’tis the season to start watching your favorite holiday titles! But it’s also the season to add some new ones to your list. Luckily, Netflix has gift-wrapped a new Christmas classic for us in Klaus, the beautifully animated original tale that features the voice work of Jason Schwartzman, JK Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm MacDonald, and Joan Cusack. The story hails from Despicable Me / Minions franchise architect Sergio Pablos who delivers an origin story of sorts for Santa Claus in ways you won’t see coming but can absolutely enjoy year after year. You can read my full review here.
I had a chance to chat with Pablos about all aspects of the animated holiday film, including the inspiration for the idea to go back before the existence of Santa Claus and tell the story of how he became a worldwide icon. Pablos also praised his talented cast and crew for pulling off such a daunting task. And if you’re at all interested to find out if Klaus has franchise potential, be sure to stick around for his final answer. Here’s what he had to say:
Sergio Pablos: Back in 2010, there were a few interesting films that were tackling origin stories and I was inspired to try and find an established character who would lend itself to it. I landed on Santa Claus, and at first I dismissed the idea, but I decided to do some research and I found that there might be room for a film that attempted to give him an origin story, but I had to find the right angle.
When I landed on the idea of Jesper the postman as the main character, I discovered that the story had lots of potential and decided to move forward with it.
How difficult was it to find the right voice and personality for Jesper? He’s not exactly the most likeable guy in the beginning…
Pablos: You said it! That was precisely the hardest part about Jesper, as it is very difficult to present a character that’s so morally flawed and still get the audience to want to go along with him.
Jason Schwartzman was instrumental in finding that sweet spot. He and I worked together early on and tried a few different approaches until he found the right angle. His disposition to experiment and improvise were an essential part of how we got there. He was truly a godsend.
How did you go about finding the particular visual style for your characters and this world?
Pablos: I had to find the right artist that shared a similar sensibility to mine and could take on the Herculean task of designing the hundreds of characters that populate Klaus’ world. I reached out to my good friend and colleague Torsten Schrank, who took on the challenge in a spectacular way.
Our first introduction to Smeerensburg is an imposing one and pretty scary, too. What inspiration went into the early design of the isolated town?
Pablos: We knew that this was a story about transformation at its core, so we worked backwards form the idyllic perfect Dickensian town we knew we were going to end up with, and then we tried to get as far away form it as we could for the beginning of the film, all while retaining that Scandinavian flavour to it.
Our incredible Production Designers Szymon Biernacki and Marcin Jakubowski and their team had to apply the same philosophy for pretty much every element of the film, including locations, characters and props.
A related question but a spoilery one: How much fun was it for you and your animators to brighten up Smeerensburg and bring Christmas cheer to the town?
Pablos: Tons. And a lot of hard work, too. But man, it was worth it. When you do this right, when you invest so much effort into the world-building, the audience truly believes that this place could exist.
Klaus is also your feature directorial debut after more than 25 years in the business. How was that experience for you?
Pablos: It was a funny thing. I’ve been trying to get a chance to direct for about fifteen years now, but only now I realized that I would have been ill-prepared for it if it weren’t for all the experience that I gained during that time.
I learned that directing is all about having a clear vision, and to find the best ways to convey that vision to the team. Surrounding yourself with artists who are far more talented than me in the areas that are not my expertise was crucial to the end result too.
You also get to voice a pair of characters in Klaus. What was that experience like for you?
Pablos: Well, that was never really my plan. But we were having so much trouble finding the right voices, that it seemed like the best solution would be just to do it myself. Seems like when it comes to voicing grotesquely large, communicationally challenged characters, I’m your man. That’s the limit of my acting ability.
Klaus gets a surprisingly heartfelt backstory here to explain his profession and isolation. His story hit me particularly hard. Was that drawn from real life experiences at all or was it just that being a widowed toymaker fit this particular Santa Claus narrative?
Pablos: Not directly form real life, but we’ve all experienced loss and longing, and that definitely went into it. But it really fit well with Klaus, who he is, and who he will go on to become.
You also end the film with a sort of spiritual or supernatural transition into the Santa Claus figure known around the world. How important was it to you to give Klaus and Jesper’s own arcs and their relationships closure rather than settling for a “And they lived happily ever after” ending?
Pablos: It’s important, yes. But you also have to remember that this is at its core a prequel to Santa Claus, who is essentially a magical timeless being, so the advent of magic had to be there. We wanted to end the film with the moment where your own experience of Santa begins, and not tamper with anyone’s beliefs.
Klaus feels like a one-and-done movie, and I mean that in the best possible way, but is there any chance for a sequel or franchise?
Pablos: This is, as I said earlier, a “Prequel to your Santa”, so it was always meant to be a single movie. Anything we tried to do beyond this point would get in the way of this film’s intent, so we have no plans to expand upon it.