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Megamind - Tom McGrath interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM McGrath, director of Megamind and the Madagascar movies, talks about the appeal of making a superhero movie where the bad guy wins and working with the likes of Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt and Tina Fey.

He also talks about why he believes 3D is here to stay, why he feels Disney is wrong to drop the fairytale princess element from their filmmaking, and why Guillermo Del Toro proved to be an invaluable asset in the production of Megamind.

Q. So, what was it about Megamind that made you want to direct?
Tom McGrath: I like superhero movies and Ben Stiller and Jeffrey Katzenburg pitched it to me and the key idea that I really liked was ‘what if the villain won?’ Villains never win in these movies. On top of that, what would happen if he became self aware and kind of had a crisis of purpose if there was no ying to his yang. So, the mid-life crisis idea was a funny idea for a villain who won because no one takes over the world – so what would happen if they actually did? I thought it would be a great way to launch a story.

Originally the script was written as live action in 2003 by Brent Simons and Alan Schoolcraft, who wrote all the way through to the end, and they had an idea: “What if Lex Luthor won?” So, that’s what motivated them and they kept coming back to that and eventually wrote a script. Ben Stiller’s company picked it up shortly after to do as a live action movie. It was actually written more like an R-rated picture at first… so pretty edgy. But their slate was pretty booked solid. But while in development, it was thought that it could make a great animated movie so they took it to DreamWorks and knowing Ben from the Madagascar movies, we have a good relationship. I thought I was going to get a vacation. I was on the press junket for Madagascar 2 and he goes: “Hey, I’ve got this movie.” I just couldn’t pass it up because I love superhero movies.

Q. Disney have said this week that there’s no room for the traditional fairytale animation, where the princess gets the prince. What do you think about that?
Tom McGrath: I disagree in a way. I remember Tim Burton’s Batman came out and kind of had a new approach to it and that kind of ran its course and everyone said the franchise is dead. But then Christopher Nolan comes along and does a Batman movie and has his own really unique take and all of a sudden it’s great again. So, just because they’ve been done the same way I’d say someone is going to come along and have another fresh take on a fairytale movie and it’ll be really big, I would think. I don’t think anything is really dead… it’s dead if you just keep doing the same thing over and over.

Q. What sort of animation were you brought up on?
Tom McGrath: I loved it all. I remember in the Super 8 days I could check out movies from the library. So, Superman and Black Hawk films, Heckle and Jeckle… but I really grew up with Bugs Bunny, and that’s what made me want to get into animation. But I was like any kid… I got a Super 8 camera when I was 12 and just made movies. One of the first movies I made when I was 12 was a parody with my brother on Superman [laughs]. I still have it, as a matter of fact. It was called Stuperman or something and it had animation with the neighbourhood kids. We took our living room and we turned it into the Daily Planet office and we had it that way for two months until finally my parents were like: “You’ve got to take this down.” We had typewriters and everything all over the place [laughs]! But my only way into animation, or rather my only way into film, was through animation.

Q. There are a lot of little references to Superman and other superhero movies. How much of that was in the original script and how much came from you?
Tom McGrath: Well, the origins story… I thought it was important to show the back story to kind of connect you. To me, it just seemed like a funny idea… and it does take from Superman very much, except the twist for me was: “What if they didn’t land with the Kents and landed in a prison?” So, there’s a nature versus nurture kind of component to it.

There was also the Marlon Brando riff that Will [Ferrell] had done, which was kind of on the spot. I showed him a drawing of what the character could be and he just started Marlon Brando with a lisp. I thought it killed and wanted to put it in the movie. But I tried not to reference or spoof too much. There was writing done where you’re playing off other movies, but I learned my lesson on Madagascar and I did not try and do pop culture references or reference other movies because you get a cheap laugh but then they’ll hate you for it for kicking them out of the movie. So, I was trying to find the balance of playing off the genre but not at the expense of cheapening the film.

Q. With subject matter like this, were you walking a fine line with copyright and legal issues when you make references or name names? You reference that in the film with the name of the character of Titan, which is the only one he could get that wasn’t copyrighted…
Tom McGrath: [Laughs] It’s true. We had a hard time trying to find names that hadn’t been taken by other things. That is a very shortened version of Will’s riff that he had to take it to space court and in space court there’s rules and you can only get it in a certain way. So, it ended up being shortened to the line you see. It was even difficult naming this movie, though. It originated as Mastermind. But there are so many properties associated with Mastermind that we couldn’t use it, so we changed to Bloonatic. But someone had Balloonatic, so we changed it to Ubermind, and that was confusing people, so we went back to Mastermind and finally settled on Megamind, which I like. So, we have the record for the most name changes on a movie.


