Matt Groening and his team tell the tale of this summer's best-kept secret
It's hard to believe that after eighteen seasons and four hundred episodes a TV property would still be so popular. But just drive down to one of the 7-11s that have been transformed into a Kwik E Mart and check out the lines. If they are any indication of how well The Simpsons Movie is going to do, you know its going to go through the roof. And the secrecy behind it has even the non-fans supremely curious.
I saw the flick a couple of nights ago. I'm not allowed to review it, but I think I can say that I loved it. It's one of my favorite films this summer, and I haven't had an hour and thirty minutes fly by that quickly in a long time. It's funny, and fresh (even after twenty years), and that's all I can say about the plot, which has been guarded very tightly. I don't want to be the one to ruin the surprise.
Sunday morning, Fox threw a press conference at the Four Seasons. In attendance were The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, executive producer James Brooks, director of the movie David Silverman, executive producer/writer Al Jean, and writer/producer Mike Scully. Here's what they had to say for themselves.
Why has it taken eighteen years to get this movie on the big screen?
James Brooks: My current answer is fifteen years to get up the nerve and four years to get it done.
How have both you, and the series itself, evolved in those eighteen years?
Matt Groening: Well you know what's great about this movie is, on the TV show we were working very quickly, on a tight schedule, a tight budget. And on the movie we were able to work on the script until we got it right. And we took a long time writing the script. And then we went into production and we tried animation that is far more ambitious than anything we've ever done in the past and I think it's inspiring to the entire Simpsons enterprise.
Why the decision to change Rainer Wolfcastle into Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Al Jean: We had a President character in the movie. And in a lot of movies you will see there's, you know, President Johnson and there's some phony guy that's just a fill in for him.
Matt Groening: Lyndon Johnson was not a phony!
Al Jean: Nor was Andrew Johnson. Jim suggested that we use Schwarzenegger. Over the course of the movie, as his fortunes ebbed and flowed, we were just praying that he would get re-elected. I even voted for him.
David Silverman: Additionally, we first did more of a caricature of Arnold Schwarzenegger and I think, led by Matt, the final conclusion was "Why don't we just use our Rainier Wolfcastle caricature?" Because it looks like a nice suggestion of Schwarzenegger, just sort of make his eyes a little more wrinkled and change the hairstyle and that's what we ended up doing.
How did you decide which show to advertise during the scroll that appears at the bottom of the screen in the film?
Mike Scully: That actually changed. In the original draft of the script...They were doing different kinds of reality shows at the time than the one we eventually chose. I think the original joke was a show called Ship of Skanks. There was the Star Dancers act.
Al Jean: Unfortunately, they keep coming out with these brilliant reality shows.
How do you stay in tune with the ever-changing pop culture and political events?
David Silverman: Ah yes.
Can you talk about some of the political concerns, and a little bit about Mickey Mouse?
James Brooks: We're governed by what's funny. We like to think we're more pro-American than Mickey Mouse.
Matt Groening: The fact is this has been a collaborative effort from the very beginning of the series. It's an amazing thing. That's the nature of animation. That's how animation works. It's great writers, great actors and great musicians working together to create something even better. On the Simpsons, I would say that we definitely like to comment on what's going on in the world. As Jim said, we try to be funny. If we can figure out a way of being funny about it then we've gone part of the way of accomplishing our task.
Who takes the finally responsibility?
James Brooks: You know it's an amazing thing when something is what we call "table written". The group changes. It was very large at the beginning, it got smaller, it shifted a few times. But it's as democratic an enterprise as you can possibly imagine. I mean, somebody can be passionate about something and unless it gets a laugh at the table, it probably won't happen. The discussion themselves produce a result so this is very much a team project.
Matt Groening: It's very, very hard to describe the process of working with other people, writing jokes, in the same room for hours a day, late into the night for months and in this case years, on end. I think it's sort of like trying to be amorous with a three-headed dog. You're going to get licked a lot, but somebody's going to get bitten by the end of the night.
James Brooks: You changed my life there, Matt!
Matt Groening: Really? I could have constructed that joke less elegantly or more elegantly.
David Silverman: It's a group effort. You know, you can try to needle us further, but that's quite honest.
