With Rise of the Guardians opening this week, I recently got to see the finished film at DreamWorks Animation and it’s really well done. Not only is the animation great to look at, it’s got a strong story that’s character driven and it doesn’t rely on stupid jokes. In addition, unlike most superhero films that spend half the time introducing characters by explaining their origin and showing off their powers, what’s fantastic about Rise of the Guardians is we join almost everyone in the middle of the story. If you’re not familiar with the story, it revolves around the rebellious Jack Frost (Chris Pine) teaming up with other mythical figures North aka Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), E. Aster Bunnyman aka Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Tooth aka The Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Sandman to battle the evil Pitch (Jude Law). Here’s my video blog review and all our previous coverage.
To help promote the film, last week I got on the phone with Rise of the Guardians screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire. We talked about how the film didn’t tell a typical origin story, the tone, whether there were any dramatic changes along the way, and more. In addition, with Lindsay-Abaire writing the Poltergeist remake, he talked about the status of the script, whether he wrote it for a PG-13 or an R rating, and when it might shoot. Finally, since he’s also working on Sam Raimi‘s Oz The Great and Powerful and adapting The Family Fang with Nicole Kidman and Good People, he gave me updates on both projects. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Collider: One of the things I thought you guys did exceptionally well on the movie is you don’t spend like half the movie explaining these characters and their powers. You sort of just jump right on in and you’re joining everyone sort of in the middle of everything. Was that your decision? Was that DreamWorks? How did that decision come about?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: I think it was a collective decision- and it was a decision because you know it’s sort of a superhero story. But also the source material is so full of backstory and information and all kinds of great reveals, but at the end of the day we only had 87 minutes. So we also knew that people were walking in probably with a lot of information already they know who Santa Claus is, they know who the Easter Bunny is, they know what the Tooth Fairy does. And so for us, it was like we don’t need to explain any of that. If we want to surprise people and show them things that they didn’t know about the characters, then let’s do it, but let’s do it on the way to telling the story that we need to tell; which is Jack Frost nobody believes in him, he needs to believe in himself in order for people to believe in him. That’s the big story that we have to get out so we don’t have time to explain how Santa Claus became Santa Claus.
One of the things that I really like about this is that it’s a serious movie, it doesn’t have the dumb throw away, dumb gag. Could you talk about, was that you? Was that the studio? How did you maintain a good tone like that?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: When the story was pitched to me I loved the big ideas of it. I loved that it was epic. I loved that it was about hope versus despair. These are big, huge things. And it just felt totally, completely different than any DreamWorks movie. And I said, “Now before I sign on the dotted line I just want to make sure- this is the movie you want to make right? Because that’s the movie I want to make. If it’s going to veer off into whacky sidekick territory, and I love those movies, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what this needs to be, then maybe I’m not the man for your job.” And they stayed true to their word. That was the movie that they wanted to make. They wanted to make something that was different, that was timeless, that was about these big ideas and big themes while also being, I hope, full of adventure and action, and you know there’s some comedy in there too.
I’m sure you wrote your draft without knowing who was going to play these characters, once they stared doing the voice cast did you do a rewrite, or could you talk about how that maybe changed the script, if at all?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: Yeah, I think most people were cast. Because you know I was working on treatments for a long time and then, for example, Hugh Jackman came on board and there was a question about well who is this Easter Bunny? Is he going to be-you know in Bill Joyce’s book he’s more of a fussy, English-esque kind of rabbit. And I think it was Jeffrey Katzenberg who said “can Hugh use his Australian accent? Does that get us anything?” And that cracked open the character in a really useful way that he wasn’t suddenly this bespectacled rabbit; he became this creature from down under. Literally from under the ground, whipping around boomerangs, and he became much more of an action hero kind of character that was useful to our story. And then we discovered things once we were in the booth recording. I mean Alec Baldwin’s voice is such a huge personality and brave vitality of that North character that it was much easier to write him because Alec just brought such a great voice to him.
I’m curious when you were writing were there any story lines that you dropped that you originally had in an earlier draft, that maybe you were like, “well I can always use this in the sequel anyway”?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: Oh God, I’m sure there were so many. The answer is yes, many, and I probably don’t remember any of them. The one thing that I will say is because its eighty-seven minutes there were things that I enjoyed that had to go away. Pitch, for example, had much more of a backstory that made him a little more empathetic. But we had to trim it, and you know if there is a sequel then maybe we’ll find out what that is. But Pitch in particular. What we needed to know ultimately is that he is very similar to Jack in that he’s a character who has lived alone for eons, and is desperate to make a connection, desperate to be believed in, but he takes a very dark, selfish path that Jack doesn’t take. So in that way he had to serve our story, that story was about Jack. So I do miss it a little bit but that’s just what happens when you do a movie.
If I’m not mistaken you are, besides writing on Broadway, you are also writing some other screenplays. One of the ones that you’re involved with that I’m very excited to hear about is Poltergeist. I’m just curious, how’s that going, are you still working on it? Can you give fans an update?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: [laughs] Well, you know there’s not too much I can say. I will say that I handed in a second draft and people are incredibly excited about it. They’re not the director, but they’re in search of a director. I will also say that there are very few people who are as obsessed with the original movie as I am, so I would try to write a script that I would want to see as a fan. I will say that.
