Last week, Collider was invited to participate in an early footage preview for the Sony Pictures Animation film Hotel Transylvania, opening in theaters on September 28th. Set in Dracula’s (Adam Sandler) lavish resort where monsters and their families can be free to be who they are without humans to bother them, the story follows his beloved daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), who longs to explore the world on her 118th birthday. But, things are drastically shaken up when a human guy (Andy Samberg) stumbles into the hotel and takes an immediate shine to Mavis.
After getting to see a series of scenes from the film, which looks to be both funny and heartfelt, and showcased some of the wacky and wild legendary monsters featured in it, we got the opportunity to speak with producer Michelle Murdocca for this exclusive interview about what makes this monster story different, how they kept the family tone, what made Selena Gomez the right actress to bring their heroine Mavis to life, working with Adam Sandler to develop the voice for Dracula, and what it is about animation that has drawn her to the medium, as a producer. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Collider: What can you say about Hotel Transylvania and what makes this monster story different?
MICHELLE MURDOCCA: I think what makes Hotel Transylvania really unique is that we took all of the classic monsters that we all know and love – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Werewolf, Frankenstein’s wife, and our whole background cast – and we made them very family friendly. I think we created characters that kids may know of from costumes or from Sesame Street, or from movies that they may or may not have seen because the young kids often haven’t even seen that stuff. I think we made it so that these characters are really appealing and really friendly, and not scary. We created a world where we can tell a story that’s fun and comedic, but also has a heartfelt emotional message. In a nutshell, I think we created a world of characters that kids are really going to appreciate, that they may be kind of familiar with, but not really know. So, now we’re telling them who these characters are, for the first time.
Did you have any moments where you felt you needed to tone something down?
MURDOCCA: We’re in animation, so just being in the world of animation, you know that we’re making a family film. Our characters can’t be too scary. They have to be inviting, and they have to be friendly looking. We had some great character designers, like Carlos Grangel and Carter Goodrich and Craig Kellman. They all come from animation, and they’ve all done big animated movies. For them, I think it was just really fun to create characters that were funny. These guys are all really funny, so they just want to create funny characters. It’s kind of hard for them to create really serious characters, anyway. Some of the takes on the really old designs of Dracula were a little more stern and lower key. When (director) Genndy [Tartakovsky] came on, he really helped make a much more fun Dracula, and that totally fit with the Adam Sandler casting. That just worked really well. Frankenstein has always been a sweet, endearing character. I always saw Frankenstein as a really misunderstood guy, so we wanted to make him sweet and endearing and lovable. He’s Mavis’ favorite uncle, so it was about who would Mavis go to and be comfortable with. We just created a big cuddly and loving teddy bear kind of guy. As for all of the other background characters, we just wanted to have fun with them. I don’t think there’s a scary one among them. Even Dr. Jekyll, who is zany looking, is not scary. When you see the animation, he’s crazy. We also played off the animation style. Even if the characters might be a tad scary, which I don’t think they are, just the way they animate is really funny and the lines that they’re saying are really funny. We just really worked toward how we could make this a fun comedy that everybody can enjoy.
Did you spend a lot of time thinking about the look of Mavis, especially knowing that so many young girls will see her as a heroine?
MURDOCCA: Yeah. It’s funny, Mavis was designed by a girl named Annette Marnat, who lives in France. We’ve never met her. Three years ago, we were going through a bunch of different artists’ blogs when we were looking for character designers, and we came across this blog. She drew really beautiful, fun, quirky girls, and she did a lot of print advertising. We contacted her, and it really didn’t take very long for her to come up with Mavis. We were like, “Oh, my god, she’s amazing! She’s adorable and she’s likable, but she’s sassy and fun. She’s everything a teenager wants and a young girl would strive for.” And then, we became Facebook friends and we saw a picture of her and were like, “Oh, my god, she looks just like Mavis!” She was young and cute and sassy and sweet. So, she found Mavis really quickly. It’s funny because, over the years, often you’ll create a character and then change the design a little bit or you’ll have a different idea because the character’s personality is going in a different direction, but hers never changed. She was universally loved, and she stuck. She’s adorable.
What were you looking for, with the voice and bringing the character to life?
MURDOCCA: We wanted someone who was the right age and who was going through some of the same issues that Mavis was going through, and who could really portray a character that’s fun, quirky, sweet and lovable, but also had that itch to get out into the world. The way we do casting in animation is that we’ll put the model up and listen to voices against the characters. When we heard Selena [Gomez] against Mavis, it was just perfect. Also, the sound quality of her voice is really great. So, all of that combined was just a slam dunk. She just felt like the right casting for us.
When you cast somebody like Adam Sandler, who’s so well known, but he’s doing an accent that makes him sound different, how do you decide how far to push that?
MURDOCCA: We cast Adam, and then he had been thinking about the role for awhile while we were doing a lot of back and forth development writing. We said, “Okay, we’re putting up story reels. We want you to read through the script, so that we can use your voice in the reels.” So, he came in and said, “All right, I want to try on a couple different voices.” He tried a couple different voices and we would listen to them against picture, but he didn’t love them. And then, he tried this voice over the phone and we were like, “Okay, that’s it,” and he came in and recorded for us. It was a process for him of going, “Is this too thick of an accent? Does this sound too New York?” He didn’t want to be putting on such a thick accent that it didn’t sound like him, but he wanted to find the right balance of having somewhat of an accent while being really user friendly and understandable, too. We feel like he struck a good balance.
MURDOCCA: Having started out in visual effects, I got to do Stuart Little 1 and 2, and that really paved the way for me in animation. Being able to be involved, from the very early stages, on both of those movies and to be involved with the main character, who was animated, was great. I got a lot of insight into development and storytelling. What I realized in doing that was, when you create the world and you create the characters, you get to continue telling the story until the bitter end. What I love about animation is that we’re always working on perfecting the story. We do preview screenings to see how audiences react, and we can actually make changes without having to go back to wherever it was that we shot the movie to do these reshoots. You have a very finite period of time in which to do a reshoot, and what if you didn’t get everything you wanted? We can always do reshoots, and I love that. Everything is digital. All of our sets are always hot. So, it’s a really cool world. What we focus on is making the story perfect, or at least as perfect as we can get it. I love that. I love that, in animation, you never have to stop telling your story. You can continue and refine the story, as you go along. We really take a lot of time and consideration in honing the story. We’re honing it, up until the bitter end, and I love that about animation.