Chris Wedge and Bill Joyce Talk Epic
To say Epic’s path to your local movieplex has been tortuous is to say that the Grand Canyon is just a big hole in the ground. Born from a shared vision of the spectacular, unseen world of tiny forest dwelling creatures, Blue Sky’s latest animated feature, Epic, concludes a 15 year quest by two Oscar®-winning directors to make a film they felt had never been made before.
Part comedy, part action-adventure, the film pits the forces of good and decay in a deadly struggle for supremacy, complete with bumbling humans, a love-struck talking slug, ninja-like Leaf Men and their relentless and mortal enemies, nasty little bugs intent on the forest’s complete destruction. Visually stunning in stereoscopic 3-D, Epic is yet another stellar feature from Blue Sky Studios, best known for their prolific Ice Age series, quietly nestled far from Hollywood in Greenwich, Connecticut, a stone’s throw from upstate New York.
In one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure to conduct, I recently spoke to both Chris and Bill about their new film, their tremendous friendship, mutual respect and respective recollections on the herculean effort it took to finally get this film made.
Dan Sarto: What originally drew you to the idea for this movie?
Chris Wedge: Well, Blue Sky has been around for 26 years, this year. We started back in the mid to late 80’s with ideas about images. Images we wanted to make, images you couldn’t make any other way, and hopefully, images you hadn’t seen before. So, I’m always working from the idea of images when I start a project. When I start thinking about animation, I always start with the world. Where would it be really cool to be? You can’t really do it any other way. You can’t take a camera there, you can’t do it with 2D or stop-motion animation. It’s just the only way you can do it. So, the idea for the movie that became Epic started with an exhibition of Victorian fairy painting that Bill Joyce turned me onto in 1998.
DS: So the collaboration with Bill on this film started way back then? Tell me a little bit how your collaboration worked, how the Leaf Men [Bill Joyce’s 1996 book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs] book was involved, what was adapted …
CW: I’ll tell you how. Every collaboration is different. Bill and I have done a couple of things together. We started this project out together 15 years ago. The inspiration came from just a notion that we can go tell a story in the forest. In 1998 I met Bill for dinner one night in New York. He’d spent the day at the Frick Museum [The Frick Collection museum] and he showed me the catalog for a show of Victorian fairy paintings that he’d seen. As I was flipping through this thing, it was just blowing my mind. The detail in these worlds, that’s when I said, “Look, ‘this’ is where we go to make a movie!”
Years went by. Bill and I are good friends and we would talk about this and that whenever we’re together. The idea to make this movie, started 1998 but we didn’t have a first draft of it until five or six years later. I brought down Jim Hart, who worked together with Bill to write the first draft. We had done a lot of talking and a lot of dreaming about it back then, but then the film languished for a couple years as other things came up. Bill, Jim and I created the basics of the world together, and from there, I developed two complete, separate drafts. It had some more fits and starts.
Around 2004, 2005, Bill was involved back then along with Greg Couch, who was also a production designer. They started with a completely immersive painting style. I wanted something that felt classic, authentic and convincing, so we were looking at, N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham, classic, big story illustrations and paintings. Around 2007, Bill went off to do his own thing and I didn’t get a green light on the film until 2009.
At that point Bill was involved with Moonbot and The Guardians so we didn’t collaborate that much on the production of it, but he was there in spirit. The production, to be fair, was done completely at Blue Sky. Bill had early input and we kept Bill up-to-date as much as we could while we were making it. But for the most part the design and the story telling all happened here at Blue Sky.
Bill Joyce: The first thing I remember is we were driving out to your boat and we were getting close to being done with Robots. It was early spring. It was a Friday and it had been such a “week.” We were talking, “You know, if you want to do ‘this’ again, if you want to work together ‘again,’ you need to start thinking of something.” And I thought, “Awesome” and said, “Leaf Men,” which really was referring back to the show at the Frick that I’d seen on Thanksgiving weekend ’98. We were all up in John Lasseter’s suite at the Waldorf Towers, and I brought a little book from the show. You were like, “They’re so awesome!” But it wasn’t like, “Let’s make this movie.” It wasn’t until we we’re driving to the boat, I don’t know, three years later?
CW: Chris Meledandri introduced Bill and I over the phone and then we had dinner in Santa Monica. You were around pitching Santa Calls and we were an upstart animation company. You and I were always talking about things to do. We had developed Santa Calls. We did an animation test at Blue Sky and then it got shit-canned by Fox. And I remember being on a phone call with you when you said, “Well what do we do?”
BJ: We had wanted to do a Robin Hood movie, but everybody was three inches tall…
CW: Everything builds on something else. It started with the notion that people have had for centuries, that there are little creatures that we can’t see, little beings living in the woods. They know about us and stay out of our way. It was this Frick catalog, with these articulate paintings of little civilizations, of Kings, coronations, weddings and funerals for these little creatures, that I remember being influenced by the most …
BJ: Funerals, yeah.
CW: …a funeral for a bird. A bunch of little guys standing around with a dead bird and everybody looks sad.
BJ: …basically, it just queued up at that point. We were getting done with Robots. I wanted to figure out a decent story. Jim Hart and I had been talking and we finally came up with something we thought was good and we pitched it to Chris and he liked it.