Love trivia? Love six degrees of Kevin Bacon? Then you’ve come to the right place. Ten Degrees of Trivia combines the two to take you on a journey through the world of loosely connected facts, beginning and ending with the same film. This week, I’m starting with Maleficent, starring the magnificent Angelina Jolie and serving up trivia from paranoid pirates and Professor X to Jean Cocteau’s drug dealer and dental surgery.
1. Maleficent’s director Robert Stromberg has an impressive past as a production designer, winning two Oscars for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar, but this is his first time calling the shots. As if making the step up to directing Angelina Jolie as a villainous protagonist in a prequel to Sleeping Beauty wasn’t enough pressure, Maleficent also has the biggest ever budget for a debut director at $180 million. Rather you than me, Bob.
2. In fact, Stromberg also has a connection to the most expensive film of all time (not including inflation), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. It had an estimated budget of $300 million, some of which Stromberg contributed to as part of the visual effects team and some of which was spent on stunning and talented actors like Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. The cast may have helped attract audiences, but it only worried co-star Geoffrey Rush who played Captain Barbossa. He was so anxious that viewers would ignore him standing next to such sex symbols that he made sure he was on the left of frame in every shot he shared with them. That way, Western audiences who read from left to right would see him first and at least pay him a bit of attention before moving on to drool over Depp, Bloom and Knightley.
3. Johnny Depp is most famous for quirky roles in films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Edward Scissorhands and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but one of his most critically acclaimed performances was in the Oscar-winning animation Rango. It’s the first animation Gore Verbinski has directed and the first animated feature produced by George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, but most interesting of all is the way it was filmed. Unlike most animations where the voice actors record their performances individually, Rango was recorded with all the actors together on a set. This allowed them to improvise more freely and build a better chemistry between the entire cast.
4. Aside from being arguably the greatest director of all time, Alfred Hitchcock has a similar credit that would undoubtedly sit at the top of his CV if he were still with us today. For no obvious reason, Alfred Hitchcock is the voice of the Jaws ride at Universal Studios. Or at least that’s the reason Hitchcock cited for refusing to ever meet Steven Spielberg in person. He said, “I’m such a whore. I can’t sit down and talk to the boy who did the fish movie”, but the ride didn’t actually exist until 1990 and Hitchock died in 1980. He may have been referring to a similar feature on the Hollywood Studio Tour, or equally, he may have been making the whole thing up. You just never know with Hitchcock.
5. Hitchcock is famous for appearing in his own films, just like Marvel maestro Stan Lee. He’s featured in most of Marvel’s film adaptations so far, normally offering a knowing take on his real identity or saving someone’s life. What is less well-known is the cinematic origin of one of Lee’s most famous comic creations. Professor Charles Xavier has been played brilliantly on-screen by Sir Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy, but the character was originally based on Hollywood legend Yul Brynner. Note the bald head and intense stare? Uncanny (X-Men).
6. Many actors are known for their larger than life eccentricities, but Yul Brynner took that stereotype a lot further than most. In his modestly-titled book, ‘Yul: the Man Who Would be King’, he claimed to be half-Swiss and half-Japanese, originally named Taidje Khan and raised on the island of Sakhalin. These dubious claims were basically a primitive form of trolling rather than some kind of delusion, but the fun didn’t stop there. His son, Yul ‘Rock’ Brynner later claimed that his father used to be Jean Cocteau’s opium supplier.
7. Unfortunately Brynner got a taste of his own medicine during the filming of The Magnificent Seven. He was the one who first approached producer Walter Mirisch with the idea of adapting Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, so during pre-production he had a major role in casting decisions. One such decision was the casting of Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner, a move which backfired horribly for Brynner. He became increasingly bothered by what he interpreted as McQueen’s attempts to upstage him, so he went to extreme lengths to keep himself in the spotlight.
He would make a little mound of earth and stand on it for all of the pair’s scenes to ensure he looked significantly taller – and McQueen for his part would mischievously kick the mound down every time he passed it. In the end, Brynner became so worried that he hired an assistant solely to count the number of times McQueen touched his hat while Brynner was speaking, an action that Brynner viewed as attention-seeking.
8. Brynner and McQueen’s co-star, Eli Wallach, was far less concerned with these on-set antics and much more content with his own brand of method acting. He wanted to show his character’s wealth, that he was an outlaw who was living off the rewards of his criminal lifestyle, so he put on red silk shirts and gold teeth and silver saddles. He also developed a close bond with the bandit gang, later saying: “I used to arrive on the set early in the morning, put on my outfit, get on my horse with my 35 bandits, and we’d go for an hour [to] ride through the brush in Tepoztlan, Mexico. I loved it. I loved it.”
9. That’s pretty pedestrian as method acting goes, but Ben Mendelsohn nearly made a far more insane sacrifice to land his part as Robin in The Place Beyond the Pines. Robin was meant to be an older man with dentures instead of teeth, but unfortunately Mendelsohn had been through a lot of dental work to fix his teeth in the past. Can you see where this is going? Mendelsohn was speaking to the director Derek Cianfrance and announced that he was prepared to have his teeth removed for the role. He handed Cianfrance his dentist’s phone number and amazingly the director went ahead and made the call. A week later Cianfrance had Mendelsohn’s dental x-rays in his hand and they were planning their trip to the surgery. Thankfully, one lone producer on the film had the common sense to talk them out of it and Mendelsohn’s teeth were saved. As for Cianfrance’s final comment on the incident? “Now, as the dust has cleared on the movie, what a maniac”.
10. A producer’s conscience may have saved Mendelsohn from ruining his pearly whites for the sake of cinema, but Angelina Jolie had the star power to insist on her extreme appearance in Maleficent. Disney executives wanted to use Jolie’s beauty to help market the film, but she pushed for a menacing look, more faithful to the original animated version. The highlights of this transformation are Jolie’s stunning cheekbone prosthetics, inspired by Lady Gaga’s appearance on the cover of the single for Born This Way.