MoviesOnline sat down with Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Common and director George Miller at a press conference to talk about the entertaining sequel that’s not only visually dazzling but features a heartfelt storyline, catchy musical numbers and some of the best dancing you’ll see on screen. They told us about the challenges of choreographing a musical tour de force of animated wildlife, how making this compared to their work on other animated films, and why it was a great experience working together in the same room to bring their characters to life. They also discussed the film’s timely message about the impact of global warming on the environment and the importance of coming together despite our differences to solve problems.
Q: George, can you talk about your collaboration with Savion Glover and the challenges of choreographing so many different sizes and shapes of animated wildlife?
GM: The first thing to know is that I can’t sing and I can’t dance so, in a way, I had no right to be there, but we had very, very good choreographers and people who really understand music – everyone from the composer, John Powell, to the three choreographers in this case: Wade Robson who did the earlier material; Dein Perry, you might know him from Tap Dogs, he did all the tapping later on; and Kate Wormald, who’s also one of the motion capture performers, who played Gloria and Erik and several others. In the center of that was Savion who came down for a week. Basically, with Savion, the first thing I had to understand about him is that he’s a percussionist. He’s a classic hoofer as the tradition has it. He’s a brilliant percussionist who uses his body for percussion. For me, I look at it and get dazzled, but I’m told by the musicians and so on that he’s working with such complex rhythms. It’s almost mind boggling. We did a lot of material. With a movie like this, you get a lot of wonderful material that you end up not able to use because you’ve got 90 minutes essentially to tell a story. We would watch him dance for hours. He’s one of those people who I can tell you right now, if he’s awake, whatever he’s doing, his feet are tapping. He’s someone who’s just happy right now. To watch that sort of virtuosity was fantastic. It’s a great privilege for me to collaborate with people like this who, whatever the way that the universe conspired to make them, have unique abilities that let them shine out. To see that and to sit and have a say in what they would contribute is just very exciting to me and makes me feel a sense of wonder about being a human being, and Savion is the dance equivalent of that.
Q: For the actors on the panel, how would you compare this experience to your other experiences doing animated films?
HA: This was the most soulful animation experience I ever had. We all recorded together. We all went to Australia to record together. Not only did that free us up to improvise and bounce off each other a lot, but it became a very, rather intense character exploration. It was one of the most gratifying creative experiences I’ve ever had in any medium. I really, really enjoyed it.
RW: I’d say the same thing as Hank says. We get to work together in the same room, and I forgot that when I did other animations, I was alone most of the time, and in “Aladdin,” it didn’t matter because I was creating 40 different voices. But with this, it’s so great to have everybody in the room together and you build, like you said, a rhythm. And the wonderful thing about all of it is George is watching over it. I would see him in the booth and he’d be like this and someone would say “Is he okay?” and I’d say “He’s listening.” And then, if all of a sudden his eyes opened up, I went “Edward?” So you give your best because he kind of lets you riff and you trust that he’ll pick the best stuff which he does. That’s why coming back to do it again wasn’t like “Oh, should we?” No, it’s him. It’s all of us and Hank being in this which is great and now you have Krill which is even better. That, for me, made it a worthwhile experience. A wonderful experience really.
EW: I don’t really have anything to add. I completely agree. I think also going to Australia this time around made the experience more immersive. We weren’t in Los Angeles going home at night to our own homes. We were all staying in the same hotel. It was more of a collective, immersive experience and I loved that about it. But I completely concur with what they have to say.
RW: Once you get over the language barrier, it works really well.
C: For me, this is my first film where I got to do voiceover work for an animated film so it was an incredible experience. I’ve been so looking forward to working with George Miller because I just love his creativity, and like what Robin and Hank were saying about just being able to improv and be creative in that creative space, it definitely provided me with one of the best creative experiences that I have ever been in and it was a great way for me to start my voiceover animated acting career. I had a great time. And then, to be able to bring the musical element to it, and George wanted Seymour, my character, to be soulful and have a certain essence. I was like man, this really has heart to it. This has meaning to it. It was really great for me to get into it and then use my imagination the way we are able to when you’re doing this type of work. It was very new for me and refreshing.
Q: Robin, was it nice having Sofia Vergara with you?
RW: When she walks into the room, it’s literally “Oh, que paso?!” “Hi everybody.” “Yeah!”
HA: She was the only one that when she was recording, George actually kept his eyes open.
EW: I was lucky enough to overlap one day with her.
HA: Such a joy.
