In Toronto to present a work-in-progress cut of their animated December release this past September, Sing director Garth Jennings and Illumination Entertainment CEO Christopher Meledandri stopped by Deadline’s TIFF video studio to discuss the genesis of the project and their jubilant production process. Featuring a truly star-studded cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johannsson and Taron Egerton—many of whom also appeared at the festival premiere—Sing stars Matthew McConaughey as Buster Moon, a showbiz koala who throws a singing competition together in hopes of saving his struggling theater. Below, Jennings and Meledandri discuss the directors’ animated feature debut, the Illumination brand and the process of casting the film.
Where did Sing come from, and what made you want to tackle this project?
Garth Jennings: Sing started with Chris—Chris had been thinking about making a film with music and characters in this kind of spirit for a long time, hadn’t you?
Chris Meledandri: Yeah.
Jennings: Sort of years. But when we met for a cup of tea about five years ago, Chris brought up the idea, and I immediately latched onto it. I shared the same enthusiasm for both music and that sort of character’s story that Chris does. So, yeah.
How did you frame that initial concept, and how much that concept change along the way?
Meledandri: One of the things that we talked about at that very first conversation was the notion of, what does it mean to be a producer? Because I’m fascinated with this process where you start with absolutely nothing, and then you kind of have to create collective will to make something manifest. And as I started sort of explaining these feelings to Garth, he started relating his own feelings about what it means to be a creator—a writer, a director—and that there’s a similar dynamic. And so Buster Moon, the character voiced by Matthew McConaughey, who, in the film, owns a theater…The theater has really been experiencing some rough times, so he’s trying to figure out what he can do to save his theater and reinvigorate his audience, and get them to come again, and he comes up with this idea of creating the most magnificent local and live singing competition.
One of the ways in which this original discussion morphed was, as Garth, the writer-director, started to think about Buster…when I was thinking about him, I was thinking about him as more of a scoundrel, because I’m a little bit cynical about what I do; when Garth started to inhabit the character and give him a personality and a voice, there was always the element of the showman, who at times may be prone to exaggeration—or maybe even self-delusion—and can possibly cross the line, but it’s all crossing a line to get other people to believe in what is inside his head.
Chris, how do you conceive of the Illumination brand, and approaching projects that will fit under that umbrella?
Meledandri: At Illumination, everything is character first. While we are slavish about trying to tell the best stories and help writers like Garth develop the stories, it really is about characters—the relationship that the audience has with the character at the end of the movie is what determines how long that character is going to inhabit their imaginations. So I think that’s one constant, and the other constant, I would say, is simply seeking out the most talented people that we can find. Janet Healy, my producing partner, and myself, with our French partner, Jacques Bled, we’ve assembled 800 to 900 extraordinary talented people, of which probably 300 were led by Garth in the direction of this film.
Garth, was there a substantial learning curve in making your animated feature debut?
Jennings: It is the first time I’ve directed an animated film. There was definitely a learning curve because the process of making it is so different, but that’s the thing. One of the reasons it’s worked is because Chris and I get on so well, we’re both going for the same thing, and as a filmmaker, it doesn’t matter what kind of film you’re making, or what kind of medium—if everyone’s on the same page, and feels the same way about it, then you’re gold. I had no idea how you make a sheep’s wool react to wind, or like, how you can make a pig dance like that, but I didn’t need to because I was surrounded by, almost like wizards. They’re like witches and wizards—they’re like magicians over there—and Chris has got this sort of amazing team at every point in the process.
They buoy you, they carry you, so you can say, “Look, I don’t know how you do this, but I need him to do this crazy thing with a sandwich,” and they’re like, “We know exactly how to do that.” On a set, I would’ve known exactly what would’ve gone in to achieve that effect; with animation, it’s been a process of discovery at every step of the way, even to today where we’re about to premiere the thing.
What is the process of casting and securing A-list talent for an animated film like Sing?
