NYCC2009: "Wonder Woman" Roundtable Interview with Director Lauren Montgomery
Right before the debut of Wonder Woman at the 2009 New York Comic Con, Toon Zone News was able to participate in several roundtable interviews with Bruce Timm, Michael Jelenic, and Lauren Montgomery. On the eve of the release of Wonder Woman on DVD and Blu-ray disc, we are proud to present these roundtables with the talent behind the movie.
Lauren Montgomery has been slowly working her way through the ranks at Warner Brothers Animation. Her resume includes work on Justice League and Justice League: The New Frontier, and cut her teeth directing episodes of Legion of Super-Heroes and a third of Superman Doomsday. On the eve of the Wonder Woman debut, Montgomery talked with all of us about her debut as an animated feature film director.
LAUREN MONTGOMERY: Well, the pleasant surprise was being more involved with the entirety of the film. Previously, in my directing positions, I would kind of oversee the storyboard, and that would pretty much be the extent of it. This time, I got much more say in design and overall look and of course, the storyboard (laughs). So I had a much larger attachment to the entire project.
Q: Some of the Warner Brothers/DC directors are known as drama directors, and some of them are action directors. If you had to pick one or the other, would you say that there was something that you brought that was definitely your strong suit?
MONTGOMERY: I think people tend to recognize me for the acting, which I guess would be more of the drama portion of it, but I also like to think that I’m slightly able to do action. Or at least I hope I can. Because otherwise, this movie is going to suck! (laughter)
Q: How closely did you work with the actors in terms of shaping their performances in the film?
MONTGOMERY: Well, Bruce and I sit in on all the voice acting sessions, but luckily, we have Andrea Romano, who is our voice director, and she pretty much does 99% of the work just on her own because she’s just that good. She knows what she’s doing, she does all her research and all her homework, and it makes my job on that portion of it very, very easy. Every once in a while, if I have a small note, like, “Oh, this person needs to be more angry when saying this,” I just let her know and she’s always able to get the exact performance that we want.
Q: Do you guys go and do you do a temp track when you’re kind of getting the animation ready, or do you go ahead and cast, do a first pass with the voice actors, animate to that, and then do ADR after that?
MONTGOMERY: We cast everything, usually while the storyboard is being done. We are also voice recording while that’s going on so we will have a finished voice track around the middle of the storyboard time. Then we hand it off to our board guys and they make sure that they match up all their character acting with the voice track, and when we get the animation back, if any of that doesn’t match, then we’ll bring the actors back in for the ADR session where they can tweak their performance to match the picture.
Q: Famously, when Robin Williams did the Genie in Aladdin, they videotaped him and used a lot of Robin Williams facial expressions and physical mannerisms. Do you guys do any of that with the actors?
MONTGOMERY: We do not. Sadly, we don’t really have the schedule that allows us really the time to do any of that. We have to work mainly with the voice, and we just kind of have to leave it to the board artist to kind of get it right. On the other hand, also, we’re not working with an in-house animation crew. We’re working with an overseas animation studio. If we were to put in acting like the Genie, and we got that back, it would probably look pretty horrendous (laughs), so we try to keep a lot of the acting as minimalist as we can so know we’ll get the best animation that we can.
Q: Who is the animation company that’s doing services for you on this one?
MONTGOMERY: Our overseas animation crew was Moi, who I think was part of DR Movie. That studio has done a lot of work for the Justice League Unlimited series, and on some of the other videos as well.
Q: Did you work with them at all when you were on Avatar?
MONTGOMERY: I did not work with them on Avatar, because I didn’t have any say in the animation. On Wonder Woman, we definitely had a back-and-forth. They would send us pencil tests and I would send them my notes, and we would just work together to try and get the best result we could.
MONTGOMERY: Well, the whole process was just a very good experience for me. Just being able to do Wonder Woman’s first venture into a feature film. Live-action or animation, this is the first feature film that she’s got. And the fact that it’s a woman in the main character role was just a huge treat for me. Being able to design it myself was just a huge opportunity, too. There were a lot of new opportunities for me at the same time, and I just hope that everyone’s happy with it, because I really like it.
Q: This movie gives you an opportunity to possibly break into a different market, into a girl’s market, as well as the superhero fan market. Do you have any thoughts on that?
