Director Cal Brunker and Screenwriter Bob Barlen Talk ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH, Enthusiasm for 1950s Sci-Fi, Strong Female Characters and Future Projects

     February 13, 2013


Opening this weekend is the 3D animated family comedy-adventure, Escape from Planet Earth, directed by Callan Brunker from a screenplay by Brunker and Bob Barlen about famed astronaut Scorch Supernova (Brendan Fraser) who responds to an SOS from a notoriously dangerous alien planet and gets more than he bargained for.  The film features an all-star cast that includes Rob Corddry, Sarah Jessica Parker, William Shatner, Jessica Alba, Jane Lynch, Sofia Vergara, Craig Robinson, George Lopez, Steve Zahn, Chris Parnell, Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Morgan Heit.

At the Los Angeles press day, Brunker and Barlen talked about their enthusiasm for 1950’s sci-fi films and how it contributed to the look of the film, how they were able to assemble an amazing cast and work the recording process around their busy schedules, why they wanted to create strong female characters, what Shatner brought to his role, the film’s nod to John Lasseter, their plans to co-write an animated feature next, and more.  Hit the jump to read the interview.

cal-brunker-bob-barlen-escape-from-planet-earthQuestion:  We saw a lot of references to 1950’s sci-fi in the background of the film.  Are both of you sci-fi movie buffs?

Callan Brunker:  I think that’s certainly both of us.  We are incredible movie fans.  It was very exciting.  We were looking for footage to put on the drive-in theater, the black and white movie.  We were looking through It Came from Outer Space and there was a moment exactly like what we had in the movie where this pod is flying over the mountains.  We thought that was complete serendipity.  We didn’t have that planned out.  We knew he was crashing through the screen and we had all of that done.  We were trying to figure out exactly what we should put on the screen and sure enough we found that footage and thought we can’t turn away from that.  Plus, it’s one of the first 3D films.  I think it was Universal’s first 3D film so it was fun to tip our hats in all directions. 

Was this film your original idea?

Brunker:  No, this was a project that was at the Weinstein Company in development for several years, and they’ve gone down paths and tested out things that they wanted to do and didn’t want to do.  When we came on, they wanted to take the story in a new direction.  And so, we did a page one rewrite of what they had at the time and went from there which is becoming more and more common in animation these days.  You’re hearing about the kind of journey that these things go through.

This is an extraordinary cast.  How did you get so many of these big names?

Brunker:  Harvey Weinstein is the answer to that.  It really is.  Being on Harvey’s team opens a lot of doors, and when he’s excited about a movie, the momentum it gives you is unbelievable.  And so, we were incredibly lucky to have this cast.  We were watching the credit roll the other day and shaking out heads going, “How did this happen?  This is fantastic!”  He’s really to thank for that.  The whole team at TWC has been amazing in terms of really trying to support the movie and get us that talent and they did an incredible job.  We’re so happy with them.

escape-from-planet-earth-poster-kiraHow did you fit them to their characters?  We were thinking Jessica Alba should have been the Sarah Jessica Parker character.  It seemed more fitting somehow.

Brunker:  Interesting.  The characters grow.  You have a strong idea of what they are before they’re cast because you’re working on this movie for a year in storyboards and script before the movie is actually cast, and when they come in, they inform the characters.  Sarah Jessica Parker is the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life.  You would think that because she’s such a celebrity that that might have affected her and it hasn’t.  She’s like Kira (her character) in terms of being this incredibly warm person, and so, it seemed like a natural fit for us.  It’s interesting for you to say the Lena and Kira switch.  I had never thought of that.

Did Jessica Alba want to play a bad character?

Brunker:  I think it was interesting for her in animation.  That’s one of the nice things about animation.  It’s not your face up there.  It’s your performance up there.  I think she enjoyed the chance to do something that she wouldn’t normally do as an actress.  That was fun.  She had a lot of fun with it for sure.  I really enjoyed working with her.

I assume that all of the actors came in separately and recorded their voices.  Was there ever a time where some of them were able to work together?

