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STEPHEN ANDERSON – DIRECTOR AND VOICE OF BOWLER HAT GUY STEPHEN Anderson notches up his feature him directorial debut with MEET THE ROBINSONS. After joining Disney Feature Animation in 1995, Anderson worked as a story artist on TARZAN and then as story supervisor on THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE and BROTHER BEAR. Since he is an orphan, Anderson felt a powerful connection with the story of MEET THE ROBINSONS, which is about a 13 year-old orphan realising that it is best to move forward into the future rather than to dwell on the past.
What were the inspirations for the film’s terrific villain, Bowler Hat Guy?
There were a lot of influences…certainly Professor Fate, the character Jack Lemmon played in THE GREAT RACE, Jim Carrey as The Riddler in BATMAN FOREVER….the classic villain icons, characters with the moustache and the black cape. Other influences were also Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean and John Cleese, with his Monty Python silly walks, with the moves as elastic and stretchy as Bowler Hat Guy is. And Barnaby in BABES IN TOYLAND. We wanted something that immediately meant that you saw that character and you KNEW it was the villain. It was also important that it was obvious that Bowler Hat Guy was simple-minded and very child-like, a six year-old frozen in time, because a child’s impression of a villain is those clichés, those icons. So since he is a six year-old in a bizarre 30 year-old body, it made sense that if he was going to create a villainous persona for him then it was going to be a cliché.
Why did you do the voice of Bowler Hat Guy?
As far as the voice goes, early on when we storyboard the movie, we do temp voices as place holders, before we cast the actors. A lot of times those temp voices will stick, and end up defining the actor; and that’s what happened with me with Bowler Hat Guy. Some of the other crew members do character voices in the movie. Before we arrived at Bowler Hat Guy’s child-like nature he had started off with much more of a British accent, and much more refined, as a much more stealthy, composed villain, a little bit like Terry-Thomas.
What is it like being part of the new digital style of Disney animation?
It is really exciting to be one of the first computer movies coming out of Disney. We feel like we are a new studio, like we have just started; we just built ourselves from the ground floor and we are starting now. It is an exciting time at the studio now and it is great to be part of that, having directed this movie, and to feel the energy and the sense of re-invention. We are starting to redefine what Disney Animation is and our new techniques and different kind of stories. It is great to have a time travel story – we have never done that before.
What influence on the movie did John Lassetter have?
He came in about a year ago and John and his Pixar directors took a look at the movie and really responded to the story and the characters and the look of the movie and what we were doing. They offered to us suggestions on how to make it better, how to strengthen the comedy, or strengthen the emotion or make things clearer. How to simplify some of the ideas we had in the movie. It is always good to get fresh eyes on these movies because animation takes so long that it is easy to lose your focus sometimes. They provided fresh eyes and a new perspective on some things and we were able to then make adjustments to the movie and make it better.
Is that why some of the characters in MEET THE ROBINSONS look a bit like Pixar characters?
That’s funny because visually they didn’t have any input. Our characters were designed before Pixar came in. Our art direction was done. They didn’t have any effect on that or the worlds that we created or the modeling. That was all us. Their input was from a story standpoint.
What sort of suggestions did Pixar make?
One of the things suggested was about Bowler Hat Guy, who when Pixar came in was a comic villain. He was silly and a buffoon but there were also moments when he was a very threatening villain and they suggested something that was very interesting because we had not thought of it. It was simply that he was so silly in the silly moments that it was very hard to take him seriously in the threatening moments. Was there a way to make adjustments and get more threat into the movie? We did not want to change the character into the standard threatening villain, so what we did was that we developed the character of Doris, his bowler hat. She was in the movie before but we elevated her status to be the primary villain. Originally Bowler Hat Guy and Doris were on an equal footing but we said let’s make her the real brains of the outfit and a villain with a deeper and darker agenda than Bowler Hat Guy is aware of. In the beginning you think that Doris is the side-kick and Bowler Hat Guy is the villain and then you realize that he is the patsy and she is the dominant. It is kind of a fun twist that Doris, the bowler hat is an evil consciousness that wants to take over the world! The idea of a hat with an evil consciousness is pretty funny. The fact that it is a female hat is funny too. All that is unique, I don’t think you have seen anything like that before. It makes it really fun to watch.
When did you read the book that inspired the film?
The book came out in 1991 and I did not read it until I got the original script for MEET THE ROBINSONS in 2002. That was my first exposure to the book. The connection that I did have to the material, when I read the first script was the adoption aspect of the movie. I was adopted when I was an infant – I wasn’t in an orphanage, there is a different situation to Lewis. But when I read the script, the questions that Lewis was asking about his past, where he came from, who his birth mother was, why did she give him up? I had asked those exact, same questions ever since I could remember. So I immediately connected to that kid. I understood his brain. I knew how he was thinking. From that moment on I handcuffed myself to the script and said…I’m doing this movie!
Had you eventually decided as Lewis does, not to look back?
