Dustin Hoffman and Director Mark Osborne Interview – KUNG FU PANDA

     June 3, 2008

You know how the Discovery Channel has Shark Week? Well, you might as well call this Kung Fu Panda week on Collider, as this interview is part of the boatload of coverage for the movie.

The reason for all this coverageis…I participated in interviews with most of the cast this past weekend. And on top of my interviews, Erico from the website Omelete (Collider’s partner) flew here from Brazil for the junket and I’ll be using his video interviews as well. So…like I said…it’s Kung Fu Panda week on Collider.

Thankfully, I really enjoyed Kung Fu Panda so helping to promote the film is cool with me. And if you haven’t heard of the film yet…

Kung Fu Panda features Jack Black as Po the Panda, a lowly waiter in a noodle restaurant, who is a kung fu fanatic but whose shape doesn’t exactly lend itself to kung fu fighting. In fact, Po’s defining characteristic appears to be that he is the laziest of all the animals in ancient China. That’s a problem because powerful enemies are at the gates, and all hopes have been pinned on a prophesy naming Po as the “Chosen One” to save the day. A group of martial arts masters are going to need a black belt in patience if they are going to turn this slacker panda into a kung fu fighter before it’s too late. Fighting alongside Jack Black is a hell of a voice cast, with the film also featuring the voices of Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Ian McShane, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, David Cross and Seth Rogen.

During the mini press conference, Dustin told a lot of funny stories and I was really surprised at how forthcoming he was about how he got involved with the movie and how his career has changed since he got in the business many years ago. Seriously, it’s a great interview.

Finally, before getting to the interview with Dustin Hoffman and Director Mark Osborne, if you want to watch 10 movie clips from Kung Fu Panda click here.

And, as always, if you’d like to listen to the audio of the interview click here for the MP3. Again, Kung Fu Panda gets released this Friday at theaters everywhere.

Question : You chose to have Jack and Dustin work together in this and that is unusual in animation, why did you do that and for Dustin, what was it like working with Jack Black?

Mark: It was actually really important for us – creating the characters is an evolution, we have an idea and then we bring someone like Dustin in to help us really author the character, because he’s such a huge part of creating the character. So for us there is a very important dynamic between Po and Shifu, and we wanted to actually explore that with both actors. So it was something that we did early on intending it to be a very playful session, an exploratory session, and we ended up actually getting a lot of great finished dialogue in that session, because the interplay was so great. And it was a thrill; they hadn’t worked together, so we got to pair these two, and just to be there was fun.

Dustin: Oh that it could be longer, is my answer. I wish there would be a way to make these films where the actors interact all the time, but the process is – you can’t do it. It’s been four years doing this, making it, so you work for a few days, see ya, later they call you, four months later you come in again, so you couldn’t have all the actors in the same place, but it would be wonderful if we could, I think.

Mark: There’s a time constraint, schedules are complicated, but also for us there’s a technical consideration too, so normally you’re just working with one person at a time, just because – sometimes we’ll come in and we’ll just need ten lines from a certain sequence, and that’s all we need.

Dustin: Some people have asked me a lot, did you enjoy doing it? And I tend to tell the truth in work, in life I don’t. And I said, ‘No, I don’t enjoy it, it’s painstaking,’ and finally I asked Mark, just in this last press conference, I said, ‘Can I ask you, do you enjoy it?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s painstaking.’ You know, it’s tough to make a regular movie, because it’s tense on the set, because you have to do a certain amount of work, you want to get all the coverage, you don’t know whether you’re making the right choices, directors always say, as actors do on the way home, oh I should have done this, I should have done that, but still when you compare it, it’s much more fun to make a regular film, this is – I doff my hat to these guys, there’s no other word for it, it’s painstaking.

