Prague -- A visitor can spend a lot of time on the set of "Snow White in the Black Forest" without seeing a dwarf.
No Dopey. No Grumpy. No Happy. No Doc. No little lost birds. No jolly songs. No whistling while you work. In fact, the whole thing looks quite sinister.
The mood is dark and brooding; the sets look more like they would fit into "Dracula" or "Frankenstein" than a children's story; and the forest is filled with bats, bears and snarling wolves, not helpful squirrels, deer and mice.
"This story has been around for 500 or 600 years, and it's scary," says co-producer Tom Engelman, who got the idea for the film while reading the story to his niece. "Our goal has been to go to the Gothic original and put the 'grim' back into the Grimm Brothers."
The new film, a live-action, big-screen version of the classic Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, has just finished filming in Prague and at various places in the Czech Republic. It stars Sigourney Weaver in the role of Claudia, the wicked stepmother; Sam Neill as Snow White's father, Frederick, the master of a large manor estate in Germany's Black Forest; and young Monica Keena as Snow White, known in the movie as Lilli.
Set in the late 15th century, the film opens with Snow White's father and pregnant mother careening through the woods in their horse-drawn carriage. The driver swerves to avoid a fallen tree and the carriage tumbles down a ravine. Savage forest wolves kill the driver. Blood spills from the mother's wounds, staining the snow around her. As the wolves move in to attack the dying woman, she begs her husband to cut Snow White/Lilli from her womb.
The story then shifts to a time seven years later with Lilli living a gracious life at the manor with Frederick. But a shadow soon comes over their idyll as Frederick decides to marry Claudia.
"The film is all about the father and who's going to get him," Ms. Weaver says. "Claudia loves him so much and so thoroughly, and there's a conflict over who's first in his heart. When he seems to choose Snow White, that makes the story so much more interesting."
After Frederick and Claudia's wedding, the movie again fast-forwards, and we see Snow White as a 16-year-old beauty who has never accepted the love her stepmother has offered.
At the same time, after nine years of marriage, Claudia has finally conceived a child, but then miscarries after Lilli upstages her at a ball. This fills the stepmother with rage, and she orders her brother to murder the girl and return with her heart and lungs as proof of the evil deed.
Ms. Weaver says she never really liked the Disney Snow White because the wicked stepmother is evil from start to finish, and the father never even appears in the film. The new movie gives a major role to the father and allows all of the characters to be more ambiguous. Lilli shares part of the guilt by constantly rejecting her stepmother, and Claudia transforms from a relatively stable -- if rather narcissistic -- individual into a raging psychopath who talks to her image in the mirror.
While the filmmakers are using the latest in digital gimmickry to create the stepmother's mirror and a handful of other effects, they have resisted the urge to paint in large background scenes and other tricks common in today's cinematography.
All of the exterior castle scenes, for example, are being filmed on location at real medieval buildings around the Czech Republic. Interiors, meanwhile, were done either in the castles themselves or in faithfully reconstructed rooms at Prague's Barrandov Studios.
Similarly, the dark and evil woods are mostly the real forests surrounding Prague. In one scene, trees fall on all sides of Lilli and the outcasts as they crash through the woods toward the castle in a gale-force wind. When the cameras stop rolling, the wind magically disappears as the helicopter that causes it flies up and away from the woods, and the fallen trees are raised back up on hinges to prepare for another take.
"We've tried to do as much as we can on camera, for real," says co-producer Tim Van Rellim. "If it's at all possible to achieve something that is real, I think audiences are sophisticated enough to see that it has been filmed as such and prefer it that way."
And the audiences the producers are targeting with the film are most emphatically not children. Nearly everyone involved in the production says one of the biggest challenges they face in releasing the film, which is expected to be in theaters around Halloween, is making certain people don't mistake it for an updated version of Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
"The thing about Snow White is that if you take away the cuteness -- and there is no cuteness in this film -- you have story that is incredibly powerful and archetypal," says co-star Sam Neill. "This is about a lot of things that still lurk beneath our 20th-century veneer: fear of the dark, fear of the forest, fear of aging, fear of youth, fear of sexuality. It's pretty much an Uncle Walt-free zone."