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Flushed Away - David Bowers, Sam Fell & Jeffrey Katzenberg interview

Flushed Away

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DIRECTORS David Bowers and Sam Fell talk about the challenges of making animated hit Flushed Away along with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Dreamworks SKG...

Q. What was the thing about this pitch that grabbed you, given that its central characters are rats?
Jeffrey Katzenberg: There’s a great, long tradition in animation of mice and rats that have become quite popular. I think the thing for this that was very compelling was the design of the characters and the look which came from Aardman. I think Aardman is incapable of designing a character that isn’t charming, no matter what it is. An Aardvark would be charming if it was designed by Aardman. They have a way of putting a smile on our faces. So I think from the outset I thought it was a very clever idea for a story and to take the great look and sensibility of Aardman and use state-of-the-art computer animation to make this movie was both a challenge and a great opportunity for us [DreamWorks].

Q. Aardman is now almost a British iconic title. Was Flushed Away always intended to be quite so British?
Sam Fell: Definitely, yeah. We always wanted to make it a tribute to London more specifically. We just wanted to build London under London, do a mini version of it. That was central to the idea from the beginning. We stuffed it full of mad little references to British culture but we’ve made sure that it works on lots of levels for everybody – there’s plenty there for people who don’t get it. But we’ve got our favourite Larry Grayson tribute joke in there and lots of stuff like that. It’s a love letter to London.

Q. At one point it would have been impossible to make a film like this because of the amount of water involved. How did you tackle that problem – was it down to the quality of the animation?
David Bowers: Well, I think what it really is that we were very lucky to have an incredibly talented effects crew in Glendale where we made the movie. We sort of threw them many, many challenges – such as boat chases and there’s all kinds of different water in the film – but they produced a really, really amazing… quite stylized, not 100% realistic, but an Aardman CGI version of water which is really what we wanted.

Q. How did you enjoy taking on the role of directors in your first feature film? And who’s idea was the slugs?
Sam Fell: To be honest, it’s a joy to be given such a big canvas and the amazing facilities of DreamWorks and all the CGI people and to be able to work with top acting talent. It’s a dream come true and a complete treat.

David Bowers: We were very lucky to have such marvelous resources. It’s a huge job as well. It was great working with Sam as well. We spent most of our time trying to make each other laugh I think. Hopefully that reflects in the movie.

Sam Fell: The slugs just got bigger and bigger. It started off with one joke involving one slug screaming but then we wondered if we could push it. So we put a bunch more screaming slugs in and then thought about pushing it a bit more. It was like: “Go on, stick another one in!” I think actually it was Nick Park who suggested: “Why don’t you make them sing?” So we did that and then we just kept doing more and more and more. We thought we’d get sick of it but we didn’t.

Q. An animation feature has a kind of organic life. Did you have any input or notes about certain things you felt might have worked a bit better?
Jeffrey Katzenberg: Truthfully, this is our third collaboration with Aardman and Peter Lord was really intimately involved in it, from the development of it and the look of the characters and recruiting these guys to direct the movie. Frankly, they were great from the outset of this and it’s a movie that was a pretty happy production.

As always in the process of previewing the movie, you learn from what the audience reports back. I think there were things that surprised us at how well they worked – and the slugs were a perfect example of that where the audience just really, really responded so well to them, so we did more. Also, just in terms of adjusting along the way – some of the adjustments that were made to Hugh’s character along the way came as the result of feedback. It was all about giving the audience the best ride that we could.

Q. Can you compare and contrast Bristol with Glendale? What did you miss most about working away and what resentment did you cause among your colleagues perhaps?
Sam Fell: Well I missed the glamour of Bristol really.. and the babes. Strangely, when you do animation, you tend to spend most of your time indoors with people that are obsessed by detail. It’s the same in Bristol as it is in Glendale. So it wasn’t quite as glamorous. When I first heard about doing this, I thought: “Great, I’m going to go over there and be a big-shot Hollywood director.” I had my big swimming shorts and my Martini glass all packed. But Glendale’s a bit more like Slough than Hollywood. It’s a bit further out from the centre.

David Bowers: Things moved more quickly in Glendale. Working on Wallace & Gromit, in particular, was quite nice and quite leisurely. But working in Glendale was like being strapped to the front of a train shooting along at a 1,000 miles an hour!

Sam Fell: I never counted on the American work ethic, which was quite shocking. They have this massive ball of flame in the sky that seems to power them on [laughs]. It was quite exhausting.

Q. Did you stop for tea?
Sam Fell: Oh yeah, I had tea shipped over and I always had my pocket full of bags of PG Tips so I was ready to make a cup of tea at any moment.

Q. It’s been suggested that animated movies have gone stale. What’s your reaction to that?
David Bowers: Well I don’t think animated movies have become stale. There’s been an awful lot of animated movies lately. But when we were making the movie that didn’t concern us in any way. We just tried to make the best movie that we could for ourselves and hopefully it stands out. I think it does stand out – it certainly looks different from the other movies that are out there.

Sam Fell: I think there will be a great future for the animated feature… this year has been interesting because a number of them have landed in similar places. There have been similar styles of stories and characters. But there’s a lot of amazing invention in this industry and I’m sure people will be looking for new and different stories and looking to kind of spread out and make more diverse things in the future. I think it will be great.

Read our review of Flushed Away

Read our interview with Shane Richie