Over the weekend, the animated monster mash "Hotel Transylvania" scared away September box office records and established its director, Genndy Tartakovsky, previously known for his work on the small screen with series like "Dexter's Laboratory" and the highly influential "Samurai Jack," as a major force in feature animation. We talked to the director about how he was able to crack the notoriously difficult story, what happened with projects that involved everyone from J.J. Abrams to Jim Henson's company to George Lucas, and what his approach to a 3D feature animation-based "Popeye" will be.
"Hotel Transylvania" began as an irresistible logline ("It's a hotel for monsters!") but became an incredibly tough nut to crack. Over the past five years, at least a half-dozen directors have boarded the project and then left unceremoniously, unable to get a grip on the movie's tone or story. But Tartakovsky knew how to approach the subject. "They had been trying to find the movie for a number of years and the other stories weren't bad, they just weren't sure if it was the right one," Tartakovsky explained. And even though he had a solid concept that everyone seemed to like, it looked, for a time, like he would be exiting too. "The time came when they were questioning it again. I just stood my ground and really convinced them that this was the right movie to make. And from there it became a lot easier." None of the elements from the earlier versions made it into the final film. "They were doing things that were so tonally different that they couldn't fit into this movie," he said.
The tone that Tartakovsky finally decided on was springy and wacky – the characters seem as if they're made out of taffy or chewed bubblegum. It's surprisingly abnormal to see this kind of cartoonishness in an actual cartoon, especially in a big expensive studio movie like this. "In feature animation, cartoony or exaggerated animation is almost taboo. There is this precedent that if you do that kind of stuff people won't like it or it will be too zany. And I totally disagreed with that," Tartakovsky explained. Instead, he wanted to push it even further, since the approach suited the story so well. "It is all about the control of that. Going into it, it sounded like the right approach for a story about monsters. We wanted to do a broad comedy that's silly and energetic with some strong emotional heart." He added: "We weren't trying to make a Pixar movie."
And while the cast features an "Expendables"-style all-star cast of comedy heavyweights (among them: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, and David Spade), Tartakovsky had equal firepower behind the scenes, namely in co-writer Robert Smigel, an "SNL" veteran and frequent Sandler collaborator who, among other things, created Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and the "TV Funhouse" animated short films. "It was….Interesting," Tarakovsky said about working with Smigel. "Robert is very funny and he is a joke craftsman. And what I mean by that is, with him, it's all about the joke. So if he wrote a joke or if I wrote a joke, he will analyze it to the nth degree. He'll noodle with it. And in some ways I'm like 'Wow, this is amazing the lengths he'll go to work on a joke' and other times I'm like 'Okay, I think it's time to let go,'" he explained. "It was a great working experience for me, especially coming from TV where you write a joke and boom it's done, there's no time."