The Smurfs 2 Set Visit featuring an interview with Hank Azaria as Gargamel
Last June, Movieweb was invited by Sony Pictures to cover a set visit for The Smurfs 2 in Montreal. I had done the set visit for the first film in Queens, New York; two years prior, so I was pretty excited to see the progression of the story. Montreal, much like Toronto and Vancouver, has a bustling film industry. It is cheaper to film in Canada, but it's certainly not the cost savings that is the only draw. Montreal, particularly Old Montreal, the historic district on the St. Lawrence River, is incredibly beautiful. The city is distinctly French Canadian with a vibrant culture. Most of the exterior shots for The Smurfs 2 were shot in Montreal as a substitute for Paris, where a sizable part of the story takes place. There were also several gigantic sets built on soundstages in Montreal where some of the climactic action scenes were filmed.
The original cast of Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, and Hank Azaria reprise their roles; with Brendan Gleeson as the new addition. The voice over talent for The Smurfs are back as well with Christina Ricci and J.B. Smoove as The Naughties. What exactly is a Naughty? We'll get into that a bit later. Director Raja Gosnell and Producer Jordan Kerner also return as the primary filmmakers.
The crew of journalists arrives on set and we get a first glimpse at the behemoth soundstage that is Gargamel's (Hank Azaria) lair. Right off the bat, we can see that this is a much bigger film that the first. The amount of detail, breadth, and scope of this set is amazing. You really have to tip your hat to the unsung craftsmen and women that build these sets. I thought the replica of Belvedere Castle from the first film was amazing. Gargamel's lair, besides being huge, had an actual moat that runs through it. I won't give away where it is in the story, but there was a lot of water leaking everywhere. In fact, there was a production assistant whose entire job was to keep the floors dry with a vacuum. This isn't an indie film. The Smurfs 2 is Sony's big summer family film and you could tell that ten seconds after walking in the door.
Our first stop was at the main production office where it's all business. This is the practical side of filmmaking where the legion of accountants, assistants, and publicists run a busy set on a daily basis. We are met by Producer Jordan Kerner who gives us a quick tour. He shows us some concept art work, then gets into a very detailed summary of the story and where the franchise goes from here. The Smurfs were pitched to Sony as a trilogy. In the first film, the primary goal was to reintroduce The Smurfs to world audiences. The Smurfs had always been popular in Europe and Asia, but it had been many years since the cartoon was a hit for North American audiences. You have the introductory story of The Smurfs being chased into New York City's Central Park by Gargamel through a magical portal. We meet the main human characters of Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris) and Grace Winslow (Jayma Mays), who's about to have a baby. The original has the Winslow's helping The Smurfs get back home, but they mistakenly left Gargamel in the modern world.
The Smurfs 2 begins with a transformation for Gargamel. Kerner tells us that a thoroughly dejected Gargamel almost gets run over by a cab in New York City. He uses his broken wand to levitate the cab, which is caught on bystander cell phone cameras. Gargamel's video soon gets a hundred million hits on YouTube. Azrael, Gargamel's cat, takes over the business reigns and propels Gargamel to stardom. He becomes the world's most popular magician. The film opens with him in Paris about to play the Opera House. But wealth and fame are not what Gargamel desires. He wants The Smurfs. Using the Eiffel Tower, Gargamel creates a portal to kidnap Smurfette (Katy Perry). He uses her essence to create his own Smurfs, the gray colored Naughties, Vexy (Christina Ricci) and Hackus (J.B. Smoove). The Naughties are exactly what their name implies. Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) uses his last bit of magic to create a portal back to the Winslow apartment. Patrick and Grace are the proud parents of baby boy Blue. They have an annoying guest, Victor (Brendan Gleeson). He's Patrick's stepfather who's in town to see his grandchild and repair his relationship with Patrick. Together they join forces with The Smurfs to rescue Smurfette and return Gargamel.
Kerner also dropped some elaborate story details regarding their plan for the third film, if the sequel is as successful as the first. Karey Kirkpatrick (Over The Hedge, Chicken Run) penned The Smurfs 2 and was in draft stages for the next film. I'll drop those tasty tidbits in the second article. I will say that the overall story is well conceived and interesting. A lot hinges on how The Smurfs 2 does at the box office, but from what I'd seen so far they definitely have a hit.
Seated in the same conference room, the publicists bring in Hank Azaria. I am an unabashed fan of this guy. From his voice over work on The Simpsons, to the many character roles he's played over the years, Hank Azaria has tremendous talent and is one of Hollywood's gems. He actually had the day off, but came back in for the press interviews. This is a rarity, as many actors can be prima donnas on set and aren't particularly forthcoming with the press. It was at this point that we found out what scene we were going to be observing. The final act takes place at Gargamel's lair where Patrick and Victor go to rescue The Smurfs. Later in the day we would see those takes and get an update as to where The Smurfs 2 was in the production process.
Hank Azaria strolls in with a big smile, looking lean and muscular with a shaved head. The guy doesn't look a day older since I last interviewed him at the press junket for The Smurfs in 2010. He was in a great mood getting a day off. Here's our interview below:
Having seen the first film and the Smurf special effects? What did you take into the sequel to help with the filming?
