Last summer we were lucky enough to be invited to spend a day on set of Sony's film adaptation of The Smurfs. Created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo in the late 1950's, The Smurfs became a favorite with American households in the 1980's. The long-running cartoon introduced a generation to the singing and dancing, blue creatures that were relentlessly pursued by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria). Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters), Brainy (Fred Armisen), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), Grouchy (George Lopez), and Smurfette (Katy Perry), these characters are about to take the summer by storm in a huge, special effects extravaganza shot in storied locations around New York City.
We met the super cool Sony publicity team at the legendary Kaufman Astoria studios in Queens, New York. The studio was founded in 1920 by a godfather of cinema, Adolph Zuckor. This giant facility nestled fifteen minutes from Manhattan has been home to everything from the Marx Brothers to the Cosby Show, and continues to be a vibrant production hub for Hollywood. I got goosebumps walking through the halls and seeing every award you can think of proudly displayed. Last summer The Smurfs reigned supreme as the entire studio was devoted to the film.
The first thing you notice was just how much business is required to make a film like The Smurfs. Our first tour was of the offices. Secretaries, accountants, production assistants, production designers, publicists, all scurrying around while we're doing the tourist walk. These people were busy, but kind enough to give us a smile as we milled about. There was no doubt as to what film was being shot here. Every single desk, room, and corner was adorned with some kind of Smurf. Some you would recognize easily, others were clearly works they had experimented with early on before coming to their final design.
We were led to a conference area where we had our first interview, the man himself, NPH - Neil Patrick Harris. Harris was an 80's TV icon, playing kid doctor - Doogie Howser, M.D. He continued as an adult stage actor, showing his considerable theater chops with starring roles in Rent and Cabaret to name a few. Harris shot back into the limelight playing a twisted take on himself in the Harold and Kumar stoner comedies. His drug-snorting, hooker-banging character - NPH, took the world by storm and he's been on top ever since. TV viewers will recognize him as the skirt-chasing Barney in the hit CBS sitcom, How I Met Your Mother.
NPH is a gas. He stars as Patrick Winslow, an every-man, father-to-be who gets his world turned upside down by The Smurfs. The lovely Jayma Mays, whom you will recognize from Glee, co-stars as his pregnant wife. Hank Azaria plays the villainous Smurf hunter Gargamel. He was our last interview and was the spitting image of Gargamel. The Smurfs is directed by Raja Gosnell of Scooby Doo and Beverly Hills Chihuahua fame.
Neil Patrick Harris had finished filming the day before, but came back by request to speak to reporters on the set visit. I'd met him before in the city and he's hilarious, a really affable guy. We didn't have him for long, but he had us in stitches and was the perfect start of the day.
Here are some choice excerpts from our interview with Neil Patrick Harris:
What was your initial reaction when they approached you for this role?
Neil Patrick Harris: I thought it was great. I'm a big fan of these kinds of movies. Not to sound like the company spiel, but I think it's great to go to a movie with a 10 or 15 year old, then have a second level of humor that is meant for adults only. I'm in the 3D fan club. I think with the majority of films, and with the HD TV's at home, most movies I'd just rather Netflix and watch. So you need this unique way of seeing movies to encourage people to go out and see them. I like the technology and I think Smurfs translate well to 3D. They're smooth and simple, each is expressive by nature, they're good for the 3D world. When I heard it was even happening, I was surprised they chose me. I thought they would go much bigger. I am thrilled to be here.
Where did most of the shooting take place?
Neil Patrick Harris: Here (Kaufman Astoria Studios), mostly, although we had a good chunk in the middle where we went to FOA Schwartz. Then we were in Central Park and Prospect Park a lot. There were a lot of night shoots, in and around the city, but mostly it was here.
Do you do any singing and dancing?
Neil Patrick Harris: None for me, I'm a very average husband and father-to-be in this. I leave the singing and dancing to The Smurfs.
How tricky was it dealing with the whole green screen aspect of filming?
