Bonnie Arnold: Pushing the State of the Heart "Over the Hedge"
Bonnie Arnold’s resume may not look very long, but it includes an impressive array of top films, from Dances with Wolves to Pixar’s Toy Story to Disney’s Tarzan. Her latest credit is as the producer for DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge, based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. Arnold spoke to Toon Zone News recently over the phone about her role on Over the Hedge and the earlier films in her career.
TOON ZONE: You probably get asked this question a lot at cocktail parties, but what does an animated film producer do, exactly?
BONNIE ARNOLD: Well, I think a producer of animation does exactly what a lot of producers do in live action. There’s a lot to the job. On any given day, I have creative responsibilities, I have financial responsibilities, I get involved with the marketing and the consumer products. I get my 2 cents in on how the movie is created, and then how it’s portrayed to the public. I work very closely with the directors in helping them to get their vision of what the movie is onto the screen.
TZ: I know that you moved from live-action to animation. How did that come about?
BA: Well, I think it was about 1991, roughly, and Walt Disney Pictures was trying to recruit me to come work for their live-action division as kind of an in-house line producer. During that process of meeting folks over at Disney, I was introduced to Peter Schneider, who was running Walt Disney Feature Animation at that time. They were looking for a couple of things, but one of those was a person to be the line-producer on a project they were doing with this little known company in northern California called Pixar. I had been working in live-action and had couple of really good associate producer credits, but I was looking for a producer credit. I wanted to be running my own show, so to speak. Really, meeting Peter Schneider was kind of a fluke because I knew nothing about animation, but in Hollywood they say, “Take every meeting.” So I took the meeting (laughs).
With Toy Story, they had never produced an all CG animated film before, but two things in my background made them think that I might be a good candidate to come be part of the team. One, I heard that they were trying to do this movie with a really small budget. It just so happened that the budget was the same that we had just done Dances with Wolves for, and I was so naive that I thought, “Oh, I can manage that budget! I know how to make movies for…” whatever the budget was, I think it was $17 million or something. I thought, “That’s easy,” the little bit that I know.
The second thing was that I had finished up being associate producer for the first Addams Family movie, and at that time, there were no (Computer Graphics). There was no Jurassic Park and none of that stuff had taken hold quite yet, so at that time, The Addams Family was state of the art for effects work in movies. Part of my job as associate producer of The Addams Family was to oversee, financially and all that, for the effects unit for the movie. So I think that Disney thought that Toy Story would be managed somewhat like effects shots, although even on Jurassic Park, which had just barely gotten started…I think there were maybe 300 or 500 effects shots on Jurassic Park. Toy Story was 1500 effects shots. They thought that I would understand the management of those shots through the pipeline, but to be honest, none of us knew exactly how Toy Story would be managed.
Part of the deal between Disney and Pixar was that there would be somebody who would be like a line producer who would help manage this money who would be mutually agreeable between Pixar and Disney. And I guess I won the prize (laughs). I won the lottery, because they thought I was the person they both thought they could work with.
I thought, “Whatever, I’m going to be a producer on this movie that I know very little about.” I tell people that when I first came to Pixar, they kind of laughed me out of the building because I walked into my office and asked, “Where’s my typewriter?” (laughing) They laughed. “We don’t use typewriters here! We use COMPUTERS! Get with it!” So that’s how I ended up here. Obviously, it ended up being more than any of us ever thought it would be.
TZ: And then from there, you moved over to the Walt Disney Studios to do Tarzan?
BA: Well, I was always a Disney employee. So they hired me to do Toy Story, and there wasn’t even a thought to do Toy Story 2 at that point, because they hadn’t thought that far ahead. But Disney was trying to do Tarzan, and to be honest Tarzan was one of my favorite stories from the time when I was a little kid. I had seen every Johnny Weissmuller film ever made, and I just loved the material. Also I knew Phil Collins was involved for the music, and all the elements added up. There was just something about it that I fell in love with from the get-go. For me, it’s about loving what you do every day, because you have to work on these things for three or four years.