RW: There was actually 3D in the room. “What does that mean?” “Don’t tell people.” “Why are you saying that? Crazy!”
Q: Robin, it’s such a sweet love story. Can you talk a little about it?
RW: With Ramon, you mean?
Q: Yes, and do you think love is the most important thing there is?
RW: It’s pretty close to it. Cheaper than Prozac. And the idea that he is like this hopeless romantic in that way. I learned a new word yesterday in Spanish. This one guy said to me “He’s machito.” This nino machismo. He’s like this little guy that believes it. He wants love in the worst way which is usually in person. He even takes rejection as acceptance like “Fat chance!” “I got a chance and it’s fat.” Thanks to Sven, who says “If you want it, you must will it,” when he see Carmen, that’s it. He’s more than smitten, he’s bitten and he’s off and running. So, with this at least, he does get the girl in a way. He takes a leap of faith literally. “You did that for me?” “Yes, baby.” This love story is quite lovely because most of the time he doesn’t get the girl. This is great.
Q: You just turned 60, what does that feel like and is that a milestone?
RW: A milestone? What day is today? 60! Ahhh!
HA: You look good!
RW: Thank you. My goodness, I feel [pretends to keel over dead]. Wouldn’t that be cool?! It was his *last* press conference. It’s like Richard Pryor did that great thing after he got burned where he’s in the hospital and then this orderly came in and started wiping the smoke off of him going “Hey Richard, how about that *last* autograph?” Sixty is pretty amazing. I had a mid-life crisis at 40 so this is pretty sweet. Sixty is wonderful. I’m like “I’m alive!” It’s great. Once you have the heart surgery, it’s Me 2.0 so it’s pretty great. I have a cow valve which means I can shit standing up now. It’s pretty sweet so it’s lovely. Thank you.
Q: And just off your honeymoon?
RW: Just off my honeymoon which at 60 is wonderful. I actually remember it. It was pretty wonderful and a honeymoon in Paris doesn’t suck either. That was wonderful.
Q: Did any of you prepare in a way to make sure that you sounded different than your real voice?
HA: It’d be weird if George did.
RW: (weird voice) Yes, children! Come to my animation.
HA: I worked with a vocal coach that I like to when it’s an accent that I’m trying. Scandinavian was a new one on me for this one so I worked with a great guy named Bob Corff over in the Valley who I love, and then we worked to make it really meticulous and get an authentic Scandinavian accent. We realized that it was funnier in many places to have sort of a bad Scandinavian accent, so it kind of went in and out for me. But that was on purpose, all those mistakes I made accent-wise were designed just to make you laugh.
RW: The two characters, I have Ramon [and Lovelace]. The first day George said “Make him an Argentinian football fan.” Then recently, I had someone come up to me, an Hispanic woman, and say “You know your accent is very Cuban.” I wanted to make this guy to be very much like this guy, small but fierce, much like myself. Then, with Lovelace, I combined a little bit of foghorn, leghorn and Barry White. When I grew up in Detroit, it was all these Baptist ministers you’d hear on the radio or even sometimes on TV, “I want to feel it now! I got the power of the Lord! I’m going to lay hands on the lady in the front row.” It was always that guy that I kind of based those two and gave him that power. So, it’s easy to separate those two.
EW: I just used my own voice really. This time around the register was a little bit lower because he’s older. That was the only major difference.
C: I wanted to bring a new voice but I think most of the time George probably wanted me to stay in my voice. But for some reason, when I hear it now, it doesn’t sound like me totally so I’m happy about that because I love just being the character.
Q: For those of you who are dads, did you ever have to compete with a charismatic person in your child’s life and what did you do about it?
RW: I once was reading a story to my daughter, Zelda, who was three. I was reading this story in different voices which kind of relates to the vocal thing, and all of a sudden, she went “Don’t do the voices. Just read the story.” I was like “Okay, great. Thank you, Missy.” But yeah, they’ve had teachers. It isn’t threatening. If they’re inspired by someone, it’s kind of wonderful. I was lucky enough to have teachers or coaches that inspired me and things like that, that just take you to the next level. It’s not threatening. It’s just kind of a joy to know that there are other people in their lives that are giving them the spark.
C: I have a daughter who’s fourteen years old, and being that I’m a musical artist too, she definitely loves what I do, but she always brings up other artists like they’re getting a little better than me now.
RW: “Really baby? Kanye is that good?”
RW: “I’m going to take your DVD player for a little while.”
C: Yes, so that definitely lessens the presents that she gets now. Overall, she’s just trying to keep me sharp and keep me on point so I’m cool with it.
