Q&A with Karey Kirkpatrick – Director of Smallfoot
Karey Kirkpatrick is the director/ co-screenwriter/ executive producer of ‘Smallfoot’ which will be released nationwide tomorrow (12/10/18). His previous work includes some interesting titles such as James and the Giant Peach, Chicken Run and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Here are his thoughts on his latest film.
What drew you to the yeti world of Smallfoot?
The idea came from Sergio Pablos, who wrote a book, Yeti Tracks, which put the Bigfoot legend in reverse – exploring the idea that they perceive us humans as mythical monsters that they don’t believe exist. That was a fun place to start. Two of our producers, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, were also involved in the film’s early development.
When we created the yeti village, where all the yetis live, we determined that on the evolutionary scale, the yetis were a little behind humans – by about a thousand years. So, their village and belief system are somewhat primitive, which allowed us to create a social allegory like how people in the Middle Ages viewed the Earth and our solar system. It provided a good source of comedy.
For me, a good animated feature must work on two levels – there’s the basic plot and story, but it also needs to be about something bigger. It needs to have another layer. Animated movies are the Aesop’s Fables of our day. They are social allegories that use anthropomorphized animals to tell a human story in a way that can be satirical, using comedy to make a point. So, I was drawn to Smallfoot’s approach to the idea of the “Other” – our distrust or fear of someone or something because they’re different from us. Comedy and poignancy can be mined from that.
Is it difficult to balance that humour and poignancy with the fun and physical comedy?
If a film lacks a substantial emotional core, you’ll find yourself not really caring about how it ends. Of course, we want these movies to be funny and entertaining, but they’ll run out of gas after an hour if there’s no heart behind it all. It’s always a balancing act with the tone, and we have really pushed some tonal elements in Smallfoot because we wanted to pay homage to Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes legacy, especially with our physical comedy. When you have a character that can fall thousands of feet from a cliff and land in the snow and leave an outline of his shape, you have to figure out how to let the audiences know that there are also real emotional stakes involved.
It feels like you had a lot of fun creating those big Looney Tunes / action-comedy moments.
Everyone who worked on this movie and lives in the world of animation films was inspired by the Looney Tunes films. I spent my childhood watching Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, Coyote, and all the great characters in those films. They were a huge part of my early development as a filmmaker.
Can you talk about casting Smallfoot?
Channing Tatum’s Migo is an affable “Every-yeti.” He’s everybody’s friend and a character you want to hang out with. Migo is also honest to a fault, earnest, boyish and buoyant. So, to cast that – and any role in an animated film – you must listen very carefully to an actor’s voice because audiences aren’t going to see his or her face. Their voices have to be interesting, but particularly when they embody a character. And Channing has that. He’s a very charming, likable guy who feels very approachable, and he is. Channing is a delight to work with. He always came into the recording studio with a lot of positive energy. That’s what we heard in his voice. He also has a lot of range to play Migo’s different emotions.
Channing was the first actor cast, and we built around that. Zendaya, who voices Meechee, has a great vocal quality. We wanted to create a female character that had a strong voice and a strong point of view. Zendaya has both, as well as a playfulness and relatability. It also helps that she’s a very talented singer, though we didn’t decide to make it a musical until after she had been cast. So, it was good luck for us that she could sing – and sing well!
Our human “smallfoot,” Percy, is a bit of a lovable rogue and kind of a rascal when we meet him, so we looked for an actor who could make that roguishness seem charming – and that was James Corden. Even though Percy is doing some questionable things, you need to know he’s not a bad person, and James has this inherent sweetness to his nature that really helps us accomplish that. He’s also a very good comedic actor because he knows when to go for the joke but also when to restrain and find the emotional truth. That’s very valuable.
For Migo’s dad, Dorgle, we looked at a drawing of the character and said, “Well, Danny DeVito would be perfect.” Danny is such an old pro, such a veteran actor, he just came in and nailed it right out of the gate. He’s got a great voice and an effortless sense of comic timing. A director’s dream. With Danny, you just get several degrees of good from take to take.
The character designs always precede the casting, so when we looked at the character of Gwangi we knew we wanted someone with a big presence, because he’s a big character, who had a resonant, but understated voice. Somebody suggested LeBron James, and we pieced together some of the interviews he’s done, as well as some material from Trainwreck and said, “Wow, he sounds great!” And he was a dream to work with. Very professional, takes direction well, playful – and he loves movies. Loves them.
The other huge surprise was Common, who voices Stonekeeper, the leader of the yeti village. His agent approached us, suggesting he’d be great for that part. But when Common came in to meet, we were trying out a different story approach that significantly reduced the size of that part. We told him that – that the part might not be big enough for him – and he said, “I just want to be a part of this movie in any way I can.” So we cast him, and then made a change in the script and the role of Stonekeeper became much bigger. And he ended up being a great choice. Common brings an unexpected coolness to the film. He has such a great voice and presence. And then, when we decided to make the film a musical, our producer, Bonne Radford, suggested that we have Common rap one of his key scenes. So, my brother Wayne and I took the scene and turned it into the song, “Let It Lie,” and he’s phenomenal in it. It ended up being everybody’s favourite song. And it’s a very powerful moment in the movie, made all the more powerful by Common’s amazing voice.
