Interview: Oscar Nominated Bolt Directors
Mon, 09 Feb 2009 17:10:39
Chris Williams Videos
It may be CGI, but Bolt is a Disney movie in the truest sense. Like so many traditional animated classics from the Mouse, the film oozes heart and humor. So it's no surprise that Bolt, acclaimed Pixar animator John Lasseter's first release for Disney Animation, would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
In the film, John Travolta voices the title character, a confused action star pup who's trying to reunite with his co-star/owner, Penny (Miley Cyrus). However, it was the filmmakers that gave Bolt more than just bark. From the get-go, directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard tirelessly strived to create an animated action epic for the ages. They knew there was something special about Bolt, and the Academy has noticed as well. Williams and Howard talked to ARTISTdirect about working with John Travolta, creating characters that resonate and making Disney magic for the 21st Century.
Was John Travolta's action movie experience one reason for casting him as Bolt?
Chris: Yes! That was one of the great things that we were able to tap into. John's played a lot of great roles. He's been a real tough guy, and he's always great. He was perfect for this movie because there is an innately likable, genuine, and sweet side to John that's always there as well. We knew that he was going to be the right guy to play Bolt.
What's the collaborative process at Disney animation like? Is it similar to how Pixar works?
Byron: Anyone in the hallway of the studio can speak up about the movie because they feel invested in it. Everyone working at the studio has that feeling that it's their film, too. That camaraderie and care go a huge way in making a film, especially when you're making a film on as tight of a schedule as we were. We knew the film had to be great. We wanted to make John Lasseter and Ed Catmull proud of us because they're running the place now. We wanted to show them what we could do. The sense of pride people have in the project is so much greater when they feel like you're listening to them. The open communication came with the Pixar package. That's why their films are so great. They beef their stories up. They don't settle for just okay. They want to do something genuinely great.
Chris: When people say, "This feels like a Pixar movie," we take that as high praise. I think what they're really saying is that the characters resonate with them. There's something very rich about these characters. I think that only comes when you really open yourself up to criticism, you take the notes, and you're willing to dispense with some ideas and build something better. It really all stems from John and Ed. We all understood that this is John's first Disney movie, and it had to be great. This marks a new era with John here. He's a very inspirational leader, and I think everyone rallied around that idea of John being our boss.
Are there some funny behind-the-scenes stories from production?
Byron: You've got to hear the story of how Mark Walton got the part of Rhino.
Chris: Well, the way we work is we'll do scratch dialogue with the intention of someone replacing it—the real actor who comes in from the outside. Obviously the search was over because Mark was fantastic doing the scratch. We wanted to find a way to tell him that we could get on-camera. So we setup a mock recording session. We told him we were going to re-record a line with a little more enthusiasm this time. We changed the end of the line to say, "I am the voice of Rhino." Mark goes through the line, and he's all hyped up. He stopped when he gets to that part and he looked at me, and I said, "You got the part!" He went bananas. He was jumping up and down throwing the music stand around and screaming. It was a really genuine reaction, and that's why he's so great as the character. There's really truth there.
Do you feel like the film juxtaposes Bolt's relationships with Penny and Mittens (Susie Essman)?
Chris: It's an interesting structure because with very little screen time you have to believe that's what driving Bolt all the way through is his love for Penny. We have to very efficiently make you really care for those two and want them to be together. That central argument of the movie is making connections and the risks and the rewards that come with making those connections. It's really played out between Bolt and Mittens. We really needed great chemistry between all three of those animals on their journey. So we were always tinkering with the balance between the mutual dynamic of the three of them.
Is directing an animated feature very hands-on?
Chris: You give the actors direction about each line like, "Your character's running." They'll ask, "How fast?" You can say, "Pretty fast." You really have to help them conjure everything up in the scene. We have great empathy for actors [laughs].