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Immersed in Movies: Directors Eric Darnell and Simon Smith Talk ‘Penguins of Madagascar’

Immersed in Movies: Directors Eric Darnell and Simon Smith Talk 'Penguins of Madagascar'

The plucky penguins Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) get their own movie, with Private coming into his own in this Bondian riff from DreamWorks. Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich provide star power voicing the arrogant spy wolf leader and vengeful octopus baddie. Penguins of Madagascar is all about balancing absurdity with heart.

Bill Desowitz: What was it like exploring who the penguins are and why they’re so engaging?
Eric Darnell: That was certainly the big challenge of the film. They always brought this comedic tone whenever they appeared in the Madagascar films. But to carry the film — to be the stars — they had to do more, they needed to have a real story. We needed to see what makes them tick.
BD: Which takes some thought and analysis.

Simon Smith: Right, what do they really care about so the audience can care about it?

ED: We’ve always thought of Skipper as the leader of the group, who always acts on his gut, and Kowalski’s the brains of the operation, and Rico’s the muscle, and Private’s the heart. And yet because they had very little screen time and went through some slapstick, the one character that we never got to access was Private and the value that he brought to the team. So when we hit on that idea that Private was this component of the team that needed to rise up and become an equal, that gave us the springboard to write this movie.
BD: And you rose up with Malkovich’s Dave, who’s more than just your typical megalomaniac.
SS: We wanted a villain you never forget and one you could empathize with and relate to — that was our goal. How do you take this character who’s gone through this crisis and is out for revenge and make that indelible? That’s when John Malkovich’s name came up. And, my god, he’s perfect. He always stands out in the movies he’s in. But will he do it? He said, ‘Yes, I’d like to play an evil octopus.’ So he was really into it from the start and meticulously physical.
ED: Flapping his arms around, and the little special things that John brings to his performance were really inspiring to our team of animators.
SS: And also the moments at the beginning of the film when we’re telling the backstory, he makes you feel really bad for the guy.
BD: What was he like in the recording studio as far as giving you options?
ED: We have the luxury to be really free with that and encourage John and Benedict and the other actors to discover their characters. And as we got to know them, let’s poke holes and get them reacting the way we think they should. People like John or Benedict are really good at exploring their characters and would improvise. They would come up with something in February and in April they would come back and another actor would riff off of that.

BD: What was Benedict like? He seemed to enjoy poking fun of his persona.
SS: Here’s a guy who’s never failed a mission and along come these penguins who are serving him and he just can’t handle it. They should not be in the same league as him and yet they’re beating him to the punch. He loved the idea of this wolf character and brought so much to it. He would suggest tweaks in the lines and was really fantastic with comedic timing. He did all sorts of growls and grunting. And he had a bowl of water lapping out of it in the scene when he’s supposed to be sipping champagne.
BD: Any wild and crazy moments?
ED: It seemed that wherever we went, whether we were recording him in person or over a video conferencing line, there always seemed to be some young woman who was somebody’s niece or daughter, who happened to be there and say, “I just wanted to say that I really like your work.” And he was so gracious with every single one of them. I just imagine this happens to him all the time now. He’s very impressive.
BD: What about the new animation challenges? Did you use Premo?
SS: Yeah, absolutely, Premo was a key ingredient to make this possible and the major challenge was the octopuses because obviously there are a lot more things to animate and to make them feel totally embodied characters. And to make Dave fun and charismatic and crazy and sensitive and damaged. And at the same time making sure that Benedict and his team do what they need to do. And the penguins had to be completely re-rigged to make sure that Premo could be used.
And there’s that lovely scene with the hologram plan that Skipper surrenders to. It’s got a great performance from Benedict when he’s putting pressure on Skipper by telling him he’s lost his man. It was a huge challenge for the animators to make you get the emotion invested in him in a comedy.
BD: Tell more more about the benefits of Premo.
ED: One of the benefits of Premo is that, unlike the old days on Antz or the first Madagascar, the animators no longer had to set up animation by moving curves on a graph or typing numbers in a spreadsheet and then go have a coffee while waiting for it to render. Now the animator has direct access to the characters themselves. They actually can grab a character and move it in real-time in 3D space to the position that it needs to be in. Then when they hit that button, it plays back for them instantly with lighting and color and all the information that needs to be in there. It’s much more productive and has been a huge advantage.
BD: Let’s talk more about finding the arc for the penguins.
SS: It’s about the band getting together and breaking up in a crisis and then getting back together again. At the time, there were many different ideas about who’s journey it should be and many, many scenarios. It was a difficult challenge. We know what we like about them but we can’t break that spell.
ED: The underdog quality and that wacky comic sensibility had to be kept alive every single step of the way as we dig into this team and these villains and figure out what makes them tick.
SS: It’s making a comedy with a heart, which is the trickiest thing.
BD: Do you each have a favorite moment?
SS: That hologram scene is one of my favorites. What was really fantastic was taking Tom McGrath, who has voiced Skipper for many years, and seeing how far he could go. And he just absolutely nailed it — Skipper has real depth.
ED: I don’t have one favorite moment, but the thing that I’ve always loved about the penguins is their absurdity. Things like where they’re suddenly wearing Lederhosen. Or the cricket moment, which I won’t describe because I don’t want to ruin it, but these are unexpected flashes of comedic brilliance from the creative team that completely come out of left field. For example, Corporal [Peter Stormare] is this polar bear heavy and suddenly out of nowhere he says how cute and cuddly these penguins are. That was not scripted and came from a story artist, who pitched his idea, and we said we found it. So there are these little moments of brilliance that came from all corners of production that, for me, add up to make this movie what it is.

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