Directing Shrek: Toon Zone Interviews "Shrek the Third" Director Chris Miller
Chris Miller began his career at DreamWorks in 1998 as a story artist on Antz, the studio’s first animated comedy. In the 9 years since then, Miller has been stepping into more and larger creative roles at DreamWorks, adding dialogue writer, voice actor, and story editor credits to his résumé on Madagascar and both Shrek movies. He has also worked on other commercials, videos, Internet projects, video games, and assorted collaborations with the Helios Dance Company.
Miller can now add one more title to the list: director of the latest film in the Shrek franchise. On the eve of the movie’s release, we caught up with Miller on the phone to talk about taking the helm for Shrek the Third.
TOON ZONE NEWS: Since joining DreamWorks, it seems like you’ve been slowly making your way up the food chain. How did you land the director’s chair for Shrek the Third?
CHRIS MILLER: I worked on the first 2 as a story artist, and so I’ve always been on the story and character side of things and development, and also writing, voice work, and this and that. You work really closely with the directors on a day-to-day basis and the producers. Andrew (Adamson, director of Shrek — ed) was leaving, or not going to be there on a day-to-day basis. He was going off to make Narnia and Prince Caspian. Conrad Vernon had moved on to something else, and Kelly Asbury as well (directors of Shrek 2 – ed). It seemed like a good way to preserve some continuity was for me to step into that role. The creative core was still in place…fortunately for me, certainly, because it made the transition a lot easier. I think I’m familiar enough with the characters and the kinds of situations that they can be in and can’t be in.
TZN: You’ve been involved with all 3 of the movies over 6 years. How do you think the movies have changed over that time?
CM: The creative approach to the films is the same, really. The only thing that made it different is that you had the first film to establish who the characters were, which makes it a little bit easier being able to anticipate how any character would react in any situation. But then, of course, you know, we’re tossing on a half-dozen or a dozen new characters with each film (laughs), so there’s plenty of discovery that way.
The one thing that doesn’t change, whether it’s the first time out on a movie or in this case the third time, is coming up with the story. It’s always the huge challenge. Something that’s compelling, you know, and emotionally satisfying. That’s above and beyond the comedy, because I think the comedy comes a little easier for us. We have enough characters to make a film entertaining and finding ways of making a film fun to watch. The harder part is sort of the emotional backbone of the film. It’s establishing that, and making it believable is HARD, each time. Always, the biggest challenge is story.
TZN: You are also connected with the Helios Dance Theater, correct? When did that connection start, exactly?
CM: Well, my wife Laura Miller is the founder of the company, and they’re amazing. They’re a modern company, based in L.A. I actually met her at school at CalArts and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve collaborated on a number of things for her shows and her productions. Short films I’ve done connected with that and set design. It’s a great outlet.
TZN: Did you pick up anything working with them that actually helped you as the director of Shrek the Third?
CM: Yeah, absolutely. Hanging around the stage and hanging around with performers – it it serves us well. When you see the film, it’s bookended with two productions. There’s the really cheap dinner theatre that Prince Charming works at in the beginning. And in the end, he puts on this gigantic, elaborate production. So I would definitely say that there’s dance…and it’s musical. My exposure to that world has certainly fed Shrek the Third.
TZN: The story for Shrek the Third seems to have a theme of characters taking responsibility for things.
CM: Yeah, sort of the driving plot of the film, sort of, is finding a replacement king for Shrek, who does not feel capable of being king. It’s not a job he’s suited for. Almost for the safety of everyone involved, it would be best if he didn’t take over the kingdom. And on top of that, Fiona is pregnant, so really the emotional story is him coming to terms with that. And it’s through his relationship with Artie – who Shrek is going out to find to have him take over the kingdom – that he learns to become a father.
TZN: I know most creative people hate this question, but how did you come up with the idea for those parallel tracks?
