By David Howland
As a writer, Chris Sanders’ early filmography includes some of Disney’s best-loved titles – modern classics such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Released in 2002, Disney’s Lilo & Stitch was based on Sanders’ idea, a film for which he also shares directing duties. After transferring to Dreamworks, Sanders co-wrote and directed the critical and commercial success, How to Train Your Dragon. His new film, the prehistoric comedy The Croods, is released in the UK on Friday March 22.
I read that the idea for The Croods had been around since 2005, so I wondered if that was the case and if so, how you got on board with it?
Yes that’s absolutely true, the very first draft of the script was being worked on I think as far back as 2004. Back then it was an Aardman film and it was being worked on by my co-director, Kirk DeMicco and John Cleese. So it was an Aardman film and it was going to be a clay-mated film and by the time I showed up Aardman and Dreamworks had gone in different directions. Dreamworks had kept The Croods property and the idea was a little bit different than the film that you see now.
When I arrived at the film it was a caveman village and Grug was the chief of the village. We worked on that version of the film for about a year. We kept on refining it and refining it and there were a lot of ideas, themes and characters that were in that version, of course there were many more characters than there are now, and as much as we worked on that version of the film it never really got off the ground.
About one year into it that they asked me to go over to How to Train Your Dragon because they were changing directions on that movie and I said yes, so I was on that for about 14 months and then came back to The Croods, but that was the period of time where The Croods had its biggest change of all, the most important change.
As Kirk (DeMicco) was left behind on The Croods to find out what was going on with it, he called me up one day and he really did solve the puzzle I thought, he said “I have something to pitch to you”, so I came down to his room and he said “OK, one caveman family looses their cave and they go on the worlds first family road trip to find another one and on that journey they change”, and I said “that’s it! Boom! There it is”. We got rid of the village, and now the film could get up and go some place, so when I came back from How to Train Your Dragon, that was the film that we made.
I noticed that you hadn’t worked with Kirk (DeMicco) as a co-director prior to this, so I wondered what you were able to get out of this new partnership?
You know, animation is all about collaboration because it’s made by so many different people and I really liked working with Kirk. One of the reasons I wanted to do The Croods in the first place is that, sensibility-wise, Kirk was the first person that I really ran into on the project and we really lined-up, and that’s the most critical thing if you’re going to work with somebody. You can’t have one person writing a tragedy and one person writing a comedy, its not going to work. So sensibility-wise we really lined up, we liked the same kind of movies, the same kind of humour, it was a great partnership and I really enjoyed it.
I noticed John Cleese’s name on the credits, how much of his input was left in what we finally got to see? Was he more involved with the earlier drafts?
He was, he was involved in the earlier drafts but he brought something very important to the character of Grug and that remains a cornerstone of Grug’s character, which is this dreaded fear he has of anything new.
I learned from Kirk, John Cleese has a fear of technology, that it’s ruining the world. So Grug is all about keeping his family in a cave, in the dark, as a way of keeping them alive and he’s really isolating them from anything that’s even potentially dangerous and that would mean anything new, so that is something that John definitely brought to the story.
With regard to the casting, you mentioned that part of the genesis of the story was that it got stripped down from the amount of characters it initially had and has a limited amount of speaking parts, but all the characters have got big personalities. Off screen, Nicolas Cage has a big personality so it seemed like a perfect choice to have him voice the lead role in an animation, so I wondered what role you had in getting Cage involved and also what you think he brings to this film?
Yeah, Kirk and I got all of our first choices as far as the voices we hope for. Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone were the first two voices we got. We had seen Emma Stone in a movie called The House Bunny, at that time she was yet to do Easy-A, The Help and Spider-man and a lot of other films, that was way before all that. We had seen her in The House Bunny and we just thought her personality, her voice, she has a very distinct voice, very likeable, a very animated character that you could see on the screen and so we were hoping to get her for Eep and she said “yes”.
Nicolas Cage was really the only voice we could ever think of when it came to Grug because Grug has a very difficult role in the movie as the dad and as the guy who has a lot to learn by the end of the film. He’s the one that’s going to be stating the rules and you don’t want a character who’s having to do that to come off unlikable. In our minds, every time you hear Nicolas Cage, I think you just feel sympathy for him. If you think about Matchstick Men, Raising Arizona, The Weather Man, in these movies you can feel the weight of the world on his shoulders in just his voice, and that’s really what we wanted, and that’s exactly what he brought to the role. I don’t think we could have ever pulled this off without Nicolas Cage in that role.
Interestingly, that really is true for all 3 main characters, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone and Grug (Cage), because all of these characters have a relationship they have to work out and it’s a bit of a triangle. Grug and Guy (Reynolds) don’t like each other at the beginning. Grug and Eep have had their communication break down and you want to able to sympathise with, and like, these characters, at the same time, you play these roles fully. So you never want the audience to dislike them while they’re playing these roles while they’re sometimes at odds with each other.
I also notice that you got to voice Belt. In the screening we were in which was maybe 10% critics, 90% families, Belt got a lot of the big laughs from the younger audience.
(Laughs) Well that’s good to hear. Every once in a while somebody like me will do a voice when we think that it really wont be much of an important voice. Skywalker Sound actually did a lot of manipulation on that to make it appealingly cute.