Jennings: It’s an insane cast—they’re not insane people, they are very sane people, but Chris and I would talk about who would be great for the part, because we’d worked very hard on the story. We knew what those characters had to sound like, and how they had to resonate with audiences, and every time we had an idea, that person agreed! They understood what it was we were trying to make, and enjoyed the prospect of—in most cases, with our principal cast—singing for themselves, so that nobody is being re-voiced. That was a lovely part of the process, and so yeah: A, it was delightful to have everyone come on board, but also, again, it comes back to that thing—they all understood what it was that would make that character work.
Meledandri: There’s only one, I find, irritating thing about this experience of Garth working with this cast, which is, some of these people are people that I had spoken to for 10 years about possibly finding the right thing to work with, and others, I have friendships with—my entire conversation now with every single one of them is only about how much they love working with Garth, and I am so tired of hearing this cast talk about how much they love Garth. But actually, it does speak to something that happened in the making of this film that was quite extraordinary, and this extends from the voice actors to the storyboard artists, our designer, Eric Guillon, our animation lead—the experience of making the film was absolutely jubilant for this team, and that is really a credit to how Garth interacts with creative people, and how he brings their best work…I think that it would be unanimous that everybody who worked on this film in our studio in Paris will say that they feel that they’ve just done their absolute best work of their careers.
Jennings: That’s high praise—thank you very much, indeed! Don’t you realize that that’s not a one-way thing? It’s been extraordinary. A guy that makes Son of Rambow doesn’t get Matthew McConaughey—it’s a big deal for me.
He’s had an interesting year, adding two very distinct animated films to his resume.
Jennings: That’s right! Yeah, yeah. And it was funny because when we first met with Matthew, at the time, True Detective was the thing, so it was such a funny thing to say to people, “Oh, it’s going to be played by Matthew McConaughey!” Because all they had was this very dark sort of series, and it’s like “How does that work?” It’s like, “Oh, it works very well!”
You’ve chosen to screen the film at TIFF as a work in progress—what went into that decision?
Jennings: The film I’d say is at some percentage in the nineties—I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s screen-friendly. It’s ready to go: you will enjoy the movie without feeling you’re missing anything, but there are still lots of things to be finished, finessed.
Meledandri: It’s the first time Illumination has brought a film to Toronto. It’s actually maybe I think our second time we’ve gone to a festival—we just came from Venice with The Secret Life of Pets, which, ironically, was happening at the end of its run because it was about to open in Italy. When we sensed that there was interest in the film in Toronto, we just thought it was a huge opportunity for us, and we love the fact that it’s very distinctive, being part of this, first of all, illustrious festival, and second of all, what is an amazing group of films. So for us, being here felt very natural.
Do you consider this idea of premiering high-profile animated films at film festivals something that goes back a ways in time, or a more modern phenomenon?
Meledandri: I think there were a number of DreamWorks films that premiered at Cannes years ago, so I think you’ll see it here and there, but look—I think it’s particularly important to us that when we all set out to make these movies, we’re actually setting out to make a movie. The medium happens to be animation, and we are the beneficiaries of the most unbelievable, extraordinary artistic talent to help bring Garth’s vision to life, but we’re actually just making a movie, and so when you’re included in a festival like Toronto, the perception is, “OK, it’s here as a film. It’s not here as an animated film.” And that’s, I think, gratifying for us, because it reflects what our deepest feelings are about what we’re engaged in.
Garth, having been through the process now, are you eager to jump back into animation?
Jennings: Yeah—the great thing about this is, I’ve learned so much. It would be really nice to be able to apply that again. Also, what was interesting was, in order to work at the animation studios, they’re in Paris—I’ve had to move with my wife and my children to Paris—so for the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve had my four sons sort of growing up there. It’s had all kinds of huge, positive ripple effects. One, it’s weird having children that can speak French now…It’s really great! They’re much better than I am.