested in re-establishing children's Saturday matinees at the movies. His idea was to alternate bookings between Disney-type faire and his own Cannon-produced films. He'd also recently become a grandfather and wanted to do something for children.
I had a background in both live-action films and animation (Sesame Street, Electric Company and high-end corporate image films) and was recruited to the project by Patricia Ruben. I met Menahem in NYC and discussed their overall intentions to produce a dozen muscial fairytale films using well-known stars.
Patricia Ruben had been a top casting agent in NYC, she'd done work on Woody Allen films and others. She had the extremely tough assignment of assembling the writers, directors and stars for the entire line-up of films.
I'd always liked the Grimm's telling of Hansel & Gretel and loved Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes, so I chose to write versions of those with my screenwriting partner (and wife), Nancy Weems.
Originally, the films were going to be done in Budapest, Hungary. We'd sent some location scouts to look at various castles and old cities that were ideal for our European stories. About a month or two before production was scheduled to begin, we received word from Menahem that we were going to be shooting in Israel -- where he was in the process of building a complex of sound stages.
Although they hadn't done something like these projects before, the Israeli crews turned out to be hard-working and talented. Most of them had worked on Cannon's Delta Force action films and knew a lot about production -- especially how to blow things up really well.
I specifically remember long talks with the special effects and construction crews regarding how we intended to destroy the witch's house. Some wanted to blow it up (not a very fairytale-like visual), and I think I wanted to take it apart in stop-action (too time-consuming) to have it turn to ruins.
Finally, our construction supervisor, Aria BenIshay, an incredibly resourceful man, came up with a wonderful idea. He contacted the local fire department near the woods where we'd built the house and got them to assist us by pumping fire-fighting foam through the back of the set and out the windows and roof. We added large quantities of food coloring and with a couple of fireballs and colored smokebombs, we had our scene.
The films were very low budget and to save even more money, we would shoot two at a time (except for Rumpelstiltskin, which was the first). Hansel & Gretel shot simultaneously with Sleeping Beauty. This wasn't the best of situations in that often the two crews would be competing for the limited equipment, costumes and sets. I forgot to mention that the sound studios that Menahem 'was building' were still on the drawing board -- so we wound up shooting in a complex of old tuna canneries without plumbing or electricity (we brought everything in) that smelled horrible and got very extremely hot.
The crews were almost entirely made up of Israelis - but had a distinctive international flavor because many of the Israelis were originally from Iran, Lebanon, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Morocco, England, France and elsewhere and were transplants (Most took Hebrew names when they became citizens of Israel).
Another silly thing I remember is that these crews generally smoked a lot. Cloris Leachman hates cigarette smoke and had to wear a lot of prosthetic make-up for her part as the witch. The smoke would get into her mask and irritate her. She begged them not to smoke near her which they begrudgingly tried to remember not to do.
My cast was wonderful. I found both the kids in England. Nicola Stapleton, who played Gretel, was actually 13-years-old at the time of the filming. Her 'older brother' Hansel, Hugh Pollard, was only 10-years-old. There was a lot of competition between these two as to who could remember their lines better, etc.
David Warner has been a favorite of mine for many years. He's a great actor, a truly nice man and we've stayed good friends over the years. This was the first (and last) time he sang in a movie, I think. Cloris Leachman is obviously great and always willing to give a director more than you'd ever expect. Although we had a double for her in the scene where she has to be dumped into the cauldron -- she insisted on doing it herself. She was covered from head to foot with flour and water -- a sticky mess so thick -- we had to literally hose her down to get her clean.
They were inexpensive but we had lots of fun doing them. Only a couple of years ago we were considering doing some more in Russia, but the financing fell through. I wrote a version of The Golden Goose and we had some really funny actors lined up. Jackson Hunsicker was set to do a couple more as well and had written some wonderful scripts. More about all this another time.
Interview, courtesy of Patrick Runkle