‘The Wild Robot’ Director Chris Sanders Breaks Down New Trailer, Talks Casting Lupita Nyong’o

Annecy: The filmmaker also tells TheWrap how DreamWorks Animation responded to the idea of making “such a different film”

Chris Sanders’ “The Wild Robot” is nearly here. And ahead of her visit, there’s a brand-new trailer, which you can watch above.

In DreamWorks’ “The Wild Robot,” based on the best-selling book by Peter Brown, Lupita Nyong’o is the voice of Roz, a high-tech robot who washes ashore on an unpopulated island. She needs to give herself a task, so she sets about raising a young gosling. But, of course, the company that manufactured Roz starts looking for her soon enough, leading to more trouble for the increasingly wild robot and her group of animal friends.

TheWrap spoke to writer/director Sanders, already an animated legend thanks to films like “Lilo & Stitch” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” about his new film, which will be released just in time for the 30th anniversary of DreamWorks Animation’s foundation. And Sanders swears that all the best parts were not ruined by the new trailer. Cross his heart.

“I’m very careful to monitor this step in the process because I want to make sure that the most powerful and the most and the most important things are not revealed,” Sanders, who was in London to record the score, told TheWrap.

One of the most striking moments in the trailer is seeing Roz start to understand what the animals are saying. It’s really beautiful and goes a long way in allowing the animals to talk, and for Roz to talk to the animals, in a way that feels believable and emotionally sound.

“It’s something that was established in the book that we really worked on. We tried different versions of that. And we found the one that we felt really, really worked,” Sanders said. In the book, he explained, Roz camouflages herself “so that she can observe these creatures without scaring them off.”

“The way that we accomplished it in the film is with a really unique time lapse that I’ve never done before. And it came out so well,” Sanders said. The moment is meant to suggest she’s been sitting “potentially weeks motionless, as rain storms sweep over her and animals come and go. And she just grinds away, trying to bridge the gap with these creatures. And she eventually does.”

And, yes, if you were thinking it was partially inspired by John McTiernan’s “The Hunt for Red October,” where Sean Connery is speaking Russian and the camera pushes into his mouth and when it pulls back he’s speaking English, you are absolutely right. “That is definitely something that we referenced as we worked on it,” Sanders confirmed. “It was what I would describe as a load bearing piece of the story that we had to have.”

Roz, Sanders said, “is not where she was designed to exist, which is a cornerstone of the story.” The animals, too, need to survive on this island, so “everyone is going to have to exceed their programming.” Roz arrives pre-programmed and the animals have their own programming, “an uncompromising, life-or-death view of the world.”

“There does come a point where they all have to confront that. It’s an interesting aspect of the story. And I think it’s one of the most powerful aspects of the story,” Sanders said.

Of course, the trailer also gives us more of Nyong’o as Roz. After the movie’s casting director suggested Nyong’o for Roz, Sanders consulted with the movie’s sound designer, Randy Thom, a true legend whose credits include “Apocalypse Now,” “The Right Stuff” and “The Iron Giant” (to name a few). Sanders wondered what kind of voice they should be playing with – should she be super-robotic-sounding?  “And he came back to us with a very interesting answer. He said, the big push in artificial voices is that they be indiscernible from a human voice. That was a really good piece of news for us in a lot of ways, because it freed us from having to worry about making Lupita’s voice sound machine-like,” Sanders said. “And I think it was a great relief to her that we were not going to take her voice and put it through some kind of filter to make it sound machine-like.”

Sanders described the character’s journey as “100% her performance.” “Roz becomes a more dimensional being through this journey,” Sanders said. “Lupita’s acting is extraordinary but she can also modulate her voice in a very subtle way so that she goes through a shift throughout the film.” At the beginning of the movie, her voice has a quality that is “almost like a bolt that has been tightened.” As the movie goes along, she becomes “more expressive and relaxed.”

“It’s much more complex than simply a machine that gains emotion. That is something we’ve come to expect. It is much more interesting and complex and emotionally resonant. Roz understands a lot, you could argue almost everything. But she doesn’t really understand it dimensionally. She knows what the definition of things are. But she has no experience of those things. And the gaining of that experience makes her more dimensional,” Sanders said.

Nyong’o helped craft the character from the very beginning. Without her, we wouldn’t have the Roz that’s in the final movie. “Our very first recording session in New York, we spent over an hour and a half just talking before we ever stood up at a microphone and began recording,” Sanders said. “We talked in depth about who is Roz? Where did she come from? What is she about what is her mission? We really discussed what her thinking was like, and I never went to a recording session without coming away with observations and notes from our discussion. I would rewrite the scenes, and we always did the scenes again when I came back to the next session modified by the notes that we created together. She is very, very smart and very thoughtful and very inventive. And she was a huge part in the creation of this character.”

As for “The Wild Robot” ushering in DreamWorks Animation’s third decade as a studio, Sanders said that he had a conversation with Margie Cohn, the studio’s president, to make sure that they were on the same page. “Are you comfortable with the idea of making such a different film?” Sanders asked. And Coen replied, “It’s the reason we bought the book.”

“We all agreed to be true to the book and bring that story to the screen. And Margie and all DreamWorks were incredibly supportive of this of this movie. It’s not like it doesn’t have aspects that we love and are familiar with. But I think the sheer power of the story is another level and we’ve been in lockstep from the very beginning,” Sanders said. “Here, at the very end, I can say that we are all very, very excited and proud of what we’ve made.”

“The Wild Robot” opens exclusively in theaters on Sept. 27.

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