Behind the Scenes — Hotel Transylvania: Transformania

Posted on January 12, 2022 at 8:00 am

Copyright Sony 2021
The fourth “Hotel Transylvania” is my favorite of the series. There are some new voices, with Brian Hull taking over for Adam Sandler as Drac, Brad Abrell filling in for Kevin James as Frankenstein, and Keegan-Michael Key as The Mummy, replacing CeeLo Green.

The first three films were centered on the difficulty Drac, a vampire (Hull), had in accepting Johnny (Andy Samberg), the human who married his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez). In this movie, there’s a switch. Johnny wants to become a monster and gets Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) to turn a transforming ray on him. So, the human becomes a monster and, through a malfunction, the ray gets turned on the monsters — the Invisible Man (David Spade), Murray the Mummy (Key), Wayne the wolfman (Steve Buscemi), Frankenstein (Abrell) and his Bride, Eunice (Fran Drescher). They become human, so we get to see what the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, and the Mummy really look like and how they respond when they don’t have their special powers. But Mavis has to find a way to get Johnny back to his human self before it is too late.

In a virtual press event, the actors talked about becoming “monsterfricationized” (Samberg’s term) and the freedom of animation. “I loved the new design,” Samberg said, “Burning Man back-packer meets Godzilla, a dream come true for me.” Spade said his character is “a bit of a scene-stealer” and a “goofy ding-dong who hangs out with the monsters.” He said the animators originally wanted the surprise to be how handsome his character was, but he urged them to make him funny-looking. “It’s a cartoon! It should be funny.”

Key was surprised by what his always-wrapped character looked like under it all. “I expected him to be bigger, with one revolution of wraps.” His favorite thing was the way his character was “really working the jowls,” which gave him a different idea about the voice. He loved the concept of not having any limitations. The look of the characters is so exaggerated that you can do anything, like when you’re a kid and playing with other kids. You get to channel all that abandon and it’s only not frowned upon; it’s encouraged.”

Drescher and Gomez urged the audience not to worry about pressure to fit in. Gomez advised taking a break from social media and focusing on a small group of real friends. Drescher said “compassion should be your compass.”

“You pretty much know they want you to go huge and insane, and then they’re going to go further with the animation,” Samberg said, and the others agreed that they enjoyed never being asked to tone it down.

Gomez said “it’s been wonderful to grow with this character. She’s tough and she’s always worrying, and that matches my personality well. I know what it’s like to have differences between family members and it is nice that we’re touching on a real thing in such a crazy way.”

Drescher loves physical comedy and the way it is even bigger in animation. “You can so so much because it’s a make-believe world. You can contort the how far can we physically take these characters to do funny and surprising things.”

Samberg said he did not expect the first movie to inspire three sequels, but he is delighted. “They’re so infused with joy and positivity. Everyone grew up loving this classic monsters and it’s a new spin on it. That’s why it endured.”

Key appreciates the combination of imagination, humor, and character. “An adult can be laughing at a hard joke in this film, but the way all the relationships play out, it’s well-observed and very relatable.”

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Actors Behind the Scenes

Tribute: Betty White

Posted on January 1, 2022 at 12:37 am

It was a privilege to write a tribute to the wonderful Betty White for rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

White’s utter fearlessness as a performer was grounded in the delight she took in delighting others, especially if she could shock them just enough to make them laugh. She had unbounded enthusiasm, she loved a challenge, and she never worried about whether the character she was playing was likeable. Whether appearing as herself or in character, she always enjoyed the unexpected twist, especially if it was insulting or raunchy. When more than half a million members of a 2012 Facebook group successfully petitioned to have her host “Saturday Night Live,” her opening monologue let them know she did not take herself – or them – seriously. “When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say it sounds like a huge waste of time.” That appearance won her an Emmy, one of five, with 21 nominations going back to 1951.

From CBS Sunday Morning:

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Actors Tribute

Interview: Gil Kenan and Henry Lawfull of “A Boy Called Christmas”

Posted on November 28, 2021 at 11:32 am

Copyright 2021 Netflix
“Was Santa ever a little boy?” This question from his young son inspired author Matt Haig to create an origin story for Santa Claus with A Boy Called Christmas, now an enchanting, star-filled movie on Netflix. In an interview, director Gil Kenan and young actor Henry Lawfull, who plays the title character, talked about creating the world of the story and what gives them hope.

