At TheWrap screening series, 'Guardians' director Peter Ramsey discussed the delicate balance of creating a Santa who's ready for battle but not 'warlike'
The filmmakers who made "Rise of the Guardians" are hoping that the strong A-Cinemascore average for the film and an enthusiastic word-of-mouth will drive support for the just-released film at the box office and give them a holiday present for the future: the chance to make a sequel or two.
“I think we have to see how the audience loves this movie,” said producer Christina Steinberg at TheWrap awards series screening, “and hopefully there’s many more stories to tell. But we’ll see.”
If follow-ups do turn out to be in the cards –box office returns were disappointing after the Thanksgiving-holiday weekend –there wouldn’t be any shortage of material to draw upon, and quickly. After all, William Joyce has already written them at least 500 years’ worth of back story.
Tracing the film’s history for a capacity crowd Tuesday night at the Landmark Theatre, Steinberg told TheWrap's award's editor Steve Pond that they decided to develop the screenplay at the same time that Boyce, who brought them the concept, was beginning to write a series of books about the titular fantasy figures—even though their story and his take place centuries apart.
Said Steinberg, “There’s definitely a miniseries you could do — hours and hour — on each of the characters,” which include Santa, the Easter bunny, the sandman, the tooth fairy, Jack Frost, and the bogeyman. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the movie was that we wanted to tell. There are about 13 books, and (Joyce) is in the midst of writing them now; some are picture books and some are chapter books.”
But the fact that the source material involves historical mythological figures didn’t mean the filmmakers wanted to commit to a period piece, per se. “We thought, well, as he’s exploring this and as it’s happening simultaneously, we’re going to set the movie about 500 years after his books and talk about how they all now know each other.”
One idea that Joyce and his adapters definitely shared: the concept of Santa, et al. as literal action figures.
“Really early on in Bill’s conception, the idea was this would be an adventure movie,” director Peter Ramsey told the audience. “It was always intended to be kind of a superhero movie. And it is a weird hybrid of these fairy tale characters who are typically depicted as soft and cuddly and completely non-threatening, with the idea that they are proactive adventure characters and protectors of childhood.”
But a Kris Kringle who wields double-fisted swords? Ramsey admitted he worried about how far he could take the action heroism, though he rebuts the beef a few reviewers had that it cancels out the childhood whimsy.
The battle sequences between the heroes and the bogeyman were “something I was concerned about, because I didn’t want them to be perceived as warlike,” Ramsey said. “The metaphor is that they fight fear. The rap [on the movie has some] people thinking ‘Oh, the movie’s so dark’—I don’t really see it that way. I see it as taking seriously the fears that kids have and the beliefs and hopes that kids have, and showing in a metaphorical way that there are ways to fight back against hopelessness and cynicism–and telling that in a language of a fantasy or superhero movie.”
Ramsey said their models were all live-action movies, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Star Wars” to the “Harry Potter” series. “Obviously we knew that we wanted it to be a really animated movie,” he added. “These are cartoon characters—they’re pushed and they’re stylized. But the world that it’s happening in, and a lot of the shot choices and the camera work, is kind of pitched halfway between live action and animation, somehow.”
Toward that end, they hired A-list cinematographer Roger Deakins as a consultant. “Even after he had to leave us for ‘Skyfall’,” said Ramsey, Deakins was still obsessed with contributing to the film from being on location with James Bond. “It’d be 12:30 at night, and we’d get a message: ‘I think Jack Frost could have a little more rim light on his hair.’”
Executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s role was mainly “being an inspiration and a guru—he’s like our Santa Claus. He came on when we were starting to restructure the story, and he was a sounding board and a champion for us with things we knew were going to be a little bit of a challenge for the studio.” Del Toro was involved in making a decision to drop an entire sequence at the beginning of the film that showed the (now unseen) man in the moon character; the producers said they aren’t sure whether the cut sequence will be an extra on the DVD or not.
Pond asked Ramsey if it was true that it didn’t really hit him that he was the first African-American director to helm a major computer-animated studio feature until he had a conversation about it with his father.
“Yeah, he told me I was black, and I was, what?” Ramsey joked. “No, when I got the job, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m actually the first.’ But that went away really quick because you’ve got no time to think about anything except keeping your head above water and getting the job done. Cut to two and a half years later: We’re a few months from being done with the movie, and my mom and dad see an article in the newspaper, and that line is in there—‘first African American director to do a big CG film.’ And I look across the table and my dad’s got tears in his eyes. I hadn’t thought about it for all those years, but it came back to me.
“It’s never been an issue at the studio. But when I saw my dad, I thought, wow, it does matter. I grew up here in South Central, and I loved movies but had no idea that there was any possibility that I could ever work in the movie business. So when I go talk at school arts programs, for a kid being able to see somebody like me saying ‘This is how I did it, you can do it too,’ I can’t imagine how much that means, because it’s something I never had growing up. It is a big deal.”
[Photos by Valerie Macon/Getty Images]