The man behind everyone's favorite 'fat cat'

When I was growing up, there were two cartoon cats that caught my attention - Heathcliff and Garfield. But, if you asked who was my favorite, it has to be Garfield. Every time I'd go to the stores, I'd find the newest Garfield comic books - and not just because they were in these weird shaped books, but because they were simply funny.

All that childhood enjoyment is thanks to one man - Jim Davis, the creator of the cat who loves to eat lasagna. I recently had the chance to sit down with Mr. Davis and talk about his career and the chance to work on the second feature film with Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties.

It was an absolute thrill for me to finally meet the creator of Garfield! Here's what we chatted about:

When I was growing up in Baltimore, I used to have Garfield posters on my wall.

Jim Davis: Well, the Baltimore Sun was the first to print Garfield.

With a character so close to you, what goes through your mind when someone comes up to you and says they want to make a movie, and now two movies with such your iconic character?

Jim Davis: Well, I had that opportunity many years ago, but out of respect for Disney, I never wanted to do anything in traditional animation. It wasn't until computer animation came about that I really thought, 'Hey, maybe we can make Garfield like this?' And then, Monsters Inc came out and the fur was blowing in the wind; you can see the weight of the character - 'Now we're ready.' John Davis called and he said, 'Let's go for it.' And I couldn't wait to meet and get it out. I was really happy with our first effort, the writers worked very hard on the story; we worked on the treatment with the studio. I worked with the maquette and then we scanned that in the image to the computer, and the musculature and the skeleture; we learned a lot and it was such a thrill to see him on the big screen.

Were you worried that the first Garfield was not going to be such a hit?

Jim Davis: That was the guess work because reading a comic strip is so personal; it's just one on one, sitting at the table getting ready to go to school. I didn't know how it would translate on the big screen to a big audience. As it turned out, they darken the room and it's still one on one. We knew he wasn't going to operate on a big scale; he wasn't going to do large production numbers, he wasn't going to dazzle the audience, he was still going to be one on one. And it worked - it did $200 million at the box office and Fox came back

So how soon did you get ready for the second movie?

Jim Davis: The exciting thing for the second feature was we got the same crew, cast, and everything back. There were improvements in the software and so technically, we had a lot more latitude in this character. When he burps, his eyes bulge out and they actually come together, his hair is a lot more realistic, we can watch his muscles move underneath his skin because the technology is better. And because of that, we were able to animate a lot more characters, so we had this cast of characters throughout the movie and that just lent to the humor and how rich the film was in terms of the animation. And Breckin Meyer and Jennifer Love Hewitt had the experience of working with Garfield in the previous movie and use that as reference in the second. So everything just got bigger and bigger. And Bill Murray - what can you say - he really created a lot of new material and shtick; Bill Connelly is a genius, a physical genius, and a great actor, too. So we were busy following him, all the stuff he would improvise. That made the story richer and it was just a pleasure from beginning to end.

We know Garfield is pretty much you, but where did Odie come from?

Jim Davis: Odie's an exercise, really; humor comes from conflict - tall/short, fat/thin, smart/stupid. He's stupid. Actually, I created Garfield and Jon (Arbuckle) first; Garfield being very self-centered and very opinionated. Jon is very giving and a big of a day dreamer, a bit wishy-washy; actually, I'm a bit more Jon than I am Garfield, I have the big cheeks. And Garfield, I love lasagna, I take cat-naps, I don't jog, so in that part, I'm Garfield. But I'm Jon's optimist rather than Garfield's pessimist. So I created a good contrast with them - Jon provides the love and support, Garfield provides the abuse. So, now that I created them, I took everything Garfield wasn't and created Odie and that's why even to the point of not speaking when Garfield has the opinions. Odie is trusting and a free spirit; he's always happy, even in a mindless sort-of way. And actually, over the years, he's become almost as popular as Garfield because of that, even though he's very hard to write for because he doesn't say anything.

So is that why you were able to use a real dog for Odie and animate Garfield?

Jim Davis: We were able to, but very early on - I don't know that anyone else knows this - we actually cast a fat cat thinking we could animate him to do the Garfield stuff. But, they cast this cat and it wasn't big enough, it wasn't strong enough, it couldn't physically do the stuff it was supposed to do to Odie or anyone else within the confines of taste and not having to abuse the animal. So we looked at each other and said 'we have to do an all CGI character here.' However, we found this brother and sister team to play Odie, named Tyler and Chloe; they are half Dachshund and half Carin Terrier. Tyler takes direction very well, he's very intelligent and so he does the close up work; he does the emotional work, the takes, he does the panic. Chloe does the big physical stuff, she does the dancing; she actually dances to the beat of music, she does the attack scenes, she does all that stuff. They play off each other very well.

How involved are you on the movie side of things?

Jim Davis: I'm involved every day; I worked on the treatment with Alex (Sokolow) and Joel (Cohen) and saw some of the drafts as they came through; worked with Jim Hill, the director. I'm like the technical advisor on the set; I know what Garfield would do or may not do. Keeping Garfield consistant is the key.

As far as the comic, were you responsible for making those books?

Jim Davis: When we had enough strips together, about a years worth of strips; the thing that always bothered me about the mass market books was they cut strips apart and put them vertically. And after a few pages you get warned out cause you can't read a strip that way, you have to read them horizontally. So I did a strip and I made it horizontal, so I could do two dailies or one Sunday a page. I said, 'Here is the book we need.' I mocked the whole thing up. I nearly got laughed out of the room when I took it to publishers cause books aren't shaped that way alone. They also found it would cost a lot of money to do a special cut, special stock and everything. And Valentine Books agreed to do it, but $5 a book was unheard of when books were selling for $1.60. But they gave it a try, and they were the laughing stock of the industry; and when they went to deliver the books to the stores, it didn't fit on the normal shelves. So they designed special displays and special desk top displays at cash registers; so these books were at cash registers and special displays and just blew up. Well, now it's called the Garfield format and all the comic books are doing it. And it was really just an effort to publish them as they did in the newspaper. And that really got Garfield to the point that he is today and I really got a lot of publicity; the New York Times called it a 'Cat-sheik' and we got more publicity got us in more newspapers and we sold more books which got more publicity and we got in more papers.

Over the past years, what has Garfield meant to you?

Jim Davis: He means I get to do something I love to do for a living and I don't have to do anything else, which is great. He's a release, he's a creative outlet for me, so I get to entertain through him without having to go out and entertain myself - because tomorrow, I'll go into relative obscurity and he'll still be out there. He means I have security, he means a lot of good things. At times, he may require feeding and grooming, but not really that often; it's great work if you can get it.

If you could predict the future, where would you want to see Garfield go?

Jim Davis: I've really done everything from the books to the comic strips to the merchandising. One more venue that would be fun would be stage; I keep waiting for this Cats musical to fade away for years. So maybe one day, it'll be fun to get him up on stage in a musical cause cats are very musical; I'd like to tell one more story like that. Otherwise, it'll be fun just to do movies and based on the acceptance of this one, if the box office merits to keep producing those because we have a lot more stories to tell.

Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties meows into theaters June 16th; it's rated PG.

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