Tom McGrath interview: on Megamind, animation, 3D, Brad Pitt’s singing and superheroes

With Megamind now in cinemas, we spoke to its director, Tom McGrath, about making the film, improvisation, superheroes and 3D…

Tom McGrath

No stranger to animated movies, Tom McGrath has provided voices in such films as Flushed Away and Shrek The Third, and directed episodes of The Ren & Stimpy Show, Madagascar, and most recently, Megamind. We caught up with Mr McGrath for a round-table discussion about his latest film, and the process of creating it.

Shortly after Megamind’s star, Will Ferrell, left the interview room, Mr McGrath entered with the gently self-deprecating line, “After Will Ferrell, this interview’s going to be really boring!”

What made you choose Will Ferrell for the lead?

Ah, because he’s fun. He’s also a great actor. We had the script and the character designs, and I know Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, the writers, envisioned Will early on. He just has a great talent, he’s a great character creator.

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I watched Stranger Than Fiction, and it was great, because he has the acting chops to pull off, I think, drama as well as comedy. That’s what the role needed. And it’s very challenging when you do a movie about a villain. Will brings a great humanity to the character, and can portray a vulnerability that was key to having you like him.

Do you subscribe to the theory that it’s more difficult to do comedy than anything else?

Everyone I’ve seen that can do comedy can pretty much do the heavy stuff as well. Especially Tina Fey, who I’d love to see do a drama, because her acting skills are pretty mind-blowing to me. I’ve seen her be really funny and give three funny alternate takes on a line that were funnier than written, and then go to a place that was really heartfelt. I didn’t know she’d be able to take this as far as she has.

There are a lot of pop culture references in Megamind – which were specifically yours?

For me, it was finding a new angle on the superhero costumes and their identities. How I rationalised it was, a hero and a villain would probably be celebrities in the real world. They’d have a stage presence, so I thought of bands, like Alice Cooper versus Elvis Presley.

We pitched it to the actors that way too, to get that stage presence. Brad got the Elvis thing, and wanted to have his character grab a mic in his scenes so he could go parading around, talking to a crowd. It really affected his performance, which was really good.

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It was finding that angle that was different from other superhero movies, where it’s all polycarbon-fibre, techno suits. It’s a comedy, so let’s push it towards leather and spikes. I just remember in junior high, AC/DC were taboo, Devil’s music, and Elvis was beloved by everyone, so it made sense for Megamind to blare AC/DC to intimidate people as he’s marching down the street.

There were two things that influenced me in the character of Megamind. Nikolai Tesla, who I’m a big fan of, versus Thomas Edison, who was beloved by the public. I’m not answering your question – it just reminded me of something! [Laughs]

But he [Tesla] was this super genius who was vilified by everyone, and was this great mind who came up with these great inventions. So it was like, Tesla dressed like Alice Cooper. If you’ve ever seen Cooper on stage, it’s very striking, you know? AC/DC didn’t have that look. Megamind wouldn’t look good in little shorts and a neck-tie!

So it’s a little bit of a mish-mash. It’s the same kind of era, though.

You’ve had some great voice-over roles, and then you’ve turned to directing with Madagascar and now this. How do the two compare?

I love directing. What [voice over work] really helped with is knowing what it’s like to be behind the mic, and feel really vulnerable. And realising you’re in a place where you need feedback. So it helped me figure out the kind of feedback I should give to the actors.

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I love working with artists in animation. It’s excruciatingly long and painful, and you have to love the process. During the course of a movie like this, there’s five or six hundred technicians and artists working on it. I enjoy working with them all – animators are really fun, and just like working with actors.

Even though it’s a CG movie, it’s all hand drawn, and paintings are done, and there’s a lot of traditional art behind what you eventually see on the screen.

What made made you choose to make the movie in 3D as opposed to 2D?

It is in 2D too, if you want to see it that way. It has to work in 2D to work in 3D, and I didn’t want to… there are certain things that 3D can give you beyond the spectacle. Jeffrey Katzenberg said, “What you’re gonna like isn’t the spectacle. We’ve been through all that, with the spears in the face and so on, but what you can do with it storytelling-wise.”

So I worked really closely with Phil McNally who is at DreamWorks, at trying to use it specifically to create intimacy in the love story, and also the heartbreak in the falling apart of the friendship – to find subtle ways to make the convergences pull the characters apart. Things that are more subconscious, and use it more like you would use lighting to underscore emotion, and use 3D in that capacity. We tried to be really tasteful with it – there are a couple of things that fling out at you,  but really it was just finding out how we could emotionally use it.

I mainly edited the movie in 2D, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at something in 3D and want to stay on it longer, which can mess with your pacing. It can get languid, in a way, so for me it was more helpful to cut it in 2D, and open it up a little bit longer if you wanted the 3D to last a bit longer.

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Using the Michael Jackson track: was it difficult to get the licence for that?

I don’t know how we got it! [Laughs] I don’t know how they got them. I don’t ask questions if they say yes.

As great as Will Ferrell is in the role, wasn’t Robert Downey, Jr. in talks for the role, initially, and were you disappointed when he had to pull out?

