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Toonzone Interviews Writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio on "Despicable Me"

Despicable Me is the new 3D computer generated animated feature from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment. Earlier this week, I got the chance to speak with the movie’s writers, Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, about their work on the movie and the process of writing movies that are not only animated, but 3D as well.

TOONZONE NEWS: What made you both want to tell this story after Horton Hears A Who?

CINCO PAUL: Chris Meledandri came to us with the idea of a story centered around a villain. Instantly we loved that idea, because in any movie you usually see the villain as the most fun, interesting character. So we loved the idea of doing a movie where the main character was the villain, and then the idea that at some point these three little girls are going to steal his heart.

KEN DAURIO: Yeah, we each have three kids so we kind of know what it’s like to try and conquer the world and deal with three little kids running around, interrupting your phone calls, and messing up your interviews and things like that. The fun frustrations of being a parent that we could explore with Gru were really interesting to us. Also, it was kind of nice coming off of Horton Hears A Who where we felt this obligation to keep true to the book, and now we got the chance to go off of something totally original. It was really nice to go from that to this and just be able to go crazy and have fun and not worry about upsetting the fans of the original book.

CINCO PAUL: Yeah.

TZN: There’s something Hitchcockian in the image of Gru. Was Alfred Hitchcock a visual reference at all for Gru?

CINCO PAUL: Yeah I think there was a little bit of Hitchcock and then a little of James Bond’s Blofeld there. An attitude of Goldfinger as well, so those were the touchpoints for him.

TZN: The show stealers in the movie are of course the Minions. Whatever they are, who is going get the credit for the Minions, gentlemen?

CINCO PAUL: Well, I believe the credit definitely belongs to Pierre Coffin, one of the directors, because he was the main creative force behind the Minions. You know we said, “Gru has Minions–”

KEN DAURIO: “and you know they may punch each other here and there. They’re kind of bumbling.” But boy, he was the one who did the voice for most of the Minions and he really came up with a lot of the visual gags. So the credit would go to Pierre.

CINCO PAUL: Yeah, Pierre and Chris Renaud (one of the movie’s other co-directors) together. I think Pierre designed the Minions. But once they were designed, then we were free to put them and use them in the script wherever we needed them and abuse them quite a bit.

TZN: The big gimmick for theatrical releases is 3D, especially with animated movies. I noticed that 3D in the movie worked really well as a storytelling and narrative device. It felt like the 3D presentation was very much a part of the narrative of the story. Was that inherent in the writing process at all?

KEN DAURIO: Well 3D was the plan from the beginning. I think that shows when you have gags and things that work as opposed to a movie where at the last minute they decide, “Oh let’s convert it to 3D.” So it’s really nice knowing from the beginning that we are going to have a 3D movie, so let’s take advantage of all the potential that that gives us. Things like an action scene where a chase would go normally across the screen, now we have the opportunity to let things come out over the audience and fly over our heads. We really took advantage of that and worked that into the script.

CINCO PAUL: Knowing we had 3D at our disposal, you know suggested gags like a floating Minion gag, where he drinks an anti-gravity formula. That came directly as a result of knowing we have 3D. It works best when things move slowly out toward the audience. So we had this floating minion, and then once he was around we could bring him any time we wanted.

KEN DAURIO: And it’s really funny, *laughs*.

TZN: Did either of you ever think of a back story for the minions? Were they created by Dr. Nefario?

KEN DAURIO: Well if you pay attention and look closely in the background, there are visual clues as to where the minions came from. You can see some blueprints in the background on the walls. You can see some–

CINCO PAUL: Early prototypes.

KEN DAURIO: Some early prototype Minions. I think if you look real close you’ll figure out that, yes, Nefario made these guys.

TZN: How did you like the theme song by Pharrell Williams?

KEN DAURIO: Oh that was great. We heard that a long time ago.

CINCO PAUL: That was early on.

KEN DAURIO: He just had that groove with sort of a hook and once we heard that, it was like yeah, this is going to be great. I brought it home and played it for my kids and that was it. They were singing it for the next year.

