Chris Miller directs a cat lover's dream in 'Puss in Boots'
Secrets behind DreamWorks Animation's latest tentpole
I have a confession to make. I genuinely think "Puss in Boots" is entertaining, funny and a significantly more original movie (even surreal) than what you'd expect for a "Shrek" spin-off. However, my judgement may be a tad clouded. As my friends have consistently remarked, I'm a male 'cat lady' in the making with two kittens under my wing (Phoenix and Sookie). Granted, you can only blame my parents for raising me amongst them. In fact, there is photographic evidence of our two cats (Charkey and Nutmeg) literally sleeping my crib when I was a newborn "protecting me" and no doubt cementing this lifelong feline bond (note to young parents: this is a big no, no). But, I digress…
After watching "Puss" a few weeks ago, as much as I would have enjoyed speaking to stars Antonio Banderas, Selma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Sedaris or Billy Bob Thorton I left that to my colleague and HitFix's Film Editor, Drew McWeeny (look for those over the next few days). Instead, director Chris Miller ("Shrek 3") was on my interview list as I just had to find out where all the spot-on cat references in the picture came from. Because if you've ever owned a cat or had one in your life in some way, these not-so obvious references will kill you. Miller humored me by taking some time out of his busy schedule this past weekend to discuss his work on DreamWorks Animation's long gestating tentpole.*
*And no, we didn't talk Oscar yet. Let's see how the animation field pans out with "Tintin," "Arthur Christmas" and "Happy Feet Two" on the way.
You’ve been probably talking way too much about this movie over the past couple of days, haven’t you?
Miller: Oh no. Second day of press interviews. I'm just getting warmed up.
So, I have to tell you, I saw the movie about a month ago when it was just finished and I really loved it. And one of the reasons is because, I will fully admit this, I am on my way to becoming a cat lady. And I have two of them. I was raised with them. My friends mock me relentlessly for showing pictures whenever and wherever. And one of the things that I really loved about the movie is -- and there had been a hint of it in the trailers -- is you guys really put in all these extra things that if you only have had cats in your life or had owned them, like these little traits and stuff, and it just sort of surprised me. Where did that come from? Were all the animators who did Puss and Selma’s character, were they cat owners?
Miller: (Laughs.) You know, it was a must from the beginning. Actually, I remember when he was in 'Shrek 2' that was the thing that we wanted to get in there. It was like, 'Make sure we just have true cat moments. Even if it’s just jumping at a butterfly or cleaning himself.' So, it was definitely an aspect to the topic we had to explore. And especially with a character that takes himself so seriously all the time which is also what makes it funny. It’s great to have that melodramatic figure who, at the end of the day, cannot resist his true nature. You know, he’ll just fall into cat mode. And then once we hit on it, we looked at every possible way and did a little bit of research. But I mean, I think those moments are great.
But there wasn’t likesomeone on the animation team or who would be like, you know, 'Wait, wait, wait. We have to do this bit…'
Miller: Sometimes, yeah, definitely. Like some of that stuff came out during the animation process for sure. You know, an animator would throw in a moment. Like when Puss is batting at the big Golden Goose, that completely came from [an] animator. He just came up, showed it to me it was brilliant. A lot of it, you know, it come through that way. A lot of times the story artists will offer up those ideas, brainstorming sessions and stuff like that. Like that, particularly the light on the grounds like that came from Maggie Kang of the Story Department. Where most of I think the great material in the film really is generated from, it’s the team of story artists.
Miller: Yeah, that’s cool. You know, the film is working well when you’re relating to honestly, what Puss is going through. And you can relate to his situation, but yeah, the other side of it is just like a pet owner.
This movie had been talked about for a long time. How many different fits and starts were there to find a story that was suitable enough to move the character into a feature of its own?
Miller: I want to say around [that] after 'Shrek 2' came out I started writing some screenplays for it. And I know initially they were – I mean, the film has taken on many different [incarnations]. At one point it was a pirate movie of sorts, I remember that. ‘Cause actually, the producer who’s on the film now, Latifa Ouaou, she was producing back then and she was keeping me up-to-date on what direction it was going. For a while, it tried to retell the actual Puss in Boots story, which really didn’t work at all because that’s a French cat -- it’s a French fairy tale. We have this great Spanish lead, Antonio Banderas, who really created the character. Once we just realized that [we] let him drive the choices, but let the character inform the story. It started to really come together and someone had written a draft. I’m not exactly sure when or who it was, but somewhere around the end of 2007, I had just come off of 'Shrek 3' and they asked if I would be interested in pursuing the project. And I took a pass at the script in early 2008 and then we got Tom Wheeler, a real writer on and I would say by that summer, in 2008, the studio’s like, 'Yeah, we can definitely move forward.' They got really excited about the film. You know, we just kept developing it from there.
