Capone With BEE MOVIE Directors Steve Hickner And Simon Smith!!
Published at: Nov. 1, 2007, 9:09 a.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone, Capone in Chicago here.
The BEE MOVIE machine is about to cut loose when the film opens on Friday. Earlier this week, I had a little interview with Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, and today I've got a discussion with the film's co-directors Steve Hickner and Simon Smith.
Hickner also directed THE PRINCE OF EGYPT back in the late 1990s and has worked in various capacities on some SHREK projects; Smith directed the SHREK 2 theme park short SHREK 4-D and was the Head of Layout for SHREK and ANTZ. In other words, these guys are fully entrenched in the DreamWorks Animation machine; and now that I've seen BEE MOVIE for myself, I can tell you just how lucky we are that these two gents were at the helm. The movie is damn good and funnier than any trailer or commercial would lead you to believe. I'll have my review tomorrow, but for now here are Hickner and Smith. This is another smallish roundtable, but I got in my fair share of questions. This one's a bit on the long side, but I think you'll like it.
Question: What distinguished BEE MOVIE from the other animated films you've worked on?
Simon Smith: It is really different. It feels different. There re many things that go into making it feel that way but the main thing really is Jerry. It's Jerry's sensibilities, his point of view on society and the things that happen in it, and it's channeled through the eyes of a bee. And I think that really is the core essence of what's different about this movie.
Q: Did Jerry discuss with you any underlying themes about what he'd like to do?
SS: There's only one theme really--it's got to be funny. That was the rule. That was the idea--make it as funny as we can. Themes come out of it when we're on Barry's journey. We felt things were happening as we were going along making the movie. We were feeling it too as Barry went through his journey of discovering the honey and suing the human race certain things were coming out of it. There was never a strong intent--"You have to make this film about THIS." It was really about having fun and making sure the audience would be invested in the character.
Steve Hickner: The timeliness of the colony collapse disorder, the thing that's happening in the news today, was actually coincidental with the story. It just happened to coincide with the story we were telling. We started this three and a half years ago, before that was a factor in the news.
SS: Yeah, it was happening simultaneously. We were going through scenes where the bees weren't working and then it was happening in the paper. It was really bizarre.
Q: When you're working on something like this for so long do you reach a point where you ask yourself "Is it ever going to end?" and you sort of can't remember where it started? Do you think, "When is this actually going to be ready?"
SH: On this movie, for me personally, it was quite the opposite. It was "Why does this have to end?" I've worked on a lot of movies and this one was an absolute pleasure from beginning to end. It was a great crew. It couldn't be more fun working with Jerry. A movie like this doesn't come along very often. For me, personally, it was like "Why does it have to end?!"
SS: I think we had a great core group. There was myself, Steve, and Nick Fletcher the editor, Christina Steinberg the producer, and Jerry were really the core people who were sort of guiding this ship, and it was really great. We would all be holed up in an editorial meeting and working with all the other leads to bring the visuals to life. The movie was pretty big. There was a whole bee world we had to create inside the hive--bee traffic, bee cars, bee people, bee shops, bee suburbia, bee apartments. And then the whole Central Park had to work with the tone of the film and then the whole of Manhattan.
So, you have a lot of stuff that you have to do. There are those moments at the beginning where you look and say "Wow, we have a LOT of stuff to do." But as you head towards the end of it you go "I can't believe this is going to end. We've had such a good time." It sounds clichéd. But it really was a really great vibe. Jerry's such a nice guy. He really is a genuine bloke and a very great collaborator. He's not precious about his material or where it comes from. We're just throwing out lines in editorial. "How about this? What about this? Let's try that." There was a fun interaction.
Q: There are a lot of animated films where there's a premise of the story and then the actors come in and it changes and adapts once the actors come in and make it their own. Is it different for you guys when the creator of the film, basically the whole sensibility of the film, is based on the original person who came up with his idea as opposed to evolving? Or did it evolve?
SS: It did evolve. Steve and I at the beginning decided to...there was like the fourth draft of the script that Jerry ended up greenlighting at DreamWorks. It was like this huge mound of clay. We ended up scraping away after the first screening, which was absolutely verbatim what the script was, because we wanted Jerry to learn how this process works and for us to learn how his material worked. And so we didn't want to shortcut by going "We want to change this and we want to change that." We got all got on the same page very quickly and that was just verbatim of what the script was. Once we had seen that, we could very quickly see "This doesn't work here. This doesn't work here. Okay, let's go with this."
So, we'd move a step forward and then screen it again. Try it again. We did lots and lots of screenings that way. We'd put in different lines, different scenes, pull things out, things that didn't work structurally, and just keep going that way. Always, obviously with Jerry involved, we've got that lovely point of view and that lovely tone.
