Director Rob Letterman discusses Gulliver's Travels, working with Jack Black, the innovative DualMoCo camera process, Stretch Armstrong, and much more
Back in 2004, director Rob Letterman made his feature directorial debut with the DreamWorks Animation movie Shark Tale, which featured a multi-talented voice cast including Jack Black. Six years later, and with another animated feature under his belt (Monsters Vs. Aliens), Rob Letterman made his live-action directorial debut with Gulliver's Travels, starring Jack Black along with another talented cast.
Gulliver's Travels just hit the shelves on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray on April 19, and I recently had the chance to speak with the director over the phone about this new adventure. Here's what the director had to say.
I was curious about how this project struck you to make the leap from animation to live-action?
Rob Letterman: Well, Jack Black had this project at Fox and he was producing it with John Davis. They had a script which went out, and I got my hands on it. I was looking to try live-action, and it seemed like a great opportunity. I really loved Jack and I was a fan of the book. I remembered the books as a kid and a lot of those images were just burned into my brain. As an adult, reading the book, I realized in retrospect that (author) (Jonathan) Swift's intention was to write a comedy, but at the time, it was really just a political satire. It seemed like a great opportunity and they had already crafted the modern hook into it. I just jumped at the chance to do it.
Can you talk about the things you wanted to make sure were in the movie, from the book, and the things you kind of wanted to make your own?
Rob Letterman: There are two quintessential images I've always had in my brain, when I hear Gulliver's Travels. It's Gulliver waking up on the beach, tied down by the Lilliputians, and when he tows this armada of ships across the sea. I just remember those. Whenever the story is mentioned to me, those pop in my head. Those were really important to me and they were in the script. It's hard to do this without them. From there, the screenplay had focused just on the Lilliputian tale, making sure there is a lot of heart in there, and emotion. Jack is such a sweet and genuine guy in real life, that he could portray some of that.
I read about this DualMoCo setup you had. It seems rather innovative and I believe this was the first time it was used. How did you come across this technology?
Rob Letterman: It came out of... this is a big, visual effects undertaking. It wasn't so much all the crazy digital water and special effects, CG-rendered buildings and all that stuff. What was complicated about it was this movie was a comedy and we wanted to make the performances natural, and I didn't want the technology to get in the way of the comedy, and the ability of this great cast to ad-lib. The visual effects team came up with this brand new camera system, which is called DualMoCo, and then Jack Black renamed DualMoCoLoco. None of that means anything, other than that it's a system that ties a camera that was on a big techno-crane, which would drive another camera that was on a miniature motion-controlled rig, and they were in sync together so you could move them in perfect sync. So, for example, there's a sequence at the end of the movie, this big song-and-dance number, where we had 250 extras who had been rehearsing their choreography with Jack Black for months. We were on location and we had all 250 extras plus the cast on the set. Then, 100 yards away, on a miniaturized version of that set, with Jack. They were performing the song-and-dance number at the same time, because they had worked out the choreography, and we were freely driving the camera, capturing everything and the two cameras together were in sync and I would see the images combined together on my monitor, and he was a giant, for real, all at the same time. We didn't need to do that for any technical reasons. We could've shot him on green screen and comped it all together like every other movie, but it was more about capturing the performance as a real moment. That was how that DualMoCo came about.
That's really cool. It seems that really could catch on.
Rob Letterman: I hope so. I mean, it is one complicated thing to do. It's a very tricky thing, but if you want to give the actors the freedom to perform with each other, and one of them has to be 120 feet tall, it's perfect.
Can you talk about assembling the cast here? Jack was always set to play Gulliver, but can you talk about bringing in Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, and the rest of this cast?
