WRECK-IT RALPH Press Day With Clark Spencer (Producer) and Phil Johnston (Co-Writer)
With WRECK-IT RALPH about to smash into theaters (November 2nd), I got to sit down with Producer Clark Spencer and Co-Writer Phil Johnston in a round table at the Beverly Hilton Hotel (Beverly Hills, CA).
From Walt Disney Animation Studios and Emmy®-winning director Rich Moore comes “Wreck-It Ralph,” a hilarious, arcade-game-hopping adventure. For decades, Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) has been overshadowed by Fix-It Felix, Jr. (voice of Jack McBrayer), the good-guy star of their game who always gets to save the day. Tired of playing the role of a bad guy, Ralph takes matters into his own massive hands and sets off on a journey across the arcade through multiple generations of video games to prove he’s got what it takes to be a hero.
On his quest, Ralph meets tough-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun (voice of Jane Lynch) from the first-person action game Hero’s Duty, and feisty misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (voice of Sarah Silverman) from the candy-coated cart racing game, Sugar Rush, who may just be his first real friend. But everything changes when a deadly enemy is unleashed, threatening the entire arcade and Vanellope herself. Ralph finally gets his chance to save the day—but can he do it in time? “Wreck-It Ralph” crashes onto the big screen on November 2, 2012, in Disney Digital 3D™ in select theaters.
Phil, this seems like such a great idea. How did you become the lucky one to chart it?
Phil Johnston: Well, it wasn’t my idea. Yes, I had the exact same thought. The idea existed at Disney before I got there three-and-a-half years ago. I think there were a couple attempts to do a movie where a character left his game and traveled to other games. So I came in – it was Rich Moore and myself for awhile – just the two of us, many months, trying to crack the story and figure out what the most interesting version was going to be. Looking back now, looking at the finished movie, looking at how seamless and simple it all feels, it’s like our brains nearly exploded numerous times. Just trying to figure out how they traveled from game to game – for instance. While it is this great idea, actually executing it was kinda complicated.
Was this a licensing nightmare trying to get all of the different characters from all of the different games?
Clark Spencer: Interestingly not as much a nightmare as you might expect. The way we did it was in the beginning, Phil and Rich were writing the story and the story team came on. We said, “let’s not limit ourselves because it will take us awhile to know whether to keep the characters or not keep the characters in the film. So instead of going out and getting the characters, and then not keep them in the movie, we’ll wait a bit.” That’s a risky strategy because we got ourselves into a story that had characters as part of it. But I think because it’s really a story about Ralph and Vanellope and the characters we’ve created, we always knew we could figure out some way around it. In the Spring of 2010, we went to E3, the gaming convention here, and met with the companies. That was the first moment we’d be able to understand if this was going to work or not. One of the first companies we met with was Namco. When we had that meeting, you could see a light bulb go off on their heads too, to say this was in the vein of [WHO FRAMED] ROGER RABBIT and TOY STORY. There’s something here that could be fun about seeing other game characters in the same universe. We always said, “we will be true to your character. We will give you the script pages. We’ll show you the models. We will let you see the test animation. And we will let you approve the finished animation.” As a result, I think that gave them a lot of confidence that they would be on the journey with us and that we wouldn’t do anything that would be inappropriate to the characters. As a result, it kind of lined up pretty quickly. There was a lot of paperwork that had to get done, but as in terms of the companies saying they were interested, that happened way more quickly than I would imagine.
In the way that Mr. Potato Head became a big deal after TOY STORY, is someone planning a big “Q*bert” comeback?
PJ: They should be. He’s a great guy.
Did the type of game Fix It Felix, Jr. had to be preclude having Donkey Kong in the movie.
PJ: We knew very early on that having Fix It Felix, Jr. was going to be this type of game specifically that Ralph was going to be this guy who wrecked everything he touched. From a character standpoint, we wanted a bull in a china shop. A guy that’s a wrecker. It was always going to be in the vein of Donkey Kong and that era- 1982. But it’s not like we were looking to put Donkey Kong in the movie.
Did you ever reach out to Nintendo and have a scene where they’re rivals since they are the same type of game?
CS: We didn’t in terms of Donkey Kong himself but we obviously went to them for Bowser which felt very organic to the story. We sort of said to ourselves, “We only want to do it if it felt right to the story and not have it just be a quick little thing.” To your point, since it is a similar type game, we kind of knew from the beginning we’d stay away from that.
