Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan direct the first ever R-rated CG animated film about sausages, buns and their existential quest for life’s greater truths.
Michael Cera, Salma Hayek, Jonah Hill, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Danny McBride, Edward Norton, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Kristen Wiig star in a CG animated film about sausages, buns and a host of other supermarket products on an existential quest to find the greater truths in life. The film was conceived by Rogan and his frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg, who’ve brought us comedy gold like This is the End and Superbad. It’s rated R. James Franco plays a human character named Druggie. Craig Robinson plays a character named Grits. You do the math…
U.S. audiences today get their first ‘taste’ of Rogen and Goldberg’s raucous new comedy, Sausage Party, a film that bucks conventional wisdom that animated movies are for kids and their families and shouldn’t include sausage’s looking for buns to screw. Coitus involving pre-packaged goods notwithstanding, the film took seven years to find its way to the screen. Directed by industry veterans Conrad Vernon (director of Monsters vs. Aliens) and Greg Tiernan (director of numerous Thomas and Friends episodes), Sausage Party represents a creative leap forward for the medium, an attempt to find mainstream acceptance where no one working with CG has boldly gone before. Especially with animated charcuterie.
I recently had a chance to speak with the film’s directors, who discussed the movie’s origins, the years it took to find a willing studio partner, and the challenges of putting animated franks and buns yearning to break free of their grocery store chains into U.S. theatres.
Dan Sarto: So how did you two get mixed up in the first R-rated CG animated film? How did first find out about the project and hook up with Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg?
Conrad Vernon: Seth Rogen and I had gotten to know each because he’d provided a voice on Monsters vs. Aliens, which I directed. A couple months after the movie came out, back in 2009, he called me and asked if I would mind going over to his place because he and his writing partner Evan [Goldberg] had something they wanted to pitch to me. I said sure. That night I went over to Seth's house and met him, Evan and Jonah Hill. I sat down and Seth started asking why there weren't any R-rated animated movies. In the back of my mind I was saying, "Oh my god, this is what I've been wanting to do since I was pretty much 13 years old" when I first saw the trailer for Heavy Metal.
I’d seen that film, and Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, all the Bakshi movies. I always thought there was a market for adult animation. When Seth started talking about his idea, I said to myself, first of all, “Yes,” and second of all, I couldn’t help but think, “What more perfect people could I do this with?” He basically got to the point where he said, "We have this idea about hotdogs wanting to escape their packaging to go fuck buns. We want to call it ‘Sausage Party.’” I was like, “Yes, yes, a thousand times ‘Yes.’” I told them, "This is fantastic!"
We discussed that I’d handle the animation side of things and they would handle the actors and script. I got a few of my friends together and we started putting some artwork together to go and pitch the film with. Seth and Evan started writing the script with Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir. Soon we had a script, we had some artwork, we had Seth and Jonah wanting to be in it. They had already dedicated themselves to being in it with me as director. That's when Greg comes in. I'd known him since we worked together on Cool World.
Greg Tiernan: Conrad was up here in Vancouver, BC at the Spark Animation Festival doing a keynote address or panel for Monsters vs. Aliens. He came to visit me and my wife Nicole [Stinn – co-owner of Nitrogen Studios] and see our studio, Nitrogen. He saw that we had a facility here that was big enough and robust enough to handle an entire feature, so he pitched the idea and asked if we wanted in. We said absolutely, we want it, before we got into any of the logistics of actually getting the thing done. Again, just like Conrad thought, who's going to give up the opportunity to be involved in a movie of this magnitude, the first R-rated CG animated feature ever? We said yep and here we are seven years later. That's how it all came about.
DS: All told, how long did it take to make the movie?
GT: When you take out the few years of ramping up and pitching the movie around, from when we actually started our first storyboards and at the same time, fleshing out the character designs, builds and everything like that, it took us about two and a half years.
We mentioned all told it took seven years but the actual production was about two and a half years. We had, at maximum count, about 170 people. Because the whole thing was done at Nitrogen, from boards to final delivery, of course you're rolling front end crew, sort of the middle of the movie and then the back end crew. About 170 people all together.
CV: It was a three-year pitch process for us to sell this film. It took us three years just to sell it. In order to sell it, and also to test the pipeline we developed, we did a two-minute proof of concept piece as well. So three years to pitch it, about a year to do the test piece and then two and a half years to actually make the film once it was sold.
DS: How did the production compare to your big studio experience on a film like Monsters vs. Aliens? How different was the experience of working directly with the two creators who basically said, “OK, we want you to make our film?”
CV: You know, compared with a DreamWorks movie, the creative aspects of the film were much, much smaller. It was really Seth, Evan, Kyle, Ariel, Greg and myself -- we were all the principal creatives. Whereas on a DreamWorks film, the directors and writers aren't the primary creative people. The producers are in there too, there's a studio head, there's the development team. The other day, I heard that one of the movies there had screened for the 12th time. There's a lot more cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, on these bigger studio movies.