So I decided to come back to L.A. and do that, and then I consulted a little bit on a couple of projects around town while I looked for the next thing when Jeffrey (Katzenberg) had called me. I had met him originally because he was running Disney when I had first started on Toy Story, and he had asked me a number of times to come over and work at DreamWorks, but it was always bad timing or just not the right thing or whatever. But then he called me and told me about Over the Hedge, and said to me, “I think you’d be great for this. I’d love for you to come over here and meet everyone and find out about the project.” I came over and looked at the comic strips, and there was something really fun and appealing about the humor and the possibilities of the story, so I signed on. That was in about 2002.
TZ: At that point, how long had Over the Hedge been in production?
BA: It was in development, and I want to say maybe about 4-6 months? It’s funny, because each of the projects I’ve done in animation were all started at about the same time in the process, meaning they had already been in development for about the same time and each of them had a first script when I came on, so I picked each one up with a little bit of development under its belt. In animation, production is really around the start of layout, so we were definitely a ways out from that on (Tarzan and Over the Hedge) when I came on. Neither project had a voice cast, and we weren’t quite settled on the script that we liked so we did more development on them all. But they all definitely had a little bit of heat when I started on each of them.
TZ: This is going to be the second adaptation that you’re going to be working on. What would you say were the challenges in adapting Over the Hedge compared to adapting Tarzan?
BA: Well, I think with Tarzan, a lot of the challenge was first just trying to do justice to a story that is just so grand and so big, and to figure out what piece of that story to tell in animation. There have also been so many versions of Tarzan, so how do we make our version feel different and unique and special? Why do this again? That was the basic challenge for Tarzan.
With Over the Hedge, I think, the nice thing about the cartoon strips was that there was a great basis for at least the main characters, Verne and R.J. They also set the tone for how we wanted to do the humor, but there really wasn’t a story. The strips are very short, very episodic. One of the big choices that I think worked well for us – I think (co-director) Tim Johnson was really part of that – was to do a genesis story. The movie sort of ends where the cartoon strip begins, telling how Verne and R.J. become friends and how they first meet up. That kind of helped us figure out where to go, but it was definitely difficult. As usual, the material may be great, but it isn’t necessarily a movie. You have to create a basic three-act story in both cases that will hold up. Especially in animation, because these things are usually 78 to 80 minutes. You have to be pretty economical on how you tell your story.
TZ: The original strip creators had submitted a draft early on, right?
BA: I know they did a treatment. I’m not sure they actually wrote a draft of the script, but they definitely did a treatment, and there were a lot of elements in that treatment that we liked. It’s been a while since I read the treatment itself, but we really needed to come up with the basis of what the movie’s story would be. We kind of had an idea of what the first act would be, and the third act, but I think what was really tough on this movie was especially the second act – kind of figuring out what everything would build to. I think the big breakthrough for us was coming up with the idea of the inside heist, when the animals finally decide to go inside a house, and that was a big solve for us to have something to build to. But back to Mike Fry and T Lewis, they were very much there for us in terms of being a sounding board for the tone and definitely for the characters of Verne and R.J. because they obviously really knew them quite well.
It’s interesting, I didn’t really think of them in the same way. Unfortunately, Edgar Rice Burroughs is no longer living, but definitely we worked very closely with the estate. I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ nephew who was running the foundation at the time, and they definitely opened the doors to us for any kind of research material that we might need or information that we might want to use. On both movies, we were fortunate to have good relationships with both entities, and we definitely called on those people for a lot of stuff.
TZ: Looking over any span of the strip, you notice that it has some interesting things to say about suburbia and nature and the push-and-pull between them. How much of that were you able to work into the film?
BA: That was one of the things that was definitely important to the directors and myself. I do think that’s not really what the story is about. I think it’s about friendship, actually, and what R.J. learns about how doing something and having someone to share your life with is definitely better than doing stuff alone. I think that people love the commentary and it’s a great source of humor, but I think definitely a little of it goes a long way. I think one of the challenges was peppering that in just the right amount. My personal feeling is that it came out well. Hopefully we added just the right amount of that ingredient.
