Last Friday, a few online reporters were invited to the Santa Monica office of Illumination Entertainment to watch about 15 minutes of Universal Pictures’ inaugural 3D CGI feature Despicable Me. In addition to watching the footage, we were able to speak with producer Chris Meledandri (Ice Age franchise, Robots, Horton Hears a Who!) about leaving 20th Century Fox and starting Illumination Entertainment, which has a multi-picture deal to deliver live-action and animated all-audience films for Universal Pictures.
After the jump you can find a brief recap of what I thought about the footage, a video blog that I did with Peter from Slashfilm about going to Illumination Entertainment and what we both thought of the footage, and a full interview with Producer Chris Meledandri. Take a look:
Since the teaser trailers haven’t exactly sold the story, here’s the synopsis:
In a happy suburban neighborhood surrounded by white picket fences with flowering rose bushes, sits a black house with a dead lawn. Unbeknownst to the neighbors, hidden deep beneath this home is a vast secret hideout. Surrounded by an army of tireless, little yellow minions, we discover Gru (Steve Carell), planning the biggest heist in the history of the world. He is going to steal the moon (Yes, the moon!).
Gru delights in all things wicked. Armed with his arsenal of shrink rays, freeze rays and battle-ready vehicles for land and air, he vanquishes all who stand in his way. Until the day he encounters the immense will of three little orphaned girls who look at him and see something that no one else has ever seen: a potential Dad. One of the world’s greatest super-villains has just met his greatest challenge: three little girls named Margo, Edith and Agnes.
Despicable Me features the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Danny McBride, Miranda Cosgrove, Jack McBrayer, Mindy Kaling, Jemaine Clement and Julie Andrews
Producer Chris Meledandri explains why he wanted to make the film:
“Everybody has a wicked side, whether they are six or sixty, and yet so often storytelling draws a sharp line between good and evil,” says Meledandri. “After years of taking my sons to the movies and having them leave the theatre with the villain as their favorite character, we decided to make a movie where the villain is the protagonist.”
And that’s one of the things I’m most excited about regarding Despicable Me: how the film is going to focus on the villain and the way he turns out being a hero. All too often, animated movies just follow the typical Joseph Campbell story arc, and the only difference from movie to movie is the way the character looks and the world they inhabit. Despicable Me, on the other hand, not only explores a new world with interesting characters, but focuses on the villains of the world. Also, rather than have Steve Carell sound like Steve Carell in the film, he does a foreign accent so you almost can’t tell it’s him. They’ve cast actors to play specific characters, not actors playing themselves.
What you also need to know about Despicable Me is the world is filled with villains and everyone is trying to one up each other. While Gru used to be king of the hill, some up and comers are trying to take the crown. That’s why in the first teaser trailer you saw how the pyramid was stolen, as one of the new guys had taken it. In an effort to regain the top spot, Gru decides to steal the moon. Very realistic…I know.
And that brings me to what another aspect of the film that I really like…how everything exists in a sort of Spy vs. Spy world. If Gru attacks another villain in the film and in the exchange gets blown up, in the next scene he’s fine. Or if he’s hit with a huge object, he’ll be okay soon after. Basically, the movie doesn’t follow real world rules, it’s more like a cartoon world based on the real world….so that should make for some fun times.
Since the film is in 3D, we were shown a scene that takes place in an amusement park where the camera is on the front of a roller coaster and our perspective is what the front of the coaster sees. In 3D it should be a hell of a shot.
While we were only shown the opening 15 minutes (which was still in rough form) and a few scenes from later in the film, I think Universal has a winning animated movie on their hands, even if it’s coming out in July against some big films.
Anyway, since reading what my thoughts can get pretty boring, Peter (from Slashfilm and who was also in attendance) and I decided to record a video blog about what we thought of the footage after the presentation. We actually recorded it at the In-N-Out burger in Westwood, so sorry for any audio issues. Here’s our conversation:
Finally, for more on Despicable Me, here’s the interview we did with producer Chris Meledandri after we saw the footage. He talks about Illumination Entertainment, how all their movies will be in 3D, how they decided on Gru stealing the moon, and a lot more:
Question: How many active projects do you have right now?
Meledandri: Well, we have three in production and probably I’d say fifteen in development but we develop a very low ratio. Our average from development to production, we develop three projects for every one that we make. The studio average is anywhere from fifteen to twenty five but we tend to be very focused on films that we really believe we’re going to make as opposed to exploring and a lot of development.
Is this your first 3D animated film that you’ve done?
Meledandri: This is the first 3D film that I’ve done, yes.
Is the plan now for all of your animated films to be in 3D?
Meledandri: At the current moment everything that we’re doing is planned for 3D.
