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Ratatouille - Brad Lewis interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRAD Lewis, producer of Ratatouille, talks about cooking and preparing the essential ingredients for making a successful animated movie.

He also reveals how Pixar arrived at the name Ratatouille and why screen legend Peter O’Toole was such a joy to work with. The interview was conduced at the home of Pixar in San Francisco earlier this year…

Q. Have you ever been in a restaurant?
Brad Lewis: When I came out of college I was a theatre major and I’d done both directing and dancing and acting, which meant I was sentencing myself to a lifetime of working in restaurants. So yes, I’ve been in restaurants. I’ve waited tables, prep cooked, cooked…

Q. In nice restaurants, or fast food places?
Brad Lewis: Well, I did an internship at The French Laundry for the research of this film and that was good. It was just for a few days but it was a great experience.

Q. Do you cook?
Brad Lewis: I do a lot of cooking. I’ve always cooked for my family and my father and I cooked together. It’s just one of the things I like to do. If you came around my house for dinner, you’d watch me cook as we sat around the kitchen and cooked and talked. For me, that’s centralised… friendship and family around food and cooking. Honestly, when I came back from French Laundry I was so up on a couple of dishes that they were serving at the time. It was coming up to Thanksgiving, so I put on a four day feast featuring some of the things I’d learned. It was my first individual effort outside the resources of their kitchen and it went really well.

Q. How long have you been working on Ratatouille? What was your role as producer?
Brad Lewis: I’ve been on the film about five and a half years, longer than just about anybody at this point. So part of the job of producing on this meant that I was basically responsible for everything – all the creative, all the production, all the strategies, scheduling, money management, everything… It’s one of the few jobs where they say: “You need to deliver the film.” We don’t have contracts here [at Pixar] but one of my previous contracts said: “You need to deliver the film.”

Here, early on during the development and the design stage we had a very, very small team that I was working with. But it’s a genuine partnership with the director and that small creative team working on the design of the world and the story. Then, over time, it starts to broaden out. But there’s kind of nothing that the producer isn’t a part of. Obviously, the director has to make all the final creative decisions and all the story decisions – something like 427 creative decisions every day on every aspect of the film. That being said, the director has a lot of creative partners in the process.

Brad has different people that he looks to for feedback on different aspects of the process and the producer is one of those partners in the process. I get a little more involved with talent because the directors here are so ensconsed with the day to day creative decisions that there are certain relationships that the producer has to sort of maintain. So, I had a lot of the primary relationships with the agents and the talent to get that lined up. We also as producers need to keep an eye on things and make sure we’re doing great stuff, which is sometimes easy to do because of the talent we have, and sometimes not so easy.

Q. Is it easier to stay in budget on an animated movie?
Brad Lewis: It’s not easy to stay in budget, no. One of our central philosophies is to be creatively driven so we have to be extraordinarily creative in the way we get things done and we have to be really flexible. Striving for the best creativity can be a really moving target if you’re trying to budget anything because if you come up with a better idea for something and it’s going to make the movie stronger then you have to do it. And that’s what we do. The difficulty is that you have to use more judgement as a producer then you might in other places. We have to make unbelievably great creative decisions.

For instance, if we have come up with a creative decision and somebody comes up with another idea, you do have to get into the depths of it and ask: “Is it a better idea? Or is it a different idea?” That can be hard. But that’s the type of conversation the director and I will have, or as part of our creative groups. So with that in mind, it’s hard to keep a budget in line. It’s like in life, if you’ve ever built anything for the first time you’re usually better at it the second time.

Q. Who came up with the title of the film?
Brad Lewis: One of the fortunate things we found when we decided to go with Ratatouille was that in more countries than normal Ratatouille works – because it’s the name of a dish and because it’s a cooking style that’s been proliferated around the world. In English, the word rat and ratatouille have that double meaning; you don’t always get that in other countries but the word ratatouille can work in many countries. The title was a really difficult thing and in fact we came completely full circle on the name. Early on, internally we sort of called it “Rat”.

