STRANGE MAGIC Interview with Cast and Filmmakers

     January 22, 2015

strange-magic-interview

Strange Magic is an animated musical with two key locations, the Fairy Kingdom and the Dark Forest.  The Fairy Kingdom is brimming with color and fairies who enjoy a good party while the Dark Forest is packed with creepy creatures and goblins determined to destroy all the primroses, but the regions do have one thing in common – it ain’t easy finding true love.  Whereas many fairytales conclude with a princess getting together with a prince and living happily ever after, Strange Magic proposes a different happy ending.  As Elijah Kelley puts it, it sends the message that “no matter how weird or strange you are, there’s somebody equally as weird and strange for you to go and do weird and strange things and have a weird and strange life” with.  Perhaps that’s not the most eloquent way of describing the film, but it is accurate.

With Strange Magic nearing its January 23rd big screen debut, Kelley and co-stars Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Meredith Anne Bull and Sam Palladio as well as director Gary Rydstrom and musical director Marius de Vries all sat down for a press conference to discuss some of the more unique qualities of the film.

strange-magic-posterQuestion: Gary, how did you get involved in the film and what’s your involvement in bringing this story to the big screen?

GARY RYDSTROM: I had the really lucky job of coming in towards the end.  Two years doesn’t sound like towards the end, but this film had been around for a while as George [Lucas] talked about.  A lot of the ideas were in place and I came in two years ago to essentially work on the story and start animation and finish the movie.  I always heard about it and I always heard that it was a musical fairytale and I went, ‘Nah.’  Of course, me, because I know nothing about musicals or fairytales, this is the perfect job for me to tackle.  It was really fun.  My favorite day on the movie was my first day when George sat down, much like he did just a second ago, he described why he was making the story.  So we all got excited about what we could do with this story and we took it from there and tried to make it as best as we could.

I wanted to ask about the construction of the animation.

RYDSTROM: I did it all myself.  [Laughs]

It seemed motion capture, but I might be wrong.  Doing voice animation is a different experience of acting.  Talk about that and then what it was like when you saw what you  looked like.

RYDSTROM: It’s a weird thing to see your voice come out of an animated character.  We did no motion capture.  It’s kind of a purist approach.  We had great animators at ILM and a lot of them in Singapore.  What the animators drew from, because they constantly told me, by the way, that is not false, they said, ‘We drew a lot on the sound and the voices of the characters.’  They can actually get a lot of great ideas from that.  In addition, we videotaped the actors when they were acting, so we’d get some facial expressions and basic movements and they would use that a lot, I think.  I don’t know if you see a lot of your own expressions in the characters, but I’m curious because I’ve never done it.  I’ve never acted – well, I can’t act.  I can’t imagine what it would sound like to have half of me be the voice and the other half be visual.  Meredith, what was that like?

MEREDITH ANNE BULL: Somebody told me today actually, they were like, ‘Oh, it looks like you.  Can’t you see yourself?’  And I was like, ‘Um.  Not really.’  I have only seen the movie once though so when I can meticulously stare at myself, I will.  [Laughs]  I think as an actor, it’s a lot easier to watch yourself animated than on screen, so I’m really able to enjoy her because she’s not just me.  I don’t know, what about you guys?

strange-magic-evan-rachel-wood-sam-palladioSAM PALLADIO: For me, the whole process was such a fantastic sort of freeing experience from working on stage and television and film.  Gary and everybody was so warm and open to our interpretations and improvisations and things.  Coming from a sort of Shakespearean background, you stick to your text and you hit the beats and the rhythms, and so it’s been really fun to watch.  I haven’t seen the full movie.  They sent it to me and I want to see it tomorrow.  The screening is tomorrow and I want to see it in the theater.  I’ve seen little chunks throughout the process, and so to see how a little improvisation of yours gets tweaked and used and something that might make Gary really laugh in the booth when I was recording in Nashville and he was in San Francisco listening, and you think, ‘Is this coming across?  I have no idea,’ but you hear giggles, which is very reassuring.  Then to see those little jokes and those mannerisms and things come to life is really special.  It’s my first time doing it and I literally can’t wait to sit down and enjoy it tomorrow.

EVAN RACHEL WOOD: I’m such a huge fan of animated films and I’m a self-proclaimed Disney fanatic.  I was just really excited to lend my voice to a story like this and to a character like this that I thought would be a great role model for girls, and being able to sing.  Singing is one of my first loves, so I was really excited.  But it is strange because you do pick up on little things of yourself in the character.  It’s strange, but I just felt like my childhood dream was finally realized and I got to be a fairy.  That was the goal, so I’m done.  [Laughs]

ALAN CUMMING: And I’ve always wanted to be a Bog King.  [Laughs] It is fascinating to see yourself in an animated object.  But also I think the funniest thing must be the videos of us acting.  Every line you do, every song you sing is videoed by a camera.   [The videos] must be somewhere, I’m sure the animators got them, and I think that would be really good blackmail material.

