Though Genndy Tartakovsky may be a first time director, it’s not his first time behind the camera, as the man has spent nearly twenty years entertaining children with shows like The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. His feature film debut is Hotel Transylvania, and as we talked it’s very similar but also very different putting a feature film together. Check it out…
You have an assortment of classic monsters in the film, I was wondering if you wanted to get a Godzilla in there.
We tried! We thought it’d be funny to have Godzilla fight in the lobby, and we thought of a funny scene where he comes up from a lake with a boat on his head and looks around. That was the one we couldn’t get, but all the monsters had guidelines we had to follow. Copyright infringement stuff.
So it couldn’t look too much like Jack Pearce’s make up for Frankenstein…
Yeah, you couldn’t have the bolts on Frankenstein, and he couldn’t be a certain colored green. Dracula’s cape couldn’t be red, or his cowl. But you take those as creative challenges and work around them.
Before we started you name dropped it, but I was going to bring up what is probably the best example of a movie like this, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As Quentin Tarantino has said, it’s a perfect balance between scares and comedy. Was that an influence?
Yeah. You want to do this film that’s a broad comedy, but has an emotional core underneath. So how do you balance those things? I also go back to Young Frankenstein, and especially Blazing Saddles, which is so over the top, but then you have that scene with Gene Wilder where he’s talking about his history while in jail and it’s really sincere and you believe it. And that’s the thing. So when you’re doing the broad comedy, you go as far as you want to go, but when you’re doing the emotional stuff, you try to be as sincere as possible. Sincerity is a hard thing to do in animation because you don’t have the actor’s face to give you that emotion – you’ve got to do it with the voice and the drawings. That was the biggest juggling act. Which is what works with Abbot and Costello. They’re always very funny, but because they’re endearing there’s an instant amount of empathy that goes to them.
This is your first motion picture, but you’ve dabbled before, like last year’s prologue for Priest. Was that an audition piece?
No, no no.
More of a favor?
Yes. I did it because it was a friend who was directing the movie and it was also fun to do something R-rated, I love doing things that are out of my wheelhouse. One of the reasons I wanted to do it is because when you do a TV show, you go home and watch it, and it’s like “I guess it’s good” and then you go to a convention and you meet fans, and you feel like people like it, but with movies, you take it to a test screening, and you get instant response, positive or negative. And when you make an audience laugh? The “pouty batface” sequence in this always gets a big laugh and it’s so exhilarating. That’s what’s so great, and it’s on a grand scale. And I love sound design, I’ve played with it with Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, but TV doesn’t satisfy me enough, and to have this with the big speakers, and the whole thing, it’s great.
Does it feel like different muscles doing a feature?
It’s funny actually, it’s very much the same. It’s just much more scrutinized because you have that one shot. So everything is under the needle, and for me it was a little hard because everything I’ve done before is first instinct and that’s all I knew. I’ve never had time to re-analyze stuff that we were doing, and now it’s “This is my first instinct and it’s good enough” and then it’s “whoa whoa whoa, hold on, what about this or this or this?” And then you have to re-adapt it a little bit, so that muscle does get stretched.
What’s interesting to me is that when I think about The Powerpuff Girls or Samurai Jack, I think about the split screens, and inventive pans. There’s always been a cinematic quality to your work. Was there a sense to push yourself further? When did you come into this project?
I came into Hotel Transylvania late – it was only about a year and a half ago – and we had to start from scratch, except for some of the environments and some of the characters that were built. It’s definitely fast and furious, so I don’t know if I had a chance to think about pushing cinema, what I really thought about was “This is a big broad comedy, how am I going to get that across?” I can’t just rely on dialogue I had to make it visual in a way that is beyond anything I’ve done. And that’s when I thought I’d bring the physicality to the animation, like Warner Brothers, Tex Avery. People have tried that before, so I went through those cartoons and found it’s not about the broad takes, it’s about knowing when to control it to get a joke across.
Television animation generally brings all the voice performers together, with films not so much, did you push to get people together to record?
Yes. When Adam (Sandler) came to me he said “I have to do this by myself, right?” And I said “No, you don’t have to. Let’s get everyone together. And sure enough we got a bunch of people together. There’s something more hectic that way, but you feed off the energy and it does get you a better performance.
I’ve watched a lot of behind the scenes stuff, and they also do the most bullsh*t examples of people recording their dialogue, as their character is shown behind them, and stuff like that.
With the flying tables, was that a Star Wars homage?
Yeah, you’re allowed one (laughs)
You’ve got to be smart about it, and you were.
Star Wars is part of our make-up.
You were born in 1970? I was born in 76. It’s part of my DNA. Was it an Adam Sandler production when you came in?
No, it was Sony Pictures Animation for sure, but with Adam involved, you know, he’s got a really strong voice. He comes in on the writing – especially for his character – and it becomes a very collaborative process.
Was he a fan of your previous work?
But he has kids, right?
When we first met he was like “I asked about you… Man, everybody loves you.” His staff liked my shows, so that was nice. It helped elevate me a little bit more for him to trust me.
So is the game plan to keep making features?
I want to do some original features, and help them with what they have here, but yeah. I like features, watching it on the big screen is very exciting, and the face of television has changed over the years, so I feel like I’ve found myself a good new home.
How is the Sony Pictures Animation team, is it like DreamWorks or Pixar?
Imageworks was born more out of effects work than those other guys. But the people are nice and it’s been a great fit. I was nervous going into CG cause I’ve heard horror stories, and you hate to hear no. But when I got here no one said no. If I wanted to stretch someone’s arms or legs out to crazy proportions, they’d say “All right, let me see what I can do.”
Do you want to go back to cel animation? Do you see it as like watercolor versus acrylic?
For me I love drawing, and I love seeing drawings on a big screen, and I loved it as a kid. But I’ve found a way to do CG so I don’t lose myself in it. I don’t lose my identity, and I feel like as long as I can do that, that’s okay. And also, I don’t have a choice. So unless I go and raise money by myself – I’ve tried that before and it was hard. So maybe if I do a couple that are successful, it’s definitely in my future, I just don’t know when. I won’t give up on it.
So you view this as an audition piece?
In some ways, yeah. Hollywood is about relationships, and when I came in everything I had done didn’t matter. You spend 20 years paying your dues, and you come in and have to start over. “You’ll respect me now.” No. So I really wanted to do it. I had another film in development here, but it was going really slowly, so I thought I should come in with this and show what I could do and build relationships.
I bet they have you signed on for Hotel Transylvania 2.
Well, hopefully I do something original next.
Hotel Transylvania opens in theaters everywhere September 28. Check it out.