TZ: It’s interesting that both of your earlier animated films really pushed animation technologically, with Toy Story being the first CGI movie and Tarzan using Deep Canvas for the sense of depth and motion. Was this a coincidence, or were you very involved in pushing what you could do with the medium technically?
BA: Well, obviously, that was a challenge with Pixar especially, because they had spent a lot of time on that before I even arrived on the scene – trying to figure out how they could make an entire movie in CG for a reasonable amount of money in a reasonable amount of time. Hopefully, I was there to support what they were trying to do as best I could, and manage the resources in order to get what they wanted.
In Tarzan, I was probably much more involved in making the decisions, again trying to take the story and try to find the best way to visualize it. That’s a lot of what the directors and the art director on Tarzan did, and I was definitely very involved in helping them make the decision as to what we could and could not accomplish. I think it’d be the same thing I can say for for Over the Hedge – you always make it a little better technically and a little more interesting visually. (Co-directors) Tim (Johnson) and Karey (Kirkpatrick) from early on wanted to play with depth of field and how some of the movie looks, and I think it served us well. Hopefully, that’s something that’s challenging to us overall, but they always say that if you notice stuff like that, then you haven’t done a good job at it.
Hopefully, in whatever thing we choose, whether it’s Toy Story or the way we did Tarzan or Over the Hedge … well, I can’t take credit for this, but I think this sums it up. I heard something recently which was that the State of the Art may change, but the State of the Heart doesn’t change. I think what is special for each of those movies for me is that they all have a little bit of my sensibility in them, but they all have just the right amount of humor and heart together, and I think the storytelling is the driving force of those films, and the technology has to really support the story.
With Toy Story, we did the best that we could with the resources we had at the time, and the funny thing about Toy Story was that I do remember early on thinking that the technology was just changing so fast at that moment. The (Technical Directors) kept saying, “Well, we could do this different” or “We could do this better,” and as we worked on it every year, things would constantly change. But at some point, once we started down a certain path, you had to keep it that way or otherwise every sequence of the movie would look a little different (laughs). I think that’s probably true about any of these things, because the technology changes as often as they have a new computer on the market. The minute you buy something, of course, they come out with something newer and better. That’s just how the technology is for the movies as well.
TZ: How important is it do you think it is for a producer to be up-to-date or involved in those technical aspects of the movie?
BA: I have knowledge of it, and how it works. I know when I see stuff that I like, but I think the way I work, to be honest, is that I pride myself on putting together a really good team of people. I know that they’re very good at what they do, and they advise me and the directors. They have lots of conversations on what’s going to best serve the movie. With any hope, the producer would have people that they trust to fill you in on what will work and what you can do, what you can afford to do, and be able to do it within a certain amount of time. Especially on Over the Hedge – I just can’t tell you what a terrific crew we had. I mean, all movies have, but we had a great, great team that worked really hard to put in as much as they could and get every dollar on the screen, so to speak.
TZ: Changing gears to actors, one thing that struck me in your earlier films were comments that Minnie Driver as Jane and Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear really changed the way their characters were depicted in the story and on screen. Did that happen in Over the Hedge, and if so, who did it in this film for you?
BA: I’m trying to think if there was a defining moment in the same way. Definitely, I have to tell you that Minnie Driver really just came in and threw Jane on her ear (laughing). She really helped invent Jane.
I have to tell you that on Over the Hedge, in the strip we had a pretty good take on who Verne and R.J. were because they’re the main characters of the strip, but the other characters basically didn’t exist. I do have to credit that we had a terrific voice cast that really helped us define the entire supporting cast and who those characters were. I think the breakout character, at least for me, was Hammy in that Steve Carrell – first of all, we talked to him before he had a couple of really big breaks in his live-action career that all happened during the making of Over the Hedge. But the reason why I think it’s Steve is that not only is it funny in the movie, but he does a voice for Hammy that I had never heard him do for any other thing. I knew who Steve was and I had seen a couple of his films. Tim and Karey were big devotees of his comedy from The Daily Show and things like that, but I swear that I had never heard him do anything like the voice that he does for Hammy. When he came in, I looked at him and said, (laughing) “Where is THAT coming from?” And it was just so funny.
