Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I'm currently completing a book that collects my non-Fleischer animation writings and presents them in a context to explain what happened to animation in the 1990s– how it went from being considered a children's medium to being one that could be aimed to capture older demographics.

If all goes well it will be out some time next year.

I taking the articles I wrote and up-dating them to show also how things have progressed in the last six or seven years.

Some of the material will be from Animato and Animation Planet, and some will be new to readers. Thoday's entry is one of the new pieces: an interview I did with Joe Dante after the release of his Looney Tunes movies.

Needless to say the following is copyright © 2006 by G. Michael Dobbs.

You know them and you love them. They taught you the great themes of classical music. They showed you that anything marked "Acme" wouldn't work. They even introduced you to your first cross-dresser.

The Warner Brothers cartoon characters - Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote and company - are finally back in a vehicle that matches their happily subversive personalities.

The irony about the Warner Brothers cartoon stars is that they are among the most popular animated figures in the world, but until Looney Tunes Back in Action was released, no one really understood how to showcase them in a new movie.

The classic WB cartoons have entertained three generations of kids and adults, but until now efforts to create new cartoons worthy of carrying the torch of the classics have been disappointing. Space Jam? It was nothing but a glorified sneaker commercial starring a basketball player with Bugs and Daffy as support.

Sure this new movie features plenty of flesh and blood stars such as Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman and Steve Martin, but the animated characters have someone in their corner, a director who is as subversive as they are.

And that evil genius is Joe Dante.

Dante's newest film shows that even when assigned to shepherding the prize moneymakers of the Warner Brothers merchandising machine the director brings the same sensibilities as seen in the two Gremlins movies, Small Soldiers, and Matinee among others.

If you haven't seen the film, then run out and see it pronto. The plot brings many of the characterizations and situations created by classical cartoon directors Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett up to date. Like those three directors, the humor is for both adults and kids and Dante doesn't mind sending up the most sacred cows of today's film industry.

The plot involves Warner Brothers security guard DJ (Brendan Fraser) stumbling upon the fact that his movie star father Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton), who is renowned for playing a James Bondish-like hero, is actually a spy. This revelation takes place on the day he is fired from his job by a Warner VP Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) who blames him for not escorting Daffy Duck off the premises whom she has also fired. When the Warner Brothers decide they need Daffy back, they tell her to find him, but Daffy has already taken off with DJ to Las Vegas to find out what has happened to DJ's father.

It seems that Drake was trying to secure a gemstone known as the Blue Monkey that can change people into a monkey and back. It is coveted by the chairman of the evil Acme Corporation (Steve Martin) who plans to turn humanity into monkeys to work in his factories and then back to humans to buy the goods they just made.

Along the way we are treated to a barrage of gags that demands repeated viewings. You have to love a scene in which Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales discuss their lack of political correctness.

Dante is a rarity in the business. He's a movie nut fan boy who went from seeing as many movies as he could to writing about them to working in the business. Landing a job with legendary low-budget movie producer Roger Corman in the 1970s, Dante created many of the trailers for Corman's New World Pictures. He got his chance to direct when fellow Corman-ite Jon Davison made a bet with Corman that Davison couldn't produce a feature-length film in a week for a reported $50,000.

Davison tagged Dante and Allan Arkush to direct Hollywood Boulevard, a very entertaining drive-in picture. Dante's first solo effort, Piranha - a film Corman described as his version of Jaws - followed and was a huge hit for Corman. Dante's next film, The Howling, a landmark werewolf movie, got the attention of audiences and critics.

Perhaps best known for his two Gremlins films, Dante told The Journal/Bravo in a telephone interview that he has been typecast a bit by the success of his "family fantasies" which is how he became associated with his new film.

Besides his sense of humor, Dante said he brought a technical proficiency to the director's chairs because of so many of his films that featured various special effects. The ability to understand the latest film technology was crucial with this film. Dante explained that within the year and a half production period technology that they had used at the beginning of the shoot had been supplanted by newer hardware and software by the end.

Script went through many changes

He explained that Looney Tunes Back in Action is the culmination of much effort to develop a follow-up film to Space Jam that was released in 1996. Dante said that one script even had Bugs teaming up with action star Jackie Chan.

Finally writer Larry Doyle sold Warner brass on a script in which the characters are going around the world and was broken down into a series of inter-related seven -minute shorts.

Once the production was approved, though, there were still many changes made to the script and Dante said that over the year and a half it took to make the movie, there were "couple of drafts."

He readily admitted that the fact the script wasn't finished that production became "a little scary."

He explained that in the case of this film, Warner Brothers had an open hole on his fall release schedule that had been the place of the next Harry Potter film. Studio execs told Dante that the film had to be finished by that date and so he said they "worked backwards."

The result was an intensive year of filmmaking with six months of shooting the live action scenes and a year of creating the animation. Dante noted that for the amount of animation and the level of quality that had to be met normally the work would have taken two years.

"They [the animation crew] did a great job," he said. "Everyone worked seven days a week."
Dante worked with animation director Eric Goldberg, a Disney veteran who animated the Genie in Aladdin among other accomplishments. Although in most films that marry animation and live action the live action is shot well-before the animation begins, in this film the live action production overlapped with the animation because of the film's quick production schedule.
Both Dante and Goldberg directed the vocal performers. Joe Alaskey performed most of the roles originated by the late Mel Blanc, including Bugs and Daffy. Billy West, the lead vocal performer on the Futurama series and the original Ren and Stimpy shorts, performed Elmer Fudd. Springfield [MA] native June Foray reprised her role of Granny she has been performing since 1955. Dante had high praise for all of the voice performers, especially Alaskey.

