Kung Fu Panda 3 directors interview: Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni

We chatted to Kung Fu Panda 3 directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni about Bryan Cranston, J K Simmons and more…

Kung Fu Panda 3 sees Jennifer Yuh Nelson return to the director’s chair after the huge success of the previous films in the franchise. This time, she’s sharing the seat with Alessandro Carloni (whose prior animation department work covers the other Kung Fu Panda movies and both How To Train Your Dragon films).

In the Kung Fu Panda 3, Jack Black reprises the role of Po, who is faced this time around with the three-pronged troubles of becoming a kung fu teacher, meeting his biological father (Li, played by Bryan Cranston) and trying to defeat a powerful villain named Kai (voiced by J K Simmons). From this premise, Yuh Nelson and Carloni have wrangled a really engaging movie which makes you think about family as much as it wows you with cool fights.

I spent 20 minutes chatting to them in a fancy London hotel, about the film itself and the effect it had on my tear glands…

Ad – content continues below

The first two Kung Fu Panda films made me laugh a lot, but this is the first one – I’ll admit – that made me shed a few tears….

Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Ooh!

Alessandro Carloni: Yay!

JYN: Yay, we made you cry, yay!

Was there a deliberate attempt to push the emotional side this time?

JYN: Oh yeah, I think we were trying to push all of it. But, because this feels like this big culmination of what Po envisions a Dragon Warrior to be. All the things that the first two movies set up, we wanted to make sure this felt like a satisfying, climactic moment for him.

Ad – content continues below

So, I think if you’re on the journey with him, you know who he is. You know who he’s trying to be. When you see him achieve that, it’s going to feel emotional.

One thing that really got me, as well, was the rivalry between the two dads [his biological father Li and his adoptive goose dad Mr. Ping] and where that ended up. Did you have that dynamic in mind already when you put Po’s father in at the end of the second film?

JYN: Oh… no. 

AC: No…

JYN: In fact, in the second one, the reason why we put it in is because we wanted to reassure audiences that the pandas are still alive. It wasn’t meant to set up a sequel at all, we just put it in there like ‘okay, don’t think that pandas are gone and that it’s a downer and depressing’. We had to put that in there. But, now that he’s there… everyone’s asking, ‘is he gonna meet that guy?’, and that’s what set up the catalyst for this movie.

Ad – content continues below

Was it tough to get the balance right, with having the two dads? It would have been easy to make the estranged biological dad into a villain, or a not-nice guy…

JYN: Oh yeah.

AC: It was very hard, that was one of the hardest things we did. But to be honest, we also knew that – this kind of movie – if it was just comedy and action it would be completely pointless to watch it. You want to ground it all into a true emotional heart and core to the story. And, those kind of scenes, that kind of emotional structure, is what makes you care about this character. So in the next fight, or action scene, you care what the outcome will be.

And we really take pride in the fact that so much work went into finding that right dynamic and getting the right chemistry and the right alchemy to feel this emotion. And I’m so happy that you say that it got you! [Laughs]

It really did!

JYN: It’s also interesting, because you talk about how he could have been a villain. When we started the movie in the first development phase of that character, he actually was a much more un-approving kind of stern father. Which works on a… if you read a book about story structure or filmmaking… that’s what make sense. Because it creates conflict. But, it’s just not very fun to watch.

Ad – content continues below

AC: Yeah, the likeability of our characters is probably one of the most important things in these kinds of movies. I mean, when you become so successful with a character like Po – who people really take to and people really love – you really wanna make sure that you’d just add an obnoxious character  for the sake of structure and plot. You want to give a partner to this character, for watching them on screen together.  

And what did Bryan Cranston bring to that?

JYN: A lot. He’s an amazing actor. He has this amazing range of the dramatic and the emotional, visceral weight that a character with his backstory needs to carry. He’s looking for his son, he lost his family, there’s a great deal of baggage that he carries. But he’s got such great comedy chops, too, his character has some of the funniest stuff imaginable.

