With The Willoughbys, writer/director Kris Pearn adapted a beloved children’s book of the same name by Lois Lowry, looking to be as faithful as possible to the “subversive” nature of her story, while bringing to it his own personal touch.
Pearn’s second feature, following 2013’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, centers on the Willoughby children, who grew up with parents who could not be more disinterested in them. Exploring the sometimes-wide gap between the families we’re born into and those we choose, it watches as the kids send their selfish guardians off on vacation, setting off on a globetrotting adventure and forging new connections.
In conversation with Deadline, Pearn breaks down his narrative and visual approach to the feature—which debuted on Netflix last April—a clever, darkly comedic parable, through which he hoped to say “something real.”
DEADLINE: How did you come to direct The Willoughbys? What excited you about making this film?
KRIS PEARN: I had a friend that was doing a film at Bron [Animation], and I was working on a film down in LA, and did that Hollywood thing where I met a producer, and just took a general. Luke Carroll was the producer attached to the book, so he gave me a copy of it, and I listened to the audiobook and read it, and one of the things that really attracted me was the tone that Lois Lowry had in her story, which is quite different. I have two daughters, so I was familiar with [her novel] The Giver, and this was a much broader comedy.
I’m attracted to comedy, so I loved the idea that she was playing with the tropes of children’s book literature, and my “What if?” is, “What if we pivot that over to children’s film?” And I didn’t want to do parody. I wanted to enjoy that kind of Roald Dahl subversiveness of the observation she was making about what it meant to be in a family.
So, to be kind of Hollywood, my pitch back was, “Grey Gardens meets Arrested Development, for kids,” and the studio got excited about it. That was around 2016, so I spent about a year overlapping a project, working on the script. Then, about seven, eight months later, I’d moved back to my farm in Canada, and they approached me and asked if I wanted to direct it.
I said, “I would, but I’m out here in the East, and I’m not sure I want to be in Vancouver full-time.” It turns out the owner of Bron is from my hometown of London, Ontario, so we set up a studio here, and then it just all formed from that.
DEADLINE: I know you adapted Lowry’s book with Mark Stanleigh. But what was the screenwriting process like?
PEARN: We went through that natural iteration process. I’m a big believer in the writer’s room concept of creating stories. So, my first draft was very close to the book, and anytime we asked ourselves what stays and what goes, it was always our distillation down to character, and the big theme of that family you’re born into, versus the family you choose. After every screening, I would go back and reread the book, just so I’d have [Lowry’s] ideas fresh in my head, and make sure that as we made our choices, we were being as faithful as we could to the root material.
[One change] we had to make [was], in the book, there’s a big tangent where you follow the Commander’s story, and that winds back into the kid’s tale. But in the movie, it feels like you’re away from your heroes for too long, and in terms of that investment of an 85-minute bit of real estate, we had to make some of those hard choices. So when you watch the film, we did a whole thing in stop-motion of the Commander’s backstory, and why he had become an orphan of sorts. We ended up having to cut that for time, but it’s still nested in the movie.
But to me, that’s the process. Even when we adapted the first Cloudy film, it was a 20-page kid’s book, and it took us five years to find the nut of the movie version of that. It’s that back-and-forth that I find really exciting, but it was definitely a three-year process.
DEADLINE: Tell us about your visual approach to this film. How did you go about bringing its universe to life?
PEARN: Early on, we hired the production designer Kyle McQueen, who was one of my students way back in the early 2000s, and we both had the philosophy that, if you want the audience to get your big, emotional theme, you’ve got to deliver it somehow, because some of the subject matter was heavy. So, this notion that every frame of the movie invited you to laugh, or enjoy your time in that space, was really important to us.
I wanted it to feel like a parable. Very early on, too, this notion that the whole movie was from the point of view of a cat really skewed a lot of those design choices, down to the photography of a point of view that macro. The idea [was] that the world is this parable through the imagination of an animal that is looking at everything in a heightened way, so that took us to those heightened textures.
The notion that we could go into Michaels and make this world felt really interesting, and I know other films have been doing that kind of approach. But I think [there was] this notion that there’s a tactile history to this family, and that history is in the stuff. Like, if you’ve ever been to Europe and you go into a castle, everything feels like it’s from someplace. All the textiles and the wood feels like it’s 200 years old, and I wanted that feeling in this world.