On the other side of it, were there any game companies that came to you when they heard this was in production? Anyone courting you after you had gotten what you wanted?
CS: It was a little less that and more that once we approached a company they would say, “Have you also thought about these other characters we have as part of our own library.” Frogger is an example of that. We went to Atari because we wanted Pong in the film and they said, “Well what about putting Frogger in the film?” And we did. It wasn’t that we wouldn’t have not done that, it was just usually we’d approach with one request to see if the company was interested instead of us saying, “We want five characters,” and making them feel overwhelming. The companies who approved that wanted to play a lot would suggest other characters. The same thing on the Street Fighter side. We knew that Zangief from the beginning we wanted. We said, “well what about M. Bison being in that same scene there with the Bad-anon?”
Were there any characters that got away either because of creative reasons or companies not feeling it was right for them?
CS: It was a little less that the companies didn’t fell it was right and more legal rights, to be honest with you. There’s a lot of companies that sold themselves over time during the last thirty years that they sold off rights in different ways. So they might own the right to the character in the arcade game, but not in the mobile game or not to a movie or whatever it was. When we started to feel those types of things, we felt it might be a legal nightmare to get approval and clearance, so we would then steer away from that side. Create some other idea for the film.
Was there anyone you thought it would be great to have? For example, we didn’t see Mario.
CS: Nintendo, they said from the beginning, they were excited about the film and we knew Bowser would be in the bad-anon scene. They completely understood and said he’s perfect, he’s a bad guy, he should be a part of this group. With Mario, they said, “Well come to us with the Mario idea and then if we can figure out the right thing, then we’ll be interested. But if it’s not the right thing, Mario is a very big and important character. We don’t just want to have a walk on. It needs to be something that feels integrated into the story itself.” In this version of the film, we could never really find the right moment to include Mario in the right way other than sort of a passing by thing. We did go to them to get clearance to say, when Felix says, “I be that’s Mario fashionably late per the norm,” when that was actually Ralph, that was us going and saying, “We’ll use that way as opposed to putting him onto the screen.”
The idea of “going Turbo,” the first person who says it is Bison. Is that a double reference to Street Fighter’s Turbo also?
PJ: No. It’s inadvertent but it’s referring to the game Turbo Time. It was become this thing – this cautionary tale. That’s the intent.
Is this envisioned as a franchise in any way? Are there more ideas lining up if this hits the way you hope it will?
CS: Whenever we make a movie, we hope that the world would embrace it and there’d be a potential for some extension. Working for the Walt Disney Company, that’s part of what we try to do in animation. But you don’t know until the movie comes out, so at this point we don’t tend to talk about or think about what the next extension would be. I, and I think Phil will agree, believe that because of this world of video games there’s so much to be potentially explored, should these characters hit in the right way, definitely something could be found. We haven’t built ourselves into a corner where there’s no place to go. You have this incredible universe that you can then throw these characters into and see the story you can do. So there’s that as a natural thing. The company never says to us, “You must think of a huge universe that’s going to have multiple potential sequels before you start.” They say, “Great idea. If it’s a great movie, we’re excited about that. If that leads to franchise, that’s icing on the cake.”
PJ: I did like sixty drafts and threw them away a lot of stuff so….
WRECK-IT AGAIN RALPH
PJ: WRECK-IT AGAIN, RALPH. There you go.
You’ve achieved such a wonderful blend of 8-bit old school game play for adults to look back on and also the new school games for the kids. How did you go about selecting the worlds of Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush to be your primary locations?
PJ: To me the biggest thing in every really every decision that gets made is, you take your main character – when we settled as Ralph as the guy – how can we put this guy in the worst possible place imaginable. So you’ve got this big, boorish lout of a guy picked on most of the time, certainly wouldn’t like children, let’s put him with children in the most sickeningly sweet game imaginable. That’s gonna be funny. Similarly, in Hero’s Duty, a guy who’s self-awareness is not that high, sort of feels a little entitled thinking this is gonna be easy, so let’s put him in the most violent, hellish game imaginable and see what happens. So pretty much everything, including most of the jokes – if not all of the jokes in the movie – were trying to come out of character as opposed to dumping one-liners here and there. That’s how almost all of the decisions were made in terms of the worlds – where they go and who they run into.
Would any worlds that didn’t make it – say role player games – be on outtakes on the DVD or something like that?
PJ: We created this one game called, “Extreme Easy Livin’ 2,” which was this lawless. Yeah, because there was “Easy Livin’ “ then “Extreme Easy Livin’ ” then “Extreme Easy Livin’ 2: Even More Extreme And Even More Easy”. Lot of ellipses in this game. And that one was so crazy. It was sort of “Grand Theft Auto” meets “The Sims”. They were blowing up Buick Skylarks all over the place – that was one of the big things that we laughed at for some reason. This morally ambiguous world where Ralph ended up. Lot of hot- tubbing as a completive sport. It was really funny and we really loved it but it didn’t feel authentic to an arcade. It was more a game you’d play on your computer or online or something. And it was making the movie four hours long so we took that world out entirely. But, yeah. I would love “Extreme Easy Livin’ 2″ to show up somewhere.
Did you feel any pressure to keep the violence to a minimum because this is a Disney film?
CS: From the beginning, we knew their shooting was going to be towards cy-bugs – something that was created as opposed to something that was living. As you look at that scene, we made a choice early on to have it be musically driven. We brought in Skrillex to really write the soundtrack for that. If you listen to it carefully, even though it may feel like a very loud…lot of shooting going on, it’s mostly music that’s happening. We thought that’d be another way to temper how much shooting it happening. It’s a very quick moment in the film. It needs to feel like a real game. We knew if we were going down this path we couldn’t make it so soft that it doesn’t feel like a first person shooter game, but we were always definitely trying to balance that. We know that we are appealing to all ages, but at the end of the day we also want families to come with kids and feel good about it.
PJ: We also, from that game, the villain in that game – the bugs – become the stakes of the movie. If a bug gets out, it’s a super virus thing. It could infect the whole arcade and so in that way, it was going to be this more robotic creature that wasn’t going to bleed, ooze guts and gore. That was never going to be a part of it.
Was there a voice performance that helped inspire leaning into what the actor was doing when you were developing bits and pieces of the script?
PJ: We’ve been collaborating with all of the voice talent – the four main ones – from the first table read which was almost three years ago. Or was three years ago….
CS: …which is unheard of normally, by the way. To the credit of Rich and Phil, they knew this is who they wanted to cast to be, they knew who they wanted to write for.
PJ: And so really John was the most, they are all super collaborative, but John really dug his fingernails into this character and really lived it. Added so much input, not just in terms of what he would say or how he would say it, but the story himself. He added a lot of good story ideas. A lot of really good jokes. Even Felix speaking Q*bert-eese, that was John’s idea. He said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Felix could speak that language.” It’s very much a democracy in animation. He was secretary of awesome in the democracy of this movie. A really great collaborator.
Is one of your hopes that this movie can bring arcades back?
PJ: That’d be great. Sure.
CS: I don’t know that it will bring arcades back but I wonder if it won’t make people more aware. There are still arcades around there’s Dave and Busters. Not like the old days. You see a lot of the old games going to mobile. Kids are discovering these old games. There’s something really addictive about these super simple games that tell the story of what the character is doing makes no sense whatsoever, but you just have fun playing it. Q*bert doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s a fun game to play. I think there could be some form of that coming back.
PJ: You realize a lot of those games were not too far removed from the sixties as to who was creating them.
It is a great moment in the movie when you see Q*bert out there begging for change because he got unplugged. There are so many games that you could have used. What was it about Q*bert that stood out to you that this was the character that was going to make everyone sad for him?
PJ: His dangly nose there and the way he talks. He’s so cute. Once we settled on – I don’t even know that we had the rights – the idea of Felix going [imitates Q*bert] and Jack McBrayer being able to speak Q*bert-eese was so funny. He’s just a funny character. We had – it’s no longer in there – but we had Q*bert in Tapper drinking root beer. There were a lot of bits that were how were you going to get the most out of everyone recognizing it and it’s just funny to see him. Q*bert and Tapper is funny.
CS: The short artist who did that scene, where Ralph gives him the cherry, she’s a huge Q*bert fan. So she drew Q*bert in there plus a lot of other characters. At a certain point we said, “We’re not going to track all of these games that had been unplugged. We’re going to track one.” To Phil’s point, we were really loving how Q*bert was fitting into the film and it made sense to make him become that character we’d track for a bit through the rest of the movie and then come back to at the very end.
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