Tom McGrath interview: Boss Baby, animation, George Lucas

We chat with Boss Baby director Tom McGrath about animation, changes at DreamWorks, Boss Baby 2, advice from Ron Howard and more...

Tom McGrath is one of Hollywood’s most underappreciated comedy directors. Megamind was a hoot, I found myself guffawing heavily through the Madagascar trilogy and now, with The Boss Baby, he’s brought yet more animated mischief to the screen.

We got the chance to have a chat with about the movie, about the big behind the scenes changes at DreamWorks Animation, and the invaluable advice of Ron Howard and George Lucas…

I remember watching the Oscars one year, and Jim Carrey came on to present an award just as Liar Liar had opened to massive numbers. He walked up and said “how was your weekend, mine was good!”. So, Tom McGrath: how was your weekend?

It was great! It was good! [Laughs] You know, I don’t have children myself, but I assume it’s much like parenting! Your baby goes out into the world. We spent six years on this movie!

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I was reading articles on Friday that suggested that the film was going to underperform at the box office, and there seemed pessimism. How closely do you monitor things like that?

Not much. To be honest, the reward for a filmmaker with this is sitting with an audience and seeing how they react. I don’t tend to listen to the press as much as I do the audience. I was happy, and to me there was a personal component to this story. It harkens to my brother and I. My personal goal with this was to watch this movie with my brother, and to see how it affected him! Which kind of brought him to tears, which to me was the big satisfaction moment.

What was so special for you there? Is there a particular link to your brother in the film?

It celebrates our childhood, and a lot of people’s childhoods with their siblings. When you’re with a family, you kind of go through war together! It’s not always easy, sometimes tumultuous. And that was the case with my brother and I. When we became adults, we became really close and best friends. When you think about that as a character arc for a story, about two people who don’t get along and hate each other, and then learn to love each other, and have that strong bond, that’s the strongest character arc I can think of.

You understand, then, that my take-away from this is that one out of you and your brother is that one of you used to walk around in a suit and tie, bossing the other around?

[Laughs] Yeah, pretty much!

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I watched this with my kids, rather than at a press show. And as much as I’ve enjoyed a lot of DreamWorks Animation movies in the past, some have really struggled for me to balance between giving something to the kids, something to the adults. Your films seem to do this quite effortlessly, though, and I wonder if you could talk about finding that balance, especially when you’ve been working on a film for so long?

What always I enjoyed when I was a kid was the physicality of animation. That’s what we really tried to bring back with this. Just having witty dialogue, sometimes there are references that only parents will understand. What I remember about the Blake Edwards movies that I grew up with was that even though bits went over my head, we could watch them together and get different things from them. The main thing is you need some jokes for the adults, some for the kids. I think anyone involved in making animation is a child at heart anyway. You kind of just have to go with your gut.

Sometimes you think about cutting a joke, and you test it with kids and it plays through the roof. And sometimes you work on these things so long, you forget a joke is funny. Watching with a crowd reminds you something is funny, even if I’ve seen it before ten million times! It’s an interesting process, I got to tell you. You have to go from your gut.

It’s not just in the lines here, though. The animation style in places seems to hark back to the work of Chuck Jones and Fred Quimby. You talked about physicality, the days when things hit each and it was funny. You’ve pulled back from being utterly realistic and seem to be having a lot more fun with it. Can you take us through your animation choices, and what your touchpoints were?

Fred Quimby, he was great. Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, in particular. I grew up with cartoons like One Froggy Evening, and the drawn expressions were just funny. When I worked on Ren & Stimpy, you got that back. Having a character, and having them make an expression that’s so silly or it makes you laugh. It wasn’t all dialogue dependent. I think in our movies sometimes it becomes talking heads, and less about the story and the animation.

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So sitting with these animators, and some of these guys I’ve worked with on five movies now, we were wanting to go back to our roots on that stuff.

We’re at a place with our technology where we can make funny expressions. I realised one thing, and it’s a technical thing that’s been throwing animators: they had too many controls. They had too many points, and everything was mushy, and they weren’t committing to a strong expression. So when we were rigging the characters, I asked that we do only half the controls that we normally have. It made them commit to expressions.

Carlos Puertolas, the head of animation, all the supervising animators, we did something different. We had character leads this time too. Animators committed to a certain character, defining their walk, finding something funny. A smile, a hand gesture. There was a lot of ownership with certain animators, with certain characters. Any new animators that came on and worked with them, it helped them understand the characters. So there was more of a consistency to it.

I guess that’s seen as the old fashioned way to do it now?

Yeah! We inherited this model from Disney, that wasn’t working so well. It used to be in the day that you’d have the story department, then the layout, animation, all self-contained, all in separate buildings. This factory mentality.

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On this one, if the animators had ideas, they could affect story. Story could have ideas that affect animation. We all got together in one space. We would critique the scenes as a group, and always kick the tyres and try to make things better. It was a much more inclusive and collaborative process. As a director, you always know what you want to do in your head. But let other people play in the sandbox, and you get ideas you never would have thought of. That was a special way of trying to reinvent our system here.

One of the things you touched on there is that computers, even now, have to work so hard to do something that you can do so naturally with a pencil and a piece of paper. I spoke to Glen Keane [a legend of Disney animation] once, and he was cautious of computers, describing them as a second hand car salesman, that would have you driving off the lot with something you didn’t want if you weren’t careful…

He is so right. Glen was a teacher of mine by the way!

