EPIC – THE INTERVIEW WITH WRITER JAMES HART AND DIRECTOR CHRIS WEDGE

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From the creators of Ice Age and Rio, EPIC tells the story of an ongoing battle between the forces of good, who keep the natural world alive, and the forces of evil, known as the Boggans, who wish to destroy it. When a teenage girl finds herself magically transported into this secret universe, she teams up with an elite band of warriors known as the Leafmen, and a crew of comical, larger-than-life figures, to save their world – and ours.

Having brought to life one of the most beloved and successful animated motion picture franchises, Ice Age, director Chris Wedge and his teams at Blue Sky Studios (of which Wedge is a co-founder) and writer James Hart achieve new heights of realism, action, adventure and detail, with EPIC. Wedge and Hart, both SMU graduates, and Paul Salfen talked about the film at Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park in Dallas.

“EPIC” BEGINNINGS
Wedge’s initial inspiration for EPIC came when he and noted author William Joyce attended an art exhibition of 100-year-old paintings that depicted intricate realms existing in the woods. “The paintings had magical notions of tiny civilizations living in the trees and bushes,” Wedge recalls. “They looked like magnificent worlds, and I thought there had to be a movie here.”
As Wedge completed work on his acclaimed animated feature “Robots,” ideas for a film about an unseen universe continued to percolate.

Blue Sky Studios’ cutting-edge animation was the perfect fit to bring EPIC alive. “Some places you can’t go any other way but animation,” Wedge explains. “We had been developing our artistic and technical capabilities, and we now had the ability to create entire worlds based in nature. I thought I could immerse audiences – visually, intellectually and emotionally – in a realm we could experience only through animation.”

EPIC’s world, which unites the familiar and the fantastic, is a forest unlike any we’ve seen before: tiny seeds look like boulders; rocks are the size of spiky mountains; flowers are gigantic and complex; and a butterfly is a nothing short of a flying tapestry.
In this world, Wedge interweaves spectacular battle scenes with intimate and emotional character interactions, and seasons the tale with humor, fun and romance. While the film’s visual wonders breaks new ground in animated spectacle, realism, action and adventure, it is EPIC’s characters and the actors who portray them that take center stage.

“EPIC” CAST AND CHARACTERS
We experience the world of EPIC through the eyes of Mary Katherine (she prefers M.K.), a smart, spirited and headstrong 17-year-old who finds herself on the journey of a lifetime. After returning to her childhood home to connect with her estranged father, Professor Bomba, M.K. loses patience with his endless stories of unseen people who live in the woods. But when she is magically transported into the Leafmen’s world, she gains a new perspective. To find her way home, M.K. must do more than believe in this world; she’ll have to help save it.

Amanda Seyfried, the versatile and popular star of movies such as Les Miserables and Momma Mia, portrays M.K., whom the actress describes as “strong-willed and disconnected from her father to the point where she thinks there’s no way she’s going to be able to even live with him. ut M.K.’s incredible journey to a secret universe in the forest changes many things about her, not the least of which is her feelings about her dad. “She ultimately comes to believe in him,” says Seyfried. “He was right about so many things.”

The other man in M.K.’s life is a resident of this unseen realm, named Nod. Josh Hutcherson, who stars as the warrior Peeta Mallark in the blockbuster “The Hunger Games” trilogy, portrays Nod.
Rakish and handsome, Nod is all about bucking the rules and flying solo. But his brazen individualism doesn’t square with the Leafmen’s ideals of teamwork and unity, so he quits the squad. After M.K. enters his world – and when the stakes are high – Nod discovers what it takes to be a true hero.

M.K. and Nod concurrently undergo transformative journeys, which bring them together, though initially their relationship is fueled by suspicion and arguments. Part of their ultimate attraction to one another stems from their feelings of being disconnected to anything else – M.K. by the circumstances of her unsuccessful reunion with her father, and Nod by his rebellious nature, which he directs mostly toward his father figure, the Leafmen’s leader, Ronin.

