The first Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs proved that even a cinematic cynic can be pleasantly surprised. With fairly simple animation and a premise that looked like kiddie pandering, it looked like a definite miss…and then turned out to be a surprisingly witty and smart film for all ages in the best way, thanks to the wacky comedic sensibilities of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and the canny casting of the likes of Bill Hader, Anna Faris and Mr. T.
Lord and Miller were too busy with 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie to return for the sequel, but animators Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn – both of whom worked on the first film – stepped up for the sequel, a riff on Jurassic Park featuring “foodimals” in place of dinosaurs. Earlier this week, they and lead actors Hader, Faris and Benjamimn Bratt gave us a sneak peek at what they’ve been working on.
The second film picks up approximately 60 seconds after the last film ended – albeit after a strawberry riding on a banana has knocked over the torch lady in the Columbia logo, and hapless inventor Flint (Hader) has given us some new backstory about his childhood idol Chester V (Will Forte), host of The Scientifically Wonderful World of Science alongside an orangutan named Barb (Kristen Schaal), who boasts a human brain inside of an ape brain “like a turducken.” Anyway, from there we’re right back to the moments following the final kiss, as Swallow Falls is saved and Flint and Sam finally bond.
Hader: “It’s kind of the Karate Kid/Karate Kid 2 thing, where Karate Kid 2 picks up immediately after the first one. and when I was a kid and I saw that I was like ‘OHHHH, OHH, there was a fight in the parking lot after the fight at the end of the movie? OHHHH, this is great!’ That’s kinda what this is like.”
Into the mix comes the Steve Jobs-like Chester V, whose Live Corp swoops in to quarantine the island, even as he offers Flint a job at his state-of-the-art facility in the city of San Fran Jose, where a giant lightbulb-shaped corporate HQ (The idea is always on”) stands tall in the middle of the bay. On Flint’s first day at work, a non-stop array of lattes and geek-speak await, along with several tweaks at Google and Apple, with the best of the best being dubbed “Thinquanauts.”
Flint finds a way to screw up his job, but when called into the secret virtual log cabin of Chester V – populated entirely by holograms of Chester in multiple roles, a la the inside of John Malkovich’s head – he is given a chance at redemption: go back to Swallow Falls and find the food-making machine that’s still there somewhere, as well as the endangered Live Corp scientists stranded there by mysterious monsters. As it will turn out, the sentient Gummi Bears and chickens at the end of the last movie were only the beginning – many new and terribly punny foodimals now roam, including the cheespider, the tacodile, the watermelephant and mosquitoast.
For the cast, getting back into character was not as easy as they expected. For Faris, “They told me that my first session was unusable, because apparently I wasn’t back in character…There were a couple of times when i was told that that does not sound like Sam Sparks, which is kind of interesting…I think if I get in too much of like a gravelly, mellow voice, Sam is higher. Mostly I have to raise my eyebrows and act really concerned.”
Hader, who describes himself as ” a very low-energy person,” describes “four-hour, five-hour sessions, screaming, and I was doing SNL at the time, so i would have to go in and my voice would be all shot, and everyone would go, ‘What’s wrong with your voice?’
‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.’
‘Didn’t you already do that?’
‘No, we’re doing a second one.'”
Not that the first one wasn’t its own challenge. “On the very first Cloudy, I tried to do it in a different way, I tried to make it more charactery, and they were constantly unhappy with what i was doing. Then in between takes, I’d go ‘Is that what you guys want?’ Andd they’re like ‘THAT, that right there!’ I was like, ‘so, just my voice?’ and they were like ‘Yeeeahhh!'”
Asked if they ever suggested foodimals of their own, Faris expressed disappointment that her “cornicorn” suggestion wasn’t used (dare we suggest a sea urchin sushi hybrid for an uni-corn?), adding “Maybe they don’t like unicorns.”
Hader: “Maybe they’re not a girl. Maybe they like reality.” His own suggestion was “dog, because that’s an animal and it could be a food. Like a hot dog, or it could be like in some cultures where they eat dogs. Just dog. They were like, fuck you.”
As for those of us in attendance, we got a hands-on session in playing with our food, courtesy of producer Kirk Bodyfelt:
Next: the directors speak
The following is an abridged transcription of the group interview with directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, in which I participated (the Mr. T question was mine).
