Of all the theatrical release-date changes caused by the pandemic, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway may take the cake — or, should we say, the carrot cake. The June 11 release for Sony Pictures’ animated sequel counts as its staggering tenth tenth domestic date.
The pandemic’s timing couldn’t have been worse for director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck, known for helming early 2010s comedies including Easy A and Friends with Benefits before pivoting to more family-friendly fare. On the very same day in March 2020 that all airline flights were canceled, Gluck was scheduled to fly to London for Runaway’s premiere.
Gluck directed 2018’s original Peter Rabbit, which earned a surprise $115.2 million domestically and $347 million globally. The sequel reunites the voices of James Corden, as the animated title character, and Margot Robbie, as his friend Flopsy Rabbit, while Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson return as the McGregors, the live-action married couple whose garden the rabbits live in. New to the series is David Oyelowo, as the McGregors’ unscrupulous book publisher, Nigel Basil-Jones. In this installment, Peter wanders away and gets taken in by a criminal gang of animals, who threaten to keep him from both the rabbits and the humans he’s come to consider family.
We asked Gluck how he navigated the British/American culture gap, how he came up with the names of minor characters, and why he cast his VFX supervisor and an animator as voice actors.
This is the tenth domestic release date announced for this film. Is that some sort of all-time record?
I know that the box office people always talk about the release date. I truly believe, in this pandemic era, nobody else cares. As soon as a movie starts doing marketing, when it’s about to come out, that’s when people start to pay attention — especially kids. We were released in Australia on March 25 and it did amazing, and that date changed five or six times, too! That wasn’t the narrative. The narrative was, “Hey, there’s a movie in theaters!”
The movie business is kind of a fandom, as you well know. Release dates are such a big thing. What the pandemic is showing people is there’s no such thing as a summer movie, there’s no such thing as a fall movie, there’s no such thing as a spring movie. There’s just a “movie” now. If you want to see a movie, you’re going to see it.
Where were you in the production process on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, “the day everything changed”?
We were about to get on an airplane to go to London for the premiere! I always finish a movie at midnight, the night before they have to yank it from my hands and start making digital copies. We finished Sunday night. Monday, I took my daughter to the Mulan premiere at the Kodak Theater, with thousands of people. And Wednesday the 11th we were about to go to London.
They’d warned us for a few days, “This might not happen.” Then that morning, “It’s not going to happen.” My daughter couldn’t go look at colleges in the U.K. because of that. The most important thing! [Laughs.]
We decided after much consternation to move the movie. I remember talking to the head of the studio, saying, “How do you feel about this decision?” And even he goes, “I don’t like it.” But then the whole world shut down. So it’s kind of funny, looking back.
Even before everything shut down, I did have a sense this was going to be a big deal, just talking to my friends and family back east. New York got hit, as you well know, really badly. They said, “No one’s going to the movies here.” So it was pretty clear.
Let’s talk about the movie itself. What was the hardest thing to animate?
I’m so impressed with the visual effects people in Australia, how they anthropomorphize these animals while continuing to make them look like animals. Most movies either make them look completely like animals, like the new Lion King, or barely at all. We tried for both. That was the hardest thing.
The two hardest were the deer and the cat [Tom Kitten, voiced by Damon Herriman]. We changed the rabbits a little bit with their eyes, because real rabbits have eyes on the sides of their heads, so we moved them to the front of their heads. But when you look at an animated character that you know so well in real life, like a cat, it has to be either perfect or completely off. Otherwise, it messes with your head because it’s not quite what you’re used to.
You’re an American, and this is a very British movie. The story is British, your three main live-action characters are British, James Corden is British. Were there any cultural differences you had to navigate?
Sure. We made this with [Peter Rabbit author and illustrator] Beatrix Potter’s estate. We got the rights, and we spent a lot of time with them in London, every step of the way. We had a lot of Brits working on this movie who were constantly saying to me, “That’s not right, that’s not right, that’s not right.” But by the end of working on the movie, I, myself, started to talk that way! There’s actually a joke in the movie about whether it’s called a “flashlight” or a “torch.”
There’s an extended sequence featuring the song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day. This movie hardly jibes with the public image Green Day has cultivated for almost 30 years. Was it hard to get their permission for the rights to that song?
Every time you put a song in a movie, especially when you’re actually highlighting the song, it takes time and finessing. Bands like Green Day — and, in the last movie, Fort Minor — they have kids. That’s the golden ticket we have. We call the songwriter up and say, “For your kid.” They want to be relevant!
How many takes did the screaming rooster require? And can that voice actor still speak?
