Though Universal sort of beat everyone to the punch with their super-villain chronicle “Despicable Me,” it seemed inevitable that animated films would eventually find their way into superhero territory. Not only does animation skew aesthetically closer to the three-color origins of the comic books from whence they came, but it offers a landscape in which their superhuman behavior seems slightly more believable. Of course, leave it up to the medium’s resident cut-ups, Dreamworks Animation, to make a bad guy their protagonist, and more remarkably, make him more likeable than the hero he’s fighting against.
“Megamind,” their new film, opens Friday, and follows a natural-born schemer (played by Will Ferrell) who learns that there’s more to being a bad guy than fighting good – especially after he unexpectedly prevails against his chief adversary, Metro Man (Brad Pitt). Ferrell recently sat down with co-star Tina Fey (who plays the story’s Lois Lane stand-in) and director Tom McGrath to talk about taking on a familiar genre in a new format.
Will, what does it mean to be front and center of an animated movie like “Megamind?”
Will Ferrell: Well, let’s see. It’s very exciting, [but] I don’t really consider myself front and center of this fine cast. [The poster directly behind him features Megamind in front of the other characters.] But I guess I am front and center. I really haven’t done a lot of this stuff before, so it was just exciting to get to work on a Jeffrey Katzenberg movie. And I loved this premise, which I felt was so original; but to get to be in a film with this cast is the most exciting part, for me.
Megamind’s voice has a hint of a British accent. Was that at all because Brits are often cast as villains?
Ferrell: It’s so disappointing and it’s not your fault, but I’m actually doing a Lithuanian accent, and it just shows how bad a mimic I am (laughs). But no, it’s just the accent of someone who thinks they’re important. In working with Tom [McGrath], we just kind of landed on that and felt like it would be appropriate to this guy who when you get down to it, is just completely insecure – so, someone who speaks like that who’s insecure kind of is a great combination.
Tom McGrath: I didn’t hear the British in it, but we had a French designer on the film and the city’s name is Metro City and he pronounces it Me-trah-ci-ty. Will ran with that and he took the idea that this guy wasn’t really formally educated and would mispronounce words. Will took that kind of handle and ran with it.
Will, what traits do you share in common with Megamind?
Ferrell: I have a lot of tight leather pants that I keep in a vault. I don’t wear them, but I just keep them there. And there is a part of my body that I cannot go into detail on that is blue. That’s just like a genetic defect. That’s what I share with the character.
Tina, can you talk a little about how your character looks, and about the challenges of the recording process?
Tina Fey: I really like how she looks. I like her short hair and I like that she’s brunette, and I like that she has an ample can. I’m not going to lie to you. I really like how she’s drawn. I found the recording sessions very freeing because you can really try things. When you’re filming something, if you’re improvising you’re wasting film and wasting a cameraman’s time, but when you’re recording stuff first, you can try a bunch of stuff and it doesn’t matter how you look while you’re doing it. There’s a complete absence of vanity during it. I found it really fun.
The film’s themes are definitely geek-friendly. How much of that was in there from the ground level, and how much was expanded by the actors?
McGrath: There was always a theme – it’s about good and evil and what makes us who we are, and whether we choose a path of good or evil or do we believe it’s destiny that defines us. The main theme to take away probably is no matter how much you screw up your own life by the wrong decisions that you make, it’s never too late to do the right thing and change your ways. You can teach old dogs new tricks. Now, to say that in a way that’s elegant is partly script and mainly the acting and the characters that these guys were authors of and helped create and took ownership of. We had the theme, and I would say the cast sold the theme. It’s probably ingrained that we all need a nemesis but sometimes we get off paths in life. Megamind got off the path as a baby when his pod gets knocked off course and lands in prison. Really it’s a story about redemption in a way, where we can all be redeemed. I don’t know if you need to always have a rivalry in your life, or you just have to be the person you want to be or were meant to be.
What kind of pop culture material did you look at to get a basis for the film’s parody, and celebration of superhero conventions?
McGrath: I would just say that we more referenced the stereotypes and how to turn it on to see what are the layers underneath these characters we all know. I think the cast had added these layers to them to make them more interesting. Part of what’s great about everyone’s brand of humor here is that it wasn’t pop culture reference and it wasn’t so much parody as opposed to the comedy coming out of character. For example, when Tina would be doing a scene with Roxanne, she’d be thinking about the character and come up with three different [alternatives] on a line that were always much more funny, so the comedy from this was always trying to be into its own world and coming from character. A couple of things we did kind of shine a light on is we had this character called Space Dad, who looked more like Ted Kennedy than Marlon Brando. Will saw the design for this character and just thought he’d like to try a kind of a lispy Marlon Brando. We were laughing so hard in the recording booth that we had to try it in the screening. When we previewed for the crew and they were laughing so hard that they didn’t even catch any of the dialogue, we knew that was going to work for the movie. So there were a couple of things we referenced, but we tried to keep the movie and the comedy coming explicitly from the characters that they created.
What did Guillermo del Toro bring to the film as a consultant?
McGrath: I think Guillermo is a great friend. He just came to DreamWorks to be a consultant. I think he’s executive producing on other films, and he came in and saw the movie and really liked it and he was a great pair of fresh eyes. He actually had a really great idea when he saw the screening. He said what if you start the movie with the character falling to his death, because then you could replay that later – so we actually did that. We only had three weeks left to finish the movie, but it was so worthwhile that once you started the movie that way it was such a great idea. To me, he was like the best film school you can go to. Sitting with him and watching the film, we’d take a couple frames off the heads and tails of shots and it would do wonders for the pacing. So it was fantastic. And that’s what I’ve got to say is great about DreamWorks is having those kinds of tools available and people to come in and help you as a filmmaker. So it’s a team sport and to have these great directors come in and help is invaluable.