I was recently given the opportunity to interview director, Kris Pearn, regarding his latest animated feature film, The Willoughbys. Based on a book by Lois Lowry, The Willoughbys is a Netflix animated film about four children who send their neglectful parents away on a vacation so that they may raise themselves. They soon discover the true meaning of family as they try to get their parents back.
Rotoscopers: First off, I would like to thank you, Mr. Pearn, for doing this interview with us. For those who may be unfamiliar with his work, Kris Pearn has been in the animation industry for many years. Some of the animated projects he’s worked on include Titan A.E., Seven Little Monsters, Max & Ruby, and Open Season. He also co-directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. His latest project is The Willoughbys, based on a book by Lois Lowry. Were you familiar with the book prior to working on the film?
Kris: It’s my pleasure to do this interview! No, I wasn’t familiar with the book prior to working on the film. The producer, Luke Carroll, had the book and was looking for someone to help with the project. We had breakfast one day and he gave me the book. I read it and came back to him interested in the idea of creating a film that made fun of children’s films just as the book made fun of children’s literature. The pitch was “Grey Gardens meets Arrested Development“. The first drafts were based on the source material and Luke asked me if I could stay on to direct the film. I agreed as long as I would be able to stay at my farm in Ontario, Canada, to which he agreed.
Rotoscopers: Awesome and you did an excellent job directing that, I must say! I saw the film and I’m a big fan. I think it’s really wonderful!
Kris: Oh, thank you, thank you! I hope people like it!
Rotoscopers: If they’re like me, I’m sure they will. I like the film because it’s creative, inventive, and one thing I want to mention is that there are so many themes in the film. Family is the overall theme, but there are lighthearted themes and there are even darker themes. Was it a challenge to sell that idea?
Kris: I wouldn’t say that it was a challenge to sell necessarily at the beginning. I think it’s one of those things that as we went through the journey of making the movie, it was a challenge to level. It was a challenge to find the balance of it. If I wasn’t in animation, my dream job would be in stand-up comedy. And I think there’s something analogous between the two. They’re polar opposites. In a lot of ways, animation is like slow-motion stand-up and I think it takes us so long to find our audience and it takes us so long to have a finished product and what we want is to try to be able to step away from the material and have the joke live on its own because it has enough strength. And stand-ups always talk about it takes three years to get an hour of material. You know what I mean? You have to bomb for ten years before you get good. I think movies go through that same kind of journey and I think for us, we were figuring out that level because one of the things that I never wanted was for the film to feel mean, even though there were dark things in the film. I also never wanted the film to feel affected. I wanted all the characters to be optimistic and have an earnestness because that’s what I find funny. So it’s that thing where you think the joke is there, but you show it to a cold audience (and discover otherwise). I definitely need that feedback and we used that quite a bit over the course of the journey of the film to level that in.
Rotoscopers: That’s wonderful because I totally see how this is a film that could go either one way or the other way and finding that balance is just the thing to do. One thing I especially liked about this film is this animation style of it. It has this particular stylized animation; it looks stop-motion sometimes, but it’s not. There are films like The Peanuts Movie where you look at it and you’re like “Oh yes, that’s The Peanuts Movie“, or The Addams Family, and when you look at these characters and the overall animation style, I think it just stands out. Can you talk about how that was decided upon?
Kris: I mean, one of the things that kind of formed fairly early with my partnership with production designer, Kyle McQueen, (was that) both of just wanted to, going back to what we were talking about earlier, create a world that wasn’t dark. When we committed to the idea of the narrator being a cat and being Ricky Gervais, there’s definitely a “wander”-iness in that choice that I think created a tone for the film. One of the things that kinda came out of that decision was the idea of the point-of-view of the cat and imagine the cameras being down low. We’re not beholden to it for the whole film, but this idea of “Would the world look different if we were a smaller animal or if we were looking at it from the outside in?” prevailed. And that kinda took Kyle to this idea of “What if we lean to this metaphor of the yarn hair connecting all these Willoughbys” as yarn is a metaphor for connecting a family but it’s also something you can get tangled up in, you can get wrapped up in. It can also be a noose if you’re not careful. It can also be something that cats like to play with. That idea really added up to this choice that everything in the film should feel like something you can buy at Michaels. Like you can walk into Michaels and you can find the thing that this character is made out of. Or like Melanoff with the candy store. There’s a choice behind everything as much as we could. And that allowed us to always sort of be fun. I use that word very deliberately. You point out that there are dark things in the story, but even when there’s something dark happening, I always wanted there to be something pretty on the screen, something that is colorful. Kyle was really passionate about the color always coming forward to undercut the story so that way the audience always felt safe to laugh, always felt safe to be in a comedy. And all of that kinda came together for the final look.
