Joel Crawford, director of DreamWorks Animation’s latest adventure-comedy, talks about Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and the making of his new film about the famous whiskered adventurer’s coming to grips with mortality, a brilliant, instant classic, now in theaters.
More than 10 years after DreamWorks Animation’s CG-animated comedy Puss in Boots first spun its way out of the immensely popular Shrek franchise, everyone’s favorite swashbuckling, fear-defying feline has returned.
Released theatrically in the U.S. on December 21 to near universal critical acclaim – including a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – Puss in Boots: The Last Wish finds the daring whiskered adventurer facing the disconcerting fact that, after years of devil-may-care mayhem, he’s managed to burn through eight of his nine lives. Restoring them will involve an epic journey into the Black Forest to find the mythical Wishing Star; but, with only one life left, Puss will have to ask for help from his former partner and nemesis Kitty Softpaws, and enlist the aid of a relentlessly cheerful mutt, while staying one step ahead of Goldi and the Three Bears Crime Family, “Big” Jack Horner, and the bounty hunter the Wolf.
Starring Academy Award nominees Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek Pinault and Florence Pugh, Emmy winner John Mulaney, Harvey Guillén, Wagner Moura, Ray Winstone, and Olivia Colman, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was directed by Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age), co-directed by Januel Mercado (Trolls 2: World Tour) and produced by Mark Swift (The Croods: A New Age). We spoke with Crawford about his funny and expertly crafted sophomore feature film directorial effort, which (spoiler alert) turned out be one of the better experiences of his life thus far.
AWN: The film has a phenomenal cast. You were able to develop all these new characters, and they were all fantastic. How were you able to pull that off so successfully?
Joel Crawford: The key word you said there is “develop.” It's always such a challenge to have enough screen time to truly develop the experience of all the key characters. Januel Mercado, our co-director, and I love Akira Kurosawa movies and Sergio Leone movies. One of the templates for this film was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That provided our structure, and helped us figure out how many characters we needed.
For the good, you've got Puss in Boots, of course. You've got Kitty Softpaws, and then the dog who joins them. The bad, clearly, is Jack Horner, played by John Mulaney. In our version, it was “The Good, the Bad and the Goldi,” with Florence Pugh playing Goldilocks, and Olivia Colman, Samson Kayo, and Ray Winstone as the three bears. They weren't good, they weren't bad, they were just misunderstood. It made for this perfect structure.
I knew we had an amazing cast, but what I didn't expect was how much they were going to be partners with us on creating the story. As I walked each actor through the plot, I was just blown away by how each of them was able to bring personal themes and experiences that we'd then work into the story. The theme that rose to the top was gratitude and appreciation. It was just so cool that our cast was able not just to deliver on a great Shrek-universe Puss in Boots next chapter, but take us to new emotional levels and depth. The best thing about animation is that it's a collaboration, including with the cast.
AWN: How did you come up with Goldilocks and the three bears as low-level British hoodlums?
JC: Our very own British hoodlum, producer Mark Swift, played a big part in that. When we were talking about the characters, he was like, “Oh, they have to be Cockney, and they have to be rough-edged.” When you first meet them, you're like, "Oh, they're a smash-and-grab group.” But you gradually realize, they may be this crime family, but they’re still a family, and there's this warmth among them. It was organic, just having a love of these crime movies, and Guy Ritchie films. And getting Ray Winstone to play Papa Bear was the ultimate coup in that regard.
Also, in unlocking Goldilocks's story, we wanted to tap into the heart of this girl who's an orphan, who was searching for this perfect family. Even in her character design, she's wearing all this jewelry that doesn't match. We always imagined she would go around stealing stuff, and she's trying to recreate, in her mind, the perfect princess of this perfect family. Florence Pugh would describe her as a “pixie pirate.” All these ingredients just came together perfectly.
AWN: Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the character arc for the Wolf. There's a subtlety in the way he’s used in the film, which resolved believably and wonderfully in the final act.
JC: Januel Mercado, Mark Swift, and I were always asking each other, "What are the key relationships? Which relationships are we rooting for?" One of the most surprising relationships is Puss in Boots and this bounty hunter, Wolf – because it's actually Puss in Boots who has this flawed point of view about life. He's living as if he were immortal. And you have this Wolf who isn't wrong in his point of view.
I mentioned how I love Akira Kurosawa, his samurai movies, and there's this idea of honor that really played into how we treated the Wolf, especially regarding his arc with Puss. He can look Puss in the eyes at the end, and there's this thing of, "I want to kill you, but I can't now that you've changed." Puss and the Wolf both have their strong moral codes, and it was interesting to let that play out.
Also, Wagner Moura, who plays the Wolf, has this quirkiness, so he's not just an evil character. I really attribute so much of the nuance and subtlety to Wagner, who was just a great partner in finding the character. We spent hours and hours going over the lines, trying different iterations, different flavorings. It's wonderful when you can have that time to play and discover with the actor.