Belt has got an interesting story because he really did start the film as a belt. He was a prop that made good. Every once in a while we thought, the guy that could do this best is really that sloth, lets let him do this thing, and the more stuff he did the more stuff we wanted him to do and pretty soon he actually became a character in the film.
I wanted to mention the mother-in-law (Gran – Cloris Leachman), I wondered who contributed the mother-in-law character because it seemed like something that was born out of someone’s personal experience?
(Laughs) You know that was definitely Kirk’s thing, he brought in that whole counting and pausing, hoping that maybe Grug’s mother-in-law wouldn’t come out of the cave each morning. That was just one of my favourite things in the film is that little bit at then end of the second act where Grug and Gran reconcile after she’s been so openly hostile to him for the whole film.
You touched on it, but with regard to stripping the film down slightly, I think one of the things that really worked was, in a good way it was simple in the sense that it focuses on a family and the changes and growing that they have to do as a group and how it can be scary to do that. I wondered if that was something you were going for in terms of stripping away any excess and bringing it down to what really matters?
Absolutely. My favourite situation is to have a 60-minute story and 90 minutes to tell it. At its heart this is actually a very simple story that is more complex than we thought it was. It plays very simply but the surprise of this movie in the making of it was that there were many themes that are related that are all running concurrently and that was just something that was endemic, it was in the movie and we didn’t really realise that until we started making it. I really love this kind of story because it’s a simple story, it’s a powerful story and it has a lot of depth to it that you don’t expect when you start watching it.
With Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon, the story is key and I know that’s something Disney and Pixar always preach, but I like the way it comes through in what you’ve been involved with. I know you initially worked with Disney, so is that something you’ve always seen as important, having a great story at the root of it all?
It's something that we always look for but it’s a really good question that you ask because I was very fortunate when I first got to Disney to work with, I think, some of the greatest story people ever, Ed Gombert, Joe Ranft, Brenda Chapman, Roger Allers, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise and Joe Grant, who is one of the original story guys on Snow White. I learned that craft from them and I could never be the story-person I am now or the director I am now… or the writer, without having spent all those years with all of those guys. I think that I’m inclined to like this kind of movie and this kind of story, very human stories and very emotional stories (they’re) the ones I like the best, but I wouldn’t really know how to tell them if I hadn’t worked with all those very talented people.
I wanted to ask, I don’t know if this is linked with what you were saying regarding John Cleese, but the prehistoric setting means you can get rid of all the bells and whistles associated with modern society, and I wondered if you think there’s something to be said for Grug because he’s the one that wants to stay there. The idea of stripping everything down to a more traditional set of values and way of doing things, I wondered if that was something you brought to the table, or is that something John Cleese contributed or…
That’s a really astute observation because it was one of the things we noticed. I think its something that happens with caveman films in general because there’s no schedule, there’s no jobs, no neighbours, no cars, no laptops, there’s nothing to distract you from the very basic things that they’re thinking about.
I wrote the scene where the Croods come back to their cave after that big opening hunt and I though, “What are they thinking about?” “What are they talking about? “And I realised, they’re probably only talking about one thing, “why are they there?”. Their lives are boring, dull and meaningless and interspersed with these moments of pure terror when they go out and get food and run back to the cave. They must question why they are doing that because, is existence enough? That’s really all they’re doing, simply existing for the sake of existing. That’s when we knew we were sitting on top of a very meaningful story because we knew at that moment where the film was headed.
Within a few weeks of starting the writing we knew we were going to end up at this moment where Grug, the patriarch, is going to have to make a big decision, the biggest decision anybody would have to make, which would be to risk his families lives by pushing them ahead and giving them the chance to really live, or hide them away and keep them alive and safe yet also surely dooming them. Knowing that we were heading there, we kept the opening of the film deliberately light because we knew we were heading to a very serious place. So to answer your question, I think its just one of those things that was there because it’s a caveman movie.
Even though the Ryan Reynolds character (Guy) brings ideas and the rest of the family seem to go with his ideas, it’s never the case that we’re encouraged to laugh at Grug. It’s the case that he’s got to learn things for himself, not the case that he’s necessarily wrong, it’s just that he’s got his own journey to go on.
Exactly. One of the very interesting things to me about the movie and one of the things I’m proudest about is that, its something we were very careful to engineer into the Grug and Guy relationship, Grug is just a caveman, he doesn’t have all the answers, in fact he has very few, he’s not “the alpha”. Guy comes in and you instantly think “this guy’s got all the answers, he’s got a bigger brain, he can make tools, he’s been outside the cave his whole life”, but it was very important that Guy not have all the answers either, so we built into Guy one very big flaw, which is the whole scheme he’s been cooking up. Anybody who sees this film will realise Guy’s scheme has a gigantic flaw in it, it can’t work because Guy is missing the most important part of his life.
The Croods are missing technology and their imaginations have not been sparked yet, but Guy is a lone male travelling by himself, so he’s a dead end. But he’s also got this flawed idea of how he’s going to get to tomorrow, and the thing he’s missing is a family and cohesiveness and basically love. One of the things I’m excited about with this film is that at the moment of truth, it’s not Guy who solves the problem, it’s Grug, the guy you never expected at the beginning of the film. He solves it not with his genius, but with his strength and his giant heart, because that matters. Genius doesn’t do it all, so does heart, so does cohesiveness, so does love and so do bonds. In the final test, these things are maybe more important than genius, and that’s the thing I really love that we build in to this movie.
• Read our review of The Croods