Q: I want to ask you about finding this character, because it’s obviously a performance although we’re not actually seeing you, it’s still a performance, so you’re putting all your energies into your voice, I wanted to ask you how you set about portraying him, because he is an old guy –

Dustin: And I’m not, thank you. I met Mark and I knew Jeffrey, Jeffrey’s the one who asked me to do it, and I went to DreamWorks and I met Mark, and the producers and Jeffrey, and they showed me sketches of the character, and I said, ‘What is he?’ I didn’t know what it was. And they said that’s a very rare panda.

Mark: Red panda

Dustin: Red panda, thank you. Isn’t there a name for the red panda? People have asked me that.

Mark: Red panda. There is a scientific name I guess

Dustin: That’s like saying you have the pox, what’s it really called? We don’t know, alright, red panda. And I said, ‘Tell me about this guy.’ And they started talking to me, because I did have a concern that I didn’t want to – you know, I come from a generation who sees these things as cartoons, which is almost a pejorative today to call these things cartoons, because they are in their infancy of being their own art form. We ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It’s extraordinary what you can do. To get highfalutin, if you look at the caricatures of Daumier, animation is going to enter that era any minute now where you can do an essence of human beings and classes, politicians or whatever, and do them in extraordinary [detail].

Mark: It was great, because it was important to us to ask Dustin to take it seriously, we wanted him to take the role seriously, we wanted to take the movie seriously, the world in the movie where we’re trying to make a true classic kung fu film that honored the genre and honored the traditions of animation. There’s a great tradition of very classic storytelling, so that’s what we were asking Dustin to do, and actually in our first meeting, I don’t know if you remember this, but you had just gone to your acupuncturist the day before, who had explained the idea of Yin and Yang –

Dustin: He kept hitting my yang though and it killed me.

Mark: So we were like, this is perfect.

Dustin: I was concerned that it would be two-dimensional, that’s what I didn’t want to do, and so we discussed what a third dimension is, and a character and a human being. I said, ‘Well, insight, introspection,’ there are few two-dimensional people in our administration, but we won’t get political, and suddenly my little red panda ears went up when they said, ‘He’s an arrogant guy, he’s all knowing at the beginning, and he doesn’t think he’s ever been wrong, and he has an arc.’ And I said, ‘Oh that starts to be interesting.’ You can’t print – in other words, he’s a prick, he’s a little prick. And they said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘I’m in.’ (he laughs) And I do – for what it is I do appreciate that by the end of the film he reaches a point where he realizes that a portion of his life he’d been living as a lie. So you just try to get as much human qualities in as you can.

Q: How much do you have to always consider that this is going out to a very young audience as well as regular viewers, for lack of a better term, and does the studio ever have to make you dial back on the violent scenes?

Mark: We take the approach that we’re just sort of making the film for human beings, we’re just trying to make the film that we want to see. We have to constantly check in and consider, just as filmmakers, the audience, and we try to think about the kid audience, but we don’t tailor the film, we don’t try to talk down to kids, because kids don’t necessarily respond to that I think. What we try to do is just take the job of telling a story seriously and, as far as the studio goes, we never dialed anything back because we were disciplined as filmmakers ourselves to consider the fact that – I have a seven year old son and a ten year old daughter, and I watch movies with them, I watch through their eyes and it’s a big part of how I learn as a filmmaker to understand how they see the world too. So I think it’s something that we do, and even when we tested the film, we did test screenings, we were always trying to push the envelope a little bit, we have a very scary villain, we wanted to have a very scary villain, we have a prick at the beginning of the movie –

Dustin: Not a scary prick though.

Mark: But there’s some intense emotional stuff in the film, and for us that was important for the storytelling, and audiences never complained about any of it, even the most dramatic sequences in the film. And so we knew early on that we were striking the right balance, we mentioned yin and yang, the whole film is about the yin and yang of – there’s violent kung fu action, and then there’s a soft cuddly panda. So we were constantly trying to find that right balance, and it seemed every time that we were hitting it, so we never had to dial back.