MONTGOMERY: Well, I would love to see more girls being drawn to not only this character, but this genre, just because being a female working in action animation, I’m constantly working the majority of the time on shows where the main character is a boy. I’ve worked on so many superhero guys (laughs), I can’t even remember all of them, so whenever an opportunity for a female character comes up, it’s new and it’s different and it’s fun, and I really enjoy it. So if this does well, it just opens the door for more of that. And if more women get into it, and really enjoy it, then, it just makes it that much better for me if I get to work on it (laughs).
Q: There was an article about an animator on Coraline who said that when she started in the industry, she had to work twice as hard because none of the men would take her seriously. Did you encounter that at all in your career?
MONTGOMERY: I don’t feel that I did. If I did, then I was probably so oblivious to it (laughs), because honestly, I just had nothing but positive people around me. Bruce has been a huge supporter of my work, and he basically gave me this opportunity on his own. So I really haven’t ever felt personally that I’ve been discriminated against at all, or not taken seriously. I guess I just prefer to let my work speak for itself, and if people like it, then they’ll like me, and if they don’t like it, then they won’t hire me! (laughs)
Q: You mentioned that you kind of like the idea that Wonder Woman could be an introduction point to bring more women. How does a female lead affect how you approach the story vs. a male lead?
MONTGOMERY: Well, of course, women and men are not exactly the same. You can treat a female character and just write her like you would write a man, but she’s not going to be as believable as if she’s actually written like a woman. So, I try to make any female character I work with believable or bring aspects of feminity to her without making her seem girly or weak in that aspect that the connotations of girliness carry with it.
Q: When the voice talent was released, there was a lot of positive feedback from the fan community. What was it like working with Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Oliver Platt…?
MONTGOMERY: Well, luckily, each and every one of them was very, very easy to work with. Some of them had done voice work before, and just came in and knew exactly what to do. Others had not, but the more that they got into it, the easier it became for them, and as soon as you become comfortable, they’re just able to go and they did a great job, every single one of them. Voice casting and voice directing and the acting in just all of these DC films has been really, really good, and it’s kind of what adds to the believability of the character and the prestige of the film.
Q: How much say do you have in the voice casting?
MONTGOMERY: Well, we’re all out to give our say in it at the front of the casting process, but of course, it’s not just me and Bruce and the people in the animation side. There’s also the Warner Home Video people and there’s also DC. So, it’s an amalgamation of all of those groups, kind of putting their names into the hat, and eventually coming to a decision that pleases all 3.
Q: Keri Russell is not necessarily the first name that comes to mind when you’re thinking of Wonder Woman. Was there a role that basically sold you guys on her, or was it her test?
MONTGOMERY: She did not do a voice test. Usually, when people throw names out, we’ll just go to YouTube or whatever and pull up some way we can hear their voice. Even though you might not think of Keri to look the part, that’s the greatest thing about voice acting is that you don’t have to look the part (laughs). But she has a quality to her voice that has strength and presence, but youth as well, and that’s what we needed for this Wonder Woman. We needed a young Wonder Woman that didn’t sound small or high-pitched. She still needed to be six-feet tall, and we were able to get that with Keri’s voice.
MONTGOMERY: Well, the thing with animation is that you have to have a simple character design, because they’ve got to draw it God knows how many times to make the thing move (laughs), but also, with the lack of line, I guess dependent on the artist’s ability…the ability to convey emotion through it can be good or bad. But I find that even with these simplest characters, the basic emotions are able to be conveyed in the most subtle of ways. Regardless of the design, as long as you have a good artist interpreting that design, it’ll come out right, and sometimes when you have a not-so-good artist doing it, it comes out a little wonky. But I think the animation of this movie came out really well, and all the designs look pretty good and fairly consistent.
Q: How recently did this final cut come together?
MONTGOMERY: I think it’s been assembled for probably a couple of months. It’s not hot off the presses. We weren’t in the cutting room yesterday. It’s a complete piece, and luckily, we had enough time to make sure we were really happy with it, versus, “Hey, the due date’s tomorrow! Make sure it’s done!”
Q: You commented on the youth of this version of Wonder Woman. What else makes this Wonder Woman significantly different from other incarnations of Wonder Woman we’ve seen in the Justice League Unlimited, or Justice League: New Frontier?
