Yesterday, I was invited down to the Sony Pictures Animation facility in Culver City, California to preview scenes from the studio's upcoming title Hotel Transylvania, arriving in theaters September 28. The studio is coming off a very successful 2011, with the hits The Smurfs and Arthur Christmas, along with this year's The Pirates! Band of Misfits. SPA looks to continue their trend of success with this new genre comedy that puts a fresh spin on several classic monster characters.
The story revolves around the title locale, which Dracula (Adam Sandler) builds to protect his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), from humanity, after his wife's mysterious death. For decades, no human has ever set foot in this enormous resort, until Mavis' 118th birthday, when an adventurous backpacker named Johnathan (Andy Samberg) walks through the doors, a massive breach that creates chaos for the over-protective Dracula, especially when Mavis and Johnny start to fall for one another.
Director Genndy Tartakovsky was on hand to introduce four clips from his feature directorial debut. He is best known for creating groundbreaking animated TV shows like Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and it's clear from the footage we saw, this isn't your typical modern-day animated film. Unlike practically every other animated movie these days, Hotel Transylvania doesn't necessarily strive for that realistic look. I couldn't help but think of animated shows from my childhood when I saw these overly-aggressive facial contortions from several of the characters, something you don't see every day in a 21st Century animated production.
The first clip we saw featured Mavis trying to convince her father to explore the world on her 118th birthday, and this scene hints at the mysterious death of Mavis' mother. We see the hotel in full swing, with all of its monstrous guests in the second clip, right when the human Jonathan walks in through the front door. It's clear that the vampire is actually quite terrified of humans in these humorously awkward exchanges. The third clip sets up the possible romance between Mavis and Jonathan, and the fourth is quite a fun little scene that features Dracula and Johnny racing through the halls on enchanted tables, and shows even hot-headed vampires can have some fun as well.
After the footage, Genndy Tartakovsky and producer Michelle Murdocca were joined on stage by Selena Gomez for a Q&A session. One of the things that struck me about the footage was the transformation of Adam Sandler's voice, this hybrid of Transylvanian and a number of other voices. Selena Gomez talked about how she couldn't quite get the accent down to sound like her on-screen father.
"They were trying to have me do this part where I make fun of my dad, and that was hard."
Director Genndy Tartakovsky also revealed that they were able to get several of the actors in the same room together for the recording sessions, a rare occurrence in animated productions.
"That was really important, especially with these comedians, you want to get them in the same room, so they can really riff off each other. The first session we did was like that. It was Kevin James, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade, and Adam Sandler. It was amazing, because they did really riff off each other, and you could feel the energy. The one surprising thing was they didn't riff as much as I had thought. I thought they would be ad-libbing like crazy, but once they like a joke, they will do whatever it takes to make it work. That was really nice."
Selena Gomez also talked about how Mavis' journey reflects parts of the actress' own life.
"I think I am in that place, a little bit. I'm 19, not 118, but I want to be able to see places too. I get to travel, and I'm very lucky to get to go to the places I go to, but I never have really been to these places alone or with my friends. I've never actually had that, so I think I'm going through that, doing things on my own a little bit more, and having more of that freedom. I also do mumble a little bit like Mavis, so I feel like I can relate to her, in that sense."
"The animation style is really stand-out, for this movie. Something we usually come up against is the rigidity of the model, how we can move the characters around in 3D and in CG. I have to say that we were really able to be more flexible, with the style that Genndy wanted to go after, and I think that really helps with the comedy and the language of the animation in the movie. Hopefully, that comes across, because you'll see some really wacky, big, crazy, broad animation, and then some really tight, emotional performances that come off with the direction Genndy took us in."
After the presentation, I was able to speak one-on-one with both producer Michelle Murdocca and director Genndy Tartakovsky. First up is Michelle Murdocca, who has been at Sony Pictures Animation since the company was formed in 2002, after working in visual effects. Here's what she had to say.
