Dr. Suess lives on in this big screen adaptation of the classic 1954 children's book
First time director Jimmy Hayward is bringing Dr. Suess' classic children's book Horton Hears a Who to the big screen this week. Based on Theodore Geisel's 1954 literary classic, the feature length animated film features the voice talents of Jim Carrey as Horton the Elephant. No one believes the imaginative pachyderm when he hears a tiny cry of help coming from a speck of dust. When he comes to believe that there may be life on this speck, he does everything in his power to save it. Steve Carell stars as the minuscule mayor of Who-ville, which resides on this tiny molecule floating through the air.
Director Hayward got his start working on such animated classics as Disney and Pixar's Toy Story and the Sony Animated Film Ice Age. Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who marks the man's big screen debut behind the lens. We recently caught up with Jimmy for a quick chat about the film. Here is that conversation:
Did you watch 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T before starting out on this expedition? It seems to be the one thing overlooked by most of the producers that decide to take on a Dr. Suess film.
Jimmy Hayward: Of course I've seen it. I know what that is. We looked at every single thing we could that Dr. Suess ever did. We looked at his 3-D sculptures, we looked at his fine art, we looked at his production design work. We looked at every single political cartoon. We looked at every single advertising illustration. Then Audrey Geisel, who worked as an Associate Producer on the movie, gave Steve Martino (Jimmy's co-director) and I access to all of the original archives. We held all of the original drawings in our hands. I read no less than twenty manuscripts of 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T that he had been written on an old typewriter. There was stuff Xed out that he didn't like, and there were notes written to himself. I read every memo between him and Chuck Jones when they were making the Grinch cartoon. "That's not how you do the eyes. You do the teeth like this." We looked at his work in such depth, there was no way we could have missed 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. No way.
That is a crazy amount of detective work that you did.
Jimmy Hayward: We wanted to get this right at any cost. We really had a belief in the original material, in the original story, and in the design. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Horton Hears a Who. I used to look at those illustrations for hours. I'd think to myself, "Man, I want to run around with those little furry dudes." I wanted people to feel like they were really immersed in Dr. Suess' universe.
Going through Theodore Geisel's notes, did you learn anything new about Dr. Suess that you didn't previously know?
Jimmy Hayward: Yeah, man. The notes between him and Chuck Jones about the creation of the Grinch cartoon were really fascinating. There are signature design moves that we put in the movie based on those memos. We learned about the things he felt strongly about. Such as the design of the eyes. And the design of the muzzles. We learned a lot about his choices. And the fact that he didn't do anything by accident. He planned everything out very carefully.
Why the decision to make this animated as opposed to live action?
Jimmy Hayward: Because this is the best way to do it. Listen, to me, the live action movies were great and all. Jim Carey did Ron's movie, and he is in this movie too. Jim agrees that animation is the way to go. Because on "The Grinch" they couldn't animate the world. Instead, they got the most animated guy they could. This is more than just having an animated character. Or having a few scenes that are animated. We really wanted to show this incredible world. Animation was the only way to go. The animation style in this movie is so extreme from an animation standpoint. We used a lot of traditional animation techniques. We stretched arms thirty feet. The guys in the film don't answer the phone without a unique take on it. We felt that the only way to achieve that animated feel that Dr. Suess' work had was to do it this way. We pushed it really far and it was a lot of fun.
How did you manage to take such a short book and stretch it into an 80 minute feature?
Jimmy Hayward: Well, that is a great question. We did that with a lot of care. Rather than going in and adding a bunch of stuff, we made the decision while developing the script to leave Horton's story completely alone. We wanted to keep Horton's story intact. With the exception of one instance, every single moment of Horton's story that is in the book is in this movie. Like I said, I really liked Who-ville when I was a kid. In the book, we don't really see too much of Who-ville. The mayor is just this guy on top of a building yelling up. What we did was, we expanded the Who-ville story and wove it into the Horton story. I loved the dilemma that Horton had. That he believed this tiny world existed. In the face of great diversity, he stuck to his guns all the way through. In the end, he taught everybody that a person is a person, no matter how small. Which is such a fantastic theme. I wanted to take that theme and reflect it back into Who-ville. For instance, if you were shaving this morning and your drainpipe said, "Paulington, call up Jimmy and during the interview tell him it is the end of the world. There is a giant elephant in the sky." What would you do with that information? People would think you were a little crazy. In the movie, the mayor hears a voice in the sky saying, "You are a tiny speck and I am a giant elephant in the sky carrying you around." What would you do with that information? It was a giant dilemma for the mayor to have. How do you tell people that? How do you convince people that they have to get to safety until this elephant can help.
