Peter Ramsey interview: revisiting Rise Of The Guardians

Rise Of The Guardians wasn't quite the hit it should have been. Its director, Peter Ramsey, takes us through the last six months...

Cards on the table: I really, really liked Rise Of The Guardians. I liked it when I first saw it, and I liked it when I caught up with the film again on Blu-ray (it’s out now). Having criticised previous, less ambitious DreamWorks movies in the past, I was one of many who sat back perplexed as to why it didn’t ignite at the box office in the way that the studio’s previous features had. So: what happened? What went wrong? What could have been done differently?

I thus got back in touch with the film’s director, Peter Ramsey, and put some of those questions to him….

I find the whole journey that Rise Of The Guardians took, from start through release, and then the fallout after of the release, quite a staggering one. And for a first time director, albeit one with an army of pre-existing credits to his name, I can’t begin to think what it was like at the heart of that. So I was hoping you could capture some of that for us.


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That’s a small question!

[Laughs] Where do I start?

Well, let’s pick up from when we last spoke. You were two weeks out from release, reviews were generally positive, and all the indicators were apparently looking up at that point.

Right. Yeah, and then everything suddenly changed.

Was it that dramatic? Did it feel like a sudden about-turn in fortunes?

It did. But there were little indicators in the few weeks before we opened. Not all the reviews were stellar, but that’s to be expected with any movie really. And I think everyone was surprised at how big Skyfall was. Plus, Twilight had just opened at the same time, and both films were proving to be truly monstrous. And I think people were starting to realise that there was going to be competition that they hadn’t really planned on.

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I think there was still a lot of the old thinking that if you release an animated movie, unless there’s another animated movie in direct competition, you have the field to yourself. 

Animated movies, particularly mainstream ones, have reached out to a much broader audience in recent years. Whereas once upon a time, the thought that Skyfall and its ilk would, in some way, target a pre-teen audience was unthinkable. Maybe both sets of goalposts have moved?

I think so. I think definitely it knocked everyone for a loop. Especially when Skyfall ended up being the most popular Bond in history. With Twilight on top of that, it was really a perfect storm. We sort of got lost in the scuffle. I’d have to say that some of the marketing campaign maybe didn’t build enough identity or awareness of the movie.

And then you got the schadenfreude that kicked in really quickly. It seemed to come particularly from the Hollywood trade press?

Yes. Yes. Very much so. It’s a very insular, clubby world. DreamWorks has always had a high profile in the industry and our movie had a lot of expectations attached to it. So we were, to an extent, a target.

Presumably though, on a working level, I can’t imagine the so-called bad blood is that tangible, or makes a great different when you’re in the midst of a big project?

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Not at all. I mean the politics are the last thing you’re thinking of. It really is all about the work. Upon release, it really becomes a different animal, and it’s very business-driven.

I live outside the movie business, and I live a long way from Hollywood. But Rise Of The Guardians took $300m. And presumably you don’t get that far unless you’re resonating somewhere, or hitting a chord somewhere. And I understand marketing fires these things out to a degree, and Rise’s didn’t quite hit. But this still had legs, just not on a big scale. Do you sense the fact that people spent $300m going to see your film?

Oh yeah, and right now, the Blu-ray in the States is number one. You know, for me, it’s definitely resonating. Every screening I went to with audiences, be they preview or paying audiences, people responded to the film. It was overwhelming. People loved it, they were engaged. And I also remember in the first nervous weekend of release getting calls from people saying, “Theatres are packed, people are loving it!” These bizarre, over the top things, and you feel like it’s going great, as you get lots and lots of positive feedback.

And then the numbers start coming in, and you’re like, wait a minute, there seem to be huge swathes of people who don’t know this exists. 

So when do you know? Presumably you get phone calls right the way through the weekend?

Oh yeah. They start projecting things after the first Friday, and take very educated guesses as to how it’s going to do. And then, by the time the smoke clears, end of Saturday, Sunday morning, you can see more of the road. And then they start forecasting what the domestic run was going to do.

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Presumably though, you wouldn’t look to have changed the film you wanted to make by chasing another $200m at the box office?

