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Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco Talk ‘The Croods’

The co-directors of DreamWorks’ Oscar-nominated feature discuss the family dynamic at the heart of their story.

All images © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All rights reserved.

With their colorful tale of a prehistoric family carving out a new future for themselves, directors Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders have changed the course of their own careers.  As the ninth highest-grossing film of 2013 and one of the five animated features honored at the Oscars earlier this month, The Croods is proof positive that they've got a good collaboration going and DreamWorks isn't looking to mess with it.  A sequel has been scheduled and the duo are on-board to helm it, putting this franchise squarely on the map.

Before embarking on their next chapter, the two filmmakers took a moment to recall the ingredients that made this production such an international success...and hinted at what's next in the lives of The Croods.

Dan SartoDid you expect the film to enjoy such critical and box office success?

Kirk DeMicco:  The one thing we always knew was that it was relatable.  We have 300 people on our crew so we were constantly getting feedback from them throughout the entire production.  When we would pitch something, they would always come back with, “Oh yeah, that’s like my sister” or “That’s like my brother!”  We were dealing with a first for DreamWorks, which is a family film about a family.  So everyone was able to put their own stamp on whatever they were working on and give it a more personal take, which is really cool.

The other thing that was interesting was that we never had a cultural gap, which was the most surprising and wonderful part of traveling around the world with the movie.  We started in Berlin and it was the first time we saw the film with a big audience.  There were 2,100 people, which is pretty daunting. We’d seen test screenings in LA but those were only a few hundred people.  And they were warning us, “Alright, be prepared, this is Germany, it’s a very hard room, no one laughs.”  Emma [Stone] and Nic [Cage] came with us, and I was sitting next to Nic thinking, “Oh my god, what’s going to happen?”  The movie was subtitled, it wasn’t dubbed at that point, and I was worried because the kids weren’t laughing...but they had to read through the line on the screen to understand it, and then they would laugh and I was like “Ohhh...they get it!”

We took the movie from Germany to Italy, France, all throughout America and then we went to China and Korea. In China they would say, “This is a very traditional Chinese father/daughter story.”  Then in Italy they were saying, “It’s a classic Italian story because the mother-in-law is there, you know?” and I’d say, “Yup, that’s right!”  So everybody sees themselves in it.  There was no cultural divide.  Clearly America does not have a monopoly on dysfunctional families, which is very heartwarming for me.

DSHow do you split up the directorial duties?

Chris Sanders:  Kirk and I have a very similar sensibility when it comes to the movies we like and the movies we would like to make, and because of that we are able to share everything.  We start by outlining the movie together and then we split the sequences apart.  We work on different sequences in the same room, just right across table from each other.  I would write a sequence a little bit differently than Kirk might, but as long as we are writing things in the same sensibility it’s always going to fit.  I’m always anxious to read Kirk’s take on a certain scene and vice versa, and then from that point forward as we go into production we try to share everything. Having two sets of eyes is important.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be looking at a sequence for the 12th or 13th or 14th time and Kirk will suddenly catch something we didn’t notice before.

Because we’re checking each other’s work and covering this whole thing so effectively, it also allows us to have a little downtime.  Kirk has allotted to take a few days off now and then, and vice versa.  One of the things that we’ve agreed on is that we will abide by the other’s decisions should one of us be gone for a couple of days.  That way, you’re never worried that somebody is going to come back and go, “Oh my gosh, no!  Why is it green?”  The kingdom is theirs.

DSWhich of you is calmer in the face of what I’m sure is moment-to-moment adversity?

CS:  You know, I’ve found that if one of us is really upset the other one is calm in response.  If one person is throwing a fit, they’re really doing it for everybody, so it’s like having a designated driver.  You are the person who is designated to get upset today or to take on all the stress (laughs).  Some days you just absorb all the stress for that week...

DSBut does it put any additional pressure on you?  You obviously can confide in each other, but you can’t let anybody else know that you feel like your hair is on fire…

CS:  One of the things we’ve learned is that a great deal of our time is spent managing other people’s stress.  A lot of times, when people are freaking out about something they just want to know that you hear them.  Listening and letting them know you understand and have the big picture in mind regarding their situation calms everybody down.  Animation is a blessing and a curse.  It’s an extremely long process so you have plenty of time to avoid hitting a tree if you are heading towards one. But the downside is you can occasionally fiddle with things too much.  You always have to remember when something works and not forget that it worked a year or so later when you think, “Oh my gosh, that’s not funny anymore.”  Well it’s only not funny to you because you’ve seen it 57 times.  It’s funny to somebody who hasn’t seen it before.

DS:  What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film? 