Producer Michelle Murdocca:
You mentioned before how this project had been at Sony Pictures Animation since its inception. I see there are a few sets of writers attached, so were there major differences in the story between then and now?
Michelle Murdocca: Yeah, there are. It was told from a different point-of-view, a completely different story, some different characters. We always had Dracula, Frankenstein, Frankenstein's wife, the mummy, werewolf, but we had other supporting characters. In fact, we had a couple of other main characters who are no longer in the movie, like the Goblin. The treatment that I read 10 years ago is quite different, with the exception of the hotel for monsters, and the monsters themselves.
Did it take a long time to get to this story you have now?
Michelle Murdocca: It did, it took awhile. It's interesting because 10 years is quite a long span, and quite a lot happens in the world, and a lot of other movies come out. You take some time to figure out what story is right for this time. This kind of felt right. The story we ended up with, the father-daughter story, just felt so universal, for a parent and a child. There's something for everyone. You know what it's like to be a child, you know what it's like to be a parent, who has to finally let go of your child, even if you have very young children. I have four and a half year old twins, and I know what it's like to drop them off at pre-school for the first time, and you're terrified. The emotional core of the story felt right. We found an emotional core and a heartfelt story that we could hang a lot of wacky, zany, crazyness.
In one of the scenes we saw, it's clear that Dracula is quite terrified of the humans. Is there a lot of background on that, why he became that way?
Michelle Murdocca: Yeah. The movie opens with a prologue, that explains the back story. His wife gets killed by humans, in a very family-friendly way, so he's terrified by humans, but he made a pact never to harm another human. Even though that happened to his wife, he cloistered his daughter. He built this hotel to keep her safe, so that no humans could get there. It's beyond a haunted forest, so his friends come to visit every year. He never has to leave, and never has to deal with humans.
I really enjoyed the "less realistic" animation. It's almost like a throwback. Was that always on the table, or did that come in with Genndy?
Michelle Murdocca: That's Genndy, 100%. I've known who Genndy was for years, not only because I work in animation, but I would have known who he was because my older teenagers grew up on Dexter's Laboratory, and Samurai Jack was huge in my house. When I heard we were meeting with him, I thought, 'Oh, that's cool. That could be something really cool for our movie.' He came in and we had a treatment that he read, and he had some really great ideas. I'm like, 'Wow, he's not just this broad, zany, animation guy, he was actually interested in a very streamlined, simple story, that had an emotional core. I thought, 'This is our guy. We need this guy.' That was his main focus, but he really found a lot of fun in it.
Genndy mentioned the scenes where they got multiple cast members together, which is very rare in animation. Was that just for a few key moments, and did that happen a few different times?
Michelle Murdocca: It happened a couple of times, but there was one big session where everyone was there, not the whole cast, but all of the main characters, all of Adam's buddies. It was a day where everyone happened to be in L.A., and it was great to watch these guys bounce off each other. Like Genndy said, they didn't riff, they didn't change the dialogue, because a lot of the dialogue had been written specifically for them. They wouldn't have changed it, because that's how they would say it, but it was just finding the right way to see it. They spent more fun making fun of each other than anything else.
You also voiced Marie in the Open Season movies. Are there any voice opportunities for you in this one?
Michelle Murdocca: I may do something this week, we'll see. We're going to do some background character stuff, so I may do something. I'm not sure what yet.
Is there anything new you will be working on after this wraps up?
Michelle Murdocca: I think Genndy will probably do something together, and I have another project in development. As you know, these things take a really long time, so we'll see what rises to the surface first.
Last but certainly not least, I was able to sit down with Genndy Tartakovsky, the TV animation legend who finally brings his talents to the big screen in Hotel Transylvania. Here's what he had to say.
