Out of Character: The Making of Joseph

by Robert Ramirez

Director Robert Ramirez. Photo © 2000 Dreamworks LLC.

Editor's Note: When I sat down to watch DreamWorks' Joseph: King of Dreams, I expected a typical direct-to-video production. In fact, perhaps I was even more skeptical due to the subject matter that could have been dry and stilted, toeing a careful line so as to not upset anyone. However, what I saw on my little screen was so much more than I expected. The story was vibrant and touching, the relationships real and the lessons learned an organic experience, not a preaching morality tale. From the imaginative dream sequences to the stylish design work, I was impressed! Luckily, co-director Robert Ramirez was willing to share his creative experience...

It was a Tuesday afternoon in September when I heard the thud on my front porch. Before I opened the door, I knew what it was. DreamWorks' Publicity Department had messengered over a compilation of early press reviews on Joseph: King of Dreams, a film I had spent almost three years working on. I nonchalantly took the package, slowly went upstairs and closed my office door. The moment I sat at my desk, I cut the act. I shredded open the envelope the way the Tasmanian Devil tears through trees. What did the first non-animation industry movie critics think? Did the story work? Were the characters interesting? Whoever tells you reviews are not important is not being realistic. Of course reviews are important. An honest movie critic with no agenda can give a filmmaker something he or she has lost a long time ago: objectivity. Because of the process, a filmmaker might sit through a film well over a hundred times. After a while, scenes that once felt dramatic feel flat and jokes fizzle. So what did the early press reviews reveal?

Joseph gets a better look at the special coat his mother, Rachel, weaves for him. TM and © 2000 Dreamworks LLC.

The reviews for Joseph have generally been very good, but instead of going on about the positive press it's received, I'd rather dive into a period years ago when the film was not working very well, when the storytelling was heavy-handed, klunky and what we discovered as a crew that made it a whole lot better. But first, a brief synopsis.

Joseph: King of Dreams is based on the Bible story found early on in the Old Testament (not the campy Andrew Lloyd Weber musical). Joseph was a spoiled seventeen-year-old boy who was adored by his father, Jacob, and loathed by his brothers. Who could blame them? While they had to work all day in the scorching fields, Joseph learned to read and write, and pranced around in a luxurious coat his father had given him. To make matters worse, Joseph had vivid, wild dreams that foretold his rise to greatness above his family, so his brothers did what any group of sniveling siblings would do. They sold him into slavery, tore up his coat, doused it with sheep's blood, and told their parents that Joseph was killed by wild animals. (Very Jerry Springer.)

Joseph, alone and alienated from his brothers. TM and © 2000 Dreamworks LLC.

In Egypt, Joseph's charm and dream-reading talents allowed him to prosper and eventually rise up to be second in command over the great nation. His life seemed complete once he found a loving wife and started his own family, until a great famine struck all of Egypt (as he had predicted) and a familiar group of strangers showed up begging for food. These "strangers" turned out to be his brothers. Now it was Joseph's turn. Would he follow his initial gut instinct and enslave them? Abuse them? Kill them? Or would he rise above hatred and forgive them? In a nutshell, that's what the crux of the story is about: forgiveness.

December of 1997 was a great time on the production. While the script was being fleshed out, Paul Duncan (the head background painter) and Brian Andrews (story artist) were creating some phenomenal conceptual artwork. Francisco Avalos and Nasos Vakalis were doing storyboards based on a rough story outline. Weeks later we started assembling a very talented story crew that included artists that had both television and feature experience. We had a script that was well-structured and followed the Bible story fairly accurately. Once the First Act was storyboarded, we filmed the panels, recorded a temp vocal track with music, and edited it all together to create the storyreel. We were excited and ready for our First Act screening for Jeffrey Katzenberg, which was set for an early weekend morning in the New Year of 1998.


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