How much longer do you think you can keep this show going?
James Brooks: This has been enormously energizing. Doing this movie has, because it's all-homegrown. Just so many of the people connected with the show contributed to this movie, so many. And everybody was around it and we'd have a draft, we'd circulate it to the show writers, they'd give us feedback. So I think it's been a great bonding, energizing thing. We haven't felt better in a long time.
When you originally started doing this, how long did you think it would last?
James Brooks: Well, I tend to be pessimistic. If you're going to ask, ask Matt.
Matt Groening: I always thought that the series would be successful. I thought if we could get it on the air, I thought kids would tune in for sure. I didn't know if adults would give an animated prime time TV series a chance, but I thought kids would. And the fact is, adults did too. I would say that one of the interesting things about this whole process has been as famous and big as The Simpsons have been around the world for the last eighteen years, we were basically working in the dark. We worked very hard on the show and then we'd go home and watch it with our families. And with the making of the movie and the attention that it's got and the promotions around the movie, specifically Kwik-e-Mart. To see the lines outside of Kwik-e-Mart and the enthusiasm of people...We were staggered. And yesterday we were in Springfield, Vermont for the Springfield premiere of the Simpsons movie and it was, for all of us...It was an amazing experience. We were given the keys to the city and it opens up every door.
A lot of people tend to forget that the Simpsons had been on the big screen before, in a short that played before The War of the Roses. What lessons did you learn from filling the big screen back then that you've applied to this movie now?
David Silverman: We kind of completely forgot about that until now. So nothing.
What challenges did you face bringing this to the big screen?
James Brooks: We really tested the system though, because at the end of the road, two weeks past where you're allowed to make any changes, where it's impossible, where things are being processed, David managed to make some key changes in the key emotional scene in the movie. When Marge does her take. And there were two acting changes in there, which I think really added to it.
Al Jean: The production team headed by Richard Sakai did an amazing job. You know, normally when we do retakes for the show it takes a month or a month and a half to get them back. We were turning around animation for this film in a week at the end. And you could honestly think of a joke, see it and then reject it in a day almost.
David Silverman: At a certain point, earlier and then much later in the production, we had our animation and clean up staff do specific shots. So we were able to do, as you say, not only have things turn around overseas but also here in town. Just to make sure we had these key emotional or key acting things finished and so that was very liberating. Additionally we went for the widest screen possible, 2:35 ratio as opposed to a 1:85 standard widescreen ratio to give a greater distinction between the show and the movie. Then we added more color details to the backgrounds.
What were you able to do in the film that you weren't able to do on television?
James Brooks: Strangely, nothing that we weren't able to do in the early days of the show. Lately it's become very repressive and we're so happy with the PG-13 because of "irreverent humor throughout". I mean, we won't get a better review than that.
Who was responsible for Spider Pig and why'd it take twelve people to write the song for it?
Al Jean: That came in the movie very late. It was after the screening in Portland, and David Mirkin saw Marge was looking up at the pig tracks on the ceiling and said, "Where did they come from?" And I said "Well, Homer should be holding the pig up and singing, "It's the amazing Spider Pig!" And then David Silverman and David Mirkin started singing that song, and we're generous with writing credits.
David Silverman: Our feeling is that everyone as a group in the room wrote it but because it came from the room's energy that everybody should get credit.
Matt Groening: Well I was there! I was listening and laughing and I think I would have thought of it.
Are there allusions for hard core fans in this film? I'm thinking of the ambulance at the end.
David Silverman: Oh, great, great.
Matt Groening: Yes, definitely Homer going over the Springfield gorge back in one of the very, very early episodes is probably ...I think at that moment...What was that? 1990?
David Silverman: '90 or '91.
Matt Groening: That was one of our favorite scenes, and definitely we pay tribute to that in the movie.
I'm wondering if this is going to affect the series at all. Are there going to be allusions to anything in the movie in future The Simpsons episodes.
Al Jean: Part of it is because the movie was written up until a couple of weeks ago, we weren't always sure what was going to be in the movie. And there are allusions to the film in the TV show, but the other thing I wanted to say is, the movie you actually see is complete. You don't have to then watch the show. But if you like the movie, there's a show that we can recommend. It premieres on September 23rd.
