Avid fans of the Dr. Seuss canon that were excited to bring one of the author’s most well-known characters to life in a new animated iteration, Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney set out on a long process of trial and error, seeking to bring a freshness to The Grinch. The third adaptation of a classic 1957 children’s book, Illumination Entertainment’s latest would place Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the iconic green curmudgeon, setting out to ruin Christmas for those pesky Whos of Whoville once and for all.
Making his feature debut alongside veteran Cheney, Mosier had produced a 3D animated film in 2013—Free Birds, starring Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson—getting a “crash course” in the form. So, when it came to The Grinch, the challenge wasn’t learning the ropes—it was taking a pre-existing world and fleshing its 60-something pages out, playing with story, character and world design where possible, while delivering fans a faithful adaptation of the story they knew and loved.
In conceiving of the film, though, the pair weren’t only thinking of those who already knew The Grinch; there were also potential viewers around the world, “in countries that have no connection to [the story].” “We needed people to be able to watch this movie as if they had no idea what it is, and be able to meet the character, learn who his character is, and go through his emotional story, and be on his side,” Mosier says. “There were a lot of challenges there, and we spent a lot of time, finding sweet spots.”
Why was The Grinch a film you had to make?
Scott Mosier: I love the book, I love the Chuck Jones special. It’s a part of my childhood. I’ve always adored Dr. Seuss, so being able to work on a Dr. Seuss property as my first [feature], and specifically The Grinch, was really exciting, to go into his character and backstory and go a little deeper into understanding why he hates Christmas. Also, the opportunity to take that world and expand it through design and characters was an exciting challenge for me.
Yarrow Cheney: I also loved the holiday special that Chuck Jones directed. That was my first contact with The Grinch, and it was such an iconic part of my childhood. And of course the book—digging deeper, and really appreciating the book. But the thing that I really gravitate towards, that maybe hits on why it’s such a timeless story and always relevant to any generation, is just this story about how simple kindness can transform a heart, can heal wounds. That’s such a wonderful and important concept that is as relevant now as it has ever been, if not more in today’s world.
Was Benedict Cumberbatch always the first choice to play The Grinch? What informed your choices when it came to the eclectic bunch of actors you selected, including Pharrell Williams as your narrator?
Mosier: There was a pretty immediate, unanimous feeling that Benedict was the guy to do The Grinch in this day and age, and he also was the guy who could do the story we wanted to tell, who’s funny and sarcastic and also brings emotional depth. He’s a true performer; he builds fully three-dimensional characters, and we knew that’s what we wanted to do. He delivered 100 times over, and he was also a great collaborator. That’s the great thing about finding people like Benedict who are such fantastic performers, that bringing him into the process, he’s also informing the movie by his choices, as far as the character, and challenging us in decisions, having discussions.
Angela Lansbury was the same thing. We’d been like, “It’s not a big role, but we need somebody to be the voice of Whoville.” Somebody in the room brought up Angela Lansbury and I’m like, “That’s fantastic.” Then she shows up, and you’re like, “Just hit record.” She’s just so incredible. Kenan [Thompson] and Rashida [Jones] were both people that we very quickly gravitated to, based on who the characters were. Their voice worked. Obviously, Kenan’s incredibly funny. He brings so much to each role. With Cameron Seely, we knew we had to find Cindy-Lou Who. We did audition a lot of kids and did a little bit of a countrywide [search]—we were in LA, flying up to New York, and she’s East Coast-based. We did a couple of auditions with her and she just kept rising amongst all the other candidates. Her voice just was so distinct, and she was also unpredictable, how she would say things and make things up. She also just has the spirit of the character in her, so it was such a great find because it was an important role.
The final piece of the puzzle was Pharrell, who had such a long relationship with Illumination. He’s really a part of the family there. When it came up, we all were trying to figure out something that would live inside the movie and be a part of it, but maybe be a little bit different from what everybody’s expecting. He has such a warm presence, and an inviting voice, so you kind of lean in and want to listen to him. So, yeah. The great thing is it all merges together and works really wonderfully.
How did you approach visualizing Whoville for the film?
Cheney: We wanted the book to really be the DNA that we built the story on, exclusively almost, so we looked at all the illustrations. Ted Geisel was so brilliant in his storytelling ability, but also his illustrations and characters are so iconic, so you can tell a Dr. Seuss drawing out of 10,000 drawings. So we started with his drawings, and he didn’t give us a lot to go off of for Whoville. If you look at the book, there’s a wide shot of Whoville, and you just see three houses, so you feel like, “Okay, you’ve got the corner of one of the neighborhoods.” So we started dissecting, “Okay, what are his design things?” The way that snow sits on the roof, the overall shape of the houses. They’re made out of wood, and they have these corner beams.
