‘Lyle, Lyle Crocodile’ Interview: Will Speck and Josh Gordon

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is a live-action musical comedy based on the children’s book by Bernard Waber. The film features award-winning singer and songwriter Shawn Mendes as the loveable singing reptile who lives in New York and befriends a young boy that is struggling to fit in and make friends after moving to the City.

Sony Pictures will be releasing the film in theaters on October 7 and stars Javier Barden and Constance Wu. You can watch the teaser trailer below:

WLE’s Rasha Goel recently sat down with Will Speck and Josh Gordon, the directors of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile during an edit bay visit on the Sony Pictures lot.

Growing up, this character was really important to you both. What about the character really made you want to turn it into a feature-length film?

Will Speck: It’s funny because the book was written in the ’60s, and there was sort of like a period of children’s literature that was sort of in the kind of rejiggering of what children’s literature was at the time. And it was sort of like, “Corduroy” and “Charlotte’s Web”, and, you know –

Josh Gordon: More sophisticated kind of stories that deal with adult themes, but in a voice that you can –

Will Speck:  Even, like, “Where the Wild Things Are”, there’s sort of this kind of undercurrent of something other than just what appears on the surface. And what we loved about the book was, that the original author worked in advertising, and he really missed his family every day. And he would sit at his desk and doodle, and he would imagine that he was a surrogate in the form of this crocodile, spending time with his family, because he couldn’t. So there’s something that we picked up on about… the longing-ness and the loneliness, but also the idea that in your absence, something could come in and bring your family unexpected joy. And I think we just thought… It’s always stuck with us because of that undercurrent of sort of melancholy, but also the idea that you can infer change onto an inanimate object, or a character that doesn’t speak, or an unlikely delivery system for bringing you to change. It was interesting to us.

Josh Gordon: I think also for us the story, whether it meant to or not, is really about acceptance. It’s about fear of the other, and it’s about finding your voice, both themes that felt important to put out into the world. And we have kids now and wanted to reintroduce a new generation to those themes if we could.

How did you match Lyle’s physical performance to Shawn Mendes’ vocal performance since you didn’t literally have him there?

Will Speck: We actually recorded him in a booth, and we did it throughout the whole process. We filmed Shawn singing so that the animators have a sense of the personality because Lyle is very much Shawn’s kind of personality, which is sort of like this gentle genius. So it’s a little bit of that. And then, you guys saw the rough form, but the model itself of Lyle has transformed because we learned a lot about the anatomy of a crocodile, which is that it’s mostly cartilage and a bill. So, for us to have dexterity, as you could see some lip articulation, but we didn’t want it to be so flappy that it felt really fake. So, we’ve been trying to ride that line. But Shawn’s definitely a guide for the animators.

What was your biggest challenge in bringing Lyle to life?

Josh Gordon: I think there are the technical challenges of adding a life-like, believable CG character in an otherwise natural human world. But I think the challenges…Those are solvable, ultimately, because technology has gotten so good, and we really have some of the best animators in the world working on it down in Australia. But I think it was more, creatively, how do we create a world in which you believe and buy that this creature is coming in and transforming the lives of all these family members? And for us, that really started with the script, it started with working with Will Davies, and crafting a story where these characters needed Lyle to come into their life and change, so that the audience could buy it and go along with that.

Will Speck: And technically, we didn’t actually motion capture completely. What we did is we had an actor that we hired. We auditioned like 300 people, because we were like, “Who’s Lyle on set? Who’s physically going to be there?” We didn’t want the actors to be opposite a tennis ball. You know, somebody in a green suit with a thousand tracking marks. So, we actually hired an actor who was fantastic, named Ben Palacios, who came in and actually was sort of the spirit of Lyle so that we could actually choreograph him against the actors.

Josh Gordon: So that the actors could believably be acting opposite somebody.

Will Speck: He had a cage on his head. And it was funny, because on set, his eyes… Lyle’s eyes are up here, but the actor’s eyes were here, and we would constantly be like, “Look up, look up, look up!” But in the end, it worked out great. And it was a great thing for us because we could direct him to sort of guide him towards empathy, humor, or surprise. The animators then could look at the actual performance and start to dig into it.