"It's a very tedious process," Dante explained of the voice recording and said that Alaskey had to do some takes 10 to 12 times to make sure he sounded as much like Mel Blanc as he could.

Performing the voices took talent and patience, as did acting in front of the cameras with characters that weren't on the set. "It takes a specific talent to look into space," said Dante of his live action cast. Dante added that "actors like to get something back" and that a lack of reaction from a co-star who is yet to be drawn makes the job tougher.

He said male lead Brendan Fraser was a "standalone candidate" for his role because he has had experience acting in special effects-heavy films such as The Mummy movies and Monkeybone. His being attractive to women and a good actor didn't hurt him either.

The cast also includes many performers who are members of the Dante stock company including Mary Woronov, Robert Picardo, and naturally Dick Miller. Miller, a highly recognizable character actor who has appeared literally in hundreds of movies and television shows, has been in every one of Dante's films and there's a rumor that Dante will rejects scripts if there isn't a part for Miller in it.

He rejected that notion with a laugh and explained that he grew up watching Miller in films and when he started with Corman he was introduced to him and started using him in his films whenever possible.

Movie lampoons corporate filmmaking

The irony about the film is that it satirizes the corporate mindset of the motion picture industry - a mindset that was quite apparent in this production. There was a lot riding on this film - it was the studio's Thanksgiving family release with a reported $100 million budget and starred characters that have generated millions of dollars in licensing money.

Dante said there were "many many voices" from studio executives on the film's story and gags.

"This was a difficult production," he admitted.

With this kind of film, Dante didn't have the luxury of reviewing complete sequences as they were made because the animation wasn't complete.

"You can't even look at what you have," he said.

Studio execs and test audiences were shown cuts of the film that lacked finished animation that didn't result in truly informed opinions.

"When all the animation was done it was a revelation," he said.

Because of the film was post-production for a year, there were many alterations to it. Dante said he would second guess himself on whether a gag was funny enough to make a final cut and said there was actually "a tremendous amount of improv" resulting from the editing.

The result is that Dante and company crammed as many gags into the film as they could. Dante explained that as a "child of Mad Magazine, who read the jokes in the margins," he has been "over-stuffing" his movies for years.

Originally the film was two hours in length and Dante had to cut it down to a more reasonable running time for a family film and to pick up the pace.

One part of the film which has thrilled horror and science fiction fans almost didn't make the final cut. Bugs, Daffy, DJ and Kate are taken to Area 52 where various alien monsters are kept. Area 51 by the way is just for the tourists!

There, Mother (played by Joan Cusack) oversees the internment of infamous creatures from B-movies of the past including the mutant from This Island Earth, the brain from Fiend Without a Face, the Ro-Man from Robot Monster and the Daleks from the Dr. Who television series. Marvin the Martian is among those being kept in over-sized Mason jars.

The sequence is funny and nostalgic, but Dante said that some people viewing the test prints thought the monsters were "corny" and instead an animated sequence with Pepe Le Pew was used.

Thankfully, Dante prevailed and the witty scene was restored to the film, although some of the footage did remain out of the film. Dante has just completed working on the supplemental materials for the DVD release and said that 28 minutes of unseen footage will be featured on the disc, although more could have been included.

What's up Joe?

With the film completed, Dante stood back and watched how the production was promoted and released. For reasons he couldn't fathom, the studio did not push the film as much as it could have, and it has not been the box office smash it could have been.

Dante said that he usually is thinking about his next picture while he is finishing a film, but because this shoot took so long and was so involved, he paid complete attention to Looney Tunes. He is not sure what the next project will be but he is sure it won't be another fantasy film for families.

Postscript: Although Joe's career was derailed for a while by the film's failure at the box office, he has received great reviews for his contribution to the Showtime special series Masters of Horror.


Marky Mark said...

Sex or seven years? I'll take the sex!

Does this post mean we are tantalizingly close to the "H.C" project? Wink wink nudge nudge?

And how come you never answered me about interviewing ME ME ME??? Too many irons in the fire? Oh well, that is understandable. I just never had to beg my Stanley... that's all...

Marky Mark said...

WAIT JUST A DANG MINUTE! Is this the same Joe Dante that is a perspective-challenged idiot? IT IS!!!

Grrrr... Joe Dante gets all the glory while I slave away in obscurity.

Mike Dobbs said...

Sorry about the typo...it was late.

Yes, I want to interview you. but I was waiting to hear from you or the editor about format, length. etc.

What's the story? I have my list of questions ready!

Kip W said...

I'm so out of it. I didn't know this movie was in the works or anything -- sounds like it might actually be good! Dare I hope?

One suggestion on the blog -- it's a little hard to tell where an entry begins. Maybe you could bold the first paragraph of a new entry to draw the eye in. In this case, with the intro and the article, I'd suggest bolding the first para of both. Just a thought.

Mike Dobbs said...

Kip...the film was released over a year ago and is availaable on DVD. It's quite enjoyable and would have been better if Dante had been left alone.