It takes a lot of work to make a live-action, animation hybrid, and though making a film about The Smurfs might seem like child’s play, it involves a number of very difficult technical challenges. But both producer Jordan Kerner and director Raja Gosnell, this is not their first go-around with famous kids projects, or complicated kids movies. We talked about the film, and how much they learned from James Cameron‘s Avatar in the making of The Smurfs. Check it out…
If you were a Smurf which one would you be?
Jordan Kerner: Next to my credit they put Papa Smurf so I guess I get stuck with that role, but I love Papa. It’s hard to say.
Raja Gosnell: Grouchy, hands down.
It took a couple of drafts to finally lure you in. What was the closer?
RG: The closer was nothing about the drafts because the drafts were all in great shape. It was really about — I’d done a Scooby Doo movie so I didn’t want to become the Hanna Barbera guy. But the final draft came in and it actually had so much delicious Gargamel in it. It brought in the idea of a young married couple and the fatherhood themes came together. I met with Jordan one more time and realized that we were brothers from another mother and it was something we had to do. I feel really lucky and blessed that these guys gave me the opportunity and the privilege to make a great Smurfs movie.
JK: When we were getting this together, Raja said “Come on, we’re going to watch Avatar.” They showed a bunch of clips and I always thought that they had to be exactly Smurf blue. Raja was like “In the real world, light is going to hit them a certain way. Give up that grasp a little bit.” And he was right. I joked with him all the time as we go through now with all that. You would look at the Na’vi, and we spent a lot of time with the folks over at Avatar probably in September – because it was released in December. They helped us a lot with understanding the color blue and, I don’t know if you know, but on the Avatar set we always referred to them as the big Smurfs. So there was a real affinity with bringing us over and treating us as a little brother or sister in that way, helping us out, because there are real challenges with blue. Blue doesn’t hold very easily as a color on screen.
What other things did you learn with working with the big Smurfs?
RG: Well we learned a bit about 3D. What we loved a lot about their 3D technique was mostly environmental. It took you into this world. It was subtle and it wasn’t stuff flying in your face constantly. We looked at some other 3D movies and found that some of the 3D treatments distanced you from the characters. So as we proceeded into 3D with this project, we were very, very careful to have the scenes play – to have the 3D have as little impact on the scenes as possible, particularly when there are emotional scenes. When there are action scenes and stuff there are some tremendous 3D moments we planned that fit perfectly and work great. There’s a beautiful 3D ride into the village and it makes it real. So I guess that’s where we went, don’t be gimmicky and keep it real.
You’ve mentioned that you obviously had a history with this, and you always wanted to do this CG/live-action blend, but that you’re also a purist. Could you elaborate a little bit on why you didn’t want to do, what everyone is so familiar with, an animated version?
JK: Raja and I both have worked in this world. For me it was George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget. All of those had genesis in some form, an actual 2D line-drawing cartoon. But to bring them into this world, this century, we wanted to put them in our world. So it was a very simple decision, instead of being yet another animated film, we should make it a combination film of live action and animation so it becomes a unique film on its own. You try to make it as real as possible.
If you can elaborate on that, do you think that will maybe in any way, polarize the people who are so familiar with it being animated or opens it up to them? Obviously the real demographic in this is familiar with the Chipmunks and Scooby Doo kinds of movies.
JK: You make a creative decision going in and you have a belief in what you do. They’re going to be many opinions, and we’re not immune to them. We both read the blogs and we go to all the websites. And we just had to make no apologies for our decision that we wanted “The Smurfs” to be living, breathing, caring, funny creatures.
RG: For me, I understood immediately it would be polarizing because everybody wants their Smurf adventures to be in Smurf Village in medieval times. But I think – for audiences coming into this fresh – the opportunity to see a living, breathing Smurf sitting on their kitchen countertop, riding on top of a cab through New York City, running through F.A.O. Schwartz, and through areas that we know, the wish fulfillment of that raises up and if you’re a kid and you see the movie with a Smurf in the kitchen, then you want a Smurf in your kitchen. The bar that we set in terms of living, breathing, reality creatures is set even higher when you take those beings and you put them in a place that everybody knows. Everybody knows what grass looks like, everyone knows what a kitchen table looks like or the top of a cab, a fire escape. So we knew we’d get some people to see the movie and appreciate it for what it is, like “Wow, there are Smurfs in our world.”
The movie seems to be geared towards a younger demographic, but was there a concentrated effort during production to include a “for adults” section for the audience?
RG: Very much so. We put a lot of work into that. There’s a lot of playfully self-referential moments of humor for all the Smurf fans. I think that when you see the movie and see some of the subversive stuff with Gargamel and some of the interaction between the Smurfs themselves and how we play off the sweet nature of the Smurfs, I think they’ll come. So yes, first and foremost it’s a movie for the whole family, but believe me, the adults are not going to get bored.
