Director Chris Miller Talks PUSS IN BOOTS and Collaborating With Guillermo del Toro

     October 27, 2011

An animator, story artist, performer and filmmaker, Chris Miller has been an integral part of the hugely successful Shrek animated film series, since its inception. And, as someone who could tell that the charming and unforgettable Puss in Boots was a cat destined for great things, it’s no surprise that he was the right man to helm the adventure story.

At the press day for Puss in Boots, we spoke to director Chris Miller during a press conference and a 1-on-1 interview about when he realized that the devilish cat with the tremendous heart deserved a movie of his own, wanting to make his a tale of redemption, the changes made during the film’s development, the influence that executive producer Guillermo del Toro had on the film, how much extra material was generated that could end up on the DVD/Blu-ray, and that he hasn’t thought about making the transition to live-action that so many other animation directors are currently doing. Check out what he had to say after the jump.

Here’s the film’s synopsis:

Long before he even met Shrek, the notorious fighter, lover and outlaw Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) became a hero when he set off on an adventure with the tough and street smart Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and the mastermind Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) to save his town. Complicating matters along the way are the notorious outlaws Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris), who will do anything to see that Puss and his friends do not succeed.

Question: At what point did you realize that Puss in Boots was a character that deserved its own movie? When you were working on the Shrek movies, was it a character that you loved as much as the fans seemed to?

CHRIS MILLER: Yeah, I think so. I was the head of story for Shrek 2, but I did a lot of storyboards and writing. Myself and anybody else who was boarding on that film, always wanted to add Puss in Boots stuff. He was a really cool, dynamic sidekick character at that time, and we just tried to infuse him with as much weird history as we could. He’s been everywhere and he’s done everything, and we just tried to make him really devilish, knowing that in his heart, he’s a fiercely loyal and honorable cat. He was just so much fun to write for and develop. And, he really stole a lot of scenes from that film and had such a huge impact. He’s a pint-sized, pocket-sized, fun character.

We just always used to ask ourselves, “What would his story be? Where did he get the boots? Where did he get that accent? Why does he talk like that?” He just has this larger than life presence. I was happy, when DreamWorks finally decided, “Okay, let’s definitely make the movie.” For awhile, it was being developed, but it wasn’t really catching steam. It was just lingering there. So, when they committed to it, and I got the chance to get on board, I was really excited.

Everything was already in the character, in my opinion, just in Antonio’s persona and this explosive, dynamic, huge figure that was really cute. That character tells you what kind of movie to make. It’s going to be epic, the camera is going to be really active, it’s going to be a bit of a ride at times, it’s going to be very romantic and sweeping, and the comedy comes from so many different places, naturally. He just takes himself so seriously and is very melodramatic, which is instantly funny, coming out of that character, and Antonio is really good at that. We also knew that you could give him a heavy story. We thought it was really important to really damage him and break his heart, and give him something that he has to redeem himself from and clear his name.

Did you intentionally want to make him more of a mistaken outlaw, wanting to prove he was innocent, as opposed to a character who really had done something?

Puss-in-Boots-imageMILLER: Yeah, it was tough. It was always a debate. We were on the fence about that. It could have been like The Fugitive with, “I didn’t really kill my wife! It was the one-legged dog!” But, what we kept running into was that we thought it was important that Puss, in this movie, be culpable. It might not have been his intention to rob a bank. It certainly wasn’t his plan, in this film. The reason why he fled was more out of fear than anything else. He couldn’t face what had happened. But, it always felt like he needed some responsibility in that. If it was just a frame job and he was out to prove his name, I didn’t want him totally victimized. It also felt like it was really important to make that moment on the bridge a double betrayal, depending on who you are. If you’re Humpty Dumpty, it’s like, “My brother ran away from me. He didn’t help me out when I needed him the most.” For Puss, it’s like, “How could you lie to me?” So much of the film is about their relationship and that brotherhood. It was tricky stuff, to make that work and play.

This film has a really good balance of giving some backstory while taking the characters on an adventure. Was that something you thought about, in order to keep kids interested throughout the film?

MILLER: Yeah, it was always a delicate balance. That part of the movie, in particular, was just really tricky ‘cause there’s so much story. The whole story is in the childhood, so we had to get that to play at the right length and not feel too long or too much, and to really get the innocence of their childhood to come through. You have to understand why they loved each other, when they were younger. We wanted to take as much time as we could with that. I remember, ideally in my head, I was like, “That sequence should not be more than five minutes. It’s going to be too long, otherwise.” Actually, it ended up being double that, but we just couldn’t take anything away from it. It was really important stuff. But, I like playing with time. Everything is not so continuous. That made for an interesting first 20 minutes, or so. There’s a lot of intrigue and mystery. You’re like, “Why is he on the run?” He’s got this cool life, but there is a lot of heaviness on his mind and in his heart. I like stories that just unfold slowly.