Nod locks horns with Ronin with as much undisciplined and un-Leafman-like behavior as Nod can muster. “Nod is rebellious and free-spirited, and unaware of the formidable responsibilities to protect his world,” says Hutcherson. “After meeting M.K., he learns a lot about himself and comes to understand and embrace his destiny. “Ronin is a surrogate father to Nod, and the Leafmen leader has been trying to look after Nod, but he’s not very good at it,” Hutcherson continues. “Ronin is stoic and staunch, and Nod’s just not that way, at least not at first. They don’t see eye-to-eye on much.” Nod’s fearlessness, formidable skills as a pilot, and recklessness are experienced during a fast-and-furious combination of a race and dogfight in which the filmmakers hurtle Nod, his opponents – and the audience – through trees, brambles and fields in an electrifying competition. Ronin is none too pleased with these kinds of extra-curricular activities. The chisel-faced, battle-hardened leader of the Leafmen, the elite corps of warriors sworn to protect all life in the forest, Ronin lives by the creed “many leaves, one tree” – meaning, we’re all individuals, but at the same time, part of a community. (The Leafmen characters are inspired by William Joyce’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, which introduced the Samurai-like warriors. The acclaimed author also co-wrote EPIC’s story and screenplay and serves as an executive producer and production designer.) Ronin wouldn’t think twice about putting his own life on the line for someone he cares about. When the forest and his beloved Queen come under siege, Ronin rallies the Leafmen into action with bravery and wry humor.

Colin Farrell portrays Ronin. A native of Ireland, Farrell initially tried an American accent on for size, but the filmmakers discovered that his own brogue was a winning combination of charm and naturalness that was perfect for the character. If Farrell wasn’t feeling enough pressure portraying a bigger-than-life warrior, he points out that the film’s title heightens the challenge for all of EPIC’s cast and crew: “The film is epic by name, epic by nature, and epic by experience,” says the actor. “I think it truly lives up to all that the title implies, with its ambitious reach in scale, the breadth of its cast, and the stunning visual imagery.” Ronin’s and his Leafmen’s mode of transportation are hummingbirds, which in the world of EPIC race into battle with the capabilities of both a motorcycle and helicopter. “They are the most agile birds imaginable,” says Knapp. “They can flip over, fly upside down and backwards – whatever you need them to do.”

Ronin’s closest and most powerful ally is Queen Tara, portrayed by legendary musical artist Beyoncé Knowles, who makes her animated feature debut in EPIC. Beautiful, agile and strong, Tara isn’t just the Leafmen’s Queen; she’s the life force of the forest, which she presides over with respect, compassion and humor. A flirty intensity burns between Tara and Ronin; Tara is Queen to all, but to Ronin, she’s something more. When Tara finds herself in danger, she knows she can always rely on Ronin, but her unique connection with nature gives her additional and powerful allies. And when all hope seems lost, she summons help from the most surprising of places.

Tara is nothing less than the life of the forest. She has a powerful connection with her land: flowers bloom and bend toward her, and leaves bow to Tara. “Tara is the heart of the forest, personified, and she’s beloved by her people, called the Jinn,” says Beyoncé. Beyoncé agrees with Farrell that the film lives up to its grand title. “EPIC is about a massive battle between good and evil, set against a huge landscape you’ve never before experienced in a film,” she points out. “Everything in EPIC is big – the action, stakes, characters – but at the same time they’re all really relatable.”

Beyoncé found much to admire in Tara, beyond the character’s elegance, powers and royal position. “What I like most about Tara is that she sets a great example for the people she protects, and Tara is a role model for the younger characters.” In casting the role, Wedge, unsurprisingly, thought, “big,” because, he says, “Tara had to be larger than life and even iconic.” And there’s no bigger entertainer and artist than Beyoncé. Adds producer Jerry Davis: “Beyoncé has the command and presence of a queen but without the typical formality.” While her incredibly flexible and dexterous singing voice is beloved worldwide, it was Beyoncé’s speaking intonations that convinced the filmmakers that she was Queen Tara. “Beyoncé’s voice has a beautiful, velvety quality. There a presence in her speaking voice that really pulls you in,” says producer Lori Forte.

Queen Tara’s home is Moonhaven, a veritable Eden formed out of living plants and stone, and which emanates perfection and harmony. One of Moonhaven’s most sacred enclaves is a patch at the end of a pond where two of her subjects tend to pods from which Tara will select her heir. Once every 100 years a new pod blooms to take over for the current queen. The two loyalists to whom Tara has entrusted this crucial task are Mub, a slug and self-characterized “ladies’ man,” who is low on the evolutionary food chain but high in self-esteem; and his sidekick Grub, a snail and wannabe Leafman. Though this slug-and-snail comedy duo is spineless, literally, they show real backbone by joining the quest to save their world.

So basically, the future of Moonhaven has been entrusted to amorphous blobs with extended eyeballs, who fancy themselves as heroes. While it’s easy to underestimate the duo – and almost everyone except the Queen does so – comic actor Aziz Ansari, who portrays Mub, points out that there’s more to this duo than meets the eye(balls). “Mub may be a slug, but he’s deep. After all, they’re caretakers of the pod, and executives in charge of moistness. The pod needs moisture and who better to provide that than a slug and a snail?”