The rooster is a character I created for these movies. Beatrix Potter didn’t have him. If you look online at the credits for the first movie, that voice actor is our [award-winning] VFX supervisor. The way it works in these movies, you start at the beginning with people recording what they call scratch tracks — you bring in anyone to do it instead of real actors, just so you get a sense of it. He was always so good, we knew he was going to do it [for the actual film].
The thing about that is, since he’s not an actor, when he does that voice, he literally gets red, hyperventilates, downs water, needs to take a break. He just screams into the microphone. And he’s Australian, so we had to have a dialect coach in there to help him with the British. So it becomes like this four-hour session, this poor man, Will Reichelt, just getting red and sweaty and almost passing out.
Did you use any other scratch track actors?
I wanted the fox to be Scottish, so I had some scratch track. The more you hear stuff, you get used to it. You start animating to that. Once again, the guy playing Mr. Tod is an animator on the movie [Stewart Alves].
For the crowd scenes, I needed more British voices. So I asked David [Oyelowo], “On your phone, can you do this for me?” So some of the background voices in London are actually him. That’s the fun thing about animation: you can always change things and enhance things. My voice is actually there in a few places.
Do you have any other funny stories from the set or from production?
It’s fun making a movie like this with people who are just friends. It makes the set very easy, especially when half the time they’re acting with stuffed socks and blue suits and tennis balls. David Oyelowo came down halfway through the movie. In his first scene, he had to interact with this rabbit and with Rose and with Domhnall. He was amazed how crazy it was, yet how confident Rose and Domhnall were doing it. They helped him through the process.
If you step onto a set halfway through one of these movies, especially since it’s the second movie, it’s insanity. The actors have to interact with an animated character, first with a stuffed blue animal, then with a little laser light, then with what’s called the ghost pass — with nothing. So it’s this constant mind scramble. But the movie doesn’t look that way, so that’s a testament to the VFX team and the actors.
What’s a good example of a shot or scene that was particularly crazy for the actors to shoot with the ghost pass?
At the very beginning of the movie, when Peter daydreams a fantasy sequence where he’s fighting Mr. McGregor and kicks him in the face in super slow motion. You see Domhnall’s face move. That’s not fake. The way we did that is Domhnall put a blue [screen] glove on his arm and smacked himself in the face, over and over and over again. Then you remove the arm [in post-production], but the face still looks smacked.
What about the scene where Mr. McGregor violently rolls down the hill?
That was him, too. He held a real camera out in front of him as he rolled all the way down the hill. We just made sure his hand was out of frame. That’s all real. Those are my favorite times in moviemaking. In one scene, you’ll have 300 crew members. In the next scene, it’s just the actor holding the camera.
What about in that crazy climactic sequence? Domhnall Gleeson didn’t actually skydive, did he?
We did shoot that in a real airplane, and a stuntman really did skydive. But Domhnall was hung way up in the air, on a crane.
Who came up with some of these minor characters’ names? I’m looking at Busker K. Bushy, Esq.; Trainer von Stauffenmouse; Kennedy St. Squirrel; and Sir Tweedy Fantastic III.
I believe in giving actors real character names, so when they go on auditions it doesn’t say they played Man 1 or Man 2. I always like doing that. Those are all named after friends of mine. I have a friend who used to go by Tweedy. For von Stauffenmouse, I have a friend with the last name von Stauffenberg.
Why is it important for audiences to see this in a cinema?
The movies you really [should] see in theaters, in my opinion, are big Marvel kind of movies and family movies. Parents and kids, you’re all enjoying something together and not otherwise disposed. Seeing the first Peter Rabbit in the theater, it was the nicest thing, seeing parents and their kids together, sharing moments together. Because what’s going on now is everyone’s kind of doing their own thing at home: Kids are watching their own thing, adults are watching their own thing. Theaters are the one time when you have a real co-viewing experience and can talk about it later.
If I could find a way to financially bet on the exhibition business, I would. People love predicting the death knell of things, but I know for a fact that people are going to be flocking back to the movies. There are so many movies that haven’t been released yet. I predict this Christmas is going to be the biggest Christmas season in the history of this business.
AT THE MOVIES
What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
Probably seeing Breaking Away the second time. I loved it so much the first time, I remember not leaving the theater and just sitting there [until it played again]. I saw it recently again with my kids, and it was everything I’d remembered.
What is your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
My favorite would be the sausage sandwich at the ArcLight. The ArcLight was one of the first theaters where you could eat dinner while you watched a movie. ArcLight is in trouble, but I hope they’re going to come back.