Q: George, there’s a subtle but definite global warming message in the film. Why was it important to include that and what message do you want audiences to take away from it?
GM: We tried to follow nature and natural history as much as possible. All the creatures are designed pretty strictly to the anatomy of krill and elephant seals and penguins and different species. We take the main characters, penguins, and exaggerate them, and even the behavior of the ice and snow and wind and so on, and I think that gives the film a lot more authenticity. You can’t tell the story about this world without it being about the impact of the environment. It’s incredible. It’s the extremes of the planet clearly and it’s like the canary in the bird cage. Any subtle change that we have is somehow recorded there in the ice layers because in many ways it’s fixed. There are animals that have died there a hundred years ago and they almost look intact because it’s a very, very cold climate. The layers record every Krakatoa. You can go down into a core of the snow and ice in Antarctica and find every single volcano that ever happened in history, every single nuclear accident. These massive icebergs, as you probably know, are breaking off the size of small countries. They all have their own names. They’re tracked by satellite. They do block off the penguins. There are big shifts in the krill population, the great bio-masses that feed all the animals there. There’s billions and billions and billions of krill that just drift on the great ocean currents and they seem to be shifting where they are. There is melting on the peninsula so the penguins are going south. The species are getting more mixed up. That’s what we tried to indicate in the movie. All of that’s there as part of the background narrative. The essential for me, sort of the guiding premise of the film, is the notion which is something that you use as a little guide in telling the story. It’s something just to remind you, like a little dramatic compass, as to where you’re going, and the notion was that together, despite our differences, we can overcome the chaos of the world. If you notice, all the character in one way are divided – Mumble from Gloria, the father from the son, the two krill, Sven is out of his world, Carmen doesn’t like Ramon. Every single character is torn apart, but it’s only when they come together that finally they can solve the problem. Not even the humans who arrive, they can’t rely on them because they have to save themselves. That’s all in there for us. For me, personally, I feel that’s the time I’m most proud of being a human being when I see the coming together of people to solve the problems that all endure, what we call the human adventure, when we actually come together to do that and even on a very specific level, when families come together. We were talking earlier about bringing the cast together to work together. That was thrilling for me. It’s such a privilege to see guys like this working together. It’s just a wonderful thing. All that is there in the film. I hope that people can pick it up.
Q: All of you have considerable experience doing animation work in the booth by yourself, what it was like with everyone together? Was it like an old fashioned radio play with a lot of physicality and movement?
HA: Some of both. In my cranky old age, I actually prefer recording alone now for the most part, on “The Simpsons,” for example, because I find that the director can just focus on what I’m doing. I can do a lot of variations. A lot of times when I record with a group, I’ll stay after class for another hour or two and go “Let me try a bunch of things I was thinking of as we were doing that.” So, I wasn’t reluctant. I’ve also done a lot of recording together and that can be more fun, but I had no idea, sort of picking up what George just said, that the community of us being together really did make a tremendous [difference]. Not only was it fun and a very warm, fantastic experience but it became like a rehearsal as we were doing it. We were exploring the characters together as we were doing it. I was just trying to find my character because I hadn’t done it before. But their characters have changed and evolved as well. I’ve done theater experiences where obviously I’ve been less united and they were less of a gratifying experience. That’s George. The environment he sets there was extraordinary. A lot of the work was very emotional. It wasn’t just funny. Both for the improvising and the emotional stuff, it was a tremendously supportive, creative environment. I’ve never experienced it before in any other situation honestly. Also, we did so many takes. We explored so much that I never saw. There were two people there just in charge of keeping track of what was going on in each take so that they could somehow find it again later. Especially with Robin, we need to keep track of what’s going on. It was fantastic though. It really was extraordinary.
RW: You do end up moving because you do get excited in working together. Like he said, you’d sweat through stuff and at the end of the day I’m just doing a voice but I’ve sweated through a shirt. But, it was that thing, because of the activity and you move off each other and you build it, and also because I’m working with the Amigos. I’ll give them a shout out right now: Carlos Alazraqui, Lombardo Boyar, Jeff Garcia, Johnny Sanchez. Orale vatos! I’ll just send a shout out to mi Amigos. But we were there in the same room and you just build a rhythm. It is like an old radio play even though they have the baffles in between each of us. We would always break away from them and start to work together. It’s part of the drill and I think because of maestro (George). You work it out.
