Allison Abbate interview: looking back at Frankenweenie

The producer of Frankenweenie on stop motion, Tim Burton, del Toro's Pinocchio and what she's up to next...

It’s easy to point to Oscar injustices with a grumpy face, but it seems odd nonetheless that the admittedly very good Brave triumphed over the brilliant Frankenweenie for the best animated feature Academy Award.

As Frankenweenie arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, we got the chance to chat to its producer, Allison Abbate, about the film. Plus, stop motion, box office, The Iron Giant and del Toro’s Pinocchio too…

Looking back now, how do you feel towards Frankenweenie?

You know I love it, I am so proud of it.  It was such a labour of love for me and the entire crew.  It was such a privilege to be able to bring Tim’s vision of this story to life in stop-motion and it was an idea he’s been kicking around for so many years it was just an absolute privilege to work on.  I always say I cry more during the credits when I see the names of all those people that worked on the movie than I cry during the movie because I am just so proud of everybody.

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Does it take a director with real clout and immediate recognition – a Tim Burton or Wes Anderson – to get a film such as this off the ground?

I think it helps, but I just think that stop-motion movies are happening. Aardman does them, Laika does them so it does seem that these movies happen and you don’t necessarily need an auteur of that calibre. But I do think that in both of those instances, definitely the vision of the film maker was paramount to the telling of the story, which I think was a big selling point.

This, from when we spoke to you last, appears to be the stop motion film that Tim’s been closest to on a day to day basis. Given that he was making Dark Shadows at the same time, how much time did you get with him? How far out was he was 100 per cent full time on the movie, time-wise, as you moved towards a final cut?

Tim was extremely involved on a day-to-day basis. He was doing other things. Stop motion is the kind of thing you don’t necessarily need to be there 24/7 because it is such a slow process. He had an amazing animation director, a great DP, I was on site all the time… Tim certainly in the beginning of pre-production, we got a lot of time with him. He worked directly with the puppet designers, McKinnon and Saunders, up in Manchester. We had trips to Manchester, we went to his office. A whole part of why we make these films here in London is because we want to be close to Tim and have access to him and to be able to tap him on the shoulder at a moment’s notice and get the information we need. He was really front and centre on this movie and if he couldn’t be there he definitely had his generals who knew exactly what he wanted. 

As a parent, I was genuinely thrilled to see a film that’s accessible to a younger audience, that addresses some difficult themes, specifically death and loss. Can you talk us through how you managed to balance those? This is a film that could have gone outright scary, and yet it takes a far braver path, I’d argue.

Thank you for saying that, it was really important to us that the story be true and that the emotional content of the movie really be at its forefront. 

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You know we had to strike a balance between the fun and crazy monster-mania at the end of the movie and the true heart of the film which is this relationship between Viktor and Sparky, and this event. That really the reality happens to all of usthat have a pet. Loss happens. It’s not just about the loss of a pet, but dealing with loss in general, and we never shied away from investigating that and kind of making a safe place for parents to talk about it with their kids. I really appreciate the fact that you liked that.

Have you had much reaction from parents?

Yeah, I would say we have had a really good reaction from parents who have seen the film and a really, really good reaction from children who have seen the film. If there has been any resistance it’s from parents who are afraid to see the film because they are afraid it would be too scary or too intense for their kids. It’s frustrating for me. When they do go through the process of seeing it they love it and they can’t believe they were scared in the first place. For me the most important thing is to get people to watch the movie. To watch it with your kids and talk about the themes that are brought up, because to me that is what you should do with every movie you take your kids to, and I think this is a great opportunity.

Furthermore, there were clearly inherent risks in tripling the length of a near-perfect original story. Can you talk us through the preparation, and how long it took, just to get a working screenplay in place?

You know, it was kind of an organic process to open it up because Tim had so many ideas even when he made the short of what he wanted to do. You know, he did want to involve other kids at school and open it up that way. One of the genius things for me, he tapped into that moment in the original Frankenstein movie when the monster is created and really showcases that it is the rejection of the monster that creates the monster, not the creation of it. It makes the scientist really a monster in that piece and Tim found that innocence of that moment and the sweetness of a little boy loving his creation. I think it was a great way into the story. 