That's what's so difficult to find in movies - a consistent tone that runs through the movie and permeates the movie, whether it's physical comedy or verbal comedy - whatever the characters are doing. And that's the touchstone we wanted to have and that was just great. But the movie did evolve a lot during the making of it.
Capone: Can you talk a little bit about the character design? The look? When you make that decision if the characters are supposed to look like the people who are voicing them or not? How realistic do they look? How much detail you really want to give it? How much fuzz you want to put on that tennis ball? Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of it? Was Jerry in any way involved in that?
SS: Oh yeah. He was involved in every approval part of the process. We knew from the subject matter of the movie that there was a broad width of a sliding scope for the look of the film. You've got fancy realism with SHREK and more cartoon-y stuff with THE INCREDIBLES. Where do we lie? Even beyond THE INCREDIBLES here? Or more realistic over here like BEOWULF or something? We had to find a middle ground where the story would work, where you believe a woman could be talking with a bee and we could have a lot of fun with that, where you buy into the environments and everything else.
We found our middle ground quite quickly with Barry--a recipe for the bee and what he would look like. There were lots of things we did at the beginning, like he had shoulders and we realized that a bee can't have shoulders.
As soon as you do that, he looks like a little flying pixie. So, we started whittling it down. "What's the recipe for Barry? What are the human attributes that we give him in terms of clothes and shoes and things like that?" At the same time, we were doing Vanessa and we had to take the sliding scale back again from SHREK and make sure she felt realistic but in a fantasy sort of way from Barry's point of view.
I stumbled across this word in a meeting which is "stylism," which is stylized realism. So, there are no real photographic textures in the movie. It's all drawn textures. Everything is sort of stylized first, but it was lit in a realistic way. And there's a word--legitimacy--it's got to feel legitimate, so you buy into this world and then you aren't questioning while you're enjoying it. We hit this middle ground for the story and it all started gelling together.
Q: For each of you, what was the biggest headache? The biggest challenge?
SH: That's easy. It's the curse of every comedy--Act Three. There's no question. Whenever you have a comedic premise it starts to run out of gas. You guys see a lot of comedies, I'm sure, in your roles--it runs out of gas when you move into the third act. And what normally happens is it starts to develop some dramatic underpinnings in order to keep the movie going for 90 minutes or whatever. And when you do that, you start to lose the comedy. So, how do you keep it funny but also put some of that dramatic spine in the picture so it has some resonance and place to go for act three?
SS: Make sure you're still invested in the moments and the characters who are going along on this journey. Just making a comedy is hard. Making sure you're making something satisfying in the end. I've worked on things like SHREK and ANTZ and stuff and they were comedies but they weren't out-and-out--this is an out-and-out comedy. You really felt it towards the end when you are going "We've got to keep this going but how do we make this satisfying enough?" You want to feel the emotions at the end of the movie and still keep it funny.
SH: We didn't give you act three today deliberately. We want that to be a surprise...where it's going.
SS: We've got to that place where we're extremely happy. The structure never changed, it was just the ingredients for that desert. What do we put in to make that really work? We worked on it very hard for about six months, seven months. We had it, but we kept on breaking it. And we had it again and we kept on breaking it compared to the rest of the movie. We finally got it and it was very satisfying to us.
Q: What was the most satisfying technical advancement? Was there one thing like how to get the bee's wings to move the right way? Like for MONSTERS INC. they always talked about the hair on Sully. Was there one thing that you looked at and were like "Wow, I can't believe we pulled that off"?
SS: I think, literally, the movie is the "one" that we got. There's so much stuff in the movie--the three worlds and we go to L.A., we go to New York, and there's crowds in 70 percent of the movie. There's a lot of stuff in it. When you read the script, you go "This is one-and-a-half to two scripts worth of material here and how are we going to do it?" Also the scale was really tricky.
What we're also really proud of is that the scale issues never became a problem when you're watching Barry and Vanessa. We worked very hard on the cinematography to make sure that it flowed really easily to watch and that you didn't get popped out in any way.
Q: Who came up with the idea of the short films for promotion?
SH: The “T.V. Juniors”? That's Jerry's. But Jeffrey Katzenberg is the one who got 'em on NBC.
SS: He loved the idea and we kept talking about silly things while we were making the movie, so it was natural that he ended up doing something like that.
SH: They were originally going to be on the internet as these little ditties that were kind of going to be esoteric and for a niche market, but when Jeffrey sold them to NBC, they had to appeal to a much broader audience, and the production value went up as well. They were no longer YouTube things.