Josh Gordon: Also, the camera crews and the regular crew could treat him as an actual character in the movie, which helps make it feel tactile and believable. But it was not uncomplicated.

I was curious about Javier Bardem, because we think of him as the Bond villain, in “No Country of Old Men”, and it’s cool to see him in a whimsical role. Can you talk about selecting him for this role and the pitching process?

Josh Gordon: It’s interesting. He started his career in comedy, and he also did a musical early on in Spain and became this great, scary, powerful presence in all of our minds. But, in life, he’s incredibly warm. He’s got a beautiful family. Whenever you see him around that, he’s infectiously generous and kind.

Will Speck: He was our absolute first choice. It’s always funny in the casting process, we always talk about it, which is that everybody agrees on the first choice. You know, you never have to… When you say it should be Meryl Streep, everyone’s like, “We agree!” And then, you leave that meeting, and you’re like, “God, everyone’s in sync.” It’s like six names down where it starts to get really horrible. Because then you’re really debating. But we said Javier, and the studio said, “Well you’ll never get him, but good luck.” And then six Zooms later, six, he finally reluctantly said yes. But I think he was nervous about jumping into something that he perceived to be very comedic in his mind because he was really swinging out there. And I think we talked to him about the integrity of the character, and finding the dramatic roots to the character, ultimately, so that it wasn’t just played for jokes, but that we wanted to play this as a fully dimensional, real character.

And that’s why we wanted him because we wanted it to not be an expected performance of something you’ve seen. And what was exciting about him was, I feel like you haven’t seen this guy before. You haven’t seen Javier do this. And his voice was great. We had seen him, in “The Ricardos”, sing, which he had done an amazing job, but he sort of built off that. Luckily, we got him between that, and “Little Mermaid”.

Josh Gordon: And he sort of had a little bit of an apparatus that he trusted around him, so… And he knew what it was going to take to physically… You know, singing and dancing simultaneously is hard work. So, I mean, he really had to condition himself and get into shape.

Will Speck:  But what we wanted to do was do everything on camera. We never wanted to use dancing or singing double, and we never did. So that was actually really exciting.

Josh Gordon: And he had a lot of pride about that. He did not want to. He needed to do the numbers all the way through.

Will Speck: Both for him and for Constance, and all throughout.

Can you talk about Lyle’s personal journey? What is that story for him?

Will Speck: I’m glad you picked up on that stuff because it’s hard to see in that form of animation, but it’s really gestures of love and trust that allow Lyle to sort of be his best, which to us is sort of the messaging of the movie. It’s like if you can surround people with a generosity of spirit that doesn’t need something, but that is just given as a one-way gesture –

Josh Gordon:  As a pure gesture of love.

Will Speck: …then you can bring your best self forward. And so that’s what we try to get across with Lyle. And the betrayal at that moment is that he brought him out onto the stage to sort exploit him. And ultimately, the journey of the movie, for Javier’s character, is that he gets to a place of understanding by seeing that Josh never needed to do that. The young boy, Javier actually has to come forward and sort of admit the fact that that was one of his flaws in their first union in a way.

Josh Gordon:  And Javier steps up in a beautiful way at the end of the movie, and does something that none of the adults could do because in a way he’s reckless enough to kind of do that. So he ends up… You know, we call it his Han Solo moment. He ends up really resurrecting himself in a great way.

Will Speck:  But I think Lyle the character is a great conduit for understanding that your best version of your best self is when you’re sort of supported unconditionally. And that can be any shape, any form, any person, any gender. It sort of crosses, yeah. And then, truthfully. And at the end of the movie, I think, his big finale, which is sort of a mirror to that first scene that he shows –

Josh Gordon: Is that he really finds his voice, which is a beautiful one.

Will Speck: And he does that as a consequence of Josh setting the table for him, and showing him that his own self-sacrifice and love is what is leading the cause, not his exploitation.