AWN: With regard to Puss being on his last life, and your showing his eight previous deaths, the production notes say that you had 65 different ideas before you chose eight. What was that selection process like?
JC: It's been over a decade since the last Puss in Boots, and the story has gone through so many iterations since then. This idea of Puss being on his last life has been around for a while, so there's been a lot of mining of that. The thing that unlocked it for us was, no matter how funny the gags are – funny ways that Puss could die – it came down to his hubris and ego. Puss is so cavalier about life, he's living as if he's immortal, and he just throws the lives away. That was the thing – each one had to be his fault. Even in the death by the falling bell, it was because he couldn’t resist the curtain call. He's just like, "All right, all right, I'll come out for one more number." Everything had to be caused by his own arrogance, but also had to be really fun to watch.
AWN: The animation design takes a significant departure from previous DreamWorks films, more in line with what we're seeing in more and more big features. How did you arrive at some of the somewhat graphical, stylized looks in the film?
JC: We were very fortunate to have Nate Wragg as our production designer, and Mark Edwards as the visual effects supervisor. There's a technical achievement in the look that was not easy to find. Beyond the idea of “everything can be more graphic, more stylized, more like a fairytale painting,” finding that line was difficult for us. So there was a lot of trial and error in the visual development.
For example, there was the question of how much fur we should see. If you take it to the extreme, and it's too flat and graphic, all of a sudden, you lose the charm of Puss in Boots, this little cat with the voice of this man. It seemed to simplify too much. On the other extreme is the classic CG, where you can see every hair, but it doesn't feel distinctive. So, we really had to do a wedge test on every aspect of this movie.
That was extended after we had the character designs. When we went into lighting, after animation, we were seeing the scenes. We would sit in the theater, thinking we were looking at a visual development painting, and then it would start to play. It was the actual animated scene, and the lighting had captured that fairytale painting in movement. That was one of the most exciting things about this process. We found the style together, and the end result is better than what I could have imagined.
AWN: How difficult was it for the team to animate in the different styles? Did it require modifying the pipeline?
JC: Absolutely. There's so much behind the scenes that I'm sure I didn't even know about, that really gave people headaches. Ludo Bouancheau, the head of animation, was an amazing partner. As a director, I can't possibly understand all the technical aspects of it. I just had to provide a fundamental philosophy to guide our choices, so that we didn't just use every tool in the box.
One of the exciting things, as we're expanding the toolbox that we're using for animated movies, is that they don't have to look like CG. You don't have to animate on one frame – it can be stepped, where you're holding for a couple frames at a time, and you get this stylized look. It feels fantastical, it doesn't feel grounded, it feels larger than life, more exciting, more pushed, and we decided to use that to our advantage in telling the point of view of Puss. When we're in high-octane action scenes, we would use this stepped animation. Then, when we wanted to feel more nuanced, more grounded in life, we went back to the traditional, with everything being on ones. So, the audience is right there with Puss' point of view, as it shifts and flourishes throughout the story.
AWN: Before Puss in Boots, you directed another big film, The Croods: A New Age. Did you learn anything on that movie that served you well in this one? And did you pick anything up on this one that you’ll use in your next film?
JC: One of the things that I really discovered on The Croods, which was my feature directorial debut, was how much the process of creating a movie is improv. As I mentioned, I don't understand all the technical aspects. But I love how people who are specialists in these fields all come together. Whether it's the animation team doing something better than you expected, or working with the actors to find the best way to read the lines, I was just excited about how we were discovering it all together.
In this movie, one of the things I discovered that I hope to continue in future storytelling opportunities, is emphasizing the characters’ relationships. In studying story structure, and studying screenwriting, and different aspects of storytelling, I was very focused on character arcs. The thing that really came into focus in Puss in Boots is the characters’ relationships to each other, because that's where you really feel the change that happens. I just have this love of nuance with characters and how they start one way and, by the end of the journey, the picture is so different.
AWN: These types of films are so big, there's a million decisions that get made every day, some tougher than others. What were the biggest challenges for you on the film?
JC: That's a great question. I think one of the challenges was that, when DreamWorks set out to make this movie, they wanted to make sure this was not just another sequel. It took over a decade to come out with the next Puss in Boots. So, there was this high bar, based on the idea that it should not only continue what people love about the Puss in Boots and Shrek universe, but expand it and go unexpected places.
Our approach was, “This is going to be a swashbuckling big adventure with comedy that everybody's expecting, but we want to go further. We want to really make this movie about the experience of life, and really have people come out of this movie celebrating their own lives.” That was probably the biggest challenge, that we had this ambitious goal. I hope that audiences come away from this movie feeling full of life.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.