Q. Tina Fey has a relatively straight role for her. Why was that?
Tom McGrath: I think she is funny in it but she’s kind of the rock. There always has to be the kind of centre… not necessarily the straight man. But when you have a lot of characters acting silly it’s great to have an anchor for that. So, the part really required her acting skills. I think she’s a really great actor. She was doing stuff that I was really blown away with. Every line we had, she’d come back with three that were ten times funnier. But she’s such a great writer too. So, she took a relatively straight written character and gave her a lot of flavour that way.

Q. You have a lot of comedians among the voice cast, so did you get them all in to bounce off each other, or did you stick to the more traditional approach of having everyone separately?
Tom McGrath: Virtually… for Will and Tina, because of the love story. I recorded Ben [Stiller] and Chris [Rock] together [for Madagascar] and got great results, so because of the love story and the chemistry between the two characters, I wanted to feel that chemistry, particularly as Will and Tina have a good chemistry. So, they were the only ones I recorded together on a few occasions. Even the pauses between the lines are part of their timing and you can’t really manufacture that if you’re recording separately. So, that was really valuable. But in most cases, Will would improvise, then a month later David Cross would take what Will had done, improv off that and we’d record Will a month after that. So, they’d play off each other over the course of eight months, basically. It’s amazing… it’s part of the magic of it because with a lot of it, you do feel like they’re right there in the room together – or at least to me they do.

Q. Did you make any effort to contain the famous Ferrell riffs?
Tom McGrath: No, let it roll! The great thing about recording on tape is it’s not like film, so you don’t have to re-set a shot at all. Working with Will, he taught me the way he works with Adam McKay is that Adam’s always right next to him and he can throw things out and just keep going. I used to sit behind the glass and just push the button, and it was so liberating to get out there and keep rolling with it, keep moving with it and don’t stop. There’d be monologues, like the copyright name one, that would go on for 10 minutes. So, then you’d find the best gold in that. I’ll never go back behind the glass again. In fact, I started working with the other people like that. It creates a much better environment to record because it is tough.

It sounds easy to do an animated movie, but you’re in a vacuum. They have nothing… we have readers, but there’s no set. Sometimes we’ll just show picture of the other characters or something, but it really is a leap of the imagination and it’s very difficult to do. Some actors just can’t do it… they just don’t like doing it. But thankfully everyone on this cast just embraced it. Brad Pitt, for example, liked the idea of being this Elvis character, but he didn’t want to sit behind the podium, so we gave him a hand-held mic with the biggest foam, in case he hit it, and he’d just cruise around the entire recording booth and you can actually feel that he’s moving in his performance. He’s a very physical actor, and you can’t really tie them up behind something.

Q. Wasn’t Robert Downey Jr originally cast in the Will Ferrell role?
Tom McGrath: He was but he had so much going on… I think Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man 2 and his plate was just completely full.


Q. So, what do you think Will brought it that perhaps Robert couldn’t?
Tom McGrath: I think it’s a slightly different character. I know that the original script was written with Will in mind. I don’t know what Downey would have come with. The big challenge since we were centring the story on a villain was to find a way for the audience to connect with him and sympathise. Will just has this great charm. I know he likes being the broad villain but he also has a vulnerability that he can bring.

Q. Did Brad’s comedic instincts surprise you all? And his singing?
Tom McGrath: Yeah, and he was a great sport about it. He goes: “He should sing really bad!” And he then kept asking: “Is that bad enough?” So, he just kept singing as bad as he could. But he’s a great sport. Some people are concerned about the parts… like the hero couldn’t be bad in any way. But Brad rolled with the bad elements of the character. I really hand it to Brad, he likes the quirk in the role and I think that’s what drew him to the movie.

Q. Do you think 3D is now here to stay?
Tom McGrath: I think it’s so much different now than it was in the ‘50s, which was kind of really gimmicky and I think people use it in a gimmicky way. Honestly, I think the post production process can be gimmicky… it can also be done really well. But when you’re off doing a movie in 3D, you really are – from the original conception – you’re designing your sets and characters to work in 3D and there’s a difference. All along the way of making the movie, you’re always aware of how you’re incorporating the 3D. I just think of it as another great tool to use to underscore the storytelling in a way. But I don’t think every movie should be in 3D. Megamind is great because it’s an action, fun comedy, superhero movie that you can do a lot in 3D with. So, it was a good marriage here.

Q. Guillermo del Toro is credited with being involved in the production. What did that entail?
Tom McGrath: He was a great… honestly, he came in during the last three weeks of production. He’s such a joyous guy and I loved him so much. We showed him the movie and he really liked it, but he had a great idea for the beginning of the movie. We started the movie originally with the baby and the narration but he said: “Do you know what? If you open the movie with narration you know the character is going to live no matter what happens to him.” So, his idea was to start with it falling to his death [as he’s narrating] so that you don’t know if he’s going to survive. It was a fantastic idea. Fortunately, there was enough time to lay it out, animate it, get it lit and get it in the final cut. But it was such a smart idea from him. He’s a joy to be around. He’s much more fun than me! [Laughs]

Read our review of Megamind

Will Ferrell interview