Since he co-directed The Lion King, Rob Minkoff hasn’t made a full-on animated film since. He mixed animation with live action in a pair of Stuart Little movies (setting off a bit of a trend there), and went on to tackle The Haunted Mansion, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Flypaper amongst others.
Mr Peabody & Sherman brings him back to animation though, and he spared us some time to chat about. What’s more, he talked too about the time he was offered the director’s chair on Who Framed Roger Rabbit 2. Here’s how our chat went…
If I’ve got this right, then this one’s been on your plate for a decade, if not more than that. At one stage it was said to have a live action element to it. Can you talk us through how it got to this point?
Yes. Well, it was about ten years ago, and someone asked me if I was interested in doing the film of Peabody and Sherman, which I knew very well from my childhood, because it was part of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. And so I loved the characters, and sort of jumped at the chance to get involved in making a film of that.
At the time, Tiffany Ward, who’s Jay Ward’s daughter – Jay was the producer of Rocky & Bullwinkle, and all the related characters – she was managing the rights and I met with her. We formed an alliance to get the movie made, but at the time I think they were thinking it would be a live action film with an animated dog. So the very first conversations were about that. I would say that fairly quickly I came around to the idea that it really should be done in animation. And so we started to take it out to find people to help get it made, and it wasn’t until 2005 that we took it to DreamWorks.
I hadn’t worked at DreamWorks, but I knew Jeffrey Katzenberg from Disney, and so when I pitched it to him, he liked the idea and thought it would be good for us to do together. So we got started in 2005. Clearly not on a fast track!
That’s a good thing though isn’t it, to a degree?
Yeah. It’s not the first film to take this long to reach the screen, and DreamWorks has a long process to get films ready. So it was about two and a half years ago that I got a call from DreamWorks saying that they were ready to move forward in earnest. That we had a draft of the screenplay that everyone liked.
Turned out from then to now it’s changed dramatically I’d say. For a couple of reasons. We had to find a new writer. The writers who had written the draft sold a TV show that they had to go away to produce. And so we brought in Craig Wright. He came in, and even though we had a script that the studio liked, it felt like it still needed certain elements. So Craig came in and actually pitched what has become the defining aspect of the film, because we wanted to tell a father and son story. Even though these characters in the original TV show are the same from one episode to the next, we were looking for something to help tell a story that would help evolve their relationship.
So was the focus on a father and son story the ‘eureka’ moment? That you had the core mechanic you needed to make the film work?
Well, father-son, the fact that he was originally adopted, was part of the original show. So that was a given. I would say what was the eureka moment for our movie was the introduction of the character Penny, the girl that Sherman meets at school. And in the original draft, that character was a boy. We changed it to a girl and it really made a difference.
We’ve seen over the past few years that there are animated films that have fun and loveable characters, and then there are animated films that have fun and loveable characters, and a great story too. That’s the huge challenge. You’ve got a pair of characters very easy to warm to here, but in terms of threading them into a narrative, how do you do that? They go across so many points in history, but how do you make sure the core works?
For us, it was the case of adding the girl. Because she was going to affect Sherman in unexpected ways that would further the relationship between father and son. The father and son have led this somewhat idyllic life together, using the WABAC [time machine] to time travel and see the world, that things would change once Sherman went to school. The pressures of the world would come to bear on their relationship. Obviously because Mr Peabody is quite unusual, the fact that he’s a dog and an adoptive father, and we asked ourselves the question in this world, in this day and age, would everyone be okay with that?! And we thought probably not! So those were the areas that felt could take the characters into a story that had a bit more meat.
Father and son films have a particular appeal to me. So were there particular touchpoints you were looking at to tighten the dynamic there?
You know, it’s interesting. I think we were mostly basing it on the source, because there’s something unusual in the relationship there. Mr Peabody is a very smart character, a genius, so accomplished in many ways. And yet he’s decided that he needed to have a family, a son, in order to have a more sensible life. And yet he’s a bit reserved. In the original show, and use this, when he adopts him, Sherman calls Mr Peabody “dad”. And Mr Peabody’s response is “No, you will call me Mr Peabody, or in less formal moments, simply Peabody”.
Did the Rocky & Bullwinkle film that came out, with Robert De Niro in it, put any obstacles in the way in terms of putting people off wanting to make this one? It’s not a great movie…
No, it’s not! You know, not particularly. It was a concern to me a little bit. You don’t want it to be compared, and it’s extraordinarily different. So I suppose we just closed our eyes and pretended it didn’t exist!