So, that was the underpinning of those design choices. And then I come from 2D, so in terms of wearing my heart on my sleeve, I really love animation for the strength of the vaudevillian style that we can achieve. I mean, all the characters have their reference points. Tim was one of the early characters that I was thinking a lot about, and I’m a big fan of Fawlty Towers and just the whole John Cleese ability to always be funny, even though he’s sometimes a little caustic. Just the way that he could hold his body and the repression, you can feel it, and underneath that repression is a clown. Those choices really lend themselves to 2D animation.
I’ve also worked a lot at Aardman, so weirdly enough, when you start using 2D animation principles and pulling out motion blur, it looks like stop-motion pretty quick. But I think all of that stuff was in the soup of our desire to make a funny movie that was saying something real.
DEADLINE: The Willoughbys have hair that looks like it’s made out of yarn. Why did you choose this specific kind of material, in your pursuit of tactile imagery?
PEARN: Well, it’s sort of two fronts, and I think really, this notion of it being a cat’s tale was probably our first entry point. [With regard to] the yarn, I think I was listening to This American Life, where there was a story about this idea of, we’re all connected by the thread of fate. I really liked that metaphor of the red thread of fate that connects us, but also, in a family structure, these umbilical cords can strangle you. So, this notion of pulling the story through, but also the choice of forming a new family, was really framed by that yarn. I mean, that last moment where Tim realize that you can’t go backwards was when yarn breaks on the Alp, so that whole theme was running through the film. I also liked the idea that yarn is a thing that cats play with, so it worked on a number of different levels.
On a very practical level, too, it allowed us to always present this notion of “us and them.” To go back to the Grey Gardens idea, part of the story that was baked in was this notion of this old-fashioned family. That was one of the foundations of Lois’s story. So, how do we illustrate that, in a way that is apolitical, but also is really clear to the audience, and makes that statement?
So, this notion of that yarn being the connection point between all of these Willoughbys through history then gave us something to push against. For example, the Commander has a great mustache, but it’s made out of cotton candy. So, it’s the same idea. It’s a mustache, but it’s a different texture, a different color. And that kind of acceptance and eye-opening journey for the kids, especially for Tim, was necessary for his arc, for this idea of seeing ‘the other’ and being able to open his mind to it. That was really one of the big themes of the film, so the yarn hair really helped us make that statement, but also keep it entertaining.
DEADLINE: The Willoughbys features many spectacular environments, from the Commander’s factory, to the Unclimbable Alp, to the Willoughby home. Were there specific inspirations behind your designs?
PEARN: One of the big themes or ideas that came out of the book was this notion of this old-fashioned bubble, the idea that there’s kind of two movies. There’s a movie movie, where the kids go on a road trip—which is analogous to Goonies and Stand By Me, and all of these coming-of age-stories that I loved as a kid—and then there’s a sitcom happening in this house, which is really almost a museum, a mummified space. So, I really wanted that collision to be as aesthetic as possible.
One of the things that came from my own experience growing up in London, Ontario is, there’s a lot of Victorian architecture in my hometown. When I was a kid, my grandparents used to look after this big mansion. They didn’t live there; they were just caretakers. So, I used to love going through the house. I loved all the weird, dead things on the wall and stuff, and as I got older and my opinion of the world changed, you look back and go, “Wow, there’s a weird darkness in that colonial history.”
I wanted the Willoughby family to have a bit of that kind of texture, that idea that what was great 100, 200, 300 years ago, it’s not great anymore. It’s necessary for us to reevaluate what it means to be connected to our past, and I think that’s part of growing up. So, that whole house, I wanted it to have that feel of a space I’d want to spend time in as a kid. But also, it should feel like a trap. So, when the house falls, there’s this sense of release.
DEADLINE: The cast you got to work with on this film is pretty remarkable. What was it like working with them?
PEARN: As a kid growing up in Canada, on a farm, we had three [TV] stations. One of them was always playing SCTV, and if I look at the reason why I love comedy, I think it’s those guys. So, being able to meet Martin Short and spend time with him, and develop a character with him has been a bit of a dream come true.
But all the actors have been great. I’ve worked with Will [Forte] on three films; I’ve worked with Terry [Crews] on two, and to me, meeting my friends and spending time with them, and trying to make each other laugh is a big part of that process. Because everything we do is so inorganic. But when you get to be on a microphone with somebody who’s a great comedian, the trick is not blocking what could happen in that space.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
PEARN: I’m currently back at Sony Pictures. I was there for quite a bit of my career, so I’m in that development cycle. You know, we’re living in a really interesting time where there’s lots of different stuff being made. So, it’s cool. To use a farming metaphor, you kind of put a lot of seeds in the ground, and get sunshine and rain, and after three years, you hope something will come up.
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