Yeah. I have not connected with my birth parents. As a child my parents were very open about the adoption. They told me very early on that I was adopted and said if I wanted to contact my parents that they would support me in that and they would be there with me to do that. They had always said that when I became an adult, when I was 18, I could go and find my birth records and they would support me. As a kid, 18 was the magic number. There was no doubt in my mind that when I hit 18 I was going to do that. Then one day I woke up and said…hey, I’m 24, I could have done that all these years ago. So why hadn’t I? The realization was that that really didn’t matter. The reason why I had lost track of that idea was that I was more concerned with my life right then and where I wanted to go with my career and I had a great loving family that I was adopted into. The past would not have changed any of that. And that’s how the film’s theme evolved, the ‘keep moving forward’ idea. It came from thinking about my feelings and my experiences over the years. So that’s how that came about.
The film is also in a 3-D version. What about that?
We have moments when the 3-D things come at you and we tried to keep them organic to the story. What is great about the 3-D is how you can control it; it’s not just a gimmick. With some sequences you can have more depth and in others you can dial it back and have very little. So it is a really interesting story telling device. But the 2-D movie is just s fantastic as the 3-D movie.
How do you cope with the idea that you are creating characters that could become part of the Disney legend?
It is kind of weird because you don’t sit down and think about it too much, you just kind of do it. You go with your instinct and what is right with the story. You look for appeal in the characters and you want them to be very human. The humanity of Disney characters is what is really important, even in the villains you see that they are not just one-dimensional evil characters. The best villains have weaknesses and vulnerabilities and you see their human side. That is what makes Disney characters great, how human they are and their range of emotions. It is what makes Disney movies memorable, that’s what people take away from Disney movies, the characters. And that’s what they want to live gain and again when they go to the parks or go back to the movies or the DVDs. So it was very important for me to make sure that this movie was focused on the characters and that they were very appealing and very human.
Was it deliberate not to have A-list voice talent?
We did not set out to say we were not going to do that, we just wanted to cast the right actors for the roles. We had our characters and we found terrific actors. Angela Bassett is brilliant as Mildred, we could not have asked for any more heart, soul and emotion from that character. She is really Lewis’s emotional foundation at the beginning of the film. Tom Selleck as Cornelius Robinson brought the warmth and the gravity you want out of that character. Harland Williams is an unbelievable improvisational actor and he brought so much to Carl, the robot and really made it his own. I like the notion of getting actors who have improvisation backgrounds or sketch comedy or theatre because they come in and add to the character. You get a completely different dimension to the characters because they come from the actor’s point of view, not just ours as we wrote them. So I can’t imagine any different cast from what we have.
The performance of Adam West suggests he doesn’t take his Batman persona too seriously?
He was incredibly willing to do anything. I would describe bizarre things, like he travels space delivering pizza or that suddenly you have a meatball fight during dinner…He has a great imagination and he just rolled with the things. He would give five or six variations of what you asked for – he is an amazing professional and has so much character and personality in his voice. He could make me laugh just by reading the phone book.
Part of their enthusiasm must be because the actors want to become part of the Disney dynasty of animation?
I think so, people find that exciting and are really happy to be part of this because it is such a legacy. Especially actors who have kids love to have something like this for their kids.
Why do we see a photograph of Tom Selleck in the movie and not a cartoon of him?
We thought there were so many characters in the family that it would be fun to have a recap of who they are. One of the story artists came up with the Tom Selleck joke. We laughed so hard at that idea that it stuck in the movie. Then when we were casting the role of Cornelius Robinson we thought it would be a great in-joke to have Wilbur say his dad looked like Tom Selleck and then actually cast Tom Selleck in that role. So the photograph was first.
What is your favorite invention in the movie?
I think time travel is pretty enticing. I would love to think that would be possible some day. So a time machine is hard to beat for me.
Did films like BACK TO THE FUTURE inspire you?
I am a fan of the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies. We never looked at it for inspiration but it was in the back of our heads because are all fans of those movies. We used it as an inspiration but made sure we were not treading on their territory.
The film creates animation wonders. How far do you feel it has gone with the new technology?
The worlds you can create in the computer are absolutely stunning. They are different from what 2-D does; I would not say that they are better necessarily. It is just a different world. Coming to the 2-D world it is the textural quality that can be created that is wonderful. You now have a sense of hat, what a character’s hair is like, or what his sweater is made out of. The trick is not to get too caught up in the minutiae so that the details become the point. When I started in animation I never expected something of the level that the computer can bring to animation.
Did you test the film as you were making it on children?
A lot of time when I had to work at the week and I would bring my seven year-old son, Jake. I would show him drawings or art work or pull up scenes from the computer to see his reaction. It is important with these movies to do that, to make sure you are being clear for kids. I’d ask if he thought it was funny, if the story was clear or if he liked a character. If he did not understand something then on Monday morning it was clear we would have to do some adjustments.