How surprised are you that this has lasted 18 years?
Matt Groening: Well, as a cartoonist, this is beyond most cartoonists' dreams. People go into cartooning because they're shy and angry. I'm talking about print parody. That's when you're sitting in the back of the class and drawing pictures of the teacher. I was just talking the other day with these guys. I went through a phase where people would introduce me at parties as a cartoonist and it was like they felt sorry for me. "Oh, Matt's a cartoonist." And then people further feeling sorry for me would ask me to draw Garfield. Because I'm a cartoonist, therefore, okay, can you draw me Snoopy or Garfield or something. And now, the feeling of success, of being asked to draw Bart and Homer is unbelievable after all these years. By the way, I've got to say, look at this. (He points to The Simpsons Movie poster) Look at the design of Homer. Very few lines in that face. There's no human iris. It's just a dot and a circle. All you have to do is change the shape of the circle slightly and he's the greatest actor of the 21st century.
And voiced brilliantly too.
Matt Groening: Dan Castellanetta. Yeah, let's talk about the voices. The voices of our cast are absolutely perfect. Dan Castellanetta as Homer and Krusty the Clown and Grandpa and all the rest is actually unbelievable. In fact, I think one of our favorite scenes in the movie is Homer trudging through the snow talking to himself, cajoling himself to keep going and then as he often does, disagreeing with himself. It was an improvisation by Dan and it's absolutely hilarious.
Will there be a sequel?
Al Jean: We started this movie because we had bought all the ownership rights to pink donuts. So we'd have to think of a similar concept for movie 2.
James Brooks: No, it would be hubris I think. We just finished making this.
It won't be another 18 years?
David Silverman: I think it's 16.
Mike Scully: Ideas like pig crap don't come overnight. You gotta put time in.
How did you decide to put Flanders in such a major, pivotal role?
Mike Scully: That was early.
James Brooks: That was really early.
When are the 7-11s going back to normal? Will Kwik E Mart be around awhile if the film is successful?
James Brooks: I don't know, I was just asking the other day. I was over there. It was great.
Do you ever think that maybe a joke has gone too far?
James Brooks: All the time. There's a joke that I think is one of our favorite jokes and it didn't click until very late in the process. That's when the people from church run to the bar and the people from the bar run to church. We had that at test screenings and it wasn't happening and we loved the joke. Our mettle was really tested because we kept on holding on, we kept on shifting it minutely in order and then it clicked. We all felt relieved that we no longer had to change one of our favorite jokes, but that's what we do.
How do you structure a Simpsons joke? Its like nothing else, really.
Mike Scully: We do lots of different kinds of jokes. My particular favorite kind is when we set up something where we're deliberately leading the audience to what they think the joke is, like the reveal of Bart at the end of the skateboard sequence. The audience thinks the whole joke is how many different ways can we hide Bart, and then to give them that little extra. Or the hammer in the eye. Let them think we're going to do this joke and then do the other. That's one of my favorites, but we do all different kinds. I think that's part of the fun. If you just did the same style over and over again, it'd get boring.
James Brooks: And it never stops. I forget who I was talking to the other day. I was driving me a little nuts because I felt we could have gone further with the cojones joke, that there was something we could do with that super glue, and I forget who I was talking to who agreed with me, so it just never stops.
David Silverman: I was going to say, the cojones joke, they actually animated more and we thought it was funnier but then we realized, you know, less is more in this case. As funny as the additional stuff is, cut it back and leave people wanting more and get off it.
Al Jean: Also, things that happened to us like the "To Be Continued" was in the movie for a long time and then when the The Sopranos finale happened, we thought everyone's going to think we're making fun of that. And if they do, good, but actually it was our idea first. They stole it.
With a wider aspect ratio, did you feel pressure to put in more sight gags?
James Brooks: I think we did actually. I think we spent so long on this, but there was a group of months where we were particularly feverish about the physical jokes. We'd be feverish about different aspects of the picture at different times.
