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."
Tartakovsky faced a number of hurdles with "Hotel Transylvania." For one, he had been working in traditional 2D animation and was switching over to 3D computer animation, which requires an entirely different set of skills. Tartakovsky had to transfer, in his mind, the 3D image "because everything looked so beautiful, I didn't know if it was right," into a 2D composition, at which point he was able to spot the strengths and weaknesses of any given frame. Later he would get better at the process and simply be able to address issues as they came out. But another hurdle was found in the transfer to 3D, a medium Tartakovsky still isn't completely sold on. "We were definitely making two movies at the same time. It's hard for me. I have a very strong opinion about 3D where it sometimes takes you out of the story," Tartakovsky said. "You don't care about what's happening because Dracula is standing right in front of you."
While "Hotel Transylvania" might be the director's first feature film, he has come close with some pretty huge collaborators. Tartakovsky directed a series of micro-shorts (between two and five-minutes each) that linked "Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones" with "Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith." The shorts were quite amazing — a sentiment "Star Wars" mastermind George Lucas agreed with. As Tartakovsky explains, "After we did the 2D ones, I was actually going to be hired to be their quote unquote John Lasseter of LucasFilm Animation," Tartakovsky said. "I was going to do a feature and then I was going to supervise the 'Clone Wars' series, and I was really excited. We got as close as my wife started looking at houses in San Francisco. And then I had a lunch with George and he said he really didn't want to do features. At the time I really wanted to do features because I wanted to break free from TV, I was just kind of burned out. And I realized that the next 20 years of my career could be just 'Star Wars.' So I pulled out of the deal."
Another project that came tantalizingly close to production was a sequel to Jim Henson's influential fantasy project "The Dark Crystal," to which Tartakovsky had a brilliant-sounding approach. "So basically for 'Dark Crystal,' my whole take was it was going to be a [Hayao] Miyazaki puppet movie. It was going to have that feel to it. It was going to be in the spirit of 'The Dark Crystal' but pushing it further and being more modern. We did visual designs, we did a script, we started testing things, and then we were always a couple of dollars short, and it just kind of fell apart," he shared.
At one point he was associated with a live-action version of his "Samurai Jack" television series, to be supervised by J.J. Abrams. When Abrams left to shoot the first "Star Trek," things went quiet. They seem to have remained that way. "No, that's off the table now," Tartakovsky said curtly.
What is coming up is a whole slew of projects for Sony Pictures Animation, the studio that made "Hotel Transylvania" and was even happier about the weekend numbers than he was. While he says he's not that company's John Lasseter equivalent ("I think I'm just a director"), he admits that he will be working on two parallel projects – the company's big screen revamp of "Popeye" and a project of his own design. "For me the only reason I agreed to do 'Popeye' was that we're going to do an animated physical comedy," Tartakovsky said, openly. "In 'Hotel Transylvania' we started to really scratch the surface a little bit but we had a lot of dialogue and a lot of jokes based on dialogue. With 'Popeye,' I really want it to be, like 80%, all physical humor. And they agreed to that. It's the perfect vehicle for 'Popeye.' I'm going to push, whatever I did in 'Hotel Transylvania,' ten fold for 'Popeye.'"
And of his original project, he said: "At the same time as we're doing 'Popeye,' I'm developing an original idea at the same time. So who knows? Maybe if we're having story problems with 'Popeye,' and maybe my movie is going smoothly, maybe my movie will go first." When we asked him what the new project was about, Tartakovsky said, "It's too early. You don't want to know." But with anything the filmmaker is attached to, we do want to know, and we'll be eagerly awaiting more details.
"Hotel Transylvania" is in theaters now.