Friday 3 May 2013

Interview: Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, Directors of The Croods

Last month, DreamWorks released their first film under Fox, the prehistoric family comedy, The Croods. We here at A113Animation really rather liked it: it's warm, it's funny and it's visually stunning. So I was very pleased to get the opportunity to talk to its two directors, Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, late last week.

I'd like to pass on my sincerest thanks to Chloe Adams at 20th Century Fox for setting up the interview, and to Chris and Kirk for taking the time out of their very hectic schedules to fit in an eager fanboy - and for putting up with my God-awful connection.

Kirk has been involved in the production for nine years now, whereas Chris worked on the project both before and after his enormous success with How to Train Your Dragon. In our 20 minute interview, Chris, Kirk and I discuss The Croods, its lengthy production, its recently announced sequel, working with Roger Deakins, Chris's involvement with How to Train Your Dragon 2, and more! Check the transcription of our chat out below.

A113Animation: First of all, I saw the film a few weeks ago now and I loved it: great stuff; it's really, really funny, but more than that, it's a really touching story, and the visuals - as I'm sure you have heard parroted back to you a thousand different times - are absolutely stunning. So, congrats to both of you on that!
Kirk DeMicco: Wow, thank you!

A113: Okay, so, I'm going to start with Kirk first: The Croods has been in development for quite a while now hasn't it? As far back as, I think I read, 2005. And undergone some pretty drastic story changes since then. It was originally called Crood Awakening and in production at Aardman - well, with Aardman - and has changed a lot since then to become the final film that we all see. So, Kirk, can you talk about your early experiences on the film, working with John Cleese, Aardman's input and that sort of thing, please?
KD: Yeah, sure. So, we actually started more like 2004. One thing I think you see is that - since then - we moved to a larger theme, which is the fear of change. So that was something that carried throughout the entire movie, because that was something we felt had a certain universal relatability - not just around international countries, but also across ages, because everyone fears change whether they're a kid or an adult. That being said, at the beginning, when we were working with John [Cleese] and Aardman, the movie was a little bit more about the fear of change and how it affects society. And it was about these villages, right - it was about this guy, who was kind of like the patriarch of this village, the leader of the village. And a new guy turns up in the town and kind of upsets the balance. Much like Grug, as a father, being a very strong figure within his own family. But in the earlier one there was more of a village, there were some neighbours... then when Chris and I started working on it together, and talking about it, one thing that we kept on finding as we were writing together was that the scenes that we liked the most, the scenes that we related to the most, were the ones where we felt things emotionally for him, and that change - he (Grug) actually had an emotional motive, and that was for his family. So, we made the decision to just focus on one family rather than an entire village.

A113: Okay, and then, Chris, you joined the fold after leaving Disney. It's kind of an interesting story really: you joined DreamWorks, you started working on The Croods,  you stopped working on The Croods, you started working on How to Train Your Dragon, you finished working on How to Train Your Dragon, you came back aboard The Croods, you finished The Croods, and now here we are. So can you talk us a bit through your early days on the film?
Chris Sanders: Oh, yeah. When I came onto the film, I wasn't aware that it had as much history as it really did. Kirk pitched me the story and I thought it was fantastic, so I jumped right onto it. I did a couple of movies for DreamWorks prior to development, and Croods was one I thought was amazing. I guess I was so enthusiastic about the caveman aspect of the whole thing, because I love caveman movies, so we dove in. That first year was spent trying to get that original version, which I loved, get that one off the ground, and it was just really, really rough. We had really run the course on that story about the village and it just wasn't getting off the ground... So I left to do How to Train Your Dragon, that was a moment for Kirk to be left alone with this puzzle. Kirk called me up one day, he wanted to talk, he'd had a new idea, so I came down, and he said "Okay, here it is, a stable caveman family loses their cave, so they go on the world's first family road-trip to find another one. No more village, just one family." And I thought 'Oh my God, that's it. Why was it this hard? [Laughs] Y'know, why did it take this long?' It was a clear theme, a clear central theme, and that was the story we made - that was the movie. And Kirk really found that story that we made; he was such a natural leader and the movie is so much stronger now.