Do you feel like it’s necessary to have a set piece like the roller coaster scene as the big 3D scene or is that organically a part of it?
Meledandri: I think that there are a lot of, or well there are a lot of sequences in the movie that take advantage of the dimensional space in a dynamic way. That’s one of probably…we use the three 3D space differently depending on the nature of a sequence. I think that it’s important for a film that’s in 3D that the filmmakers create the movie from a staging and scene planning standpoint with the dimensional space as one of their storytelling components. Where I think that 3D will fall apart is going to be as audiences now get treated to incredibly artistic utilizations of space. I think the films that are just sort of done as 3D transfer type films, the audience will perceive the difference in that. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have very subtle use of 3D like Henry [Selick] did in ‘Coraline’ where the dimensional space is very present but it’s not like the film is rushing at you. But that was clearly a part of Henry’s vision. I think for us given a film where we’ve got certain battles, ships battling in the sky; we’ve got action sequences so the action is exploiting that space. I think that you’ve got to demonstrate in the film that it’s conscious utilization of space as opposed to just a simple transfer.
In the assault on Vector’s lair, there seems to be a strong ‘Bond’ and ‘Spy vs. Spy’ influence. What kind of cultural stuff are you hoping to pay tribute to and maybe reference in a little bit?
Meledandri: Well, there is without question an element of kind of a ‘Bond’ like foundation from which it springs. Gru is probably closer, and not in a literal way, but to an old Bond style villain than any other sort of cinematic villain. So that was definitely part of sort of the creative early conversations about where this will emerge from. The other conversation was as it relates to Gru was about his physicality and that an influence in Chris [Renaud] and Pierre’s depiction of how he moved and how physical he was as a character came from some Peter Sellers reference. They watched a lot of Peter Sellers and a lot of Rowan Atkinson in terms of saying, ‘Okay, there’s a physical expression of this character that goes beyond what, without Rowan Atkinson or Peter Sellers goes beyond what a live action depiction of this character would be.’ I mean you’re kind of nailing it because we definitely did refer to that dynamic between Vector and Gru as the fun of the ‘Spy vs. Spy’ dynamic. It’s a tonal dynamic to that action as well as a kind of physical reference in that they’re battling back and forth which are battles that can result in a character being in the middle of an explosion and still crawling out of the ground to fight another day. So those references were definitely very much a part of the original conversation about that dynamic.
There’s one drawing over there that looks like a Charles Adams representation.
Meledandri: We are big, big Charles Adams fans. We talked about Charles Adams. There’s an image that probably no one will see of a painting on Gru’s wall that is a big boulder rolling off of a cliff and the images freezes with that boulder coming down off of the cliff. There’s a mountain road and there’s a bus rolling around the corner. Not that that’s front and center in the movie in any way but the Charles Adams influence in terms of humor, that kind of thing where you can have humor that has edge and charm simultaneously. We certain aspired to it.
That kind of good humored morbidity?
Meledandri: Yes, yes. It’s a high bar to aspire to but you might as well start with strong ambitions. But comedically Adams is something that’s very near and dear to us.
Are there any other Easter Eggs in the movie that people should be looking for?
Well, maybe you don’t exactly say what it is but some hint to look for?
Meledandri: There’s definitely, or well one that I’d say is that there’s a reference that’s visual that is connected to one of the little girls. There’s a very specific reference to be discovered there that if somebody looks for they’ll find.
Are there any heroes in this world or is run completely by villains?
Meledandri: The world, this is a subculture of the world, the villain subculture of the world. But the character that ends up being heroic is Gru himself because to change and embrace that change and to go from a guy who’s joking with his neighbor about his dog to a guy who is kind redefining what family means, the least likely guy that’s somewhat heroic. That’s a heroic transformation and ultimately he rights the wrongs that he’s perpetrated.
And in the last scene we see that he regrets he killed the dog?
Meledandri: He doesn’t kill the dog [laughs]. We just felt that for once it was more interesting to deal with comedically flawed characters. We’ve got a lot movies with heroes in them and a movie where you just delve into characters who have more flaws, that was just more interesting.
Do the other villains get wind of his plan to steal the moon and it becomes a race to see who can get it done first?
Would you ever think of taking another run at something other than family friendly animation or will you let someone else give that a shot before you try it again?
