Interview: Megamind Director Tom McGrath

Megamind, a bulb-headed megavillain played by Will Ferrell, will soon be wreaking havoc at a theater near you -- in 3-D. It's the latest animated adventure from director Tom McGrath (writer/director of Madagascar). Brad Pitt plays Megamind's chiseled, charismatic nemesis Metro Man; Tina Fey takes on Roxanne Ritchi, the sassy, sexy journalist who steals two of the superhero's hearts; and Jonah Hill plays TV cameraman by day/superhero Tighten during the other part of the day. We recently had a chance to catch up with McGrath at a round table interview and get the inside scoop on the director and Megamind.

Question: How do you direct an animated film?

Tom McGrath: The same way of basically directing a live-action film. You work with the writers, you work with the production designer ... In fact you have more than just the cast to work with; you have the animators, probably 60 animators, that you work with like actors ... Production design is very heavy because you're talking about designing the concept for the world. You work with layout like you would a cinematographer ... and then there's lighting and that's also like working with a cinematographer. So the tool set is the same, it just encompasses a lot longer time. I would say live-action is much more like you're running a sprint, and animation's more like you're running a marathon -- and you're working with 400 to 600 artists, basically. The benefit of working in animation and some would say the curse (because it takes so long), is that rather than develop a script for several years ... and that's what you have to edit, you get to work over the course of two, three years to draw the film and get it up with the voice actors and just see if it's working. You can delete entire sequences because it's not film. Theoretically you can make the best story you can. The problems are always the same as within live-action: the story. I haven't shot a live-action feature. I've been exposed to working in live-action and, as a medium, animation to me is more empowering creativity-wise because you can control the weather, you can control magic hour, you can have magic-hour lighting all day long if you want. There's no weather, no permits. The things that are difficult in animation that you tend to take for granted are things like water and rain. In the movie there's a scene that has rain on the street. It's really problematic and there's a lot of technology that has to go into making it feel real. Because everyone knows what water and rain look like. If it looks off, it throws you out of the movie. So there are benefits and there are drawbacks, but mostly benefits.

Madagascar 2Question: You were part of the writing team on the Madagascar movies, but in Megamind you're directing somebody else's script...

TM: Which is great because you always know what you would do, but to work with writers -- especially good writers, Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, they're great. So you're kind of shepherding the writing ... but it's great to have writers write it because then you can be a little bit more objective about it. Sometimes you get a little bit close when you're writing your own things. Originally they had written this. This was their baby. They'd written it in 2003 as a live-action movie and it circulated for a while until DreamWorks picked it up. I got involved with it right on the heels of Madagascar 2. But I'm glad I'm not doing the writing because it takes a lot of time, and then you get another point of view that you can look at and kind of envision as opposed to being too caught up with your own words.

Question: On top of that, you have Will Ferrell and Tina Fey doing voices, who are both big comic writers themselves--

TM: And Jonah Hill ... and David Cross...

Question: --how does all that input make the screenplay better?

TM: Well, you know it's great because you always have what you have in the pages ... but how you get there can either be comedic or dramatic and they're versatile actors so they can play the dramatic really well and the comedy really well. So once you get the pages that are written, then you go back in and you try playing and you try improvisation. The readers that read with them are improvisational actors so they'll run with whatever the take is. You get gold out of that. Once the actors make the words their own it just feels more genuine and more sincere. They're great collaborators and that's what you want. If they just come in and read the lines it's like, "OK, you're not the character." But when they can take it and twist it because they're all comedic geniuses they make it that much funnier. That's part of why we cast them.

Question: Is there anything new and exciting about the animation in Megamind?

MegamindTM:Yeah, a lot of things -- particularly 3-D! And I know it's been hyped up as this big gimmicky thing, and I was worried about it because this was my first 3-D film and I'm going, "Ahh, I have to have, like, warriors with swords going at the camera," and luckily we're past all that. Because it's authored in 3-D there are a lot of opportunities to choreograph the camera and do really subtle camera work that is really beneficial in 3-D to bring out the emotional side of the story. It's like having another color, or the way you light a scene to pull out an emotion. It's the use of space, and the volumes of space, and how close characters can be together, and how far you can pull them apart to make a point or emotional statement. I think that was fantastic alongside the technology. To give you an example: eight years ago the first Madagascar was set in New York but we couldn't build the city and render it in a computer because it would crash every computer -- it was just too much information. Eight years later we can build an entire city for Megamind, Metro City, from the cracks in the street to the tar that fits the cracks up to the tallest skyscraper with reflective windows with office spaces within those windows ... and yet water's still hard. That, along with the level of expertise animators have now during the crossover from traditional animation to computer animation, and the sophistication of the tools they have now to bring out performances that are really nuanced. And that is what all of us working on the film are the most proud of; not only the comedy but the nuance in the acting.

