While participating in the Madagascar  junket, Ben Stiller pitched an idea for a super villain protagonist that director Tom McGrath immediately responded to. Unfortunately, DreamWorks couldn't get Robert Downey Jr. and Stiller to join the voice cast because of their busy schedules. But they did land Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Brad Pitt to star in the role bending Megamind, which Stiller co-produced, opening Nov. 5 from DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures. McGrath discusses what it was like working with Ferrell, Fey and Pitt City and raising the animation and 3-D bars.
Bill Desowitz: It's interesting that with Megamind and Despicable Me  you have two different takes on the super villain as hero.
Tom McGrath: Yeah, and I was disheartened when I heard about it and we were half-way through production, because that's what sold me on the movie originally. Other than the Grinch, I can't think of too many stories that are centered on the villain. Nightmare Before Christmas, to a degree. So I was worried about it. But what we were going for with this film was not playing to the younger crowd as much as to the people that know the genre. We're all doing our thing and for us it's very hard in animation and I'm sure the folks on Despicable Me were wondering about what was in our head as well. I think they're very much different -- ours is a complete anti-hero story; the full arc.
BD: As you've said, Megamind takes its cue from Superman: "What if Lois and Lex find out they were meant to be together?"
TM: And the handle that I took was that these characters were rock stars: In the design it was always Megamind's Alice Cooper vs. Metro City's Elvis Presley in the way they handle their stage presence. But after seeing Despicable Me, I thought it was charming and didn't feel threatened by it, other than from the standpoint of their both being from the point of view of villains. But I don't think it takes anything away.
BD: What were the story challenges?
TM: To make the villain empathetic. And casting was a big part of that. Will can be vulnerable and charming, so I give a lot of credit to him. Having that charm.
BD: He never gives up.
TM: Yeah, that's his super power. The humor sprung from character.
TM: We did all the sessions in New York and just picked three key ones where they're interacting together. And no wall between them. The timing in their acting and the pauses made such a difference and they can't be manufactured. Tiny provided smarts and was real aware of the character. There was one point where Tina offered a couple of her writers off 30 Rock, Robert Carlock, who's a genius, and Matt Hubbard. They came in, watched the film and brainstormed; and it was great to get insight into their process and how they work on their show. We probably used just a handful of lines because it was late in the game.
BD: Anything in particular?
TM: Yeah, there's a dry scene when Megamind has created Tighten [Jonah Hill] and he comes to Roxanne's door. And she says, "Why did my doorman let you up?" And he holds up the dehydrated guy and she goes, "Carlos!"
BD: I understand you got some comments from Guillermo del Toro. What were his suggestions?
TM: We were about three weeks out from finishing the movie, and Guillermo had just come to the studio to consult on other projects and make his own animated movie [Trollhunters]. So he saw the movie and really liked it -- the whole story about good vs. evil and breaking down stereotypes -- and had one big note: "What if in the opening shot [Megamind] is falling to his death?" We always opened with the origin story and how he fell to earth. That kind of pulled everything full circle as we revisit that scene at the end of the film. It just kind of plugged right in and felt really good and was great to have that fresh, filmmaker set of eyes on the movie. Something he and Cameron  do on their films -- to be blatant about it -- is "frame f…ing," where you cut the heads and tails off just as a pacing thing and so by doing that we ended up speeding up the pacing.
BD: Wasn't the biggest challenge making us believe that she falls for him?
TM: Yeah, that was the biggest, hardest thing to pull off and the thing you worry about when you go home at night. But the thing about it is there's the stage presence of Megamind, where he's big and powerful, but then there's the guy behind the mask because it's the story of a guy who wants to just fit in and be considered normal, so, in some way, there's a little Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast . And that's what she's drawn to: that side of him that's beneath the mask.
TM: Brad's great. The interesting thing for me was that the first movie I ever worked on was Cool World in 1990 -- and I met Brad. He was this young guy with great hair and you just knew that he was going to be somebody. So 20 years later, he has no memory of me, which is understandable. He was fine -- he's very physical and a lot funnier than people assume. To break out in animation, we talked about his role being kind of this Elvis guy that can work a crowd, so I gave him this hand-held mike just because the first recordings you felt he was pinned behind this podium. And then later on he'd still be roaming around the whole sound booth with the mike; it does affect your voice when you are so physical.
BD: So what was the animation challenge?
TM: To try and make the acting more sophisticated and more nuanced. We had better tools to do it now and so you want the comedic timing and comedic broadness, but to also get the subtlety of the love story. We did multiple takes to find the fine nuance. For example, the scene in the rain when she says, "How could you be so evil tricking me? What were you hoping to gain?" His response was, "Because I love you." And to do that you had to be very subtle in how he moved his head and what's reading in his eyes. The technology has come a long way but I think what Cameron did with Avatar  helps elevate animation because he credits the actors and it was based on their performance, but we're still animators taking our cues from what the camera captures.
BD: And I like your notion of 3-D allowing us to be a better voyeur with action as well as intimacy.
TM: Yeah, it's the difference from being objective to subjective, in a way. It makes you more a part of it.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.