Flying to a Theater Near You: Interview with THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE Co-Director Fergal Reilly

Fergal Reilly

This is the first film you’ve directed. Can you talk about your experience in live action working with Sam Raimi and how that has informed your directorial process?

Sure. I was very lucky early on in my career to sort of transition between animated movies and live action movies. It started on Space Jam where it was basically a hybrid movie. Then I got hired basically whenever there was a guy that needed to have a foot in both worlds, you know, I was the artist who got hired to do it. That position seemed to work.

Sam hired me for Spider-Man 2 and I began a relationship with him on that movie that carried through to other projects. Eventually he hired me as a director on The Familiars, Sony / Columbia hired me as a director on this project. The project never got made, but it was a great project. I was lucky.

When I met Sam, he wanted somebody on his crew who had an appreciation for the way Spider-Man was portrayed in the comics, in the Marvel comics. I drew Spider-Man really well, I knew all the poses, I had all the sort of “Spidey-isms” that he had. Sam paired me with a fight choreographer, Dion Lam, who was from Hong Kong, who was very good at creating these amazing fight sequences in Hong Kong action movies. For Spider-Man 2, Sam put the two of us together in a room and we worked on many fight sequences, many action sequences in the movie, including the fight between Spider-Man and Doc Ock on the train.

I learned an awful lot about different ways of thinking about how to block your action, how to make it really entertaining, how to built it to a climax and cross-cut other elements into it. Because I storyboarded on that and helped create this very elaborate story reel that was then used as a template in the movie, I learned a lot from Sam just on that. Watching how he cuts action together and how he incorporates different elements from live action plays to CG to storyboards. All those elements just blended together. It was a great experience.

I used that knowledge on blocking the action for the third act in Angry Birds. When you’re working in CG, in computer graphics, you have a virtual camera that can do anything, very much like the virtual camera we would have used to make Spider-Man fly. So I’m very comfortable with special effects and blocking camera for scenes that really only exist in a digital world.

You directed this movie with Clay Kaytis. What was the breakdown for which responsibilities each of you had? What did each of you bring to the directing process?

Clay is a fantastic partner to have on this picture. He was an animation director on Tangled, which is a fantastic movie — I really love that movie — and had been head of animation at Disney for many years. We had our areas of focus, the reason for that being that we had a very short schedule to make The Angry Birds Movie. We went from soup to nuts in basically two and a half years.

We would divide it between studios in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Sony Pictures Imageworks did all these animation effects work in Vancouver and Clay was based up there. I was based in LA with editorials, working with the actors, working with the story department, the art department. We naturally were where our previous experience was. Mine in story, with camera, in editorial and working with the actors. Clay in animation and animation production.

We would constantly look in on each other’s stuff. So I had meetings with Clay every day to oversee the animation, and he had meetings every day to oversee the editorial and story. It served both ends. It was very good because we’re very good communicators with each other, and we both have the same sensibilities in comedy and animation. So it was an extremely productive relationship. We both took each other’s decisions when the other wasn’t in the room. We consulted with each other five, six, seven times daily over Skype or GoToMeeting. So we were always in constant communication over every creative decision.

This is a big year for game adaptations into films. Not just Angry Birds, but Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, and Ratchet and Clank. How much did you draw from other game-to-film adaptations in the past, in making this one? Do you have a favorite game-to-film adaptation?

We didn’t draw any sort of adaptation from any other game-to-film adaptations, because The Angry Birds Movie in itself is a very unique game-to-film adaptation. It is a broad sophisticated comedy that appeals to both adults and children. There wasn’t really anything like it that came before. Adaptations from games to movie to break down into mostly horror or action, those kind of properties. So we really treated it like a brand new thing, and went about adapting it very much in the way you would create an animated feature film from scratch if you had a concept — which you often do in animation — which is just a simple logline. And if you’re lucky enough to have a script like we were, all the better.

But sometimes you end up departing from the script in new and ever more entertaining ways. It’s a constant organic process in animation between the script and the storyboards and editorial. Each area is feeding off each other. So we get script pages and that feeds the storyboard department. The storyboard department in turn comes up with new ideas, which feeds the script writer. They both get combined in editorial. It’s a fascinating organic process that way. We didn’t really have anything from previous game-to-film adaptations as a template before.

Do I have favorite ones? I thought Silent Hill was pretty entertaining.

The soundtrack contains a lot of ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s songs, as well as covers of songs from those eras: “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by Scorpions, “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath, a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” by Demi Lovato, and a cover of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” by Limp Bizkit. Were these songs from your childhood, or were you trying to get a Guardians of the Galaxy vibe from the music?