A113: But what was it like coming onto the project part-way through? Because that is something that happens quite a lot in animation; you've directorial switch-over, directors joining, directors leaving... And there was a bit of a kerfuffle last year around Brave, and Brenda Chapman leaving the project. So, was there any animosity when you joined? Or did you fit in well with the crew and Kirk and with the story and was it kind of a quick thing?
KD: Actually, when Chris came on, he really was the one who revived it, because the project had actually fell pretty dormant. The crew who were working on it before, most people had kind of gone in separate directions. So the project kind of laid there. When Chris came on, he actually revived it. So Chris, you were really important, you actually got the production going, to get the movie to where it was.
CS: Yeah, I wasn't even aware until at least a month into that Aardman were on it before I got to it. [Laughs] But yeah, it's not like we were starting from scratch when I came on.

A113: Well, like you say, it has been a massively long production. I mean, if it's 2004, it's 9 years then, isn't it? That's two years longer than Bambi took, so that's quite a long production. [Laughs]
KD: Yeah, although it was quite for about a two years. I think between 2005 and 2007 (when Chris came on), there wasn't much going on; it was kind of on a hiatus pause.

A113: Yeah. Like you said, it did used to be in production at Aardman - I presume, then, it was going to be stop-motion originally?
KD: The story that we were working on at the Aardman level, was right for an Aardman-type stop-motion movie, because of the fact that it really revolved around one very large set - there were sort of adventures off of that, but there was one large piece kind of set, one we covered very well, that we would always come back to, and that was the village. And that makes a lot of sense in stop-motion. But in our film though, we started looking at CG and creating visual developments on top of that you've got the artists coming up with all these amazing, detailed visual developments to help you. Then when Chris came on he started pushing to really figure out what this world looks likes in CG and embracing the caveman element of it all, and that's where it kind of opened up and became more of an adventure - a family adventure thing.

A113: Yeah. And you had Roger Deakins as visual consultant on the film as well, so obviously that lends a lot to how beautiful your film is going to look - clearly this was going to be a beautiful film anyway - but did he, did Roger Deakins, have a large effect on the end result?
CS: Oh absolutely, yes; Roger's amazing. The world that we were going to be going into as the movie builds, we needed that to be a very fantastic world, but it has to be believed in - you have to believe in this place. So the way that it's shot and the way that it's lit, we took that world, which is fantastic, but we treated it very seriously. The way that you light a set can mean the difference between making it look like a toy, or looking like it's absolutely real - and that's one of the things that Roger brought to the party. He is all about removing light from a scene, if you over-light a scene, that's when it starts to look a little bit like a toy. But our scenes look fantastically real. So he had a hugely tremendous effect on the way that the audience responded to the film.

A113: To the both of you: if you had to sum up in one thing, one sentence, what the other director most brought to the film, what would it be.
KD: When Chris came on, he was the director and I was the writer, so I came at it in a different way, you know? The thing that I really found pretty great about the way Chris structured things was that he had an incredible... kind of a nose - more of an instinct than the analytical part of figuring out or script-writing or stuff. He just had this instinct for special moments that make a movie - cinematic moments. I think that's something that I really watch in all his movies, and I'm really happy that that was something that... yeah, just instinctive, let's stick to that. I know that's more than one line, but I'm the writer, so... [Laughs]
A113: [Laughs]
CS: I think that, for me, if I had to boil it down, it's that Kirk always kept us on target. There's the mundane, everyday writing scenes for CG animation - which is all very important - but if you lose track, you lose focus on the big picture and what you're really trying to achieve, then you can lose the entire film. And the thing with Kirk, that was so great about him, - from the very beginning and all the way through - he knew that this was for a family audience, anybody should be able to see this movie and have a great time, whether they're young, they're old, single, married... whatever, but the primary feeling, the primary target, was families and the families that exist inside of everybody. And Kirk kept us on that target all the time. We never lost track of that, we never tried going 'Hey, let's do this amazing, amazing sequence! It'll be so beautiful and it'll be all about this stuff that didn't even exist then!', we never spun off into this abstract film, because we always stayed on target with what we trying to say, and who we were entertaining.

