I have always been fascinated by fairy tales. Growing up, I was an avid reader and the world of fairy tales ignited my imagination. As an adult, my work has often been inspired by fairy tales. My short films The Snow Queen (2005) and The Red Hood (2009), both inspired by traditional tales, are two of the film projects in which I take the most pride. After completing my first feature film, Black Field, which was based on a wholly original story, I found my imagination drawn back to the world of fable. The story that I returned to again and again was Hansel and Gretel.
Hansel and Gretel is a tale that has been told around the world and is known as one of the great fairy tale classics. The story is best known for the 1812 and 1857 versions published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). It tells the story of two children, siblings, who are abandoned in the woods by their poverty-stricken parents. Once in the woods, they encounter an evil witch who connives to fatten them up and eat them. But the children manage to outwit the old woman and escape.
I have always been struck by this fable’s portrayal of adult women. The stepmother and the witch are portrayed as heartless villains. Whereas the father, although also complicit in the abandonment of the children, is portrayed as caring and loveable. In reading about the history of the tale, I discovered that Wilhelm Grimm revised the traditional tale several times. He changed the mother character into a stepmother and he also made her less sympathetic. According to folklorist Jack Zipes, Wilhelm Grimm “deepened the characterization of the father and stepmother so that he becomes much more caring and concerned about the children and she becomes more coldhearted and cruel.” This sharp gender dichotomy, this demonization of the adult female characters, was an element of the story that I wanted to explore and challenge. This was my starting place for writing H&G.
When writing the screenplay with Rebecca Gibson, we asked ourselves: what are the conditions, the events, that might lead a parent to abandon their children? How would the children, stranded and alone, behave? What is the human element in this traditional story about family, poverty, childhood and sibling love? Our starting place was Gemma: a little girl who desperately needs to be a child but who is never cared for properly. Adults fail Gemma again and again. She responds by trying to act the part of an adult – in a situation that is beyond her comprehension. As a result, Gemma and her little brother Harley encounter great danger.
When filming H&G, I was inspired by the lyrical realism of films such as Treeless Mountain, Ratcatcher and The Girl (Flickan). My goal was to reveal emotional subtext through performance – by gesture and expression – as much as by dialogue. To achieve this goal, I cast two wonderful child actors and worked closely with them to create each scene in the moment. I asked the children not to prepare any scene work but to come to set each day with a sense of play. I talked them through each scene as we shot. The result is a layered yet naturalistic performance that I know will move the audience.
-Danishka Esterhazy, Director