Capone: I noticed in the last clip that you showed [a short behind-the-scenes doc], there was a moment where they showed Jerry and Matthew Broderick recording their dialog facing each other. I've never seen that. Was he doing that with all the actors he had scenes with?
SS: Gold star for noticing that.
SH: Very astute. Go to the head of the class today, Capone.
SS: Yes. It was a real weapon for us when we were recording. You can feel it when you watch some of the scenes. People wanted to act with Jerry and because he was on our movie the whole time, the schedules were going to line up where we could get Renee with Jerry, Matthew with Jerry, Patrick Warburton with Jerry, anybody we could cast. It was fantastic because you get a real performance.
The problem was that Jerry kept on laughing all the time and laughing over Patrick's lines or Matthew's lines and it was like "Can you stop laughing? We need to get the line." We kept on reading the lines further and further apart because Jerry kept on laughing. At the same time, whenever we had a scene cut already, if Jerry did a better line this time around when he was acting WITH Renee then we could put that in its place even though we had the line already.
Capone: Was that his idea, or did the other actors just wanted to act the scene with him?
SS: We wanted it from the beginning. From the very first screening, we got as many of the talent in the very first screening of the film as possible. The problem is that if you have one of us doing the temp voice, you're never really feeling the character. We can try and pretend to be Jerry, but you're not really going to get the right feeling. And you need as much as you can while you're watching the storyboards to see how the film is feeling.
SH: One of the reasons that they don't do it as much also is when you have two actors it's twice as hard or maybe four times as hard to direct. But with Jerry, because he wrote the script and he's so much in the DNA of this movie, you didn't have to place Jerry in the scene. You didn't have to describe where you are in the movie at this point, he already knew. It allowed us to focus on only one other actor.
SS: There were times when you're watching the scene and you want to make sure you had the right delivery from Jerry. You didn't have to work so hard to make sure both actors were working in the scene.
SH: I only did it once before on PRICE OF EGYPT. We had Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum in the same room. With a dramatic piece like that, it's much harder because you're focusing on two people's performances and when you're focusing on one, the other person's excluded. So, you're not using their time as well. That's another reason they don't do it. In this one case and because it's a comedy, it could not have worked more to our advantage.
Q: Throughout the filmmaking process, how conscious were you of how Bee Movie sort of falls into the landscape of animated films right now? On the one hand, there are things that are important, something like RATAOUILLE, but then there are things like HAPPILY N'EVER AFTER--doesn't look that great, doesn't care a lot about story. How conscious were you about where your movie falls into things?
SS: I hope we're in good company. For me, it's just another way of making a movie. It's just a visual, lovely ride to go on. We're very disciplined in our length, so you don't go over by millions and millions of minutes. It's a nice appetizing feast for the eyes when you see animation. It's always a new look. It's always something slightly tweaked from what you've seen before. And that made the film really attractive to everybody. I think that it ended up exactly what we wanted.
SH: One way this movie's different from the landscape of other animated movies is, in the animated movie the structural thing and the storytelling is the "I want" song of "I want to do this." You get Pinocchio saying "I want to be a boy" and Little Mermaid saying "I want to go up there" and Belle saying "I want something more than this provincial town." That's kind of like a very conventional way of telling an animated movie.
In this movie, we're deliberately always trying to put people off. So, at the beginning when Barry sees the pollen jocks, we're hoping the audience is gonna see that and go "I know what this movie is. This movie's about a bee who wants to be a pollen jock." We're hoping people go there because what happens next is he lands on that windowsill and he sees Vanessa and then you go "I get it. This is about a bee who befriends a woman, and this is gonna be that story." And then they go to the supermarket and they see the honey and then you go "I get it.
This is a movie about a bee who finds out the humans are stealing the honey and they sue." And then you think that and then what happens is he wins the trial and they get all the honey back and the bees aren't going to work any more and, without the bees working, it becomes an ecological disaster and that becomes the very worst thing.
I won't give away act three because that's a surprise, but the point is that we're always trying to keep the audience off balance about where the story is going. You say there's a lot of animated movies out there and how are we going to differentiate ourselves from the landscape and I think it's gonna be a story that will take you places that are unexpected.
SS: What we wanted to do is give the audience what they want but not in the way they expect it. That's what we wanted to do with this movie. Because of Jerry and his unique point-of-view, we had a chance to do that.
Q: Is that kind of a trap there? Some people may disagree with me but I think most animated movies are kind of heavy with an emphasis on visuals and tend to skimp a little on the story? Do you think a lot of people fall into that? Well, it's animated so they have to make it look good and they throw together something easy for a script?
SH: I don't know if that's a disease that only happens in animation. You guys see a lot of movies but certainly story is hard.