And when you’re in there with them, his character… the way he comes up with Li’s voice and that laugh that he came up with… it just fills the room, and you wanna spend time with this guy.

AC: And, you know, the joke is that he’s coming from Breaking Bad, but this truly comedic actor deep down. He had a lot of comedy pent up in him, and we could really tell. Like when we were doing a line that was somewhat funny, he’d push it so much. Bombastic and hilarious and charming, and so he really helped us push the character into a much more fun and jovial direction.

Ad – content continues below

It’s funny because he does get linked to supervillain roles all the time in the press, but he really flies with this –

AC: – that’s so true.

And then you’ve got J K Simmons, who plays the actual villain Kai. Where there lots of potential villains floating around, or was this always going to be the one?

JYN: The weird thing is the villain design of Kai, the ox – or the bull, I guess – he was actually designed during the first film. In the very early plan for Po’s vision when he has a dream, he was fighting against his four-armed ox guy. Four arms, with, like, axes and stuff. He was really cool.

Nico [Sanghrajka], who’s been a character designer on all three films, had done this design. And we were like, ‘that’s so cool! We need to put that in there!’, but of course we didn’t have this supernatural element. We had none of that one the other two movies, so this time – because of the supernatural element – you have this character that has to be very different from the other two villains that we had. And we had that design. He was always there. Po originally was dreaming about that character…

Is there a line, when you’re making a villain, where you’re thinking ‘we need to make him scary, but not too scary’? And how do you know where to set that?

Ad – content continues below

JYN: Oh yeah.

AC: We don’t really decide it, in that case, we kind of discover it. You design it, you make it, you animate it, and look at it. And you go, ‘oh man, that’s a little scary.’ Or, sometimes you go ‘well, I’m not threatened by this guy’, so we have to push it further. And that balance is always found along the way.

And what J K Simmons brought – to our own surprise – was, again, you expect him to be the truly threatening character. And then, when you start recording, once he started having a little bit of vulnerability in his voice – because there was a line that hinted at that – he ran with that and truly made him vulnerable. He made him, as well, hilarious.

People don’t recognise his name, and he feels kinda bummed by that. He becomes not only charming and hilarious, but also very relatable. Which somehow allows you to be okay with his bizarre psychotic choices that he makes, thus balancing the villain altogether.

JYN: We always had to make sure, though, that if there was a scary moment in the movie – because I think it’s very important that it does go there, in order for it to have any meat to this – whenever we had those moments, we always follow it with something that will make sure the kids will know it’s okay. We just do that, because we don’t want the kids to get really traumatised or anything. It’s supposed to make them go ‘aah’ and then ‘oh, it’s okay. It’s fine.’ [Laughs]

Ad – content continues below

And with Kai comes chi, and that supernatural side. What was the development like, of what that would look like and what that would mean?

JYN: In the very first movie, when Oogway does the little pressure point thing on Tai Lung, you saw, almost like little water ripples of golden light. That was chi! But we didn’t dwell on it. It’s something inherent in kung fu and in martial arts movies and all that stuff. It’s all in there. But we pulled away from it, because we wanted to ground the action a lot in the first two movies. And the second one brought in technology, so that’s a whole other element.

This one’s about the supernatural element, and how can we push it even further? So that’s why we really pursued what chi was about. And Raymond Zibach, the production designer [on all three films] was going for that sense of ripples in water, and how the radiating waves go up.

We did a massive amount of development on the special effects, of how the chi can be absorbed; corrupting that sort of balance. The colours that are used: the gold versus the green. The gold being good and the green being bad. And all that made it feel like an organic part of this world.

I think it’s good, as well, that you don’t spend ages explaining chi. The first scene just jumps in and shows you what it is. Was there ever a different version, with more exposition?

AC: Yeah, there was some of that. In a way, we were drawn to that throughout the franchise. For the first movie there was some sketches, like ‘what if we use this?’. Because, the cinematic language of kung fu – especially in the traditional Chinese movies – has chi. You just like [stretches both hands out in front of himself quickly] and then something explodes!