CM: (laughs) Yeah, you know, it was something that just developed over the course of two-and-a-half years of story. Really. I remember the original concept for the movie – the “catchy hook,” I guess (laughs) – was “Shrek Reinvents the Arthurian Legend,” which sounded fine. It sounded fun – and it was – and we kind of went down that path for a long time. It developed into an interesting story. It was good and it had some really, really funny scenes, but after a while going down that road, we realized that you couldn’t really tell a story of Shrek coming up with the Arthurian legend because the Arthurian legend is such a great story unto itself that we realized we were really just telling another version of an Arthur story instead of a Shrek story. So the more we peeled that away and cut it down to its bare bones and made sure it was supporting a Shrek story, the more the Fatherhood story really started to rise to the top like it was supposed to, and how it should have all along. It just comes through a lot of trial and error really. And then you find those parallels and you make those discoveries in the story and you just try and support them and make them the most they can be.
TZN: Are you approaching the pop culture references the same way as you did in the first two movies?
CM: When it comes to pop culture referencing and that kind of tone of comedy, we tried to…I won’t say that we avoided it 100%, but we consciously tried to steer away from it and make it more of a character driven piece, just because it just feels like it’s becoming too familiar in animated films. Everyone picked up that ball, and we started to see it appearing in every animated film. So anything we could do to set ourselves apart. When we went in, we just said, “You know, let’s not do the referential movie stuff that we’ve done in the past.” There’s a Matrix gag in the first one, which was very successful. In fact, there’s even a Spider-Man gag and a Lord of the Rings gag in the last one. So let’s definitely not do any stuff like that. It felt too contemporary at this point. A few do leak in, based on our sense of humor, but we did try to steer clear of it.
TZN: Were you concerned about the film dating itself with those pop culture references, too?
CM: Yeah, I think that can happen when a film when it does that. I think it was a successful approach in the past and its fine, but personally I guess I’d rather have a film that is imitated rather than the film that imitates others, you know?
TZN: Whenever you’re doing a sequel, you have to balance between giving the audience more of what they liked in the first place while avoiding repeating yourself. How did you guys balance that when you were making this movie?
CM: There were certain things that… I don’t want to say it’s the same, but there are certain…”ground rules,” maybe? I mean, there are things that we have to honor for ourselves. Make sure that the tone is the same. You know, the sense of humor and the kind of comedy that’s going to be presented. That was established in the first two films, so it feels like it’s coming from the same world. Other than that, it’s staying true to the characters and in particular staying true to Shrek and what his core issues are. I think, in Shrek’s case in all three films, although the situations are completely different, his core flaw is his lack of self-worth. The first film he felt he couldn’t be loved, therefore he swore off falling in love, but ended up getting married. The second one was meeting the in-laws and then convinced that his wife made the wrong choice because she ruined what her life should have been. And then he discovered at the end, “Oh, no, I’m actually perfect for her.” The third one, that same lack of self-worth is, “What could I possibly have of value to pass on to a child because I’m nothing.” And we always go back to that and make sure that that’s at the core of Shrek’s problem. Even though this is Fatherhood, that was Marriage and Love. People can relate to that…I think everyone does that. Situations may change, but you really have to solve the same problems in life over and over again.
TZN: That’s interesting, because the themes in the movies seem to be getting more mature as time goes on. Are you concerned with losing any of the audience because of that?
CM: Um, do you just mean in terms of the character and his growth? That kind of thing?
TZN: More like do you think there’s any fear that people will say, “Oh, I don’t really care about Shrek being a father. That’s kind of way beyond what I would care about.”
CM: You know, I’m not sure. It just seems like we’ve approached all 3 films as a continuous story and you are kind of watching him grow up, and so we just sat back and said, “What’s the next logical big chapter in his life?” That’s how we’re looking at it. I think to a certain extent, there’s a new audience that’s coming in now, sort of a younger audience that wasn’t around for the first Shrek, and you want to make sure that they’re included and that there’s something there in the film for them, but then there’s a whole other audience that’s sort of grown up with him. It’s that balance, I guess. It’s trying to look at it and find, “What’s the next big thing for Shrek in his life? What’s compelling and a story worth telling?” And if we continue to go that way and keep it relevant…I’m not sure how many Shrek movies there could be, but there’s a few more out there, probably. So it comes down to not repeating yourself, too, you know. Just making something that just feels different.
