Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My Half Hour Chat with Chris & Kirk: Pt. 1
(Or: They gave up lunch with Nic Cage for THIS?!)


The Excessively Long Intro

You know you're doing something right when you get a SECOND CHANCE to interview one of your artistic heroes. Not that I could tell you what that 'something right' is, but there has to be SOMETHING, right? Otherwise, I could never have gotten so fortunate. TWICE!

Then again, maybe it WASN'T me.

After all, a huge portion of the credit for this SECOND INTERVIEW has to go to Daniel Chun, the assistant to Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco. Daniel went waaay out of his way to get me this interview. When you consider that Chris and Kirk are currently circling the globe, tirelessly promoting The Croods via every major TV station, website and newspaper, the fact that Daniel somehow managed to squeeze me in between BBC and Al Jazeera is nothing short of a miracle. Thanks, Daniel!

I also have to dump wheelbarrows full of thanks in the laps of Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco. These guys are BEYOND busy right now, yet they both set aside a nice chunk of their morning to let me ask them a bunch of minutia-mining questions that only a total Croods convert would would ever want the answers to.

I mean, poor Chris Sanders. He had to sit through the alternately silent and stammering me once before. He couldn't have been eager to relive that experience. Plus, someone must've mentioned to him how often I go on and on about wanting a sketch of Stitch. Such naked desperation is rarely seen as an attractive quality. He could've -- SHOULD'VE -- run the other way.

Then there's Kirk De Micco. Kirk knows all about my oft-stated admiration for Sanders. He could've easily ducked out of this interview if he'd wanted to. But he didn't. He was there, fully engaged, totally enthused, and offering up interesting answer after interesting answer. I may have gone into this blog a Chris Sanders fan, but I'm finishing it up as a Chris Sanders AND Kirk De Micco fan. Seriously, this guy is great, and I LOVED getting to talk with him.

So here it is, the first half of my half hour chat with Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco. It took place on Friday, March 8 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel over-looking Central Park in NYC. We were all wearing pants. I hope you like it!

The Origin Story

Me: An Austrian nun was once quoted as singing, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start." Sounds good to me! So let's start with the film's origin. Kirk, it's been widely reported that you and John Cleese and Aardman Animations started The Croods. But who came up with the initial idea?

Kirk De Micco: John and I had written a script based on the Roald Dahl book, The Twits. We were doing that for Disney at the time. And as it goes, people read the script and liked it and thought it was funny, so they sent it around. Folks at DreamWorks read it and invited us to come in and talk about it. John knew Jeffrey [Katzenberg] very well by that point because of the Shrek films, and they had been friends. So I went in to DreamWorks and looked at a couple of things. I went back to John and told him about couple things that they had ideas for. They had a one page idea about a futuristic, intellectual inventor -- set in prehistoric times -- and a Luddite bruiser. It was sort of like Midnight Run, with Grodin and De Niro. It was a road movie about these two guys. It was really just a one page road movie, and Aardman was involved. So that's how we all started working together. The thing that really kicked it off was the inventions and the guy being afraid of inventions. John has this very big fear of technology, and there was this book, Technopoly, that he was reading at the time. It was all about what technology was doing to the world and how it was beginning to run it.

Me: Fueling the paranoia?

Kirk (laughing): Yeah, exactly. So that's the one thing that has carried over through out all of the incarnations -- the fear of change. It's that same thematic ground that we're walking on, it's just that we're dramatizing it in a completely different way. The real problem with the beginning version was that while it could be very funny and satirical, it was very intellectual about the fear. Until it became personal -- and the real personal fear of change is that which happens in your family, or a guy losing his daughter, that's what you connect to emotionally -- the fear of shoes or whatever new thing you came up with in prehistoric time was strictly intellectual. So I think that's the biggest change that happened over the course of the eight years.

Me: One of the blog's super-regulars (Richard Bensam!) wanted to know how you got hooked up with John Cleese to begin with?

Kirk: It was based on the Roald Dahl book, The Twits. I had adapted other things, and every once in a while, when you're doing these as a writer, there will be situations where directors or producers are involved, [...] someone like Tim Burton or whoever that act as 'The Keeper of The Tone.' John loved that book. He used to read it to his daughter. So we met. He was going to be a producer, an executive producer, but as we kept on working it just made sense that we start writing together.

Me: Chris, you left Disney and came to DreamWorks. Were you immediately assigned to The Croods, or was it something you saw and went after? How did that work?

Chris Sanders: I saw two different films when I came to my first meeting. One of them was The Guardians and one of them was The Croods. The Croods was the one that was up and running and ready to go. It was actively being written at that point, and I loved the caveman thing, so I picked The Croods.

Kirk: Lucky for me!

Me: Had you known each other beforehand?

Kirk: No, that's how we met. We met in a clandestine off-lot location where we had lunch a couple times. Remember that?

Chris: Yeah. Once was at McCormick and Schmidts, and the other was at the Polo Lounge.

Kirk: Yeah, he still at [Disney], so we were just sorta taking about things off-campus.

Me: Secretly plotting...

Kirk: Yeah, it was so, SO secretive.

[Chris laughs]

Me: Masks and secret handshakes?

Chris: Yeah, masks, secret handshakes...

Kirk: Masonic codes...

The Collaboration

Me: Kirk, you directed Space Chimps alone. Chris, you worked with Dean DeBlois on Lilo & Stitch and How To Train Your Dragon. So with The Croods, Chris is suddenly paired up with someone new, and Kirk, you're paired up with someone for the first time. How did that go?

