Sing is one of this year’s big Boxing Day releases in Australia and I recently spoke to writer-director Garth Jennings about his project…
Matt: It wasn’t until I did my homework this morning that I realised you directed the film clip for “Imitation of Life” which is my favourite REM song. That was incredibly creative for its time back in 2001.
Garth: It was an insane thing to do because it was so complicated. I love and worship R.E.M. They always made fabulous videos and so when they asked us to come with an idea for that song, you can’t say no. When it was finished, it was one of the most rewarding final results that I’ve had for a music video.
Matt: You’ve directed live action shorts and features before. Is this your first foray into the animated world? Was it a long time to go from script to screen?
Garth: Yeah, I’m completely new to this way of working. It took a lot longer than I expected as it’s been 5 years since it all began.
Matt: What was it like writing the script? There’s so much more you can do with an animated film as you don’t have to worry about settings and such.
Garth: You can, that’s true. I tried to write it like a live action film that just happened to have animals starring in it. I wasn’t going out of my way to make it nuts. However, there are points in the movie where we you couldn’t have done in a live action movie unless you had a Jerry Bruckheimer budget.
The writing process with an animated feature is ongoing. You’re continually re-writing as you’re building the scenes in story reel and getting the first voices in from the actors. The process never ends… until now which is why I’m so happy to be speaking with you.
Matt: It feels like there are parts of this film where there’s a different song every 20 seconds. Do you know how many songs are actually in the movie?
Garth: That’s a good question. I don’t know exactly how many but it’s a lot. They’re not used in their entirety because it’d be a 9 hour films so some you only hear for a few seconds. Some songs are arranged exactly as the original and some are completely different. We open with The Beatles song “Golden Slumbers” that has been done as an orchestral song with Jennifer Hudson.
Matt: What’s the process for getting all the rights to the music? I’m guessing it’s something you have to do early on given the characters have to be signing them (as opposed to using them as a backing soundtrack)?
Garth: Yeah. Many of the songs were decided upon and recorded almost two years ago. We needed to do that because so much work had to then go into creating the animation. It helps in a way because you’re not trying to choose songs that are popular in the moment because you’re never going to be in the moment. You choose songs that are right for the story and that can show these characters and their evolution.
Matt: Were there songs you really wanted but couldn’t get the rights to?
Garth: We got them all which was incredible. I’m the worst person to ask because I’m the guy who says “can we please have ‘Golden Slumbers’?” and I’m not the guy who has to go and make that happen. That’s a world of pain and I was lucky to have a team who was gracious and patient and was able to pull it all together.
Matt: One thing that’s interesting is that there are a mix of songs from the current day but also from well in the past. I’m guessing that was a conscious decision to appeal to audiences of all ages.
Garth: It wasn’t so much trying to appeal to audiences of all ages. It was trying to get as broad a range of music as we could. When we first say down and chatted about the film, one of the biggest draws was that we could have a piece of Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti and punk rock all in one film. It wasn’t in a gratuitous way but hopefully in a way that felt exciting.
Matt: How does one go about casting an animated feature? Do you have auditions in the traditional way?
Garth: In this case, no. For most of these characters, we knew exactly who would work and so we approached the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon directly. There were also people like Taron Edgerton who we knew was a fantastic actor but we’d never head him sing. He did an audition but only for the singing part. The opposite went for Tori Kelly who we knew could sing but we wanted to see how natural she was as an actor.
Matt: You’re also the writer of the film and I’m curious to know how you settled on these particular animals. As an Australian, it’s a nice touch to see a koala in the leading role.
Garth: None of the animals are really based on their country of origin. They all started as human caricatures. For example, Taron is the son of a gangster that you might see in a Guy Ritchie film so it made sense to portray them as big, goofy gorillas. With someone like Ash – she’s a goth rocker who has got a lot of attitude and a rubbish relationship with her passive aggressive boyfriend. Making her a porcupine made sense. She’s spikey and when she got angry, quills would come flying out from her body.
Matt: I think my favourite character in the film was Miss Crawly – the green iguana who serves as Buster’s assistant. I was going through the credits afterwards and realised that she was voiced by you too! How did that come about?
Garth: Before you do an animated film, you get the actors in and you do a rough version with just people in the office providing voices. I did several of the voices myself just to get it done. One of them was Miss Crawley and I just loved being this elderly lizard.
Matt: Take me through the animation process. How many people have you got working and pulling it all together? I can imagine it’s a massive undertaking.
Garth: Yeah, it’s a big number. At the film’s peak we had about 300 people working for us – and that was just in the animation studio. We had a head office in Los Angeles and we had another studio in Paris.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What are you going to do next?
Garth: I genuinely do not know yet. We only finished this film a little while ago and I’m so relieved.