I caught up with Chris Wedge again when he was in town recently to revisit the underrated Epic, his most personal film and one of my favorites of the year. The lush swashbuckler has a heartfelt father/daughter story and looks beneath the surface in discovering hidden truths about life and nature. We also looked forward to his first live-action feature, Monster Trucks (May 29, 2015).
It's always fascinating for filmmakers to gauge how audiences react throughout the world, and in this case the responses were pretty universal. "They got that it was different from what has been served up lately and that I was trying something more like an action/adventure movie with some character relationships that were more nuanced," Wedge reflects. "A family structure that was a little unusual between Mary Katherine and her father. And then the pure fantasy of it".
However, cultural differences also become apparent and in Japan they acknowledged the visual of Miyazaki, which pleased Wedge because he pushed the look of the fantasy despite the naturalism of the microscopic forest world. "I'll admit that [Miyazaki] was on my mind while I was making the movie," adds Wedge, who has not yet seen The Wind Rises. "I was happy that it resonated on that level for some people in that culture.
"I wanted to transport people and take them to a place they could only go this way, and I wanted things that were a little unusual and the action/adventure influences that were stimulating me. For instance, Gladiator was new when I first started to think about this movie and I wanted the kinetic and heroic action that a movie like that has but set it in an unusual place with these little samurai on hummingbirds fighting for a lily pond. Hopefully, it'll blow some kids' minds somewhere."
The third act was tricky, though, shuffling nearly eight character arcs while keeping focused on the core relationships between the fearless M.K. (Amanda Seyfried) and her wacky scientist father (Jason Sudeikis) and the surrogate father/son conflict between Leafmen Ronin (Colin Farrell) and Nod (Josh Hutcherson). "I put six solid years of professional effort into this movie, with four years of production after stops and starts. The journey was filled with surprises and details helped more specific ideas emerge. If you're careful, it just brings everything in focus."
Looking back at his initial feature, Ice Age, Wedge first realized the importance of collaboration. In fact, it was a humbling experience that made him a much better director. "When I made Ice Age, were were 15 years old and had made a lot of work, and I made the Bunny short and won an Oscar. And I thought I knew everything and didn't need someone to tell me how to make a feature," he admits.
"My friends at Pixar had done it with Toy Story and I was ripe and ready to go. I did everything by instinct and I fought hard for what I thought was the right thing to do. I acquiesced when I understood somebody had a better idea. But I didn't really understand how much the audience interacts with the movie until I saw our first preview of Ice Age. And once I saw them react, all I wanted to was please them -- I just wanted to keep the ride alive and through two or three audience previews, I was able to tune it so it made more emotional sense and was funnier. It made me realize that I didn't have to do it in a bubble.
"At the end of the day, you have to listen. I think this is 12 years later and maybe my ideas for what I want to do are a little more ambitious, but I have that audience in mind. I'm always thinking about how well a beat or an idea or a character communicates."
But Wedge has always wanted to work in live-action (he developed Hugo before Martin Scorsese but couldn't get it greenlit), and now will have the chance with Monster Trucks at Paramount. It's his take on a boy and his monster. The trucks will be animated and photoreal but will not be done by Blue Sky.
"There's a lot of nerd in me in figuring out the details of how this could work," Wedge offers. "There's character interaction and updating some of the stories that we've seen."
Meanwhile, Blue Sky has a full slate: Rio 2 (April 11, 2014), the untitled Peanuts (Nov. 6, 2015), Ice Age 5 (July 15, 2016), Ferdinand (April 7, 2017), and Anubis (March 23, 2018).
Naturally it's the Peanuts movie that has generated the most anticipation and anxiety. But not to worry, Wedges promises that they're doing right by the beloved boomer property. "We went through some of the same thing on Horton, the first time doing Seuss in 3D. We're developing a style that I think everyone will understand instantly and we're very, very aware of the legacy there."