One look at Megamind and it isn’t hard to see the man in charge is a comic fan. Director Tom McGrath doesn’t deny it, either.
“Yeah,” the longtime DreamWorks veteran confesses in an exclusive phone interview. “When I was a kid I had a full range of comic books. I had Spider-Man, Hulk, a lot of Amazing Stories and Charlton Classics like The Invisible Man. I also had Archie, Mad Magazine, things like that. Then, in junior high, I started getting interested in comedy. That’s when Mad really became handy. At the same time I also started reading Starlog Magazine, Cinefantastique, Fangoria, those kinds of mags. That’s because I decided to become a filmmaker.”
McGrath certainly has earned his stripes as a filmmaker. He and longtime partner Eric Darnell made their mark as co-directors of the Madagascar movies. Megamind is McGrath’s first solo outing. Darnell is currently hard at work on Madagascar’s third outing.
“It all started with Alan Schoolcraft and Brett Simon had this idea that they kicked around,” he recalls. “They wondered what would happen to Lex Luthor if he didn’t have Superman. The Man of Steel was completely out of the picture. Lex and Lois Lane had to get along. They even have a relationship.
“It had been around for years. Then around 2003 they took it out of the notebook and made a script out of it. They developed the script and sent it out. That’s when Red Hour Films, Ben Stiller’s company, acquired it. What Ben really liked is it was about the supervillain. He loses his nemesis and because of this has a mid-life crisis. He becomes real self-aware. He’s a yin with no yang. He lost his reason for getting up in the morning.”
Even though there was the core of a good film, it needed some work.
“It was written as an R script,” McGrath adds. “Then the guys at Red Hour thought it would make a great animated film. So they brought it to DreamWorks. By the time it got this far, we were working on Madagascar 2, just wrapping it up. Well, I thought this was just too good to pass up. It felt like a right fit. In fact, it was during the Madagascar press junket when Jeffrey Katzenberg [DreamWorks’ head honcho] and Ben pitched me on Megamind.”
Actually this brings up an interesting point. With Stiller, who voiced Alex the Lion in Madagascar, so involved, why didn’t he take a lead role?
“He had his executive producer hat on,” explains McGrath. “He does do a cameo. He’s Bernard, the librarian. So he is in there. Still, when Brett and Al wrote the script, they had Will Ferrell in mind. Ben helped get him and that was a real treat.”
Actually, Megamind boasts an A-list of top bill comics. Besides Ferrell (Megamind himself), the cast includes Brad Pitt (superhero Metro Man), Tina Fey (Metro’s main squeeze, Roxie), David Cross (Megamind’s minion, Minion) and Jonah Hill (new villain Titan). All high powered improvisers, McGrath admits he had a field day with all of them.
“Tina is just so smart and sarcastic,” he acknowledges. “Along with Will, David Cross and Jonah Hill, I would love coming in every day to go to work. One thing I learned while doing Madagascar is if you get some great material you can open the door for improvisation. I’m carrying that on with Megamind.”
One person in particular who took off with the script, interestingly enough, was Pitt; a person not exactly known as an improviser. Then again, Pitt really got into playing an animated superhero.
“He was great!” McGrath admits. “He would come in every morning on his motorcycle, just like a real superhero. He loved the idea of playing Metro Man. After all, the concept of the hero and villain here is they really both had rock star status. Metro Man and Megamind are kind of like Elvis versus Alice Cooper. Brad really gravitated to his character being Elvis as much as he was Superman.
“You see, Brad is a great physical actor. He also can be very funny. During the recording, we had to give him a handheld mike. He got really physical with the mike, swooping all around the recording room and punching the air. It really helped the performance. The only thing we made sure about the microphone was to put a HUGE foam pad around it so it didn’t get damaged.”
One thing McGrath is particularly proud of is what went into animating these performances.
“This is more a cartoon than a superhero film,” he noted. “Still, anyone who sees it will benefit from the best that animation can bring and the story brings the best of what live action can bring. The two just happen to be artistically agreeable.
“Still, it’s hard, because when the actors were recording they were really performing in a vacuum. We would do things like have them run in place or literally fall down on the floor. We put them through all these endless tortures while we recorded.”
Yet incorporating DreamWorks’ own brand of 3-D technology had its benefits.
“We had a storyboard team,” McGrath explains. “I mean I did sketch out the basic script. Then I would hand it to the team to draw the entire movie. Then we would watch it just to see what we could leave alone and what needed fixing. We actually edited the film there before we started animating. We did all the major fixes before then. The rest we could fix with lesser editing. We actually use our layout artists like cinematographers. They would create virtual sets, which we would then scout like a real city. From there, we would actually sit down and decide if we wanted to use long lenses, close ups or zoom.”
With the virtual set completed, it was time to put it all together.
“Because the film was in 3-D, we could actually put the camera into the action and the characters” McGrath continued. “We also didn’t have to use green screen. Our animated characters could do their own stunts. They could perform inside that heavy action. What’s important is we could seamlessly integrate it all into the look of the film, unlike live action, where you are where aware of a CG influenced sequence.”
As for his personal future, McGrath is going to take his first vacation in over half-a-decade. He will do a little work on Madagascar 3, primarily because he’s the voice of Skipper, the leader of the Madagascar Penguins. Then again, one was left with the impression that most of that work is also done.
“Skipper is part of the deal. No doubt about that. It wouldn’t be quite the same without Skipper. Besides I get to bark orders, which is something I don’t get to do at home,” McGrath laughs, “and as a director I have to use a gentler touch. It’s been three movies straight. I’m going to treat my girlfriend like a queen because she’s been just so patient with me. We haven’t had any time to be with each other seven days a week at all. I’m just going to read and refill the gas tank.”
If advanced clips of Megamind has said anything, it’s Tom McGrath has earned that well deserved vacation.