Karey Kirkpatrick on Smallfoot, musicals, and how animation has changed over the past three decades.
Karey Kirkpatrick is sort of an unsung hero when it comes to animated feature films. Kirkpatrick has worked at almost every single animation studio in addition to having written several iconic animated films including Chicken Run, The Road of El Dorado, and James and the Giant Peach. I recently had a chance to sit down with Kirkpatrick to talk about his new film, Smallfoot which is currently playing in theaters.
Scott M.: Hey, good afternoon, Karey. How are you?
Karey K.: I’m good.
Scott M.: My name is Scott Menzel and I run We Live Entertainment. It’s a pleasure to talk to you today. How’s your day been? Have you been busy all day?
Karey K.: Not too bad so far. We had a small friend and family screening today, which is always fun to share it with the people who tolerated your absence while you were making the movie.
Scott M.: I’m sure. I feel like I’ve seen this movie so long ago, probably because I’ve been to two film festivals since watching it. But, first and foremost, congratulations on the film. I think it has some wonderful messages, and the music is great.
Karey K.: Thank you.
Scott M.: I have a bunch of questions, but they’re kind of all over the place. I think I want to start out with the one thing that kind of stands out when looking at this film when compared to a lot of animation films outside of the Disney realm is the fact that it does have quite a few musical numbers. When you’re writing a film like Smallfoot, did you incorporate songs in the screenplay or do they get added later?
Karey K.: Well, it wasn’t decided to make it a musical until January of 2017. Which is, I guess, a little late. I mean we were well into the development of the story. But because I had written a musical that was on Broadway when Allison Abbate stepped in and took over leadership of WAG, which is more an animation group, she had seen that musical, and we kind of sat down and had a conversation where she said, “You know, it seems to me that music really helps to elevate an animated feature emotionally and in intensity.” And it’s true that musicals in animation. For a lot of people, it’s an easier leap to make in a movie, like to break into song. Sometimes it’s hard for people in a live action to sort of accept that people are breaking into song and actually singing to each other. So, I think animation kind of allows you to get away with that. It’s a less implausible leap, I guess.
We wrote a couple songs as proof of concept, my brother and I, and everybody was like “Yeah, I think this could work.” So we wrote four more, and it was a treat for me. I’ve always wanted to, I mean musicals is how I got into animation in the first place, so just my love of musicals and particularly animated musicals like Pinocchio and Jungle Book and Lady and the Tramp and all of those. You know, the songs in those really stuck with me as a kid. So, it was a real treat to be able to write songs for an animated movie and then end up directing them, those sequences as well. Really challenging sequences to do, actually. They were the last sequences that we did because we spent so much time trying to get them right. But it was really satisfying.
Scott M.: Personally, I’m with you. I love musicals, and I would 100% agree that seeing songs come to life in animated films is a magical experience. Films like Beauty and the Beast and Frozen are great examples. The songs themselves almost become characters of the film, and they really do take the storytelling to the next level. So I completely agree with you there.
Karey K.: It’s also a nice way for people to relive the experience when not watching the movie. To have a soundtrack with songs from it to sort of take you back, it’s a way to sort of further enhance the experience and make these things a little bit longer lasting, I guess. And so, I mean certainly, as I said, they stick with me. And it’s the songs.
You know, when I started in animation, my first job was at Disney Animation as a staff writer, and I wrote The Rescuers Down Under, which was going to be a musical. I had written some songs for that, and they decided not to make it a musical, but I was there and had my recording studio there when they were making Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and so Alan Menken and Howard Ashman would come into my studio to record some of those demos, and Tim Rice came in to record I Just Can’t Wait To Be King with Rob Minkoff and so all of that was sort of in the air, and I was really hankering to be involved with it. They were just, at the time, going to people who had a lot more pedigree than me and my brother, so it took a while. So yeah.
Scott M.: If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your favorite song in the movie?
Karey K.: My favorite song in this movie?
Scott M.: Mm-hmm.
Karey K.: Well, I think Wonderful Life is a really beautiful song, and that chorus and that melody is something that Wayne came up with and sent to me, and then we worked on finishing it together. So, it’s a toss-up for me between I think that song just as a standalone song is a really beautiful song and I love what it has to say.