No. It would have been a different movie with Robert, and it was off the table really, because he had Iron Man 2 and Sherlock Holmes. He was pretty booked up. Will, to me, wasn’t a second choice – it was very important to find that charm in the character.

Do you feel there’s a political subtext to this film, or is that reading too much into it? About the way America perceives itself, perhaps, about being less triumphalist and more in touch with its darker side?

That’s interesting. It’s probably less political and more cultural. The new generation raised on videogames feels like this apathetic group that’s a little more selfish. I put that into Jonah Hill’s character of Hal. What if you gave a kid powers – I may be judging this generation broadly, and I apologise if I am – but to give someone like that powers, who’s completely self-interested.

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It is an American thing culturally, but I wasn’t thinking that it could be read politically.

Do you think that now, more than ever, it’s okay to have an anti-hero in a family movie? That it’s embraced more easily?

Yeah. I liked the arc of the character, of a villain who comes around to being a hero. For me, it was more about the guy who gets off track in life, and is judged poorly by other people, and spends his whole life making wrong decisions. But it’s never too late to make the right choice, and there’s redemption at any stage of the game.

There’s that old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” – this was made to defy that. Which gives me a lot of hope, because I make a lot of mistakes!

How do you react to the suggestions that Megamind is similar to Despicable Me?

[Sarcastically] We saw Despicable Me, and had a month and a half to make Megamind. [Laughs]

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I was worried about Despicable Me. I didn’t hear about it until a year into production. I saw their movie when it came out, and thought it was great. There was no malicious intent on either part. I think our movie is quite different – ours is really about a superhero, and Superman is such a big part of the genre, and initiated the genre in a way.

It wasn’t really about making a parody of Superman, but he’s got great powers, and this great moral fibre, and he’s kind of a dull character. Batman, on the other hand, is a guy always wrestling with his duality. He’s on the edge, and to me, that’s more real, a character trying to balance his own internal good and evil – that was Megamind. I don’t believe in altruism or evil. There’s always grey and struggle.

The characters were kind of these stereotypes, but we tried to different layers to them. A villain that has a good heart. A damsel who doesn’t need help, and is the smartest person in the movie. And a hero who, just because he’s got all these powers, everyone expects him to be a hero, but he has a secret passion, even if it’s music or something like that. So it was trying to find a way to turn it upside down.

Does Brad Pitt really sing that badly, or was that played up for the movie?

He was a great sport. He was like, “Was that bad enough?” [Laughs] His character is that guy who has a lot of money, and buys all the best musical equipment but no talent. That was really fun.

There was plenty of room for improvisation in Megamind, I understand?

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Oh yeah. Always. As I said, Tina Fey, every line she had, she’d come back with three alternatives. “Girls, girls, you’re both pretty” was hers. It was just in the moment, and it’s great when those things happen.

Will Ferrell’s Marlon Brando impersonation – that was just going to be Megamind, and we showed the character design, and he started doing the voice with the lisp, and we were like, “Do that! Do that!” It was really funny, so we said, let’s put it in the movie.

Some scenes are a hundred per cent written, but some scenes are at least half improvisation. Even if it’s not for comedy, but for the actors to put the words in their own way, that makes it feel more genuine, and coming from that character.

Do you do a read-through first, and then start improvising?

Yeah. A really cold read-through, and the best way to do that is to take the pages and read them, with no acting. We get the gist of the scene, and then start trying to put something into it. Once you get the pages recorded, then you can play, you know, and that’s when you get the best scenes.

I do use a reader who’s familiar with improv, and so they can play back and forth, and find things. We can run hours of tape, recording all day to take the best of the best.

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It’s interesting, because a lot of people seem to think we do the animation first, and we show them that to match the voices to. It’s the opposite. They have nothing, just pages. We do the acting, and the acting informs the storyboards, which we draw, and from that, we give the animators something to work from.

With the animators, we talk to them like they’re actors, because a lot of the stuff they do, the physicality comes from the animators, who are very talented. We get up and act it out, and videotape ourselves.

So what happens when the film’s dubbed for other territories – Spain for example?

It’s always encouraged, in dubbing, to find actors of the same calibre as the English version, and to let them make it their own. They’re not tied in to making the exact same performance. It’s whatever works in the dialogue. Sometimes humour’s converted, because it doesn’t really work in another culture. They’ll brainstorm too, to make it work in Spain or France.

Is the discipline of acting similar to working on radio? That was around for a long time before TV was popular, so it’s a different kind of discipline.

I’d say radio actors are very aware of their articulation. I don’t let my actors wear headphones, because that affects their performance. It’s better if they’re working with a reader, so they don’t get focused on what their voice sounds like. Film acting’s more difficult, because you have to stay in the frame. In animation, you can do whatever you like.

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Technically, it’s difficult to record two actors. It’s a disservice to one actor if you’re letting the other improvise on and on. But there are moments where you can do that. It was really important for the love story between Tina and Will, that there was this chemistry. They were the only actors we got together.

We recorded them three times, to ensure we got the chemistry. Even the pauses between the lines of dialogue are part of the acting. The timing and delivery are invaluable. You really can’t manufacture it.

Tom McGrath, thank you very much!

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