Many fairytales and mythical figures who bring joy to children around the world are often presented as protectors of children’s imaginations and innocence. When these figures, including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, team up together to defeat evil in the world, they can help the children overcome their fears and truly enjoy the magic of the world. Their magical bond is a major motivating force in the anticipated DreamWorks animated film ‘Rise of the Guardians,’ which is set to be released in theaters on Wednesday.
‘Rise of the Guardians’ looks into what happens when Santa Claus, who’s known as North (voiced by Alec Baldwin); the Easter Bunny, who’s known as E. Aster Bunnymund (Hugh Jackman); the Tooth Fairy, who goes by Tooth (Isla Fisher); and the Sandman all know each other and team up keep children around the world happy and safe. Strong and immortal, the four childhood legends have been tasked by the Man in the Moon to protect the innocence and imagination of children of all ages to the fullest extent of their powers.
When an evil force, the bogeyman, who’s named Pitch (Jude Law), arrives with a plan to erase the Guardians from existence by robbing children of their hopes and dreams, the beloved crusaders elicit the help of Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Jack is a reluctant new recruit to the Guardians, however, as he would rather enjoy a snowy day than help save the world, as he’s upset no one believes in him. As the Guardians engage in an epic battle against Pitch, whose plan to conquer the world by spreading fear, can only be stopped by their magic and the lasting belief in young Jamie (Dakota Goyo).
The filmmakers of the DreamWorks animated family adventure film, including director Peter Ramsey; producers Guillermo del Toro, Christina Steinberg, Nancy Bernstein and Bill Joyce, who also wrote the books the movie is based on; screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire; and composer/songwriter Alexandre Desplat, recently participated in a press conference at New York City’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The filmmakers discussed, among other things, how they became involved with the movie, how they chose which actors would voice the characters and why teens, as well as children, will enjoy the film.
Question (Q): How did this project come together, and how did everyone become involved in the film?
Bill Joyce (BJ): It started when my daughter was about six, and came into the kitchen with her little brother, who was three, in August, of all times, and asked, “Does the tooth fairy know Santa Claus?” I thought it was a funny question in August, but in her hand was her brother’s tooth. They had been going at it, and she had accidentally knocked his tooth out.
So I thought, okay. I said yes, the tooth fairy and Santa Claus do know each other. That opened up Pandora’s Box, that I’ve been trying to answer for 18 years. That’s why we put together this story.
Christina Steinberg (CS): Bill brought us the idea, and brought us this beautiful book of drawings that we all fell madly in love with. We pursued Bill relentlessly until he agreed to bring the movie to us.
We spent the next couple of years really figuring out how Bill was going to be working on the books while we were going to be developing the movie. We started with a team of people we thought we needed to make the film as wonderfully and spectacular as it is. Peter came aboard next, and then we started working on it.
Peter Ramsey (PR): It was pretty amazing. I had been at DreamWorks for awhile, and had heard about. I had recently completed another smaller TV short for the studio, so I had a little down time.
This idea of ‘Guardians’ was out there. Some work had been done on it, but the studio was gearing up for a new version of it I didn’t really have much thought that I would be involved. The idea had kind of taken route in my head, and I was kind of working on my ideas for it. I was waiting for them to ask if I was interested, and they asked me if I would be interested.
CS: Then David came on very soon after that, as well. We brought David in to write it.
David Lindsay-Abaire (DLA): When it was pitched to me, I liked the size of the story. It had an epic quality, and it had big things I cared about, as I had kids. I said, do I really want to make this movie, because it seems so different than a lot of the movies they’ve had released.
Everyone at DreamWorks said no, we want to make this movie and this story. Having read Bill’s story, I said, I’m in.
Nancy Bernstein (NB): I came on before Peter, and my job was to figure out how we were going to make this movie. It is kind of epic, and bigger than any kind of movie we’ve ever made at DreamWorks. The notion of all of these amazing characters, I was so excited about the opportunity.
I was head of production of DreamWorks at the time. I was asked if I’d consider it, and I said, yes, let’s go!
Guillermo del Toro (GDT): When I came back from New Zealand, I immediately made contact with DreamWorks. I went to the art room of ‘Guardians,’ and I was immediately captivated by one thing that’s still in the movie. This is not a movie that has pop references from the last 10 years, or trying to be hip and now.
