Looking for his next project following Megamind and three Madagascar films, director Tom McGrath was happy to go “from soup to nuts” with Dreamworks’ The Boss Baby, a adaptation of a children’s book by Marla Frazee, in which he would be tasked with visualizing a child’s imagination of the corporate world.
A “cute story about parenting”—in which seven-year-old Tim competes with a new baby, dressed in suit and tie, for his parent’s affection—The Boss Baby would be an “Inception for kids,” told from the perspective of a child’s wild imagination.
Not a parent himself, McGrath worked with screenwriter Michael McCullers to draw clever analogies between the juvenile and adult worlds that would play for an adult audience, while depicting children’s total misunderstanding of the adults around them. Contemplating The Boss Baby in its early stages, the director had to look to his relationship with his brother to find a way into the film.
What were your first thoughts as to how you would adapt The Boss Baby into a feature film?
We had the idea of, “No one’s ever done a sibling rivalry story.” You hear so many stories about kids who don’t want a baby brother or sister because they don’t think there’s enough love for them. We just thought it would be great if these competing companies, one with puppies and one with babies, were competing for love, with the overall idea that you don’t compete for love. If you give it, you get it back tenfold. It’s not a finite resource, which kids imagine it is.
We wanted to set it in the time before computers and electronics, when kids really used their imaginations. We thought if we put the baby in the suit, the logic of it is that it could all be this kid’s imagination. The ideas kept flowing, and we developed a script for maybe a year and a half, two years. We felt like we knew where we wanted to end, and we just had to make it feel like we earned that ending.
What inspired the look of the Boss Baby’s pristine corporate world?
I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I remember movies like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with Robert Morse, who was ultimately in Mad Men. This company that made babies, at the height of its success, was the Baby Boom, which of course was after World War II, and the architecture would reflect that ‘50s, 60s kind of Mad Men mentality. We had great images of the Johnson Wax Building of the ‘60s—these huge columns, and this palette that was ‘60s colors.
We tried to stay true to that era of architecture. Because Baby Corp. was a fantastical place, I wanted to shoot it with tilt-shift photography, meaning everything looks kind of miniature, kind of toy like. There’s a very shallow depth of field in the foreground and background.
The other overarching aesthetic stems from Tim’s imagination. What was the approach there?
When I got into animation, it was kind of the best and worst time, because it was the end of 2D and the beginning of 3D. As we got into CGI, everyone was aspiring towards realism and all these textures and details. We had an opportunity to harken back to the roots, more like ‘50s animation. If you look, there’s a lot of influence from Mary Blair, from Maurice Noble, painters from the Chuck Jones era, and old Disney animation. The backgrounds would be much more painterly.
An artist, Andy Schuyler, was singlehandedly designing every fantasy sequence. He was a fan of that era, too. We had a lot of fun and developed a technology where he could actually paint in three dimensions, do stereo with it, and that sort of thing. We researched the characters to take out detail so they would be as close as we could get to cell animation without blending in with the rest of the film.
The Beatles’ “Blackbird” is heard repeatedly throughout The Boss Baby. What’s the significance of that song for this film?
We needed a lullaby, and that came from Michael McCullers, who would sing that to his kids, which is great because he had a parental point of view. It’s such a beautiful lullaby on its own, no matter what the lyrics mean. As it went along, a lot of people, when they’d watch versions of the film, would say, “Oh, I sing that to my kids.”
Even from our first rough cut, we had it in and it seemed to work. When we had Miles [Bakshi] actually sing it, it just had a lot of heart to it, and it grew into a story point of a kid growing into the big brother he needs to be by singing that song to his brother. We wanted the film to feel sincere and real. A lot of people collaborated, even if it was an editor going, “You know, when I put my kid to bed, I do this.”
For me personally, not being a parent, it’s kind of a love letter to my brother. We had a very tumultuous childhood—most brothers do. We came out the other side and we’re best friends. That was my angle on it, to make sure that you felt like these guys are connected and there’s no other connection like it.
Sausage Party director Conrad Vernon makes a voice cameo in the film. Is there a real community among animation directors, in terms of getting involved with one another’s projects?
I think we all came through the same generation. Some of it’s from Cal Arts. I know Andy Stanton and Pete Docter and they went off to do Pixar; Chris Miller, who did Puss in Boots, and Conrad Vernon, Mike Mitchell. We all went to the same school and knew each other in social circles, and in the business, from the mid-‘80s through now. People talk about brain trusts a lot, but the thing is, when you have friends that are filmmakers, you bring them into editorial and you go, “Hey, what do you think?” You get their opinion because you respect their films and they’re also your friends.
Conrad helped me out on a lot of movies—Megamind, the Madagascar movies—and I helped him out on Sausage Party. You’re just having friendly eyes come in, and there’s a lot of candor in the room. You can be honest. No one has to be political or anything like that. You work with each other. I’m sure a lot of directors in live action do the same thing.
How did the film’s grand finale come together?
It actually started with the ending. When you’re thinking about a movie, while you’re still working on a script, you think about it visually. For me, early on, it’s great to listen to pieces of music because it might give insight into some visual or something. I was listening to this piece of music by Howard Hanson, and a lot of imagery came through that music.
Working with Han Zimmer, I played it for him, and he was like, “Oh God, you had to use Howard Hanson.” He started developing the theme for the kid—the theme for their bonding, and their theme together—and knew it had to blossom into this beautiful piece of music. I’m telling you about Hans’ involvement because he’s another main character. His magic is making little tunes that turn into big, giant themes at the end of the movie.
The visuals really come out of that musical process. The musical storytelling that Hans did really makes that scene feel bigger than life because it’s always little piano themes you heard early on that then come into fruition later. A lot of these movies are really talky, and Boss Baby is a big talky movie. At the end, it was like, “Let’s stop talking. Let’s just do it with music and visuals, and the only thing we should hear is the memo that the kid sends to Boss Baby saying, ‘I love you and I want to be brothers,’ without saying I love you.”
Michael McCullers wrote a really cool, little memo with the voice of a seven year old. I think, when you have a lot of talking and then you stop talking, it actually means something more. You can digest it a little bit more. You can be moved by it. That was the ambition, with making that pay off.