Do you think there is a narrative metaphor that speaks to what is going on in the world today?
Jimmy Hayward: Yeah. Listen, Ted Geisel did a lot of political cartoons during the Second World War that depicted the Japanese in a very negative light. He felt bad about that. He met a professor from Japan that he dedicated the book too. This guy was Japanese. Some say that Horton Hears a Who is a response to McCarthyism. They also look at it as a metaphor for the Japanese interment. There are a lot of interpretations. But at the end of the day it is about tolerance. Don't judge a group of people based on their differences. Just because they are smaller than you, or a different color than you, it is thematically about tolerance. It was relevant in 1954, it is relevant today, it is going to be relevant in a hundred and fifty years. It's a good message. A person is a person, no matter how small.
How do you think that affects the little kids that see it, and at this time might not be aware of this particular message?
Jimmy Hayward: I think it is important. I don't see anything wrong with that. People are going to interpret this in a lot of different ways. We kept everything thematically correct. All of Dr. Suess' work is incredible. He takes on a lot of political issues, mostly social issues, and boils them down to a very concise, unforgettable form that audience members from tiny children to old people will all get. They are not force-feeding it to you. It is presented in such an entertaining, cool way that it is all right. He took some difficult topics, and he got the message across. If you do it in an awesome way, and it doesn't hurt, than it is good.
Disney does that a lot. I meant that it was a good thing. It plants that seed.
Jimmy Hayward: Oh, I understand that you meant it as a good thing.
Going through Dr. Suess' notes, did you find anything that he wanted to do but never got a chance to? And were you able to bring it back into this?
Jimmy Hayward: That is a very interesting question. I don't know. I don't know how I feel about that. I don't know how to answer that one. I don't think so.
I thought maybe you stumbled across some old notes of his, and were able to bring in something that he was never able to do.
Jimmy Hayward: Well, we do incorporate a lot of stuff that people have never seen. We studied his fine art, and his sculptures. And we were able to bring some of that divine, eloquent structuring to the movie.
As far as your background goes, did you always start out with aspirations to be an animator?
Jimmy Hayward: I started out wanting to be a filmmaker. I have made live action movies, I have made animated movies, stop-motion, hand drawn, I even dressed my friends up in costumes. I just wanted to be a filmmaker from a very early age. I saw Spartacus, then Star Wars, and then Lawrence of Arabia. I sat and watched all of these epic films as a kid, and I always wanted to be a filmmaker. Animation just sort of happened. I realized that if I made an animated film, I didn't need all of my buddies to show up in character. I didn't have to worry about them getting there on time, and putting on these stupid outfits. It was way easier to do it by myself. It was more out of necessity than anything else. When I was a kid, I watched cartoons a lot. But I also watched a lot of actions movies. This is something I just fell into. And then I was lucky enough to work on Toy Story. Even though I love the animation process, my goal was always to be a director. I wanted to be able to tell a good story.
What about working with the voice talent? You are working with some pretty big comedy names in this thing. Even in some of the smaller roles.
Jimmy Hayward: One of the things I wanted to do was bring improvisational comedians into the movie. I learned from Ash Brandon on Toy Story 2 how important and powerful it is to get smart, funny people. It is good to have a script, but at some point, you want to be able to throw it away. These are very broad, visual individuals that we have here. I got my first choice for every single role. It was incredible. A wonderful experience. Jim is obviously super brilliant. Steve Carell is great. Getting to work with Carol Burnett is a major treat, obviously. She is so wonderful. As far as the younger guys, I have been a fan of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill for a long time. I love Amy Poehler. We decided to get this group together, because these guys aren't just great improvisational performers, they are also great actors. These guys are all incredibly talented.
With people like Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill, when did you have them come onto this?
Jimmy Hayward: About three years ago.
At that time, they hadn't really hit their stride. Was this just a good bit of synchronicity?
Jimmy Hayward: Well, I had them come in and do these voices because I liked them and thought that they were funny. Not because I thought that they were going to blow up. I got them to do this because they are fantastic people, and they are hilarious.
Well, then...What are you working on in the future?
Jimmy Hayward: I don't know yet. I got a couple of things on the fire. Nothing I can really talk about right now.
Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who opens this Friday, March 14th, 2008.