The co-director of last summer’s smash hit discusses the challenges of making a sequel feel fresh, fun and compelling.
In 72 hours, Chris Renaud will know whether or not Despicable Me 2 has earned the highest honors in Hollywood. As a nominee for Best Animated Feature, his film is up against the likes of Disney’s Frozen and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises in the race for Oscar gold. Yet, regardless of what’s written on that envelope, it’s clear Renaud is content with knowing he didn’t disappoint the legion of fans who first fell for Gru and his crew of lemon-colored Minions back in 2010…or Universal Studios, who watched Despicable Me 2 gross over $970 million at the box office.
Before slipping into his black tux for the big night, Renaud chatted with AWN about his partnership with co-director Pierre Coffin, his love for Looney Tunes and The Lego Movie, and the challenge of keeping a certain villain and his off-beat family compelling.
Dan Sarto: I didn’t realize that you directed No Time for Nuts…
Chris Renaud: Yeah I did. I directed that with Mike Thurmeier. I wrote it essentially.
DS: What a funny, funny piece. A real throwback to the good old-fashioned funny-ass cartoons. I don’t know how else to describe it.
CR: Can I tell you, that was really my inspiration. My favorite cartoons of all time are the Bugs Bunny cartoons, mostly done by Chuck Jones I’d say specifically. But my thinking was about Daffy Duck and Robin Hood Daffy. I loved the idea that they just were like, “hey you know what? Let’s make Daffy Duck Robin Hood!” (Laughs) That was really kind-of how it started off. “Well how can I put Scrat in something else?” because I think you do need to ground it, but also put him somewhere we haven’t seen him before. So, I really was thinking about those guys and kind of that fun. The Simpsons does it too, of course, which is so great. They start the show in the first five minutes and then the rest of the show they’re on the moon! I love that kind of thinking in animation.
DS: I see fewer and fewer good, funny short films. I think it takes lot more discipline and lot more talent to do. It’s harder.
CR: It is and I think, even in live action, most people would say that the tricky part with comedy is people feel it doesn’t get recognized. That’s why it’s nice to see something like The Lego Movie, which is getting such accolades. It has some heart of course, too, but it’s a very funny, sharp movie. But comedy is always one of those things that nobody takes seriously, pardon the pun.
DS: I would agree, I also I want to congratulate you on the Oscar nomination and unbelievable success of the film. Did it come as a surprise, not just that it did as well as it did financially, but critically? It really took everybody by storm.
CR: I’d say the scale of it was a surprise, but if I’m being honest I knew that the first film had captured people in some way. I’ve worked on several projects as a storyboard artist and the reactions that people had to the first Despicable Me were unique to anything I’ve worked on. So I think anticipating how the sequel was going to do was honestly more about the increased level of competition. We were opening against a major film from a major studio and there were two, I think, major animated releases before us. I figured people would see it if we’d done our jobs right because of their love of the first film, but it was a hard market to play in. You just don’t know whether you are going to stand out.
DS: Well, because it’s a sequel some people have mixed feelings about mining the same characters the second time around. Still, you guys are certainly not perceived as the entrenched giant Hollywood studio like those that you’re up against. Does that in a sense take some pressure off, that the expectations might be little bit lower?
CR: I don’t think it decreases the pressure honestly. There’s now a theme park ride, which came out before Despicable Me 2, so I think it’s almost like an internal pressure. How do you take these characters and their legacy and the audience’s love of them and keep it going and justify that affection for those characters, which is now being seen in rides and all kinds of things? It’s that kind of challenge for us, more than trying to go toe-to-toe with the big boys. We’ve set up something here that’s working - how do we continue that?
DS: You were able to create a family with sincere, believable relationships. Then you managed to bring that forward into the second film with equal feeling if not more, which is pretty unheard of. What’s the secret to building on, but not trampling on, the success of such characters from the first film?
CR: With the first film you have a very classic setup of a curmudgeon whose heart is melted by the innocence and love of children. It’s a very tried and true story, so how do we take that emotion and carry it forward in that family dynamic? In a lot of ways I think the writers, Pierre, myself and Chris Meledandri looked inwardly in the sense that we all have children and know about things that happen as they get older. At the end of the day, Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 are about family and very often they are about the choice of career versus family, which is a universal dilemma. One of the things that we thought of very early on was Margo and Gru’s reaction to her maybe dating a boy. There’s this phase of having a kid initially and then you move to the next phase where they become a tween, you know, and it’s thinking about it in a very relatable way. It’s looking at our own lives and our own experiences. The birthday party scene comes a bit from the writers, a bit from my own life, wearing costumes at my kids’ parties, so it’s that kind of thing. Hopefully it feels genuine and authentic because it is. It comes from our own experiences.
