On the set of Maleficent with Angelina Jolie
In the long shadows of a rocky drawbridge and an impatient, braying horse, a horned creature stands taller than the rest. Draped in black robes, the slim figure turns in the sifting grey smoke, casting glowing green-gold eyes upon a visitor. It's possible, momentarily, to feel like prey.
Until Maleficent's ruby lips stretch into a grin.
"The horns have taken getting used to," says Angelina Jolie, gesturing upward at the massive horns attached to a turban-like headpiece, which tightly conceals her chestnut hair. "At first I was banging into everything."
It's chilly and damp today on this dark fall night in 2012. Pinewood Studios is where Jolie-Pitt Clan has decamped some 30 kilometres outside of London. Nearby, an on-set play area is dedicated to the children; stunt doubles practice dramatic falls from castle towers into piles of cardboard boxes; and Skyfall has just moved out to make room for Maleficent. It's here Brad Pitt would return a year later to shoot the upcoming war tale, Fury.
Currently, Disney's animated 1959 Sleeping Beauty is being reborn, darker this time under Jolie's watch. Maleficent, voted Disney's scariest villain, was Jolie's "favourite character" as a child, she says.
But rebooting the classic Charles Perrault / Brothers Grimm tale for a modern audience required screenwriter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland) to come up with a story "that could rationalise cursing an innocent baby," she says, a plot point that similarly stumped Jolie, a committed mother of six.
The answer, both say, lay in a deep wound that occurs in Maleficent's past. "She isn't the pretty princess," says Jolie, whose character's wings are stolen at a point in the film. "She isn't a beautiful queen. She's a very awkward, pointy, slightly scary-looking horned creature who goes through a lot in her life, as we discover."
Says Woolverton: "Bringing Maleficent to screen as a main character, I felt really great about being able to depict a strong woman that isn't always perfect. She has her moods, just like we all do. And I'm happy to be able to put that kind of female character in the world."
In the new film (in theatres May 29), we meet Maleficent, a dark fairy from the Moors, at age 10. Betrayal follows, as does Maleficent's infamous spell set to activate on Aurora's 16th birthday. The fairies who watch over Aurora (Elle Fanning), have been updated, too. In the original 1959 film "those fairies were typical sweet, good fairies with little wands," says Woolverton. "These three are complete idiots."
On set, the scene begins on the medieval drawbridge, currently draped dramatically in CGI-friendly saturated blue curtains. Jolie, staff in hand, walks menacingly forward, her gaze locked on (what will be) an iron-shielded castle, where teenage Aurora - "an extremely woodsy, very outdoorsy and very free" girl, says Fanning - lies under her spell.
Enter Maleficent's sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley), Jolie's grumpy right hand capable of morphing into variety of creatures as Maleficent's mood swings. "If we go inside those walls, we'll never come out alive," he warns her.
"Then don't come," Jolie says coldly, in Maleficent's British accent. "It's not your fight."
"Charming," he retorts. "I need you," he mocks his dark mistress under his breath. "I can't do this without you, Diaval. Please come."
Five takes later, a light mist begins to fall and Robert Stromberg (the Oscar-winning production designer of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland turned director) calls for a break. Jolie peers at Copley, who has been raising his arm aloft in the scene. "Were you holding your arm like that the whole time?" she teases.
For young visitors, Jolie has learned to temper her scary garb. Her son Pax cried when he first saw her in costume - and he's not the only one.
"Children get really scared of me, they cry and run away," she says. "One said, 'Mommy, please tell the evil witch to leave me alone!' So I know now, if anybody brings a kid I have to very slowly approach them and not assume."
Jolie raises an eyebrow. "Because I think I'm a Disney character."
It's why her daughter Vivienne, now 5, was cast as young Aurora, after a succession of young actors fled from Jolie.
"The only child in the world where I could actually scream at her, make evil faces, but she'd still smile at me, was my daughter," she grins.
It was a two-parent decision to put Vivienne in the spotlight. "I talked to Brad about it and we thought, 'Hmm, we hadn't planned on her being in the film but she loves Aurora and she loves this film," says Jolie. "It's a very small scene but it was really sweet."
The day they shot it, Mom and Dad became the unlikeliest pair: stage parents.
"We were both there and all her brothers and sisters came," says Jolie. "So it was this kind of nice family event. And there was one scene where I'm not in it and so Brad and I had to be on either side, kind of corralling her and cheering her on along. It's some of the funniest (footage)."
Popular footage, at that. "Disney called because obviously the (footage has) us in it, kind of jumping up and down trying to be really goofy," she says. "They have to blue screen us out because we look ridiculous. We were like those set parents."
The rest of her time was spent making the most of fleshing out her winged, spell-spouting dark fairy. Jolie maps her face in a zigzag, pointing to all that's required to become Maleficent: planed cheeks, a silicone bump on her nose, colored contacts, fake jagged molars, a carefully crafted red lip.
"During the weekends I take them off and I'm like, God, my face is so flat," Jolie says, gesturing to Maleficent's sharp, Lady Gaga-like cheekbones. But ask Jolie, and Maleficent is the fairest of them all: "She's much more interesting looking."
Maleficent is set for a May 29 release in New Zealand.