No, no. Getting the responses that I’ve gotten, honestly, for me it’s enough. The film as it is, there are moments that I love, and there are moments that still keep me awake at night, because I think this could have been better, or that could have been better. Why couldn’t we have done that, I should have fought harder for this.

I’m very proud of the movie, and the work we all did on it.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to put out something that I really wasn’t proud of in any way but that, for whatever weird reason, happened to be a massive hit.

I’ve worked something out for you. I looked at the numbers, particularly what happened outside of the US. I figure you should just move to Europe. In both Britain and France, in particular, the film has been a big hit. French cinema isn’t always so accepting of Hollywood films too.

Yeah. Traditionally, European audiences have been a little more open to things that are a bit more off the beaten path. And Rise Of The Guardians doesn’t feel like a Disney movie, which is sort of the norm.  It draws on a lot of other sources: anime, comics, fantasy films, etcetera. It was part of what we were going for, to do something with a slightly different tone.

When we first chatted, we talked about how neither of us really like films that cut corners, pander, cheat, break the fourth wall for no good reason. We’ve talked about how animation is keen to go off into different genres, but I do wonder now, from a commercial point of view, if you were a little too bold? Which is a nice thing to be criticised for!

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I agree, I agree. I remember deep in the throes of it, when we were all kind of gnashing our teeth, I would stop and go wait a minute, if you want to be an artist, isn’t that a sign that you’re doing something right? That people don’t quite know what to make of it. It hits a very deep chord amongst people who do embrace it, and they’re not always sure why.

The interesting thing to me was that it really did seem that the people who came to the movie openly were really into it. There are people who go to films with an open mind and want to go with it. It works for those people. People who come to it critically, and there were a lot of bullseyes painted on the film… it dealt with iconic characters, which immediately put some people off. That it dealt with something sacred. People imposed a lot of cynical motivations on it, and they didn’t see the film that was there. 

Do you find it interesting that people criticise films for things books have been doing for centuries?

Oh yeah, and particularly with these characters! The image of Santa Claus that most Americans know came from a Coca-Cola advert!

I remember the experience of first showing the film to the international press. And a lot of people were just confused. They just didn’t understand. They heard it was going to be this film about childhood icons, and a DreamWorks film at that. I don’t know if they expected Shrek or what. Some take offence. I’ve read a few reviews where people would actually invent dialogue from the film and quote it in the review!


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Yeah! It was this strange phenomenon. You resist the temptation to fire off a correction.

That can’t be easy. But then, if you complain about it, it looks like bad eggs.

Oh yeah. But it’s just what it is.

What’s also forgotten about this film is that, to a degree, part of it was handed over. For a film about protecting childhood, there is actually a tragedy in its authorship, with William Joyce (writer, original co-director) and the horrible loss of his daughter, which led to him taking a back seat.

The purely professional impact on you is that the film is then passed on to you, midway through. I wonder if you can talk about that, and just how seamless that was.

You know, I never felt like it was all my own endeavour. I always thought of it as, you know Bill’s work, I wanted all of that to shine through and be represented, because that’s what got me excited about it in the first place. That he had something very, very special. And knowing something about the history of it, it confirmed for me that this came out of a very personal, loving vision. It really is done in the best possible spirit.

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And thematically, of course, if opens with a death and a birth.

That’s right. You know, they always say these things reflect our life. It’s true of this one in particular. 

Going back to the reactions that you’re getting, whatever happens at the box office, more often than not good films will still out. And there are signs that might be happening here?

Yeah. I’ve got to admit what’s happening with the DVD, I think it just points to the weird kaleidoscope of elements that come into play with a film like this. There’s when you release it, how you release it, there’s what other films are out, how much it costs, what’s going on in the economy. There are so many elements, it’s such a complex thing. But I do think that people are finding the film now, and reacting to it.

It feels like it’s going to be one of those movies that, ten years from now, will have meant something to someone. And that, in the final analysis, was what we were shooting for all along.

Where does this leave you then, as a filmmaker? How has the box office of Rise Of The Guardians affected what you want to do, and what you’re working on? It’s been reported that there have been ramifications within DreamWorks – layoffs, and a reshuffled of projects – and that can’t be massively pleasant to go through. Yet it doesn’t seem to be the quality of the film itself that people are blaming?