A113: Right, now DreamWorks, whether or not they really deserve it, have acquired this reputation as being a studio that makes a sequel to everything. [Laughs] Rise of the Guardians last year, because of the disappointment over the box-office results, isn't getting a sequel. But, as we found out last week, The Croods is. So can either of you talk at all about what that's going to consist of? What stories are there left to tell with this family?
CS: That was an excellent question. We have just begun to talk about that! There was a lot of material that we generated for the first film that we didn't use, and one of the things we're going to do is go through that material, because there were animals that were built that were never used, there were sequences that we came up with that were never used; we've already found a couple of sequences and tagged those as being some of our favourites. But it's the big idea that we're looking for; like what is the actual story? The actual story we have yet to concoct. This just happened last week, so we're just now beginning to figure that out. We're in very early days.
KD: Yeah, I mean, one thing we've always looked at it is that they're a very unique set of characters; because they're cavemen and they're so innocent and they have no ulterior motives, they have childlike minds. That's the really believable thing about them: they learn. There are so many other characters who've got their land, their gold... [Laughs] But that's not the way the Croods operate, there's something eminently warm about them. We thought, especially what Nic [Cage] and Emma [Stone] brought to those characters and their voices, they're such warm characters that we like seeing them out there, so we hope that people would want to see more of that. They're just warm-hearted, good, good characters.

Sanders with the voice of Grug, Nicolas Cage.

A113: Okay. And I've actually got a couple of questions from readers from Twitter on that subject: @nadineshambrook says "Hi Chris & Kirk, congrats on the sequel... What is the process you go through when choosing voice actors for parts? Do you have an idea of who you want to a voice character before the film, or is that something you look at after production?"
CS: You mean when we originally cast the characters?
A113: Yeah. Like, when you're making a film, do you think right from the start 'Oh, Grug. I want Nic Cage to voice Grug.'? Or does that come later?
CS: Oh it comes right away. Because the first thing we did when we actually got into production is record the voices. Because everything has to follow the soundtrack; it's a common misconception that we finish the film and then we record the voices. It's actually the very first thing we do. Now, casting the film... You can't really cast it too soon... You want to do the big spots, where you've been lighting it and boarding it, while casting, so you know what kind of characters they're going to be. You want to get the voices in as soon as possible, because it's not just their voice that you want, it's also the personality of the actor that's going to start to inform and then help develop the character. So we approached Nicolas Cage, for example, pretty early, and he was the only actor that we approached, because he said yes. He was the one that we were thinking off; we started writing the character for him long before we actually asked him if he would do the part, so we actually approached him first. If he had said no, then we would have to go back and try to figure out who would be the next right choice. But we were very lucky in that every actor that we asked said yes; we got all of our first choices. So I guess the other answer is: as you write, and as you storyboard, voices begin to come to you, inevitably those are going to be celebrity voices, because they're the ones that you know. But Grug started sounding a lot like Nicolas Cage, so we went to him, and etc, etc.

A113: Chris, if I was to ask you about How to Train Your Dragon 2... How involved have you been with that?
CS: I have not been super involved, because the entire time that thing was being developed, I was very, very hard at work on Croods. However, I have been able to participate in every story meeting, I have talked a lot with Dean [DeBlois, Dragon 2 director] during the writing. So I would say I've been as involved as I could be up to this point - having been full-time on Croods. But I'll say that we had a terrific story meeting just a couple of weeks ago, which was just fantastic - that involved a sequence in the film.

A113: Okay, awesome! If I can just quickly tag onto the very end of that, the question I ask to everyone: What is your favourite animated film? And that goes to both of you.
CS: Kirk?
KD: Charlie Brown Christmas.
CS: Of all time? This is a tough one, there are so many... Oh man, I think I would choose somewhere between My Neighbour Totoro or Dumbo.

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