DS: How did you and Pierre manage the co-directing duties?
CR: We definitely split certain aspects. I handled creation of the story reel, launching the storyboard artists, working with editor Greg Perler and recording the English-speaking actors, and also did lot of the main work on the music with both Pharrell [Williams] and Heitor [Pereira]. Pierre leads animation, so he handled the animated performances. That’s his domain. Everything else – layouts, design, compositing, lighting – we did together although I would say depending on our availability and where we were in production, someone might take a leave and someone may pull back. But everything besides me doing story and Pierre doing animation we did together. We were both in editorial reviews with Chris and the writers and that kind of thing, so that’s basically how we did it.
DS: It must make for quite a nice division of focus.
CR: Yeah, it’s been really a great partnership I have to say. It’s very much about complementary strengths and styles and not just in the mechanics of it, since I was previously a storyboard artist and he was an animator. He’s French and I’m American, but we share a sensibility. I think we form checks and balances on each other as well, like recognizing where the other could be bolstered by different viewpoints. Frankly, it’s actually been probably the most rewarding creative collaboration of my career. It’s been great.
DS: What were the main challenges that you faced on this film?
CR: I think it’s the classic sequel challenge to be honest, which is: “How do you make it feel fresh while delivering what people loved about the first film?” You have to recognize what’s working and stick to that, but also try to deliver new ideas. For the Minions, obviously, we made them more central, but we also introduced new characters, new villains, new locations. The biggest challenge was Gru in the sense that when he was the villain, you knew what his character was. It was a great character idea because here is a guy who is kind-of a grump and there’s lot of comedic appeal in that. Well, at the end of the first film he’s not a villain anymore. We did discuss whether he should go back to villainy, but we felt that that would feel false given where we left the character at the end of the first movie, so that was a big challenge too. How do we let some of his character traits that people liked in the first one shine through if he is not a villain anymore? So we juxtaposed him with Lucy who is a very sunny positive character and also let his attitude shine with his response to Margo liking a boy. We had to find places where we could let him be Gru.
DS: While in the mist of this type of production, which is so long and so complicated in so many ways, do you ever you ever just take a step back and pause and say, “Wow, this is a pretty big thing going on!”
CR: Honestly no. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing and very lucky to be doing what I love to do and to be able to make a living doing it. But when you’re in it, you’re in it. Life is about anticipation, I feel, in some ways, and once you get to the moment you don’t think about it anymore.
DS: What particular aspect of the production gives you the most personal sense of satisfaction in all this?
CR: I’d have to say the response to the Minion characters and how they have really struck a chord far beyond what any of us could have imagined. I’ve seen them spray-painted on graffiti walls! It’s pretty amazing and I have to say I’m very humbled and honored to be a part of their creation. That has really been a stellar moment of creative satisfaction for myself and I know Pierre and everyone who’s been involved with them.
DS: As a creative person what inspires you when you look at the work of others? It’s becoming a more and more crowded landscape for feature animation and also with shorts…so what inspires you when you look at the work out there and what gives you that push to do new and better stuff than you’ve done in the past?
CR: That’s a good question and for me it’s sort of a combination of things. As much as I love the comedy of The Lego Movie, my favorite thing about it was the world they built. It had real scope to it and I love when artists build a world that you want to be in and that also feels unique, because, with the tools being in everybody’s hands now, I think the only thing you really have to offer is perspective as a filmmaker. Whenever I see something that turns in an unexpected way, that is what inspires me to reach. I think it was Chris Rock who once said that a comedian has to deliver a thousand surprises...and I know what that means. Comedy is about a series of surprises. When a movie goes somewhere you didn’t expect it to go, that’s the kind of thing that inspires me to keep reaching for a solution that’s not a cliché, or if it is a cliché it’s at least your spin on a cliché! [Laughs] How do you keep surprising the audience and making them want to come back? People are still doing it, so I think that’s inspiring.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.