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Which is kind of bizarre. It is this weird thing, to be given an astounding amount of personal praise from people who love the movie. It’s been very strange. As a result, we’re still kind of scratching our heads. But even if the movie had been a huge hit, there’s still so much in it that I’d love a second crack at fixing.

But it’s one of those things. The movie business is a fickle one. You have to shake your head once in a while, dust yourself off, and hope that you’re not in movie jail for too long.

Is that where you feel you are?

I don’t know. I did get a lot of kind mentions, even in some of the more lukewarm reviews. People didn’t take it out on me too badly.

But the other stuff clouding it? All the corporate stuff, all that hanging around. That is the thing that makes me really sad, because there’s so much great work that went into it. There’s very little recognition of how beautiful the animation is, the wonderful score. It’s criminal that Alexandre Desplat wasn’t recognised for it more. It seemed to get lost in the shouting.

To me, that’s about the most painful part. Our crew really put a lot of work into the film, but again, that’s the business.

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Did the Oscars, and the fact that the film didn’t get a nomination, matter much to you?

You know, that was another bizarre thing. It was my first feature, and suddenly you’re in an Oscar race, which is bizarre in itself. I’m not a big awards show person anyway, but you get caught up in it. You start to think could this actually happen? And we had a good head of steam going in, and people thought we were a shoo-in to get nominated. 

I think you were too. I’d have still have edged the Oscar to Frankenweenie, if I’m being honest [Brave won]. But you also look at ParaNorman. There was a bracket of films there that challenged children to a degree. Guardians, Frankenweenie and ParaNorman were family films that addressed themes that, if you were sat around talking to people, are hard to talk about sometimes. Themes such as death, loss, loneliness. Working out where you fit in. These themes weren’t always at the beating heart of so many family-focused animated features. And last year, we had three.

It’s interesting you bring up the point about dealing with childhood. I really wanted to make a movie that, first and foremost, it’s Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and it’s for kids. I really wanted to speak to kids. And it really was interesting, the criticism that the movie didn’t have more for adults.

That’s not a criticism, though. I wrote that in my own review of the movie. That it knew its audiences, and went for its audience.

For some people, ironically, that’s a criticism though. It was a double-edged sword. A lot of people will criticise DreamWorks for the knowing, wink-wink snark, but they’ll turn around in the next breath and say a film like Rise Of The Guardians isn’t sophisticated or snarky enough and doesn’t have as much for adults as it does for the kids. And I’m the first to say that had we had more screen time, I would have loved to have fleshed some things out more. That’s my cross to bear though.

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Is that a big cross to bear though? You talked about sleepless nights before. Is it that big for you? Is it a perfectionist element in you, or do you really think you missed some of the things that you were after, enough to trouble you?

I think a bit of both. Anyone who does this job, and does a studio film, there are compromises to make every single day, and in this case I was fortunate to actually have a great deal of creative support from the studio. I am really gratified and proud with how much of the movie came out the way I wanted. There were things that for whatever reason didn’t quite make it. We didn’t have the money, we didn’t have the minutes. It’s a mix of the two. But then after watching it with a few audiences, I wondered what I was fretting about!

Are you close to settled with it now then? Because the last six months sound like an extreme rollercoaster.

Extreme rollercoaster is the perfect way to put it. It’s also coming on the heels of three years of intense work, and trying to foresee the future, and trying to gauge how people will react, what the marketplace will be like when the film comes out. And when it finally happens, reality always has a way of turning out nothing like you would expect. And that’s definitely true here.

So what are you doing now? Where has this left you?

I’ve been talking to people about several different projects. I’ve got some of my own stuff that I’m writing and talking to people about. I’m hanging out at DreamWorks, doing a little bit of helping out. There’s a custom here that in downtime, you give others your expertise. Really, I still haven’t had a really good vacation. I have to wait until my kids are out of school. So nothing firm yet, but a lot of bubbling pots on the stove!

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Peter Ramsey, thank you very much.

Rise Of The Guardians is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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