Director Genndy Tartakovsky
After Sym-Bionic Titan ended, were you specifically looking for a movie to jump into?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I kind of was. The end of Titan was really frustrating for me. It was a difficult place in my career, and I had a movie in development at Sony. I came in and said, 'Look, I'm coming off, I'm going to be free, maybe we can get into development on something else, besides the one that's already going. A week later they said, 'Yeah,' and a week after that they said, 'We have this opportunity, if you really want to work. We have this idea.' I came in with a lot of reservations, because I really wanted my first movie to be from my original idea. I've been pitched other movies before that I didn't go with. I thought, 'Dracula's a dad? A hotel for monsters?' I saw some of the designs and said, 'I think i can do this.' I wrote four pages of ideas for it, and we all gelled on the kind of movie we wanted to make, and it went from there.
It isn't shown in the footage we saw, but do you ever deal with the vampire's thirst for blood?
Genndy Tartakovsky: It does come up, yeah. We make a joke out of it, but we definitely address it, then move on.
How much work went into creating Adam Sandler's voice? He has a very distinct voice, but if you would have shown that footage without his name attached, people probably wouldn't have known it was him.
Genndy Tartakovsky: Oh, that's funny. For me, it was really about creating a unique voice. Coming from the TV world, where the voices are really great and iconic, I wanted that kind of quality for Dracula. Adam is capable of it, because he's done funny voices in other things he's done. At first, we met and I said, 'So, what are you going to do?' He said, 'Oh, I don't know. I've been doing this voice in the shower, but it just sounds like You Don't Mess with the Zohan. I said, 'I think that would be great. That cartoon-y thing would be awesome. He came in for his first test read, and he started doing this Transylvanian thing. We worked at it until he's comfortable, because that's really the most important thing. We landed on this really funny, Jewish-y type of thing, but it was really funny.
The animation style can almost be considered a throw-back, with this less-realistic approach. Were there every discussions about taking that to far, since audiences aren't completely used to that these days?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I think people were surprised from it. At first it was like, 'Whoa, it's so broad.' I think what saved us, because I think, at one point, they maybe were going to push me back a little, but people laughed. People who are not in the world. You and I are in the world, so we know about these things, but I think the general audience is going to feel something different, but they won't know what it really is. They were laughing at the right things, they were laughing at the physicality and the expression and timing. That kind of conquers all.
Can you talk about putting this cast together? Was everyone pretty much your first choice?
Genndy Tartakovsky: Pretty much, yeah. Adam was on board when I came on. Selena, we searched around with, a little bit. Andy was pretty much on board. Cee-Lo went back and forth between a few different people, same with Quasimoto. When Adam came in, he brought David Spade for The Invisible man. Molly Shannon was new, Steve Buscemi was already on board, even before Adam, I think. I don't think anybody ever talked about this, but it was between Kevin James and Sylvester Stallone for Frankenstein. I thought Sylvester Stallone was really funny, but Kevin was too. At first you're like, 'Sylvester Stallone?' Then you hear the voice and go, 'Oh, yeah. I get it.' But, Kevin nailed it so hard.
For the monsters that don't live at the hotel, do we see where they come from at all? They have to hide from the rest of the world, so do we see where the other characters come from?
Genndy Tartakovsky: We used to have a sequel like that. It was actually in the first trailer, where you saw people come out of the shadows, That's not in the movie anymore. We just pushed the idea that they live in the shadows.
Are you still working on the 3D now?
Genndy Tartakovsky: We do 3D at the same time as we do the 2D. That night, after I proof some shots, that night, I go into the movie theater and I see them in 3D. It's really amazing, the way the pipeline works these days. I wasn't a huge 3D fan coming into it. It's not as gimmicky. That's what makes it nice, and the pace of the movie is so that you can relax, it's not always in your face.
Is there anything you'd like to say to parents, who might be worried about the genre nature of this?
Genndy Tartakovsky: It's a family story, and it's really fun, and it's not scary. It's a funny monster movie, and not scary.
What would you like to say to anyone on the fence about Hotel Transylvania, about why they should check it out in theaters?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I think it's going to be great for a lot of laughs, and it's something you'll be visually surprised at.
That about wraps up my day at Sony Pictures Animation for Hotel Transylvania, which looks to bring old-school animation tactics back to the big screen, with the help of new-school technology.