‘Storks’ Directors Nicholas Stoller & Doug Sweetland on Balancing Humor with Emotion

     September 24, 2016

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Directed by Nicholas Stoller (who was also the screenwriter) and Doug Sweetland, the animated feature Storks shows what the storks have been up to since they’ve stopped delivering babies and started delivering packages for global internet retail giant Cornerstore.com. When Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg) is about to receive a promotion, the Baby Factory is accidentally activated by a human named Tulip (voiced by Katie Crown), whose actions produce an adorable baby girl that they attempt to deliver to her family before any of the other storks catch on.

While at the film’s press day, filmmakers Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland sat down with Collider to chat about all things Storks. During the exclusive interview, they talked about the themes of the film, teaming up to direct the animated feature, the different skill sets they brought to the project, just how much the story evolved and changed, and why they see this as a complete story. Stoller also talked about his upcoming Netflix series, Friends from College, for which he’ll be directing all eight episodes, and Sweetland talked about how he’d like to continue to make animated features.

Collider: This is a very cute film that’s also really funny, but it also touches on the importance of family and finding somewhere you belong. Nick, when you sat down to write this, were there any themes that you set out looking to explore?


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Image via Warner Bros.

NICHOLAS STOLLER: All of the things I’ve directed, I’m really emotionally close to. That’s why I choose to direct them and spend years on them. When I write something, it’s usually ‘cause I think it’s funny or I have a way in, but when I direct something, I really need to be close to it. For my wife and I, our first child was really easy to have, but our second one was really hard to have. We had to go to a lot of fertility clinics and do that whole thing. So, the movie really came from that experience, in terms of the emotional underpinning of it. And then, the premise of storks that used to deliver babies, but now essentially deliver for Amazon, is a funny premise to overlay this emotional thing. It ended up being a love letter to family and how families come in all different shapes and sizes, and how there are all different kinds of families.

DOUG SWEETLAND: For me, I really related to this question of what happens when you are really career-minded, and then you suddenly have a kid, which is a big, important responsibility that divides your time.

How did you guys come to be directing this together, and how did it work out for you guys?

STOLLER: We were set up by Chris deFaria at Warner Bros., who head of animation there. I loved Doug’s short, Presto, at Pixar and he’s an animation legend, in terms of computer animation, and I don’t know anything about that. I directed the records and would help give direction, in terms of storyboards, but all the animation really fell into Doug’s lap. We had a great partnership.

SWEETLAND: And a mutual respect. I basically heard that Nick Stoller had an animated movie pitch and needed help with art. This was in late 2012. That was the reason to come on board. I’m a huge fan of Nick’s movies, and just the idea that he was going to be making an animated movie sounded too interesting to pass up. I wanted to know what that looked like. That was really the beginning of it.

What are the advantages to having more than one director on an animated feature?

STOLLER: It’s a lot less work, if we both do it. All movies are inherently collaborative, and animation even more so. There are hundreds and hundreds of people involved with an animated movie. I think we each bring a different skill set. A lot of the acting of the characters and the way they move is all Doug, up in Vancouver, figuring all of that out. I had so few notes on the animation, once it came back. This magical machine produced the animation and I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool!” Meanwhile, they were killing themselves up in Vancouver. We each bring a different skill set. I have a lot more experience working with actors. I was able to bring my process of doing improv with actors into the animation world, which was fun.


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Image via Warner Bros.

SWEETLAND: A movie is the product of the chemistry of the people that make it. Whatever that core group of people is, that becomes the DNA of the movie. You just want to have new experiences and work with new people, so the idea of working with someone outside of your discipline is exciting.

STOLLER: Also, Doug’s aesthetic is pretty cartoony, and for a movie about a stork and a human and a baby, I wanted it to look different. We had to find a little area that isn’t already being controlled by the other giant animation studios, and when I saw Presto, I thought, “Nothing looks like that.” It was Pixar, but it didn’t look like that traditional thing, and it didn’t look like DreamWorks or Illumination. It has its own look, and I was really excited to get to work in Doug’s aesthetic.

Was there ever a backstory or reason that you come up with, for why the babies have so many different colors of hair?

SWEETLAND: It’s just what they represent. On one side, you have characters dealing with their careers and jobs, and there’s a more subdued pallette for that. What they’re confronted with is the needs of others and responsibility and all of the things that, eventually, enrich your life, so it made sense that they would end up having more color.

STOLLER: We also wanted it to be clear that it takes place in a magical world. We didn’t want to deny reality and make the birds and the bees conversation confusing, or deny that that exists, so we have a few oblique references to that in the film. The big thing was that, if the babies just looked normal, this would just be our world. But, it’s clearly not in our world. It’s a fantastical world, so that was intentional with the colored hair.

How much did this story evolve until it got to what we see now?

STOLLER: It changed totally, from the beginning. That’s true of the live-action things I’ve done, but even more so with this. It changed a ton. I wrote the script and then we cast comedy scratch actors, and we’d keep the intention of the scene but then improv a new scene, in the recording booth with those comedy scratch actors, and then rewrite based on what we discovered in those scenes. And big story stuff changed, too. A ton of stuff changed.

SWEETLAND: But, that’s a good thing. Warner Bros. was really great about letting us make the movie that we needed to make. What happens in animation is that you don’t really start the story until you’re boarding it, which usually means that you’ve gotta go through some sort of a script phase. And you can get caught in the doldrums there, overdeveloping that, when you don’t really know what you have until you put it up in storyboards.