We loved the idea that the name Ratatouille had ‘rat’ in it. But at first there was a creative problem with ratatouille being a peasant’s dish, a simple dish. The central concept of this film was that we had a rat who aspires to be a higher end cook. So, we weren’t sure how that would work.

Then we decided on Ratatouille and one of our lawyers called us one day, not about a legal problem, and said: “Ratatoolly is going to be a great film…” And we thought: “Well, here’s a guy who’s really well educated and if he’s saying ‘ratatoolly’ then we’re really going to be in trouble!” So we thought about it again and came up with every different incantation of how we might do it. We were concerned that if people couldn’t pronounce it, they couldn’t repeat it and all that. But at the end of the day, what we discovered about cooking is that most great chefs that we talked to and interviewed, their passion for cooking had nothing to do with the really high end, special stuff; what it mostly had to do with is the familial experience; they found that a grilled cheese sandwich was as satisfying as some high end meal. So we came to the decision that ratatouille was perfect. It’s warm, inviting and that’s part of why they liked cooking and liked food in the first place.

Q. What do you think audiences will like about Ratatouille?
Brad Lewis: The first thing that I hope people will be surprised with is that when most people hear it’s about a rat who wants to be a chef, most people go: “I hate rats!” So, what I think will happen is that most people wil go: “I kind of liked that rat! I was rooting for him.” That’s the first thing, you buy it. The other thing is that when we do our job well there’s a combination of great comedy and great emotion.

So, I think this is as funny and as absurd a comedy as we’ve put out because it’s a crazy idea, but Brad has woven enough believable elements into it that you come to believe in it. But there’s also a lot going on dramatically with the different characters. So I think you’ll care about Linguini, about Colette, I think you’ll laugh at [Anton] Ego and you’ll want Remy to succeed.

Q. Were you involved in getting Peter O’Toole on board? And how was he?
Brad Lewis: Peter O’Toole was fantastic! He’s one of those guys who, whether he’s six-years-old or 80-years-old he’s got that look in his eyes – that impish, we’re going to have fun doing this kind of look. When he was recording he really came alive. You could see him and Brad really finding that creative connection and that was really, really exciting. Peter’s a wonderful man and I think he did some really brilliant dramatic readings on this.

Q. Did he take to the process easily?
Brad Lewis: He really did even though he’d no experience of it. I think he’d done a narrator voice or a voice-over – not a character – on a film once before but that was it. But he was fearless about the process and he fell right into it. Brad is very serious about this art form, as we all are at Pixar; these are not light characters. People say to us, “oh, you’re doing a cartoon” and we’ll reply: “No, I don’t think so.” We think hard about it and when you hear the critic’s monologue at the end of the movie, which I think you guys will appreciate, it’s a nice piece of dialogue and I think Peter O’Toole, who has obviously done some of the great roles in cinema and theatre, really appreciated the writing.

Q. What’s the difference between a Disney movie and a Pixar movie? Or what was the difference?
Brad Lewis: Fortunately, from this point onwards there is no difference. But it’s people and trust. We have really good people here and when you have creative people, you have to let them do their thing. You have to resist the urge to be too efficient, you have to resist the urge to work to a certain budget and schedule – other than the fact that things have to end. It’s harder work to produce this way but my philosophy is that you have to let it be creatively chaotic and let it find its place. When creative people are on to something, you know it and you have to allow it to happen. You can’t set a schedule for that.

Q. Having worked at DreamWorks Animation and now Pixar, what do you see as the biggest difference between the two studios?
Brad Lewis: Well, I produced Antz at DreamWorks. Both places are filled with really good people but I think there’s more creative independence at Pixar. It sounds really stupid but you can get lost in a lot of detail and personalities and different things. To be honest, I had a great experience at DreamWorks and I’m having a great experience here. But I think it comes down to creative independence.

IndieLondon will be bringing you more Ratatouille exclusives in the run-up to the release, including a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie…

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