WOOD: Because you’re just so over the top, it just gives you permission …

CUMMING: And the lighting will be terrible!  Hideous.

WOOD: Yeah.  All overhead, fluorescent.

ELIJAH KELLEY: I think a lot of the credit goes to the guys in Singapore.  We have an incredible animation team in Singapore and Gary directs them tremendously to capture every little nuance.  It’s just really interesting to see.  My mom, I sent her a screenshot that I took early on that I wasn’t supposed to take, but I took it anyway.  She was like, ‘Oh my gosh!  He has our nose!’  I was like, ‘Ma, it’s not our nose.  It’s my nose.’  ‘I gave you that nose, boy!’  Okay, we have our nose now.

strange-magic-alan-cummingAlan, how do you feel about becoming this well-known character to kids and tweens?

CUMMING: Oh, well I feel I’ve done loads of things over the years for kids actually.  If you had to Google me, you would’ve found that out.  [Laughs]  Someone was talking today about the Spy Kids movies, which were about 10, 12 years ago, 15 years ago, actually that’s sort of a similar kind of character in that someone you think is the baddie in the beginning who then develops and you realize he’s misunderstood.  I think those are really great characters in fairytales.  And also, what I really love is that now young adults, young people in their early 20’s or something, that was a big film for them, the Spy Kids films.  They approach me in a way that’s really reminiscent of how kids approach me.  It’s a much more honest and open way, and in some way I’ve been a part of their childhood.  I love that.  I really think it’s a good thing.  And also, of course, you get them young.  In 15 years time, they’ll be running the studios.  [Laughs]

Since it’s a musical, what were your favorite songs?

RYDSTROM: Marius, what’s your favorite song?

WOOD: No pressure, everyone’s just here.

MARIUS DE VRIES: I think “Strange Magic.”

WOOD: Yes!

RYDSTROM: It’s funny, it became the title.

WOOD: I know, but it’s everyone’s favorite.

KELLEY: That’s the consensus.

CUMMING: Years ago I did a film where they put certain things in CDs that submit a spell on young people to buy sneakers and everything.  I think there’s a similar thing in that song.  It’s got some obsessive, you can’t stop singing it.  The world will become re-obsessed with it now.

WOOD: Really, it’s just the way that we sing it.  [Laughs]

strange-magic-meredith-anne-bullMarius, since you had to be the person in charge, how much were you involved in how they would arrange or rearrange the music?

DE VRIES: Oh, I was very involved.

What was it like for you?

DE VRIES: It’s not something I haven’t done before, but the amount of gene splicing that needs to go on when you’re spanning decades as much we were and when you’re crossing styles as much as we were can be extraordinarily challenging because you put two different chemicals together and you can never tell what’s gonna happen.  Sometimes they just don’t like each other and they explode and make a mess.  And sometimes they make a beautiful, colorful reaction.  It’s only through experiment and I guess a certain amount of instinct.  You can never find out what’s gonna happen.

KELLEY: He’s being modest.  He’s a genius.  “Strange Magic,” he made it a duet.  I think that’s like a real ode to your talent, how you’re just able to recreate something.

DE VRIES: You should’ve heard my first version.

KELLEY: Maybe I don’t want to hear it because I’m gonna say something totally different than what I’m saying now.  [Laughs]

DE VRIES: But yeah, trial and error.  We recorded maybe 400+ songs in the process of arriving at this one.

Do you have a new respect for mashups now?

DE VRIES:  I have an old respect for mashups.  [Laughs]

Gary, this is your first animated feature.  What did it feel like stepping up to the plate?

RYDSTROM:  Scary as hell.  I had my whole crew, I do something and then about a week later after I’ve decided to take it on I go, ‘What was I thinking?’  But I’ve done animation directing for shorts before at Pixar.  And again, I don’t animate, but in some ways it’s nice to work with animators.  It’s similar to how you work with actors because you’re directing the animators.  I love the process.  At Pixar, I discovered how much I loved the process.

Was there any particular film that made them choose you for Strange Magic?

strange-magic-image-impRYDSTROM: I did two shorts at Pixar.  I did one called Lifted, which had no dialogue and I actually grew up wanting to make silent film comedies, so it’s weird that I worked in film sound for a long time.  I did Lifted and I did a Toy Story short called Hawaiian Vacation and I got to work with the Toy Story cast which was equally amazing, with Tom Hanks and everybody.  I had done that and, you know what?  The other thing is, I have a sound background too, and music and sound are such a key part of this movie and how they interweave and how they work together.

