Even for the most astute or open-minded moviegoer, there are few films that share less in common with 'A Mighty Heart' and 'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.' And yet, both of these films were written for the screen by the same person: John Orloff. But looking more deeply at the animated film, it bears many of the same qualities, not the least of which being characters who are sympathetic, driven, and idealistic, even though one is an owl, and the other is Angelina Jolie.
Cinematical recently caught up with Orloff via telephone to discuss 'Legend of the Guardians,' which is being released in theaters this weekend. In addition to talking about the challenges of adapting a book about owls into a movie for human beings, he examined the logistics of bringing the characters to life for director Zack Snyder, and addressed the idea of making a movie that was faithful to the intensity of the source material, but still manages to be family-friendly enough to attract audiences of all ages.
How tough was it to condense three books into one film – did that pretty cleanly provide three acts or what challenges did you face?
That's a really good question because that was actually one of the first things I, uh, adjusted when they hired me. Because we weren't sure we were going to do that first, but it was pretty clear that the first book wasn't a full story because the first book ends when Soren escapes St. Aggies and starts to fly. That's not really a movie, because it's called 'The Guardians of Ga'Hoole.' So we all agreed that the first three books were the movie, and that was tough because that was a thousand pages of novel, and my first draft was about 165 pages. Then, I sort of whittled it down to about 105, which was the goal, and it was very tough. It mostly falls into three acts with the three books, but not entirely; that was a goal, but it didn't end up working that way once we had to really, really condense it.
So it was pretty hard, pretty complicated, and I've done that a lot – I adapted 'A Mighty Heart,' I adapted 'Band of Brothers,' so that's sort of my bread and butter. It becomes about keeping the emotional truth of a book rather than the literal truth of a book, because we couldn't do the 15-hour version of 'The Guardians of Ga'Hoole.' But often what I do when I adapt is after you read the books, you don't read the books again, and now whatever is stuck with you in your head is what the book is about – and that becomes pretty helpful, rather than being a slave to the book and always going back to the book.
This film follows a certain kind of epic storytelling formula – the discovery of "the One." How careful did you have to be to create a compelling story without leaning on clichés too hard?
Well, I would first argue that I disagree with you – Soren is not "the One." He just happens to have an adventure; he's not like Neo. He's not been destined to save anybody. He hasn't been preordained or any of that. That said, it's obviously a hero's journey, it is an epic quest, it is Arthurian, it is those things, and we all do draw from the same archetypal well when you do that. And then it's about doing variations on that. Certainly when there's suddenly talking owls, that's a little bit of a differential, but yeah, you have to be careful about it. But at the same time, you can't avoid certain archetypal characters – the mentor, the hero. But they don't always have a bad brother, they don't always have a good sister, so it becomes its own thing at a certain point.
How tough is it to write an animated film? There always seems to be so much input from so many people – were you able to construct something cohesive from the start, or was there an ongoing give and take during the animation and storytelling process?
Well, from Day One, none of us thought of this movie as a quote-unquote animated movie. It was always intended to be as photo-real as possible, and that is a little different than when you set out to, say, make a Pixar movie, which I like everybody obviously love, but they're very exaggerated cartoons, just in a computer now. We said we're not doing exaggerated characters; of course they're going to be anthropomorphized, they're going to speak and they're going to have human characteristics, but those human characteristics are not going to be visual cues. They're all going to be just in the dialogue. So we never said "let's make an animated movie." But the process was like a regular live-action movie, at least on my end: I wrote my first draft, and Zack came on board and so he and I spent a few months going back and forth and having meetings and kicking around ideas, refining the script so that it was incredibly more enhanced in a visual way than my original script. Zack had all new ideas and it was really, really cool, so for me it was just like writing a regular movie, and I know Zack would say the same – I mean, he never thought of this as an animated movie. Of course, he didn't show up on a set, but in terms of what he saw in his head and what he wanted to see on the screen, it was never an animated movie.
Cinematical: In an animated film where the talking animals are meant to be accurate to their species, how much wrangling did you have to do to justify their humanlike behavior? Do you have to construct a logical foundation for how they can, say, forge metal, or is that sort of part of the conceit that is presumed to be accepted outright?
Orloff: Well, it's a bit of both. I was hired after Animal Logic had decided to make the movie, so they were already making drawings that would answer exactly that. The first things I saw were drawings of the tools, and at one point in early drawings there was more technology – a steam-driven technology that didn't end up in the movie. But the animators fought about that stuff from Day One, and then I did have to think about it a little bit in the sense that while writing a scene, and thinking about what the owls were doing at any given moment, I had to in my head imagine, how were they physically going to do this? Can an owl put on a helmet? How do they put on their battle claws? And if I didn't have an answer, I would call up Zack or call up Simon and say, how is this possible? I was basically blocking [camera shots] of the owls – because if I couldn't block them, if we couldn't sell it visually, then it couldn't be in the script. So it wasn't like my foremost concerns, but it was definitely in there. And there was a couple of things that I really hoped would work that we had to throw out, because there was no way we could figure out how an owl would do them.
Cinematical: Given how dark and unglamorous the film depicts war, how intense was this film meant to be? Is there an audience or age that you had in mind as a target not to go beyond in terms of the action?
Orloff: Well, we set out to make a kids' movie – there's no question. That's what attracted Zack to it and that's what attracted me to it; we both have kids about the same age, and my kids aren't going to see 'A Mighty Heart' and I'm sure Zack's kids aren't going to see '300' for a while. But at the same time, our goal was to make, I mean, without sounding clichéd, we wanted to make 'Lord of the Rings' for kids – something that was real and dynamic and that had a little bit of an edge. But have you seen 'Snow White' lately? It's a dark, scary movie. The Walt Disney ones in particular, like Bambi's parents and the fire – kids used to have a darker movie world. I mean, there's nothing wrong with going a little darker than some of the fare that's been made for kids. I mean, kids are not stupid; in fact, I think my son is smarter than me! You don't want to terrify them or give them nightmares, but we wanted to present a real world, and war is dark and war is scary, and Ezylryb has been wounded in battle, he's missing a claw and his eye is all squinted up, and it's not glorious. But that's part of the journey that Soren goes on, going from this dreamer thinking that war and battle is all glory, to discovering no, it's actually a quite intense, scary experience, and people get hurt. I think that's fine for kids to understand.