As part of our recent visit to the Pixar edit bay, actor Patton Oswalt (The King of Queens, Reno 911!), stand up comedian and seasoned animation personality (Aqua Teen Hunger Force, SpongeBob SquarePants) sat down with MovieWeb to talk about playing a rat, expensive food and finally answering Hollywood's most burning question: What is a "Ratatouille?"
So the footage I saw yesterday was awesome.
Patton Oswalt: Oh you went to Emmeryville? Oh it's so awesome.
That place seems some kind of magical.
Patton Oswalt: It's SO AWESOME. It's like this justice league of artisans and the best of everyone in their field all together. And then when they're there...you saw they had life sculpture classes and computer classes and the writers learn what the computer guys do and the computer guys learn..they don't believe in that Asperger Syndrome specialization. They like everyone to be kind of connected and be like "Oh well that works because of ..." I just love it!
How did you get involved in this project?
Patton Oswalt: Absolute pure luck. I was brought up to maybe read for one of the chefs or one of the rats and got to talkin to Brad Bird about what the project was. And it's about a rat being chef. And I'm a big foodie, so I'm just started "Oh my god! I follow celebrity chefs and restaurants and know what their doing" and they saw that THAT passion is what Remy has. So we'll just put him in that.
Did they approach you from seeing you previous voice work?
Patton Oswalt: Well, Brad Bird was a fan of my first comedy CD and they've all seen my standup. And they all played my CD for the Disney people and said "this is the guy."
So your standup led into this...
Patton Oswalt: Yes, my standup and my passion for food. Came together perfectly.
Speaking of "passion for food," Pixar did a lot of research on French Restaurants...
Patton Oswalt: Yeah, "research. " I know one of their producers did an apprenticeship at the French Laundry...they took me to the French Laundry in Yountville. I'm gonna do an apprenticeship in April or May and literally be a kitchen help and learn how they go thru their dinners.
All because this interested you so much?
Patton Oswalt: I take a lot of cooking classes in LA at a place called The New School and get to see how some of the top guys work.
How much improv was allowed in voice recording?
Patton Oswalt: They said I could do stuff that I wanted. But they spent so much time on the script and story and character and it's so solid that I was just more excited about rendering what was there and delivering that. Every now and then they were like "if you want to add something there go for it" or I would do a different take just to try it a totally different way, like if my attitude was different." And a couple of those got in, but for the most part, the script is so good. I just read it. But they let me bring my kind of stuttering. Especially when Remy gets frustrated, you'll see that he tries to say something but gets stuck in the middle of it cause nobody is listening to him.
Now they really micromanage characters. How do they keep it organic while micro managing every little nuance.
Patton Oswalt: Because it's the same way as improv. Great improv comes from people knowing the script and the scene and their actors so well that it doesn't come from just making it up. They really know EVERYTHING and that way they can go off road and then they can come back into the road. So it gives them that freedom. So, when you're so sunk into that character and know who he really is you're free to go "here's what he would do."
When I was doing some of the video game stuff, I remember I had a producer on the phone and, at that point I had done most of the movie, and I said "Remy wouldn't do this. He's into good food." He wouldn't just say "grab anything and put it on here!" He would be picky about things. There's a part of one of the video games where food is falling and the point of this game is to grab as much as possible. Well I don't want to sound like a dick, but this should be about "all this food is falling but he's only trying to grab the good stuff and let the stuff that doesn't matter fall to the wayside. And they said "ya that's true."
So they took note and changed?
Patton Oswalt: Ya, they changed the game. Which actually, they also said it makes it a better video game. Because if you just mindlessly grab anything that falls, there's no challenge. If you pick-and-ignore, that's a much more fun game.
So how did you prepare and learn all these micro managed nuances of Remy?
Patton Oswalt: I wish I could say I did the Robert De Niro thing where I wore a Rat suit and lived in a trash can, but really, the energy up at Pixar is so infectious and fun and everyone is so excited that I prepared by just showing up and talking with Brad and laughing about stuff. Then we'd just get right into the script and trust he'd take me where to go. And he did. As an actor it made me feel really secure. They're gonna get something great out of me even if I don't where it's gonna come from.
Speaking of which, what is Brad Bird like as a director?
Patton Oswalt: He is a guy who is very excited to see his own movie. Because of that, you are excited to make the movie really good. I'm an animation geek, I know all his work. I've been into him since the The Simpsons, I love The Iron Giant, I love The Incredibles. To me, it's like working with a Martin Scorsese or a Woody Allen or an Albert Brooks. I want to impress him. I don't want to come in an say "it's good enough, who cares."
How long did the voice recording take?
Patton Oswalt: I feel like it's still going on. I might have to do more stuff coming up. They're always tweaking, tweaking. It's not like it was just one session, there was a whole bunch, probably just under a year, of recording. Not everyday. They figure out scenes then have me come back and do some more.
Did they give you character designs and movements before you were cast?
Patton Oswalt: No, I went up and saw how the character was drawn, but then the animators came and saw me. I did a talk at Pixar and they filmed that. And they went and saw me do stand up and that's how they got the character. They saw how I talk, saw how I move and that's what they animated. Same thing w/ Dennehy and all the actors. There's elements of their acting. Like Ian Holm as Skinner has the great, glaring, intense thing seen in his character. Dennehy has the big papa bear "Hey, how ya doin?!" while I'm this frustrated guy. You'll see there are scenes where I'm not even talking but I see the movements and say "oh, that's what I do."
So they even studied you for scenes with no dialog?
Patton Oswalt: It's what they'd do at Warner Brothers for Termite Terrace, the old Bugs Bunny movies. They would film each other doing stuff, like if there was a scene where someone hits you with a huge hammer or a pipe. Because even though you do it cartoony, it's still realistic. And anatomically correct, but funny.
You've done a lot of work in general, but specifically you've done a fair amount of animation work, ie. Cartoon network stuff. How is Pixar different?
Patton Oswalt: The stuff with Pixar that's different from the other projects, I'm not involved in. When it comes down to it, Brad is a classic animation genius. It's a guy in a booth and you have to get a good performance out of him. Just like when I do Aqua Teen or Kim Possible or SpongeBob SquarePants. He knows ways to get a specific performance out of you.
Any specific, crazy examples of Brad getting this performance out of you?
Patton Oswalt: There isn't anything specific or crazy, but it's the little details. When I first see my dad again and I give him a hug, Brad came in and hugged me while reading because (simulates being hugged tightly) "You sound different when hugged." What's really striking is the little tiny details that nobody thinks about. Charles Schultz wrote an introduction to that Calvin and Hobbes collection saying "Bill Watterson really knows how to draw bedside tables really well and shoes and splashes of water, and none of this sounds important, but in a comic strip they're crucial. Because nobody even notices them, but they're there and they're characters too and they make the scene." So all these little touches, they are what makes the scene, makes the character, brings the emotion to it. And Brad is aware of all off those.
So for those who don't now, what does the title mean?
Patton Oswalt: Well, Ratatouille is very famous french dish, it's like a stew and they're just doing a take on it cause it's about a rat.
Ratatouille hits theaters June 29th and Bird assures us that it'll be good despite the fact that it's one of the only summer movies that's not a sequel. "Just think of it as the prequel to the sequel!"