It was actually trying to be timeless. It was trying to capture a sense of storytelling that is lost in most mediums right now. I was really attracted to that, and the possibility of exploring themes that are very important today, especially with kids. Like Jamie with fear, and how each of us is a guardian. Things like that, faith, belief, hope, renewal.
When we connected with all these things, we started talking about character and story and design. Then it became absolutely absorbing of my life and my family, because my whole family has become involved with this movie at some point. (laughs)
Alexandre Desplat (AD): What attracted me to the film was the enthusiasm and the way Christina presented the movie was so different from any other movie I’ve done before. It was like it was on another planet, it was very strange. (laughs) They also showed me some of the images in 3D, and they were mind-blowing.
Q: Peter, what does it mean to direct an animated film like this? How did you direct the actors and the script?
PR: It entails everything. I always tell people, it’s exactly the same as directing a live-action film, but you’ve got to make every element from scratch.
For a quick example, with the performances, we had the script pages, and I was in the recording booth with the actors. I give them the emotional context as they’re reading the dialogue. After that, we take that dialogue, and work with the animators to actually match the performance to the actor’s vocal performance. So we split the performances up into two pieces.
On top of the performances, there’s things like moving the camera. There’s everything that’s in the live action films. They’re just broken up into different pieces, because animation is a one-step at-a-time medium.
Q: Guillermo, what has your experience been like producing, and what were your contributions to the film?
GDT: Well, working with DreamWorks the past few years has really changed my life. The atmosphere that’s been created by Bill is fantastic. My whole family’s involved; when my daughters aren’t in school, they come with me, because they love it so much.
The role of a producer is to be a professor and a bodyguard or thug. It’s a combination of many things. You’re there to be a shoulder for the director and other producers to cry on. You’re there to push them to do better.
It’s a job that really makes you be in your corner. If you make the mistake of thinking you’re directing, you’re not producing right. You have to support the director’s vision, and it was Peter’s vision without a doubt. You’re also there to give the best ideas you can.
With the contributions, if we all started to say, I did this or that, it minimizes what we all did. It also makes the fact that these films are an adventure petty. We all lived up to our part, and I think we’re here with a movie we’re all proud of. But I think we all delved into the different stages-animation, design.
But that’s the spirit. Every one of those meetings had everyone’s input. If you have a great idea from the writer that involved design, or an idea about the writing from the designer, you listen.
It’s beautiful, because it gives you time to think. With live-action films, you have six, ten weeks to think, and then everything about the movie goes away. Here, you can keep working for a few months, and keep correcting as you go along.
BJ: It was like having Santa Claus along. (laughs)
Q: What was your favorite scene?
GDT: My favorite scene? I think the quiet ones are my favorite. Like Jamie in his room, talking to his stuffed rabbit. Or Jack being taunted by Pitch. So the more serene and lyrical scenes are my favorite. Action is great, and I love it. But that is a given with animation, you have that freedom. What’s really great in animation is when you elicit emotion. Those are therefore my favorite.
BJ: You should have seen him act out the death of Sandman. (laughs) He’s like, (imitating del Toro) you’ve got to kill the one guy in the movie who shouldn’t die! You’ve got to kill the Sandman! (laughs)
Q: Peter, would you like to add anything to what Guillermo said about our contributions?
PR: To add to what he said, I’ve had a lot of support from these two women here (Steinberg and Bernstein). It’s been a dream to work with people like everyone here. The complete experience has been great, I pinch myself everyday.
It’s like I’m with the guardians, I’m Jack with the little stick. (laughs) I would also say we had an organic experience with the process. It’s almost impossible to tell who thought of what, or where things came from.
CS: I think we all felt the same way. What was so wonderful about this experience was that we all had the same hopes and dreams, so we never disagreed.
GDT: Well, you and I did! (laughs)
CS: Yeah, but we all had the same hopes about the tone, and what it could be.
NB: But the disagreements of the specifics is okay. It actually led to it being better, it’s part of our process. We’re really lucky we get to do that. We hammered our disagreements out, but I think everyone’s passion for the project was the same.
We wanted to maintain that quality level that Guillermo was talking about, and not have something that was pop culture. We wanted to create something timeless. Bill always calls these characters magnificent, and they are. We took that very seriously. We took that job of holding them up very, very seriously.
PR: We’re like a family on a trip, one wants to go this way, another wants to go that way.
GDT: As a producer of nearly 20 movies now, one of the first things is that I have to be enthusiastic about a film. So I come in with a lot of ideas. When we first started the process, we had like a big, 12-hour breakfast. It entailed all of us locking ourselves in a dining room, arguing about this and that.