In doing a movie like this, where you’re developing the story while you’re making it, were there any major changes during the process?

MILLER: The basic movement of the story was pretty consistent, in terms of a redemption story and clearing his name, but it evolves and changes constantly. We went down some paths for a long time where we finally just had to say, “We just can’t do this. We have to abandon this. It’s just not working.” With the giant’s castle, for the longest time, you were really going to encounter a giant up there. But, we were just killing ourselves and wondering, “Okay, how can we make the giant unexpected? Everyone is going to expect the giant, so the giant has got to have a really interesting character. He could be an astronomer. He could be an inventor. He could have two heads.” There were actually some funny ideas, but at the end of the day, we were like, “But we know that it’s going to be a giant.” And then, the story artists just said, “Well, why isn’t the giant just dead?” So, it’s a giant goose. That was cool. That felt right. But, we spent months. Sometimes you go down long roads, and you have to be willing to cut your loses. It’s just writing different drafts of scripts, but you’re doing it with the whole movie in front of you, all in storyboards, and looking at a whole picture. You probably get to see the movie 10 or 12 times before it comes out, so there’s no really good excuse for an animated film to have a really lousy story. We were rewriting and working stuff until about six weeks out [from the theatrical release]. It was one shot and three words, but you’re always adding stuff, until there’s no time. We went right up until the deadline, within hours.

How was it to transition between the spaghetti western aspect of the film and the 3D epicness of it?

MILLER: The spaghetti western style is part of the fabric. We wanted to make a film that was really based on lots of legends, and was a very legendary, epic movie. We took some cues from some classic cinematic figures. There’s a little bit of Clint Eastwood, a bit of Sergio Leone, a bit of Indiana Jones, some James Bond, some Zorro and some Errol Flynn. The characters are so dynamic that the 3D lends itself to his world, for scale and depth, and really helped inform the action scenes, knowing that we had that tool. I think the 3D looks beautiful. It really is special. The film is best seen in 3D, without a doubt. The story plays really, really well, in that format. We had some great people working on it. Our cinematographer also did How to Train Your Dragon, which next to Avatar, I just feel like that’s the most beautiful 3D film that’s been done. He worked with Roger Deakins on that film, so he brought all that knowledge and skill to Puss in Boots, and really raised the bar.

How do you know when something goes too far?

MILLER: I just operate on a gut feeling, with that stuff. I can just feel when it crosses the line. I can’t think of a specific thing where we went way too far and had to pull back. You just go with your gut, really. The film is geared towards a family audience, but at the end of the day, I want to make a film that I’d want to see. You just keep it simple.

Have you given any thought about what special features and extras you’d like to include on the DVD/Blu-ray?

MILLER: Stuff comes up, all the time. I know that a short was made for it. So much material was generated, but at the time, I wasn’t thinking about that. Every now and then, you’re like, “Well, I’ll put that 20 minutes we just cut out of the movie, that we worked three years on, on the DVD extra.” I was so wrapped up in the making of the movie that that stuff is outside of my periphery.

puss-in-boots-final-movie-posterWith so many animation directors making the leap to live-action films, is that something you’re looking to do?

MILLER: I haven’t thought about that a lot. I know so many people who have done that, or want to do that, and some with success, like Brad Bird with Mission: Impossible. That’s awesome! I can’t wait to see that! But, it just feels to me like the industry is moving much more in our direction, with the CG, or it’s meeting somewhere in the middle. I see a lot of people coming this way. We worked with Guillermo del Toro on Puss in Boots, and Roger Deakins has been at the studio a lot, in the last few years. There’s definitely a lot more cross-over, but I’ll just stay in animation.

What influence did Guillermo del Toro have on the film?

MILLER: Having Guillermo tied to the film was just a real blessing, and a fated event for us. I had just been reading in the trades that he wasn’t working on The Hobbit, which really bummed me out. I really wanted to see whatever dark, twisted version of that film that he was going to make. And then, a few hours later, I heard that he was coming to DreamWorks. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] was hosting him, and he was just checking out projects because he was back in town. So, I had an opportunity to pitch him the story and show him some artwork, and he was definitely attracted to it.

Also, it just so happened that we were screening the movie for the studio, the next day. We invited him, he saw it and really gravitated towards the movie, fell in love with it, and asked, “Can I be a part of this movie?” So, I immediately jumped on that. He became an executive producer, and then really became a great creative force for us. We worked out a system because, as Guillermo put it, he didn’t want to drink the Kool-Aid on the film and get too close and fall in love with it, so we’d bring him in once a month, or every six weeks, and just show him artwork, and show him a sequence in editorial, and just talk about character and story, and he was great. He encouraged us and pushed us to make it feel more fantastic and exciting. It was a benefit, all around. He’s a great filmmaker, so it was a real blessing. He’s a great producer, too.

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