Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (opening in theaters on March 2nd), is the beloved children’s story that’s also its author’s favorite work. The 3D-CG animated adaptation is an adventure that follows the journey of idealistic 12-year-old Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) while he searches for a real Truffula Tree for Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift), in order to win the affection of the girl of his dreams. To find one, he must learn the story of the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) from the enigmatic and bitter old hermit, known as the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms), who let the temptation of greed and success get the better of him.
At the film’s press day, producer Chris Meledandri (founder and CEO of Illumination Entertainment) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how and when he first became aware of the work of Dr. Seuss, the challenge of adding original songs to The Lorax, and how much he’s enjoyed working with Audrey Geisel to protect the Dr. Seuss legacy. He also talked about the development of the live-action film Illumination is doing on the life of Theodor Geisel, the man behind the work of Dr. Seuss, that is being produced by Johnny Depp (who will possibly star in the lead role), the plan to do a mix of live-action with the animated characters of his creation, and how they are currently working on the animation for Despicable Me 2, with Al Pacino making his animated feature debut as the villain. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
CHRIS MELEDANDRI: I grew up with probably three different authors having a seminal influence on my childhood, Dr. Seuss being one and Maurice Sendak being another. That was my parents, who exposed me to their stories. That’s how I was introduced to the whole idea of not just reading, but storytelling in general. I’ve carried on, in that same tradition, with my kids. Aside from just his brilliance, in my estimation, I think he had one of the great imaginations of the 20th century. One of the reasons why the tradition carries on, all these years later, is because, as a parent, those are the books that you go to and pull off the shelf because they never stop delighting you.
Does it give you extra pressure, knowing that The Lorax was his favorite work that he wrote?
MELEDANDRI: I wouldn’t say extra pressure because taking on Horton Hears a Who had its pressure, too. Anytime you adapt work of somebody who you respect, as much as I respect him, it’s an enormous responsibility. In honoring that responsibility, what we try to do is to continually use his work, and the writing that he did about his life and his work, as our guide. That starts with his intent for what he was trying to express when he wrote it, and it extends to his intent overall. Why did Ted Geisel end up writing and illustrating for young minds? He has specific imagery in the book, and we never would have moved beyond the discussion phase, if we couldn’t have found an expression for The Lorax, dimensionally, that was true to the soul of what comes through in his simple line drawings, on the page. We have a process that continually looks back to him for guidance, but it also combines that with a tremendous amount of discovery and invention, as well, because of the demands of the medium and the opportunities of the medium.
Did it help that you assembled so much of the Despicable Me team, so that they already knew how to do this kind of thing in a way that was successful?
MELEDANDRI: Absolutely, you rise and fall based on your creative team. I have continuity across different films that I’ve done. I was even fortunate enough to reach back and include people that had worked on Horton with me, as well. People as gifted as Chris Renaud directing, and as Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio writing, and Yarrow Cheney, who was our production designer on Despicable and this film, and hundreds of other artists are what determines whether or not you have a shot at living up to the task that was laid before us.
What were the challenges of adding songs to it and making sure they stay true to the tone?
MELEDANDRI: Tone is an interesting question because part of the inspiration of looking to song is that Geisel himself – when you think about his animated version of The Grinch – embraced the idea of using songs in unconventional ways, as part of conveying a narrative. The use of music, in this film, is very unconventional, which I love. When you listen to the music in this film, it’s working on the level of melody, but the other key element is lyrics. There are a number of songs in the film where the lyrics themselves are very much speaking to the essence of what Ted Geisel was setting out to do. Songs give you incredible opportunity to convey a tremendous amount in a relatively short period of time. The first thing that John Powell, our composer, says is, “Is the song engaging you to tap your toe?” If you’re not tapping your toe, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing in the song, it’s not going to work. But, if you can get the audience to be engaged by the song, then it gives you the opportunity to accomplish so much, in a very concise way. I think John wrote some great melodies, and Cinco Paul, who’s also one of our screenwriters, as well as one of the screenwriters on Horton and Despicable, really was able to craft lyrics that conveyed a very important thematic element to the movie, as well as just being fun.
Having done Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax now, and presumably bringing more Dr. Seuss stories to life, in the future, is there anything you wish you could talk to him or ask him about, as far as his work goes? Are there times you wish you could have spoken to him?
MELEDANDRI: Oh, absolutely! There are countless times where you’re trying to channel somebody who’s not there, but that’s what you have to do. But Audrey Geisel, who has executive produced this film and Horton, and who works remarkably close with me, is a great source of information. (The Simpsons creator) Matt Groening once told me that one of the most important roles that he fulfills on The Simpsons is being the keeper of the integrity of the original vision. I think that every enduring story that has expressions over multiple periods, that role of being the keeper of the integrity of the vision is a very important role. Audrey takes that very seriously, especially with a book like The Lorax, where she was so involved with Ted’s creation of the book. We get a lot of input from her, and it’s a really fun but challenging process. She is very forthright. It’s going back almost eight or nine years now, since I started working on Horton. One of the great parts of my life is going down to San Diego, every four to six weeks, and showing her the progress on designs and the film and story, and getting her input.
MELEDANDRI: It is incredibly daunting to take on a live-action story. I think that it adds a level of complexity to the responsibility that goes beyond what I’ve experienced on these two films (The Lorax and Horton Hears a Who). I take his legacy very, very seriously. I know others may disagree because he’s made such an impact on so many people that response to work becomes very personal, so people will have different points of view. But, at the core of this, I take the protection and the extension of his legacy very, very seriously. It’s a very important part of my life. When you take that to the next level of guiding a group of filmmakers to actually depict him, it’s even more challenging. The one that that I think everybody involved believes is that we won’t move forward with this until we believe it’s right. There’s no deadline that a movie has to be made by. We have to believe that we have served the responsibility, however long it takes us to get to that point.
Is it going to be a mix of live-action with the animated characters?
MELEDANDRI: Yes. The idea right now – and it may evolve – would be a live-action movie where some of his characters would be animated. To me, this movie is very much about the creative process. One of the things that fascinates me, endlessly, about him is the act of creation. As part of the expression of that creative process, we want to have some of these characters of his creations come to life. That’s the idea now. But, as it evolves and develops, I’m sure we’ll discover things that we just don’t know right now, in terms of the ultimate expression of it.
Along with Johnny Depp being a producer, there’s also the possibility that he may star in the lead role. What is it about him that assured you that you were both on the same page with what you want to do with this film?
MELEDANDRI: Well, the truth of how this started was that it actually started with Johnny. We were brought together through Audrey Geisel. I was the beneficiary of hearing their interest and their ideas, and I was quite taken with their ideas
MELEDANDRI: We just started animation.
Does it give you an added level of pressure to live up to the success of the first one?
MELEDANDRI: You know, I find that making these films is all pressure. Making the first one is pressure, and living up to the first one is pressure. It’s all just different forms of pressure. But, absolutely, we all, collectively, are united in our hopes [for the film]. It’s very hard to set your sights on, “Will we live up to it?,” rather than, “Will we continually push ourselves to take what audiences loved about the first one and then go beyond it, so that we never feel like we’re playing it safe?”
How exciting is it that Al Pacino will be making his animation debut, voicing the villain?
MELEDANDRI: So exciting! That’s a highlight of one’s career. That’s crazy, wonderful and incredible.
Finally, look for exclusive video interviews with the cast of The Lorax next week.