Talking about the cast a little bit, many of the main Smurfs are comedians or comedic actors or actresses. What prompted the decision to cast Katy Perry as Smurfette?
RG: We actually listened to her without knowing who it was. The casting people put together twenty different voices of major actors, minor actors, people we didn’t know. All that we had was a picture of Smurfette on the wall while we were listening to these voices.
JK: With numbers.
RG: And we just watched the Smurfette and listened to the voice, You could just tell there was something about Katy that was sort of giggly and girlish but sophisticated at the same time, which just appealed to us. We just knew she was Smurfette. Her pop music career had just started a couple of years ago so she wasn’t nearly up the stratosphere that she’s at now. But it was really just a straight-up casting decision based on making the movie better. Especially for us, she’s a great Smurfette and a great representative for the movie.
JK: Katy has that wonderful combination of child and sex kitten. Smurfette has always had that underlying provocativeness and so does Katy. When Raja and I heard her voice number, she was the one we wanted.
You’ve spend over a decade it seems like now having computer animated characters interact with live action. Do you have any tricks of the trade now that you’ve done it for a while and has it gotten easier?
RG: Technology has gotten easier. I mean, I don’t think I have a set of rules that I follow. Essentially every movie is different, every story you’re telling is different and every scene is a bit different. The workability of it is if these are Smurfs, we would rehearse and I’d move my Smurfs around, interact and people would be doing the voices, we’d make the little marks and then I’d say “Okay, now we’re rolling and now you all have to act against something that’s not there, the voice is coming from over there, so keep track of it!” That hasn’t changed. Probably the biggest bump up from those other movies to this is that Scooby was a “cut to show” basically. These guys, the Smurfs? They are the story. The gravitas that has to be put on their performance, and the nuance on their performance, you have to fully engage with these characters. There are moments in the movie there where, and I may get myself in trouble here, but the Gollum character in Lord of the Rings has those moments of close-up emoting and nuances in the performances. So that was probably the highest part, we had to hit that and that set this film this far above all those other films that I’ve made. The CG characters are the heart and soul of the movie.
What were the discussions that you had in terms of which Smurfs that you would feature? Because there’s a hundred of them and you have only certain amount that make it to New York City. How did you decide in terms of how it would serve the story?
RG: Our initial script said like all forty, fifty hundred Smurfs go through, and that’s the movie I wanted to make! (Laughs) I wanted Smurfs everywhere! And then the budgetary axe fell and we realized we couldn’t do that. By the second week of production I was thinking “Thank God I don’t have another Smurf to stage.” It was hard enough to stage our six guys around and keep track of that much less, give something for each one of those Smurfs to be doing. So that said, how did we decide to do it? Well, you know, it’s like any sort of ensemble piece. You want the one voice or voices that can give you the best combination of an ensemble. We knew we needed Papa, kind and wise and a father figure who could try to lead them back to the village. Then we needed Smurfette who’s the most popular Smurf, the only girl. We wanted her perspective on New York City and their predicament. We knew we needed Brainy because he’s funny and he’s Brainy. Eventually he figures out how to get something right though he normally gets something wrong. We knew we needed Grouchy because he’s funny and you always need that nay-sayer in any group. In any war movie there’s always the guy in there who’s saying “We’re never going to get away.” So we needed that voice and then Gutsy Smurf is a new Smurf. He’s not one of the classics but we felt that we just needed a kick butt, action guy and he seemed like the perfect guy to do it. Then Clumsy Smurf is, he’s just the heart and soul. I mean he’s just a lovable character because he’s got flaws and he’s got a sweet soul and just wants to do right. And so that combination of personalities playing off each other just seemed like a dream for us. We were like “Hmm, we need Grouchy, bam! We need to feel bad at this moment, Clumsy you’re up.” So it was just actually a perfect ensemble of characters for any situation whether we needed heart and soul or whether we needed comedy. What wasn’t in the script, and sort of started as the movie in my head, evolved into the script of the movie that we had. So it’s kind of between Brainy, Grouchy and Gutsy. There is sort of a little brother, big brother things.
I’m interested in the dynamics of the sound stage. Is there any interaction between Jonathan Winters and George Lopez as the comedian actors? And how did it play out on the set? Did you explain that the voice actors were actually on the set?
RG: It’s a little different thing. What Jordan was explaining was that none of our real characters, the hired voices, were hanging around on set all day. You could never get Jonathan, Fred Armisen or anyone to stand fourteen, fifteen hours a day with us on set. It just wasn’t practical. With Beverly Hills Chihuahua I was very lucky to get cast members in a room together and record together and actually play scenes off together and act like that. I didn’t get the opportunity in this movie because the cast was all spread out between New York, LA and everywhere else. Also, it’s an ensemble piece so there’s many faces, in some of the scenes you saw, where in any given scene one character has one line and the other has the next. It didn’t practical, or even particularly beneficial to try and get all of those guys into one room and each fire out a line.
The Smurfs opens July 29