David Silverman: I think we were trying too, we thought, 'Oh, the big screen, we can put more physical details and movement in the background.' You really can't because what it does is distracts. It upstages, especially more so with animation because animation being a caricature of life, any additional movements you had where it may be a background element in live action, feels like, 'Oh, that's important for me to watch what happened.' So we tried that and it didn't really work.
Al Jean: There are really nice little touches too where you see the painting in the Alaska house is signed by Marge. By the way, it's a relief to be able to talk about the plot of the movie.
What are the plans for the DVD?
James Brooks: We have had initial thoughts. We had one section we wanted to do with things that didn't make the picture, if they'd only laughed in Portland, just do that segment.
How do you think the movie will play in Alaska?
James Brooks: I don't know. What do you think?
Did you always try to keep this in line with the show?
James Brooks: Our mission to ourselves, what we said we wanted to do was be true to ourselves, be true to The Simpsons and still do things that make it worth a movie that we've never done before. That was what we wanted. We didn't want to go uptown and suddenly be very different. We were very cognizant because we'd taken so long before deciding to do the movie, that we wanted it to be worth it for the people who saw it.
How difficult was it to turn this story into a feature length film?
Al Jean: That was where it was great to work with Jim because he had done movies and none of the rest of us... David had directed but in terms of story...
Mike Scully: I had seen a few.
Al Jean: Jim always said, 'It's going to be funny but there has to be that point 20-30 minutes in where the audience realizes they're captivated by the story.' That was why the church scene came in. There's a conscious effort in the writing to go from fast to slow, shift pace at different points, and have emotional moments that you can only get when you're really involved in the story.
David Silverman: It was a great education watching how we evolved the second act to keep momentum going. We had other versions of the second act that essentially told the same story but they're a little bit sort of meandering. It didn't quite work and then we came up with some really great ideas that gave the audience a sense of purpose in which direction we're going to be going and then kept it and we could hang the jokes on better.
Al Jean: We wrote a scene where Marge and the kids went on The View, but that didn't really work.
What did you change after the test screening in Portland?
James Brooks: There were more than tweaks. More than tweaks. This picture kept on changing, changing in substantial ways. If you come in and start on page one, it was always like that. I've done movies but I've never had an experience like this one. This is different, the process was different, everything about it was different.
Al Jean: Between Portland and Phoenix for example, the scene at the end with the villain and Homer and Bart, that came in. The boyfriend that Lisa has changed, his final form came after that Portland screening, you know, substantial things at that very late stage. And by the way, they liked it in Portland but we could improve it.
How did you keep people from ruining the secret? How did you get people to keep from talking about it?
James Brooks: This is impossible from my experience. That's the one thing. There were at least 2,000 people I guess who saw this movie in previews as we tried to work out the script. Every preview would start with somebody making a speech, "Please don't give it away. These guys are still working on it." And they honored it. To have 2,000 people, some of the people who live on the internet, not violating it is amazing. They just didn't want to spoil the fun for others. It's extraordinary.
How do you keep the show fresh at this point?
Isn't there an endless supply of new topics, like the ones you did on the FCC and on plasma TV/ And isn't there always new young writers who can bring their energy to the series?
James Brooks: The government is our copilot.
Al Jean: I don't know if I'd say endless. I think that we're all mortal but it's the greatest thing in the world to write for. The universe of The Simpsons is so wide and the topics you can touch on. You can do emotion, you can do slapstick and it's the greatest job I've ever had.
Matt Groening: And we have 300 secondary characters on the show.
Al Jean: But we only have to pay eight people.
Matt, you once said you wanted to have an episode for every day of the year. How does it feel to be way past that?
Matt Groening: That's right. It's odd. It's very odd. I guess we have to shoot for 700-odd.
Mike Scully: It probably feels a lot like having sex with a four-headed cat.
Al Jean: There's your headline people!
In the universe of the Simpsons, is Alaska attached to the United States?
Al Jean: Well there's a joke in the movie. It's one of the many things Homer doesn't know.
Al Jean: He doesn't know that Alaska's part of America. There's a train and a dog sled trip in the movie that take awfully short times because we realized people didn't want to see them get back. They wanted to get back to Springfield as quickly as possible.
Matt Groening: The original idea for going to Alaska was that Homer looked at a map and saw Homer, Alaska and thought that's why he should go there to the town of Homer.