I pitched a whole different story than what’s in the movie. Peter and Bill listened, and then said, that’s great, but that’s not the movie I want to make. (laughs) What I thought was great with Peter is that here comes this half-crazed Mexican, and pitches a whole other story, with a lot of enthusiasm. He said no. (laughs)
Q: Can you talk about how you chose the actors who voiced the characters? They all suited their roles so perfectly. Did you have certain actors in mind when you were writing the characters?
BJ: It was really interesting. Early on, they asked me to do an inspiration reel, kind of what I thought the characters would be like. It was a fun project to do, and sit down and think about.
For Jack, we chose stuff from James Dean, because he’s been a teenager forever, and he has that sort of call. For Pitch, it was this actor from the ’50s, George Sanders. He played Shere Khan in Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book.’
So we were using people who were dead, but it was something to base the idea on. We looked around, and said, who’s like that now? I think we found the perfect people.
CS: Yeah, they were always our main cast. We went to each one of them. Initially, when we talked to Alec, we wanted him for Pitch. But then we put him behind the early animation of North, and we heard him as North, and we said, that’s perfect. Who’s more naughty and nice than Alec? That seemed to fit perfect.
Everyone else was our dream casting. We went to each of them, and pitched them the movie, and they all said yes, happily.
PR: We took snippets of them from other movies, and played them against an image of the characters, whether they were still or animated, to get a feel of the image and sound together. Every time we saw that, it was like the hair on the back of our necks went up. We were like, that’s him, right there. We thought of Chris Pine as Jack.
CS: We thought of Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny, because we wanted him to be Australian. We took his Australian voice and put it behind the animation, and we said, that’s it, he’s an Australian rabbit.
NB: We tried to do early tests, actually, to get them excited, because we were turning these characters on their ear, they are different than what we may have imagined. We did put their voices from other movies behind our characters, so they could see what it would be like.
Q: David, is there any difference between North in the book and North in the movie?
DLA: I think the spirit of him is exactly the same. I don’t go too much into his biography.
BJ: Everything in the books happened about 200 years before the film. I was really clear about that when we started the process. I don’t want to adapt the books. I want the movie to be it’s own thing. The books are going to be about when they just came to be who they are. But the movie should be about who they are. So he started out as a wild man in his origin story, and David picked up on it, and brought it to life that way.
Q: What about the Russian accent?
BJ: He’s a wild man, he had to have it. It came up one day. He was always going to be a wild man.
Do you remember the day, Christine, when we were watching the Olympics. It was when Bela Karolyi was coaching the Olympic team, that he did so well. We said, that’s Santa. It seemed right.
Everything in the movie, every change to how people perceived these characters, went through this filter of, does it feel right to all of us? Usually, when we found a good thing, everyone’s face would light up.
Also, it’s the country closest to the North Pole. Once you start doing research, there are so many versions of Santa Claus, that we could have done whatever we wanted. We’re making our own version.
Q: Why should teens see the movie, and what will they learn from, and like about, it?
PR: I have teenage kids, and they’re super excited. There’s two things about it. There’s an element of nostalgia that you have, because most kids did or do believe in these characters. They love them. You wish for a present at Christmas time, you wake up Christmas morning, and there it is under the tree. It happened, Santa Claus actually brought it. That’s a reality in your life.
Even as a teenager, you’ve got those nostalgic feelings for it. There’s a part of you that wants to know it’s okay that you felt that way, and that you were right. I think it goes to the idea that it’s still worth believing in. On some level, I think you want to feel that.
This movie, I think what we tried to do, is take this idea seriously. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to after screenings who tell me, it’s been years since I’ve thought of these characters, but it did something to me inside. It gets to people on some deep level.
But on an entertainment level, we tried to make them cool heroes for now. We’ve got this whole new mythology and world. We’ve got superheroes who can do amazing things. Let’s put them in the middle of a ‘Star Wars’ movie, and get some action and laughs. Those were the things that I loved as a teenager in movies.
Also, when I think when you’re a teenager, you’re faced with choices. We have two characters who have the same choice. They both feel different, and they don’t feel as though they belong, Pitch and Jack. They both react in different ways. It’s beautiful to see that it can be enacted in a social way. The team believing in others is rewarding.
The other option is not believing in anyone. Shutting yourself off is not a great option.
BJ: That’s actually been a big thing on the Internet. There are these Tumblr sites that the kids are doing now. Jack’s story of being isolated and not being seen really resonates with a lot of these teens.
