Producer Mark Swift talks about the development of DreamWorks Animation’s blockbuster adventure-comedy now in theaters, and why the long-awaited swashbuckling feline’s return is his favorite of all the films he’s worked on.
When you’ve played a key role in bringing to fruition the epic movie that is Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, it’s understandable that you may feel your work in this life is finished. Regarding that 2017 release, producer Mark Swift says, “I read the books with my kids, and I loved the idea of a movie. I knew DreamWorks had the rights and were talking about making it, but [CEO of DreamWorks Animation] Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn't a huge fan. But they'd have these meetings, and I would just walk in and offer ideas and thoughts, and eventually someone said, ‘Oh, you must be the producer on this film,’ and I was like, ‘yeah.’ I willed my way onto it.’”
While that redoubtable accomplishment may have been enough for some of us, Swift fearlessly carried on with other adventures in animation, including The Croods: A New Age (2020) and, most recently, DreamWorks’ new adventure-comedy, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. Featuring a phenomenal cast and a glowing, painterly design that goes beyond anything DreamWorks has done before, the long-awaited sequel to the 2011 spinoff from the Shrekaverse finds the eponymous adventurer facing his mortality –after years of reckless carousing, he’s used up eight of his nine lives, and restoring them will require a daunting journey into the Black Forest. It will also require that he seek help from his former partner and nemesis Kitty Softpaws, and keep one step ahead of the Three Bears Crime Family, “Big” Jack Horner, and the big, bad Wolf.
Among the many pleasures of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is that the above-mentioned characters are played by Salma Hayek, Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman, Samson Kayo, John Mulaney, and Wagner Moura. The dream cast, which also includes Antonio Banderas as Puss, Harvey Guillén (What We Do in the Shadows) as the therapy dog Perrito, and Florence Pugh as Goldilocks, came together over the sequel’s many years of development. When Swift joined the party, he says, some actors were already attached, but he and the other creators did a lot of rejigging.
“When we came in, Florence was already being discussed for Goldi, but we changed up her character and changed up the character of Three Bears,” he recounts. “We went with a down-market, Cockney version of them. So they're still a crime family, but you get the sense they're not a very good crime family. They're a little low-rent. Immediately, Ray Winstone, who always plays that kind of gruff Cockney on the wrong side of the law, came to mind. For Baby Bear, they did a great job casting Samson, who’s fantastic and so joyful in the movie, and such a contrast to Florence, where you really get that sibling dynamic.”
He continues, “The actors add so much to the Goldi and the mother storyline, which is where the heart is in that story. Some of Florence and Olivia’s readings are so beautiful, so perfect. I've seen this movie thousands of times and, every time when Goldi says, ‘I'm not a bear. You're not my family. I'm looking for a proper family,” and the mother says, "I knew it was too good to last, but you need that star, we'll help you get the star,’ it brings a lump to my throat. I'm really loving how many people in the reviews are bringing them up because, when you think about it, they don't get a huge amount of screen time.”
As for Guillén, Swift says that, as fans of What We Do in the Shadows, the producers felt the choice was obvious once they realized they wanted to cast a Spanish-speaking actor.
“At the start of the movie, we're in some kind of Spanish or Mexican town, and we felt that everyone in that town should be a native Spanish speaker,” he explains. “We were looking for a sweet, kind of naive voice, and I think three of us said his name at the same time. He actually came in and tested, and we were like, ‘yeah, he's awesome.’”
Perhaps the most surprising character in the film is the Wolf, who, as the physical embodiment of Death, has what you might call a seriously dark side, as well as a complex role to play in the narrative. At the same time, there’s a fun aspect to the character that makes him more than simply a one-dimensional incarnation of evil. Again, Swift credits the actor with helping to realize the character’s multifaceted personality.