Gil, there’s such a lushness to the soundtrack by Dario Marinelli. How did you talk to him about creating the score?

Gil Kenan: I’ve been a fan of Dario’s music for as long as I’ve been seeing his name associated with films. From “Atonement” to his work with Laika and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” And his work scoring the “Bumblebee” film, the Transformers film. He always brings such beautiful emotion, and musicality to his work.

It was a very natural process, actually. I reached out to him as a fan and I said I would love to have a conversation about a score. And he didn’t know much at the beginning of our conversations. But he read the script. And he came up to meet me in Prague, where we were based for pre-production. And we just had a wonderful conversation about the approach to making a classic film score that would allow us to let the character, the theme, and the adventure come together in a way that would lift all three up.

I loved our collaboration. He was so cool and inventive in the way that he approached the scoring. He brought in some classic Finnish instrumentation to the film that was such a joy for me to experience as a music lover. Some of the fiddle playing in the Resistance party in the film — the cues for the music played there is based on very old folk music from Scandinavia. The phrasing, the instrumentation, he just approaches it with so much passion and joy.

So for me, it was an absolute wonder seeing the music come together. And you get this wonderful experience when you’re in the scoring stage hearing the music start to play and come to life. All of a sudden the entire work of telling the story starts to lift up on its tiptoes. And you really feel that sense of life rushing through the story. I’m so glad you’re bringing it up. He deserves so much love and affection for the one that he’s done.

I also want to ask about the production design, which has such a rich sense of detail, just at the intersection of reality and fairy tale.

GK: The journey with Gary Williamson has been one of the great collaborations in my career. I’ve just so loved bringing the design of this world to life. Gary and I actually were the very beginning of this process. I came on to adapt, and then develop this, and Gary was my first hire. And he and I sat at a big table covered in white paper and drew out the entire film as a map. But it was more than a map, it was sort of a living illustration. And we kept growing it and elaborating, and when we came away from it, it looked like a future concept of what the film was going to be. And so it was an absolute joy. He pushed at every turn to build, and make things as real, and tangible as possible. And Henry will speak a little bit I’m sure to the performers side of that. But I will say as a storyteller, as a filmmaker to allow the camera to properly step into Elfhelm, to see the streets and all the buildings fully realized is an experience that you can’t replicate using digital tools. Even though they’re incredibly useful, and I love using them to show things that aren’t possible, there is a grounded quality to being able to have big real sets. That is something I’ll always push for. And Gary is a hero in my book.

Henry, let’s talk a little bit about the stuff that was real, and the stuff that was not real. How did you feel the first time that you walked into Elfhelm?

Henry Lawfull: It was incredible. I remember I first visited the set when it was in construction, and just saw basically the wooden framework of this crazy village as it was in construction, which is really cool. And then I remember going back maybe a month later and seeing it all painted. And like this magical incredible village. It was beautiful. And then obviously to work there, and to act with it just made you feel as if you were in that situation. And for me, it brought a lot to help me with my performance just to be surrounded by that real world and to feel the characters emotions seeing this crazy place. It was amazing for me, just to see what these people can do, to build some massive village out of wood just for a film.

So, what did you do to interact with the parts of the film that were not real, like the digital creatures?

HL: There were a lot of different methods we used for bringing the characters to life, especially Miika and Blitzen . And then obviously, the troll. It was all a great part of the experience. For example, the troll scene. I remember I spent a lot of time dangling from wires and doing stunt stuff as if I was being eaten by a troll, which was this massive, giant puppet that they’d built. So that was a lot of fun to do. And then the mouse for me was Gil. He did the voice of the mouse while we were filming. I never actually heard him as Stephen Merchant until we did the audio stuff in post-production, and it was so funny hearing his voice. Obviously, it’s a challenge just working with a puppet or a little wire with some green tape or a tennis ball or something rather than a real-life mouse. But they made everything around me, and this amazing cast, the costumes, the village made it all feel real. So although I might be speaking to a tennis ball at that certain point, everything else around me felt magical. And hopefully, you can see that.