TZN: Making sure that you can give somebody something novel so they’ll keep wanting coming back.
CM: Yeah, and because it takes three-and-a-half years so we won’t lose our minds (laughs). The thought of “Let’s regurgitate a Shrek film” – it’d be horrible.
TZN: Speaking of change, some of the comments that you made before the movie came out were that you weren’t able to change the main characters too much technically, or else they wouldn’t look like they did in the older movies.
TZN: Were there ever any times that you felt that that hampered what you wanted to do or prevented you from doing something in the film?
CM: No…aesthetically, I don’t think anything changed. Technology did not get in the way. At all. One of the places where technology has helped us was with the range of motion of the characters. Between the films, basically you’re taking them to the shop and they get spruced up. So suddenly, they can move and the range of motion increases. Even if you don’t use it, it’s there, and the articulation of hands and gesturing, facial systems are a huge leap in the film and I think it shows. The level of performance now you can get out of the characters is pretty astonishing. All great tools for the animator. Everything else, like hair and skin and clothing – everything in the world has become a little more “real,” but it doesn’t mean it’s photo-real. It’s taken the world and advanced it. A lot of the stuff you don’t even see. You kind of feel it and it adds up to much richer, complete experience, but it’s very much “in the world.” It’s all servicing the Shrek world. Anything we’ve asked for and needed, they’ve been there to do. And it all goes back, once again, to servicing the story. “We need some magic from Merlin (laughs), can you do this?” And they’d always say, “Yeah, sure.”
TZN: One of the other things I read was that a lot of the actors didn’t work together when they were recording the dialogue. How do you overcome the challenges in getting the comic timing right when you don’t have people telling jokes to each other?
CM: It’s crazy. A lot of them are used to it having done the other two films, because we’ve never had two performers in the same room at the same time. You know, you get it a thousand different ways. We’ll approach a scene from different perspectives. You get a lot of coverage, and you do some mixing and matching. It’s amazing how great the performances play off each other considering how it’s done, because it doesn’t really make any sense at all.
And then, in the case of the Princesses – Amy Poehler is Snow White, Rapunzel is played by Maya Rudolph, and Cheri Oteri is Sleeping Beauty, and Amy Sedaris is Cinderella – three of them worked together on Saturday Night Live. Particularly, Maya and Amy worked very closely together, so it was strange. One time Amy was doing a scene where, unfortunately, she had to deal with me playing Maya Rudolph to feed her lines, but she could predict in her head how Maya would say a certain line, and actually play off of her, at least in her head. Those ladies are amazing…at improv, at providing comedic timing. I don’t exactly know how it works so well, but it does. They’re all pros.
TZN: What’s next for you?
CM: Right now, I’m just going to take some time off. That’s it. It’s been a three-and-a-half year run. We’ll see. I’m going to take a little time, spend it with my family, hang out, and head back. DreamWorks and I are going to make another film together, so come the end of summer I’ll dive into something else. Not exactly sure whether it will be in the Shrek world or something new.
TZN: If you had no time or money constraints, what would you go back and do over in Shrek the Third?
CM: The one thing, you know what you always want, or at least I do, is you always want just a little bit more time. And I think the performances in this film are exceptional. I really do. One thing I’m particularly proud of is that the animators are so seasoned and so used to the style that the performances are fantastic, but the closer you get to perfection that way, the more you wish you had more time to achieve it. It’s always about time. “Gosh, if I had ONE MORE WEEK,” we could have ran a few shots a little bit longer or just fine-tuned stuff. Get performances down to the most subtle because when that happens in a film, it’s fantastic. It’s not even really changing anything. That’s probably a pretty typical answer, now that I think about it (laughs). You can have all the money in the world and the greatest collection of people in the world to work on a film and you’ll always wish, “Oh, I wish we had one more week!”
Toon Zone News would like to thank Chris Miller for taking the time to speak with us, and to Olivier Mouroux and the staff at DreamWorks for assisting in setting up the interview.
Shrek the Third opens on Friday, May 18, 2007.