CINCO PAUL: Yeah, Pharrell added in an element of coolness to the soundtrack that’s great. And all the songs, the “Fun Fun Fun” song you hear during the rollercoaster scene, I love that song.

TZN: The movie has a sweet little story with a supervillain coming to love and becoming a father for three little girls, but I got the sense that the studio maybe wanted to downplay that story in the marketing of through some of the trailers and ads. Did you ever get that feeling at all?

KEN DAURIO: Well, it was weird. They had a very interesting way of kind of releasing the trailers and things for this movie. The first two trailers, I don’t think anybody had any idea what this movie was about. So it was very interesting the way they did that. I think they just wanted to kind of keep it a mystery for a while and kind of release it bit by bit. I know that there are certain people who kind of shut off once they realize there are three girls in the movie. They say, “Oh, it’s a babysitting movie. We’ve seen this movie a million times.” Cinco and I weren’t certainly trying to hide the fact that this is a movie about this evil guy who has these three little sweet girls come into his life and change him, but it’s about how you tell that story. And of course, that element of the story has been done before, but it’s about doing it in this fun new way with this evil character and see what kind of twists and turns you can make off that.

TZN: You both have worked on live-action films as well as animated ones. What’s different about the writing process for an animated feature? Does it give you a broader canvas to work on and be a little more imaginative?

CINCO PAUL: Absolutely. I think in a lot of ways it’s very similar because you have to create great characters, and you have to tell a great story. That’s the hardest work of writing any script. But as Ken mentioned earlier, it’s kind of a marathon writing an animated movie. You have four years in which you’re crafting it and re-writing it and fine-tuning it. And because of that, you can kind of get frustrating and it wears you down. But also, it does give you an opportunity to really hone the movie’s rough edges and make it as good as it can possibly be.

TZN: Do either of you have a preference for live-action or animation that you like to write in?

KEN DAURIO: I think they both have their pros and cons. Like Cinco said, it’s really nice to be able to fine-tune an animated movie. And it’s nice to be able to do things you just can’t do in a live action movie. There’s a freedom and a fun to animation, but there’s something satisfying about turning in your script and then a year later you can sit in a theatre and watch that movie and it’s done. I don’t know that I would pick one over the other.

CINCO PAUL: I think I might pick animation just because in my mind, Despicable Me, is the movie that I’m most proud of by far of anything that we’ve ever written. Because of that, I think my vote would go for animation.

KEN DAURIO: I would go with you there.

CINCO PAUL: Yeah.

TZN: Since you both are the creative masterminds, were there any ideas that were kind of cool but did not make it into the actual movie?

CINCO PAUL: There were a couple things. Originally Gru’s antagonist was not Vector. It was a superhero, a superhero named Hindsight. So that was interesting, but at one point — I’m glad that didn’t end up in the movie because it was much better to be a battle between villains. But we also had a whole sequence, Gru had a brother. A brother who owned a shoe store named Shoe Stadium, and Gru at some point had to end up working there in order to hang on to the girls.

KEN DAURIO: There are too many bad ideas that didn’t make it in. I don’t know that many of the good ideas didn’t make it in. The original script was very different. It was weird. It was very different when you talk about a superhero and it was just kind of a different script. It really did become something better I think.

TZN: I thought Vector was interesting because he didn’t seem like a supervillain at all. He was more like a spoiled rich kid trying to play being a supervillain.

CINCO PAUL: Yes, exactly. That’s great that you said because that was the intention that Gru is the real villain and Vector is the wannabe.

TZN: There is a great voice cast. I couldn’t even tell that was Jason Segel and Russell Brand in their roles in the movie. Did either of you have any input in the casting process at all?

CINCO PAUL: They would certainly ask for our input. Ultimately the final decision was left to the studio, but we could not have been happier. I mean we got everybody that we wanted. All of our number one choices were picked and they did an amazing job. It’s interesting that you mention they were unrecognizable because . . . Steve Carrell’s unrecognizable. Julie Andrews, Kristen Wiig, you know they all stepped up their games. Instead of just being themselves, they became these characters which was really great.