Kirk: Well, you know, with Space Chimps, Barry Sonnenfeld and I were...I was working with him. Then, over the course of time, it became just me. But that was interesting because he was the guiding force for that film at the start. I learned a ton from him. And I would very much prefer to be working with somebody, especially in animation, because there's so much to do. It's good to have an extra set of eyes on things, but it's also good for energy because along the way you run into some brick walls. So it's good to have somebody else that, after everyone else is done, that you can go into a room with and talk things out with. To kinda go, 'Where are we?' Because I wouldn't know how to do that in a mirror.

Chris (laughing, and in a pseudo-therapeutic tone): You could express your frustrations.

Kirk (also laughing): Yeah.

Chris: Rather than just bottling them up and exploding...

Kirk: ...You have somebody to vent with!

Me: Would you guys mind describing one another's unique strengths as writer/directors?

Chris: Kirk has a fearless energy. I tend to be very trepidations about jumping into things. I tend to circle things for a really long time until the last minute when I'm shoved into it. And one of the things about Kirk is that he will just immediately jump into a sequence or a project like, 'Okay, let's get started!' Where I'm, 'What? Right now? It's just... It's before lunch!' Kirk has great humor, great character stuff, but he also has what I don't have, which is fearlessness about jumping right into a scene or a moment in the film and getting started. I will credit the writing of the song that is at the end of the film with to very thing. We were needing a song for the end of the film, and for a moment at the end of the film where the Croods are taking this trip and they're having that 'good day.' We needed that song, and it had been sitting around the studio for quite a while. We'd had a lot of meetings with a lot of different people, but no one was really writing the song. It just wasn't getting going. And we'd even had a couple of meetings where Alan Silvestri came down from where he lives up north and sat in these meetings, and still nothing. And then one day Kirk just said, "You know what? We'll write it." And of course I said, "We're not song writers." And Kirk said, "It can't be that hard." So we sat down, and Kirk said, "All we have to do is write this thing down thematically, talk about what this film is really about." And one of the other reasons we really wanted to write the song was because we didn't want the song to come out and literally be about a cave. Like, 'I like caves. I like the sun.' We wanted it to be a lot more broad. Light in the dark. Hope versus fear. Things like that. And keep it very universal. So we started writing these things down. We called Alan Silvestri and we said, 'You know what? We're gonna write the song.' And he said, "OH, THANK GOD!"

[Chris and Kirk both crack up laughing at the memory of this. LOUD laughter. REAL laughter. INFECTIOUS laughter.]

Chris: Alan said, "Great. Send me your lyrics. We'll fly you up here, and we'll just spend a day in my studio writing the song." And that's exactly what happened. And I have to say, it was one of the best days I've ever had working on any project anywhere. We sat in Alan's studio. He put the music on a loop. And we just sat around rhyming and coming up with lines all day long. It was amazing.

Kirk: And then Alan brought in Glen Ballard to take all of our stuff and just take it to the next level. But that was our hope. To just set the table thematically. To get the stuff down and get it out there. What we really wanted. Cuz what we thinking was, if we're writing a song about the movie, no one knows the movie better than us. Typically, what will happen is the songwriter asks you to write a bunch of ideas down, and then you get the song back and it's just--

Chris: They just took what I wrote and rhymed it!

Kirk: Cuz they're not gonna spend, you know...

Chris: Who said the rhyming dictionary thing?

Kirk: Some producer.

Chris: Some producer said, "Oh, Kirk. It looks like you should've bought a rhyming dictionary!"

[Both laugh.]

Kirk: So, you know, we know the movie, we know the story. We should at least take the opening salvo. As for Chris, obviously, when Chris came on I was psyched to be the writer on a 'Chris Sanders movie.' But as we've been working together, while I'll kind of jump into stuff first and think about things more long-term structurally, Chris will...well, he says that as he writes scenes and storyboards them, 'it's between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.' It's like, you're like, 'Oh, this scenes really good!' Then you storyboard it and you're like, 'Oh, my God. It doesn't work at all. What's wrong with it?' It looked perfect on the page. Even with all of the executive notes and everyone reading it, they're like, 'That's a good scene.' And then it get boarded, and it's not a good scene.

Me: Are you actually writing the dialogue before storyboarding, or is it more like general actions and Cliffs Notes?

Kirk: No, we write the dialogue. We write screen pages, just like regular script pages. That's what we give to the storyboard artists. And they have the latitude to fill things in, change stuff, pitch us different lines or versions of the lines. But the beginning, middle and end of that scene -- the point of that scene -- has to stay the same for our arcs to works. I think that that power to be able to really finish scenes off...Chris also has a very great fourth-quarter quarterback thing to be able to finish scenes. So many times it's just about taking out bits and pieces and it (snaps fingers). It's in the polishing of what's there, and it goes up 100%. He'll take out two or three lines and it's just changes something.

Pretty good so far, right? We've gone from secret societies to rhyming dictionaries, and this is only the first half of the interview! Please come back Thursday for Part 2. I promise you, THE BEST IS YET TO COME!


  1. this was really entertaining to read! you guys are so awesome and smart

    1. It was a lot of fun! And the second half -- coming Thursday -- is EVEN BETTER. (Mostly cuz it took me the first fifteen minutes to finally relax!) :P

  2. At last, my practice of skimming through interviews to see if my name is mentioned in them has been rewarded. Reading interviews with the likes of Bill Gates tend to be exercises in frustration, but this interview was much more satisfying. (By the same token, reading interviews with Richard Branson can only be described as a perverse masochistic endeavor for me.)

    And they once ate at McCormick and Schmick's? I once ate at McCormick and Schmick's! I have something in common with them!

    Kidding aside...what's great about this interview is these gentlemen don't sound like they're in publicity tour autopilot mode, reciting talking points for questions they've heard a thousand times already. They sound like they're relaxed and having fun and enthused about the film, and it makes us have fun reading it. Well done to all involved!