The director of FOX’s “Eragon”
Stefen Fangmeier makes his directorial debut with the exciting new fantasy adventure, “Eragon” – an epic tale of a boy and his telepathic dragon, coming soon to DVD. The movie stars talented British newcomer Ed Speleers in the title role as a simple farm boy who discovers his destiny to become a prestigious dragon rider, fighting to free his country from a vicious tyrant. Actress Rachel Weisz is the voice of Saphira the dragon. Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich also star, with Sienna Guillory.
Stefen Fangmeier was actually born in Texas. His parents are German and his father was working in the German air force at the time. They went back to Germany, then the family returned to the America when he was 16 years old. After spells in America and back in Germany, Fangmeier finally settled in San Francisco to pursue his film-making career. He lives in the city with his family.
Although this is the German/American filmmaker’s first feature as director, he is known in the industry for his mastery of visual effects. Fangmeier worked with renowned filmmaker George Lucas for fifteen years at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). He is a three-time BAFTA award winner and has been Oscar-nominated four times.
What was the appeal of this story and film for you?
A: “What I liked about it apart from the special effects and action is that it has tremendous heart. It is a fantastic coming of age story and it deals with destiny. A farm boy was chosen to become a hero and a dragon rider. He has to rise to the occasion and struggles with that challenge and he has a great character arc, becoming the dragon rider that he was meant to be. There is a striking parallel that I found with my own life. I studied computer science and came through that avenue into visual effects, doing images with computers, but I never thought that I would end up as a filmmaker. So in some ways I see that as my destiny. I had a great deal of personal attachment to this story.”
So how thrilling is it for you to be directing this film on a personal level?
A: “It was very thrilling and challenging too. In a way you go through all the battles involved in making a film and it is like going to war. I don’t mean fighting with people, but overcoming the obstacles, making all the tough decisions and facing all the compromises that have to be made along the way. It is a long journey and as a first time director you do not automatically have that confidence. You gain it as you progress and go along. In visual effects I had reached a point in my career where I was absolutely unquestioned and everybody would take my word for gold. So with this film it was about building confidence. It was definitely challenging and the brightest moments for me were working with the actors, I enjoy those interpersonal relationships.”
What approach did you take to directing the film?
A: “At some point you just have to stay calm and ride through every storm. With the actors, it was all about being sensitive towards them. I think as a director you have to be very supportive, almost in a paternal way. Even the most experienced actors have to trust you and understand what direction you are taking. They need to relate to you. So articulation of what you are looking for from them is very important, I think. I think I managed to get really good performances out of the actors – even someone like Ed Speleers who had never been in front of a camera.”
What was your relationship like with Ed and why did you cast him?
A: “It was great and interesting. If you think about it, I am a first time director working with a first time lead character in a film. He was seventeen years old. In the beginning we were looking at older boys for the role, guys aged about twenty to twenty two. That was our original intention and we screen-tested several older boys and finally realized that the material was not written for somebody that age. Six weeks before we starting filming we still hadn’t found Eragon, our lead actor and I flew to London with my producer and casting director and 25 boys read for us. Ed was one of the first guys we met in the morning and I liked him right away. There is something very self possessed and natural about him, he had confidence but innocence at the same time – a wonderful mix. We had a bond because we were both in it for the first time. Also, I have a thirteen year-old son, so I understand boys, I am a parent and I did feel paternal about protecting him and taking care of him. I could bring out emotions in him, when there were difficult scenes. I would try to get him to think about some real life experience, for instance imagining his dog was sick, and how that would feel. I was always trying to get him to emote. In the critical scenes, Ed was able to bear his soul and he did not have to fake anything. He wasn’t trying to have these powerful emotions, he was really having them. It helped that we were able to film more or less sequentially; we filmed the early parts of the film during the first few weeks of our shooting schedule. So Ed was a little bit young and a little more innocent in his acting performance which really helped out in terms of the character.”
Q: How did it help?
A: “He is playing a boy who is living on a farm, he doesn’t know who his mother is, why she left him there. He is confident but also a little lost and a dreamer and Ed was naturally good at portraying this character. That is how I was at his age actually, so I knew what I wanted from Ed. Later on he was very daring. When the dragon hatches, Eragon keeps him hidden and then suddenly his life changes very quickly. In the second part of the film he is somewhat reluctant to become this hero, he says ‘why me?’ but he finally accepts his destiny. It is a really beautiful character arc. Another thing that helped was the fact that Ed is a rugby player, and you cannot underestimate the importance of the actor for this role being athletic and physically confident. Athleticism and strength is essential to do a film with so much action.”
Q: What kind of film can we expect in terms of action, emotion and visual effects from ERAG0N?
A: “There is a mix. First of all, we find out about Eragon’s world on the farm; when he goes out hunting for example, we see what his life is like. I wanted this film to come from the perspective of the character himself. In other words, this boy does not know much beyond his own valley and his own little world. Then he goes on a journey and is exposed to the concept of what it means to be a dragon rider. As his experience expands, the world in the film expands for the audience too. There is a huge action piece with a big battle. The film starts small and is always expanding and I hope that the audience will take this incredible journey along with Eragon.”
