Recently I had the privilege of interviewing the director and lyricists behind the Warner Animation Group film, Smallfoot, Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick. I have transcribed the interview below and have edited it for clarity. Karey Kirkpatrick shall be referred to as “KK” and Wayne Kirkpatrick shall be referred to as “WK” for brevity purposes. Mild spoilers are revealed.
Rotoscopers: We’re here with a wonderful interview that I’m really excited to do with the Kirkpatrick brothers. How are you guys doing today?
WK: Doing good!
Rotoscopers: Nice. First of all, I wanna say you guys have the most awesome name, the Kirkpatrick Brothers, like it sounds like outlaws from the old Wild West.
WK and KK: (laughs)
KK: I always thought it was too long.
Rotoscopers: No, I love it. “Kirkpatrick” sounds like it has so much weight behind it!
KK: It feels like we should be performing in an Irish pub.
Rotoscopers: Hey, maybe you guys do that on your moonlightin’ days, you never know. For people who don’t know you are, I just wanted to introduce you guys. First, we have Wayne Kirkpatrick. I know both of you guys have worked on the musical, Something Rotten!, for Broadway which is so awesome for me to talk to someone who’s actually done something for Broadway! I know you’ve written multiple songs that have been recorded by multiple artists like Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Michael Crawford, Eric Clapton, etc.
Rotoscopers: And Mr. Karey Kirkpatrick, I mean, you have a great writing/screenplay resume working on films like James and the Giant Peach, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, Chicken Run, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc. And today we’re here to talk about you guys’ latest film, Smallfoot, which I wanna say I went to see it earlier this week and I really, really enjoyed it so congratulations, guys!
WK: Oh, great!
Rotoscopers: I didn’t know much about what to expect going in, but I was really impressed with what I saw and there are so many themes in the movie.So basically I want to ask you guys first, what inspired the story behind making this film? Where did you guys get the idea?
KK: We didn’t get the idea. The idea was by a guy named Sergio Pablos, a Spanish animator and storyteller, probably most famous for coming up with the Despicable Me idea.That franchise is his brainchild. And he pitched this movie to Warner Bros., I wanna say about 6 years ago, to our producers, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who are an A-list writing and directing duo behind movies like Crazy Stupid Love. They wrote Bad Santa and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. This Is Us is a TV show that they do, so John and Glenn started developing it about 6 years ago with Sergio and they were gonna animate it in Spain with him. And then, animated movies often go through many, many different iterations and incarnations and change hands and so, I came to the project in July of 2016 as a screenwriter and then through a series of twists and turns and studios changing hands and things like that, before I knew it, I was directing it. And sort of by January of 2017 they said, could it be a musical?
Rotoscopers: Nice, nice. That was my next question. I was gonna ask, how early on was it decided to be a musical?
KK: Yeah, January, because they were like, “Hey, you know musicals.”, and so I called Wayne and we were actually in the middle of our next Broadway thing, a call Wayne might regret at this point. But, I was like, “Hey I’m doing this movie.”. He knew how much time it was taking so I kinda sucked him into my vortex. It’s weird, at this point there’s not really much of a script. We were in storyboards and it was constantly being written.
Rotoscopers: I can imagine, yeah!
KK: We wrote an opening number which is different than the opening number that’s in now. And people were like, “That’s interesting!”, and the song, Wonderful Life, came next. And then they said, “It seems like it could be a musical.”, so we set about finding other places that we could musicalize in the script.
Rotoscopers: I’m very glad you guys did that; I quite enjoyed the music in this movie and there’s so many different genres of music, as well. Mr. Wayne Kirkpatrick, is this your first animated film you’ve worked on?
WK: Yeah, it is. Well, as far as being involved in writing all of the songs for a particular animated movie, yes. I’ve written songs for a certain spot in a movie, but never for approaching it like a musical and doing all of the songs in that way, so yes.
Rotoscopers: I must say it’s a very good way to break into it; I really enjoyed the music, I must say. And what is you guys’ thought process when trying to develop the song? Like, do you find an idea first like this particular scene needs a song or is it you find the music and then the lyrics or the lyrics then the music or how does it work?
KK: It’s usually Oh God, when will this end?