We tried a lot of different songs when we were cutting sequences in editorial. We tried a lot of different kinds of music: rock songs, pop songs, new stuff, classic stuff. We knew that we wanted a very contemporary feel to match the contemporary comedy. We wanted to try things that hadn’t been tried before in animation, to set a stylistic tone that matched the comedy. So we tried a lot of different rock songs. When you’re doing needle drops like that, it always comes down to what’s the most appropriate song for the moment, that either supports the comedy or contrasts with the situation on screen. Those songs settled into place after lots of intense searching.

The Black Sabbath song, that was a no-brainer. When we cut that, it was an experiment at first just to see tonally what it would give us, signaling to the audience this is going to be something different. I mean, you would never see a Disney movie use that in their title sequence. So we were very consciously picking music that supported tonally the type of comedy we were doing. For example, one of the songs we tried during the attack on Bird Island — where the birds go to rescue their kids, which is bringing the game to life in an immersive way — was the Beastie Boys’s “Sabotage,” as the birds are flying in over Pig City and knocking down buildings. It was super fun, but also super expensive!

The other thing that happened was we hired Heitor Pereira. We had a lot more needle drops in the movie, believe it or not. But when Heitor wrote the score for the movie, it was so gorgeous. It kind of pushed all our other choices away. Heitor, extraordinary melodic composer. His background is he’s a rock guitarist, he was the lead guitarist for Simply Red, and then he went to work for Hans Zimmer. So he has this great commercial feeling to his music. But also he’s from Brazil, rhythm is very important to him. When we started to get his work into the movie, it sort of pushed a lot of other material aside, because it was just the perfect score for the movie.

Including in the opening scene, the orchestral version of the Angry Birds theme song.

We weren’t beholden to that, but we decided as a little nod to the fans of the game, that we would include a little bit of that. In fact, Rovio said to us, ‘You don’t have to be beholden to a lot of stuff in the game.’ Mikael [Hed, executive producer] said, ‘Make this thing you’re own, make it special.’ We felt more of a loyalty to the fans of the game. Where it was appropriate, we incorporated those elements in the movie. For example, how the birds come about getting the gift of the slingshot. There’s surprises with that, we kind of turned that on its head.

Those parts were important to us, because we knew the audience would recognize those elements to the game. For example, with [the character] Bomb, he has a big problem blowing up. He has Intermittent Explosive Disorder. He can’t control it, he doesn’t know when he’s going to blow up or at the appropriate time. We used that as a character story device to generate comedy with the character.

The film features a main character — Red, voices by Jason Sudeikis — who is pretty unlikable for about the first two-thirds of the movie. With the possible exception of maybe Despicable Me, this is a departure from most family-friendly animated films. How much of a risk was that from a storytelling perspective?

At the very beginning of the process, we knew our main character Red was going to be an angry bird. We used to pitch him as the red “black spot” of anger that lives on Bird Island. In animated movies, it’s hard to make a character like in Despicable Me likable. It’s a choice in animated movies, the hero always has a little bit less edge to him than in a lot of movies. But we were very conscious going in that as long as you could relate to Red, even though he seems like an angry birds, the relatability would make him likable. When people start laughing at Red’s misfortunes when you see him go through a typical day and all the little things that irritate him, the audience starts laughing. You feel a little empathy for the character, because Red basically says and does the things that we wish we could do on a daily basis, but none of us have the courage to do.

Underneath, you could sense there was a good guy underneath those angry eyebrows. There’s something in there. He’s a bit of an outcast in his village. When you start off with a character like that, it gives you a great place to go to. We really wanted a full arc for Red, so by the end of the movie things change for him in quite dramatic ways. Because we started out from a place where Red was the outcast, kind of like Gru in Despicable Me, you now have a place to go.

The first movie you worked on as the story guy was Space Jam. That film celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Are you surprised by how tremendously popular that movie still is? And have you been to the original 1996 website for the movie, which is still online?

Yes and yes! It’s kind of a testament to the legend of Michael Jordan, isn’t it? The guy, he’s almost not real in terms of what he did for the sport of basketball. He’s incredible. That movie was the ultimate expression of combining two top culture ideas in the ‘90s. For some reason, it’s still popular. They’re talking about doing a Space Jam 2 [with LeBron James and 3-D animation]. I think that could work really well. The Looney Toons characters are just classic characters, they’re always going to be in pop culture consciousness. If you make a movie really fun and entertaining, you can surprise people. It is kind of interesting, I’m not sure the reason why it’s still so popular, aside from Michael’s legendary status. I think it really surprised people when it came out. It was taking the Roger Rabbit idea and combining it with a major sports celebrity, and audiences loved Michael Jordan.

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