Let It Lie, which is the rap song, was a particularly satisfying experience sort of all the way around. And I like that sequence quite a bit. And then I think Moment of Truth has actually ended up being a really nice, pertinent song and a great way to end the movie. It’s sort of like asking who is your favorite of your children.
Scott M.: When it comes to writing a movie like this, I’m always curious about this because I’ve talked to so many directors and writers like yourself who have done both and I ask, “When you write your movies, do you have actors in mind?” And since this is an animated film, when you were writing this movie, did you have any of the voices in mind?
Karey K.: I think you start thinking of these characters and then the design process starts, so you start developing the look of them. And you start talking about types. So sometimes you hear a voice. The danger there is if you don’t get that voice or you cast somebody else … I mean, I’ll give you a good example of a different movie, which was when I was working on Chicken Run. In writing that movie and that character of Rocky the American, who’s a little bit like a snake oil salesman, I realized I was patterning him on Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker.
And the cadence of the dialogue, I had that in mind. Then Mel Gibson came on board, and I remember leaving the first session with Mel Gibson feeling like, “Yeah, he didn’t do that right,” which was a brazen thing to say because he’s Mel Gibson, and at the time he was one of the biggest stars in the world and a really good actor in his own right. And I realized that the reason why I thought he wasn’t doing it right was that he wasn’t doing Burt Lancaster. And I realized “oh, this is my bad” because he’s Mel Gibson and Mel Gibson is not going to do Burt Lancaster, and what I need to do is write this for Mel Gibson because Mel has a lot to offer. And that’s what I did, I went in and adjusted it, watched a bunch of Mel Gibson stuff and wrote stuff that he could be more successful with.
So what inevitably happens is, you think about actors who might be good and you actually come up with lists. And the way we do it is that we will come up with, let’s say, six or eight names of people, like “They might be good.” By this point, we often the characters designed, we might have a picture of them, and we go into the editorial suite and we put their picture up and we pull clips from those actors’ movies and we listen to them while looking at the character and seeing is this a good fit, does this sound like the character. And then we go to the actors and ask them.
This is a pretty amazing cast, and you’re looking for certain qualities. With Migo, our lead, we’re looking for someone who is instantly likable and charming as he’s your main character. You want to be rooting for him, and then you realize that its just something that Channing has, and kind of does effortlessly, just by opening his mouth. I mean, he’s a really good guy and enthusiastic. Hey, this is who he is as a person. He’s kind of all-in and he brings a lot of exuberance. He’s really playful, and all of Channing’s characters, when you watch them are never jaded. There’s always an innocence to him. And that comes out in the voice. And that kind of works with everyone.
When we looked at Dorgle and I was like Danny DeVito would be perfect for this. I wonder if he’ll do it. And then you call him up and you ask and beg. And then we were looking at, for instance, the character of Gwangi, our big purple yeti and it’s like “We need a big guy with a big voice.” And somebody suggested LeBron James, and I was like he had just been in Trainwreck and was really good. It’s like, oh this would be an interesting piece of casting. We talked to him, and he wrote movies, and he also has a big kid-like quality, and he was great.
Scott M.: Yeah, it’s interesting because Channing Tatum, when looking at him as a person and as an actor, you wouldn’t picture him in these types of movies. And I think this is his second animated film. I remember The Book of Life and now, Smallfoot, but he just has this very captivating voice that really adds to animated films, and I was kind of surprised by that.
Karey K.: And he has places that he can go because obviously, he’s a versatile actor, and when his voice gets low, he kind of gets a little bit more menacing sounding. We would always have to find ways to keep him up, you know, keep it all. And they do these sessions like four hours every two months, two or three months sometimes. And a lot of times they’ve got off and they have shot another movie and been somebody else. So they come in and it’s like, “Alright, play me what I did last time so I can hear what this guy sounds like.” And we’re playing scenes that we cut and takes that we’ve selected. So what ends up happening is it becomes, by the time you get into your, I would say, the third session with these guys, they … I now know everybody’s voices and then I end up writing for what makes them successful and what they have come in and brought to the character.