Q: Do you guys have a particular favorite foodimal?
KP: I like the tacodile; he’s fun.
CC: Yeah. The cheespider is really neat.
KP: The leek in the boat, actually – I’ve got a lot of affection for that one. He shows up a lot.
Q: We heard that the cornicorn was shot down; a little too far-fetched?
CC: Might have been. I think that Anna came up with the Guacaganoush. We were like, “Where’s the animal?” (laughs)
KP: We had about 200 foodimals. We weren’t even calling them foodimals at that time; we were just calling them “food creatures.” So we had a whole pile to kind of sift through. Basically came at it from a couple of different angles. What kind of scene is it? We didn’t want to have the same size, the same volume of food creature in every scene, so sometimes the creatures are small, sometimes they’re large. In trying to find that variety, we wanted the food to be iconic. We had a rule in the first film, that no matter what the food was lying on, like it could be on the ground on dog poo, you’d still buy that someone would pick up that food and eat it, because it looked delicious. I’m exaggerating – we didn’t put any on poo!
CC: Look at food photography. All fast food restaurants…
KP: It looks so tasty!
CC:…they photograph food so it looks perfect.
KP: Even in our leftover, when we had that big foodalanche, all the food was photo perfect, so we’re trying to make sure that our food in this movie had the same sort of quality. Some foods don’t lend themselves to CG. We had a broccolion, but we couldn’t get broccoli to look good in the first film, because of all the texture.
CC: It went away.
KP: Yeah, it went away. It was sort of a natural evolution.
Q: Did you have a list of which food would be a “good” food and which would be a “bad” or “evil” food?
KP: Good question!
CC: No, we had food, almost like food tribesmen, like pickles and strawberries that weren’t really a combination, they were just little walking, talking…
KP: Civilized people.
CC: Yeah. And then Foodimal combinations that were more like normal animals, like the bananostriches or the watermelophant. And then we had kind of the monster food animals, which were the cheespider, the tacodile, so I don’t know if there was really, “We need to make one bad or one good.” We just kind of fit whatever scene we needed. And really early on we did have a scene where the cheespider was attacking its own condiments – it was going after its condiments. We kind of went away from the whole idea that fast food was bad. We moved away from that.
KP: We wanted room for our characters to have their story, so we simplified and kept unpacking the food, and trying to make it as simple as possible so the food, the arc of the food, is a really simple sort of through-line. It’s like “food is people too.”
CC: Yeah, yeah. With the incorrect English.
KP: With the incorrect English.
Q: Why didn’t Mr. T come back?
KP & CC (in unison): We don’t know!
KP: It was one of those things where, I guess, the timing and stuff. We asked him four times, and he was very polite about it. When Terry Crews came on board, Mr. T called him…
CC: Passed the torch.
KP: …he said, “Do a great job!” There was a little ceremony – it was all really friendly and kind of awesome. The great thing about it was Terry was a fan of the first film. He actually came to the premiere, brought his family. So in the situation which was kind of scary for us – to not have Mr. T back – when Terry said yes, it was like “This is awesome!”
CC: We didn’t ask him to do an impersonation. We said, “You know, do Earl, try to ‘be’ Earl.” To me, it starts to sound like the same character. It really is the same character. So, yeah – I think we got lucky.
KP: His energy is fantastic in this. He brings a lot to the table!
CC: He’s really funny.
KP: He brought his whole family in here, and his – he’s an artist, so he was really curious about the process, so we just, we became really good friends. We enjoyed working with him. It was good.
Q: In terms of animation, what part of the movie are you proudest of, or do you think really pushes the industry?
KP: We’re still not done yet! (laughter) I was really proud of the first film, the fact that it was a Muppet movie. It was a really Muppety movie – there was physicality to the characters. Every now and then you see them, they do things, like there’s somebody pulling on their wrist, you know what I mean? It’s not even squash and stretchy; it’s a completely different look for an animated film.
CC: And while our rendering and our texture can make things look very real, we’re still a cartoon, and we still have very cartoony things in it. We’re not trying to make a live action film – it still is a piece of animation.
KP: One of the nerdy things that we geek out on, that we loved in our movies – we asked Imageworks, the digital gearheads over there to help us make it look like a painting, because we were going with an organic world, the Sasek style that we used in the first film to make a really simple graphic world wasn’t going to necessarily completely translate over.