WK: (laughs) What have we gotten ourselves into? In this particular case and the benefit of also Karey being the director and being involved in the writing of the story, there’s a lot of direction at least from my end from just being involved in the songs and him calling me. We live in different cities; I live in Nashville, he lives in LA. He would call me after a story session with storyboard artists or fellow screenwriter partners of the week. And he’d say we’re thinking about a song in this scene or maybe something that talks about this and maybe this kinda song. And (I’d) kinda work off of some marching orders or some “What do you think?” or just kinda tossing stuff around that way. And then sending music ideas back and forth or some lyric ideas back and forth and just kinda feeding off each other that way and it was really a lot of trial and error.
KK: A good example is Wonderful Life. There was a treatment and at the time I was working with a writer named Chris (last name unheard due to technical Internet connection difficulties). Sometimes when you’re writing a sequence, you’ll put a heading, kinda title what the sequence is like “Practice Gong” or whatever the sequence is called. And Chris actually was writing something for this character, Meechee, and wrote, “‘Cause a life that’s full of wonder is a wonderful life.”. (Afterwards) we were just tossing around different titles and Wayne was like, “Well hang on, this is a really good line here that’s in the treatment, this thing that Meechee is pressing to Migo.” The shorter answer, by the way, is almost always we come up with a title first. Wouldn’t that be accurate, Wayne?
WK: I think so. Especially when you’re dealing with storytelling, then the songs needs to serve the purpose of telling the story, moving the story forward, as well as creating a mood and all that. So you are starting within a storytelling mode, so obviously lyrics are gonna be the way you tell the story. So yeah I would say 90% of the time, it’s based around a title or a lyrical concept.
KK: Just thinking back through them, talking through the opening number, we wanted it to be something that was satiric so that the opening number could be fun and bubbly and bouncy and kinda feel like a lovely pop tune.
Rotoscopers: And this is the one that Channing Tatum’s character sings, right?
KK: Yeah, but have a little something to it, a little bite. We wanted there to be some satiric irony to the song so just in kicking around ideas it was like, he’s singing it’s perfection when it’s clearly not. And that was a phrase, you’re always looking for a good lyrical phrase, a nice percussive word, one that you could build a hook around. (Like) Wonderful Life, I mentioned. The rap song came up with the phrase, “Let it lie.”, because it’s a movie about truth and we liked the double entendre of “Why don’t you let this go?”, but using that word, “lie”, and it was good. (James Corden’s song was a) revamping of Under Pressure. We had originally started trying to write something original but because he’s in a karaoke bar, it felt more organic (that) a song starts playing. So we set some standards. It would need to be a song that you know instantly what it is the minute the first few notes come. And that’s one of the most famous bass riffs ever. We thought it would be funny if he was making up different words on the spot.
Rotoscopers: Sort of a parody, kinda?
KK: Yeah. And probably to the shock and horror to some Queen and David Bowie fans. But, nonetheless it sort of worked. I think I was in a meeting and I sort of said, “Under Pressure.”, and Courtenay Valenti, the president of Warner Bros, was like, “That would be great; that’s perfect for that moment.”. I was like, “Ok well let’s assume we can get Under Pressure.”.
WK: Has to get approval!
KK: We actually had to write letters to Brian May and Roger Taylor and say, “Please?” and “We have nothing but reverence for it.”. And they heard what we did and said they liked it.
Rotoscopers: No, Percy’s Pressure is probably my favorite song in the film. That and Let It Lie are my top two!
KK: Oh good! And then at the end, literally, I think I called Wayne one day and I was like, “We need a song at the end and I’m just thinking because (it’s the) opposite of Let It Lie, Moment of Truth is what they need.” And that’s how those songs came about. And then there’s another one that’s a reprise of Wonderful Life. Wonderful Questions is what we called it which the idea was a Renaissance in one day in Yeti Village.
Rotoscopers: Oh yeah, I know what you’re referring to from the film. I know this is the hard question for songwriters, but do you two have a favorite song that you wrote from this? If you had to pick a favorite?
KK: From the show?
KK: We’ve been asked this before, but I think mine’s Let iI Lie, but it would be a toss up between Let It Lie and Wonderful Life. But actually, it’s tricky, I like them all for various reasons.