KEN DAURIO: It was fun for us because a lot of times you get these names to come in and do your voice for the movie and they just play themselves. So you get these big names doing themselves. This was great because everybody kind of created these characters and these great voices for their characters. And so that was really fun and exciting for us. Especially when we would hear the voice early on. Like with Steve Carrell, we heard this crazy voice he came up with. And so, when we would go back and re-write scenes, we had that voice in our head and it made it so much easier and more fun to write with that voice in your head. And it kind of gave you ideas of where to go and things that this guy would say.

TZN: What is the back story for Dr. Nefario?

CINCO PAUL: We always felt that Nefario was Gru’s mentor from way back. He’s his evil Obi-Wan, but he’s also been with him from the beginning.

KEN DAURIO: He’s sort of the Q. He creates the weapons and the Minions and all these things. You kind of get this sense that he was this guy that Gru looked up to. He was the evil mentor and then they teamed up to conquer the world.

CINCO PAUL: And now he’s sort of Gru’s evil conscience. The voice of evil telling him, “Get rid of these girls. What are you doing? We need to steal the moon.”

KEN DAURIO: Or Cinco, is Nefario just a figment of Gru’s imagination? Maybe he’s not really there. We should explore that.

CINCO PAUL: *Laughs*

KEN DAURIO: Nah, I think he’s there.

TZN: Do either of you have dogs like Kyle in the movie?

CINCO PAUL: I have two dogs and I kind of hate them both. My family loves them.

KEN DAURIO: I also have two dogs that I kind of hate.

CINCO PAUL: That may be where Kyle came from.

TZN: Why do you think Gru has a pet like Kyle?

KEN DAURIO: I don’t know if you can even still see it anymore, but in the background there are clues that he was maybe something that happened in the lab that didn’t work out.

CINCO PAUL: Kyle is just an experiment that went wrong. It’s just sort of in an evil villain’s nature to have an evil pet, so I think that’s why he keeps him around. But he definitely feels threatened.

KEN DAURIO: It kind of goes along with Gru. He has the vision of the perfect supervillain life and he tries to make it work, but nothing is really working quite right for him. Whereas a regular supervillain would have this awesome guard dog creature, Gru has Kyle. And it might attack him every once in a while.

TZN: I got to tell you, I don’t think there’s anything really despicable about going into a coffee shop and freeze-raying all the people in line in front of you.

KEN DAURIO: *Laughs*

CINCO PAUL: Neither do we. That’s exactly why we put it in there you know *Laughs*. That was sort of one of those fun things we got to do, kind of play with one of those moments we wish we could all do. We wish we could all go in and freeze the line, so we’re going to have Gru do it for us.

TZN: Were any of your children the basis for the girls in the movie?

CINCO PAUL: I don’t know if we specifically used them, but certainly scenes like “Sleepy Kittens” where he’s reading the book to the girls definitely was drawn from real life. There was a little puppet book about five bunnies that I had to read to my girls way too many times. And it was the most boring, moronic book, but they loved it so I just ended up having to read it again and again and again. And that definitely inspired that scene.

KEN DAURIO: Things like the video conference scene. We’ve both been on phone calls or on conference calls at home and you have the kids in the background just wanting your attention. And you hide yourself in a closet or lock yourself in a bedroom so you can get this phone call done. So things like that, just kind of dealing with kids and trying to have a professional life or a life . . .

CINCO PAUL: Were drawn from real life.

TZN: I also read that you both were developing a Lorax animated feature. Is that true?

KEN DAURIO: That is true, yes.

TZN: Is that in the early stages?

CINCO PAUL: It is. There’s very little that we can tell. I think there are going to be some announcements soon for voices which we’re really excited about.

KEN DAURIO: It’s just kind of great to go back to the [Dr.] Seuss well and get to work with Dr. Seuss’s widow, Audrey Geisel and everyone over there and get to bring another one of these books to life. My favorite book as a kid was Horton Hears A Who, so getting to work on that was a dream for me. And Cinco’s was always The Lorax, so this is just the dream project.

Toonzone would like to graciously thank Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio for taking time out of their busy schedules to speak with us. Despicable Me is currently out in theatres everywhere; read our review of it here.

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