GK: That’s good to hear. If I can just add to that having worked with performers of every age now in my career, I’ve learned that there’s never such a thing as giving too much input in the shooting of the film to help to fill in the empty spaces that will one day in the future become filled in. And so bringing in real puppeteers as part of our main unit of crew was indispensable in this process. They were so incredible at bringing to life the moments between the moments. And when Henry was in the snowy birch forest meeting Blitzen for the first time, we used three different techniques to bring Blitzen into life on the screen. But the one that for me brings the most emotion to the surface was a puppeteer shot where there was just unbelievable nuance in the movement of the two puppeteers working in tandem. And hopefully one day some of that behind the scenes gets released because you do see so much magic on the screen even with just these gray puppets interacting with Henry.

Copyright 2021 Netflix

You weren’t afraid to include some melancholy to keep the story from being too sugary. That was such a smart, brave choice.

GK: It was something that took me by surprise in Matt Higgs’ book the first time I read it. It made me realize that there was fantastic current in this story that could elevate the brighter moments, the joyous moments, the moments of hope. Because the truth is that those concepts, joy, whatever it is we think of as joy, whatever it is we think of as hope, all of those moments are only as bright as the darker moments that are around them. And so the truth is that for all of us, Christmas is a holiday that we come to with great expectation and nostalgia or emotional currents that remind us of moments from our childhood or families. But there is also weight to this time of year. And part of that is just calendar-based. The days are short, the nights are long, it’s cold out but also that in the great tradition of classic fairy tale storytelling there is an opportunity in a young person’s adventure to not hold back from the full scope of human emotion, and experience.

I remember as a young audience member watching films growing up, and the ones that felt like they actually connected with me were the ones that didn’t pander, that didn’t hold back from the full weight of human experience. And I remember thinking that as a very young kid in a darkened movie theater, thinking that the movies that showed me that life wasn’t all sugar, plum, and cakes were the ones that I respected because they respected me back as an audience. I believe as a storyteller that it’s my responsibility to try to respect the emotional intelligence of my audience no matter what their age is. So that was my approach.

The movie asks the question about what gives us hope. What gives you hope, both of you?

GK: Stories give me hope every time. Story and storytelling is where I find my inspiration. It’s where I refill and recharge. It’s a very difficult time for everyone right now. And what I find gives me purpose, and when I wake up in the morning helps me to focus on which direction I want to be pointed at, is thinking about what stories I’m going to be busying myself with. And it’s such an honor to be able to tell one that I hope will connect with audiences here.

HL: I think for me, seeing loved ones, friends, and family around me happy, and doing well, and succeeding is a massive inspiration. It makes me happy to see friends and family and loved ones happy. So I guess it could go both ways where I try and stay hopeful and optimistic and happy. And that gets me through some of the worst times, seeing loved ones happy. It goes both ways.

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Actors Directors Interview

Interviews: The Cast of A Week Away

Posted on March 27, 2021 at 7:09 am

Copyright Netflix 2021
I had so much fun talking to the four young stars of A Week Away for The Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Bailee Madison (who also co-produced, at only age 19!), Kevin Quinn, Kat Conner, and Jahbril Cook talked to me about their favorite camp activities, the advice they would give their characters, and what they hope people will take from the film. An excerpt:

Minow: The characters pack a lot of activities into a week! Which was your favorite?

Quinn: There was a day that we were filming a montage of sporting events around the camp. And we did everything from bag toss to pie-eating contest, to tug of war. And I think that was the most fun for me because I actually forgot that the cameras were rolling at one point, which is a good day in any actor’s career. We’re just having fun.

Madison: We were drained that day. I remember when we were finished filming, we were like, “I’m exhausted.” And then I went home and I was FaceTiming my mom and I said, “I’m so tired today. She asked, What did you do?” When I told her, I thought, This just sounds like a really fun day.” And it was. But yeah, we got really into it.

Conner: The scene was cut from the movie but we got to do a zip line, and that is one of my favorite things ever. But we only had one take. But if I could go back, I want to do it again.

Cook: Yeah, that was super fun. There were a lot of things that we didn’t get to do, that showed up in the movie but we didn’t get around to it. One of them in the dive sequence George gets launched off The Blob and I was looking forward to that the whole time. The Blob was just out there on the lake and we could see it every day. But then on the day, unfortunately, they hit me with the bad news. They said, “Doing your hair is too much of an ordeal so you can’t get it wet because we don’t have time to do it again.” And so, I climbed out onto The Blob, and I had to do this shimmy maneuver on the big wooden structure to get the shot and then I had to shimmy back off without getting wet.

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Actors Interview
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