“Wagner Moura was a great partner in finding him,” he relates. “We had to move very fast on that character. It was the first sequence we were actually putting into animation and Wagner came to it late. So we were still trying to find that character when we met with him. And one of the things we discovered is that Wolf can kill Puss at any minute. Once we realized that he's playing with him, he's having fun, it gave him a little more personality. But it was important for us that the wolf thinks of himself as funny – if you met him in a bar and it was his day off, he'd be saying, ‘I'm a funny guy. In my job, I like to mess around with people.’ This is a big deal to him. He wants to make a statement. He wants to let Puss know that he's playing with him. But he waits a while to reveal who he is.”
As mentioned above, the animation design in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish – which integrates a number of different styles, and aspires to a kind of storybook aesthetic – is a significant departure for DreamWorks Animation. Swift explains that one of the major challenges for production designer Nate Wragg and his team in developing the look was finding the right balance between audience expectations and the desire to forge a new style.
“The thing they were bumping into initially is that this is not an original movie,” he says. “The audience comes into this movie with an expectation of how Puss and Kitty are going to look because they've seen them in the previous movie. Puss is a cat – he's furry, he's cuddly, he's very three-dimensional, and you want to keep that. But we were also flattening the backgrounds, giving it a little bit more of a 2D look, and trying to integrate our 3D characters into that was where we were bumping and where things were popping a little bit. In the end, they came up with a really good balance. When you're seeing Puss in close-up, it's still the Puss you know and love. I think it's a better looking Puss than the last movie, but it's not completely toon-shaded out so it's a different version of him. And, at the start, when he picks up an object, it was looking like it wasn’t all within the same film. So that took a while to figure out. We tried to give the action sequences an anime kind of vibe, but that didn’t work throughout, because for the more emotional moments, we want to be in there with Puss and see it in a more traditional way.”
Swift previously worked with director Joel Crawford on The Croods: A New Age, and the two have developed a close working relationship. This served them especially well in the new film, since, as Swift recounts, there were significant time constraints and they had to move quickly. While he and Crawford had primary responsibility for figuring out what the movie was going to be, it was very much a group effort that also involved co-director Januel Mercado, head of story Heidi Jo Gilbert, editor Jim Ryan, and writer Paul Fisher.
“We work a little bit like a writers’ room, where everyone's pitching in,” Swift elaborates. “You get disagreements in there, but indecision is worse than a decision in some ways, so we just make a decision. A lot of times, we can revert that decision because we're going to put it up in a screening and storyboard. If it doesn't work, we'll have another go at it. But I think my job sometime is to say, ‘okay, we've talked enough, now we're moving this way.’ Nine times out of 10, I'm going to do whatever Joel says he wants to do. He has the deciding vote, and I just have to let everyone in the room know that's where we're going.”
If working against a punishing deadline while taking into account the thoughts and opinions of a daunting number of stakeholders – including Executive Producer Chris Meledandri, DreamWorks Animation Chief Creative Officer Kristin Lowe and President Margie Cohn, Universal Pictures, not to mention the development team – was the biggest challenge on the film, Swift cites the interaction with his co-workers as the biggest pleasure.
“I've been in animation 30-something years now, and this is my favorite movie ever that I've worked on, both in terms of the result and in terms of how we got there,” he enthuses. “And it comes down to people. When you have Joel Crawford, Januel Mercado, Nate Wragg, Jim Ryan, all these people who we very carefully selected – everyone worked together so well. We laughed every day. We joked about it. Even when things were tense, we still kept laughing and joking through it. And I think we created an environment and an atmosphere that allowed creative ideas and notes to come up from everyone.”
“Puss in Boots 2 started in a negative place for a lot of people,” Swift explains. ”It's a sequel to a spinoff of a franchise that has maybe seen better days. So you're coming in and you're having to dig out of that hole. We wanted to demonstrate that this wasn’t a lazy kind of cash grab. This was something that we were passionate about. We thought it could be an artistic triumph. And so just to feel that love back from people, it's great. It's really rewarding.”