I think we knew what he could do, but didn’t know exactly what he was going to do. The other cast came in and helped do some fun, great things, like I know Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy have worked together a lot as a team on the Chris Guest movies. Bill Shatner was an immediate choice for Ozzie and we figured we had an idea of what he could do if he really got into it. But if anything, I think that Steve, for me, really brought something to Hammy that I didn’t expect, and something that turned out to be something really fun and funny.
There were one or two lines that we had to pick up and they were the very last things we had to record for the movie. We had to get it from Steve, but he was really busy because he was working on The Office. So me and the directors had to go over there one night after they wrapped on The Office and record Steve literally on the set the minute that he wrapped. We had to take a microphone out there to the middle of the set. By the end, the actors almost know the characters better than we do, and they can just immediately turn them on after they’ve done them for a while. So he stands up in front of this microphone and starts doing Hammy, and the whole Office crew goes, “WHAT was THAT?” (laughing) They were just amazed, because again they had never heard Steve do anything quite like that. It was funny to watch other people respond to this character that they had never ever associated with Steve.
TZ: Was this pickup after the animation had been finished for the movie?
BA: We were working the last section – to be honest, we were still trying to figure out how to end the movie, so we hadn’t animated that part yet. We record the voices before we animate it, so there was this funny part at the very end of the movie. And we went down with one thing, but we thought that we could do better. We were trying to make it funnier, so we went and picked up that last line, but that animation wasn’t done yet.
Some of the other Hammy stuff had been animated, though, so Steve had seen some of it. Not all together, but we do like to show the actors some of the animation as we get it done.
TZ: Actually, I just read an interview with Wanda Sykes where she said after she saw the animation, she said she wanted to do some re-dubs because she had more ideas. Does that happen a lot?
BA: It does some, because it takes a while, and a lot of it is that it’s hard for the actors. Because they get in a room and Tim and Karey have to really kind of set the scene for them. Sometimes we have drawings or storyboards to show them, but a lot of its just a little bit of blind faith. You know, (mimicking directors) “You’re in a tree! And you’re shouting to this group!” You’re trying to set the stage when you don’t have anything to reference. I think once you start seeing the animation, you go, “Oh, I get it!” And then the actors say, “I can do that funnier,” or “I can give a better performance for that line.” Obviously, when we can and there’s still time to make a tweak or an adjustment, we try to let the actor bring what they can do it. Like I said, they tend to start knowing the characters better than we do.
TZ: What would you say was the funniest thing that happened during the production of the film?
BA: Um….I have to think about that. I think one of the most fun things that I really enjoyed was that when we started to decide who we wanted for the voice cast, we got to out to meet with Nick Nolte in his house out in Malibu, and his house is like a museum (laughs). He’s collected things from when he’s traveled all over the world. For me and the directors it was really fun to go out there, and Nick’s voice has gotten more gravelly as he’s gotten older. And he goes…I can’t even copy it, it was like, (imitating Nolte), “Well, whaddya think? Why would you pick me for a bear?” (laughs) He had this fantastic voice, and me and Tim and Karey were just sort of stunned looking at each other. That was one of my more fun moments, and something I enjoyed a lot.
TZ: Last question, you step into a door and you’re thrown through time and you meet Bonnie Arnold about to walk in to her first day on the job at Pixar. Knowing what you know now, what do you tell her?
BA: Oh, gosh….Come on in and leave your typewriter at the door (laughs). The future is waiting for you!
Toon Zone News would like to thank Bonnie Arnold for her time and patience in answering our questions, and the DreamWorks staff that made this interview possible. Over the Hedge opens nationwide on Friday, May 19.