Star Interview

Interviews with directors Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell

Q: Congratulations on such a fun and clever film! How did you originally become involved with the “Madagascar” films and now, the “Penguins of Madagascar”?


Eric: Well, gosh it’s been like over 10 years now that these Madagascar films have been around.  So I was involved in the beginning, and then as we were making “Madagascar 3″ DreamWorks just realized that these penguins deserved their own film.  So Simon got involved in that, and sort of took that from the starting line and began running with that ball while I was still working on “Madagascar 3,” but then when “Madagascar 3″ I finished off the film and joined him and we finished off the film together.


Q: Did you ever expect the penguins to reach this level of individuality, separated from the original Madagascar characters?


Eric: No, it was never a goal.  You know, these penguins were always like these great, sort of comedic spies that we could bring in for a minute or two, here or there.  They didn’t have to advance the story, they didn’t have to grow as characters, they’re really just there for comedy relief, sometimes they advance the plot, almost by accident.  But people just love them! You know, I think because they’re these silly flightless birds that shouldn’t be capable of doing any of the things that they do and so they’re these underdogs with this sort of misplaced confidence in themselves, and yet ultimately it’s not misplaced.  And I think that people just really connected with those guys.  So of course the challenge then is if you are going to give them their own film you’ve got to dig a little bit deeper and tell a story that does involve their characters and does have some growth and some change, but at the same time keeping alive all that comedy and insanity that people love so much from the Madagascar films.

Simon: I think that, I feel like when they asked me to direct the movie I was absolutely thrilled. I said, “Are you kidding me? Absolutely, I love those guys.” I think for me I love the fact that they’re so proactive and they’re tiny, like tiny penguins, but they run towards danger. It’s fantastic how they’re just so gung-ho and they have this fantastic moral call where they will right the wrong in the world and they will do absolutely anything to save it. And so that’s why I was so attracted to them and they’re completely in sync, just brilliant.


Q: What makes the “Penguins of Madagascar” different from the other Madagascar films?


Simon: Well I think it’s the introduction of these two new sets of characters, Dave the Octopus and his octopus henchman, and the North Wind. I think they’re two sets of fantastic contrasting characters to the penguins and they make a really fun journey for the penguins to navigate the story.  And that was the most exciting part, was putting these penguins through this path where they collide with a villainous octopus called Dave, played by John Malkovich, and then having to compete with the very slick professional spy organization led by Benedict Cumberbatch, which is the North Wind.


Q: How much of an influence did you have in developing the characters of the film?


Simon: Quite a lot. We have to know exactly who the characters are in order to make the movie properly.  So we’re pretty much in there with the writers working away every second to make sure that we have the best round we can and the best recipe of characters, to make a really super fun film.

Eric: And the more you can go into the recording both with a clear idea of a character, then you’ve got a much better launching pad when you’re working with someone like Benedict Cumberbatch or John Malkovich, which is not to say that those guys don’t contribute significantly to the development of the characters as well.  But by going in there with a really clear picture of where we’re starting then they can use that as a springboard to really find the essence of these characters.  So to work with John and Benedict in the recording studio to give them freedom to improvise and to try things and to experiment and to take advantage of the incredible talent that they bring to the project is a huge part of how the characters are developed.  And you have to know your characters before you do that.


Q: What was the casting process like? Were the casting decisions easy to make?


Simon: Yeah, very early on we had the character combinations set and then it was a case of who are the best people to play this. And John and Benedict were our number one choices for each character and we were incredibly lucky that they both said yes. With John we just wanted a villain that you were never going to forget.  We didn’t want a cliché, generic villain with a mustache twiddling type of guy.  We wanted someone you could emphasize with and that you could understand his madness and who would deliver something completely unique. And that’s John, that John Malkovich. So it was fantastic that he said yes and we just had a field day just feeding off of his performance.


Q: What was it like working with Benedict Cumberbatch?


Eric: You know he’s just this constant professional.  You know, a lot of people think that doing comedy is just a walk in the park compared to doing something dramatic, per se.  And Benedict would be the first one to tell you that comedy sort of the most difficult stuff to do because timing is so critical and a lot of times the only reason that comedy works is because you, as an audience, are really invested in the characters and who they are.  So when certain things happen to them or they’re in these kind of hilarious situations you can really identify with the character. Benedict understood that completely and would work really hard to make sure that we had the right rhythm, and the right timing, and what was happening to his character made sense, and the way his character reacted to what was happening made sense.  And it really is, as I was saying before, it’s a collaboration.