We had a screening in Chicago, and afterwards a young man stood up, and asked a question. He asked, why wasn’t Jack seen? Peter answered, he didn’t believe in himself. The kid nodded and sat back down. As we were leaving, the principal of the school came up to us and said, we’ve had that kid for five years in the school, and this is the first time I’ve seen him speak. Something about Jack’s predicament about not being seen touched this kid. It touches a lot of kids.
Q: Animation studios have evolved over the years, and they extend the story beyond the film. There are viral videos, video games and short films. Would any of you like to expand the story beyond the actual movie and the Blu-ray and DVD?
BJ: There are going to be 13 books, and they set up the characters’ origins, and how they began. They set up the histories of everything that went on with Pitch long before the film. So you’ll be able to go back and see that in the books.
We’re already talking about what would happen in a sequel. There’s so much that went into the development of the movie. There’s so much stuff we cut out.
CS: There is a video game coming out that will be based on the movie. There’s many books, but that’s all that we really have.
PR: What I think you’re going to see with viral videos is people who love the movie doing that. Already on the Internet, there’s fan fiction. I think you’re going to see tons of comics and stories and amateur animations. They’re already doing it online. They’re taking it and running with it. Like Jack and Tooth have a romantic relationship. (laughs)
Q: Were there any souvenirs you took from the movie?
GDT: I took Santa’s belly. (laughs) But there are no props on animated movies, that’s the only downside.
NB: We have all of the original art. Between Bill’s original art and the art done at the studio, there’s a lot of material that we have.
DLA: I have a lot of script pages. (laughs) In the margins, it said CBB. I said, what does CBB mean? They said, could be better. (laughs)
NB: There is a beautiful art book.
CS: There is also a traveling art exhibit.
Q: What are basic elements that you think turn children’s movie into a classic, and how did you find the right balance between light and dark elements, without getting too scary or sweet?
PR: Wow, turning a children’s movie into a classic, I wish I knew. For me, it’s a combination of embracing the spirit of children and the openness and the feeling of the story that there’s nothing you can do wrong. As a child, you can be in this world, and be yourself.
There also has to be a deep, emotional cord to it. A child is a person in development. The same, sophisticated emotion that an adult has and appreciates is there.
DLA: I’ll reiterate that, I think there’s a respect for the kid. The movies that I loved created children’s emotions as being real. You think about belonging in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ You mentioned the balance of light and dark, Pitch is the bogeyman. He has to be really scary. The Wicked Witch of the West was terrifying. That was okay, because those fears I had were real. So I think that’s the biggest thing, respecting those emotions.
BJ: Even if a story is as fantastic as ours, you have to tell the truth. The truth is, there are scary things out there. Kids understand and respect that. They love that great adventure. If you pat them on the head and give them a cookie, and there’s nothing at stake, they don’t care.
But if you say yes, there are terrifying stuff out there, and you have a chance of defeating it, and you stay true to yourself and be brave, you can hold your own. But don’t sugar coat it. Then you got a shot.
Q: Guillermo, you said that working with DreamWorks changed your life. Is there any possibility that you’ll make an animation movie? What else are you working on right now?
GDT: I went to DreamWorks to propose an animated movie there. One of the things I was interested in doing was an animated film where children could be sophisticated and complex, and you can have them go through the real emotions that you go through as a kid. As a kid, you have mixed emotions, and you don’t fit. One of the things about making a classic is recognizing the dark side of being a kid, which most parents try to hide, and shelter them. But pain is part of the world and the learning experience.
I went there with the idea of creating a movie like that. We’re actually developing it and designing it right now. I asked if I could do an apprenticeship, because I want to learn. I did animation when I was young, but I wanted to learn the process.
Therefore, I agreed to consult on, and executive produce, two movies a year. By year, I mean every three years, because they take so long. (laughs) Little by little, I feel more confident. I have been very careful in the past three years to have an apprenticeship, writing, designing a video game. I want to learn every tool there is to tell a story, because I believe there is a media there. In the next five to ten years, the way we tell a story is going to change radically.
What I’m working on right now, I’m finishing (directing) ‘Pacific Rim.’ I’m going to bring a movie called ‘Mama’ (which he executive produced) in January. It’s a very scary movie for Universal. I’m also working on the pilot for ‘The Strain’ for FX. Other than that, I’m bumming it out.
Written by: Karen Benardello