“Mub and Grub dream big,” says the star of the acclaimed sitcom Parks and Recreation. Mub’s big – if not impossible – dream comes in his relentless wooing of M.K, an attraction he believes is mutual. “Mub feels that M.K.’s connection to him is undeniable; it’s a done deal,” says Ansari. “Which is kind of strange because he’s not even a human being, so there’s that barrier.”
Grub’s own dream is almost as impossible as his sidekick’s: how can something so low on the evolutionary scale aspire to become one of the Leafmen, a warrior of uncommon physical abilities? “Grub finds it difficult to be even considered a candidate for Leafman-hood,” says Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), who portrays Grub. “The Leafmen are quite agile, among other things, and agility isn’t much of a factor when you’re a snail. But Grub has a lot of courage, if not much bone structure. He has the will to be a Leafman, if not the wherewithal. But sometimes you’ve got to fake it ‘til you make it, which is Grub’s philosophy.”

For Wedge and his design and animation teams, the two characters and their signature goo were “hands-down the most difficult we’ve had to rig and animate because they can move into almost any shape.” “We worked really hard to get the goo right,” adds Knapp. The efforts of Mub, Grub and the entire Leafmen cadre will be needed to protect the pod and the Queen’s legacy against the forces of darkness known as the Boggans – crafty, malevolent creepers that seek to destroy Moonhaven. For the Boggans, rot rules.

The filmmakers envisioned the Boggans as the creators of decay in the natural world. Wedge explains: “You might take a walk in the woods or in a park, and see something that looks like a gnarly knob growing out of a tree. That’s the handiwork of the Boggans.” Their capital of decomposition is called Wrathwood, whose dark, twisty and claustrophobic tunnels provide a sharp contrast to Moonhaven’s openness and light.

The chief force behind the darkness and destruction is the Boggans’ ruler, Mandrake. Gifted, or cursed, with the ability to bring destruction to anything he touches, Mandrake and his Boggan minions are the arch-nemeses of the Leafmen. Mandrake is tired of hiding in the shadows, and with his son Dagda (played by Blake Anderson) by his side, he plans the ultimate revenge – to claim the forest he believes should have always been his.

As portrayed by two-time Academy Award®-winning actor Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds), Mandrake is devious, dangerous, erudite, droll, and ironic. His eloquent and sharp musings and threats are complemented by his vampire-like appearance. The effect is heightened by Mandrake’s bat cape and the fact that the nocturnal and feared rodents are the Boggans’ preferred mode of transport.

Wedge embraced the opportunity to work with Waltz, and got more collaboration than he expected when the director read lines opposite Waltz during recording sessions. “Christoph wanted to play the scenes at all times, so our podiums were set up across from each other. He’d perform Mandrake, and I’d read whichever character he was playing against. Every time I’d look up from my script page, there was Christoph staring me down, in true Mandrake style. He was in the scene completely. It was intimidating and thrilling.”

A far more affable figure than Mandrake – and very much on the side of the Leafmen – is Nim Galuu. Nim is the consummate party animal, but don’t let this larger than life caterpillar fool you – his wisdom and practical know-how make him a key behind-the-scenes player in the epic battle to save the forest. Nim possesses a broad frame, six arms, four legs – and signature satin jacket, whose pattern was inspired by butterfly wings. Portraying Nim is Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. At first glance, the choice of a rock and roll icon to essay the avuncular (though fun-loving) forest sage is unexpected, but Wedge notes that the idea to cast Tyler “just came to us and we ran with it. Listen to Steven’s voice; it has all the necessary texture for Nim, who like Steven is a fun character with lots of energy.”

For Tyler, the role reminded him of some his experiences as a youngster. “I grew up in the wilds of New Hampshire and I always thought there was something to be said for the quiet of the woods,” he explains. “At the same time, I was afraid of the woods, but I grew to love it. So I think EPIC is the perfect story to tell.”

As Colin Farrell did with his early explorations in voicing Ronin, Tyler experimented with several accents for Nim. Here, too, Wedge encouraged the actor to use his own voice. “Yeah, Chris knocked me down a peg when I tried those accents,” Tyler recalls.

If Queen Tara and the Leafmen embody the forces of light, and Mandrake and the Boggans the forces of darkness, then the character Bufo straddles both worlds. A tough-guy toad, Bufo is a wheeler and dealer who plays all the angles: he profits no matter which side wins or loses.
 
In yet another example of inventive casting, rapper/singer/songwriter Pitbull is Bufo. “We were looking for a certain archetype, and asked ourselves, where do you go?” Wedge explains. “Well, you don’t go to the normal field of actors; you go to musical artists. Pitbull brings something special to the role.”

