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Immersed in Movies: Tim Johnson Talks ‘Home’ as Animated ‘My Dinner with Andre’

Immersed in Movies: Tim Johnson Talks 'Home' as Animated 'My Dinner with Andre'

DreamWorks is back doing what it does best with Home — cultural satire with heart. Jim Parsons and Rihanna team up as Oh and Tip in a buddy comedy that pokes fun at xenophobia in its adaptation of Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday (I wish they kept the title). Director Tim Johnson discusses departing from ensembles, his cast, and getting better performances with Premo, the studio’s new animation software.

Bill Desowitz: So what was making Home like for you?
Tim Johnson: When our films work really well, I think they have a component of a wry social commentary. We get away with some good observations about what makes us tick, and what I liked about Adam’s book was that it was scathingly funny about all of the mistakes that have been made and yet lovingly respectful about what makes humans amazing. And it’s a very DreamWorksian area to work in where you get to make fun of something while at the same time saying it’s great.
BD: That ambiguity goes all the way back to Shrek, which embraced the fairy tale after making fun of it.
TJ: Yeah, when we were starting out on Shrek, we said we were making an anti-fairy tale or counter-culture fairy tale. And somewhere in the middle, we all looked at each other and said, “We’re making a fairy tale.”I think that’s what ends up making them work: they’re fundamentally very sincere. Home is that way: it skewers alien invasions and Western civilization in general. and ultimately it’s a beautiful love story.
BD: What was the hardest part of cracking the story?
TJ: Mostly hard it was opening the picture. The sort of irreverent point of view of the alien when they’re invading earth. And it proved to be challenging to find the right balance in the opening. So we did a dozen versions of the first two minutes of the movie. And some of them were laden down with too much exposition. How do you explain the alien universe? And why are we rooting for this guy? Sometimes we would introduce Tip earlier but then the problem became that it was her movie because her point of view is very easy to understand. She’s now the last woman on earth after her mom and all the other human beings have been taken away. But if you quickly bond with her, you look at the alien invaders as jerks. And so we had to establish Oh’s point of view so you like him and you’re rooting for him before introducing Tip when we can root for them together.
BD: And there was a lot of plot to digest.
TJ: A lot of the plot we discovered a good year-and-a-half out, like who he’s hiding from. But this is a buddy movie where you’re really focused on two characters, unlike my other movies, like Antz or Over the Hedge, which were ensemble casts. And so this was really about the chemistry between Oh and Tip. And a lot of it — especially initially, took place in the car. And so the other thing I wanted to do was My Dinner with Andre for animation. Finding a way to always keep their travels together fresh and advance their relationship is a classic storytelling challenge and has been around for a long time.
BD: Tell us about the impact of the new Premo animation software.
TJ: I think on Over the Head we had around 45 animators, but the bulk of the work on Home was done by 18 men and women. And what was amazing was that small crew could work so quickly, and for me, it was more like directing actors than animators. Meaning the animators could work so fast in getting something interesting onscreen with elaborate blocking in the first pass. And then we could talk about character motivation. You’re not looking at click, click, clicks or keyframe. You’re actually looking at emotions flicking across their face. And with Oh, who changes colors, we were able to simulate that in the animation very early on. And so it was even more delightful to work with the animators on this movie where we made leaps.
BD: What was the animation breakdown in terms of Glendale and India?
TJ: Ninety-five % of Home was done here and then we had a small team in India do some of the opening shots for us.
BD: What did Home represent for you thematically?
TJ: Right from the start, I liked the very simple idea for a family audience that we all make quick judgments about one another: each other’s music, each other’s culture. And yet if we get past that terrible impulse to categorize, we might find that the music that we sneered at might be our favorite song, and that person that we dismissed could be our best friend. The idea was to whittle away at these snap judgments about people.
BD: What was it like working with Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin and Jennifer Lopez?
TJ: It was interesting to me working with Jim how different Oh was from Sheldon. Most fundamentally, Oh craves connections and to share things with other people and to throw parties, all of which is the opposite of what Sheldon wants on Big Bang Theory. We mostly explored how much fun that was as an actor. Jim is so good with text and I find a lot of actors who do live theater are this way and they know how to make the written word said for the very first time. And even on a cold read when Jim has never seen pages before, he just had an ability to make the words of Oh with its crazy, loopy syntax and bad grammar so appealing and so communicative and so emotional. So with Jim, the the task right from the start was the balancing act between Oh’s arrogance and this charming desire to connect. And the balancing act between his expertise and his naivete. His ability to be naive but very intelligent is profound. He was perfect on Broadway as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey.
With Rihanna, between that beautiful accent and knowing how to use her voice as a vocalist, I knew very early on, two-and-a-half years ago when we cast both of them, that we had something special in the chemistry of the leads.
Steve Martin was cast relatively later. Talk about going to school. Working with Steve was like a lesson in comedy. Every session we did — and we did over a dozen of them — I would discover some new aspect of comic timing. How to deliver the preconceptions? How to exaggerate the right things? How to underplay other things. It was just such a great experience. It was great to see his power of observation. You give him a mic and he becomes that wild and crazy guy.
And Jennifer Lopez and I had worked together on Antz. And so it was really fun to give her a call and say the book actually named the alien J.Lo. And it was a simple irony to offer her a small but super important role: Tip’s mom, Lucy. She knew the book and was totally on board and then did this knock-out song, “Feel the Light.”

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