Q: When Katzenberg comes to you and says Jerry Seinfeld had this idea when he was over at Spielberg's house and came up with an idea for BEE MOVIE--Jerry Seinfeld, BEE MOVIE, doesn't have a script yet--what was your first reaction when you heard the idea? And, secondly, when you heard Jerry was attached to it, were you concerned at all that it would turn into an animated sitcom?
SS: No. When I first heard a whisper of it a while ago--four-and-a-half years ago--I had heard that Jerry was writing it and I had just finished directing something called SHREK 4-D for Universal Studios Theme Park and I was helping out on SHREK 2 and reading a lot of scripts at the same time that weren't very good.
When I heard that Jerry was writing a script for a movie, I was delighted. I knew that the one thing would be surely he's a good writer. That's the one thing to start with if you want a chance of making a good movie. Also, I've watched his show and I've really enjoyed his show. And when you're working with people who make good movies, we're not going to let him make it into a sitcom. So, I wasn't really worried about that. I was actually really happy that he was going to do a movie with us. His type of comedy isn't "low hanging fruit." It doesn't go for anything too crass in any way. It's more of a smart kind of humor. It's perfect for a family movie.
Q: I was curious about that. Generally, his comedy appeals to a slightly older audience where most animated films, especially in America, are pitched to younger viewers and family audiences. What was the challenge of the middle ground? A lot of the clips we saw seemed for an older audience. Little kids don't know from Ray Liotta. Making a balance between that more adult sensibility while keeping it something that will be bright and colorful for the kids. Like the tennis ball. The kids would like that more.
SS: You just explained the balance. The thing with kids is they know when an adult is being funny. So when Ray Liotta laughs, all the kids laugh. They know he's being funny. It's as simple as that. It's amazing. Even we were surprised. There was a concern. We wanted to make sure we didn't exclude anybody. We wanted to include everybody.
When we screened the movie a couple of times early in storyboard form, the kids get everything. You would not believe how much they get. It's unbelievable. You must not underestimate them. Even the littlest ones, they're incredible. We had focus groups and they get everything. It was amazing. From that point on, we knew that unless it was a really sophisticated joke--if it was funny, it would stay in but if it was something where only one person in the room laughed then it was out. That's how we ended up doing it.
SH: Even when I was a kid, I didn't know who Bogart was, but I knew when Bugs Bunny met Bogart in that cartoon, I knew that was funny and I knew when I saw a Warner Brothers cartoon with "The Honeymousers," I just knew it was funny. You know? You recognize those things even if you don't know the cultural references. You still understand that's funny.
Capone: When you're working on something for this long, how do you keep it fresh and how do you stop yourself from doubting yourself? How do you put out something that feels like it was made last month as opposed to a joke that was written three years ago?
SS: If you don't laugh at it any more. What's amazing is this is the most gags that I still laugh at it in this movie more than any movie I've worked on. And there are some that I've seen 50, 60, 100 times and some can still make me giggle. As you go through, what's great about animation is that you go through boards and then layout and you've got to kind of work and you get some visceral impact there.
And then you get the acting in. And then you get lighting. And then you're thinking "How can we make this funnier?" And you get some silly stuff happening with the effects and lighting. And then you've got sound effects going on. And it's great because you keep plussing the gag or the moment. I think it's always satisfying as you keep going through. It's a long time to make sure you keep your eye on the ball but it just comes naturally while you're making it. You want to write the best stuff you can write. We want to make the best movie we can make and we will not let go until it satisfies us. I think that's the one thing that Jerry recognized in us and in him as well. He has very high standards. We just want to make the best movie we can make. That's all.
SH: Another tool is previews. That's how you can tell, especially with a comedy. You put it in front of an audience. We show it more internally at first--the crew and then the crew and their family and eventually we pull our pants down and take it out into a city and go "Let's see what people think." It really is a great tool to get feedback from the public. No one will tell you that a joke isn't working like 200 people.
SS: You can have things written down but the truth is right there in the room at that moment and you can tell whether it's working or not. There's about five different last scene endings we had and four of them we thought "This is it. This is the best one. Here we go! Come on!" And we played it and it was dead and we would go "Why aren't they laughing? This is funny." Back to the drawing board about five times on the last scene.
Capone: Were there moments that you guys loved and then pulled because nobody laughed at them?
SH: Yes, there was. There was an ending that we had when we said "We got it! This is it! This is the goldmine! This is gonna be great!" We showed it amongst our own people and we couldn't wait to show it, and it was crickets. Our own people who only wanted it to succeed...
SS: Were going "We don't get it."