Question: You mentioned the rain. What were other challenges you faced making this movie?

TM: Keeping it to length -- it's a very complicated story ... very tricky, very challenging. Plus you have superhero action and comedy, but at the center of it is this love story and that's always challenging, probably the hardest thing to pull off. It has to be sincere, it has to be believable, and probably that -- alongside telling the story from a villain and making him empathetic and sympathetic throughout the movie -- was a particular challenge. Will Ferrell helps in that regard because he has a vulnerability to him. He also played the menacing evil guy but it's tricky to be able to empathize with a character that's doing bad things. It's very tricky to negotiate, and also balancing comedy versus the dramatic spine of the story because you want to believe in the stakes and the jeopardy and the relationships, but you also want to have a comedy and make people laugh. I was pulling jokes out of the movie because they would step on that emotional spine of it. So sometimes you have to give up the jokes to make you believe in the characters.

Question: The Superman myth seems to have inspired some of Megamind's story; did any other superhero myths influence the film?

TM: There are a lot of tropes of superhero logic that are fun to turn on their ear. For example, when the hero and the villain engage they don't just take them to jail, there has to be a banter. Things like that are fun to play with. Or, he has an invisible car but he keeps losing the invisible car because it's invisible. Those kinds of things you can derive comedy from and play with the genre a little. So it isn't particularly based on one superhero, just the genre and the trappings of the genre.

Shrek the ThirdQuestion: Many critics have derided DreamWork's focus on pop-culture jokes...

TM: That was a rule on this one -- no pop-culture jokes. There's one reference to Superman. How can you not reference Superman? But they come from a place of character. For example, Will plays this character that's mentoring Jonah Hill's character. He comes to him as Space Dad. Will came up with this Marlon Brando lispy voice, which is really funny. I've been nabbed on those pop-culture references, and I think DreamWorks has in general. You know, it works for some movies. Madagascar was fun to play with because that was much more slapstick comedy, but they can kick you out of the movie. They get a little bit too smart for their own good. The best comedy does come from characters, so I tried to make sure the comedy was coming from the characters. The Marlon Brando bit made sense to me because he's a villain, he doesn't know how to be a mentor so he's deriving it from other sources. So I tried to actually steer clear of that. It wasn't the tone of this movie. It's great for Shrek ... but not this one.

Just to follow up ... talking about superheroes, one of the big draws in this movie for me was to do a lot of the things you never see in superhero movies. For example, the bad guy never wins. So part of the fun was what if he did win? What would he do when he takes over the Oval Office? He has all the art and the wealth ... would he be bored out of his mind now that he's won? Those kinds of ideas were fun to play with because you never get that far in a normal superhero movie.

SupermanQuestion: Do you, or did you have a favorite superhero as a kid?

TM: I was particular to Batman and Superman. I keep saying this, but more than comic books, movies affected me. I was probably eight when Batman the motion picture came out with Adam West, but I didn't necessarily know it was a comedy because I was that young. It's just funny that Robin solved everything and Batman just asked the questions. Then Superman came out with Richard Donner in the '70s ... and I was in that fantasy adolescence and I believed in it, the first film that took the genre seriously. In a way I'd say this movie aspires to have the believability of Superman but the comedy of Batman.

MegamindQuestion: Were you ever worried about the level of violence and sometimes brutality in this film? Was it something you were conscious of with kids being the majority of the audience?

TM: Yeah. It's something you can only do in a superhero movie and get away with. But we were careful. There is city destruction and we've lived through real-life city destruction ... we were very careful not to take it to certain levels where it reminds people specifically of 9/11 and things like that. But this is a superhero movie and the stakes have to be big and the stakes have to be real. At one point he picks up a building and throws it at Megamind, but part of this film and the comedy of it was to come out of character and not too much slapstick. The thing we were very careful of was not to do Bugs Bunny physics, where you feel like characters don't get hurt. You have to believe that characters will get hurt in order for the jeopardy to feel real at the end of the movie and feel like this guy is really saving someone's life. And that's part of the decision to make the world feel real and the city feel real. Even though the characters are caricatured, the idea was to feel as real ... watching a live-action movie.

Question: You've done voice acting in previous films. Did you do any in Megamind?

TM: I did, but I'm not going to tell you who [laughs].

Question: You won't tell?

TM: I actually play Brad Pitt's adopted father.

Question: So this may sound like a silly question, but it's one I'm sure people will want an answer to: Are the penguins going to return?

TM: Yeah, they are. Madagascar 3-D comes out in 2012 with Ben Stiller and Eric Darnell, but I'm not directing in any way. But Eric just had me in to record for it. It's always fun to do the skipper.