Meledandri: Well, the way that you phrased the question sounds like bosses I’ve had in response to suggestions. I feel like ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ was a baby step in that direction. We’d had a tremendous amount, or the success that we had fortunately through the grace of something way, way outweighed the massive loss we had by tenfold or twenty-fold. We’ve had this good fortune of success and so how do you use that to go off on a path when you can really afford to do something that is not a part of a formula. The challenge now is that we’re a new company and we’re in a much more challenged time economically and so we have to lay the foundation initially with films that play to a broader audience. We are working on projects, one of which we’ll announce shortly, that begins to go and push off again. We have some idea for the future that push even further. My own pace at which we would realize those films that depart from just the traditional model is somewhat slowed based on the environment that we’re in now, where the industry as a whole is facing tougher economic challenges. So with that it becomes more difficult to stray toward or into uncharted terrain. The one thing that I will say is that for many years the reasons, ‘Titan AE’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ were used as the most frequently cited examples of why you can’t make movies for a non-family audience. The truth of the matter is that ‘Titan AE’ was made for a family audience. Just because at the time it was perceived as off strategy for a family movie. It was marketed probably older than it really was as a film. It’s a pretty soft film.
It’s a science fiction film.
Meledandri: Yes, exactly, the science fiction branded it. The science fiction thing, yes, that was it. But you can’t use, or I don’t think either ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Titan AE’ were particularly successful movies. Not financially successful but successful creatively. So it’s not fair to use movies that weren’t creatively successful as a reason why something won’t work. If you did that with live action we wouldn’t make any movies because there are examples of everything not working. You wouldn’t make anymore superhero movies after the movie that Fox made with Ben Affleck in the leather. ‘Daredevil’. You’d say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t work so lets stop making them.’ So the answer is yes we do have a commitment to push the boundaries that currently exist as a component of what we’re doing.
I’m just admiring the Spirited Away poster.
Meledandri: I’ve been to the Ghibli museum and to the studio twice. My favorite shot in the movie is actually the exterior of that shot, the train moving on the water in the wide shot and when I went to the museum they only had two equivalent of cells, or whatever they’re called now, and this was one of them. It was the second best thing to getting my favorite shot because it’s the flipside of the interior of the exterior shot. I love that movie. We tried very hard when I got to Universal with [Hayao] Miyazaki many times to become the distributor of ‘Ponyo’ here and had a conversation with them that went on for about fourteen months. I thought we were going to end up doing it, making it happen and then at the last minute it fell apart. So I was very disappointed but the museum that he’s built there is unbelievable space. It’s just incredible. It is the closest thing to stepping into his imagination, stepping into one of his movies. It’s fantastic. Then visiting the studio, he wasn’t there and I’ve never met him but I figured if I was going to try vie for distribution I’d go through the producing side because it’s like John Lasseter and Miyazaki have this relationship and so who am I? What language am I going to speak? I’ll speak the language of the producer but you go and see his desk that he works on. It’s incredible. There are these slippers by his desk and he’d left and gone home. The last bit is that he has built, like in ‘Ponyo'; he believes very much in this idea of the juxtaposition of like pre-schools and grade school that he’s doing and homes for the elderly. He believes that if you put those two things together at the intersection between the young and the old is a great idea. Right near his studio he’s done that. There’s that thing in ‘Ponyo’, that setting is juxtaposed like that and it’s incredible.
Meledandri: We had tons of discussions about because we wanted to land on what would be that consummate thing that could transcend anything that’s ever been a part of a heist before. It was actually something that our director added to Sergio’s [Pablos] story and he worked with some of the artists to come up with that image which – I don’t have a great answer to the question because we talked about it so much that when we landed on the moon we loved it. It’s like that was it. It doesn’t really make sense and yet it’s such an important part of children’s literature and illustrations and what all the things that you associate with the moon being taken away. So that’s my favorite idea.
How did you approach casting the voice talent?
Meledandri: Well, you have to start with the notion that you pick the actor who’s going to embody the role, the best person that you can find. If you don’t start with that then it sort of defies the whole purpose of trying to make the best film that you can make. But we tend to look towards, even though our stories have dramatic components in them we tend to look at actors who are comedic and certainly look and listen for actors who can use their vocal tools to create that comedy, obviously, as opposed to the physicality. It is important to us that our actors are able to help us communicate about the film because we’re not branded. We’re not Pixar. We don’t have any brand and we need to excite and audience about our movie and one of the ways that we can reach an audience is by our actors helping to do that. It’s not so much that the actors themselves have to be enormous stars. John Leguizamon ‘Ice Age’, the first one, was enormously helpful in conveying enthusiasm and excitement about the movie and he was someone who the press liked. The audience though didn’t necessarily know who he was. They knew him more because of the film. So that component of it especially when you’re telling a story that’s an original story and not based on something else, we have a responsibility to do that and our actors share that with us. We don’t believe that just a name of an actor is going to motivate an audience to go see an animated film. It’s the enthusiastic support of an actor when they hear it and when they about the movie that will do it