It's been almost seven years since the project first got underway at The Weinstein Company, and two and a half since Cal came onboard the 3D animated film with his longtime friend and writing partner Bob Barlen. And for Vancouver animation studio Rainmaker Entertainment, where the film was produced, "Escape from Planet Earth" marks the Canadian company's own major theatrical debut.
With a cast that boasts big name like Jessica Alba, Brendan Fraser, Sofia Vergara, and William Shatner, the movie follows hot-shot astronaut Scorch Supernova (Fraser), the undisputed hero of Planet Baab, and his brother Gary (Rob Corddry), Scorch's underappreciated partner back at Mission Control. But when Scorch gets caught in a trap after responding to an S.O.S. on the notoriously dangerous Dark Planet (otherwise known as Earth), it's up to Gary to step up to the plate and rescue his brother from the evil General Shanker (Shatner).
Moviefone Canada recently spoke to Brunker and Barlen about their writing process, working with animation first-timers like Alba and Corddry, and what it was like for two self-proclaimed huge sci-fi fans to write for William Shatner.
Obviously this is a different take on alien encounters than we're used to seeing. What appealed to you about the idea of flipping the way that movies traditionally portray aliens, and making them the heroes and us the bad guys? Cal Brunker: For me, the exciting thing was to try and tell a story that was really universal for the audience. The aliens are very similar to humans in terms of how they relate to each other and their family structure. So trying to set up a family unit that we could identify with very quickly, and find ourselves rooting for the aliens very quickly. That was important to me, because I think that, while we have a huge love for sci-fi movies, I think these films work better -- especially animated films -- when it's about characters that you relate to immediately, and you don't get too caught up in the minutia of the sci-fi. Otherwise, it just doesn't translate well to the family audience.
I'd read that this project has been in the works for a pretty long time, almost seven years. At what point did you two come onto it? Brunker: Bob and I jumped on the film about two and a half years ago, and like what happens with a lot of animated films, they're in development for a long time, exploring it, going down a bunch of paths that don't work for one reason or another. And what happened is, Harvey [Weinstein] wanted a fresh take on the movie. So I got a chance to pitch him where I thought it should go and hear how he felt about the movie. And then as soon as they got behind that, I called my long-time collaborator and writing partner Bob, and he flew out to Vancouver and we've been on it ever since. And couldn't be happier about sharing it with the world.
What was the appeal of staying in Canada and working for a local outfit like Rainmaker? Brunker: Unfortunately, usually to work on films of this scale, you need to leave the country. And I did that, and had a chance to work with some great studios on some great films as a story artist. And for me, one of the things that was really exciting about this project is we had the best of both worlds. We're able to team up with the Weinstein Company, who have a track record for making incredible films, and have unbelievable relationships with talent and actors, so we were able to put together this amazing cast.
But on the flip side, we're able to leverage all of this Canadian talent that's been hungry to live at home, or at least on Canadian soil and make a movie. So Rainmaker did an unbelievable job as a studio. This is their first big wide theatrical feature. And with the support of the Weinsteins, I think we've got the best of both worlds. And we've really shown we can make movies of this size here. We don't need to all flee south of the border to work on movies that are going to reach an audience in this way.
I noticed that you included a little Pixar joke in the film. How important is it for you two to show with this movie that there's room for others in the animation game? Brunker: Bob and I couldn't be bigger Pixar fans. I mean, that's the mothership when it comes to animation and we're huge fans of [Pixar head John] Lasseter and everything that they've done at that studio. And a lot of how we feel about animation and the things we love comes from the work that they've done. But I think even they'd be the first to tell you that more voices in animation is a good thing. And it's fun to be able to do a film that's able to approach it from a new point of view.
What's the appeal for you of working in animation? Brunker: The beautiful thing about making an animated film is it's a very iterative process. You write the script, you storyboard it, you bring it into the computer, you watch it again, if something isn't working you can fix it. One of the scary things about live action is once you shoot things, they're there, and it's very expensive to build a new set or close down a section of the city again to reshoot this sequence. So we've got the ability to kind of go over things again and get them right, which is wonderful.
I'd imagine that gives you a little more freedom during the writing process as well. Bob Barlen: Absolutely. One of the amazing things about animation, and one of the reasons we love it so much, is you can do anything in an animated film. And it really gives you a chance to just let your imagination go wild. We have these big aliens and we're able to basically write and work with them, come up with funny stuff for them to say.
Brunker: And I think that the chance to see it up on its feet and respond to it, and if it's not getting a laugh or it's not connecting emotionally, go back and rework it is a real gift. It's a great way to get better at filmmaking as well, because you get a chance to try things that are a little bit scary that might be out of your comfort zone and see if they work. And if they don't work, you've got the safety net of getting a chance to redo it and make it great.
Was 3D always in the plans for this movie? Brunker: 3D was always in the cards, at least ever since I was involved with the film. For me, the 3D, it's really important that it serves the story. So the primary objective for the 3D is to put you in the space with the characters, let you feel the size of this launch bay on the alien planet, or the scope of outer space, or feel the claustrophobia of being in a prison in Area 51. So serving story first, but when we have those really fun, goofier moments in the film -- we've got a huge food fight in the middle of the movie -- we pull out all the stops and we're going to have as much fun with the 3D as we can at that moment, and throw some food into the audience, and hopefully have them ducking in their seats.
Working with actors like Jessica Alba and Rob Corddry who hadn't done an animated movie before, did you do anything to help them get acclimated to the process? Brunker: Especially in animation, you've got to create an environment where they can feel safe to try stuff and go too far, and feel like that's not going to get committed to tape right away, or people aren't going to jump on it, overanalyzing it. And so we tried to really create an environment where they felt free to experiment, and so that's one thing.
The second thing, for people who haven't done animation before, the biggest thing was trying to get them to keep their energy level high enough that ... you have to push a little bit harder in an animated film from a voice performance than you do in live-action because you've got all the subtlety of the human face. Animation's a little bit broader, so primarily, it was just trying to help them find the right pitch and energy level. And Jessica Alba, for example, seemed to love the process. Some people who have done it a lot just want to be alone in the booth, and get themselves there. Other people really treasure the chance to react off another actor, so we try and do that when that's helpful.
It's really great seeing William Shatner play the villain in this. As sci-fi fans, what was it like writing for him? Brunker: The great thing about Shatner is that he really opened the character up for us. Originally, it was a little bit more of a straight-laced villain, the character of Shanker. And when he came on board, he really opened our eyes to how much fun you could have with this guy. The way he plays it is a little bit more whimsical than we were imagining it from the beginning, and that was a real pleasure. He's got a keen eye for comedy and how to bring entertainment to something that would potentially be less dimensional than it was when he came on board.
And for him, I think what he was really aware of is trying to create a film that he could take his grandkids to and the villain wouldn't be so terrifying that they went running out of the theatre. And he's really happy with the film.
"Escape From Planet Earth" opens on February 15.