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Image via Warner Bros. Animation

STOLLER: And I didn’t understand that. I was like, “We just start doing it off the script?” I didn’t get that it’s all in the storyboards.

SWEETLAND: At the point when a lot of people think you’re half-way done, you’re kind of just getting started. Luckily, they built in a good 18 months to two years of us just doing storyboards. And the story evolved greatly through that.

STOLLER: I’ve worked on other animated movies just to punch them up, or whatever, but the animatic was way further along, before it went into proper animation, than most movies. It was emotionally working, even though a lot of stuff changed, as it went to animation. That was also due to our budget not being as big as some of these other movies. The worst thing you can do is animate something, and then throw it out because it doesn’t work, story wise. But, it was cool because we had this nice two-year incubation period where we could try lots of stuff.

SWEETLAND: And that’s what you want.

Were there any major storyline differences that ended up changing a lot?

STOLLER: There was no Nate, at the beginning. It started with this personal idea that was so sad. When we did our first animatic and I watched it, it was my first foray into animation and it was terrible. They’re always terrible, and this was terrible. I panicked and was like, “This is awful!” I remember looking at [Doug] and he was like, “It’s fine.” I was like, “What’s wrong with all these people?! Why aren’t they freaking out?!” But, it was because we had four years to do it. It sucks at first, and then you discover what sucks and, with each animatic, it sucks slightly less. Because it was directly from my experience, the first version of it had a couple who wanted a baby and they couldn’t have one. There was a fertility clinic scene and when we saw it, we were immediately like, “No.” And then, vultures were the bad guys and they fought the storks.

SWEETLAND: There wasn’t even Cornerstore.

STOLLER: There was a military component. The storks were in the military. And Tulip was a human who acted like a bird because she’d been raised by birds. That was just horrible.

SWEETLAND: It was a total fiasco. Luckily, we changed it.

STOLLER: It was terrible. You would have been horrified. It was a horror show.

One of the things that always seems to evolve and change the most in animated features is the end. How challenging was it to figure out how you wanted this to end?

STOLLER: The details of the ending changed a lot. But once we hired all of these comedy scratch actors and started to really get into it, the ending was something that was there for awhile.

SWEETLAND: [Nick] always had the goal line in mind, but there were still discoveries that we made, even quite recently, in the last few months.

STOLLER: I always wanted the credits to tell a final story beat. WALL·E does that beautifully. We kept trying to figure out different versions of that, and then got the wall of photos idea at the very last minute.

When you create a movie like this, with such a full world and so many fun characters, do you immediately start thinking about sequels or where this story could go?


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Image via Warner Bros. Animation

STOLLER: Not really. This was such a great creative experience and I really loved everyone so much, in the process, that it was sad when it ended. It was years, and it was a constant. It’s like going to college, really. And then, suddenly it ends and you’re like, “Really?! It’s over?!” I think this is a complete story. I don’t think this is a sequel story, but you never know. If it’s some giant thing, then maybe. But, it feels like we told it.

SWEETLAND: I think what we got from it is that we all want to work together again.

STOLLER: The sequel will be us working on another thing together.

SWEETLAND: We had our own buddy movie, working on it.

Nick, do you know what you’re doing next?

STOLLER: I’m doing this Netflix show, and I’m developing an animated idea that I’m not sure about yet. I haven’t totally figured it out yet, but I have a vague area that I’m interested in. But, I’m directing a Netflix show that I’m really excited about. It’s called Friends from College, and we’ve got Keegan-Michael Key – and it certainly helped working with him on [Storks] – Cobie Smulders, Nat Faxon, Fred Savage, this actress named Annie Parisse, and Jae Suh Park. It’s a very cool cast. My wife and I created it, and I’m going to direct all eight episodes, all in New York. It’s very different from [Storks]. It’s much more R-rated. It’s about a group of friends, and there’s an affair at the center of it. It’s not as kid-oriented.

How’s it been to work with Netflix?

STOLLER: It’s been great. When they give notes, they’re always like, “You don’t have to take them. Take what you want.” But their notes tend to be smart, and they’re super hands-off. This is much more of a four-hour movie than it is eight episodes. Everything is very inter-connected and it has a big arc to the whole season. I’m really excited to get to do it. The pressure is different than a movie ‘cause we’re just making something that my wife and I find amusing and interesting.

Doug, what’s next for you?

SWEETLAND: I don’t know what I’m doing. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m shopping around.

Would you consider directing something that’s live-action, or do you want to stick with animation?

SWEETLAND: It’s funny, in the past, that’s always been a thing where I’ve gone, “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . .” But, there are so many options in animation right now and this is such a great time to make animated movies that I want to make another one.

STOLLER: It’s one of the only areas where you can make an original movie that does well and is big. You get to tell something on a giant canvas.

SWEETLAND: And Warner Bros. is really open-minded, as far as studios go, when it comes to the types of movies they’ll entertain, even with animated movies. It’s a great place to be.

STOLLER: They did not care about weird jokes. They just wanted to make sure the story made sense and was emotional.

Storks opens in theaters on September 23rd.


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Image via Warner Bros. Animation

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Image via Warner Bros. Animation

storks-image

Image via Warner Bros. Animation

storks-image

Image via Warner Bros. Animation


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