The other thing I wanted to know, and I know that you can’t get into specifics, but a lot of people are curious about rating. When you wrote your draft did you write it more for like the PG-13, or did you write it more for like an R?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: You mean Poltergeist?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: [Hesitates] What is the original would you say? My version, I will say this, it’s not a gory, horrible, it’s not- it’s tonally similar to the first movie. How about that? And that’s sort of a family-friendly-esque, right? With some real, genuine scares in it. It’s not Saw, if that’s what you’re asking.
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: I’m not trying to turn it into something else.
One of the most famous scenes in Poltergeist is under the bed, for the people that haven’t seen it I will not say more than that, but as a kid that scared the shit out of me. I’m just curious if that was a scene that also meant a lot to you about the original film?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: That scene and that vibe meant a tremendous amount to me, and that was the thing I was trying to emulate most in my draft. That movie also has some much-needed humor in it and some emotion in it, so all of that exists.
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: That movie also has some much-needed humor in it and some emotion in it, so all of that exists.
My last question for you on this, has the studio said anything to you about when they might want to film this thing? Is it a priority for them?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: It’s definitely a priority for them. As far as the “when” of it, I don’t know what that means, but they have said in no uncertain terms that it is a priority for them.
My other question about a another film project is you contributed to Oz the Great and Powerful, I’m just curious what you can tell fans about that movie and what it was like to work on that script.
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: It was tremendous fun to work on it. Sam Raimi is the most collaborative director I’ve worked with. He’s incredibly generous and loves these characters, and loves the story. It’s a great epic adventure. It was- and I haven’t seen the final cut so it’s hard to speak specifically about it because I don’t know how it turned out, but it was great fun to work on.
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: Yeah, very early on, yeah, and it was- it looks stunning, but a lot of the effects hadn’t been put in yet, but it was great. At that point we were still trying to focus the story a little bit. So I haven’t seen it since then.
Did you get to go to the set, and did you get to walk on the yellow brick road?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: I walked- yes, I was on set; I walked on the yellow brick road. I got to take a yellow brick home with me.
That’s kind of awesome.
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: Yeah, it’s fantastic.
My other thing for you is recently it came out that you were writing Family Fang with Nicole Kidman maybe doing it, and also you might be adapting your Good People. I’m just curious how that’s going on those two projects?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: Family Fang we are deep into it, I have to hand in a draft next week actually. I really love it. It’s a great, funny, emotional story. I like that it’s a smaller story about a family. It’s about big things, but it’s also incredibly funny and I think it’s a perfect role for Nicole. I’m having the best time. And it’s also reuniting me with a lot of people that worked on my movie Rabbit Hole; obviously Nicole and her co-producer Per Saari, all the producers, Dean Vanech and Leslie Urdang. So it’s like a family reunion and it’s been great. And we all speak the same language so it’s been very, very easy. As for my play Good People, I’ve sort of taken a step back because I need a little more time with it. I don’t know that it’s a movie yet and I’m waiting to figure out how to make it a movie. And at this point I haven’t figured it out. I don’t want to make the movie just to make it, you know, I want to make sure that it should be a movie. And not every play should make that transition, so I’m trying to figure out whether this is one of them or not.
I also want to know about writing for Broadway; you’re writing all these screenplays, you write for the Broadway, how do you decide what you want to work on? And are you writing anything for the stage right now?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: I am in the midst of two different plays; I owe a commission to Manhattan Theatre Club, which has produced all of my plays. So, yes, a new play soon. In terms of choosing projects, I just- I love to say yes to things that I’ve never done before. And so I’d never done the musical so I said, “Yeah, I’ll do Shrek the musical”. I’d never done lyrics, they let me write lyrics. I’ve never done a horror movie so I said “Yeah, I’ll do Poltergeist that should be fun I love that movie.” What they call have in common is I try to pick projects that will be fun to work on but also have a true touch to them, an emotion I can connect to that will last the two hours of the story that’s being told. I mean that’s the only thing that they seem to have in common. That’s how I chose them. Do I connect with it on an emotional level?
I’m definitely curious about your writing process. Many writers I speak to talk about how when they first wake up there’s like a three to four hour periods that’s like their golden hours where they’re very creative. And other writers I speak to say that can do the nine to five, and they just work all day and they don’t have a problem. I’m just curious for you, what’s your process?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: I’m the latter. I am a nine-to-fiver. I try to look at it as a real job. Having deadlines helps because people are constantly breathing down my neck, and tapping their toes waiting for pages. So I just have to work nine to five. If I didn’t have deadlines then I might be more of a golden hour kind of guy, writing from eight to noon and calling it a day, but that’s just not the way I work right now.
Have you been pitched a lot of stuff where you were like, “that would be a really cool job, but maybe I’m not the right person for it.” I’m curious about the projects you maybe have turned down.
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: Um…I have turned down a lot of projects. Often it comes down to timing, so that’s an easy way to say no. But usually it’s if I just don’t connect with the material, if I don’t feel like there’s a reason for that being, then I’m certainly not the person to write it. I try to be very nice in my turning down of things because you want people to come back to you incase there’s something that you do want to do, you know?
With Rise of the Guardians, have you already started thinking, you know, “I’ve got some good ideas for the sequel,” or you know even two more films?
LINDSAY-ABAIRE: I have not. I don’t know if DreamWorks has. It’s only been floated to me and I have said that I am in no position to start thinking about a sequel. I would only do it if there is a reason to do it. I loved the size and scope of this story and it would be hard to find something with as deep emotion or as high stakes. But I would need them to be in place for me to personally want to work on a sequel.
For all our Rise of the Guardians coverage click here.