SH: And we thought, "You know what? We are way too 'Inside Baseball' now." When they didn't laugh, you could say "That was just five people, let's show it to a bigger..." but it was SO dead. There was no point. This was stillborn.
SIMON: The core group were all really excited about it. We all have our favorites. We were all championing our different last scenes and none of them worked. We had to go back.
Q: Would these be things that will show up on the DVD?
SH: No. We will carry them to our graves.[laughs]
SS: We talked about it. Jerry's got a favorite and we talked about getting as much as we can on the DVD. We want to get all the stuff that didn't work.
Q: Does that change in any way how you approach making a movie? Animation takes so long that you used to not really cut stuff if you animated it, but now with DVD you can take the cut scenes and include them. Does it make it easier if something isn't working that you know it will be put on the DVD and be seen later on?
SS: There will be a couple of scenes that are half-animated but we were pretty prudent when we were putting things into production. There was so much we had to do with this movie that we couldn't afford to gamble very much, or we wouldn't get what we really needed. There are a couple of shots here and there.
SH: I once saw Billy Wilder, and he said "We don't bury our dead, it shows up on late night television." Now, if Billy Wilder were alive, he'd say, "We don't bury our dead, they're DVD extras."
Q: There's been a lot of talk tonight of effort and time. If Barry turns into SHREK, do you jump back in for another four years?
SS: I really don't know. We literally just finished this one last Sunday. We haven't even thought about it. We're just very happy this is in front of people and they can see it and enjoy it. I haven't thought about it.
Q: Some people have, I'm sure.
SS: I'm sure some people have, but I don't think Jerry ever intended it to be a franchise. It's a one-off. I think it's in the hands of everybody else right now. It was funny, everytime this movie hit a different department, it balked, we had a restart. People were used to doing one type of thing, or didn't quite get it. In storyboarding, we had a situation with boarder who didn't quite get where we were going. Layout, same thing with the angles. Animation had the same thing with the acting. Same thing when we hit music, we had little false starts, “Oh, why isn't this working?” I think people needed time to acclimatize themselves because it is a little bit different how this movie plays.
Q: So no one was able to fall back on their traditional bag of tricks.
SS: No, definitely not. Honestly, everybody I know worked their guts out on this.
SH: I almost killed people. [laughs]
Q: That's the quote: BEE MOVIE--It almost killed people.
SH: Because you can't fall back on all the licks that you know in animation.
SS: It's funny. You're exactly right. I hadn't even thought about it that way, but your normal bag of tricks that you do to solve problems. You had to come up with new solutions.
Q: Is Jerry so hands on that he's choosing some of those music choices?
SS: Absolutely, I would talk to Rupert [Gregson-Williams, who did the score] a few times, and we would go down separately and get ready for Jerry, and he would come in and listen to it with definite opinions. He's totally invested in every aspect, and he has great instincts too.
Capone: Of the clips we saw today, the one with Barry taking off outside the hive, that would look really good on an IMAX screen and/or in 3-D. Is that being considered?
SH: You are not the only one to ask that!
SS: We were talking about that. It is digital, so there's a chance it will on an IMAX screen somewhere, not 3-D. We talked about that but it would become such a humongous effort; we'd have to do two production lines for that. We would love to at some point, because Barry would be great in stereo, and as you know, I've worked in stereo before. I would love to get it on an IMAX screen.
SH: That was a big screen today.
SS: Yeah, that's one of the biggest ones we've seen it on ourselves, and it felt good.
Q: When you say that BEE MOVIE almost killed some people, what's a moment that stands out in your mind as an example of that?
SH: It was in every department. For example, the production designer. When he stepped into the movie, he had to create two world, so it's not just, “I have to art direct and create this New York, I also have to create this whole bee world.” It's like doing two movies, and you have to design them different enough that when we cut between the two, the audience instantly knows, “Oh, that's the bee world; that's the human world.”
SS: And you had to be very careful, because when were designing the hive, for instance, you can drift so easily into science fiction, and all the sudden you kill the fun of the place. And if you go to young, it looks to juvenile and looks like a Play-Doh factory, and it's not sophisticated enough for the bee society. And so you had to find this middle ground. This was definitely the most difficult things to design, the design of the buildings. And we came up with this lovely concept, where inside the wall of the hive is the suburbs, and you go through this little tunnel into the city, which is at the center. And it works so well, and we got the shot we wanted where you follow Barry in his car from the suburbs into the center of the hive.
Capone: Can you talk about the division of duties between the two of you? Does one of you work with actors more, one with the animators?
SS: We sort of play toward our strengths. Steve has done a lot of work with the storyboarding department before, and I've done a lot more CG work before. But it was really a team.