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Immersed in Movies: Jimmy Hayward Talks ‘Free Birds’ at Reel FX

Immersed in Movies: Jimmy Hayward Talks 'Free Birds' at Reel FX

After taking a break from animation to direct Jonah Hex, Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!) is back with Free Birds, the breakout feature from Dallas-based Reel FX. The buddy comedy (pairing the voice work of Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson) about going back in time to take turkey off the Thanksgiving menu is pure Hayward in its wackiness.

Wilson’s Reggie has a mind that’s quicker than his body; Harrelson’s Jake has a body that’s quicker than his mind; and Amy Poehlers’ Jenny (Reggie’s love interest) is the smartest turkey of the bunch. Plus there’s a narcoleptic First Daughter and villainous hunters (led by Colm Meaney’s no nonsense Myles Standish) that look like they rode in from Once Upon a Time in the West. But nothing compares with George Takei’s snarky S.T.E.V.E., the voice of the time machine, aka the Space Time Exploration Vehicle Envoy. He provides just the right Star Trek self-effacement to bridge the past and present.

“Nailing the chemestry between Reggie and Jake was a big challenge,” Hayward admits. “Owen and Woody are great together but we only had them in the booth together early on. But one of my favorite things is improvising and they were constantly improving. The ‘pecs and gluts’ came out of that and so did Woody’s reaction to S.T.E.V.E’s.cosmic explanation of the space between time when he says, ‘Exactly.'”

Hayward is also a big believer in video reference to find the acting choices and signature moves, which he implemented on Horton at Blue Sky with Rich McKain, who returned as supervising animator on Free Birds.

But sometimes execution was tricky, such as a joke about Jenny having a bad eye. It was in and then it was out when it didn’t test well at an early screening, which disappointed Poehler, who thought it worked well. The problem was when her eye went all weird, Reggie was weirded out by it. But after they adjusted his reaction so he sees past who she is and is smitten by her, it worked marvelously. 

“I found out that the quickest thing with their relationship was when she says, ‘I’m looking for a guy with more mind and less muscle.’ And Reggie replies that he has no muscle whatsoever and she looks at him and says, ‘Maybe you should have that checked out.’ And she looks back at him again. I put the eye back in,” Hayward recalls.

Meanwhile, working with Reel FX on its first feature after 20 successful years as service model was particularly satisfying for Hayward. It was a comfortable mix of vets and newbies, with the director learning as much from them about economical production methods as they did from him about the marathon nature of feature production.

Naturally along the way they developed new tools at Reel FX specific to the movie involving turkeyfied rigs and a special feather system (more about that next week). Plus the rustic look of 1621 Americana was especially pretty. “The biggest challenge was not to go nuts with the time machine and getting enough scope as possible: I had to be in modern America, I had to be in the space-time continuum and I had to be in 1621, I wanted a big battle scene at the end of the movie, and I wanted these big, sci-fi effects.”

But it was a definite advantage working with his old pal, Aron Warner, president of animation for Reel FX and the film’s exec producer, whom Hayward has known for 20 years. “He’s a very funny guy, but I have a very eccentric sense of humor sometimes and do bizarre comedy that Aaron doesn’t always get. And sometimes he’s too literal that I don’t always get, but it’s great to have that together. He’s a reality check.”

But with commercial pressure to chase franchises, Hayward, who started out on the pioneering Reboot CG TV series and then worked on Pixar’s first five animated features before hopping over to Blue Sky, thinks that Reel FX has carved a nice niche an an off-beat indie. Their next release, Book of Life, a Day of the Dead riff directed by El Tigre’s Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro, will be released by Fox on Nov. 17, 2014. Following that will be Shane Acker (9) directing Beasts of Burden, based on the Dark Horse comic book series about a team of intelligent animals that investigates different paranormal events.

“It’s a great time to be a filmmaker: On the one hand, there’s less money to make less films but on the other hand technology’s getting to the point where accessibility is greater. Five years ago, this movie would’ve cost $150 million [instead of $35 million]. I think the business is evolving. We’re starting to see studios shift stuff overseas and shut down their operations in other places and not do American stuff with American artists. Not that I think artists have to be American. I think artists should be from all over the place, but I think that for our business here, domestically, it’s important to keep it in one place (not necessarily here but in England or in China or anywhere else) so the director has direct interaction with everybody. 

“That’s why I think it’s important to have dailies together as a group twice a day because everyone comes together and you learn just as much from someone else’s mistakes as someone else’s success. And I think interdepartmental integration between the artists too is important. I make sure all the guys get together and talk.”

As for Hayward, he still intends on alternating between animation and live-action. “I don’t see any difference. To me, it’s about showing audiences new things that they haven’t seen before.”

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