Well, one of the things that I really liked about the film too is goes in so many different directions I don't think audiences are expecting. And I don’t want to say it’s as sort of weird and trippy as say, 'Rango,' but I’ve heard that comparison actually a couple of times from people who have seen it. And I’m wondering, do you think that the animation companies like Pixar, Sony, DreamWorks, etc. Do you think they’re getting to a point where they can be gutsier with audiences than they have in the past?
Miller: Yeah, I hope so. I think so. I mean, I definitely like, the trippy aspect you’re talking about. I mean, it’s one of my favorite strip parts of the film and it was, you know, it’s part of the reason why we wanted to include the 'Land of the Giants.' Some place that’s so high above the earth that the sun is below you, you know. And then it’s just more fantastic. It’s an opportunity that we jumped at -- to create this really ethereal kind of serene strange landscape. So I think, we did 'Shrek' in that way, but it was just a lot more grounded. I mean, every opportunity we had to sort of separate us from that and just try new things we really jumped at. And the studio was – they were supportive of it. They were supportive of what we were doing the whole time.
The other thing that I noticed is that I can’t remember a DreamWorks Animation film where I thought that there were jokes in it that were just as much for the adults in the audience as for the kids. Was that something that you guys were consciously aware of or did it just sort of work with this material?
Miller: We definitely knew the movie was going to be geared towards a family audience, but at the same time the filmmakers on the film, like, we wanted to make a movie we’d like to go and see. You just go on gut and if it’s something that’s going to entertain us then you know, [what] you end up getting is something that stands for generations but it’s not –- I guess it’s kind of conscious, but you know, but it’s not formulated, let me put it that way. It’s sort of like what makes us laugh. That’s what ends up in the movie.
Speaking of unconventional, one of the more interesting parts of the film is Zach Galifianakis who obviously has his own style of comedy. It seemed like he brought a little bit of his patented off kilter ambiance to this character. How much did he inform what you guys did with Humpty Dumpty?
Miller: You know, this is a first time for Zach doing this stuff, too. It was a really new experience and it was a good one. He knew what the story’s needs were. This is a brotherhood story and Humpty is a little bit of a desperate character. He was an outsider who had been, you know, sort of picked on his whole life and he was a little greedy and a little desperate for some notoriety. At least that’s what overtook his character. There was a real dreamy quality about him and his great mind, but he’s driven by a little bit of jealousy and desperation when he felt like he was losing his best friend. And just knowing that was plenty for Zach to go off of. He delivers comedy in such a unique way. It's hysterical and it’s a little restrained at times. You see some of that in there, but you also see how he looks really unhinged and Zach’s really great about that stuff too --just becoming unglued and hysterical. I mean, Zach’s a really, really good actor, you know? [During the making of 'Puss'] he was particularly busy and we’d record him in between movies all the time, but he just kept getting better and better as a [voice] actor. And I think the part of the performance that he delivered that’s really vulnerable and fragile is actually my favorite stuff. You know, I really he generates a lot of sympathy for that character and understanding for why he is doing what he is doing. It’s pretty twisted, but yeah, I just thought he delivered a really special performance.
And I heard from one of my colleagues who spoke to the cast yesterday that Antonio and Selma recorded a lot of their audio together.
Miller: Yeah, well we managed to get them one day together. But, we threw as much of the movie in front of them as humanly possible in that four-hour time period we had them together. And so they got through a lot of it. And that made a big difference. I mean, it really elevated their connection and sort of the competition between the two. And that was a great way for them to just be inventive, frankly, and work off the scripts and just try different things. It was pretty great.
I’m curious about that because I know that when actors come in and they’re working with you in the sound booth that they’ll have inspiration or they’ll do an improv riff or something. At what point on a movie like this is it hard to add something you like to the actual picture? What’s the drop dead on a planned out project like this?
Miller: I don’t know [exactly]. Sometimes stuff happens and you can’t execute it in time. We usually try to, because when an actor can work off the cuff, you know, if you get a great improv moment, I always feel like those play, [Especially] in this incredibly contrived world where everything is built and created, it’s what keeps the film and the story fresh and alive. It gives it a life. That usually you can’t get off of a script in an animated film. It’s strange, you know. It’s easy for animated scripts to feel really stale and bland and false, you know. It’s a strange way of making movies, to be honest. It’s weird.
But do you enjoy it?
Miller: I love it. I love it. Yeah, I want to make a lot more.
"Puss in Boots" opens nationwide and in 3D Friday.
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