Hank Azaria: It's a lot easier doing this. You didn't know what anything was going to look like or sound like. What to do with the character, is it too big, too small? Everyone's back now, same director - Raja Gosnell, same producer - Jordan. We also really rushed into the first one. This time around I've been involved from the beginning. I've seen three or four scripts. This one we started out knowing what we were doing.
We were on the set of the first film in Queens two years ago. You were really at your wits end regarding the Gargamel make-up? Has that process improved?
Hank Azaria: (laughs) No! I love this job. I really do. But where I feel like I really earn my pay is in the make-up chair every day. They've got it down to a science. It takes about two hours every day. The prosthetic is not the annoying part. It's so light you barely feel it, but the hair and eyebrows start to itch after two hours. You can't really scratch them. But that's how I earn my money.
You've said you base your relationship with Azrael on an old married couple? Is that the same here?
Hank Azaria: It's been expanded here. I keep trying to get the line, in Gargamel voice, "Why did I ever marry you"? (laughs) But I don't think it'll ever make it into a child's film. At one point, they're looking for something and he tells Azrael, "It's in the bathroom on my side of the sink." They're definitely married, unhappily so.
The line, "I wish I could quit you"; did make it in...
Hank Azaria: I know. I couldn't believe that made it in. That's one of those you toss out. Jordan said it was a weird thing to say. But you know what, you keep tossing stuff out there and every sixth line makes it in. That's why I keep saying, "Why did I ever marry you?" Maybe it will make it in.
So you are able to do a significant amount of ad-libbing here?
Hank Azaria: It has to be more down to a science, especially a movie like this that is extremely special effects heavy. It's not like a Judd Apatow film where you can say, let's see what happens here. If you decide to throw three more cat shots in, that's like nine billion dollars to the budget. What we do is work with the script early and create alternate lines where needed. That's what's easier about this one. In the first film there would be twelve alternates. We just weren't sure if the character should be underplayed, sarcastic, dry, over the top. Now you kind of know, so there are two or three alternates in different places. Very rarely are we just riffing. There's too much involved to just take off like that.
Where you very involved in this script's process?
Hank Azaria: Jordan has been very kind about making the script my own. Once they get a script that's pretty good. Then I come in and do my own pass of dialogue. I worked with two sets of writers on this one. We sort of scour through and kind of beat the joke. By the time I'm on set. I really feel like I know what I'm doing. Once you live in a character, you know it better than anyone else.
Have you gotten better or worse at being evil?
Hank Azaria: Better...wait...Gargamel or me? (laughs)
Let's do both?
Hank Azaria: I feel like I know how to play this character. It's like practice with an instrument. You get better as you go along. In the first one, I kind of wanted to play him laid back and dry, which is funny in certain places. But there's no way to really play him as laid back. That's why the first half of the first movie is Raja pushing me to camp it up and heighten it. I found it very difficult to trust that at first. I thought I'd be overacting. Eventually I started looking at a lot of playback. That's when I realized it's the most successful when it's always crescendoing. Now that I trust that, it's a lot easier. Some of the best takes I did in the first film I was very embarrassed about. Oh, that's going to be terrible, it's too much. But then you almost can go too much with this character.
They brought back the same cats that play Azrael from the first film. Is it easier to work with them?
Hank Azaria: You do get to know them. There are four of them. And each one is good at a certain thing. They're not like dogs. They can only do a limited amount of things. They can basically only hit their mark, turn their head, or walk out or walk in when you need them too. You have to feed them. You have to loop all of their shots. There's lots of clicking and buzzing going on to get them to go where they need to go. You don't fret that. You know that you'll be looping half the movie.
Do you get to have more interaction with Neil this time?
Hank Azaria: No. The scene today, I shot my part when they weren't here. And know they're shooting their part when I'm not here. In action sequences, we kind of yell across the room at each other. That's pretty much it. I've gotten used to being there with the fake cat and the fake Smurfs. And the real cats. It's kind of fun. You set it up the way you want it.
What was your experience with The Smurfs growing up?
Hank Azaria: I've said this before. I thought they were an American thing. I was a little too old when The Smurfs were on. I was born in '64, so I was around twenty when they come out. But I still watched them anyway because I'm immature. I liked them. I thought they were really quaint and cute. They're hypnotizing. You get engaged by them. Although, I didn't like the American version of Gargamel. Paul Winchell did the voice and he was an amazing actor. But I always felt like he was a bit phoning Gargamel in. They didn't let him be interesting. He was like a stock villain. One note, always yelling, I wanted a whack at redoing him to make him funny and more interesting. The Smurfs are interesting. They're this great family dynamic...with just one girl. (laughs)
How did you come up with that Gargamel run?
Hank Azaria: It was organic. Form followed function. If you're stooped over, I felt like I looked stupid, like some kid in a middle school play pretending to be an old man. Then you see it on camera and it looks right. Plus I have a little hump and belly that they give me. So when you're that stooped over, you try your best to run. That's how that came out.
We've been told this was pitched as three movies. Are you signed for all three?
Hank Azaria: No, I signed on for two. So I'm not officially signed for the third.
Did you know, after the first film, that there was going to be a sequel?
Hank Azaria: No, not at first. The way studios work is this. They have to be prepared in case the first film is successful. They do a lot of preparation work, so they're ready with the sequel if the movie does well. But you don't know.
Would you be happy doing the third film?
Hank Azaria: Oh yeah, I love this job. Except for the make-up, it's really fun. It's one of those things where you're amazed you get paid to do this.