And for a while, to be honest with you, the computer was driving us. We weren’t driving the computer. We’re now at a place where we’re brute forcing the computer to do what we used to do, and we’re getting better at it. For me, I’d now do a film where we used the more stylised, fantasy stuff we used in The Boss Baby.

I really loved the sequences in The Boss Baby where you change and play around with the animation style. That you don’t take the default look of what a computer animated film seems to follow. Here, you were shifting animation styles, and perspectives, and seemed to be pushing. But over the six years of development, where did that kick in, to go that way?

The first day.

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On Madagascar 3 there was a stylised sequence, and I was like, I want to do more like that. We just didn’t have the software to do it. And we have to do these movies in 3D now, so how do we do that? We’re trying to reinvent the software so it can deal with paint, and deal with the brush strokes. We had a mini-pipeline, almost like a group of people making shorts within a movie. We’d surface our characters, and it’d be challenging, but very rewarding. It was everything we loved about animation in those little sequence.

I remember watching the last Madagascar film, I was half-tempted to find out your phone number and ask you this. Do you think you’d personally get more respect as a director of comedy films if you weren’t working in animation? Because there aren’t many people directing such consistently funny movies?

I take that as a thrilling compliment, and I appreciate that. But the thing with comedies, look how many are nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards! It’s never really on the same pillar as dramatic movies.

One of the great joys of being a filmmaker and doing this work is being able to sit in the audience and watch people react. It’s not the money, and it’s not all that. It’s to sit in an audience after all that work, and watch people react. That’s kind of the reward for a filmmaker. For me it’s not about the prestige as much, or the critical prestige as much. It’s how an audience reacts.

After watching the film, I talked to my 13-year old about the list of early Steve Martin films we now have to watch. For some reason, we went from talking about The Boss Baby to The Man With Two Brains!

An animated movie, if you look at it! I think a lot of the best comedies… I mentioned Blake Edwards, the Pink Panther films were animated comedies! Young Frankenstein. Now those types of comedies aren’t maybe as popular as they used to be, those broad comedies. Now animation has taken the reins of those, and it seems permissible to do all that in an animated movie. I’m a big fan of that school of comedy.

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Across the time you were making this film, DreamWorks Animation went through a seismic shift, even ending up with new owners. Projects were cancelled, your release date was moved, people lost their jobs. How was making The Boss Baby with that in the background? How secure was the film, and was there ever a point where it was under threat too?

No. It was under the radar, to be honest with you. There was a time when we were doing very realistic films, and I talked to Jeffrey [Katzenberg, co-founder, former head of DreamWorks Animation] about it. And the studio head. And we said let’s do something a bit more animation-like. Everyone was really behind the movie. It was never a question as to whether we were going to make the movie.

The challenge was we used to have a release date of 2016, and I remember talking to the studio, and they saw the potential of the movie. They were ‘we don’t want to rush it’. And so they pushed it a year for the benefit of the movie. We realised it was going to be a challenge to do all these fantasy sequences, and to give it the time it needed to be made. I felt really fortunate that we had the release date we had.

The thing about the studio that I found and I know that from the outside looking at it, there’s a lot of big changes: to me, the studio isn’t the building, it’s the people that work there. That’s the power of that studio. Everyone at that studio is so passionate about animation, and the quality of it. I still think, whatever the changes are, there’s still going to be that passion behind it. We’ll see in the years to come what happens here! Boss Baby was a labour of love, and there was never a question of whether we were going to make it or not. It was how great we can make it.

Peter Ramsey, director of Rise Of The Guardians, is one of those who has been quietly championing you and the movie…

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That’s great. Bless Peter for doing that, he’s a dear friend. We go back to before DreamWorks.

You both were involved in storyboarding?

I was animating and doing story. I met Peter working for Ron Howard on The Grinch. And Ron gave me a great piece of advice. I met him at the coffee maker. He gave me a great piece of wisdom that I use in animation now.

He said I used to always tell the storyboard artist that I need a two shot, a master, blah blah blah blah. But George Lucas said don’t do that. Because as a director, you know what you want to do in your head. Storyboard artists, tell them what the intent of the scene is, and let them play with it. They’ll always come back with something else. I was like, wow, that’s great. Ron treated me, Peter and his brother like that, and to me, that was right before I went to DreamWorks, and I got to carry that mentality to the studio. People feel engaged if they feel they can contribute.

It’s an inevitable question, particularly given the success at the box office this past weekend. But do you think you’re done with the characters of The Boss Baby, or will you work with them again?

I love these characters! To me, the joy is in the process of it. Because when a movie is done, quite honestly it’s done! And it is what it is. I think anyone in animation is either crazy, or one of the most passionate people in the world. I just love working with the 400 artists I get to work with on a daily basis. That’s the joy. The characters are great in Boss Baby. To me, it’s also how far can we push the medium? Where can we take it now, now we’ve touched on it in Boss Baby? What places can we go?

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Are you working on that now?

Yeah. You’re always thinking what next. Some go now I want to go into live action. For me, I’m like, I love animation. What can we do with it now.

One final question, Tom McGrath. Do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

That’s a good question! I’m a huge fan, and I’m staying in a hotel I saw him at! I love the Transporter movies. I think those movies are great, and always entertaining!

And bits of those could be animated…

Especially in the action sequences, yeah!

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Tom McGrath, thank you very much!

The Boss Baby is in UK cinemas from Friday.