Q: What marks ERAGON from other fantasy adventure films?
A: “We have been brave enough to make a film with dragons. ERAGON may well turn out to be the first movie for a long time that brings dragons back into the spotlight; because of the unique way we have created our dragon, Saphira, and developed the relationship between her and Eragon. Dragons can be fantastic creatures but they are tough to bring to life effectively. It is a fine line between having a dragon that is a fierce creature and yet still a creature with personality. I did not want the dragon to be cartoonish. Also this film works I think because it is complete in itself. The film stands on its own.”
Q: How exactly do you bring Saphira, a computer generated dragon, to life, and how did you personify her because she is central to the movie?
A: “A lot of it was done in the design. The eyes are crucial. We wanted her to be very imaginative. The wings have feathery scales and she is bluish. She reminds me a little of the famous Loch Ness monster. We looked at lions in terms of posturing; a lot of considerations come into this. I didn’t want her to be too blue, the color had to be magical, but also natural to fit into the scenery. Part of the credibility had to do with Ed’s relationship with Saphira. He had to imagine a dragon that was not actually there and I think he was a natural at looking at a ping-pong ball on a stick. That was a big challenge. Also there is the voice of the dragon which will make a big difference when you finally see the film. Rachel Weisz is the talented actress voicing the dragon and her voice will be essential to the characterization of Saphira.”
Q: Can you talk about the main cast members and what they bring to the film and their individual roles?
A: John Malkovich was perfect for the role of King Galbatorix. I wanted him to be an interesting, reclusive bad guy, the kind of character that John does so well. His bad guys always have an inner conflict, there is sophistication to his acting that gives the characters such depth. I was thrilled to get him and then I suggested him shaving his head. I like that look on him, together with a beard. Then he did something interesting with his fingernails. He took pieces of plastic and crafted his own nails which are amazing. And we came up with a great, powerful costume in black and red. For Durza, played by Robert Carlyle I wanted someone who was physically a kind of Napoleon and physically the opposite of John. I think he is great at playing an evil guy with an undercurrent of ambition. He is Galbatorix’s right hand man and I wanted a feeling to come through that he also despises Galbatorix. Robert Carlyle is not a huge muscular guy, his evil powers are magical. I thought he was a great choice. I was delighted to have Jeremy Irons for Brom, he is such a good actor. I liked his look in the film KINGDOM OF HEAVEN wearing a beard. Brom has his own story arc and has a lot of depth, which Jeremy conveys. I imagine him as a kind of Vietnam veteran; he is a little weird, he sometimes rambles about the old times, and people don’t quite feel comfortable around him. Yet when he finally finds a meaningful, important task, schooling Eragon in becoming a dragon rider and taking him on his journey, he has a kind of redemption. Jeremy brings a weariness to Brom and yet also projects a paternal strength. He is not too obvious as a mentor, not too benign. There is a little bit of an edge to him which brings more complexity to the part. By the way, Jeremy is also great on a horse, completely comfortable on horseback. Djimon Hounsou has so much positive energy and was an absolutely great choice for Ajihad, a commander. He is the leader of the Varden and he is really strong, a great fighter and has great physical presence.”
Q: Joss Stone, the British soul singer, has a small role as a fortuneteller, what does she bring to the film do you think?
A: “I like her music very much, so I knew how talented she was in that way and I think she adds a lovely female presence. I think she is a little bit of a fresh and surprising choice. She has fantastic makeup and looks quite different. She has a certain power and projects very well because she was a performer already. She plays a mysterious, slightly weird fortuneteller. Her eyes change and she put in different color contact lenses so it looks as though she is going into a trance and gazing into the future. She tells Eragon what is going to happen to him and presents him with a riddle.”
Q: What does Sienna Guillory bring to her role as the elf princess?
A: “She brought a tremendous amount of energy and spirit to the part. She was so enthusiastic. She would say to me: “I am great on a horse, I can fight.” She was fantastic and found an inner strength and confidence. She is also absolutely gorgeous looking. And she was so good and powerful in the fighting, even though she is so petite. She had to be a little ethereal because she is immortal, she is an elf and unreachable for Eragon, who loves her and we had to have tension between the two of them.”
Q: Did you dream of becoming a filmmaker growing up in Germany?
A: “Not at all, I wanted to be a rock star. I played piano as a boy. But finally I decided to study computer science and then came to the visual medium, but never imagined becoming a director. So the story of ERAGON and his destiny really resonates to me. Who would have thought that one day I would be directing a big Hollywood movie? I would never have predicted this.”
Q: Presumably you want to continue directing?
A: “Absolutely, I love it, it was a great challenge and I can’t wait to do it again.”
ERAGON is on DVD thru Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment