In Illumination’s latest film, Sing, Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is holding a singing competition in his dying theater in a last ditch effort to scrounge up the money needed before the bank can repossess his beloved property. The optimistic koala settles on five contestants: a mouse (Seth MacFarlane), a timid elephant (Tori Kelly), a pig (Reese Witherspoon), a gorilla (Taron Egerton), and a punk-rock porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), in hopes that they can generate the funds necessary to keep the theater afloat but also bring back interest in genuine talent. Little does he know that the road to success isn’t easy, but with a little hard work and some faith, it can be done.
We had a phone interview with the film’s director Garth Jennings (A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Son of Rambow) to talk about what it was like to get clearance for the songs, working on his first animated film, his reaction to all the positive buzz, and much more. Check it out below.
Geeks Of Doom: If you could put yourself in the movie, what kind of animal would you be and what song would you sing during the “dreaded audition?”
Garth Jennings: I actually am in the movie. Yeah. As MS Karen Crawly. I did other background voices too. But if she did go up to audition, she would do something like “I Will Survive.” Something about living a long life.
Geeks of Doom: This is your first time directing an animated film, what was Chris Meledandri’s pitch to you that made you say “yes, I have to do this right now?”
Garth Jennings: It was simple as “could you find anything with animals in a singing competition?” And I was like “well, of course!” It was the loveliest launchpad for an idea. The thing we got out of that first meeting was, “how much fun it is to see characters, not just step up on that stage and perform for the first time to fulfill some kind of dream that they otherwise could not fulfill, but also what the effect it has on their lives, their families, and their relationship. That became the thing we were most interested in. It was very much like The Commitments, where the songs are an escape for the characters. They are a means for a way out or a way to connect with a part of themselves they’ve denied. That stuff was really like delightful. There are also these human stories, but as animals.
Geeks of Doom: I think that’s what made it relatable. It was that even though these are singing animals, they have very human characteristics.
Garth Jennings: That was the thing. We start with that. Start something that we can relate to, and build a visual character from what the personality is, rather than the other way around. We didn’t start with these animal traits, we went for the personality.
Geeks of Doom: So what did you learn about yourself during this whole process? I mean you went from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Son of Rambow, you must have learned something about yourself during directing not only a film but an animated one.
Garth Jennings: I came out quite stubborn. Not in an aggressive way so much, but I realize I also got a little bit crazy. Five years is a long time to spend doing anything. It’s a little bit crazy. I always believed in the film. I am some kind of fanatic. I haven’t let go of the thing I have been chasing. I really haven’t. I realize I haven’t done something like this in my life before, so I must be really stubborn and quite strange.
Geeks Of Doom: This isn’t meant to sound offensive, but a lot of recent animated films have addressed some serious complex themes, but Sing feels very simple and down to Earth. So my question is was it always like that or did it start out as one thing then evolve into what it is now?
Garth Jennings: It was always aiming to be a joyful experience, in the same way that the Rocky movie was going to end with a fight. There had to be killer performances. Though, the best performances are working on two levels. Not only are they showcasing their character’s talent and ability at their highest point, they are also kind of wrapping up their story in some way. So there is an emotional depth to it. We always knew that was always the kind of thing we wanted to feel at the end of the story. Everything about what perceived it was really to get to know those characters, being invested in their lives and their relationships and their conflict, so by the time they finally get to sing, you are finally rooting for them. That’s what was my general goal.
Geeks of Doom: You guys use a wide range of songs that spans many generations, almost every culture, and nearly all musical genres, can you talk about how important it was for you to do that and the songs you wished you could have used?
Garth Jennings: I have to tell you, that even though it may sound simplistic, I am more than happy with what’s in the film. This process of making an animated film started five years ago. The music team was probably working with us three years ago. Because the time it takes to clear the song, then re-record the song, it’s a huge amount of work involved in every one of those, and we’ve got over 80 songs. So you have to be very, very thorough, and positive, and committed with the decisions. You can’t just have the people re-record it with a 90-piece orchestra and go “you know what, I want to do something with Elvis Costello instead,” you can’t do that. You have to feel really good about your choices, which means you end up with something that is really something special in terms of what you wanted it to be. Now that is not to say that these are the only songs in the world we like, there are a gazillion songs that we love, but these are the ones that worked for our story.
Geeks of Doom: So are some of those songs that didn’t make the cut being saved for a possible sequel?
Gareth Jennings: No, I am definitely setting them up for the best playlist you’ve never heard, though. A lot of my friends are going to get a compilation CD of the songs that they didn’t put on the soundtrack.
Geeks of Doom: You get to work with such a wonderful cast who can not only act but apparently sing too. From what I’ve read Taron [Egerton] secretly loves to sing (I mean who doesn’t love to do that?), can you elaborate on working with this massive ensemble cast?
Garth Jennings: We always wanted our cast to sing their own parts. It would feel really great and authentic if you knew that it really was Reese singing, that really was Scarlett singing. We knew that Reese could sing, we saw her in Walk the Line, and the same goes for Seth MacFarlane, without a shadow of a doubt. But Taron, we’ve heard that he could sing and we knew loved his acting voice, but what he did was he auditioned for us, and he was amazing. He sang two song that were a cappella with no backing, one was a Marvin Gaye song, I can’t remember, but he was absolutely just spectacular, and instantly went “great, that is how it needs to feel for the audience when they first find Johnny singing in an alleyway.” Just that sweetness and tenderness coming from a large great big hairy animal just felt right. They’ve all done it. They’ve all risen to the challenges. The reason it works is because Harvey Mason Jr. would work every one of them up until that recording. They didn’t just come in and start singing. There were rehearsals and all kinds of voice training stuff for people if there was a high point to get to. It meant that when they came in they felt insightful and comfortable and confident.
Geeks Of Doom: So what has your reaction been to all the positive buzz so far?
Garth Jennings: It’s very moving. It really is for so many reasons. First of all, it is the amount of time and effort that was put into it, it is really amazing to finish. It’s like completing a very, very very long triple leg marathon. There is a great reward in that having crossed the finished line. There is nothing I would change, I just adore it. When audiences embrace it as so many audiences have, it is profound. It is something I cannot quite describe. You hope your film will connect with an audience, but so far it has connected in a way that people have taken these characters to heart, and that is the most you can hope for.
Geeks of Doom: Yeah, it couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time with the holiday season coming up. it feels joyous even though it really isn’t a holiday movie.
Garth Jennings: There’s not a single snowflake in this movie nor is there a Christmas song, but it still feels Christmasy. I think there is a nice thing about characters coming together, and those friendships being forged during a difficult time feels Christmasy. I think it is in the personality of the film that makes it work this time of year.
We’d like to thank Universal and Garth Jennings for giving us the opportunity for this interview.
Sing opens in theaters on December 21, 2016.