With animated food orgies, grotesque depictions of living objects hacked to pieces, and F-bombs galore, “Sausage Party” shatters taboos with glee. Now, its creators are getting the last laugh.
Co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg first conceived of the deranged animated comedy nearly a decade ago, and every studio passed on it. “We really naively thought everyone in Hollywood would be very enthusiastic about an R-rated comedy about a hot dog trying to uncover the meaning of existence,” Rogen told a New York crowd filled with members of the Academy’s animation branch last weekend. “We were wrong.”
Years later, with the help of Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, “Sausage Party” came to vulgar life under the guidance of veteran animation directors Conrad Vernon (“Shrek 2”) and Greg Tiernan. To date, the movie has grossed over $138 million worldwide, well over its reported $19 million budget, inspiring distributor Sony to mount an awards campaign — and much of the animation community is rooting for its success.
Rogen and Goldberg’s comedic chops are self evident, with writing credits ranging from “Superbad” to their directorial debut, “This is the End.” But “Sausage Party” speaks to a niche of animators who toil in the shadow of Pixar and Disney while dreaming of more outrageous, adult-friendly work that no massive commercial entity has been willing to take on. The success of “Sausage Party” could change that.
“We really hope this allows people to do things with animation that haven’t been done before,” Rogen said in his introduction, “and that they really treat it as a medium, not a genre. That’s what we always strongly believed. For better or worse, this is the thing we did to support that.”
The statement was met with cheers from the crowd, including AMPAS member Bill Plympton, a stalwart independent animator who has maintained his distinctive hand-drawn style and naughty, adult-oriented slapstick humor for decades. (He was nominated for the best animated short Oscar in 1987 for “Your Face,” but is best known for his series of “Guard Dog” shorts.) At an event following the screening, Plympton found Rogen at the bar.
“When you gave that speech before and everyone applauded, that was just great,” said Plympton, who’s currently putting the finishing touches on his eight feature, “Revengeance.” “That’s exactly what we need people like you to talk about.”
It wasn’t the first time Rogen encountered that sentiment. In 2008, he met Vernon while doing voice work for “Monsters vs. Aliens” and began sharing his concept for “Sausage Party” with animators working on the project. He was inspired by their positive reactions from people generally tasked with kid-friendly stories. “It was really nice to make something not only funny, but with adult ideas,” Rogen said.
The “Sausage Party” concept aims low and high: Rogen voices an eager hot dog named Frank, who hopes to get purchased by a human shopper alongside his bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig). As with their fellow grocery items, they dream — and sing — of the Great Beyond, an imaginary utopian realm they envision beyond the checkout counter. Needless to say, they’re in for a rude awakening. (Their morning salute to The Great Beyond was composed by famed songwriter Alan Menken, whose credits include “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”)
“Sausage Party” manages to skewer religious convictions and mob mentalities, in addition to all-inclusive racy comedy filled with food-related stereotypes (Teresa Taco, Sammy Bagel, Jr.), with every outrageous twist opening the floodgates for repressed animators to run wild with boundary-pushing silliness. The climactic sex scene, which finds dozens of food items stretching and sliding into jarringly sensual poses, initially ran 12 minutes long. Rogen and Goldberg advised the 150 artists at Tiernan’s Nitrogen Studios in Vancouver to unleash their imaginations.
“We found out that animators can be pretty sick when told they can do whatever they want,” Rogen said.
The result has been cathartic and inspirational. “Hopefully, it works in a funny, comedic way,” Tiernan told IndieWire’s Bill Desowitz earlier this year, “so we can make a lot of these in the future.”
The awards campaign keeps that sentiment afloat. As producers, Rogen and Goldberg are in contention for best animated feature category alongside Vernon and Ellison, whose commitment to financing the project made Hollywood’s resistance irrelevant. Sony joined as a distributor, even though the studio had no interest in making the movie happen before. They weren’t alone. Rogen recalled pitching “Sausage Party” to various studios around town and repeatedly getting shot down. When he took the project to DreamWorks, he said, “They seemed to think it was funny. They were just like, ‘It’s off-brand.’”