On this film, it was different because even though we had people at Sony and Annapurna that we were making the movie with, I think we only screened it for them three times. The notes that they gave, we agreed with a lot of them. But if there were some we didn't agree with, we deferred to Seth and Evan because it is a Seth Rogen - Evan Goldberg movie. They know what their movies are. They made the decisions on what was best for the film. It was more tight-knit, it was more creatively-driven by the writers and directors. We had a smaller crew overall. That made it really, really streamlined compared to some of the other films I've directed.
DS: The film has a stellar voice cast with many of the usual Rogen – Goldberg casting favorites, though there are some great additions as well. How do you capture someone like Rogen’s, or Michael Cera’s delivery, their physical acting presence so crucial to their humor, in a strictly vocal performance?
GT: The entire process we went through, from script to screen, was a very, very collaborative experience. Everybody, the acting talent included, had something to bring to the table. Basically there were not limits. Nothing was off-limits whatsoever. We refer to this movie more as a live action movie that happens to be animated. Because apart from Conrad, me and Nicole at Nitrogen and our animation team, everyone else involved in the entire process comes from the live-action world. We were excited to make the film that way. We didn't impose an animation sort of mindset or ideal on the voice talent. We just let them do what they do best. We weren't locked into the script in any way, shape or form. We cherry-picked out of a huge, huge well of brilliant lines and additions to the script. They really brought it to us rather than us asking them to deliver something for the movie.
CV: Every one of the actors came in and created their own character out of what they read in the script. They were each cast for specific roles. At every recording session, Seth and Evan, Greg and I, Kyle and Ariel plus the two writers were right with them in the recording booth. It was a collaborative atmosphere where they could improv and try stuff out. Seth was always reading with them so they could riff back and forth with him. The recording booth became a real creative space where they were able to bring their own ideas and personalities -- every one of the actors in this movie has a very, very strong personality in and of themselves. Danny McBride, Nick Kroll and Kristen Wiig, all these guys, you know them for who they are and the way they create characters on-screen. So they were able to bring that style and brilliance to make each of their own characters unique.
DS: Looking back, what were the big challenges you faced making this film?
GT: Well, the main challenge was getting the movie sold in the first place. This is the first R-rated CG animated movie, so that was a huge, huge hurdle to get over to begin with. We're very thankful and grateful that Megan Ellison [one of the film’s producers] had the foresight and wisdom to say "Yes, this is something that needs to be out there." From a creative and technical point of view, the challenge was trying to make this film, as we mentioned earlier, with a much smaller crew than is usually used on an animated movie, while keeping the quality at exactly the same high level as you find at DreamWorks, Pixar and Sony.
We were lucky that with such a small, tight-knit group, everyone knew each other. We all knew how the other worked. When you're inside a grocery store with thousands of products on the shelf, not only are there the logistics of designing all of those items, but rigging, animating and rendering them without spending ten years with a massive renderfarm to get this thing done. Those were big challenges. But it was a thrilling ride for sure all the way through.
DS: Why haven’t there been more R-rated animated films? You can certainly look back to the classic and controversial work of Ralph Bakshi. But moving into more modern times, there hasn't been a CG animated R-rated film. Why has it taken so long?
CV: First of all, there's a general idea, especially in the United States, that animation is for kids.
DS: Right. These are cartoons, and cartoons are for kids.
CV: Even when you look at something like Adult Swim, it's on late at night, it's quirky, it's kind of weird and they don't spend a lot of money on it. It has its own little niche. But generally, everyone instantly thinks Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, family and four-quadrant - whatever word you want to put on it - when they hear animation. Animation is a medium, not a genre, so we can use this medium to tell a bunch of different types of story.
The most obvious one is an R-rated comedy, so that's what we went for. But I think you can do so much more. I hope what we're doing for the market is opening up the door and proving that there is an audience for this, that there's more than one viable way to go with animation. Hopefully, people will start to take more risks and more chances with animation. Ever since Toy Story came out, everybody's pushing the technology forward, and it's progressed in leaps and bounds. Creatively and visually we've done a ton with the technology. But, we haven't really done a hell of a lot with the stories that we're telling.
There's so much competition out there right now and there are so many studios that are making animated films. If they're all for the exact same audience and all feel the same, it's like making thirty-five or forty romantic comedies a year. There's only so much that the market will embrace. That means only the big studios will succeed in a lot of cases. There's always going to be one particularly well-told story that rises to the top, and if that's from a small studio, great, they've actually eked their way up there. But it's rough when you have a bunch of different bigger studios doing stuff that they can do much better than you as a small studio.
Hopefully, what we've proven is that you can do this for a price and you can do it R-rated for adults, and adults will go see and enjoy it. I just hope we're breaking down the door for everybody to do more of this type of thing.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.