Can you talk about the influence of Bad Day at Black Rock and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?
David Silverman: It was actually a suggestion of a friend of mine who has done art direction for widescreen before. He said look at those, particularly Bad Day at Black Rock, just look for the almost architectural approach to the staging, just to get your mind thought about staging things for widescreen and compositionally speaking. Mad, Mad World is great because you have a lot of characters, a lot of funny characters in one shot, and awful long takes in that really well staged in where they're placed. And you focus your attention. You've got eight or ten funny people in one shot and really well done. You're looking at this, you're looking at this, you're looking at that. That's key in directing, where you want to eye to go. So both of those films are very good examples of a big wide canvas with a lot of people but directing the eye specifically where you want it to go.
Will we continue to see Lisa's boyfriend in the series?
James Brooks: We talked about it. I'm inclined to hope we can bring him back.
Al Jean: Part of it was over the writing, the character kept changing. His name was Dexter, then Adrian, then Colin. We couldn't settle on one but Jim's instinct was that an Irish romance would be suitably tragic for Lisa.
Mike Scully: Yeardley Smith had asked, "Is there any way she could possibly keep this one?" Because in the show, we've done a few romances and they always end unhappily for her.
James Brooks: And we have active discussions about who Colin's father should be.
Al Jean: Well, Yeardley's really funny. She says, "Every time you give Lisa something, you take it away whether it's a boy or a pony."
How did Green Day get involved in this film?
Al Jean: We were writing a scene where we wanted to have a rock band talk about the environment and then get attacked by the town. A letter came in saying Green Day would like to be on the Simpsons at that day that we were writing the scene. Then of course it took 18 months to negotiate the deal.
But you killed them.
Al Jean: Yes, then we killed them.
David Silverman: We're known to do that to rock groups.
Do any of you have a favorite supporting character that you just couldn't find a line for in the movie?
Matt Groening: The sequel is Disco Stu.
Al Jean: Disco Stu returns in The Simpsons Movie #2.
Any favorites of yours that didn't work?
James Brooks: Well Sideshow Bob we had a lot of talk about and kept on trying to work it into the story.
David Silverman: Disco Stu was a pretty good example. He had a few lines from time to time.
Is this the only movie that you're involved in now?
James Brooks: Well actually I have 50 pages of script that four years ago I said I'll be back in a minute.
Since this took such a long time, what were the voice tracking sessions like as opposed to the television show where everything has to get done relatively quickly?
David Silverman: The recording sessions?
Al Jean: In TV it'll be 23 years so the lesson is always you've got to let it go and then in the film the lesson was you'll never let it go.
James Brooks: We did some preliminary DVD commentary the other day and two of the actors were talking about how nothing has been more exhausting for them because of what they went through and thank God they were also exhilarated by it.
Matt Groening: Marge's big speech in the middle of the movie we did more than 100 takes and kept rewriting and different kinds of performances and going through that and going in different ways.
David Silverman: We animated it at least twice completely and then the final animation was just kind of tweaked on additionally.
Al Jean: So we hope you like it.
Mike Scully: We were really trying to get to a woman who is completely broken and her spirit is defeated. I got there I guess by breaking the actress' spirit. She worked so hard at it and she wanted it to be as good and that's also a big impact Jim had on that whole scene. The whole goodbye scene, a lot of that was just we were just going to stop doing jokes and do something really emotional and change the rhythm slightly and let the audience really care about this and it worked. Julie did a great job on it but it was probably 100, 150 takes for the scene.
James Brooks: I think one of my favorite shots of the movie is when Homer is sitting down in front of the television set, just that shot of David's which to me is a glimpse of Homer as we've never seen him.
David Silverman: The idea was he's like a little boy watching TV.
(Al Jean's cell phone starts ringing)
Matt Groening: I got an idea. That cell phone should pop out of the pig's mouth.
Al Jean: I am so embarrassed.
Can you talk about Albert Brooks being part of the film? Did he jump on enthusiastically?
James Brooks: Well, he just said if you're doing a movie, I'd like to do this. And we just jumped on it and he ended up working so hard.
Who's idea was it to use the shocked Disney animals?