So you pull a lot of these design principles out of his drawings, but then we went wider to look at other stories. Like, how does he design other towns? So we got some interesting cues, archways and repeating shapes, and then we looked at real-life towns and nature, and things like that. But we were always trying to build everything to support the idea of Whoville, this place that we wanted people to feel was a welcoming place, a place that you wanted to be, with authentically joyful people—people that had real community. We were really careful not to make it seem like it was just a kitschy, postcard Christmas village. Then, Christmas was that salt that brings out the flavor in this place. The movie has this polarity between two places, this wonderful, warm, inviting place and this cold place where this guy has made a life.
Life isn’t bad—he’s built all these wonderful contraptions to fill his day-to-day needs, and [the Grinch’s dog] Max does a lot of his work with the help of these contraptions—but it’s not a place that he needs to be. We wanted to have the audience think, “Yeah, this is cool, this is fun. We’re enjoying the Grinchy character being mean and doing all these wonderfully subversive things.” But at a certain point, we need to see that there is something a little wrong here, that this guy is hurt. There’s a pain here that needs to be healed, and the world and these two main locations were meant to support that idea.
The film features an original score from Danny Elfman and songs from Tyler, the Creator—that’s quite a combination.
Mosier:With Danny, like with Benedict and Angela Lansbury, I don’t even know if there was a list.
Cheney: It was just like, “Danny would be amazing.”
Mosier:We met with him, and he mentioned that he almost did something with Ted Geisel, so he had always wanted to do a Seuss property, and he was such a perfect fit. What we love about the movie and what was great about making it is that it’s this intimate story a lot of the time, but we tried to also give it scope and size, like when he’s stealing Christmas. Danny’s just so amazing at doing both of those. He can make these intimate moments so beautiful, and he can make the big stuff feel like the biggest thing you’ve ever seen.
Then Tyler the Creator, we’re both big fans. It came through Illumination and Chris [Meledrandri, CEO]. Music is important in all their movies and the guys at Universal Music, Mike Knobloch and everybody, are a big part of that. A lot of people were thrown out, and when Tyler’s name came up, it was just like, “Oh, wow. He could be the guy to really make this feel fresh and new, but still capture the same spirit,” which is what we wanted to do with the whole movie. The demo he sent in, adding the choir of kids, it was just so fun. I thought he did such an incredible job, and that song [“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”] has been covered a lot. I listened to hundreds of existing versions, so my ear got especially tuned, and when I heard that demo, I’m like, “Wow, he really did it.”
Can you talk about your designs for a highly cinematic sequence in which The Grinch steals Christmas?
Cheney: One of the things in expanding and making this wonderful, big, Christmas-themed town is the bigger we made Whoville, the more impossible stealing Christmas would be.That gave us the opportunity to be like, “Okay, well how are we going to have The Grinch do this?” The answer was, this guy is a builder; he makes things. He’s a really smart guy. He builds all of these contraptions, a crazy coffee maker and ways to get around the cave, so that gave us that freedom to [invent].
If you look at the book, he doesn’t dress up in a cat burglar outfit; he dresses up like Santa Claus, and dresses Max up like a reindeer, so he’s already overdoing things. He’s thinking outside the box, so we just took those cues and tried to push them and say, “Okay, well everything that he does, everything that he comes up with to steal Christmas from all of these houses, it has to be Christmas themed.”So he’s got the candy cane that’s multifunctional, sort of like a Swiss army knife, and does different things. He built his sleigh to be able to do all these things to get from rooftop to rooftop, to get around everywhere. And with Max, he divide and conquers.
In terms of the way that it’s [filmed], we start him out, and he’s been preparing for this the whole movie long. Once it’s game time, he starts unfolding his plan, and as an audience, we start to see, “Oh, he’s been working on this.” What we really tried to do in the course of the sequence was to show how he was hitting his stride, and at a certain point, we wanted the audience to feel that euphoria, that he was firing on all cylinders and everything was going off as planned. He was getting the job done, this big huge impossible task.
We go all the way through the heist, and then he meets this little girl who turns everything upside down. She does something that stops him in his tracks, so the more we get that momentum going and let the audience have fun with stealing Christmas with him, the more we then have to stop in our tracks when his story collides with Cindy-Lou’s.