Lots of people love to watch cartoons, but not many know the names of the creators who tirelessly work behind the scenes. One of the biggest talents who's responsible for more entertainment than you probably realize is Genndy Tartakovsky. The animator got his start at Cartoon Network, creating two of the channel's most beloved programs: "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Samurai Jack." Now he's making his big-screen debut by directing the monster-filled comedy "Hotel Transylvania." The movie, which features the voice talents of Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Selena Gomez, is a slapstick-filled adventure with Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy and loads more classic monsters.
Moviefone had an in-depth chat with Tartakovsky about a variety of subjects. In addition to giving audiences a great tutorial on the keys to making funny, creative cartoons, he also revealed new info on his long list of projects: his "unrealistic" 3D "Popeye" relaunch, his long-rumored "Samurai Jack" movie, "The Dark Crystal 2" and even a planned comic book series with Marvel.
The classic Universal Studios Monster Movies are an obvious influence on this film, but what else inspired "Hotel Transylvania"?
It’s funny because when I was a kid, I was scared of scary movies and I didn’t really want to see them, so my introduction into this world was through Abbott and Costello (and also, "Young Frankenstein" is one of my all-time favorite films). I wanted to make a silly movie but for it to still have an emotional core. I felt with a name like "Hotel Transylvania," you couldn’t take yourself too seriously, which is okay. Not every movie has to be a Pixar movie. If someone wants to make something like "Dumb and Dumber," why can’t we? So I pushed to do really great comedy first. We looked to Warner Brothers cartoons, we looked to Tex Avery cartoons to get that kind of energy through it. Also, we didn’t want to make the movie too dark, we wanted it to still stand out and feel bright even though it’s a monster movie at night. So we looked at some of the old '40s and '50s ways they used to shoot movies: very saturated characters with more greyed-out backgrounds so that the characters really pop.
I think audiences have an idea of what a movie director does, but I think the idea of directing an animated movie is still a vague concept to a lot people. How would you explain the challenge of directing animation to a layman?
It’s funny because it’s not that different from directing a live-action movie. Technically there are a lot of differences, but really, you’re trying to get a vision across of what the movie is going to be, and then you have a lot of the different departments that you have to guide along so that they all come together. The live-action director has his art direction team, he’s got his camera team, he’s got his actors, he’s got his writers, the costume people, and they’re all trying to get onto the same movie. And I pretty much do the same thing -- I’ve got production designers, I’ve got storyboard people. The role of the director is to have a vision for the movie and guide the whole team, and obviously it’s a giant team, to make one point of view.
What kind of unique stresses come from directing an animated movie that you don't think live-action directors have to worry about?
They get to shoot coverage. For us, it’s whatever we put down on the storyboard paper; once we get into the production, that’s it. There’s a certain percentage we can change, but that gets very expensive. Animation is all about commitment early on. You have to make a decision, commit to it, then hope you made the right choice. I couldn’t imagine doing this job without doing all of the stuff that I have done, making all of those mistakes, going through the process so many times, making decisions, making the wrong decisions and making the right ones. It informed me so much for this experience.
I'm excited to see your 3D "Popeye" movie, especially with your goal of making it as "artistic and unrealistic as possible." What's inspiring your artistic style on that movie?
For me, it’s the original early '36 to '40 range of the Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons. I think since they were based out of New York, it was very different. I don’t want to say underground, but it was more racy, more edgy. And I think while everyone was warming up to Disney, Fleischer made huge marks in animation, with "Popeye," "Betty Boop" and "Superman." They were doing amazing stuff and for me it’s the exaggeration and the silliness, the laughter, the movement, the physical comedy. And that’s one thing I’m after for "Popeye." It's the whole reason I agreed to do the feature; I said If I’m going to do this, I want it ten times more physical and crazy than we did in "Hotel" and ten times more character. And they were like Alright. The funny thing is that CGI was designed to mimic reality, but I’m going to use this realistic tool in a completely different way.
This is the first project of yours that has celebrity voices. Adam Sandler is unmistakably Adam Sandler. How did that influence your creation of the characters?
I’m a big believer in not knowing who the voice is. You shouldn’t know. It should be the character and that’s a huge deal for me. I’ve always been very critical of big, known celebrities as the main voices because sometimes you can’t transcend the character. So that was a big, big concern. Luckily, with Adam doing an accent that helped us a little bit because it separated the voice from who he is. I really needed to have a very strong visceral character of Dracula, so that when you’re looking at him he captures you so much that you’re not thinking that it’s Adam Sandler.
You’ve been connected to a lot of ambitious projects over the years. Which movie feels more likely at this point: the "Dark Crystal" sequel or the "Samurai Jack" movie?
I would put my money on the "Samurai Jack" movie. I haven’t heard from the "Dark Crystal" people in a long time, so I feel that’s gone. It’s been eleven years since "Jack" came out, but it’s still kind of in the ether. People talk about it and I still get emails if someone mentions something. Doing all this press that I’ve been doing, it’s amazing how many people mention it and ask about the movie. I feel like it’s good timing.
Have you considered bringing "Dexter's Laboratory" along for a theatrical debut?
I have considered it but the original voice of Dexter retired and I can’t foresee doing "Dexter" without her.
For American audiences, there is an image of what animation is supposed to be. Now that you have this new relationship with Sony to develop original projects, is there a kind of animated movie that American audiences aren’t used to that you’d be interested in attempting?
Yes. For whatever reason, I think we have one type of animated movie and it’s so wrong. I want to do a drama, I want to do an action, a comedy. In live-action, there are all sorts of movies. There’s independent movies, big movies, action movies, funny movies, and for us we have one movie. And there is no reason why we can’t have the same range as live-action. It has proven itself in other countries and I think we need to be a little bit more original with our storytelling and graphics for America and American audience.
I am curious, what is the status of the Luke Cage comic that you were developing with Marvel?
[Laughs] I can't believe you're asking me this.
I just have to know.
So it's all written, it's all drawn, it's finished. It needs to be inked and I never got a chance to ink it and color it. I haven't talked to Marvel in forever and I don't know if the editor is already gone, the one that I was working with. (Note: Aubrey Sitterson, the editor overseeing CAGE! left Marvel in a full-time capacity in 2008.) Every time I turn on my computer and I see some images from it, I get so sad because that is the one thing I really want to finish and the hard part is done -- that is the crazy part. I've got all four issues done and they're just sitting there and it's killing me.
Are you going to finish it come hell or high water?
I'm going to try. I'm going to finish it when I get a free minute, when all of this subsides. I'm going to call them and see if they're still interested in finishing it.
Well I'm definitely still interested in reading it, so you can tell Marvel that there is an audience demand for it.
Well if it doesn't work out, I'll just send you the pencils and you can read it.