Ad – content continues below

We were drawn to that throughout the franchise, but like Jen said we were trying to keep it more grounded. And then in this movie we said ‘let’s just go there’, and it became exciting to explore how far we could take it. And what does chi really mean?

JYN: But, the fact that we had to explain it… it is a matter of discovery. We would put in a scene and go ‘oh my gosh, it’s too clear!’ or ‘I’m so bored, take it out!’ and then when we take it out: ‘I’m so confused!’ So we put a little bit back in, we take a little out, and we keep trying it until we get the right balance.

And then, with the chi comes the reason that they go and meet all the pandas [looking for some ancient knowledge about chi]. Was there a worry that, by putting all these pandas in, that you’d make Po less unique? And then, how did you make sure that you didn’t?

JYN: That was a big concern –

AC: – but at the same time, you know, the uniqueness of Po was something thoroughly explored. Po was defined by being only the panda, the only goofball, the only silly character in a place full of straight-laced masters. So, if anything, we were drawn to the idea of ‘what would happen if we changed the paradigm? What would happen if we suddenly paired Po with someone not again different like Shifu, not again different like Tigress, but far more alike? What new dynamic would it create?’

And we got quite excited about exploring that side. And, if anything, paired with people who are much more like him – like goofball silly fat pandas – allow for Po to go to different place. Maybe it’s his turn to be the teacher. Maybe it’s his turn to step up and teach something that he himself learned. So, actually it opened up the door for lots of narrative explanation.

Ad – content continues below

JYN: And also for the design of them. We had to make sure that they didn’t have the markings as Po does. That they look like a family, but not identical. It was actually a colour thing and a shape thing a clothing thing. All that was just carefully pursued to make sure that you could instantly read ‘that’s not Po, that’s another panda’. It was tough.

I love the ugly one.

JYN: His name is Hom-Lee [pronouned ‘homely’]! I don’t think they ever say it in the movie. They never same his name, but his name is Hom-Lee in the script. [Laughs] That was a character that the writers came up with.

So, over the three films, it plays as a big arc of Po becoming the Dragon Warrior, then finding out what it means and then finally embracing it in Part 3. Was any of that planned out in the first place, or is it a movie-by-movie ‘what happens next?’ kind of thing?

JYN: None of it was planned out… I do think, though, that we over-built the world, a lot, in that first film. A lot, a huge amount. The fact that we had the villain design on the first movie, should tell you. And many of the masters were designed in the first movie. We developed this world that was so big, and so nuanced as far as what’s in it… that, it feels like we planned it.

Ad – content continues below

It does!

JYN: But we didn’t! [Laughs]

AC: True…

JYN: We really didn’t, unless it was some subconscious thing. Maybe. We should just say we planned it… but we didn’t plan it. [Laughs]

Jennifer, you directed the last movie on your own. Why not this time?

JYN: Well, Ali’s actually been working on all of them from the beginning. And, I really depend on the collaboration of the crew.

Ad – content continues below

AC: Yeah.

JYN: It’s not like the director’s off doing a thing. This is a very tightknit family of a crew. Everyone has so much to offer, and in this case this movie is so huge. And Ali has been there. He knows. He was there from the very creation of Po. And he has a… he has a set of skills –

AC: [Laughs]

JYN: – that is very complimentary to mine. So, it seemed like a very very good fit, a good mesh. So he could bring all this great things in this role, to a world that’s helped create from the very beginning. So it’s just an evolution, really.

AC: It’s also, it became a bigger movie. A really, really big movie.

JYN: Three countries. It was a complete co-production with China… we had two versions of everything.

Ad – content continues below

AC: And even from a simple safety point of view. What if Jen gets sick for a month? [Laughs]

JYN: They couldn’t stop the movie, they’d have to keep going.

A lot of animated films are directed by duos. Why do you think that is? 