What was the collaborative process like with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to create these songs for Lyle? (The Greatest Showman, La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen)                                       

Josh Gordon: It’s interesting. We learned quite a bit about musicals from Pasek and Paul who are masters at it. And it’s a much more efficient narrative storytelling structure. Characters can accomplish growth in a single song that would take 10 minutes in a normal movie. So, we come out of much more narrative filmmaking. It was interesting how quickly and efficiently the audience is willing to move with you.

Will Speck: I think their choice early on was to make it diegetic. We didn’t know what that word was, but it means that the singing is actually happening while it’s happening, so that if I start singing right now, you guys hear me, as opposed to a world where I have a bluebird on my finger and everybody sings, you know what I mean? Both are valid, but I think their choice because it was performative for Lyle, was to make the music feel like it was actually really happening. So, when he’s on stage, he’s singing or not singing. And when he’s rehearsing, he’s singing or not singing. And in the kitchen, he’s actually singing, and Mrs. Primm is joining in.

Josh Gordon: It kind of grounds it in a little bit more of a reality instead of everything is, you know, flowery.

Will Speck: And it’s different from what they’ve done. So I think that was also an exciting challenge for them. But what they do, which is really unbelievable, is, they write their music and they both trade through the process, you know? Some more musical moments, some more lyrical moments. And then, they actually just take a piano and a guitar, and they set up their iPhone, and they’re like, “Okay, so this is what we were thinking.”

Josh Gordon: So you’d be on set, wondering, “Boy, I hope these songs are good.” And then, you would get this piece of gold.

Will Speck: And then our job was to actually like Josh said, realize in a musical what before it, or after it could be reduced because the song is telling so much. And then, to really break it down in terms of how are we going to choreograph it, how are we going to record it? What Shawn’s going to sound like on it, and also, what the vibe of the music is going to be.

Josh Gordon:  And really, how to elevate these musical numbers, so that they’re as infectious as the songs. And really, that took months of rehearsal, camera rehearsal, digital pre-visualization, oftentimes, trying to constantly beat it up so that it didn’t just feel proscenium and flat, but that you were in the experience, like in “Rip up the Recipe.” You felt the euphoria of that song.

There are familial themes, and some heavier adult themes wrapped up in this musical. How did you guys go about balancing that?

Will Speck: I think we wanted to not shy away from real issues, because I think everybody faces them, especially kids today. And I think we also didn’t want to be too heavy-handed about it. So, we wanted it to be a blended family that came as a consequence of Josh losing his mother, and Mr. Primm losing his wife. But we didn’t want to lean on that too much. We wanted to make it straightforward. So, hopefully, you caught that moment on the roof, when Josh very matter-of-factly says that. But we tried not to lean into it, have too much of it. And that’s about the only time in the movie that it’s addressed.

Josh Gordon: I think it adds just enough reality to the story, where it feels like we’re dealing with, you know… As we said, these children’s books in the ’60s didn’t shy away from adult themes but presented the world as it is, that a child can understand. That’s important to us. You know, not to sugarcoat it.

Will Speck: Josh as a kid is kind of anxious, and has a hard time finding his way in this new city with this new environment. And Lyle helps him do that. Mr. Primm sort of has issues with his confidence and his courage, and being able to stand up himself. Lyle wrestles him in the attic. So, it’s sort of a fun way to get that idea of finding your empowerment across. And Mrs. Primm, who was sort of a baker that had books and was sort of –

Josh Gordon:  Sort of high-powered.

Will Speck:  On that track, who’s sort of taking a backseat to be present for Josh, finds that she can actually do both. That’s what that recipe song is doing. So, we tried to have deeper roots in these issues, but not be heavy-handed about it, so that the delivery system for kids and families was just light on its feet. Because I think that’s sort of the best kind of story, where you sense that there’s something greater at play, but that you’re not leaning into it so that you’re dragging the audience sideways.

Lyle, Lyle Crocodile opens in theaters on October 7th. Also, fans of the book and novel can expect to see some Lyle Crocodile plushies and re-releasing of the book in the weeks ahead. 

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