When we last left off with my visit to Sony Pictures Animation, our assembled press corps had just finished speaking with The Smurfs cast members Hank Azaria and Jayma Mays. After they left, we were greeted by director Raja Gosnell and producer Jordan Kerner to discuss all things Smurfs. Take a look at our full interview with the director and producer below, and be sure to keep reading below the interview for a very special Smurf-related surprise, featuring yours truly.
Director Raja Gosnell and Producer Jordan Kerner:
Is there a special place you go to when you're working on material for children? How do you access that, creatively?
Raja Gosnell: Part of it is experience. I've been in family movies going way back to the Popeye movie with Robert Altman, some 30 years ago. I spent a good deal of my career editing for Chris Columbus, the Home Alone movies, Mrs. Doubtfire. I've been directing my own movies, which have all generally been family movies, so I guess you could say it's in my DNA, at this point. I don't necessarily need to go to a 'special place.' When I do get a family movie I like, because I do get a lot of scripts that I pass on, the challenge for me is to find something with a little bit of soul, with a little bit of message, some humor, and something unique that makes it worth making, in my opinion. It's really about the project itself, as opposed to this over-arching family place that I go to.
Jordan Kerner: I would say that, having made a lot of what you would call 'family films,' I never set out to make a 'family film.' It's never my intention. My intention is to make a film that is appropriate for anyone from 2 to 100. It's really about story and character, whether it was Fried Green Tomatoes years ago, or Charlotte's Web, or this, all of them, I think, have subject matter that is really for adults and goes over kids' heads, and it has subject matter that hits the sweet spot of younger audiences. As the dean of a film school also, I always tell my students you can elevate or you can denigrate. I know in Raja's past, and in my films over the years, we elevate, and the audience comes out feeling better for having been in the movie. So, we try to make them for everybody.
You went CGI-hybrid when you could have just went CGI, married with the storytelling challenge of making it right now. Can you talk about those challenges?
Raja Gosnell: I think that the challenge for me, and the thrill for me, in making it a hybrid film, was we can open it in Smurf village, and we get to see that, but they also get to come to our world. We get to see a living, breathing Smurf in a kitchen, which is an environment we all know. It's something we can all relate to as part of the real world. I think that sets the bar that much higher, to make them real, living, breathing, creatures, because they have to exist in a world we know very, very well. That's why we made that decision to make it a hybrid film and bring it into our world.
How did you decide which six Smurfs would come to our world?
Raja Gosnell: It was a big decision. Initially, in the earlier scripts, there were 45 to 100 Smurfs, and they were basically all going to come through. The budget really trumped that idea, because it would have been unwieldy. Honestly by the second or third week of shooting, I was like, 'Thank God we don't have 100 Smurfs here,' because I was busy trying to stage six on a tabletop or a sofa or something. If I had another 50 to worry about, I don't know what I would have done. As in any ensemble movie, you want specific voices for specific situations. We needed Papa because he's the leader of the family, he's the wise one, he's the one who's going to get them home. We needed Smurfette because she's the only girl and she's the most popular Smurf. We needed Brainy because he's brainy and can come up with ideas, even though a lot of times they're wrong. Of course, in our movie, he eventually gets it right. Grouchy Smurf, there's always a moment in any foxhole movie where the guys are saying, 'Yeah, we're going to do it,' and there's always one guy who says, 'No, it's never going to work.' I think you just need that voice. Gutsy Smurf, we wanted an action guy. In the Smurf universe, as it existed at that time, they didn't have that straight-up action guy, that first through the breach action guy. Gutsy Smurf was introduced to the world through this. Clumsy Smurf, he's just a sweet guy. All he wants to do is do well, but he just keeps messing up, so we gave him a nice arc to express that and to eventually rise at the end of the movie. Those six Smurfs gave us a lot of great voices to work with, a lot of interaction to work with, and some good story arcs.
Is there a back story to why Gusty has the Scottish motif?
Raja Gosnell: The only back story is that there are 99 Smurfs in the village, but there are only 41 named Smurfs by Peyo. Our logic is that there has always been 99, and the traditionalist crowd has only met the 41, and this Smurf is just one of the others they haven't met yet.
Jordan Kerner: There's a movie history of sort of brashness and daring-do of the Scottish. We wanted that, but we also wanted a character who was defined by his actions, and defined by how he looked. For me, two of the most fascinating characters in the movie, because of the facial hair, were Papa and Gusty. The close-ups are extraordinary. If we're fortunate, and the audience appreciates the movie, we're already writing a sequel screenplay, and some other Smurfs will come forward, who are already in this movie. There are about 10 that you only see in passing, like Vanity and others, who will come forward in the second movie.
Raja Gosnell: We never set out to reinvent The Smurfs, just to bring them to life into the 3D world. The story is a great story. They want to go home, they're in this strange land, they enlist the help of this family, and in being with this family, they actually change their own lives and they actually change New York City. The chance for their wholesomeness and their Smurfyness to drop into the least wholesome place in the world, to see how those two worlds affect each other, was just a great storytelling setup.
Jordan Kerner: I think Hillary Rodham Clinton said it best when she said, 'It takes a village.' This is a community, the Smurf village is a real community of people who care for each other and respect each other and help each other, in the course of their daily lives. A little bit of that seems to be lost in our country, and maybe around the world. We thought that would be an elegant allegory, to put it underneath the story, but have it omnipresent in how you feel, in terms of accepting and embracing and loving the differences in people, as part of a bigger family. That was something we took directly from Peyo. It was really the notion that we have a lesson to learn from them, a bigger broader lesson that we hope will have universal appeal.
Was there more story in the Peyo material than we saw in the animated cartoons? How did his material give you guys springboards for ideas?
Jordan Kerner: Again, we're based on Peyo's material, not on the series. This is no criticism to the series, but Peyo's books were very thematic, different from the episodes. The episodes were cute, they were Saturday morning, so they were geared to a younger audience. Peyo's books were geared towards a much wider audience. We decided to hang more story on it, more than was even in Peyo's books. His daughter said that he would have wanted that today. When he wrote his books, they were characters that came out of another book, and they took on this huge life of their own. He wrote about each of them in the books, but he would have loved to see them interpreted and brought into a larger world.
What cool extras are you planning for the DVD?
Raja Gosnell: We're actually in discussions about that right now. There will be the typical deleted scenes and gag reel stuff, but there are a few other things as well.
Jordan Kerner: There will be a 22-minute original movie, that we are making right now with Imageworks, which is all animated. The DVD comes out in Christmas, imagine that, and it is a Christmas-themed 22-minute piece which is just spectacular. One of the great conceits of it is we enter into the present world with the Smurfs that everyone will know from our movie, these photo-real Smurfs in a photo-real Smurf village. Then when they go back, I don't want to give away too much, but when they go back into Grouchy's dream, they're now in the 2D world. It's much more traditional, in terms of what you would see in a Smurfs cartoon. Then we go back into live-action.
Is the sequel going to stay in our world, or will it bring humans into their world?
Jordan Kerner: It's going to stay in our world, and it's really funny.
Raja Gosnell: But it's an extreme version of our world.
Our interview portion was done for the day after speaking with Jordan and Raja, but there was still one more thing to do while at Sony Pictures Animation. They gave us an opportunity to actually voice a Smurf ourselves. They had a recording booth set up for each of the press members to put their own spin on a brief clip from The Smurfs. Little did the sound engineers at Sony Pictures Animation know that I have somewhat of a knack for doing a few voice impressions, one of which I decided to utilize for my Smurf voice. I won't spoil the surprise for you, but take a look at this actual clip from The Smurfs below, with the "Smurf" voice provided by yours truly.