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'Ratatouille', WonderCon, Jar Jar Binks: Patton Oswalt Talks

Prior to the Disney/Pixar Ratatouille presentation at WonderCon earlier this year, Andrew Farago was granted a one-on-one interview with comedian/actor/writer Patton Oswalt to discuss his starring role in the upcoming film.

Patton Oswalt and Remy, the character Oswalt voices in Ratatouille, share a love for good food and chefs.

Andrew Farago: It's March 3, 2007...

Patton Oswalt: That's a lie!

AF: ...and I'm here with Patton Oswalt, and we're at WonderCon here in San Francisco. Have you been to any comic conventions before?

PO: I go to San Diego [Comic-Con International] every year, and sometimes, every other Saturday, they do this one in downtown L.A., this con at the Shrine or something, but I tend not to go to a lot, because I just spend so much money when I go to these things. I can't help myself. There's so much stuff that I want all the time, that I just try to stay away and have some discipline. Well, what little discipline I have, which isn't much.

AF: And what do you buy when your discipline breaks down?

PO: I like a lot of original art, sculpture, first edition books... There are a lot of old booksellers here who have old hardback editions of authors like Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and stuff like that... I still have a list of stuff I'm looking for, a want list, and I tend to space that out a little bit.

AF: And it's safe to call you a longtime fan of comics and cartoons?

PO: Ohhhhh, yeah. I remember seeing [Pixar's first short] Luxo Jr. when the Spike & Mike Festival was first starting out, when that came through Washington D.C., like in 1986, I remember seeing that. So that's how far back I go. And I have all the Looney Tunes stuff, and I know all those animators, and the history of it, so... yeah, I'm a big fan.

AF: And did that spark your interest in doing voice-over work?


Oswalt was invited up to the Emeryville campus to talk to Ratatouille director Brad Bird about the lead role of Remy. All Ratatouille images © Disney/Pixar. 

PO: Yeah, but I didn't really pursue voice-over work so much as I used to do stand-up and hang around and start getting offered stuff. It kind of happened organically, that way. It wasn't anything I pursued, but now I do it all the time.

AF: You've done a little bit of everything. Videogames...

PO: Yep.

AF: Saturday morning cartoons...

PO: Uh-huh.

AF: And now you're hitting the big screen.

PO: Yep. This one's my first animated movie, and I'm playing the lead!

AF: How did Pixar approach you for this role?

PO: I was invited up to the Emeryville campus, and I talked to [ director] Brad Bird for a while about the movie. And, because the movie's about a rat that's really into food, I started talking about how much of a foodie I am, and all of my favorite restaurants, and favorite chefs. I think that's what really cinched the role for me. I have that same obsession that Remy has.

AF: Where do you eat when you're in San Francisco?

PO: My home base restaurant that I always go to is a place in the Mission called Andalou, at 16th & Guerrero. And that chef, Calvin Schneider, is one of my favorite chefs in the city. Every time I come here, I call him and ask, "What's a new place I should try out?" So every time I come to San Francisco, there are always two or three new restaurants I go to. My current list is Michael Mina at the St. Regis; Canteen, which is next to the, I think, being-torn-down Commodore, on Sutter; Coco 500, down at Brannan and Fourth is pretty amazing, and tonight, I finally get to go to The Salt House, on Mission Street, which I've been dying to go to.

AF: I live about two blocks from Andalou.

PO: Have you eaten there?

AF: Not yet...

PO: You should go! It's great food, and it's really cheap to eat there, with all the little plates. For five or six bucks apiece, you get a table full of food, and you don't spend a lot but you'll look like a big shot... oh, it's the best!

AF: Thanks for the tip. So... what sets Pixar apart from the other studios where you've worked for in the past?

PO: I think the fact that they are using the classic Disney model, which is the "take your time, put all the money that you've earned back into the company, and make sure that everything you do is completely unique and solid, and unlike anything that you've put out there before" model. They take constant right turns, and make big leaps forward with every picture, as far as knowledge, art, storytelling. Also, the other crucial thing about Pixar is they really invest in someone's dream and obsession. There are movies that people are working on there that have been in production for years, because, instead of cranking out two or three mediocre movies a year, they'll wait five or six years to make sure that something really different and new comes out of it.

AF: I know that Brad Bird, for example, doesn't have that many feature films to his credit, but the ones he's done are amazing. Iron Giant and The Incredibles are two of my all-time favorite animated features.

PO: Exactly. He wants a "body of work." He wants to look back and say, "Look what I did." He's not in a hurry about it, either, which I think is great.

AF: Can you tell me a little bit about the character you're voicing in his upcoming movie Ratatouille?

PO: Sure. Remy's basically a rat version of me, and my obsession with chefs and food. Except that he's somehow managed to be slimmer. Maybe that's because he doesn't gorge himself like I do. (Laughs.) He'll hold out for the good stuff.

AF: And you haven't seen very much of the film yet?

PO: No... I've seen a few scenes, but that's it. But I've seen stuff like the pencils, and the storyboards, and stuff like that. They really take their time with these things.

Oswalt found Brad Bird very openly obsessed with making Ratatouille perfect, which links into the movie; Remy wants everything to be perfect.

AF: I've heard that they're going to be putting in a lot of long hours over the next few months with all of the finishing touches and all of the editing...

PO: Oh, yeah. Brad Bird's very openly obsessed with making it perfect. Which kind of links into the movie. That's what it's about. Remy wants everything to be perfect.

AF: Was there any pressure on you with this role? Pixar's had a lot of really great voice actors over the years -- Tom Hanks, Albert Brooks, Paul Newman...

PO: There's not just pressure as far as that's concerned, but I'm also concerned about whether my voice will live up to the art, and the animation, and the directing that's being done for this movie. I don't want people to watch the movie and go, "That voice was lame." It links you to the whole thing exponentially.

AF: You don't want to be the Jar-Jar Binks of this movie.

PO: Oh, god, don't say that. Please, please, don't say that. (Laughs.) Oh, god, I don't wanna be Jar-Jar Binks. (Laughs.)

AF: I just want to say that you've got a lovely speaking voice, and I'm sure that it will carry over into the film.

PO: (affecting deep voice) Why, thank you. I think that's true, myself. (Laughs.)

AF: Did you get along well with your co-stars? Any interesting stories about them?

PO: I actually haven't met any of them. You're in a booth alone most of the time, and I haven't done scenes with any other people yet. (Pause.) I've met Pete Sohn, who plays my brother, Emile. He's great. He's one of the animators, so I've gotten to work with him.

AF: And the recording's all done on-site, at the studio in Emeryville, with the actors all coming in separately...

PO: Uh-huh.

AF: And is that typical in voice acting?

PO: It usually is. Very rarely will you get to do things together. I've gotten to do, maybe a SpongeBob SquarePants and a Batman where we got to bounce back and forth, but for the most part, you're by yourself.

AF: I just got the "wrap it up" signal... Do you have any parting words?

PO: (Pause.) Oh man, I hate parting words. They always sound so cheesy. Um... "I'm as excited to see this movie as you guys are to be reading this." How's that?

AF: Works for me.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager/curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, and is the creator of the webcomic The Chronicles of William Bazillion.