Clark Spencer interview: Wreck-It Ralph, Disney & more

Wreck-It Ralph producer Clark Spencer chats to us about the film, Meet The Robinsons, Lilo & Stitch, and more...

It’s been a long time coming to the UK, but this weekend finally sees Disney deploying Wreck-It Ralph onto our shores. In advance of its release, we chatted to the film’s producer, Clark Spencer, about the movie, its gestation, and some of his earlier Disney projects…

Wreck-It Ralph is a film that’s been in development in different guises at Disney for some time. Were you tempted, as producer, to go back and look at what had been done before ahead of embarking on this version?

Interestingly, I did not. I’ve been at Disney for 22 years, and I was there while these ideas were being pitched, and even being developed to be honest with you. But I’d never seen the storyboards for them. I knew a little about the names of the characters and the storytelling, but I’d never seen screeners. These other two versions had storyboard forms that you could be up and see.

It was kind of good that I hadn’t, because I had a clean slate. I think one of the difficulties is that the world is so ripe to be used in animation, that you have to figure out the right story to tell. That’s not an easy thing to do, you’ve got to figure out that balance between videogames, and a story that people care about. And I think that’s where those other earlier ideas being developed went off.

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There are definite places where there are overlap. The idea of Game Central Station came from a trip that Rich [Moore, director] took to Grand Central Station, and he thought it’d be perfect.

In previous versions, there had been talk of the idea of doing a cord block, as a way the games could be interconnected. But they never talked about it being a power strip. So again, there is commonality, but it’s more by coincidence. 

One of the earlier films you produced for Disney was Meet The Robinsons. It’s a lovely film, and at that point in Disney’s timeline, it felt like a real statement of intent, with its message of not being afraid to fail. It felt a little off the beaten track, and Wreck-It Ralph seems to fit that ethos arguably more than any Disney project since? Is that what you’re looking for? Because a videogame project like this seems, in some ways, to be such an obvious thing to do, but then I guess that makes it really hard.

I think you definitely want to do is make sure that the story is something people can relate to, no matter what. And then you have to figure out what is the world that you’re going to set it in, that would be interesting to people to go explore. One of the amazing things that John Lasseter and the team at Pixar has always done, they take you somewhere that you didn’t realise existed. Toys can come to life, you don’t understand what a bug’s life is like until you go down into the dirt with them, you don’t know what monsters do, and why they scare kids. Here, you don’t realise that the characters actually have a life outside of the games themselves. And to me, that becomes fun, the fairytale side of the storytelling, and that you’re still putting it into a modern conceit, and a modern story.

Going back to Robinsons again, I don’t have to tell you this, but it’s a film that infamously went through major changes. Bolt and Tangled too changed directors for different reasons. This seems slightly smoother. I wonder though if you could try and capture for those of us on this side of the fence what the particular creative pressures are on creating a project such as this for Disney. And what pressures there are on you as a producer to seek out the projects that fit, and more interestingly define, the DNA of the studio?

I think the storytelling is always the key: finding the story and finding your characters.

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I will say on this film that Rich really knew the story he wanted to tell, and he defined these characters almost from the beginning. The characters are almost the same as they were when he first pitched them. He knew the actors he wanted to use, and the story he wanted to tell.

That helps, because this film goes through four very different worlds, and four animation styles. And that is a very complex thing to do. It’s hard to define one art direction style for a film.

It seems so ironic that you’ve got so many characters in so many worlds in this film. But it’s ultimately about two of them. The problem with four worlds is that they can feel like four disparate stories, but it’s Ralph and Venelope that have to glue it together.

Yeah. There was a moment in time where the film spent more time in each of the other worlds, and not enough in the Sugar Rush world. We realised that we did at a certain point have to stop the world jumping, and tell the story that was going to be at the core of this movie. We had to get to back in a quick and efficient period of time. We enjoyed the world of videogames, but we had to have them meet early enough in the film. Otherwise, to your point, it’s like every time we’re starting over again.

Can I ask you about Lilo & Stitch. Again, another different approach for Disney. But that was also one that marked a different approach behind the scenes for Disney too? That was done in a geographically different place…

Yeah, down in Florida.

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Which for you as a new producer allows you to do it in a culturally different way. What did you take from that, and what did you take back to Los Angeles.

One of the great things about having the first film down in Florida was that somebody once told me that your job [as producer] is to protect the director’s vision. And that yes, you’ve got to figure out how it’s all going to be done on time and on budget. But you really need to sit there and watch the team itself to make sure the director is getting what he wants on screen. And by doing it away from a very old organisation, I think I could go in and say somehow we’re going to figure out all these other components. I will take faith that they will be done. Let’s be as creative as possible, and the rest will all naturally happen.

And because of that, coming back into California which is a much bigger machine, I think I’ve always held onto that. I think the instinct as a producer can be to panic and worry. But if you do that, you’ll shortchange the creative. That you’ll get something done, rather than make it the very best it can be. I feel like I am one of those people who really pushes the team hard to say if someone comes up with a creative idea, you’ve got to figure out how to get it into the movie. Nine times out of ten, you can figure that out, even if at first look, you might think that’s going to be impossible. The team is smart, and figures out a way.

In Florida, as an apprenticeship for you as a producer, you can almost make learning mistakes in the shadows to a degree.

Absolutely. There’s nobody there to say what are you doing, becaue you are away from the bigger machine. It did give me a lot of latitude from that standpoint.

Going back to Wreck-It Ralph then, this is the first film that you’ve worked on where the release date has come forward. It was originally set for release in the spring of 2013, and it’s come out in the US in November 2012. At what point in the project did that become apparent, that the film would be ready earlier?

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It was two things. There was a little bit of movement of release date for films. When Monsters University moved to the summer of 2013, it opened up the fall of 2012. And it was about 15 months before the movie came out, and we had to make the decision as to whether we could do it or not. It seemed like the story was in the right place, and we thought that the fall was the perfect environment to release this film. It allows you to create characters and create merchandise and other products for the holiday season. But it was a bit of a risk to be honest with you, because you never really know for sure. But we felt like we were in a good place to go. Fortunately, it all ended up okay! But it definitely crunched our schedule.

It comes at an interesting point for animated films as well. From my point of view, it still seems disappointing that animation remains classed as a genre itself. Do you think that comes a little from the animation community itself?

I don’t know if it comes from the community, but I do think you’re right. But hopefully, if we do our jobs right and keep making films that appeal to everybody, then it becomes the goal of marketing to convince people who might not ordinarily see an animated film to go see it. It is my feeling that it’s just a medium. There are always ways that you can do films, but we’re still trying to tell a story that can take you on an emotional journey. If you’ve done your job right, the medium shouldn’t matter. This medium allows us to go places that live action can’t.

Clark Spencer, thank you very much.

Wreck-It Ralph opens on the 8th February in the UK.

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