Rotoscopers: That’s wonderful! And you mention Ricky Gervais. That’s another thing about this movie; I just love the voice cast. You got Will Forte. You got Alessia Cara in her film debut. You got Martin Short and Jane Krakowski as the parents and I love them so much! How did you get all those people involved?
Kris: I mean, some of it’s luck in that I’ve had a really fortunate career where I’ve worked with a lot of these actors before. I’ve worked with Sean in almost everything I’ve done especially anything out of Canada. I always hire Seán. He was on the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs TV series that we were producing. He makes me laugh; he’s a great comedian. Forte was the villain in Cloudy 2 and he played 3-4 characters in Cloudy 1. I’ve worked with Jane Krakowski on Open Season. I’ve worked with Terry Crews on the Cloudy franchise. That’s where you kinda start. You start with people that you know and I think actually Forte was one of the first ones that sort of formed. Tim definitely had a very Last Man quality where he’s sort of aggressive and a little bossy, but there’s a sweetness to him. And Forte’s a really good example of being able to pull that off. He’s always a little bit likable even if he’s doing awful things because of who he is. So, I think like casting from that point of view, trying to find the right voice for the character is really important. I always believe that if the voice isn’t giving you the humor or giving you the emotion or giving you the tone, then it doesn’t matter what the name is on the poster. You gotta find that right voice. And with Alessia Cara, she was on Fallon and she was talking about her dream of being in an animated movie and her comedy timing was so good and her voice is like, unaffected in a way. The fact that she wasn’t an actor made her really appealing and knowing that Jane was going to be a musical character and Alessia was also Canadian which is great for us because we were up north. It all made it kinda line up and the fact that she’s got a really good pairing with Forte was something that was a delightful surprise, That all worked out.
Rotoscopers: That was really serendipitous! And another thing I like about this film, I don’t wanna give too much away, but I know a lot of animated films or any films nowadays can seem very formulaic and you can kinda guess where the plot’s going. With every single twist and turn of this movie, I had no idea where the plot was going. It surprised me in areas. Like, I didn’t think it would go in that direction or this direction.
Kris: Thank you, that’s what we were aiming for. In a lot of ways, I think this film references comedies from earlier days. I was wearing a lot of Hal Ashby films on my sleeve on this one and it was a nod to a combination of sitcoms and ’70s film comedies. Peter Sellers is a big influence. I love Fawlty Towers! I grew up loving Monty Python and SCTV and all those films from the ’80s, the Landis films, The Blues Brothers, and what-have-you. I love how they twist and turn and you never really could tell where they were gonna go on first watch. Like Stripes is three movies! So I really wanted to make a film that was a love story to that kind of comedy, that kind of farce.
Rotoscopers: You definitely did that. Congratulations! There are so many wonderful characters in this film. Do you have a favorite character?
Kris: Um, I love them all actually. Jane is one that I really love. I grew up on a farm with brothers and I think deep down I always wish I had a sister because I think it would have made me a better human being. I mean, having contact with a girl growing up. Ironically, I have two daughters. So there’s really something I find super sweet and funny in her. I love how subversive she is. I love that she’s not a shrinking violet. I like that she’s the reason that Tim’s life is hard and that makes me laugh. I think there’s just something genuine about that performance and the way Alessia found that voice of that character and how that song grows through the film. I think for me, that was the biggest sort of surprise in the film and I always just tell people if you watch her, the way the animators have her sort of mimicking things in the back of the shots (is great)! Like, there’s a lot of funny Barnaby stuff going on behind camera too! But when Maya Rudolph’s character shows up, Jane starts to try to act like her and it always makes me laugh. And most people don’t seem to notice it because it’s not what the scene’s about. I haven’t seen that in too many films, so she tickles me.
Rotoscopers: I think this is a film that you definitely have to watch multiple times because there’s so much going on in the background and foreground, especially those Barnabys. I just love all the characters! They’re so much fun.
Kris: The Barnabys are fun because it’s trying to make animators not animate. The more still they were, the funnier they became.
Rotoscopers: I love the gag about the parents only giving them one sweater that they have to share!
Kris: Yeah, there’s a lot of R&D on that sweater swap trying to make that look right.
Rotoscopers: I can only imagine the problems with that! I guess one of my last questions I have is that these characters are so wonderful. Will we be seeing more of them, do you think? Is there any chance of a sequel or a spin-off or series or something?
Kris: Hard to say, nothing that I’m working on right this second. But you never can tell and I think it’s one of those things. We’ll see how it goes with the audience and I know Lois Lowry’s writing a second book. So on a literary front, that’s happening.
Rotoscopers: I’m not worried about it. I’m sure all the Netflix users will eat it up as soon as it’s available for the general public.
Kris: I just hope it makes people laugh and makes people happy.
Rotoscopers: It definitely does. I was laughing and smiling and enjoying myself.
Kris: Awesome, well thank you!