Director Chris Miller has been a story artist and dialogue writer for DreamWorks Animation since the studio’s debut feature Antz in 1998. Since then he has provided the voice for various characters in the Shrek series and other DreamWorks films. With Puss in Boots, Chris has also taken on the role of director, revealing the background story of a character that has emerged from the Shrek family to become a star in his own right. While Chris was in Australia winding down a world tour to promote the film, we managed to get our claws into him.
Cut Print Review: Puss in Boots is actually a kind of origins story that ties in with the Shrek franchise.
Chris Miller: Yeah, he made his first appearance in Shrek 2 and immediately had a huge impact. I guess I could just attribute so much of it to Antonio Banderas’ performance. His presence, and his larger-than-life booming voice coming out of this tiny little furry package, was just instantly funny, and had an instant charm. The character was loyal, yet devilish, you know, a lover, a fighter – there was something attractive about that character across the board for everyone. It really just felt like it was a matter of time before he had his own film.
CPR:The story incorporates nursery rhymes that we all grew up with, but expands on them and adds depth to well-known characters. Were there any copyright issues involved with that?
CM: It’s funny – we’ve definitely encountered that in the past, especially in the Shrek films.
There were certain copyright issues, where you had to tweak something in a character or a design. On Puss in Boots, it’s ridiculous, but the character that gave us the most trouble in terms of copyright privileges was Jack and Jill’s favourite hog. We were just sitting around and having fun, you know, coming up with different names for a pig. We had to go through half a dozen names before we were allowed to use the name in the film. Everything we chose was already taken – either it existed in some other movie or, I don’t know, some pork restaurant, or some way that we couldn’t touch it!
CPR: I was quite surprised at the number of people in the legal department listed in the credits.
CM: It’s insane, right? I mean, your family is probably in there somewhere! It’s the largest credits roll I think I’ve ever witnessed. We worked in the city of Glendale, on the outskirts of L.A. I swear the entire city was on that. It’s a cast of thousands. It scrolls ten minutes long at the end of the movie!
CPR: There are a lot of references to films for adults, from stuff like the spaghetti Westerns, to Fight Club and The Usual Suspects. Is that how you keep adults interested in animated films these days?
CM: I can’t say there was any conscious effort on that level. We were certainly looking for inspiration early on, and Sergio Leone, that spaghetti Western feel – it’s a thread in cinema, it’s part of the fabric. But as we started to move forward in the process, the things that we gathered inspiration from came more from sort of classic, cinematic characters or actors, like Clint Eastwood, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Errol Flynn, Zorro – you know, sort of legendary figures. In terms of adult material, our focus was mainly: okay, it’s going to be a family movie, but at the same time, we want to make a movie that we’d want to go see, something we’d be entertained by ourselves. So we just naturally put that in and dial it on instinct, you know – if it’s gone too far or not. The key to it to me is still: give the audience respect and tell a compelling, truthful story. That’s what crosses generations.
CPR: Did you actually end up having to cut any dialogue that was –
CM: Too far over the line?
CM: There were some good laughs that we lost more for pacing than anything else. Most of our casualties came from that, not so much from stepping over the line. But there was a great scene, a confession by Puss, when he and Kitty are having their personal time. She’s telling him about how she lost her claws, and Puss makes this admission that he too lost his claws when he was young – although they weren’t his claws that he lost… It was kind of a strange little joke, and then she finally pieced it together that he was admitting that he’d been neutered as a child! Man, I loved it – some of the best animation I’ve ever seen. Kitty’s freaking out, and she tries to console him, and he says “I don’t want to talk about it”. And so the scene just ends and it was…
CM: It was poignant! Antonio wasn’t so into it. During the recording, he’s like “What? You did what? Hold on a second!” And we said, “It’s funny, trust us, it’s funny!” I would’ve kept that in there, but actually, the only reason it’s out is it was slowing the movie down at a time we couldn’t be slow. So maybe for the next one, if we have a chance, we’ll neuter the cat!
CPR: You’ve lent your voice to a lot of animated films up till now. What made you get into the director’s chair for Shrek the Third and now Puss in Boots?
CM: My evolution in terms of getting to be a director really came from working as a story artist, especially on the Shrek films. It was a great training ground for me for writing, staging, character interaction – all kinds of stuff that really came in very handy when I started directing. Looking at the story as a whole, instead of small tiny pieces. The voice work is just a side thing that sort of happened based on the fact that when we’re writing and storyboarding these movies, the first thing we do is make a temporary film – we put in a temporary voice for every character, and sound, just so we can see how it’s playing, and work on the screenplay that way. So you record so many voices that some of them just end up sticking. But all of our roles, it’s always something like “Man in Background”, or “Guard #3”, or “Little Girl in Pond”. But I highly recommend it as a career path. You dress in your pajamas to do it, and you don’t have to start until about two o’clock in the afternoon. It’s a good way to make a living!
Chris Miller, Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Jeffrey Katzenberg at the Australian premiere. (Getty Images)
CPR: What about the famous actors involved, what were they like? Were there any big egos to deal with?
CM: The amazing thing is it was a pretty egoless group we had. Antonio and Salma Hayek were just so passionate and excited. Billy Bob Thornton had never done this before. He was completely open to it, actually incredibly easy to work with. It was a pretty relaxed atmosphere, just hanging out and being creative, coming up with stuff on the fly. It was great with all of them – Amy Sedaris, and Zach Galifianakis as well. If you break them down, they’re all a great group of filmmakers too – not only do they perform, but there are writers in that group, producers, directors, some that do all that, and they appreciate the art of storytelling. Everyone participates – not everyone’s sitting down writing, but they’re important, they’re part of that process. And you can feel it in the character. It all comes through.
CPR: That spontaneity ends up on the screen.
CM: Yeah, and when it works, it’s great. Some of the best stuff ends up being extemporaneous stuff that Zach added, or Antonio, or even Billy Bob – those are golden moments, when they work. A lot of it’s written, you know, but every now and then… Especially in animation, where you’re building every leaf on every tree, and every grain of sand, and it’s all a pretty contrived universe. Well, it is utterly contrived. So any time you can find something in a performance that feels like “Ah, that just happened, that was natural” – it keeps the whole thing alive.
CPR: Sure. I’m gonna hit you with a bunch of really quick questions now and I want you to just say whatever comes into your head.
CM: I genuinely suck at this, but go for it.
CPR: For the record, are you a cat person or a dog person?
CM: I’m a dog person. I love cats – I mean, I’ve had tons of cats. But, yeah, I’m a dog person.
CPR: So your next film’s gonna be called Hound in Heels or something?
CPR: What actors would you most like to work with in the future?
CM: Wow, I have no idea. I mean, I feel like I just came off a movie that was a complete wishlist come true.
CPR: What’s your favourite animated film?
CM: Oh man, that’s a good question… Pinocchio. That one changes all the time, but that’s where my brain immediately went.
CPR: You get home from a long day at work. What do you watch – The Lion King or South Park?
CM: South Park!
CPR: What live-action movie would you like to see remade as an animated film?
CM: Oh, wow. Um… Meatballs! Meatballs 4!
CPR: Well, there’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
CM: But it’s not like Meatballs 4!
CPR: Last question. What animated film would you like to see remade in live action?
CM: That’s a good one. Let me think for a second… Let’s go for Toy Story. With puppets!
CPR: Like a Muppet Show kind of thing, a retro feel?
CM: Hey, I’m not making it – it’s up to them to pull it off. That’s their problem!
Puss in Boots opens in cinemas nationally on December 8th, 2011.