HA: Yeah, I’ve never done that before. A few times we would be recording across the room and then, you know what, let’s get on the same mic and just be close at George’s suggestion, which I was excited about when I got to do that with Pink. I’m actually not joking. That was a first for me. You have to always physicalize when you do animation recording, otherwise you won’t get the performance right. That was again unique to this.
EW: Sometimes George would grab a hold of me. I knew there was something that I had to react to physically and you were down there and you grabbed onto my leg for a reaction. Sometimes we would get on the floor to record things. It wasn’t incredibly physical. For some of the more emotional bits, I remember doing that shared mic thing. I think EG (Daily) and I shared a mic for a scene for an emotional moment and it was beautiful. It really goes far and above the standard recording process. It was very immersive.
GM: One of the memorable moments for me was when Hank had to do a scene and it was a serious scene where Sven basically was confessing about himself. Everyone had finished their parts and it was just Hank by himself and then suddenly Robin and Elijah and others who were going out for a coffee break came back into the room and then all the cast came back, the Amigos and everybody, and just stood in front of Hank without any mics and just started to play the crowd. I don’t know about you guys but I was just choked up. I thought God, this is the generosity, and everyone thinks these movie stars are so narcissistic and self-absorbed. It’s totally the opposite. Their generosity is huge.
Q: For Hank and Robin, you’re both known for creating so many different voices, did you ever have anything that equated to a voice off? And, if not, could you have one now?
RW: That sounds pretty sexual. Go voice off, right now! (does imitation of a fight). Bring it! Be there! 400 voices! No waiting! You’re going down! We’re going down Sunday, Castilians only! Be there! One on one! No, that’d be too crazy!
HA: I’d be too much too terrified of anything like that.
RW: Me too. No, I’d just sit back and watch him. He’s done so many amazing voices. It’s like musicians riffing with each other. It’s not as much as “I’ll top that,” but it is that thing of just watching them. “Whoa!” That’s what he’s talking about. It’s the same thing of being in the room together. You just build on each other, it’s a riff. It’s like jazz. And when you’ve got someone as funny as he is, you just sit back, and that’s why we came back in the room just to watch and support him. It’s great, it’s fun. If you had to go at it one on one…?
HA: What would be the rules of that? It’d be weird.
RW: Round Two!
HA: But still, what would occupy it? We’d both do …
RW: Pakistanis for twenty! Irish cab driver! Russian pimp!
HA: So Williams took the Irish cab driver round!
RW: I don’t know what he’s going to do with the Russian pimp because the Irish cab driver sure had it going! That’s Scottish, too late! Disqualified!
HA: Yeah, see, I’d lose. I’ll tell you that right now. You know who’s the most gifted, honestly? EG Daily. I have never seen a human being with that kind of vocal gift. She can do 11 different children. I don’t know if that’s the exact number but I’ve never seen anybody with a vocal ability like that. Have you? Wasn’t that incredible?
RW: When she would do a child, one of the most moving things in the movie for me is her aria when Erik sings about his father. It’s Puccini’s Tosca. I was like “Oh my God! Go, girl!” I asked him how it was done. Her voice is just this incredible gift, to make a child so believable and yet so reminiscent of my daughter being like her and my sons. Like you said, it’s so unique, so specific. It’s not just a kid’s voice. She gives it such depth.
EW: She would play the three kids in one scene and they’d all be talking to each other.
RW: She can do a riff between three different children and keep it all intact.
HA: And they were all different characters, all each believable. How can you do that?
EW: It’s so amazing.
Q: Common, can you talk about playing Seymour and bringing a hip-hop flavor to the character and the music?
C: Playing Seymour, from what I got from George and what he seemed like he wanted from the character, was somebody who had compassion and was a leader in his own right, a fatherly person, but he was cool too. He had something cool about him and was about the community. I felt to the core that it had some of the elements of who I am in many ways and I felt that I could bring that essence to Seymour. And, along with that, just as far as being able to bring hip-hop to it, it was really cool for me because George allowed us to do improvisations and different things that would come about from the other actors that I was working with. Everybody was bringing something and it would just allow us to go forward with it, and then if George heard something that he liked, he would say “Yeah, that’s it, that’s it, right there. Stay with that.” It was really kind of like just being in a freestyle session to a certain extent where you can improv and come up with great songs and riffs and different things like that. When I got a chance to know what a lot of the music was going to be, I was really overwhelmed in a way that I loved how the music had a universal tone to it. No matter what walk of life you were from, you could appreciate the music, even if you didn’t know a particular song, whether it was a hip-hop song or whether it was a rock song. It was like man, for some reason, these songs resonate with me in my soul and my heart and to me really expressed the universal appeal of the film and what the story’s about and how it relates to so many walks of life and humanity. I loved being able to be a part of that type of music, and as an artist, that’s the type of music I want to create. It was great to be a part of this.