MONTGOMERY: Well, her difference is mostly in her youth, and the fact that this is her developing into Wonder Woman, whereas the Wonder Woman of Justice League was a seasoned veteran. She’s been fighting crime for who knows how long. She’s been a superhero. She knows the beat. But our Wonder Woman was kind of finding herself, and learning about the world outside of Themyscira for the first time, so that’s the primary difference. The other difference would primarily be in design. The reason why we changed her design between the Justice League Wonder Woman and this Wonder Woman was because this is a story outside of that continuity. It’s a movie that’s all its own, and it’s not based in any of the Wonder Woman designs that have gone before, so we just felt it necessary to give it its own design style, to really make it quite clear that this is a different Wonder Woman, and this is a different story we’re telling for her.
Q: If this is successful, are there any plans to possibly continue this? I mean, in the universe that you’ve created?
MONTGOMERY: I have no idea, but I definitely hope that it opens the door for that, because I’m jsut really happy with how it came out. If this parlays it into a sequel, I will be extremely happy if I get that opportunity. (laughs)
Q: You definitely feel that there are more stories to tell?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, absolutely. We’ve only just begun.
Q: One of the questions that I asked Michael Jelenic was how do you write an action scene, and he said, “I write, ‘Director Embellished Action Scene.'” He said you get really, really mad about that.
MONTGOMERY: (laughing) The only problem that that brings up is when I hand out script sections to a storyboard artist, no one person does the whole movie. We need a crew of people to storyboard this thing. Usually, you hand it out by script pages, and one person will say, “I can do about 5 script pages.” So I’ll find 5 script pages for them to do. The thing with action is that it might be an action scene on one script page, but action always takes much longer to storyboard than to write. So when he puts one line of “Director Embellished Fight Scene,” that one line is going to translate to what essentially would be 3 or 4 pages of script. And so I hand out this thing to this poor guy, and he just gets slammed with work (laughs), and so I have to notice that and just make note that there’s action described here, so I have to make sure I only give this guy 2 pages, because I know it’s going to end up being equivalent to about 5 or 6.
Q: Do you have an approach to the action scenes in this movie? Was there something you were trying to achieve in the action scenes to Wonder Woman?
MONTGOMERY: I just wanted it to feel more, I guess, adult or real in the violence. I didn’t want to just make it gory for gore’s sake, and I also didn’t want to make it the typical Saturday morning cartoon action. Since we have a PG-13, we’re able to go a little farther. If they have swords, they’re going to use them (laughs), and people might get cut with them, and that’s realistically what would happen in a sword battle. I just tried to plan the violence so that it was only in the necessary parts, vs. having a completely violenceless action scene or a completely, ridiculously violent action scene.
Q: Just to expound a little, you said when you give it to a storyboard artist, you try to adjust and say, “Oh, well, there’s action here.” But then do you plot out the action, or is that something more left to the storyboard artist? I mean, do you say, “Wonder Woman picks him up and throws him through the tank” or whatever?
MONTGOMERY: You know, it varies. There were certain action scenes that I felt certain things needed to happen. And so I would talk the storyboard artist through it and just make sure that they had a very clear idea of what they needed to do. Then there were other scenes where I would be giving it to a storyboard artist whose work I was familiar with, and I knew he could handle it, so I would just say, “You know what? Just go crazy.” (laughs) Do what you want. If necessary things need to happen in that action scene to propel the story forward, I make sure I tell them to hit it. If it’s just a beat-em-up scene, then you can let them do whatever they want.
Q: Are there any other heroes you want to direct films about?
MONTGOMERY: Well, I would be more than happy to direct any film with a female character in it, just because it’s so rare that we get to deal with female characters in this animation and action genre. That being said, I’m also a big fan of Aquaman (laughs). I know he’s pretty low on the totem pole, but he’s been a favorite of mine, so I’d love to do a film with him.
Q: He’s only low on the totem pole because nobody’s told the right story with him.
MONTGOMERY: That’s very true. I think there’s a little untapped potential there. He’s got the WHOLE OCEAN.
Q: We see in each one of these movies a slightly take on the characters from the TV series. But, with Aquaman particularly, there are two very different Aquamen with Brave and the Bold and Justice League. Which one would you lean more towards?
MONTGOMERY: I am a big fan of the original Aquaman design. I know he’s dorky, but I like the orange shirt and I like blond hair. I don’t want to explore the hokey Aquaman. I’d like to give him a serious story, just with his original design. If that’s possible.
Q: There’s you, there’s Lauren MacMullan on The Simpsons, and there’s Lauren Faust over at Cartoon Network. Is renaming ourselves Lauren the best thing we can do to break into the animation industry?