It’s not “Just a here are the script pages, would you please read them into the microphone? Thank you very much.” It is something that we go back over and over sometimes, where we might record John in May and in June we go in with Benedict and play on the stuff that John did as Dave the villain, and then Benedict will go, “Oh okay. I see what he’s doing now, I can play with that and I can take it to this place and then he’ll add to it.”  And then we’ll go back with John in July and he’ll hear what Benedict has done and he’ll go, “Oh great I can use that as a stepping stone and I can maybe twist thing around and get some more character out of this or some more comedy out of that.” So it’s sort of a slow motion line performance or for those who know what it’s like, it’s like work shopping a play where you keeping going over things, over and over again, trying to poke holes in thing and experimenting and introducing new ideas.  It’s a luxury as filmmakers for us in a way because we do make our movie many many times before we have our final version.


Q: What was it like working with Ken Jeong and how his previous animation experience influenced the project?


Eric: It’s great that Ken understands what is like to get in front of the mic. The thing about animation is it’s all about exaggeration and that has to do with the world’s that we design, the characters we design, the way those characters move and the way that they act. So Ken had no problem with just going crazy and pushing things over the top and giving us that kind of exaggerated performance you could only really do in animation.


Q: How do you feel about the way the Madagascar movies have grown and developed?


Eric: You know, it’s great.  Some people say, “Aren’t you tired of working on the Madagascar project?” And it’s like, I never get tired of it.  I can’t believe how lucky I am, and Simon I’m sure feels the same way, to be involved in this thing that has this life, this sort of life of it’s own and has brought so much joy frankly to so many people.  And to think that they’re kids who have kind of grown up watching Madagascar movies and to have that kind of connection to and impact on people’s lives is something that I just really fortunate about and lucky because it’s something it doesn’t happen all the time.  As a filmmaker to have that happen in your career is just a very amazing thing.

Simon: Yeah, I feel very lucky.  It’s just been brilliant, absolutely brilliant fun working on the movie the last four years, working with people like John and Benedict and then the crew of DreamWorks have been unbelievable, they’ve offered such incredibly hard to animate spirit and everybody was working together in just an amazing way. Cause something special that happens when people in the crew believes in the movie and all of a sudden they’re just buzzed for every time you go and see a new part of the movie, and have a new shot, or a new scene, or a bit of new effects, it’s a snow ball effect that happens when people are really enjoying themselves and all ends up on the screen.  And I think that’s what you feel when you watch something like this.


Q: Of all the penguins, which character do you relate to the most?


Simon: Probably Private because I’m English and I’m the least likely person to be a hero so that’s probably me.

Eric: Skipper is kind of the real soul of who these guys are and he’s sort of derived from that sort of late ‘50’s, early ‘60’s Americana, the stuff that I grew up as a kid idolizing, whether it’s John Wayne or Dragnet, just these characters just have this firm belief in what’s right and what’s wrong, and they have this commitment to the American way, and we are going to fight evil, you know.  And you know frankly who sees the world as black and white, and that’s really who the penguins are, so I think I connect with Skipper that way.  He’s probably the one I connect with the most in terms of bringing that sort of idea into the penguins of the team.


Q: What do you love about the medium of animation?  Can you talk about how technology’s evolution has helped this time around?


Simon: I think technology wise we’ve had some new development in software at DreamWorks which has really been amazing, this animation software called Primo, that’s really helped the animators have quicker response times to their animation and really hone their performances.  And then animation in general, I think what’s fantastic is you can create these amazing worlds in 3-D and stereo and we work really hard to make sure it’s really powerful, smooth, really enjoyable process watching a stereo movie, because sometimes the stereo isn’t so good on a lot of movies because you don’t have as much control.  With CGI animation, you have total control over camera and choreography with the stereo and so it makes a really pleasant, fun, experience, it doesn’t give you a headache, your eyes aren’t strained or anything like that.  So I think that’s been a huge development in technology over the past 5 – 10 years, it’s just so much easier to make the stereo visceral and help to make the story- highlight moments in the story, but without making it cliché or uncomfortable.

Eric: What I’ve always loved about animation is that it can take you to these alternate realties, these worlds that could never exist in our world.  It really allows you to go places and explore ideas and push things beyond, and as a said, to exaggerate things, to have talking animals.  And especially with computer animation, to create these worlds and these places that are realistic, but not of our reality, but still you feel like you would know what it would be to reach out and touch those feathers on that penguin because they have that level of complexity, and detail, and volume.  To me it’s just magical.