So we were looking at a lot of Mary Blair, wanting to sort of feel like Flint’s creativity has spilled out, so all of those Tron lines, and the affectations that he had in his lab, they kind of permeate throughout the design language of the world. And so much like Flint’s lab is very flat – when you look at the box tech that he has in his lab, it’s very flat, but it’s perceived as 3D depth, so when the black light’s on it looks like it’s very dynamic and lit, but it’s just, like, painted on a wall. So we wanted the background in the jungle to kind of have that feeling, so we asked them to give us the technology so when a leaf is close to camera, it looks real, but in camera, as it starts to move away, it looks like a painting, and it goes into shape.
CC: Yeah, and through their depth styling, it does flatten out, so the point at which you would use a matte painting, our 3D imagery actually flattens out into a matte painting, and so it doesn’t have to take as long to render, it’s actually, it speeds up the process a little bit.
KP: And creatively, we like it. Anybody can do “real” – we’re trying to make a world that feels contained and feels like, we want it to feel like art. And I feel like our team was able to get us that in this film, and it was real exciting to watch the evolution of what was there in the first film, to see how it builds.
Q: In terms of deciding how the characters are going to move, I noticed that, in the footage, Chester V has a very serpentine sort of movement – it flows. How did you decide for him, specifically?
KP: Working with our animation lead, Pete Nash, the idea was that Chester was going to be – much like all of our characters have a style, like Brett, when he walks, he’s very kind…
KP: …and Earl, we do a thing where with Earl, we kind of take in-betweens of him, like [sound effect]whoosh/whoosh, instead of pose to pose. So we wanted Chester to be kind of like a higher evolution of human. He’s slick, he can move in a very fluid way.
CC: Yeah, even though he’s older, he’s probably really physically fit and nimble.
KP: That was funny to us. Old people doing exercise makes us laugh, so the idea that Chester is this 50 year old guy that’s really kinetic, jumping out of planes…it’s kind of like President Putin, that kind of stuff!
KP: “You’re old! Just stop.” So that became a really fun contrast for Flint. And Flint, as a character – he has all of that very fluid, kinetic energy – it’s just that he uses it differently. He doesn’t know how to stop his hands; when he’s typing, he’s all floppy, whereas Chester will do that, but then he’ll come out of it. So in terms of the technical approach to it, it’s part of the rhythm of our movie, but we found a different way to apply it, in terms of how he moves.
Q: Did you figure that out as you’re recording with the actors?
KP: You know, it’s an evolution.
CC: We started some of the animation tests even before Will was cast, so it was a concept for the character, and then we started doing animation tests, and then the voice – once Will was hired, then they start working with voice cues, and start to work out maybe what his expressions could be.
KP: It even goes all the way back to when we started designing the character, which we were pulling cues from, like you said in the other room, Richard Attenborough, with his white goatee, like from Jurassic Park. We also wanted to have a bit of Steve Jobs. We also wanted his logo, his Live Corp logo, to be part of his shape language, sort of permeating through there.
CC: It’s got the lightbulb…
KP: So as our character designer, Craig Kellman, was designing the characters, right away you start to see the silhouettes and the shapes open up, and you start to get a sense of how this guy might move. Very quickly we would build a model and get it in to animation to play with it. That sort of pushes and pulls against the voice.
KP: It’s a real kind of Polaroid process! (laughs)
Q: Can you talk about the newer actors coming in – Terry Crews, Will Forte, Neil Patrick Harris as a monkey…
KP: He was there in the first movie!
Next: Name talent, improv and giant buttholes.
Q: Sure, but the bigger point being in a role where you don’t really – it’s not Neil talking – he’s making these strange noises. I was in a conversation with people this weekend, if The Little Mermaid were made today, Jodi Benson wouldn’t have been able to be the voice, because there is such a focus on getting that “name” talent.
Q: How much does that factor into what you guys are doing?