Neil Patrick Harris: I thought it was going to be more green screen. I was really looking forward to that. I thought it was going to be a stare at the tennis ball while they chase you around with sticks kind of a movie, but this is not that. Technology now is at the point where we shoot with these gelatinous, jelly-mold Smurfs on stands. So when you rehearse, they set them up in various positions so you'll know exactly where they're going to be and their exact height. Then they move them away when you start filming. I did put a dot on the wall, as a point of focus. Actually, only Hank Azaria [Azaria] did a lot of green screen work, because he was in Smurf village.
Can you talk about the sensibility of the movie? The cartoon is so sweet, is it updated for modern times?
Neil Patrick Harris: Sure, this is a family movie, but skewed toward the audience that watched The Smurfs when they were young. The 20 to 40 year old set will get a lot out of it. It's not just meant for kids. They go from happy, happy Smurf village to Central Park and New York City. So there's a lot of juxtaposition between angry New Yorkers and happy Smurfs. You'll see them trying to please everyone and get beaten down a little bit.
Do you have a personal connection to The Smurfs? Did you watch them as a kid?
Neil Patrick Harris: I wasn't a big collector of the dolls or figurines, but I did watch them on Saturday mornings for sure. I never dressed up as a Smurf for Halloween.
Did you have a favorite Smurf?
Neil Patrick Harris: I always liked Grouchy Smurf. He made me laugh with that voice, [growls] I hate presents! I hate fun! Says a lot about my childhood!
How big is a Smurf?
Neil Patrick Harris: Three apples tall! [laughs]
What kind of apples?
Neil Patrick Harris: I think red delicious...or maybe blue delicious in this case. I thought they'd be smaller. I assumed they'd be the size of a G.I. Joe.
Is there a part of you that wanted to play a Smurf?
Neil Patrick Harris: Not really, I've done a lot of voice-over work. That's fun, but you're so removed from the process. You just go in and do recording in a padded cell for a few hours. Then you get to watch the movie a year later. This was fun. It was a weird, unique acting style. It's super story-boarded, you have to match everything, deal with these points of focus everywhere. But when there's a scene with Papa Smurf on the roof, I felt more like an actor because even though I was having a scene with no one...it's just one no one. Now the scene in the living room, where The Smurfs are revealed and are all over the place, that was tricky. You had to know that dot is Clumsy, then he moves, and the dot is now Smurfette. It was very technical.
So when you play the scenes; who's voicing The Smurfs?
Neil Patrick Harris: There were two great, voice-over actors, Sean and Ming Lee. She would play Smurfette and Clumsy. He would play Papa Smurf and Brainy. Then they would split off on who would play Grouchy. It was pretty funny.
So does Smurfette give birth to the entire Smurf Village?
Neil Patrick Harris: Where do you get this idea that Smurfette is some kind of hussy? Or that that she is the promiscuous one? What kind of Smurfs were you watching as a kid? [laughs]
So where do The Smurfs come from?
Neil Patrick Harris: The Smurfs have always been from Smurf Village. Smurfette is actually a creation of Gargamel to lure The Smurfs out of Smurf Village. But he's so mean and they're so nice, she decided to stay - although if you were a hot blond, surrounded by a hundred guys, you'd want to stay too.
What was it like working with Hank Azaria?
Neil Patrick Harris: Hank Azaria I rarely saw. The whole movie is him trying to track The Smurfs down. He's sort of on our tail the entire time. It's funny because yesterday was my last day, and we finally have a scene together. But we ended up shooting our parts separately. We joked that we should have acted in this movie together. It's nice seeing you Hank Azaria. Now Jayma Mays is a plus, plus. I can't say enough about her. She had the tricky role. She plays my sweet, pregnant wife that has a lot to teach The Smurfs about humanity, motherhood, and conquering your individual fears. She plays a unique part. It's tricky because you can play it too saccharine and it comes off being a children's TV show. She's really great. I'm thrilled she was my wife.
What do you think it is about The Smurfs that have given them so much of a shelf life?
Neil Patrick Harris: I think The Smurfs have proven themselves to be generational. They started in different countries, Belgium especially, fifty years ago. I think it's the story book, fable element of what they provide. They each have their own characteristic that allows the storytelling to play out well. I hope this will allow another generation to discover what The Smurfs mean. There's not too much of an 80's reference to what we do - although we do reference the song a lot!