Pitbull, whose current hit (performed with Christina Aguilera) is “Feel this Moment,” likens musicianship to the experience of a team of animators, designers and actor joining forces to create a film character. “When I make records I can hear a beat and know exactly what I’m going do and how it’s going to come about,” he explains. “So for an animator to see me and my expressions and translate those to a character…that’s amazing.”

Coming full circle, back to M.K. and her incredible adventure, we meet her father, Professor Bomba, who ultimately unites the Leafmen and Moonhaven with the human world. A quirky, absent-minded professor, Bomba has grown out of touch with M.K. He lives in the middle of the forest, in a rundown house, where he surrounds himself with bizarre homemade gadgets. His life has been dedicated to – some would say obsessed with – studying a civilization of tiny people he’s never seen. But when M.K. disappears, Bomba must put his own dreams under the microscope, and find what he’s really always been looking for.

The father-daughter dynamic creates “the film’s emotional core,” insists SNL star Jason Sudeikis, who plays Bomba. “Bomba’s a bit of an eccentric, and is fun, playful, witty and kooky,” the actor continues. “Unfortunately, M.K. doesn’t understand the appeal of his quest to find the hidden world in the forest he knows is there. But I really like that he has all these mad synapses firing – all these things going on in his head. Most of all, I like the fact that he believes in something bigger than himself.”

Bomba lives in a cluttered, dilapidated mansion – “it’s not a house; it’s termites holding hands,” says the taxi driver (30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander) who drops off M.K. at Bomba’s house – amidst assorted contraptions, inventions, sensors, cameras, tracking devices, buzzers, alarms…and an old, three-legged pug with a tendency to drool named Ozzy. Bomba’s faithful sidekick, Ozzy is aged but he has the heart of a champion show dog.
Casting the film with this star-studded ensemble was a daunting, if not “terrifying” task for Wedge, who explains: “There’s so much riding on the casting. Creating a character is collaboration between design, writing, acting, animation, and voice. And I want all those separate elements to come through as one character. I try and meld the voice with the character design so that it brings the character to life, but doesn’t pull you out of the movie.”

“EPIC” WRAP-UP
During the post-production period that encompassed editing, scoring, color timing, sound mixing, and innumerable other tasks, Wedge took time to reflect upon the myriad challenges and opportunities afforded by EPIC, singling out the critical work of his various department heads and their teams.
Production designer Greg Couch was one of the first filmmakers to work with Wedge on EPIC, painting ideas for its world, early in the project’s development. “Greg’s work is very painterly, magical and mesmerizing,” says the director. Michael Knapp came onboard as art director, designing characters, colors, environments, textures, story, and lighting. As art director, he worked with Wedge to transform the familiar environs of a woods into a kind of alien universe, where the colors are more vivid, the light more expressive, and vegetation sways as if it were consciously alive.

Supervising animators Galen Tan Chu and Melvin Tsing ChernTan explored unexpected ranges of motions for the characters and creatures, with the Sculpting, Modeling, Rigging, Hair Fur, Materials and Effects departments also making critical contributions to the world of EPIC.

With these departments achieving unprecedented levels of realism and spectacle, Wedge singles out “pushing the animation further than ever before” as another formidable creative challenge. “Our characters in EPIC are the most sophisticated-looking and human-looking of all our Blue Sky Studios projects,” he says.

The Blue Sky Studios team has no bigger fan than Beyoncé Knowles, who says, “The animators based much of their work on footage of the actors recording our lines, so my facial expressions and body language have become part of Queen Tara.

“I was blown away by the detail in the animation,” she continues. “It’s very hard to even tell it’s animation; it looks so lifelike. I’ve always imagined being in an animated film, so to see that happen was really exciting for me.”

Another giant in the music world – composer Danny Elfman (Oz the Great and Powerful, The Simpsons Movie) – brought his singular talents to EPIC’s score. “I thought Danny would give the film a heightened reality and emotion, while also capturing its tongue-in-cheek elements,” says Wedge. “Of all the scores we’ve done at Blue Sky Studios, this one feels the most – I hate to use the word ‘epic’ – but it feels like a big movie.”

Academy Award-winning sound designer Randy Thom’s (The Incredibles) work is interwoven with Elfman’s score to create additional aural magic. Thom takes nature’s sounds – such as leaves rustling in the wind, a bird taking flight, or a woman’s gentle breath – and creates something slightly otherworldly.

Action is also king – or, in this case, Queen – in EPIC, which features two spectacular battles, including the climactic confrontation in which the Leafmen, M.K. and Bomba face off against Mandrake and the Boggans that will decide the fate of Moonhaven. It’s grand storytelling, giant action, and bigger than life heroes and villains in the ultimate war between good and evil.
It’s EPIC. And it’s all happening in a world you’ve never seen before – but is as close as your own backyard.