JYN: I think there’s just so much to do. There’s so much, over such a length of time. It’s really helpful to have somebody to bounce off of, and that will say ‘yeah, that’s a horrible idea, you shouldn’t do it’. You need somebody like that, to bring some clarity over the four years.

Why did it take four years this time? Between 2 and 3 there were three years…

Ad – content continues below

JYN: There was no gap, that’s the scary thing. The first one took four and a half. The second one took three years, or a little over three years. And this one took four years. And, it just takes that long to make one of these movies…

And this one got pushed back away from Star Wars as well. Was that a relief, or was that frustrating?

JYN: Oh gosh, it was relief!

AC: It was frustration when Star Wars announced that they took the same weekend –

JYN: – but I wanna enjoy the movie. I wanna enjoy Star Wars. I don’t wanna feel stressed about it. I wanted to watch that movie.

AC: Yeah. Once our job of making the movie is done, the job of selling it happens which we have nothing to do with. But we do want people to see it, so we were happy that it got moved away.

It’s had quite a long process of coming out in all the different countries, hasn’t it? It was out over a month ago in America… Is that tactical thinking that you’re involved in, or is that not something that’s not up to you at all?

AC: We have zero to do with it.

JYN: We just make the movie and hope for the best!

AC: I’m from Italy, for example. And in Italy there’s no such thing as summer season. The biggest movies in the world come out in the summer, but in Italy everyone is at the sea. And so, they’re struggling there. They’re like, ‘there’s Marvel movies coming out in the summer, when no-one goes to the theatre!’ I guess it’s to do with that. Each country has their own rhythms.

We don’t have much time left, but let’s talk about the future quickly. This movie feels like a big finale off all three films coming together, but news has also come out about three more Kung Fu Panda movies –

AC: – By the way, we don’t know where the came from. Someone may have –

JYN: – Oh we know where it came from!

AC: It might have been Jeffrey [Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation CEO], you’re right. But the truth is, as filmmakers, we cannot approach the moviemaking that way.

JYN: No, we can’t do that.

AC: We need to know this is the end, we need to know that our film is the satisfying end of a trilogy. Then, should there be an appetite from the audience for more…

JYN: Satisfaction first, that’s what we go for.

AC: So for all intents and purposes, this is it. This is the trilogy of Kung Fu Panda, and it’s done. If you guys wanna see Kung Fu Panda, go and see this movie, in the theatre. Then we’ll see what happens next. But this notion that ‘ah, you can skip this one because there’s three more coming’, that’s ridiculous.

AC: And we have no ideas, what the next three would be. Hopefully, if we did three [more], we’d make it feel like we planned it all along. But we didn’t.

Was there talk at all, then, of doing a tease at the end of this one? Or a post-credits scene?

JYN: Post-credits, we normally try and do something. A little thing like that. But this time we didn’t.

AC: Yeah, never had the opportunity. And, again, last movie it happened. As Jen was saying we had a hint of seeing the pandas. But it was more born of ‘oh my god, are we saying that there was a panda genocide and they’re all dead?’

JYN: They’re okay people, they’re okay! That’s what that was about. 

AC: It became a trigger for the next movie. It wasn’t intentional to tease anything.

One final question, as I think there’s a few seconds left. So I saw the film yesterday and I still have the new version of Kung Fu Fighting in my head. Will it ever go away?

JYN: Probably not. Sorry. [Laughs]

AC: I’ve gotta be honest, we ourselves thought ‘really, again?, but Hans Zimmer nailed this idea of saying ‘what we make a Mandarin, original Chinese choir have a take on that?’ Then, we kind of got excited about it again. And we’ve been living with this song more than anyone else. ‘Oh gosh, do we really have to use it?’ [laughs], but we got excited by the fact there’s a fresh take on it. 

Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, thank you very much!

JYN: Awesome. We’re very glad that we made you cry! 

Kung Fu Panda 3 is out in the UK now.