PALLADIO: How they fight.

RYDSTROM: Mostly fight, yeah.  I think that’s why.

What was the biggest challenge in taking your roles?

CUMMING: I find the length of time that are between the times when you do record can be many, many, many months, and so coming back to it and getting into it again, I find that very difficult.  Once you’re in it, you’re in it, but it’s daunting to think, ‘Wow.  I’ve recorded this whole film, we’re now going to do different scenes or rework things.  What did I do?’  And of course they can’t send you the whole – I suppose they’re scared of what happened to Sony – to send you anything.  So you just have to go back into the room and hear little bits, and then get right back into it.  That’s quite hard.  And also, that happens over a period of years when you work on a project like this.  The story changes radically and different things happen and this great thing you liked is no more.  That’s pretty challenging too.

WOOD: I think some people are in the misconception that you go in and you read the script once, and that’s it.  But we’re working on this for years.  I started work on this when I was newly pregnant and I finished it when my son was a year and a half.  And I sang most of the songs while I was 7 months pregnant.

RYDSTROM: You sang “Stronger” while you were pregnant.

WOOD: I was like this pregnant.  One of the hardest songs where you need so much breath and I had no room for air!

RYDSTROM: We had a medical team standing by.  [Laughs]

strange-magic-alan-cumming-meredith-anne-bullWOOD: [Laughs]  We did!  That was probably the most challenging part actually, singing and being pregnant.

PALLADIO: I know how you feel.

RYDSTROM: Sam was pregnant as well.

PALLADIO: I was heavily pregnant.  For me it was, like we said when we first sat down, having not met each other, having worked on something where you don’t have a singing partner.  It’s so different  working on a play with a cast or working on a set where you get to know everybody and you can play off each other.  That’s a credit to Gary as a director and the whole team.  We can trust that they’re going to take what you give and make something really special.  What we’ve all seen is this film that these characters are so gelled and beautiful, and it’s seamless, and it’s mind-blowing, really, how you can do that.

WOOD: You guys are great at painting the picture for us too, because we don’t get to see anything really.  You set up the scene and, for me at least, it was always so crystal clear.

RYDSTROM: And then more embarrassingly, I would often do the line reads for the characters.

WOOD: You would do Dawn on the other end!

KELLEY: You did Dawn a lot.

RYDSTROM: I did Dawn a lot.  I did Alan a lot.

KELLEY: I think an amazing thing is, to attribute to the actors, there’s so much that you don’t give respect to when you see an animation.  There’s a lot of action in this movie, so there’s a lot of sword fights, there’s a lot of running, a lot of boisterous, energetic activity, and all these guys get into it, like, really, really, really into it.  It gives the film that life, that real sense of urgency that we really all want to just fall in love and be with somebody special at the end of the day.  I know for myself, I have about maybe eight filled hard drives of screams and yells that we did over the course of this thing.  That was crazy.

RYDSTROM: They worked really hard.  There’s a lot of running around, a lot of getting out of breath and movement.

WOOD: I would get dizzy doing the hyperventilating.

KELLEY: You got dizzy?  I got dizzy too!

strange-magic-evan-rachel-wood-meredith-anne-bullWOOD: I would go, “Oh, oh…”

KELLEY: But you were pregnant.

WOOD: Yeah, but even when I wasn’t, still, more so!  [Laughs]

PALLADIO: Doing 20 minutes of screaming to get, ‘Now you’re falling off a cliff.  That was great.  Now you’re really scared because you’re falling off a cliff!  Pitch up a little bit.  We want a really high pitched scream.’

How do you develop a character when you’re not interacting with the other actors?

WOOD: The biggest challenge for me was playing the naive, sweet Marianne at the beginning of the film actually.  I was drawn to this character because I felt like there were a lot of things about her that I related to.  She was a tomboy, sword fighting, kind of a rocker.  She was a fairy with an edge, you know?  She was the anti-fairy princess, but at the core sweet and just like everyone else, wants to find love, wants to be seen, wants to be known, wants someone to love her for who she is and not try to make her into something that she’s not, like Roland.  I think I just probably brought a lot of that to the character.

CUMMING: You’re given so much help.  You don’t go into a room and have weeks to – but you get a lot of visual aids.  The first few times you try out lots of different ideas vocally and tonally, and everything like that.  It’s sort of a combination of all those things.  And also, as the thing goes on, it’s not like you do one scene, you finish it.  You come back, maybe even years later, and redo a scene in the light of new animation and certain changes that have been made, so it’s kind of a constantly evolving process.  And I quite like that.  In some ways I actually thought this film was never going to be finished, and now I’m quite happy!