By contrast, Ellison gave Rogen and his team carte blanche to take the material as far as they could. The company, which made its mark supporting filmmakers ranging from Kathryn Bigelow to Spike Jonze, allowed “Sausage Party” to come together without compromise.
“She was totally hands-off,” Rogen said. “No notes the whole time. If anything, she would push us further.” Rogen was caught off-guard with respect to the shape of the hot dog bun’s mouth, which resembles female genitalia. “We didn’t know about the mouth,” Rogen said with his trademark guffaw. “Was it too much? And Megan was like, ‘We’re keeping the fucking vagina mouth. I’m not making this movie without a vagina mouth.”
Despite the sophomoric gags, “Sausage Party” presents its scenario with an air of existential inquiry, as the food characters learn the cruel nature of their reality and struggle with the best way to spread the truth. Rogen said he and Goldberg struggled to find a philosophical foundation for the zany premise.
“There was a moment where we realized this was our Pixar movie,” Rogen said. “In order to make good on the promise of that, it had to attempt to be as smart as those movies. That was an incredibly daunting revelation. We realized that we couldn’t just fake this.”
At the same time, it wasn’t entirely new terrain. Though Rogen has been pigeonholed as the dopey hero of man-child comedies for years, he and Goldberg have consistently demonstrated a penchant for thematically sophisticated storytelling, from the feminist shadings of their “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” screenplay to the eccentric look at crises of faith in the supernatural AMC show “Preacher,” which they co-created. (They’re currently supervising a second season, and directed the first two episodes.)
“Seth and Evan are the funniest guys working, but they always build in a solid emotional foundation into their projects,” Franco, who voices a druggy human character in “Sausage Party,” told IndieWire. “They’re also fearless in their mashing-up of genres and styles. ‘Sausage Party’ isn’t just a dirty animated film about talking food, it’s about all of us.”
Yet the racial comedy throughout “Sausage Party” presented a serious risk. From Salma Hayek’s Teresa Taco to Bill Hader as the non-perishable chieftain Firewater, the movie takes a loose approach to stereotypes of all kinds. Rogen and Goldberg tested the movie in very rough stages for that exact reason. “If people were horribly offended, the movie just wouldn’t work,” Rogen said. “We had to make sure that no specific group felt targeted.” After the first test screening in downtown Manhattan, Rogen was inspired by supportive words from Palestinian audiences amused by the character of Kareem Abdul Lavash, the Middle Eastern flatbread character voiced by David Krumholtz.
“That was the type of feedback we were looking for,” Rogen said. “Of course, they don’t speak for everyone, but that’s all you can do.”
Motivated by the movie’s success, he has eagerly hit the campaign trail. At the New York event, he spent hours receiving compliments from animators in attendance and answering questions about how the movie got made. But he wasn’t the only contender there. Sony has also thrown its weight behind a campaign for “The Great Beyond,” which Menken composed from lyrics by Rogen, Goldberg, and Glenn Slater. As the crowd around Rogen swelled, Menken materialized alongside two of the track’s singers.
“He’s awesome, this guy,” Rogen said, seemingly astonished by the sudden company. “We recorded the song at Abbey Road Studios! The musicians kept laughing. It was surreal.”
Menken looked pleased. “This is the only animation I’m involved with now,” he said. “I haven’t done any Disney stuff for quite a while.”
Rogen shrugged. “I’m glad we roped you into this one,” he said, almost as if he didn’t believe it himself.
“So,” Menken said, “you think we’ll get a nomination?”
Rogen was taken aback. “You tell me, man!” he said. “I hope so.”
Meanwhile, the movie’s message wasn’t lost on the crowd, which gathered for an after party at the Empire Hotel, just a few blocks from Trump Tower. “Sausage Party” closes with the all-too-pertinent realization that Frank can only persuade the other food items to rebel against their human overlords through a message of hope, rather than bashing their convictions.
“If people thought this was a politicized movie, no one would’ve seen it,” Rogen said. “But it’s true — you can’t shit all over people you think are dumber than you.” He laughed again, but as always with Rogen, it wasn’t just an empty chuckle.