Al Jean: I just always wanted to do a romantic scene with Homer and Marge where you satirized those Disney movies.
David Silverman: Helpful, helping animals.
Al Jean: Lauren MacMullan directed the animation in that sequence and did an unbelievable job. She's one of the many brilliant directors we had work on it.
Regarding the superstar cameo in this movie, how hard was it to acquire this particular person's services?
James Brooks: One phone call, you know. He couldn't have been better about it.
He makes fun of himself as well towards the end.
James Brooks: Yeah. We loved that joke so much we put it in the end credits.
Matt Groening: He or she.
David Silverman: Or them.
Didn't you have to have the ultimate movie cameo for The Simpsons Movie?
James Brooks: In retrospect.
Mike Scully: At first it was Johnny Knoxville.
Disney can be very litigious when it's in a bloody-minded mood...
Al Jean: So can Fox.
How do you think they will react to that little assortment of Disney characters?
Al Jean: Well in Season four we did a thing called Steamboat Itchy which was Rich Moore's fantasy version of Steamboat Willie. I found out afterwards when they were drawing it up, the animators referred to it as Steamboat Lawsuit. That's their Holy Grail, that cartoon.
David Silverman: I don't know why we weren't sued because there's a shot right out of Steamboat Willie in it.
James Brooks: You're talking about the train, right?
No, the little animals, the birds.
James Brooks: Oh, I thought you were talking about the evil corporation. I think that might bother them more.
Al Jean: Just when they calmed down from the death of Bambi scene.
Matt Groening: The Slambi scene.
David Silverman: They resemble the characters, but in a court of law it would never hold up.
Mike Scully: There are no spots on that pony.
David Silverman: No spots at all.
Could each of you tell us your favorite episode from the 400 Simpson episodes?
Mike Scully: 37.
Al Jean: Mine is next season's premiere, September 23rd. It's called He Loves to Fly and He D'ohs and it guest stars Stephen Colbert and also Lionel Richie. Stephen Colbert plays a life coach who helps Homer achieve his dreams.
Can I get everyone's favorite episode?
David Silverman: I think of all the ones I've had the good fortune to direct and I've always enjoyed Homey the Clown because it was so much fun to do and it came out very funny. One that jumps to mind is a second season one called Three Men and a Comic Book because I just love the whole notion of it. It was great format and the references to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre at the end always tickled me.
Matt Groening: I like when Homer ate the Guatemalan insanity pepper and then had a hallucination of a coyote spirit voiced by Johnny Cash. That was pretty great. I also like the Frank Grimes episode and there was an episode from the last couple seasons where Homer was in the garage trying to kill spiders and the tables were turned on him. Do you remember what that episode was? Raymond Percy directed it. It was fantastic.
Al Jean: Tim Long wrote it. It was where Homer bought an RV and lived in the RV while Marge was in the house.
Mike Scully: I would say the episode where Bart sells his soul.
David Silverman: There are so many. That's a favorite. Lisa's Wedding.
(Al Jean's cell phone rings again.)
James Brooks: Al and his cell phone.
Mike Scully: There's one that's up for an Emmy this year that Al just submitted called The Ha Ha Couple. I think it's a really terrific episode. It holds up against any of the classics.
David Silverman: I was going to say that one too. The other one that I really enjoy is Lisa on Ice where Bart and Lisa are rivals on a hockey team. The end of the second act particularly is hilarious.
Al Jean: My favorite Simpsons episode is The Simpsons Movie.
Do you think this film will spur a demand for 2-D animation?
Matt Groening: I don't know.
James Brooks: That's so great. You're very eloquent about that.
David Silverman: That was two years by the way.
Matt Groening: And so I love it - that deer in the headlights look that we have from this poster is something that you don't see in other movies.
Is it because he's stupid and he doesn't think too much?
James Brooks: We had a wild thing happen to us in a trailer with a joke based on a CGI bunny and the audience started to laugh when they saw the bunny. Without knowing it was a Simpsons movie at all, when they saw the CGI, they knew it was satirical. Then we had an early trailer that said "The picture that dares to be ugly."
Look for The Simpsons Movie at a theater near you starting July 27th. 2007.