PALLADIO: I think for one, the characters, George is the master of creating memorable, engaging characters that you love and that you follow for your whole childhood.  I’m sure I speak for everyone when we talk about his past work.  That’s a kind of given when you get the breakdown of the character.  And then for me, for creating Roland, he’s such a sleaze, but speaks with this sort of Shakespearean meter to his voice and so it was interesting to take a little bit of past work and combine it with a little southern charm and a little bit of – a scene from Twelfth Night is in there with the music, that sort of stuff.  And then, what did you say Gary?  A little of George Bush?

strange-magicRYDSTROM: [Laughs]  There’s a little George W. Bush in there.  Mostly Elvis.  It’s interesting.  A lot of the actors had to do a little tweak to their voice, not caricature it, but Alan certainly did it with Bog King and Evan did it and Sam.  You can tell Sam’s not American.  Elijah did it.  So you have to get back into the voice and what we’d do is play as much as possible, play stuff that you’ve done before, at least get you back to the character that way.

Marius, were there any parts of the movie that you were just dying to score?

DE VRIES: No.  [Laughs]  I wanted there to be as little score as possible because once you commit to telling a story through song, then I think you want to try to tell a story through song.  The score is basically just glue in the first four reels, the first two acts.  It has to do a bit more heavy lifting in the final section, but it’s a story told through song so it was very important that the songs and the themes from the songs were front and center and that everything else was just there to facilitate that.

RYDSTROM: I want to point out, because Marius is being a little too nice about it, but the score is actually a really important element of the movie.  There is a fair bit of score.  A lot of it does weave melodies from the other songs, but there’s some beautiful score.  There’s a scene where Bog and Marianne really come together, when their backstories come out and really the love is starting to percolate, and it’s a very emotional scene, and the score for that Marius did was gorgeous and it was one of the hardest scores for him to write because it’s tricky.  Scoring movies is tough, and it’s the first one that you recorded when we went to London and recorded the score.  I remember thinking on the scoring stage, ‘Why are we starting with this?  It’s the hardest one.  We’re gonna screw it up.’  [Laughs]  Just a few minutes into the orchestra playing that cue, I’m crying and trying to not let anyone see, because the music was so beautiful and what it was doing for the movie was so beautiful.  Sometimes you make these movies and moments come together and it gets really kind of emotional when it works.  I didn’t let anyone see it of course, but I’ll admit it now.

What do you hope that this generation of kids will take away from this animated film?

strange-magic-evan-rachel-wood-alan-cummingWOOD: I think one of the main messages is, if you’ve ever felt like a black sheep or different or weird or felt unlovable, is to not be afraid of those things about yourself and to not hide them from people because you realize that the things that make you different and unique are the things that make you the most beautiful and special.  If you let those parts of yourself be seen, you will attract like people.  You don’t have to be afraid of it.  And, you know, not judging a book by its cover, really getting to know somebody and loving them for who they are.  Finding love in unexpected places.  I think they’re all really good messages.

PALLADIO: I think you’ve covered it.

WOOD: Sorry you guys!  [Laughs]

PALLADIO: Love is good.

KELLEY: No matter how weird or strange you are, there’s somebody equally as weird and strange for you to go and do weird and strange things and have a weird and strange life.

RYDSTROM: That’s beautiful.  [Laughs]

BULL: I think for me, I just want people whether they’re a kid or an adult, to be able to be just taken out of their real life while they’re watching the movie, because it’s not realistic and the music is so submersive that I just hope that people are really able to be engulfed by the experience and just kind of be present with it.

WOOD: Yeah, and have fun.

PALLADIO: The music, we span decades.  It’ll expose kids and young adults to genres.  You go back to Frankie Valli that Roland sings and Elvis songs.  It really is this fantastic journey through the decades of music that – you know, I hadn’t heard much Electric Light Orchestra before this, so we’re discovering these new genres and new bands – well, old bands.  There’s so much great stuff out there that this movie does really link together and I hope will encourage young and old to either go back into their LPs or to get on iTunes and download an Elvis Greatest Hits.

KELLEY: You said encourage.  There was something that we talked about earlier in our interview, how much courage it actually takes to stand on the fact that you love someone.  You had to be courageous to get out of the Dark Forest and actually succumb to that feeling of love, she had to be courageous, I had to be courageous.  There’s a big message of just being courageous and fighting through whatever the obstacle is to get what you truly love and have fell in love with.   That’s a big thing that I hope that everybody takes away from this film.

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