How do the songs help drive the narrative?
When songs are done right and integrated into the storytelling, they elevate the emotion. Broadway musicals usually have between seventeen to twenty songs. But most movie musicals have between six and eight songs, and Smallfoot has six songs, in a 90-minute running time. So, our songs had to help tell the story. The movie couldn’t just stop for each song.
Our opening number is called “Perfection” and it sets up our world and our main character, Migo, voiced and sung by Channing, in a really fun and positive way – but it also has a bit of a twist. The title is ironic because we know that a world that asks you to take any question you have and shove it down inside you until it goes away is far from perfect.
“Wonderful Life,” sung by Zendaya, presents one of the themes of the movie, and particularly the theme of the character that sings it – Meechee. Like many songs in a musical, this one happens when a character gets to a place that is so emotionally charged that the most logical next step is to sing. So it gives us a glimpse into what makes Meechee tick, what she’s all about philosophically – and it’s also crucial because her belief in this idea that a life that’s full of wonder is a wonderful life is what convinces Migo to make the big leap that he needs to make – literally.
“Percy’s Pressure,” performed by James Corden as Percy, is a reworking of the Queen / David Bowie song “Under Pressure.” They actually gave us permission to take some liberties with the song, using the existing track. The scene is set in a shack where there’s a karaoke machine, so we always wanted a familiar song to start so the audience thinks that’s the song that’s about to be sung, and then we surprise them with a new melody and new lyrics. Under Pressure was the perfect song for that character because he’s about to make a questionable move due to the pressure he’s under. He’s using that as an excuse to make the wrong choice.
“Wonderful Questions” is a reprise of the “Wonderful Life’ song, but it is slightly re-purposed to incorporate Migo and the yetis into the song. For a group of yetis who aren’t allowed to ask questions, this song is a bit of an explosion of curiosity as this idea of “wonder” spreads through the community. We always saw this song as a renaissance that happens in one afternoon.
“Let It Lie” is sung by the Stonekeeper, voiced by Common, and it is a rap that dramatizes an important plot twist in the movie – a big reveal. Stonekeeper is basically revealing some well kept village secrets to Migo. I don’t want to give anything away, but basically there is a big machine that no one knows about. And what was fun about the song was that we could use the rhythm of this machine to create the rhythm track of the song. The scene and the song are big and epic and it does what a great song in a musical should do – advances plot and turns the story in an unexpected way.
At the end of the movie, we have our big thematic song which is called “Moment of Truth,” about how the worlds of the yetis and humans can exist together and how truth really is, in every case, the best course to take.
We were so lucky to get Niall Horan to do our end title song, “Finally Free.” We brought in Julian Bunetta and John Ryan and Ian Franzino and Andrew Haas to work with us on the production of the songs in the film, and they had worked with Niall and One Direction before, so they wrote a song that they thought would be perfect for him to perform and luckily, they were right. Niall heard the song, saw the film and wanted to be involved. And it was really rewarding to see how they watched the film and took all that it had to say and put it into the song. It’s a great way to end the movie.
What kind of technical challenges did you encounter with this film?
Some of our frames took two hundred hours, each, to render. Rendering fur and snow were the biggest challenges. We have lots of yeti fur, as well as snow – and that’s a lot of math happening inside the computers. We really wanted to push the lighting, which is now so sophisticated that we can light an animated film like you’d light a live action movie.
But the technical challenges were never my burden. I would just tell [visual effects supervisor] Karl Herbst and his team, “I want a shot to look like this,” and ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer was “Sure, we’ll figure it out.” It’s a little bit like when I start my car – I understand that you need gas and oil and a few things like that, but I don’t know what’s going on under the hood (laughs). Still, it somehow gets me where I need to go.
What do you hope audiences experience with Smallfoot when they see it in theatres?
I think there’s really something in this for all audiences. Kids will love the physical humour, but I think they’ll also recognize the unfairness that some of the characters experience. Kids are sensitive to things that aren’t fair. Migo sees something at the beginning of the story, and when he tells everyone the truth about what he has seen, he gets punished for it. We all remember that feeling of being a kid and feeling powerless, even though we’ve done the right thing. Sometimes telling the truth can be difficult, and the film subtly says, “We get it. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not always the easy thing to do.”
I think adults will see a little bit of the social relevance of the movie, especially in the notion of the “Other.” Everyone will really enjoy the big, broad physical comedy, how appealing and likeable the characters are, and the music. There are a lot of laughs, but also a thematic depth that feels timely and will surprise many.