Taking on the Trolls: Interview with ‘Trolls’ Director Mike Mitchell and Co-Director Walt Dohrn

After decades as one of the most popular toys in the world, Troll dolls come to the big screen on November 4 with DreamWorks’ animated film Trolls, starring the voices of Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, James Corden, and Russell Brand. Boxoffice recently spoke with director Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn, fellow alums about Trolls and, among other things, how a Harvard study on happiness—and Steven Spielberg’s grandchildren—shaped their film’s tone. 

Mike, you’re listed as director. Walt, you’re listed as co-director. How did you divide up the responsibilities? What did each of you take on with this movie?

Walt Dohrn: I was essentially Mike’s pet. [Laughs.]

Mike Mitchell: That’s not true! [Laughs.] Last time I worked with Walt, when I was at DreamWorks, was it 10 years before this? I don’t even remember how far back the last Shrek film was. [Shrek Forever After was released in 2010.] Walt was not only a valuable storyboard artist, but we don’t always have the actors available, and Walt is a tremendous voice talent. So he would do all the voices in the scratch booth. He has great comic timing; he’s a comic math magician. When I came back to DreamWorks, it was clear that Walt needed to be directing feature films. So that’s why I was so happy to work with Walt. Having him as my co-director made everything so much smoother.

Dohrn: That’s so nice of you, Mike.

Mitchell: Not to mention you voiced many voices in the film. Walt is Smidge, he’s Fuzzbert. There’s a character called Cloud Guy, who’s a puff of smoke, and sleep-deprived college kids go nutty for him. That’s Walt Dohrn.

Dohrn: You’re not too shabby yourself there.

Mitchell: Here’s how Walt and I work. Most animation directors are behind a thick plate of bulletproof glass, in a dark room. The actor is in another booth, recording. They only hear you if you press your button and it’s like the voice of God going, [lowers voice] “OK, let’s try it again, Justin.” And there’s just nothing creative about it. So what Walt and I like to do is we are not in that booth; we leave that to the technicians. We go into the room with the actor and all three of us just improv and play around and try stuff out. It’s great because sometimes I leap in and do a voice to play around with the actors. Walt can really judge what we’re doing. Or vice versa, Walt is doing improv with Anna Kendrick or throwing lines back and forth with Zooey Deschanel, which was awesome.

Everyone we cast, we got really lucky. They’re really good actors and they all have a great sense of humor, which really helps too. Walt and I are open to any idea they have—to make us look better. On top of that, all these guys can sing really well. We called it the triple threat. They can voice act, they can sing, they are funny, funny, funny. They can be very real in a scene, heartfelt and believable. And that’s not always a combo platter.

Some people aren’t even single threats.

Mitchell: I’m barely a half threat, myself. [Laughs.]

Justin Timberlake has the lead role. And his soundtrack song “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Was it difficult getting him on board to contribute songs?

Mitchell: It wasn’t difficult at all. Walt and I gave him a pitch for the film and told him what we were doing. He’s a very funny guy as well and has a great sense of humor. We already had this kind of ’70s disco party tone going through the film, and he was looking forward to really tapping into that. He helped us, producing the film. He gave the film energy once he joined it, because he found a cohesiveness to all these songs from a whole bunch of different generations. He gave it this party vibe, so they all feel like they fit together.

Timberlake, more than anybody else—except maybe Bruno Mars—really fuses musical styles from the last 40 or 50 years. Troll dolls themselves have been popular for 50 years—were you trying to strike a similar tone with the film?

Dohrn: I’m just thinking back and remembering the first time we screened the movie. In the rough demos it already had some sounds from the ‘70s, because [Timberlake] immediately connected to the movie sounds that he wanted to contribute.

Mitchell: It really has his thumbprint—his musical sensibilities. It kind of had that even before we pitched it to him. I think that’s the reason he agreed, because he knew he could own it and really take it to the next level.

In the past few months, our magazine has interviewed Fergus Reilly, director of Angry Birds, and Dave Green, director of Out of the Shadows, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. They both talked about how they included references and homages throughout their films to elements of the preexisting properties. Did you do anything similar?

Mitchell: Yes, we have many. Can I start listing them? First is the hair. We took that to the next level. These guys can grow their hair any length, they can change the shape of their hair, they can change the color of their hair, they can use it like a monkey’s tail, they can whip it like Indiana Jones.

Do you include the song “Whip Your Hair” by Willow Smith? That would be perfect.

Mitchell: No. That seems obvious, but I can’t listen to that song anymore because I used it in another film I directed, the Chipmunks film [2011’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked]. I had to get those songs surgically removed from my head, because they really get sticky. My doctor advised me never to listen to that song or put it in another film ever again.