CC: We go for comedians first. We go for people who are going to be funny. With the original cast, we inherited those cast members, obviously, from the first film, but with going for Chester and Barb, we wanted to start with comedians, people who are funny. And also, we have a huge amount of SNL characters, people from Saturday Night Live, but Kristen was on Flight of the Conchords, so she did half-hour TV stuff, that kind of quirky…
KP: …that kind of…
CC: …almost improv kind of comedy. So maybe if something isn’t great on our page, we have an actor or a comedian who can bring something more to the character than maybe what’s written.
KP: We love how they riff and how they sometimes find those happy accidents, because animation is such a glacial process. Everything is so thought out, that it’s kind of nice to get those quick moments of brilliance, and when we work with comedians, we find that. Actually, Will was Joe Towne in our first movie, and we wanted to bring him back. Anybody who’s ever worked with Will Forte will tell you, he’s the nicest human being on the planet, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, so giving him a bigger role was such a fun opportunity for us.
CC: And both of them, you know, when you’re doing sides, maybe you do a run-through of the scene, but then you’re going line-by-line, and both of them would take one line and try it so many different ways and give you all of this great material, even from just one sentence, and all of this variation – it was just really, really cool.
KP: I think as far as Terry goes, it was almost a no-brainer. His energy – you watch those Old Spice ads, you had me at ‘ARGH!’ (laughter) You had me with the pecs going.
CC: He did that at Comic Con, didn’t he?
KP: Yeah, he had them going. It’s pretty amazing.
Q: About the foodimals, was it something you thought of for the first movie and you decided to use it after?
CC: Yeah, we had the pizza slices, the Gummi Bears, and the roasted chickens in the first film.
KP: Long story short, we had an old version of the ending where there was a giant food volcano outside of the island that turned into a huge Kraken-like food monster…
CC: Walking through the ocean…
KP: …and the volcano opening was actually its butthole, and it kind of lifts up out of the water, and it starts spitting all of these food animals onto the island, and the townsfolk were fighting back, using forks and knives and Saran wrap, and the movie was 2 ? hours long. We loved it! The people making the movie had a really fun time with it, but it was not that story. So we realized very quickly we don’t have time for that, so that all kind of went by the wayside. So when we came back, we had some idea of switching the genre. We had some ideas that we were itchy to tell. Some stuff that cinematically we had built in our heads that we didn’t get a chance to realize.
CC: We spent a LOT of time boarding some of those scenes!
KP: Yeah. The one thing that is new, though, very naturally our food started to evolve to not just be mindless. We knew we needed a story with the food, so as we started to develop the through-line of this movie…
CC: The food evolved.
KP: …Flint needed to learn how the food relates to his story. That forced us into some choices, and allowed our characters to become more personable as we went through the journey of our story process.
Q: Cory, what was your experience with the actors? I heard that you got to read with them and would help them out a little in the booth. I heard that you ended up laughing.
CC: Both Kris and I are in the booth with the actor, and actually we took turns sometimes reading with the actors.
KP: Cody has a cackle that is very recognizable!
CC: Yeah, I’ve ruined a few takes with my laughing, but both of us being story artists, and pitching, some of the voice stuff comes fairly naturally and easy. We both have voices that we do in the film, and it’s fun just playing with the actors.
KP: I think there’s a line you cross when you’re 14. Are you pretty enough to be an actor? No? Then why don’t you try drawing for a living! I think we have that frustrated actor sort of sensibility.
CC: You know, I can be the fat Bruce Willis, so I’m going for it! (laughter)
Q: When you guys were hand-picked by the previous directors, what sort of similarities and differences did you bring to the directing process?
KP: You know, Chris and Phil, for the 4 ? years we worked with them, they came into the writer’s room mentality, because they had worked in TV, so they were really collaborative. And so when we were starting this process, it was very much like what we used to do on the first film, which was four guys, sitting in a room, telling jokes, trying to come up with – four guys and a gal on this one too – so that collaboration was something that they were really specific about. They had rules; the room was a “yes, and” room, you know what I mean?
CC: Like improv: You never say “No,” you say, “Yes, AND….”
KP: So we took that style into this film, and because all of our team was on that first film, there was a real natural cadence that came out of familiarity. We’d go into every one of our departments with that attitude. So with our VizDev team, it would be, “Yes, AND…” everybody can comment, so long as you’re being respectful and helping the movie get funnier, and so when you offer 300 people the opportunity to give you a joke, you get a lot of jokes, you get a lot of ideas. So that became very natural for us.
