Director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) was definitely looking to break free from the world of Shrek with the Puss in Boots origin story (opening today). The characters had lost their edge and the satirical tone was no longer fresh. He wanted to try something more character driven and ironic. He wanted Puss to have a redemption story and a world that evoked Clint Eastwood and The Mask of Zorro to play off of Antonio Banderas' persona. Then when he learned that Guillermo del Torro was coming to DreamWorks to work as an exec producer, he beamed. What an opportunity! Indeed, del Torro took to Puss like a cat to milk and Miller says he provided just the right kind of creative guidance (Humpty Dumpty should be an inventor and the beanstalk escape needed more of a point of view in its cutting). We recently chatted about the Puss in Boots experience.
Bill Desowitz: It's interesting how you totally make us forget about Shrek. This is such a different world. More life-like and less like a fairy tale in many respects.
Chris Miller: Well, it starts with Puss in Boots, who's small but larger than life.
BD: And the scale is enormous but you forget how tiny he is.
CM: Scale was definitely a challenge, especially up in the clouds.
BD: Talk about that challenge.
CM: That was the crazy part of the film to figure out. We had the giant in the film. And we racking our brains going down this cul-de-sac trying to find what on Earth could be unique about this giant. Is he a two-headed giant? Is he an inventor? Is he an astronomer?
BD: So you took the inventor idea and gave it to Humpty?
CM: Yeah, in a way, we ended up doing that. The unexpected thing is that we killed the giant. You go up there and you don't find the giant. And that was a turning point.
BD: What did it take technically to pull off the beanstalk and the clouds?
CM: Years of pain and torture. The clouds in particular. That's something that's always been cheated. And then doing three-dimensional clouds is very time consuming to give it volume and dimensionality [and backlighting through multi-scattering].
BD: New procedural simulation?
CM: Yes, it's difficult when you come into contact with characters, and the problem, again, of scale. So it was really trying to find that balance between a convincing landscape and having these tiny figures stand out. The same with the beanstalk, which is like a character and very complex [the way it sprouts quickly out of the ground and grows procedurally].
BD: And what about Humpty Dumpty, who is such a unique-looking character with his odd shape, short arms and egg-shell color?
CM: Very much so. To me, he was a blank page: instantly recognizable but a peripheral nursery rhyme character. I wanted to create a character that was definitely an outsider, picked on, on the fringe of his little orphanage, but really smart, and very much a da Vinci mastermind. And a dreamer. At least when he was young, his ambitions were artistic and not destructive. When his dreams didn't come true, greed took over and a sense of entitlement. And that coupled with desperation when it looks like he's losing his one friend in the world. The brotherhood story really drives everything for him. He's very complex: jealousy and resentment and it made for a really compelling character. And he makes some horrific choices: the betrayal. One of the biggest tricks for us was, after he sets Puss up, trying to redeem his character honestly. If that didn't work, I don't think the film works at all.
BD: The whole thing is predicated on reversal of expectations.
CM: Yes, definitely. Humpty Dumpty isn't as he seems; Jack has a strong maternal streak; and Kitty and Puss are unpredictable.
BD: What was del Toro's biggest contribution?
CM: He loved the film already and followed the path that we were on and supported it. He was really helpful in actions scenes. In particular, there's a great action scene when they're escaping the castle and all the spectacular shots were in there of the landscape, but we couldn't figure out why it was so disconnected. We thought it was really long yet we kept cutting stuff out and it still seemed disconnected. We brought Guillermo in and asked what he thought, and he just looked at it and said we needed to add stuff. You need to add a close-up here; you need to add a character reaction here; you're not with the characters in this world. It didn't feel long anymore -- it felt right. Point of view in a big set piece. You can fall in love with the incredible artwork you've created. He was invaluable in those kinds of situations.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.