With The Angry Birds Movie opening in theaters this weekend, I recently spoke with one of the film’s producers, John Cohen, about the highly anticipated Sony animated comedy helmed by animation veterans and directing newcomers Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis. The movie represents game developer Rovio Entertainment’s first entry into filmmaking, and at $73 million, one of the most expensive Finnish films ever made. Rovio retained full creative control and ownership of the project adapted from their highly addictive “Angry Birds” mobile app. The movie features an impressive voice cast that includes Peter Dinklage, Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph and Sean Penn.
In an exclusive interview with Collider, Cohen talked about his collaboration with Rovio Animation’s Mikael Hed and David Maisel who executive produced the film, the exciting appeal of making an original movie and developing original characters who speak for the first time based on a game that’s been downloaded 3.3 billion times, having the autonomy to make the movie they wanted using the Marvel model that Maisel first created with Iron Man, what co-directors Reilly and Kaytis brought to the project, the greatest advice he ever got as a producer, and a possible sequel if Angry Birds soars at the box office. Check it all out in the interview below.
JOHN COHEN: We started to work on the film back in 2012. At that time, I started to work on the story with our core team of Mikael Hed, who is the chair of Rovio Animation and an executive producer on the movie, Mikko Pöllä, who is a creative executive at Rovio, and our other executive producer, David Maisel. We started off by asking ourselves the question that Rovio got so often from fans and players of the games, which is, “Why are these birds so angry?” That became the jumping off point for the story, which we spent months and months developing and making sure that we had in great shape at the very beginning of the process in 2012.
What appealed to you about developing and shepherding this project from an incredibly popular mobile game to an entertainment franchise with a feature film?
COHEN: There’s a lot really that appealed to me and that was exciting about this project. The amazing thing is that “Angry Birds,” the different games, have been downloaded now over 3.3 billion times. That’s 3.3 billion people who have played the games and at least have some kind of awareness of the games. When you have a pre-awareness property of that size, every example I can think of is something like a book series or a comic series, using as an example “Harry Potter” or the “Spider-Man” comics. In those big properties comes so much built-in mythology and story and detail. In a “Harry Potter” book, for example, every single place, every character, every item is named. If you’re lucky enough to be translating one of those properties into a movie, you are very carefully translating someone else’s vision. With “Angry Birds,” there’s all of the same kind of great awareness and people know the games, but beyond a couple of key things — such as these birds that are flightless that have these unique, strange abilities and use a slingshot as they’re fighting these smiling green pigs — beyond those core elements, not a lot had been defined. The very exciting opportunity here for me, and for us, was to be able to make an original movie, to tell an original story with all of the great value of developing original characters and bringing the characters from the games that people know to life, but also with the value of the awareness that people have. It was really a terrific opportunity.
This is Rovio’s first move into filmmaking. How hard was it to get a project like this to the place to make it all happen?
COHEN: Rovio financed this movie. Because of that, in partnership with Rovio, Mikael Hed, Mikko Pöllä, and many people inside of Rovio’s company in Helsinki and in Los Angeles, were working together and partnered on a daily basis on this film. We had the great autonomy to be able to make the movie that we wanted. It was a great opportunity to be able to build a new studio from scratch really, which we have based here in Sherman Oaks and also have a smaller office based in Vancouver. It’s just been so much fun.
How was your collaboration with David Maisel who crafted Rovio’s approach to movie production using a model that had been very successful at Marvel to produce and finance its own slate of productions outside the studio system?
COHEN: David is the executive producer on this movie. He had been a special advisor to Rovio going back all the way to 2011. He was working with them, specifically with Mikael Hed, from many years back, about the idea of making this movie and making it on the Marvel model that he had created back years ago on Iron Man and some other films. David’s involvement in this project was in every key decision throughout the process. He’s a tremendous strategic thinker and also incredibly creative.
What were some of the producorial challenges of developing characters and personalities from an app that didn’t really have a story?
COHEN: It was the most exciting opportunity. They were the same challenges that you would have if you were making an original movie with original characters. There were some key elements of the characters’ personalities and their unique abilities that had been defined in both the games and the short Toons that Rovio had created. We were able to take those characters and bring them to life to the next level, and for the very first time in this movie, the characters speak. Because they had never talked before, the casting process of all the different voice actors that we have in the film was an important part of bringing the characters to life and defining what their personalities would be. It was really a great way to approach it.
Why were animation veterans Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis the right choice to direct this?
COHEN: They are incredibly talented. I met with a number of directors from all around the animation industry, both film and television, in the U.S. and outside of the U.S. What I loved about both of them from the very first times that we met was that they both had the exact same comedic sensibility that I had and that I felt this movie needed to come to life as an entertaining film. For example, Fergal’s background in story and storyboarding, he worked on some of the best animated movies of the last few years from the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies to Hotel Transylvania and The Iron Giant. He was mentored by Sam Raimi, and he storyboarded and conceived many of those very cool action sequences in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. Fergal brought with him an amazing sense of story and also a great understanding of cinematography and camera.
