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Wreck-It Ralph - Phil Johnston interview (exclusive)

Wreck It Ralph

Compiled by Jack Foley

FROM Walt Disney Animation Studios and Emmy®-winning director Rich Moore comes Wreck-It Ralph, a hilarious, arcade-game-hopping adventure.

For decades, Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) has been overshadowed by Fix-It Felix, Jr. (voice of Jack McBrayer), the good-guy star of their game who always gets to save the day. Tired of playing the role of a bad guy, Ralph takes matters into his own massive hands and sets off on a journey across the arcade through multiple generations of video games to prove he’s got what it takes to be a hero.

With Wreck-It Ralph due for release on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, June 3, we chat to screenwriter Phil Johnston to discover more about the hit animated movie…

Q. What was the first step in the screenwriting process for Wreck-It Ralph?
Phil Johnston: For this movie, [director] Rich Moore and I sat alone in a room together for months trying to figure out the story. First of all, we had to figure out who the characters should be. We had a general idea of what the story was going to involve, but everything starts with the people and the characters. Who are they? Where are they going to go? What do they want? What’s in their way?

Q. What was the original idea for the story of the movie?
Phil Johnston: Originally, we started with Felix as the main character – but then we realised that Ralph was more interesting to us. That’s when we thought: “How can we put this guy in bad situations that will be funny and challenging for him?” We needed to create obstacles and conflicts for him to overcome.

Q. How does it feel to see your work come to life on screen?
Phil Johnston: It’s awesome. It blows my mind every time I see the movie. It’s so vast and so intricate – and there are so many details that I could never have pictured in my head. I see something new every time I see the movie, which is amazing.

Q. How did you get involved with the project?
Phil Johnston: I came on to the movie about four years ago, which is when I met with Rich Moore. I instantly connected to Rich and his sensibility. When we met, we immediately started laughing and giggling like children breaking wind in church! I loved the idea of the story and as soon as we started to create the characters, I knew that it was going to become something that was very special.

Q. Why did you choose to write a movie about video games and arcades?
Phil Johnston: The initial idea for Wreck-It Ralph came from the thought: “What if a video game character left his game for other worlds?” That was all that was there. It then became the story of an old-school character that feels obsolete. He’s having an existential crisis where he questions his role in the world. I think we’ve seen the evolution of video games very clearly over the past 30 years, so it’s a world ripe for that comparison. What better place than video games for an old guy feeling like the modern world is passing him by?

Q. How much did the story change during the production of the movie?
Phil Johnston: The story has evolved and grown and shrunk. However, the core story of a bad guy who learns to appreciate himself has remained intact, which has allowed us to try many different, exciting and crazy things. Certain scenes have changed radically, and characters have been added or subtracted – but then they sometimes come back. These movies go through so many iterations over the four years of production that it’s hard to remember everything that’s happened.

Q. How did you go about integrating classic arcade characters into the story?
Phil Johnston: In the beginning, we didn’t know what classic arcade characters we were going to be able to use, so we created our new characters that we were going to be following on our main journey. We knew we would be able to write about these characters because we’d made them up, but then we came up with a lot of gags and ideas for the other characters. We’d start to think about things like: “Wouldn’t it be cool if Pac-man did this? And Q*bert or Frogger or Zangief or whomever.”

Q. Did you incorporate all of the characters you wanted to include from the world of classic arcade games?
Phil Johnston: You can live with it if you have to lose some of the classic characters along the way because you have your main characters that you love and whose journey you’re really interested in following. That said, we definitely wanted Q*bert. We definitely wanted Tapper, Clyde the ghost and Zangief.

Wreck It Ralph

Q. What do arcade games mean to you personally?
Phil Johnston: As a kid, I remember going to the movies at Valley Fair Mall. My mum would give me four quarters and that would be enough to sustain me for an hour before the movie started. I can vividly picture it. I would get an unbridled excitement about going to an arcade, and they were all over the country. It’s weird to think they are not ubiquitous now.

Q. Which arcade games were you most excited to bring to the screen in Wreck-It Ralph?
Phil Johnston: I was never any good at Q*bert but I have very good memories of the game. Q*bert is so funny and weird and goofy-looking, so having him in the movie is awesome. Growing up, I was also a huge Street Fighter player and I love the fact that we’ve got Zangief in there. Everything about him, including his big hairy chest and his tiny wrestling uniform, is exciting to me. I’m pro-Zangief all the way!

Q. Wreck-It Ralph features a talented cast of comedic actors including John C. Reilly [who voices Ralph], Jack McBrayer [Fix-It Felix Jr.], Sarah Silverman [Vanellope von Schweetz] and Jane Lynch [Sergeant Calhoun]. How much did these characters evolve after you casted the role?
Phil Johnston: A great actor brings dimension and life to the character that you could never have imagined, but we were blessed because we had Jack [McBrayer], Sarah [Silverman] and Jane [Lynch] at the very first table read. John C. Reilly was also involved in the process very early on, so we’ve been very lucky. There’s nothing like working with great comic actors like these. It enhances the material so much because they are able to give us their input.

Q. When did Sergeant Calhoun’s epic and hilarious one-liners start to evolve in the script?
Phil Johnston: Sergeant Calhoun always had these odd, homespun colloquialisms from her world and her game. Initially, there was a line that really stood out and Ed Catmull – who is the co-head of the studio – latched on to it. He asked, “Where did that come from? How did you come up with that? Come up with way more of those.” After that comment, I literally went through the entire script and I came up with five or six different lines of Sergeant Calhoun-isms for every speech.

Q. What’s your favourite one-liner?
Phil Johnston: My favourite is probably her opening line, which is something about ‘going pee-pee in your big boy slacks’. The way Jane says it is so ludicrous and so funny because Calhoun is this huge military woman who is as tough as nails saying ‘pee-pee’. That’s very funny to me.

Wreck It Ralph

Q. How did you get your big break as a screenwriter, Phil?
Phil Johnston: The first movie I had made was a movie called Cedar Rapids, which came out as I was starting to write Wreck-It Ralph. Before that, I’d written a bunch of other scripts that I think Rich Moore had read. One script was for a TV show that I shot in 2009 and another film I’ve written hasn’t been made yet, so it’s been a long and winding road to get here.

Q. What advice would you give to screenwriters trying to break into the industry?
Phil Johnston: The most obvious piece of advice is to keep writing. The other one is to thicken your skin because writing can be a tough and a hard process – and the first draft is never the right draft. You’re constantly rewriting and you have to be willing to kill your darlings if the story needs it.

Read our interview with director Rich Moore

Wreck-It Ralph is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, June 3, 2013.