MONTGOMERY: That is very true, and a little strange. I had never thought about it that way (laughs). There’s also Jen Coyle, who was directing on Spectacular Spider-Man.
Q: The serious question is what would your advice be to somebody who wants to get into animation?
MONTGOMERY: If they want to, I just tell them to work hard and keep at it, because it’s a lot of hard work. I guess the more they immerse themselves in it and the more they study and just work hard at it, the better they’ll become at storytelling. It’s not just about drawing well, but it’s about storytelling, and storytelling has a science. It’s science and art at the same time. Art is very, very subjective, and anybody can say they like or hate something, but the science of storytelling is more broken down. And they need to be able to grasp both of that, when they’re working in animation. So study up.
Q: In theatrical films, there’s been a huge pressure to move away from traditionally drawn films to three-dimensional CG films. Have you guys been getting any pressure to kind of go in that direction?
MONTGOMERY: I think a lot of studios want to get into CG just because it’s there, but I also feel that a lot of studios understand that there’s an art to 2-D. It’s not something just to be cast aside and upgraded like a better version of technology. There’s an art to the hand-drawn animation that you just can’t replicate with CG, and I hope it doesn’t all go CG, because I will be very sad if it does, but I think most studios and definitely most artists know the difference between the two, and I’d like to keep them both around, if possible.
Q: Have you ever thought about moving into that third dimension? Do you see any kind of changing that would have to happen in your direction, or is it all about good storytelling?
MONTGOMERY: Well, it all comes down to good storytelling, but the freedom that you have with CG that you don’t always have with 2-D is that you can move the camera a lot more. There’s just a lot more places you can put it. Everything that you can do in CG, you can do in 2-D, but it just takes a ridiculous amount of work to do it (laughs). So we try to pick our shots in 2-D to make them so that we don’t kill the animators, and with CG, you can do just about anything you want to. I’m not 100% familiar with CG. I know it has its own problems, or things that it can’t do with the camera, but I know that the world of options is a little bit wider with CG.
Q: This is another question that I threw at Michael Jelenic, but Steve Trevor is kind of a tough character, just because he’s kind of like male Lois Lane. His job is to scream and get rescued by Wonder Woman. How did you approach him? How did you make sure he didn’t become just a mansel in distress?
MONTGOMERY: Luckily, Michael wrote him not being terribly in distress most of the time. He’s actually pretty strong on his own, and he does a fair amount of action-type…action (laughs) on his own. And he also gave him a great deal of humor, so he’s not just sticking around to be the foil that Wonder Woman has to save. He’s a strong character on his own, and he helps in her character arc and her development as well as him developing in his own right. I just think the way Mike wrote him was very good for a movie, so he doesn’t just seem like an unnecessary element thrown in there because you need there to be someone for Wonder Woman to save.
Q: Did Nathan Fillion bring anything to it after the writing that might have helped? You have the writing that’s one thing, and then you have the acting. How did that change or impact it?
MONTGOMERY: Nathan is just a natural at comic timing. He’s very, very good at it, so everything that Mike wrote was just magnificently amplified by Nathan’s performance. Just him being himself immediately brought something extra to the role that someone with less comedic ability wouldn’t have been able to get, and he kind of steals the show with his performance.
Q: Michael mentioned that Ninotchka was an influence while he was writing the script for the kind of relationship he wanted to have between Diana and Steve, and I was wondering if there were any influences in mind that you could cite while you were working on the movie.
MONTGOMERY: I had a little bit of The Little Mermaid coming through, with her venture into the new world and seeing everything for the first time. We didn’t want to make her seem stupid, but she did have a bit of naievte coming into this new world.
Q: What are you working on next?
MONTGOMERY: We’re not at liberty to talk about the next projects, but I can tell you guys that there are a lot more of these DC properties that we’re making videos for, and so hopefully, you guys will be excited about some of the new titles we have coming.
Q: Can you at least tell us when we might hear?
MONTGOMERY: I think before Wondercon in San Francisco.
Q: Can you say that you are working on the next DTV?
MONTGOMERY: Yes, I am (now revealed to be Green Lantern: First Flight).
Q: Would you do a DC series? Would you do a TV series?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s so easy to jump between the two because we have them both at Warner Brothers, so I work in the same studio as all the guys working on The Brave and the Bold. And so, yeah, if a new series came up and it was something I wanted to work on, I would absolutely take that opportunity.
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