Dustin: You know, it’s interesting for those of us who have kids, the shock of recognition when you start reading children’s books to your kids, and you’re reading Pinocchio and you haven’t pre-read it before you’re reading it to your kids because you read it long ago, and suddenly you’re at that point, ‘And Pinocchio is in front of the fireplace, and the fire starts to burn his legs up.’ And you just stop talking. [He laughs] And I remember the first film I think I saw was Bambi, and the trauma stays with me, they were all killed in the fire in the woods. The amount of children’s literature that has violence in it is extraordinary. I’m not saying that it’s right, but it’s amazing.

Mark: It’s an important part of storytelling. It’s an important part of being a kid is to be scared in a safe environment, and there was a promise that Disney sort of used to talk about – Walt Disney used to say, is a promise that we make our audience, we say we’re going to scare you, but everything’s going to be okay. It’s kind of like riding a rollercoaster, it’s thrilling but you know you’re in a safe environment, so it’s that kind of important storytelling – the thing that’s important to us in telling the story.

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Q: Dustin, was there anything in your performance as an actor that you had to take into consideration such as pulling back a little because you had such an intense character?

Dustin: No, I swear I was led by these guys. I told them I was putting myself in their hands because they knew the character, they knew the animation, they knew the story. I’m in a room with just these guys, with Mark and the producers and writers, behind glass a little further away than you are, and they’re saying “Try this, try that.” And I’m always reading stuff. They call you in for 3 or 4 days and then you don’t see them for a few months, then you come back. I mean you don’t know what they’re doing behind closed doors. They’re redoing this and redoing that and you’re working out of sequence as you do a regular film and all I asked of them is early on I said “Please show me some animation beside the sketch.” They said “But the voice won’t match.” I said “But I just need to have some feeling so I could see it and say ‘No, that’s not right. That’s too close to me’ or ‘That’s too contemporary.’” You don’t know what you’re looking for. You just know when it feels right. I mean feelings about the guy came into my head, like William Buckley’s voice and merging it with someone else. You just get your imagination going. I asked “May I do anything over that I don’t like?” I had heard about Mike Myers after he saw “Shrek,” he said “Okay, now I know how to do it.” And he did the entire movie over again with a different voice so I got the Mike Myers clause in my contract. [laughs] And when I was done, yes, I was stunned that there were so few notes I had. They had a sense of it so I was led by them, and I told them that I would say this in the junkets afterwards. So, if the movie didn’t work, I was going to say “It’s theirs.” [laughs]

Q: Did you really have a clause in your contract if you didn’t like it?

Dustin: No, it was a gentleman’s agreement.

Q: With “Mr. Magorium” and this film, you’ve done family friendly films with characters who have great wisdom. Is that just a coincidence or have you reached a point in your life where you’re looking for different kinds of scripts?

Dustin: I’m just taking what’s being sent my way like any actor. I guess the truth of it is that unless it’s someone my age, unless you develop the part yourself, you’ve reached the point where you’re not going to get the leading roles because the leading roles are written for people in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties. Then, after your fifties, sixties, you start to become the supporting actor generally speaking unless you’re James Bond or Sean Connery or some kind of signature action person maybe like Harrison Ford and I’m none of those people. I’m developing my own stuff like anyone does but yes, what’s out there, you take what you have a feeling for.

Mark: You are an action star now though.

Dustin: Yes, yes I am. Yes, I am.

Q: For Mark or Dustin, your tigress, Angelina Jolie, what does she add to the movie and has she enjoyed promoting this movie?

Dustin: Well I just want to say very quickly before Mark answers, there were some very erotic love scenes between Shifu and Angelina that they cut out because they thought it was just poor focus from the rest of the story but we were extraordinary together.