WK: Yeah I think that’s the thing, I mean if you look at it as far as a song that goes hand in hand with the impact of the visuals, Let It Lie has this. It’s dramatic and it really tells a lot of the story.
Rotoscopers: I get a lot of Be Prepared vibes from that song.
WK: Yeah and it’s kind of aggressive and in that sense, it’s like that is a moment that’s really powerful in the movie. And then, just in general as a song that you also take outside of the movie, I would probably lean towards Wonderful Life.
KK: But it’s hard to separate. There’s a moment in the movie which is in Moment of Truth and there’s a story about how that sequence came about in the movie because I had a complete different ending in mind for the movie.
Rotoscopers: Oh, okay. Bonus feature!
KK: The original idea actually, Wayne, if you remember…
WK: Yeah, with the little baby Yeti.
KK: Girl. So there’s a Yeti in the movie; her name is Susie. She’s the young one and has these sort of pigtail pom-poms on her head.
Rotoscopers: The Poof (mimes mindblown gesture) one?
KK: Yeah. The original idea was that Percy and Brenda go up to the caldera where they live and bring the pilot. And they arrive on a helicopter and they’re scared and they sort of reach out. And Brenda drops her iPhone and a song starts playing and Susie starts dancing to it. And then she starts to sing and then we go into this montage that was up in the Yeti village. So that was the idea and the reason why it was supposed to be a kinda pop song was because it was playing on an iPhone. Well, we wrote the song and were wrestling with the ending. And Clare, the co-writer, and a storyboard artist named Max heard the song and said, “I don’t know that we’re doing the right ending”. (They) had this idea and Max storyboarded the sequence and it’s almost shot-for-shot how the movie ends because it was like, “Here’s our happy ending. The Yetis should go down there and remove all doubt that any humans are gonna come up there and do what the song Let It Lie says humans will do.” And there’s a moment in the movie, I mean I love this moment in the storyboard and I’ve had many people come to me and say the moment that chokes them up the most in the movie is when Percy steps forward, turns, and takes the side of the Yetis. And that happens when the chorus to Moment of Truth starts. And for that reason too, it’s hard for me to not like what that song ultimately ends up saying.
Rotoscopers: What it represents and all that.
KK: Yeah. (It’s like asking) which of your children is your favorite.
Rotoscopers: (laughs) That is true.
KK: Which I can actually answer that question.
Rotoscopers: Sure, tell the world!
KK and WK: (laughs)
Rotoscopers: Well guys, I wanna say thank you for giving me this opportunity for the interview and we’re wrapping up now. So before we go, I guess the last question I have for you guys is, “What is the overall message that you would hope audiences would get from both the film and the music of the film?”. And is there any chance for a Smallfoot sequel?
KK and WK: (chuckles)
KK: Haven’t gone there yet, but you know it’s really just the importance of truth. And the way to get to truth is by asking questions and never losing your sense of wonder and curiosity that leads to bridging a gap between the “us” and the “them”. I mean, we are often given misconceptions about things that make us different. And the only way to break through that is to question it and you won’t question things without a sense of curiosity and wonder. So never lose that. All the songs basically have something to do with that. Would that be accurate, Wayne?
WK: Yeah, I would say so: feeling free to question and because the only way to find answers is to be able to ask questions. And so I think that’s the message: to get to the truth and to be free to find your way to it by asking questions. And the pivotal line out of all of the songs that goes to the core of that is “All we are is curious. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Rotoscopers: That’s a wonderful moral, especially for the times we live in and all that.
WK: Exactly, yeah.
Rotoscopers: Anyway guys, I just wanna say how awesome it was to do this interview and I wanna stay here and listen to you guys talk about this for hours and hours, but I know you have things to do.
Rotoscopers: But thanks again for doing this.
KK: No problem.
WK: Thank you! Thank you for your interest.
Rotoscopers: No problem and is there anything you wanna plug or do you have any social media that you want people to follow you on or anything like that?
WK: Well, we’re on Twitter.
Rotoscopers: Okay. I’ll put links to that.
KK: Do we need to give our handles?
Rotoscopers: I’ll find it.
KK and WK: (chuckles)
KK: Yeah. Go see the movie and bring one million of your closest friends.
Rotoscopers: Exactly, the more, the merrier! (laughs)
WK: Yeah. (laughs)