‘Trolls’ Directors Mike Mitchell & Walt Dohrn on Making an Unabashedly Happy Movie
With the theme of happiness at its center and utilizing music to further the film’s narrative, the DreamWorks animated movie Trolls transports audiences to a colorful world of song-and-dance and hug time, as it follows Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick), the happiest Troll ever born. After Troll Village is invaded by the pessimistic Bergens who enjoy eating Trolls, Poppy enlists the help of overly cautious Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) on her journey to rescue her friends.
At the film’s press day, director Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why they wanted to make a positive and happy movie, finding the right balance for Poppy, not letting the Bergen Bridget (voiced by Zooey Deschanel) overshadow the Trolls, that the Poppy-Branch dynamic was inspired by Romancing the Stone, why you shouldn’t go into production until you know what your third act will be, wanting to continue to explore this world, why creating a new world is easier than doing sequels in already established worlds, and what they enjoy about directing animation.
Collider: This is such a sweet, fun, positive and happy movie!
MIKE MITCHELL: What’s cool is that we made this film because so much stuff in the media is dark and disturbing, not just for kids but for me. These elections coming up are so ridiculous and the internet is so negative that we really wanted to make something that was positive and happy. It’s great because people leave saying they feel like they’ve been to a party and they’re very happy.
WALT DOHRN: The world is in such a place of social unrest and there’s so much violence. We wanted to make a movie that made you feel happy, but that also talked about what happiness is and how you can have happiness in the time of conflict.
MITCHELL: I listened to a bunch of TED talks about happiness. We talked about how you get happy and what happens when you lose happiness. We even used the theme of happiness for the design of the characters, the music and the colors, and that’s how we came up with hug time, as a visual representation.
DOHRN: We were so studious on this movie. We found out that, if you hug someone for seven seconds, it gives you a chemical drop in your brain.
Did you guys ever have to remind yourself that these characters needed to be happier, or did you ever think that you were going too happy?
MITCHELL: That’s a great question! Early on, Poppy was so positive that she seemed simple-minded. It was really Anna Kendrick coming on board that helped us. She gave Poppy an intelligence, a voice, a passion and a leadership, and she gave her an insanity, too, with that manic positivity.
DOHRN: We wanted her insanely optimistic, but not too naive.
MITCHELL: She seems naive, at the beginning, but it almost becomes her superpower. She really uses it. She’s aware of it.
DOHRN: The more absurdly happy the lead character was, the harder it was to relate to the character. That’s when we started to pull back. And we realized that some of the other Trolls could be insanely happy.
MITCHELL: Because the Trolls were so positive, it was hard for them to comment on anything. They were so not negative. So, when Branch came in, they’d roll their eyes, but even that was tough because they had to stay happy and positive.
DOHRN: It was like being in an improv group when you can’t say anything negative.
Bridget is such a great, unusual, different, interesting character.
MITCHELL: She’s our favorite, by the way.
DOHRN: We love her! She’s so special to us.
Was it hard not to draw too much attention away from the Trolls with Bridget?
MITCHELL: You’re reading our minds! When you make an animated film, you make it over and over and over. We almost do ten versions of the film. It’s like workshopping a play, really rough with drawings and Walt and I doing the voices. We have a theater at DreamWorks and we invite everyone, even friends from outside of the studio. One of the LEGO guys came in to help us, and guys from Sony and Nickelodeon. They all came in to watch the film and the comments we got, early on, was that there was too much Bridget. They were like, “You know this film is about Trolls. You have to embrace these Troll characters.” We just loved Bridget.
DOHRN: That kind of character was us, as boys, with that unrequited love.
MITCHELL: Flinging yourself on the bed and weeping.
DOHRN: That really vulnerable character is so relatable and we adore her. And we were really happy when we got Zooey Deschanel to voice that character because she was so important to us. We really worked with her in getting this perfect vulnerable voice that’s quirky and a little weird.
MITCHELL: She came up with the most amazing voice, and no one knows its Zooey when you watch this film because she’s doing such a strange voice performance.
DOHRN: One of the voice directions we gave her was, “Imagine a sleeping angel on your tongue, and you don’t want to wake up.”
How much did this movie evolve from where it started? Were there any major changes?
MITCHELL: We kept a lot of the early songs that we had. If anything, we had excessive songs that came out. But for the most part, our theme of happiness stayed strong, through the whole thing. We really wanted this super positive character and this negative character. The writers were inspired by Romancing the Stone, so we really wanted that contentious chemistry.
