Flushed Away Interview #3: The Directors
In our final interview with the cast and crew of DreamWorks and Aardman’s upcoming feature Flushed Away, I sat down for a one-on-one (or rather, one-on-two) with the directors of the film, David Bowers and Sam Fell. Despite being the first ones to get a crack at directing an Aardman film without Nick Park in the driver’s seat with them, they had a relaxed and assured manner to them as they talked about their film. Both Aardman veterans and unmistakably English (although Bowers has been bouncing back and forth between many animation houses over his career, including DreamWorks), I put aside the wonders if I would be viewed as an unruly colonist and proceeded with the interview.
By the way, this interview, much more than the others, has SPOILERS. Read at your own risk.
Toon Zone News (TZN): So, I had a chance to see the film last night.
David Bowers (DB): Oh! Did you like it?
TZN: Indeed. Great deal of fun. (Note: my review of the film will come next week.) This is much more of a madcap comedy than previous Aardman films. How much of that came from Aardman? How much from DreamWorks?
Sam Fell (SF): Most of it came from us two working together, really. Our tastes and our sensibilities. We worked with a team of writers and a team of storyboard artists, and we’ve had a lot of contributions from people here at DreamWorks.
DB: It boiled down to the things we like, really. We grew up watching Laurel and Hardy and the Pink Panther films and Carrion films.
SF: Yeah, we like comedy. We knew we were going to set it in the modern world, in a big city, so it was going to be a little more fast-paced.
DB: We’re actually really quite young.
TZN: Alright, if you’re going to mention that, state your ages.
DB: (chuckles) Well, uh, 40. (room laughs) Relatively speaking!
SF: We ARE young…by old-people standards.
TZN: As I was looking over the credits, I was surprised to see many American animators’ names, like Gary Trousdale (director of Beauty and the Beast) and Kathy Zielinski (supervising animator of Frollo in Hunchback of Notre Dame). How much intermingling of the crews was there?
DB: It’s interesting, we started developing the movie in Bristol, and we brought quite a few key crew members from Aardman over here, but really the production is being done by the DreamWorks Glendale crew.
SF: We’re getting all these really well-known and talented people like Gary Trousdale and Kathy Zielinski, and we’re really lucky to have them on the crew.There’s sort of a European edge to DreamWorks as well, in the mix of talent. There’s a lot of Europeans here, so you get quite a bit of European sensibility.
DB: Back when DreamWorks was just the old Steven Spielberg Ambli’mation studio in London, [the point of it was] to take advantage of European talent, and an awful lot of those people are still here.
TZN: Was it a little heady to have the director of Beauty and the Beast, the one animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, doing your storyboards, or was everybody at an even keel?
SF: Naah, he’s a fun bloke.
DB: The nice thing about DreamWorks is that everybody looks in on everybody’s projects. So, you know, if they pull strings and get Gary…we had Gary for a week, and he had lots of gag suggestions and some fun story ideas, and we jumped at the chance to hear them.
SF: He’s very humble, presenting them while saying, “I hope you like them.”
DB: He wasn’t wearing plus fours and talking through a megaphone. (room laughs)
TZN: How long did the film take – from beginning of development to finale?
SF: It took two years to develop. Just to get it to pre-production. It took about a year of just kicking it around, and that was very slow and not particularly focused, just bubbling up slowly, and then a year of more serious development and working with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais on the script. Working on some of the early visual development, and we had Wendy Rogers [visual effects supervisor] over and talked about the look of the film and the scope of the film. And then it was into storyboarding.
TZN: And from storyboarding to finale, that was about…
TZN: Three years. So that’s about five years’ worth of work. How much did the film change from the very beginning?
SF: The basic idea remains the same: a pet who lives in a fancy cage in a fancy house is flushed down the toilet and meets a working-class girl and encounters this incredible world created by rats. That’s the same. Everything else changed.
DB: Again and again and again and over and over and over. Not in a bad way.
TZN: Just in trying to figure it out.
DB: For example, in some of our early drafts, our villain was a weasel, not a toad….we had a vampire bat in there, at one point.
TZN: You could probably fill a warehouse with discarded ideas from any given animated film.
SF: You just run around, trying to find fun stuff and fit it all together.
DB: Throw it against the wall and see what sticks.
SF: Mostly, I think what’s kept us together is that it’s a single protagonist – Roddy – and it’s his story and that hasn’t changed. So we’ve got that spine, and it’s a strong, simple idea. So we’ve been able to go about and try different stuff without having to worry that the whole thing will collapse.
DB: We always had the idea for the third act. Didn’t always have the details, but we knew we’d be working in the Cup.
TZN: How about the essential emotional conflict of the film, the need for family?
DB: That did change, actually.
SF: It started off about being isolated and being in a gilded cage, and then we were tempted to make it a bit more about class, so we set up a social network of upper-class rats.
DB: Who Roddy was desperate to impress.
DB: [Class] isn’t so much an issue in the UK anymore. It’s kind of anachronistic, something from the 1950s or 60s than in 2006.
TZN: Do you think that’s something that maybe Americans are more concerned with now – issues of class?
SF: I don’t know.
DB: I think America is…I’m hopelessly out of my depths here…
TZN: I’ll inform you if you’re wrong. (room laughs)
DB: It seems to be a little bit more about wealth, actually…
SF: …than class.
