There seems to be a "Count of Monte Cristo" for most generations. Were you wary of making another version?
Initially there was a bit of hesitation in that it wasn't a project that I had initiated, it was something Disney wanted to make. But, I've always had a soft spot for classic literature and when I heard they were going to go ahead with it, I thought somebody's going to have to direct it and it may as well be me.
How much input did you have?
I had watched two of the previous versions - the 1934 version with Robert Donat and the 70s version with Richard Chamberlain. I felt that each one of those was very much of its own time and I realised we were going to have to do something fresh and new to make it work. The book is very dense - you can't possibly put all of it into a movie - so relying on the fact that probably 98% of the public had not read the book, despite what they say, we took a lot of liberties with the material and simply tried to stay true to the theme of it.
You must have had experience in doing sword-fighting scenes from making "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves". Did that help you in this film?
Yes, it certainly prepared me for it. But the style between the two pictures are considerably different because "Robin Hood" is more of a romp - a sort of action adventure - and "Monte Cristo" is more couched in reality, so it has a more serious tone. But, having done period films before, you become aware of the pitfalls and hopefully avoid some of the same mistakes.
How real were the sword-fighting sequences?
My criterion for the sword fights was, I wanted them to feel as real as possible. I've always felt that sword fights of old were probably closer to Olympic fencing - there's a lot of dancing on toes and sudden strikes. Our challenge was, how do you make it look real, like there's a sense of jeopardy, all the while keeping it safe. The only way to do that is to know what the move of the other guy is, but not to show that anticipation. Our fight choreographer, Bill Hobbs, and I had to really plan out the sequences to make them look realistic.
There's a lot of hair involved in the film. In terms of the look, was that very important?
We experimented a lot to get the right look for the Count because we had to satisfy two things. First, he had to be plausibly identifiable to the people he'd known before, but at the same time he had to remain attractive. So we tried all kinds of looks - short beard, full beard, different costumes. The trickiest part was when the Count's in prison, because we literally were shooting around his fake long hair. When Jim was in one look we had to shoot that, and then we'd have to break into another situation and shoot something without Jim while he went into another look, so we were really tied to the hair.