I guess you had to settle for having original music [in this film] from Justin Timberlake and Ariana Grande.

Mitchell: Yeah, bummer, right? [Laughs.]

Any other references to Troll dolls?

Mitchell: Walt and I did research on these Troll collectors, these very odd—how would you describe them?

Dohrn: Lovely.

Mitchell: Lovely Troll doll people. And we noticed in all the collections, there’s always a whole bunch of little stubby-toed naked Trolls with the big hair, but in every collection there’s a giraffe for some reason with a Troll head and this kind of ’70s cap on his head. So Walt and I said, ‘You know what, for the fans we have to—for no reason—put a giraffe in the group of characters.’ And that’s played by Ron Funches. So we’ve got this weird Troll giraffe, and nobody ever asks why he’s a giraffe and not a Troll. Because we don’t even know.

There are probably like seven people who get that reference.

Mitchell: I know! It really plays into the sequel, if we’re blessed enough to do a sequel. There’s a whole revelation.

How much did you look to other animated films based on toys for inspiration, like The Lego Movie?

Mitchell: Actually, those Lego guys [co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller] came in and we showed them the film. They’re buddies of ours. They were very kind to come in and give us notes early on, when it was all just storyboards. We also got our buddy Genndy Tartakovsky, who’s a friend of ours and directed all the Hotel Transylvania movies. We got Paul Tibbitt, who ran the SpongeBob show for years and years, to come in. Teddy Newton, who worked at Pixar, came in and gave us some notes. Animation isn’t a big community. We’re kind of friends with everyone, so we pulled them all in and they were very helpful.

Dohrn: Steven Spielberg watched the movie.

Mitchell: Steven Spielberg, that was helpful. He gave us notes.

I love how you guys mention him about sixth. What did he contribute?

Mitchell: I’ll tell you what he contributed, which was super helpful. One, he’s a master storyteller. He knows exactly what he’s doing. But more important than that, every time he screened our film, he treated it like movie night at his house. He had all of his grandchildren and nieces and nephews, everyone came over. So he had a full house of kids. He would give us his notes and then he would spend a lot of time giving us their notes. He would just watch how they reacted to things and analyze it. He’s a big fan of an audience reaction.

Dohrn: Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg [co-founders of DreamWorks] both really care about the audience. Is it clear enough? Is it funny enough? Is it connecting with them enough?

Mitchell: We like an audience!

I have to ask one question about the box office. You’re going up against Doctor Strange, which is gaining a lot of buzz and for which some box office analysts are now predicting a potential $100 million opening weekend.

Mitchell: Of course, it’s Marvel! Why wouldn’t it perform that well? Guardians of the Galaxy did quite well, didn’t it? And they considered that to be not in the realm of known characters. Here’s the thing—I love Marvel. They’re so good at what they do. The way they make films is very similar to how we make animated films. It’s strangely a very similar process, which is why I think those films are so fantastic. That said I really feel that film is on the darker side of Marvel, while we’re just as colorful and happy as can be.

Dohrn: We’re offering up happiness, to make you feel good about yourself and your experience going to the movies. I think that’s the big difference. There’s room for both films.

Mitchell: I’m going to get real for a second here. We did one of these fun and funny and amazing designs to create a whole world, but also Walt did a bunch of research into happiness.

Dohrn: We looked a lot at that Harvard study on happiness that’s been going on for decades, and we garnered a lot from that. Yes, it’s good to laugh. But to make the laugh even funnier, it needs the emotional resonance and balance.

And people could potentially use some happiness on your opening weekend specifically, because your movie comes out on Friday, November 4, and the presidential election is on Tuesday, November 8.

Dohrn: No question. Our world today has a lot of turmoil going on. The audience could use a little bit of happiness in their lives.

Sidebar: Dohrn and Mitchell at the Movies

Dohrn: My favorite movie theater is the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, the Arclight. The history there, not to mention the picture, the sound quality, the giant space you’re in—it’s an incredible space. Growing up we had a little bit of a run-down tiny theater. Every couple of months they’d run an old Disney film. I remember going there specifically for [1944’s] The Three Caballeros, which is an amazing and beautiful film, definitely a big influence.

Mitchell: Here are my two. It’s an old run-down dollar theater in Oklahoma City that’s not around anymore, unfortunately. I was so mad, because I wanted to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, and instead my parents took me to see a revival of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. And it blew my mind. To this day, that’s one of my favorite films.

You didn’t get to see Raiders, you merely ended up being friends with Steven Spielberg 30 years later.

Mitchell: So I didn’t have to see his film. No big deal. [Laughs.]

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