Q: George, we love your animated films, but we miss your live action ones. Why has it been easier to get the animated ones done recently?
GM: John Lennon said life’s what happens when you make other plans. I never know what films keep on coming out of my head. I never know what films I’m going to make next. Common and I were going to work on a “Justice League” movie together. He was cast as Green Lantern. It was almost green lit and then it fell away. I fell in love with the guy and I called him up and said “You can’t play the Green Lantern but how about playing a penguin?”
RW: Super hero penguin! Your call! A super penguin! The Blue Beak!
GM: That was a whole bunch of complex events in the middle of a writer’s strike, Australian rebate legislation, which was required to get the film going. It was just a whole complex series of events. It was no one’s particular fault that it happened. We were also due to do “Happy Feet,” and these things are like big super tankers, to start a pop wire like this with 600, 700 people working on the film and with what they call the bleeding edge of technology, where you’re pushing technology as far as you can. We had to commit to that, so I went on to that. I was about to do the next Mad Max film, “Fury Road.” We were all geared up for that, shooting in the Australian desert and then unprecedented rains came and what was the wasteland, a completely flat red earth, is now a flower garden. The big massive salt lakes in the center of Australia like the Bonneville Salt Flats where they do world record [land] speed trials is now full of pelicans and fish. Where the fish come from I have no idea. So we’ve lost the wasteland. Luckily, all of these have been with Warner Bros. so it’s been a very collaborative thing of saying “Okay, we’ll go from one to the other.”
Q: Will “Mad Max” go?
GM: Theoretically, it’s next year. We have 150 big vehicles built and so on, but to be perfectly honest, it was probably 48 hours ago since I saw the last of “Happy Feet,” the last shots come off, and I’m not even there in my head right now. I’m just happy to be here. And you know what, I love making these movies, I love the process of making these movies. They’re incredibly hard to make because of the hours you put in. They’re very complex and you do think you’re crazy. People think what happened to me, but I love “Happy Feet.”
Q: There’s so much great music, how did you go about selecting the various types of music?
GM: First of all, you’re looking for something that fits the narrative, number one. Number two, the penguins and the other creatures are representative of us. As Common said, wherever you are, there’s got to be some type of music in this film for you. John Powell is a composer who is really broad, meaning he does everything from the “Shrek” movies to the “Bourne Ultimatum” movies. He grew up in England playing in a Motown tribute band and he trained classically because his father was a classical musician who worked with [Sir Thomas] Beecham. John had a classical training so he’s very broad in his knowledge, in his musical taste. Then, we had Pink. She has three songs. We needed the song at the center of the movie. She wrote that. As I’ve said about Hank, I’m pretty certain I’d never heard “Under Pressure” before, but during that recording session, Hank said “You know that song, it’s like it was written for you” and we’ve got that in there. The opera, which is an aria I’ve always loved the structure of, I thought it starts so quietly and it ends with such fervor. I thought if we could get Erik to sing that song. So, it comes a bit from everywhere. “Rawhide” at the end, someone on the first “Happy Feet,” when we were finishing the movie, every time we’d lock a shot, someone would push a button and “Rawhide” would play. One day it came up with a shot of the elephant seals. I said, “Oh, if we ever make another one, it’ll be the elephants singing “Rawhide.” So it comes from everywhere.
RW: You could do that song with an Australia accent: “Rolling, rolling, rolling…”
Q: The idea to do the sequel actually came to you while you were putting the finishing touches on the first. Do you have any ideas for a third or fourth?
GM: It’s surprising. If you put a gun to my head and said you have to come up with a story for “Happy Feet 3,” I’d say shoot me. I would have no idea.
EW: Especially at this stage.
GM: I really would have no idea. The stories creep up on you. I’ve always found you just have to allow the stories to come. And then, they get in like little earworms in your head and then they won’t go away. And if that happens and we’ve got the energy, we’ll do a third one, and if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. That’s the only way you can do it. It has to be authentic. I really wanted to make this film better than the first one, otherwise at my age, what’s the point? You really want to make it better. If something comes up that’s really exciting and I can convey that enthusiasm to other people, then there would be a third one.
“Happy Feet Two” opens in theaters on November 18th.