KDM:  It always comes down to building the world, especially with this one.  Taking a movie that was 100% from the imaginations of the artists here at DreamWorks and agreeing on what that would look like was the biggest issue because there was nothing we could fall back on.  When Chris worked on How to Train Your Dragon, he had Vikings and dragons and could start from there.  This was a world where anything could go, which made it exciting but also made it difficult.  Everybody, including Jeffery Katzenberg, went through it with us bit by bit, leaf by leaf, tree by tree and character by character deciding the look and tone of The Croods.

The second hardest part was the story.  We were like, “Hey, why hasn’t anybody done a family film about a family?  What’s wrong with an ensemble comedy about a family?”  Then we made one and we were like, “Wow, that was really hard!”  You never get a chance to just have two characters walking along by themselves.  Everybody’s on screen all the time. We also didn’t have a traditional villain to push the plot along.  Not having a villain to cut away to could sometimes be very difficult…so we had to depend on the characters.  You really get to know them and you’re not worried about plot because we really don’t have much plot.  You’re really just spending time with them.

DSChris, going back to Disney’s Lilo & Stitch for a moment, you dealt with the issue of a dysfunctional family in animated fare before…

CS:  Yeah.  I like ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances and I’ve always gravitated towards films and stories where there are no heroes or villains.  I find people are a little bit more believable than that.  Anyone you know has good and bad qualities, and I love characters that are like that.  Kirk has the very same inclination so Lilo & Stitch and The Croods were all about characters that were just dealing with life. They have their failings.  They get anxious and they get tired and they get cross with each other, but in the end they are really good characters that support each other.  They are just going through a lot and I think that is one of the reasons people can relate to The Croods.  You very quickly forget that they are cavemen and suddenly you’re just watching your family, you know?

I think the biggest difference, of course, in The Croods is that we have a living mom, and not only do we have a living mom, but she has two daughters and a mother of her own!  So that, I have to say, is something we didn’t get into enough in the first movie and I think we really want to dig into that more in the second [the upcoming Croods sequel].  That’s the really cool thing about being able to do a sequel.  The first Croods is a lot more about a father, a daughter and this newcomer. That’s a little triangular relationship there.  Going forward there are so many characters we didn’t really get a chance to dig into, that’s something we’re going to get a chance to do.

DS:  When you guys look around at the other nominees and your industry peers, what are some of the things that inspire you, that drive you to work even harder than you already do?

CS:  No matter what the look of the film, I am always inspired by honesty in a story, and by the ability to take a risk now and then with the type of story you’re telling.   With How to Train Your Dragon we took a fresh turn in letting the main character be injured by the end of the movie.  Everything didn’t come out neat and pretty, so things like that, anything that’s unexpected inspires me.

KDM:  I actually was watching The Lego Movie this weekend and I was really inspired by the way they pushed the envelope of what an animated film means.  It is so different from the more classical structures.  We’re in this phase where Gravity is 80% animated and there’s so much animation in live action film that I’m psyched whatever I see animation kinda open up the tent a little bit.  The audiences are educated about it, they want to be taken to different places, and they’re ready, so I’m psyched when I see stuff like that.

CS:  I’m glad you said that because the thing that inspires me the most when it comes to animation isn’t animated films.  The best thing I can do while I’m working on animated films is to go see a lot of live action films.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve solved a problem in a scene that I was trying to write while watching another film that has nothing to do with mine!  It’s just when you see a story told well, it suddenly feels easier to do.  If I watch people playing tennis, I can play tennis better because they make it look so easy!  Then you go out and for the next couple of tries, you do it a little better.  There is an energy and momentum and confidence that builds when you see stuff like that.  You get reinvigorated about what you do for a living.  You go, “Oh, I love movies!  Let’s do a great movie!”

You’re trying to make this big locomotive. All too often, after a while you find yourself stooped over examining the equivalent of a wrist watch that you’re tinkering with. You’re messing with the springs and gears until somebody comes over and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…how is the locomotive going?”  And you’re like, “Oh yeah, we’re making this big giant thing and I’m focused on this little thing that I don’t need to worry about so much!”  Worry about the big stuff and the little stuff will take care of itself.  You’ve got to take a step back and remember what you’re doing.

DSBetween writing, directing and all your other duties, what gives you the greatest sense of personal satisfaction?

CS:  When I was at Disney, whenever we had the last screening before a film was released, just sitting in the theater with the crew that you’ve been with and watching the film…that to me makes everything worthwhile.  You can always look forward to that.  I also really look forward to the scoring session where you put in the music.  That is like icing a cake, but it’s more than that.  Music is real magic.  Music has the power to do stuff that nothing else does, and when you put music over a scene that you have worked so hard on, I can’t tell you how many times Kirk and I will look at each other and go, “Oh it’s a real movie now!  It just become one!  Whoa!  I knew it was going to be this someday!  I knew, I knew it, I knew it!”

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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.

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