'Cruella' Is Punk, Says Director Craig Gillespie

The filmmaker sounds off on why songs are better than scores, paying homage to 'Goodfellas,' and why 'Joker' wasn't an influence

BY Alex HudsonPublished May 25, 2021

Johnny Rotten. Joey Ramone. Cruella de Vil.

Okay, one of those things is not quite like the others, but according to director Craig Gillespie, director of Disney's Cruella, the titular antihero of his new film was directly inspired by the punk movement of the 1970s.

"She's got this voice within her that she wants to lean into and she's being told not to be her true self," he reflects during a Zoom call with Exclaim! "She's growing up in the '60s, very repressed. She doesn't colour outside of the lines, and she suffers for it. And then she even tries to conform for a little while. Ultimately, until she really owns who she is, she really doesn't blossom. And, unfortunately, she's been through a lot of trauma to get there, so it's a complicated version of owning who she is. But it's very reminiscent of the punk movement and going against the establishment."

Cruella has a rebellious punk spirit that's brought to life with some instantly recognizable song placements: the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" appears prominently in the soundtrack, and a concert scene shows some of the characters performing a raucous version of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

Yes, Cruella presents a cartoonish, Disneyfied vision of punk — but that's appropriate, since punk was slapstick from the start, the product of savvy marketing and fashion boutiques. In Gillespie's film, Emma Stone plays Estella de Vil as an upstart clothing designer who challenges the imperious Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) for fashion supremacy with her edgy creations and authority-toppling attitude. As Estella transforms into Cruella, she gradually blurs the line between ambition and ruthlessness, as she takes a little too much vicious pleasure in avenging the past and undermining the old guard.

It's set in London in the 1970s, which Gillespie brought to life with a soundtrack packed with hits from the era. In addition to the aforementioned punk bands, we hear the Doors, Blondie, Supertramp and Nina Simone, plus a brand new theme song from Florence + the Machine.

Gillespie says he made a conscious choice to pack Cruella full of recognizable hits rather than rely on a prominent original score. "What I do love about music versus score: as soon as you're doing score, you're kind of picking a lane," he says. "Typically, it's like, 'Okay, this is a sentimental part here. This is the emotional. We want to get the audience to cry.' Or, 'This is a very tense moment.' I feel the audience is almost getting too sophisticated for it, because they feel that manipulation. But with a song, they're bringing their own emotional baggage to it."

It's a style that Gillespie calls a "huge homage to Scorsese." He explains, "I was like, 'How much music can I get away with?' And I watched the first hour of Goodfellas, and it's just back-to-back songs. I was surprised. I didn't remember there was that much music. There is so much music and voiceover, and very little in the way of scenes."

As for other films that may have inspired Cruella, Gillespie is quick to shoot down the widespread comparisons to 2019's Joker, and he points out, "Joker came out while we were filming." Any similarities between the two films simply comes down to a mutual interest in exploring the motivations of notorious villains. Gillespie took a similar approach on his last film, 2017's I, Tonya, a black comedy about figure skater Tonya Harding.

"I keep being attracted to these outsiders and these misunderstood characters. I haven't figured that out yet," he admits with a laugh. "Once you analyze a narrative of how they got to those choices that they made in their life, and what happened to them along their way that impacted those choices, I think oftentimes it's hard not to be empathetic. It certainly gives you an understanding of why they are making those choices. A lot of times, it's good people doing bad things. That is an adage I believe in. I'm not condoning what they're doing — but having a portal into their life and understanding why they made those choices, it gives you a chance to kind of root for them even though you wouldn't necessarily make those choices."

So, really, Cruella is all about examining a rebellious character who lashes out at the powers that be, pisses people off and looks great while doing it. What could be more punk than that?

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