Brunker:  We had most of them because of scheduling, and again, tying back to your question about how you get such an amazing cast, you have to be flexible in terms of being able to work around their schedules and what they’re working on.  We would have times where people were in different locations and we would patch them together.  We were lucky enough to have Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry at one time, who have worked together a bunch in the past and are very good friends.  They had some overlap time in the studio.  But most of it is separate.  They would all love to be able to do it together, but it’s very difficult because these guys have crazy schedules.  We did that a little bit, and we were able to do that with Chris Parnell and Steve Zahn.  They did it over a patch.  They weren’t in the same place, but they were able to bounce off each other, and so there’s a fun little back and forth.  They play the guys who work in the 7-Eleven, those two characters.

escape-from-planet-earth-poster-lenaWas it a given that you were going to get William Shatner to do a space movie?

Brunker:  It was wonderful when he said yes.  He brought a bunch of comedy to the villain which was lovely, because he could have very easily just become a straight-laced Army general.  In the cadence and the way he speaks, he’s got an eye for comedy, and anywhere there’s a little gap, he’ll tuck something in, in just the way he delivers a line or where he pauses.  He brought that character to life in a really unique way and certainly surprised us with a lot of his takes which was fun.  As a director, that’s my favorite thing.  I try right out of the gate to stay out of the way.  I’ll talk about what the scene needs to do but try and get out of the way and be surprised.  And then, if it doesn’t seem to line up with what you think the scene needs to be, then you try and bring it back on track.  I think creating room for those surprises is important because you get the best out of everybody as well as what you can bring to the table.  Shatner was great from that perspective.

Which character evolved the most from the beginning?

Bob Barlen:  I think it’s probably going to be Doc, the intergalactic radio talk-show therapist, played by Craig Robinson.  That was a case where we started writing him and then we got a chance to work with Craig and play around with the character a little bit.  He’s so funny and such a hilarious guy that we were able to take it and push that character more.  What we found was that the more we were able to punish Doc, the funnier it was.  He was just a guy who because of his big mouth gets himself into trouble, and we were able to make that character something special, so he evolved through the course of it. 

You get to walk Sofia Vergara down the aisle.  What did she say about that?

Brunker:  She was really lovely.  Seeing what she brought to the character of this reporter who’s in love with Scorch and he’s in love with her was really fun, especially because she had the strength to beat Scorch at his own game.  They felt like equals, and I thought that was really important.  I love the scene at the end of the movie where the first time we see her and him, he dips her on stage.  And when we pick up with them again at the end and she’s interviewing, she dips him and throws him off his feet.  It was important to me that Scorch’s partner be an equal to him and be equally ambitious in her thing.  We thought what better way to have an exclusive than to be married to the journalist.  That seemed like a good fit for the two of them. 

escape-from-planet-earth-posterI loved your strong female characters.  What pushed you in that direction?

Barlen:  We really wanted to make and create female characters who would kick butt and who were not just damsels in distress and that type of thing.  Certainly we love strong women in our lives and that’s something that’s important for us, especially for something that kids will be watching, but just in general, that’s the type of movie I want to watch.  I don’t want to see something where women are diminished and for us to get a chance to do that in animation was great. 

Brunker:  I think for us Kira was the funnest character from a writing standpoint because she doesn’t have to carry the movie on her back the way Gary does.  What you need from your hero is somebody who is not good at everything because they have to overcome a bunch of things.  With Kira, she was a character that whenever we needed somebody to be really good at something, we could give it to her and the audience would just root for her.  It was great.  She was allowed to be excellent at everything she did.  She could rocket boot around.  She could fight with Lena on the ship.  She could do all of this stuff and be a great mom at the same time.  She was a lot of fun and the way the story is structured allowed us to give her those moments and unabashedly let her be fantastic. 

You guys are co-writers.  Can you talk about how that dynamic works?  Who takes what part of the story and who takes the other part?

Brunker:  It’s fantastic.  I can’t imagine doing it any other way.  One of the things when you’re facing a blank page is there are an infinite number of avenues to go down and you protect one another from spending three months going down the wrong avenue.  You can very quickly catch each other on that stuff.  In terms of how we break it up, if one of us is really excited about a particular scene, like “I know exactly what that’s got to be.  You’ve gotta let me have it!”  Normally, that’s pretty good.  We don’t fight over those too much.  We’ll break off and do it and then the process is ego-free.  We basically take it and hand it over.  I hand mine to Bob and he hands his to me, and we rewrite each other, and then we’ll read them together and fight it out.  It’s pretty low conflict.  From time to time, we’ll bump into something where we really can’t agree, but usually that means there’s a better third answer.  If we can’t agree on something, it’s because both of us have half the idea right.

ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTHWhere did the idea for the aliens with the Liverpudlian accents come from?

Brunker:  In the process of making a movie, you do scratch dialogue, which is before you go and sometimes before the actors are cast, in this case certainly before the actors are cast.  You cut all the storyboards together, and then Bob will do a voice or I’ll do a voice or members of the crew will do a voice, and we edit that together to get a feeling of the scenes and how they play so that we can make corrections and fix things before we’re in the recording studio with the actors.  That was one where we were just horsing around and tried it in a British accent and everybody laughed.  The nice thing about animation is that it lasts for so many years and you can afford to take a chance on making a mistake.  So we took that and said let’s just go with it for now, and if it’s still funny on Monday, we’ll keep it.  And it worked great.  We screened it for the crew who were our first audience.  They’re working on little sections, but they love seeing chunks of the movie coming together.  When they saw it and all burst out laughing, we were like okay, we’re onto something here.

Roswell and Area 51 look so authentic.  Did you visit the location or research it at all?

Brunker:  We looked at a lot of photos.  We didn’t go there.  It would have been lovely.  We’ve been on this movie for 2-1/2 years which sounds like a long time but is relatively short in animation terms, so we didn’t have the luxury of going and spending a bunch of time in a place which we would have loved to do.  We certainly read a lot of books on Area 51 and looked through a lot of photos of the surrounding area and tried to drop in little things.

escape-from-planet-earth-movieYou even had an homage to John Lasseter which I thought was very cool in the film.  Are some of your people graduates of the Pixar school or fans of John?

Brunker:  Yup! 

Barlen:  We’re huge fans of John and so we just wanted to tip the hat a bit. 

Brunker:  I really hope he likes that.  When that section came down to us, the idea was the aliens had created every cool thing on Earth.  And then, it was like you guys go figure that out and we just made a list of the cool stuff.  We wanted to pay respect to the people who have influenced us the most and who we really look up to and so Lasseter had to be in there.  We thought if these aliens could have invented anything…  It was also a real sign of respect because it shows how influential he’s been into CG animation that Doc had to give him…if you look at the photo, Doc is giving him the little ball and the little lamp and stuff.

So which Beatle was missing?

Brunker:  Beatles? (laughs)  They’re just Liverpudlians.  

Barlen:  They’re just three blokes, that’s all. 

Brunker:  Three guys.

escape-from-planet-earth-release-dateThose three are based on renderings that we’ve seen of people who have seen aliens, but are your main blue aliens based on anything in particular?  Why are they blue?

Brunker:  It’s funny with questions like that.  You look very quickly and get your color palette down to things that don’t look good.  And so, you’re left with very few colors.  You don’t want them to be gray.  We looked at that, and dolphins are cute, but you don’t relate to gray skin very much.  We immediately project sickness on that.  You look at red, which was fun for Iowa, or orange, and it became pretty extreme to look at for the whole time.  So you narrow it down, and then inevitably, every other animated film has done some version of these guys in some colors so you’re fighting against that.  You get down to a small pocket of colors, and then you have the art department mock them up in each color, and you see what you respond to. 

Did you talk about The Smurfs?

Brunker:  Certainly we talked about The Smurfs and Avatar and all of these things, and there’s a reason that people netted out on blue and it’s just because you don’t want to stare at red characters for the whole time and they can’t be any of Earth’s flesh tones.

Can you talk about what you’re working on next?

escape-from-planet-earth-poster-finalBrunker:  We certainly want to continue working together.  We’re working on a new script right now.  This one is animated.  We also have some live action ideas in the vault and we’re waiting to see what Escape from Planet Earth does.  It’s exciting since it’s our first movie so we’re going to take probably ten days off and then be back into the next one.

Does it have a working title yet?

Brunker:  (laughs)  No.  The Bob Barlen and Cal Brunker Unidentified Project.  We’re trying not to pitch it.  One of the things that happens in animation is it’s an incredibly pressurized situation from a writing standpoint once production starts, because as soon as they say go, you have 150 artists with jaws waiting for work, just chewing through work.  And so, you’re writing trying to stay ahead of them all the time and revising.  And, as you see stuff coming together, you have to rewrite.  It makes for a very pressurized situation, so for this new one we’re trying to just wait until we have a pass at a script that we’re really happy with and then we’ll put it out in the world.

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