Rob Letterman: Yeah, Jack was always planning to be Gulliver. When we started casting, we just wanted to surround him with the best, funniest people we could find. Jason Segel plays the Horatio character, Jack's sidekick throughout the movie, and he's hilarious. He's so fun and a genuinely nice guy. Emily Blunt was a bit of a coup. We just somehow got her into this movie, and she's so perfect. She can play the dramatic princess. She's done it before, and she's an incredible actress. She's amazing in The Young Victoria and all these other movies. At the same time, she can also do the comedy, and that's really, really rare for that to happen. She can co-exist with Jack and Jason and Billy Connolly, and this whole cast of famous British comedians. It was awesome. Amanda Peet, we needed somebody who could have a believable chemistry with Jack, and she was perfect. They played around and had fun. We'd do a take off the script, and then, after that, who knew what would happen. It was really fun. Yeah, I'm very proud of that cast. We were very fortunate.
I read that Emily turned down Iron Man 2 to do this.
Rob Letterman: Yes, it was more of a coup for me (Laughs). We tried to make it work so she could do both, but I guess it didn't work out.
There is a gag reel on the Blu-ray. Was it a challenge for everyone to keep a straight face around Jack and Jason?
Rob Letterman: Oh my God. It was ridiculous. We had a lot of fun. It was great. They were free to do whatever they wanted when we went off the script, and I never knew what was going to happen, so that's the best magic of all. They all became friends too. Jason and Emily are doing a movie together now. I think Billy Connolly brought a ukulele to set one day, and then Jack started playing it. The next day, everyone in the cast went out and bought a ukulele. They were singing crazy rock songs between takes. It was absurd.
Have you seen the 3D Blu-ray version of this yet? The format really seems to be growing a lot and I'm curious to see how quickly it expands.
Rob Letterman: No, I haven't seen the 3D version on Blu-ray. Obviously, I've seen the 3D theatrical version. There is a big push for it, and when it's done right, it looks beautiful. It's a question I'm asked a lot, like what is the future of 3D? From my vantage point, I'm just trying to tell a great story, and make sure everything works. In this particular movie, because Jack is shot against green screen, it really gave us a big advantage to do 3D because the entire world around him could be generated in 3D. The guys who did the 3D, while I wasn't hands-on with that, they did a really beautiful job with it. I like elegant and comfortable 3D movies. I don't like stuff that pokes me in the eyeballs. I can get a headache faster than anyone. It's all about this visual window into the 3D world, especially with movies for kids. You don't want to strain their little eyeballs. We're very, very sensitive to that. I'm very happy with it.
Rob Letterman: I am writing the next draft of it right now, which I am going to shoot off to do in an hour. Yeah, Taylor Lautner is Stretch and we're just in that development stage. It's feeling pretty good. I've got my fingers crossed.
Is there anything you can say about the overall concept? Is it a doll that comes to life, or a superhuman person?
Rob Letterman: (Laughs) I can't really say anything. Well, I'll say this. It's not a doll that comes to life (Laughs).
So it's not the reincarnation of Chucky then, is what you're saying?
Rob Letterman: It's not the reincarnation of Chucky, no. It's really like trying to do a cool, fun, action movie, with a character who has that ability. They basically gave me a blank page, and Nick and I had a lot of fun doing it. He's off doing his next movie.
Is there anything else that you're planning on writing after Stretch?
Rob Letterman: I do, but I can't tell you (Laughs). I'm planning on working.
Are you returning to animation, or is this more live-action for you?
Rob Letterman: I'm not opposed to returning to animation, but right now I'm doing pretty well in live-action. But I love animation. It's always near and dear to my heart.
Finally, what would you like to say to those who didn't see Gulliver's Travels in theaters about why they should pick up the DVD or Blu-ray today?
Rob Letterman: It's a great movie for families. I'm a father of two kids and I'm always looking for stuff that I can enjoy, as well as the kids can enjoy and watch it together. That's what I love about doing family movies, and this is one of those movies. It's fun and entertaining for the parents, and appropriate, and fun and entertaining for the kids. It's a really nice thing to be able to watch a film with your children. It's one of those things I love doing the most. This is perfect for that.
Great. Well, that's all I have for you, Rob. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with Stretch and anything else.
Rob Letterman: All right. Thanks a lot. Take care.