CC: And with the actors, we never got to watch Chris and Phil work with the actors, so I don’t know how different we are with the actors.
KP: You’ll have to ask them! (laughter)
Q: Which animated films or TV shows were you both inspired by when you were growing up?
KP: Oh! Certainly Looney Tunes was huge when I was a kid.
CC: A lot of Disney stuff; early Disney stuff. My grandfather was an animator at Disney, so I grew up watching him draw Mickey Mouse and Goofy. I also watched Warner Brothers, a lot of Hanna Barbera on TV.
KP: I grew up on a farm in southern Ontario, so before the age of satellite dishes, we got like four stations, and Global would always have Looney Tunes on every Saturday afternoon. That would be TV for me and my two brothers.
CC: Secret of Nimh was a big one.
KP: Oh, Secret of Nimh! I just went, “Kapow! Look at those hands!” (laughs) I’ve always been into art, too, so being able to perform and tell a story using moving images was always something that was fascinating.
Q: What part of making this film was most challenging?
KP: The story. Always the story.
KP: The first movie, we were on story for 4 ? years, trying to find the best story to try to drive your characters through, so I think that’s always the challenge, because you have to be willing to change, but you also have to hang onto stuff for 3 years. So something that you’re not laughing at anymore because you’ve seen it a thousand times you have to trust that it was funny.
CC: You have to remember that it was funny way back when.
KP: Right. Because we’re always gravitating towards the new as well, so we’re always trying to beat the last joke. Sometimes you can make it worse; sometimes you can make it better. But it’s going through that process of the “what if,” and trying to find the cleanest way to tell your story – that’s the hardest part. At the same time, you have a deadline, and you’ve got to be making the movie as your putting the tracks down – it’s like that Wallace and Gromit thing with the train.
CC: And finding the time to sleep.
KP: As they say, don’t paint yourself in the corner. You always paint back towards the door so you can get out!
Q: In the history of animation, do you find any other example food animals, of something that was done before and why you couldn’t show it?
KP: The only thing that we couldn’t get the name to clear for, there was a Disney website that had a peanut butter-and-jellyfish, so we couldn’t use the name peanut butter-and-jellyfish. And their design is different than ours.
CC: Different eyes and mouth and everything.
KP: Yeah. But no, not really; I think certainly we’re cueing off of monster movies, like Jurassic Park and Aliens and Jaws and all that kind of stuff. So it was more that kind of inspiration.
CC: I’m trying to think of any other “live food” – maybe the “Let’s go to the lobby.”
KP: Yeah! That shows up in the movie.
Q: There’s a Greek movie – The Giant Moussaka Attack. [Attack of the Giant Moussaka.]
KP: The Giant Moussaka Attack? I’ll have to look it up! Where is it from?
KP: Oh, a Greek movie. I’ll have to look it up. Any similarities or coincidences? We’ll have to look it up.
CC: Maybe we should wait until after the film is done! (laughter) “We never saw it!”
KP: What is moussaka? Is it a pastry?
Q: It’s a Greek dish with potatoes and eggplant and b?chamel, and it’s huge.
KP: I think there was an animated short where World War II was told through food. Remember that one?
KP: It was like hamburgers were invading France and all that stuff. It was a short. Obviously I’m remembering stuff I’ve seen at film festivals.
Q: In the first movie we have all of these characters that people were attached too, like Earl and Steve. What will we see about their stories expanding in this one?
KP: Well, certainly the idea in the first one was that they were archetype characters; small-town representation. So what we’ve done to the characters is we’ve taken them out of the small town. So the little sequence that we’ve shown you today, all of our characters become fish out of water in a bigger world, so their journey is really a journey of what is home? They come back to this island thinking that they have to defeat this island, and really what happens is they begin accepting the island. Their change is, what is home, and how do you be yourself within a new home?
CC: What does friendship mean, and having friends and family?
KP: Yeah, so that’s sort of the big log line. All of the characters have little moments where they have to go through, and certainly for Earl it’s his relationship to his son, he wants to get his home back, and then he starts to gain empathy for the food because of Cow, so there is certainly that kind of stuff that we filter through, and the relationship that Tim has with the pickles is sort of his story of trying to figure out where he fits into his son’s life.
Best swag ever – an actual watermelon.