Mark: I think she had a surreal experience at Cannes, for me in particular, but I think she seemed to have a good time and was very graceful throughout the whole experience. I’m really grateful to have her in the film because she was fantastic and the role of Tigress is such a crucial role in the film, such a crucial character even though it’s a smaller side character. She’s Po’s favorite. He idolizes the Furious Five but she’s the one that he idolizes the most and Tigress is the one that really should have been picked as the Dragon Warrior. She spends most of the film trying to deal with that internal struggle of feeling that she knows that she should be this one and this guy’s in the way. And there’s a nice arc to her character too. So it’s a very significant role in the film and so it’s just great to have her helping us not only create the character but also talking about the film because I don’t know if you’ve heard but she’s pregnant with twins. Did anyone hear that? Does anyone know there’s a break in that story?

Dustin: There’s a rumor it could be Shifu’s. [laughter] It was the second time that I met her. The first time I was making a film called “Hook.” I think it was around 1992 and Jon Voight, who I’d worked with in “Midnight Cowboy,” called me up and said “My kids are dying to meet Captain Hook. Are you in costume? Can I come over with the kids?” “Yes, sure. Come over.” So he brings over his kids and comes in the camper and I’m introduced to his son and his daughter and she’s this tall, thin, gawky looking girl with a mouth full of braces and he introduces us. “This is Angelina.” And I said, “Hi.” I was just making conversation. “So do you guys have any idea what you want to do?” And she gave me a laser-like intensity look at me and she says, “I’m going to be an actress.” And I went home to my wife and I said, “I don’t think this kid has any idea what a tough road she’s got.” [laughs] But that was the only other time I had met her, then I see her in Cannes.

Q: Dustin, your character, Shifu, is a master who is still learning. As a master actor, are you still learning while working with young people?

Dustin: My honest answer, and some people just don’t believe it and some do, is I don’t feel I’m a master and most artists I know don’t feel they’re masters, whether they’re actors or directors or painters or writers. You don’t want to feel that. You feel that you’re going to stop in your tracks so to speak. You want to feel that you’re a student for your lifetime. It’s kind of like saying you don’t want to say “Okay, in life now, I understand life.” Because you’re in trouble if you do that. You want to say, “No, I’m going to continue to learn about life right until the last moment.” And I’m going to continue to learn about myself until the last moment and I continue to find the things in myself that I thought were accurate that aren’t accurate. We lie to ourselves. We paint ourselves in a color that we want to be. I must tell you that I am aware of following my own feeling and I just tell actors to do that. I mean this with all my heart, and that is that the most extraordinary thing about being alive is that you look around and presumably you’re looking at the one person that has never existed before and that is never going to exist again, that each person has that extraordinary quality called uniqueness and that’s what any actor and any artist should be trying to get in touch with. That, along with – I use this example – I guess there was an Olympics, I think it was 1988 or something, Greg Louganis, he had five gold medals for diving, and there was one dive he did toward the end which was supposed to be simpler than the others, it was a swan dive, and I remember they were saying when I was watching it, he was supposed to get up into the air – excuse me, I don’t know anything about diving – spread out and then you’re supposed to come down perpendicular and get as close to the edge of the board as you can and he missed by that much and hit himself in the head after five gold medals. I’ve never forgotten it. I said there it is. There’s the difference between nailing it and getting a ‘1’. Anybody in any art form knows that. Success and failure, they’re almost shaking hands.

Q: But even with two Oscars, you don’t feel like a master?

Dustin: No. [joking] There should have been four or five, but even then I wouldn’t feel like a master. I would just feel that I was duly rewarded. [laughs]

Mark: The things you’re talking about are in the film. A true master knows that they still have something to learn. When Po lands in front of Oogway, he is wise enough to know “Oh, I don’t know everything” and he’s open to it, whereas Shifu is very closed down and thinks he knows everything. So I think what you’re saying is actually very relevant and thematic to the film. You keep doing that. You’re very good.

Q: What do you have next, Dustin?

Dustin: What’s up next? Well they haven’t approached me for the sequel. I did this film that I loved doing as much as anything I’ve ever done called “Last Chance Harvey” with Emma Thompson and there ain’t nobody better that I’ve ever worked with. It’s a love story for the baby boomers. Thanks for the press conference. Don’t you wish they went on all day? They’re so much fun!

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