DB: I mean, a lot of the British aristocracy are absolutely penniless.
TZN: But they still have the grand name to go with it.
SF: They still have the manners, and they carry themselves in that way.
DB: They might still have the crumbling family estate, but they’re having to let the public in to wander around, just to pay the bills.
SF: But it did turn out that the “class” story just didn’t have the depth that the story of a guy without connections had. We wanted to flesh Roddy out, feel for him, feel more about him, and we were working with Hugh Jackman [voice of Roddy] on this. And as we worked on it, we realized that the class thing was holding it back.
DB: It’s hard to love a guy who’s prejudiced.
SF: A fussy, cold, British snob.
TZN: So, instead, you brought fear in [to the character's reactions].
SF: Yeah, so there’s a vulnerability, and there’s something sympathetic about a guy like that. You’re instantly engaged by him. Whereas in earlier versions, you weren’t at first, although you would be later, after he’s loosened up.
DB: I like that he’s quite mad at first, when he starts talking to the G.I. Joes. Pushing that complete lunatic in him.
TZN: You mentioned Hugh, so tell me about some of the casting and how that came about.
DB: Oh, we were lucky. We put together our “wish list”, and we basically ended up getting every one on the wish list.
TZN: #1 and #1 and #1 and #1…
SF: They all liked Wallace and Gromit, they all liked Shrek, they had all seen the modern animated movie plate of big, broad audiences, and they’d seen that movies like these can have levels of sophistication.
TZN: In how many cases did the learning curve for those who were new to voice-over take a while to overcome?
DB: I think, for some of the actors, they didn’t take quite so many sessions because I think they’d done animation before where they’d gone in and done one session. We did work them quite hard.
SF: They had to learn to trust the directors a little more, because their performances are a little more in our hands; we take the material and we fashion it into [what we want].
TZN: Are you demanding taskmasters?
SF: (laughs) Well, we’ve got to get it right. We can’t spend this much time on something and not get it right.
DB: On the other side, all the actors found it quite freeing, because they’re not doing the usual movie makeup and costume work. They’re just in there creating a character, and extraordinary things happen. We went into these sessions with quite strong ideas about how Roddy and Rita would be, and every actor brought so much to their roles that by the end the characters are quite different. So much clearer, multi-leveled.
SF: A lot subtler and more rich in the movie.
DB: We didn’t want to go the route of hiring celebrities to be celebrities in the film. We wanted to get the best actors for the roles rather than…
SF: Well…wouldn’t want to name names. But these actors are all workers – they’re not starry or flashy. They’ll go again and again and again for you. You look at their backgrounds and they’ve come up through theatre, and they’re all completely grounded and down-to-earth.
TZN: Moving towards the physical acting, this film bears the Aardman style but is much freer, quicker, and looser. What did you lean towards in terms of how you wanted the characters to move?
DB: We wanted each of the characters to have their own style of movement. We very specifically developed each of the characters, and in developing the characters’ backstories and each of their voices, we also developed if they’d be flamboyant, or very touchy and twitchy, or (David demonstrates here) very slow and still…
SF: (laughs) We determined how each character should move, and we were clear about that, and then just in terms of the “Aardman style”, we just really tended to…it’s all good animation. It’s just good character animation, and [DreamWorks] gets that, so we were all on the same page, but you tend to limit things a little more.
TZN: The way the mouths move, maybe?
SF: That’s the Aardman style. Just a set of mouth shapes, and not much in-betweening, just popping from one to another. That’s easy.
TZN: You just do less.
SF: Yeah, you just do less, and then we also looked for more pauses and a slightly more naturalistic approach. As opposed to Madagascar, which is more cartoony and wild. Very broad, a lot of gesture and a lot of acting going on in the line. Whereas with Aardman, we tended to be a little more natural, so I’m not (Sam demonstrates here) emphasizing every single word. We simply try the poses that we like.
DB: We filmed everything the actors did, of course, and used a little bit of that.
SF: You know, the voice gives you so much, with the little inflections and the observations of that.
TZN: To finish up, be honest: it’s hard for any artist who comes back from any sort of artistic work to look back and say, “I did everything perfect.” So, looking back, what did you do exactly the way you wanted to do it, and what would you change?
SF: Well, I definitely think we took the Aardman style made in England and brought it to California and made it in a brand-new medium with a whole bunch of new people, and I think we executed that well beyond anyone’s dreams. I think we did that wonderfully.
DB: Yeah, we’re both very proud of the way things went.
SF: And I’m really pleased with the tone of the movie. It’s kind of funny and sweet and engaging and exciting and adventurous, and so we’ve captured the tone exactly as we wanted to.
DB: I hope it has the feel of a modern movie, but also slightly London comedy, a kind of character comedy, an ensemble piece. And to be honest with you, we only finished the film a couple of weeks ago, so it’s a bit too soon. We don’t yet have the distance to say what I would do differently, but I think if you got back to us in a few months, I could figure out what I’m not crazy about. But for now, I’m just very happy with the movie.
Then I got asked what I would change about the movie. I didn’t really even have anything to bring up as a grievance at that time, so we left it at that. So there it is, the last of the three interviews for Flushed Away. It was an absolute thrill for me to get to speak with Andy Serkis, Simon Otto, Jason Spencer-Galsworthy, and the gents above. Stay tuned to Toon Zone for my review of the film itself, coming next week.