Karey K.: So, once they get ownership of it and I’ve heard those voices, there’s often a lot of rewriting that happens and lines that you know they can … You know, it’s sort of like, you know what, LeBron does this really well and this is his sweet spot and what he’s able to make funny, and you write to his strengths. And you end up with a better performance. And part of it is just because they’ve come in and they’ve kind of now claimed the character.
Scott M.: Yeah, I mean animation has always just been fascinating to me. And it’s interesting that you mentioned Chicken Run because when I was growing up, that was one of my favorite films. I remember seeing that multiple times in the theater and I had the action figures and everything for it when they came out because I love stop motion animation. That is, in my opinion, one of the finest art forms that we just don’t get enough of. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is my all-time favorite film, and Chicken Run and all those guys at Aardman, they make amazing films.
You are working, from what I understand, on the second one, which is a long time coming. You know, not to take over the Smallfoot stuff, but I am a little curious about that. How far along are you with that movie?
Karey K.: We’ve done some storyboarding and a story reel, and we’re in the middle of the writing process. In fact, I’m going over to England a week from tomorrow to keep working on it. We have a director.
Scott M.: Is the same voice cast back?
Karey K.: That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?
It’s been 20 years, so we kind of have to still make sure everybody’s voices still sound like they belong coming out of the character. Yeah, it’s really fun to be back with those characters. And the movie, I mean I know it’s going to be 20 years later by the time it comes out, but the movie’s kind of grown, and the title has only become more and more beloved after all these years.
Scott M.: I agree. And I think it’s actually currently on Netflix too.
Karey K.: Oh, is it?
Scott M.: Yeah, I think it’s currently on there.
Scott M.: Since we’re going to wrap soon, I just wanted to ask you one more question in terms of you’ve worked with so many different studios over the years. You worked at DreamWorks, you worked with Disney, you worked with Sony, and now you’re working with Warner Brothers, what has it been like working with these studios, but more importantly, how has animation filmmaking changed over the years since you’ve been doing this?
Karey K.: Well, you know what, a lot of studios get into animation thinking, “Oh yeah, I want to get in on this game.” I’ve done animation at just about all of them and it takes a certain kind of executive who can come watch an early story reel, an animatic, and see its potential. So, being a studio executive, it’s not a job that I envy, and I know it’s easy for us filmmakers to vilify them. But a lot of them, if they don’t have a lot of experience in animation, it’s easy to look and go, “Well, what the hell is this?” You know. And I used to always say to people that the way you develop these is if you come and watch a movie and 90% of it is broken, you really have to go, “Well, 10% of it works.”
And then go that 10%, that’s our new benchmark. And then at the next reel … I have a theory that you get there 10% at a time. It’s very difficult for studio executives to be patient when you’re at 10%, at 20%. You have to really look at and believe in the things that made you say yes to it in the first place. So you have to believe in the premise, you have to believe in the appeal of the characters, and you have to believe that you will find the story. And it is really hard, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an animatic, but they’re scribbles often with temp voices, and you have to make a huge leap with your imagination of what this is finally going to be, going to look like. And I can’t tell you how many times that when I’m working with people who don’t have that experience, that when they come see something finally animated, they go, “Oh, my God, it looks so good!” Now that it’s in color, it’s like, “Yeah, what did you think it was going to look like?”
So, I have been in too many situations where you’re working on something and then the studio comes in and throws everything out and starts over. And it’s like this is the kiss of death. You really have to foster it, you know. And I’ve got to say, Warner, they’ve been great. And part of it was because when Allison came in, she’s such a veteran animation producer, that she got it. You know, Warner has this culture over there that they really pride themselves on being a studio that supports their directors and let directors make the movies they want to make. And I’ve got to say, they were true to their word.
Scott M.: I’m glad to hear that.
Karey K.: And let me make the movie I wanted to make without much executive interference. So, yeah, no complaints.
Scott M.: Alright. Well, awesome. Thank you very much again for taking 20 minutes of your time out to talk to me today. I hope you get a great response from the film and keep doing what you’re doing.
Karey K.: Thank you so much.
Scott M.: Alright. Talk to you soon.
Karey K.: Bye-bye.
Scott M.: Bye.