Any film that has Stephen Toblowsky and Allison Janney in its voice cast is off to a great start. Looking back to when you did The Lion King, it’s that ethos – going for talent over overt movie stars. And DreamWorks itself has gone away slightly from big name poster stars, more in favour of people who feel more appropriate for the roles. So did you record much of your cast together here? And what challenges did you face recording with a young child over a prolonged period of time?
Well, we didn’t record together, but that’s kind of what you do in animation now.
So what about recording a child, who has a major part in the film? Because his dialogue must have been recorded over several months?
It wasn’t over several months, it was over several years! We hired Max [Charles, the voice of Sherman] when he was eight years old, and for a lot of people they felt that might have been too young. There was always a concern about that. And yet he was right for the role, and had a tremendous amount of charm that came through his voice. Which was unusual with child actors. We found a lot of good ones, but there was an intangible quality to his voice that really was great.
Our concern was that he was getting older as we were recording, and we always had to make sure… there are certain things that happen when you’re young, and you change and grow out of. So that was our biggest challenge. And it was funny, because he has become a better actor through the course of working with us. He’s working quite a lot – he’s on a television show, and he’s acting regularly. And things that he couldn’t do at the beginning – so for example, in a number of cases we needed him to laugh on cue, and he just couldn’t do it [as we needed] at the start – now it’s no problem.
How immune are you now to the whole process of this? You’ve done one film in particular that’s absolutely revered with The Lion King. But you’ve done others that people have been sniffy about, and haven’t fared as well. You’ve seen the full spectrum of how reactions have gone.
How do you deal with that? Is it possible to shut the highs and the lows out, to keep going?
You know, every time you do a film you hope for the best, and you try to do something that’s different. Something that you haven’t done before particularly. You know, it’s the fortitudes of this business!
You’ve avoided pigeonholding throughout your career. It’s interesting: when 21 Jump Street came out, I read interviews with its directors – Chris Miller and Phil Lord – who had just come off making Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. And the first question to them was generally ‘what’s it like directing actors’, as if you don’t work with human beings when making an animated movie.
But you broke the barrier between animation and live action very early. And now you’ve gone from animation, to live action, and back to animation. When you got past The Lion King, I would imagine that you had an array of options in front of you, probably more than you’ve had before or since. So why did you make the choices you did? What other options did you have?
I think I was interested in live action. I was actually developing the sequel to Roger Rabbit before I was doing The Lion King. I’d got my start as a director on the Roger Rabbit shorts. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] had said to me very early on that if they were going to do a sequel, he’d want me to direct the animation. So I was waiting for that to happen, and after I’d finished the second Roger Rabbit short, I got a call that they had the script of the Roger Rabbit sequel. Would I read it, then come in to discuss directing the whole movie. So I did that, got hired to do that, and worked on it for a year or so. Eventually they decided to shelve the project. I still hear rumours about it…
They keep coming around, yes.
It will come around. It definitely should come around, for sure.
So what was in the script you were working on?
The version… there were a couple of versions going around, and I don’t think they’d make the one we were working on! That was one of the problems. I’d read the script and there were things about it that I’d like, and things about it that I didn’t like….
Well, the first film itself was dark.
Very dark. This one was about Roger Rabbit trying to find his mother. That was the conceit, that somehow she’d gone to Hollywood, and he’d find her there. Then it turned into something like Sunset Boulevard! Anyway, we worked on that for a year, and they said it wasn’t right, and didn’t want to do it, and it got shelved. But I was in the conversation about doing live action already, and so Stuart Little for me seemed like a good opportunity.
Do you get frustrated when other people make sequels to your films? Because you did the first two Stuart Little movies, and then there was a third. Then there was a pair of Lion King follow-ups…
Yeah. Yes, in the case of The Lion King, it wasn’t really a common thing to do sequels. And the sequels that were made were done as direct to video movies.
Return Of Jafar changed the whole mechanic for them there.
Yes. I actually know the guy that pitched the idea to Disney of doing those direct to video sequels.
Do introduce him to us! In many ways, those sequels became quite reviled in the end – I think I read somewhere they did over 50 in the end – but there are two or three in there that are quite interesting.
It wasn’t really part of the conversation as it were, at the time!
Which brings us back to Mr Peabody & Sherman. Are these characters you want to spend more time with?
Yes I do, yeah. I loved the coming into the project, and feel that we’ve expanded on them in a good way. So I hope to do more.
Last question: what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?
My favourite Jason Statham movie?
Yeah. We’re doing our bit for British action cinema here.
Er, The Transporter?
Lovely. Rob Minkoff, thank you very much.
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