Clay is someone that I had worked with a number of years back at Illumination on some marketing projects that we were doing. Clay had been at Walt Disney Feature Animation for 19 years, and I think the last 11 years he was the head of their Feature Animation department and oversaw all of the animation on their films from Tangled to Wreck-It Ralph to Frozen, which I think are three of the most beautifully animated films in the last few years. Clay, with such an amazing expertise in animation and knowing how to bring characters to life with great fresh expressions of comedic personality, also had a fantastic design sense.
There were key areas that Fergal and Clay each focused on and many key areas where they collaborated together, such as editorial and the recording of the actors in a number of those processes. I think, as a team, they’ve just been terrific.
Were there any surprises you encountered during the making of the movie that you wish you’d known on day one?
COHEN: I can’t say that there were any big surprises. We started with a story, back in the very beginning, that we all felt was terrific, and it was a structure that we believed worked. What we found over the course of making the movie is that because we had such a stable story structure, the process of making the movie in editorial, in animation, in the recording of the actors, and all of the stages of production allowed us to continue to make the movie better. We were able to keep making it funnier, keep plusing it, because we started with such strong bones. A lot of times what I’ve experienced and heard about from friends at other studios is that movies sometimes get reconceived or parts of movies get reconceived as they go through production, and that didn’t happen on this film at all. That allowed us to really continue to plus the movie and make it as funny as we could, make it as emotional as we could, and make these characters come to life as great as we could. Of course, over the course of production, you do discover things. You discover characters that are coming to life and they’re a lot of fun. You discover elements that require some small shifts. But, the big picture of this story has remained very solid.
How does the completed film compare to what you originally envisioned?
COHEN: I am so proud of this movie. This movie, for us, for Fergal and Clay, for David, Mikael, my producing partner Catherine Winder, and our writer, Jon Vitti, is a labor of love. This is a passion project for us. There wasn’t really a point where I saw the movie for the first time finished because I was in editorial, as our core team was, every single day looking at the movie, watching it again and again. The most satisfying thing for me is that you spend years watching the movie, watching the scenes, and in our core group, with our editors Kent Beyda and Ally Garrett, we laughed at the movie non-stop every day. We’ve loved it. Yet, it isn’t until you start to show the movie to audiences, which is what we’ve been doing over the last few months, and then suddenly, what used to be nine people laughing at a scene is now hundreds of people laughing. To hear that laughter in this movie, from the very beginning to the very end, is just the most satisfying thing in the world. We are proud of this movie and hope and believe that it will surprise a lot of people.
What are you working on next that you’re excited for people to know about?
COHEN: There are a few things that I am working on, but we’ve definitely started to think a little bit about the “Angry Birds” universe. One of the great signs I find, and it was something that we experienced on Despicable Me and the Ice Age movies, is that when you find yourself thinking about the characters, and the characters stick in your head, and you begin to imagine, “What would happen if Red, Matilda, Chuck, Bomb, and Terence found themselves in that situation?”, that’s a very good sign. We are excited for the movie to open this week in the U.S. and in China, and hopefully audiences will love these characters as much as we do.
If The Angry Birds Movie soars at the box office, will there be a sequel?
COHEN: That would be great. That really would be great.
I know each movie has a different dynamic and level of complexity. How does producing a film like this compare to Despicable Me or the Ice Age films that you’ve worked on?
COHEN: It was a very similar experience to those films. For us, and for me, what is most important in great animated films, at least great animated films that I love, is the characters. The characters at the heart of the movie that you get to know, that you have a chance to fall in love with, that is ultimately the connection that I make when I go to see a movie. At the heart of Ice Age and Despicable Me and The Angry Birds Movie, we have those fantastic characters. When you have a universe like “Angry Birds” where there have been several games and so many characters, both birds and pigs, that have been created, and it’s just a vast world, it can be tempting in a movie to want to bring all of those characters to life. We made a decision very early on in the development of this film to focus the movie on a handful of characters, to focus on Red, Chuck, Matilda, Bomb, Terence and a few others, and to really allow the audience to not only get to know those characters and those characters’ personalities comedically, but also the relationships that develop and form among those characters. That’s how we approached it.
What’s the best advice you ever got about producing?
COHEN: The best advice that I ever got about producing is that it is important to produce every single part of what you do. What I mean is hard work and, as you often hear, a lot of preparation will always give you a competitive advantage. The most successful people that I’ve met and worked with simply work harder than others. I think you will be so much more productive in any meeting or creative conversation that you go into if you go into that meeting or conversation with a strategy and a desired outcome. It doesn’t mean that it will always work out that way, but I think that that’s an important thing.
Another great piece of advice that I would certainly give is to be a cinephile, to watch as many movies as possible, and when you can, try to see movies in the theater, because you can learn so much from hearing an audience’s reaction, whether it’s an audience of hundreds of people or it’s the audience of your family sitting around together on the couch watching something on television. I think that that can be very important, and to see good movies, and to see movies that aren’t supposed to be as good, because there’s always something that you can learn from all of it.
The Angry Birds Movie opens in theaters on May 20th.