DOHRN: When we had the first screening – and we have multiple screenings – with very crude drawings and just our voices, a lot of people thought we’d captured lightning in a bottle.
With animated movies, it seems like the ending often changes and evolves quite a bit. How long did you work on getting the ending that you wanted for this?
MITCHELL: Do not go into production unless you know your third act. I have never started a movie without the third act. It’s just not even worth doing that because it’s a huge 50% gamble.
DOHRN: We knew where we wanted to end up, but how we got to do it was the hardest thing to do.
MITCHELL: And the way we did it was with Justin [Timberlake]. We listened to a thousand songs to make sure that the song adds to the narrative. The narrative shouldn’t stop for the song in a musical. The music has to continue the narrative of the storytelling. So, we knew where we wanted to end, and we were listening to so many songs, trying to find the perfect song. Finally, Justin was like, “I’m just going to write you guys a song.”
DOHRN: We told him the story elements and what it had to accomplish.
MITCHELL: By the way, he did it, and on top of that, he made it a hit song. I think people are going to think we just grabbed a hit song and put it in our film, but Justin wrote that song for us.
DOHRN: It doesn’t hurt that he’s a perfectionist, and he worked really, really hard. It was amazing because he really worked as a team member on this. Sometimes actors come in, you record them, and they do their role. But he was there with us, and then he’d run down to editorial. It was so cool to have a team member like that.
MITCHELL: That’s how you have to be on these animated films, and he stepped right in. He didn’t have to do that. He’s Justin Timberlake. He can do whatever he wants to.
Walt, how did you end up voicing the characters that you voiced?
DOHRN: The same thing happened on Shrek. When we make the rough version of the movie, we do all of the voices, and sometimes the voices just stick. People get really comfortable with it and we can’t see it any other way. I’ve always been lucky like that. It’s so much fun to do the voices. People don’t understand what directing a movie is, but if you tell them you voiced Cloud Guy, they’re like, “Oh, my god, I loved that!” It’s a nice thing to be appreciated for. We just know the characters more intimately because it’s three years that we’re spending with these characters, so sometimes it’s just easier for us to do it.
MITCHELL: Or sometimes it’s just the funniest version. We tried to recast Cloud Guy, but it was too funny and to natural. It probably helped that he was in the room with Justin, doing that. We got a lot of ad-libbed, playful stuff from Justin.
DOHRN: Because we’re in the room with them, goofing around and playing around, it was much more improvisational.
MITCHELL: Usually, the animation director is in a booth with bullet proof glass, but we’re in the room with them, just playing around.
DOHRN: Much to the chagrin of the engineer.
When you do a movie like this, with so many characters that you could follow on their own adventures, are you thinking about sequels? Do you want to explore this world more?
MITCHELL: Absolutely! It’s such a fun world. I’d like to see what those spiders are up to, myself.
DOHRN: We have so many stories to tell about Biggie and Mr. Dinkles. And there’s a whole backstory for Cooper. We’re so down for more. We’ve been talking about their different storylines.
MITCHELL: There’s a whole world out there for these guys, and all of it is musically based. We’ll see what happens.
DOHRN: We have to see if the world wants it. We’ve just seen a glimpse of this Troll universe. There’s so much more, and we’re so excited.
Is it easier to return to a world than it is to create it from scratch?
MITCHELL: I have to say that I think sequels are more difficult because you’re working in an established world and there are rules. It’s a great challenge. I’ve done something that’s a Pt. 4 before, and anytime you want to do a joke, that joke has been done three times before, so it has to be four times as good.
DOHRN: We like that challenge, but I think it’s much more fun to create new characters and new worlds, and I think that’s why this one was so exciting.
MITCHELL: This whole new world is exactly what we wanted to make it, and it even went beyond.
What do you enjoy about directing animation?
MITCHELL: You can create a whole world, but within that, it’s madness. A big part of directing animation is deciding what you really want to do and making sure it’s about something. My favorite thing about animation is the storytelling. You can really dig into the story and spend time with the writers. The writers don’t just write and leave. They’re a part of our team, and it’s really fun to hang out with them and the board artists.
DOHRN: We have such an incredible collection of artists and DreamWorks. The best part is going there, every day. It’s really the artists that make these movies. It’s not about executives and it’s not about the money.
MITCHELL: There are so many artists that you get to hang out with. You really get to spend time with these people.
DOHRN: Mike and I went to CalArts together. That’s where we met. And we call DreamWorks a campus because it’s a lot like a college campus. It’s neat.
Trolls opens in theaters on November 4th.