Going into that relationship about the sweetness of the moment was another place where we felt we needed to open it up, because the dog gets hit by the car in the opening credits, and you have to take some time to get to know the relationship between the boy and his dog. That way, when the accident happens we can feel the impact on that family. That was another way we wanted to open up that story, so it felt very organic to open it up in those two ways. Having fun with homages to old horror movies was something we always wanted to do, and to be able to match all the kids at school with their own little monster rolled it out in a really nice organic way. 

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There’s a team at 3 Mills that’s now completed two stop motion projects almost back to back. Is your aim, as producer, to make them a permanent fixture?

Actually the team did three movies back to back because we did Corpse Bride, Fantastic Mr Fox and Frankenweenie pretty much all in line.  Yes, I would love to keep it as a permanent fixture, it’s just a matter of you really have to find the projects and you don’t want to set up something so cumbersome that you’re constantly trying to throw projects in to feed the beast. 

We were lucky we had a good set up at 3 Mills Studios, it was perfect for us. We were able to grow and expand as we needed it to and kind of contract again when we were in the smaller phases of pre-production, so the people at 3 Mills have been nothing but amazing collaborators. That part of 3 Mills is no longer there so we would have to find a new space, but I do think there is a plan to do more of these films here, and I would love to be able to set something up that would be more steady so people could see it as a place to build and grow. 

It might sound like a crass question, but I fear it has to be asked: where does box office figure in a project like Frankenweenie? Just in terms of getting the next film made and appreciating you’ve said before that box office means nothing, and that stop motion is reasonably economical?

Yeah. I mean I think that your box office is always based on the budget of your film and what your expectations are, and our budgets are much, much lower than a CG movie. So I do think that the expectations for our films are never the same as the expectations of the big budget film.

But I think it is important to note and to allow the box office of the movie. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important at all. It’s a business first and foremost for the studios. They need to know it’s appropriate to what their expectation of the movie is. With all of these films the expectations was pretty much what happened and based on the investment I think people are very happy about it. 

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And I think when you are going to make a piece of art you put different constraints on it. Corpse Bride, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Frankenweenie are all labours of love; beautiful artful creations and I am really happy with the response we have gotten with them. 

On a similar point, films such as Fantastic Mr Fox, The Pirates!, ParaNorman and now Frankenweenie have all proved sizeable critical successes, yet without necessarily finding the audience they deserve. Are there limits, do you think, to the audience appeal for stop motion?

It’s kind of a catch 22 – you know they have smaller budgets and therefore smaller marketing budgets so they don’t have the kind of visibility you get with a big studio picture. I think that Chicken Run was probably the highest grosser of all stop motion movies and that was marketed like a CG movie. So it seems that if you market one like a CG movie and the movie’s good you will make the money. 

I think it’s kind of a packaged deal and you can’t take one element out. I do think there is a market for these stop-action movies but it just depends on how you sell it. 

Any news yet on The Iron Giant Blu-ray? Sorry to keep asking…

No, I don’t really have any news.  I know there is talk of doing it and I think there is talk of creating new materials for it which might be part of the reason why there is a delay. But I really don’t have anything to add.

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What’s the current state of Pinocchio? Is that still active, and is Guillermo del Toro still involved?

Pinocchio is a great project Guillermo is very passionate about it.  A lot of it depends on his timing and his schedule so we need to wait and see when we can actually put the time into it and really get the script to where we need it to be.

What projects are you looking to tackle next?

I am presently working on a Lego movie with Phil Lord and Chris Miller who did Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street and it’s for Warner Bros. It will be a really fun movie that comes out next year.  I am executive producing that. I think it looks amazing and then other than that I am waiting to see what strikes my fancy. It takes a lot of years to make these movies and so you can’t jump until you have something really special and Frankenweenie is a hard act to follow.

Allison Abbate, thank you very much.

Frankenweenie is out on Blu-ray and DVD now. It is ace.

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