Asked to direct Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation—following his work on two prior installments of the franchise—the biggest obstacle Genndy Tartakovsky faced was that he didn’t want to make the film in the first place. Seeing installments one and two snowball to major commercial success, the director was nonetheless loathe to repeat himself, continuing the story of Dracula—played by Adam Sandler—and the castle to which he is bound.
Breaking out in television, through the creation of hit Cartoon Network series including Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky was used to the creative control that came with this arena, which presented an altogether different creative experience, still informing his work to this day. When he was approached by Sony Pictures Animation to make his feature debut with the original Hotel Transylvania, Tartakovsky couldn’t have anticipated the internal conflict that would result. Seeing major results at the helm of studio productions—which came with big stars and bigger budgets—the director was a success, while moving further and further away from the goals he prized all along. “For me personally, the reason I had success in the industry is because I had been doing my own stuff, so I’d always wanted to get back to that,” Tartakovsky admits. “I felt like it was time for me to do something—an ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ type of thing.”
Ultimately, the helmer would find a reason to make a third installment. Needing an idea to push the story forward and break it out of its mold, he would find one in a well-timed family excursion. And yet the struggles Tartakovsky faced on HT3 are those he still now faces, and has faced all along. Struggles in the form of questions about animation as a form, as it exists in the United States: At what point will studios take a leap of faith with a proven director, behind successful commercial fare? And if a history of substantial box office success isn’t enough to facilitate this leap, what is?
What was it that convinced you to take on Hotel Transylvania 3?
So it happened, my in-laws took me on a cruise—a surprise holiday cruise for New Year’s. I’m not big fan of cruising, but you’ve got to go with the family. Literally as I was getting on, I was seeing all these different types of families, and I started to realize, “Wait, this could be an interesting setting.” It’s like a hotel, but on the water, so we could do the same type of jokes, but with more aquatic scenes. It seemed like a natural [progression]. Then, I’d always wanted to do a Drac love story. So, when I came back, [the studio] called again, and I went in and pitched the idea. The funny thing is, they were going in a completely different direction, and they got on board right away.
As you mentioned, setting a film at sea presents any number of interesting visual opportunities. How did you conceptualize a new world for this go-round?
The story afforded us [the opportunity] to go out of the hotel, which was exciting because I felt like the first two movies were pretty much bound to the hotel—which is fine. But then for the third one, it felt natural. Like, “Yeah. We’re going to get out. We’re going to see not more human world, but really see more of the monster side of things.” Which makes it more fun, and animatable, and more fantastical.
I started to pick out monster-styled locations that would be fun to explore, and of course, the city of Atlantis was one. But we wanted to spin it. So we made it like Vegas, right? And then the Bermuda Triangle. Everything started to form from the necessity of the story, and we couldn’t have too many stops, so the best ones won out.
How did you develop your early visual concepts for your primary environments, like the cruise ship?
The whole style of Hotel Transylvania isn’t really goofy. Their castle, it’s not super tall; it’s almost normal sized. So, with the cruise ship, we wanted to stay true to the designs we set in the first two movies. We made it like a Queen Mary, early 1900s type of style, a steam cruise ship that felt right. Initially we talked about, “Yeah, it’ll be a modern day, white type ship.” But the whiteness of it all seemed wrong for our cruise, so that easily fell into place. As soon as we started drawing it that way, it felt right.
Then, Atlantis was always the big gag, that it was a big casino. It’s funny, we didn’t have to develop it that much. Everything kind of fell in organically, and when stuff like that happens to me in television, I know it’s right. It just organically works that way, and the movie started to fall together like that.
Music plays a big role in this installment. Notably, you even recruited Dutch DJ Tiësto to work on the film.
For the first two movies, I kept wanting to push the music because music in animation should be fun, and big, and goofy. It should be an experience in itself. We had [composer] Mark Mothersbaugh, who’s amazing, so for the first two, we were really just trying to push a little bit, but not much. It just kind of stuck to what it needed to be, emotionally. Then for the third one, I was like, “Yeah, let’s just go for it,” so we had all these different queues. There’s some really great queues that Mark did—like this really cool little deserted island, almost 50’s tiki-type queue—and we started to get more cartoony music. Then when it was coming to the end, I knew there was going to be a dance sequence. I’ve done a lot of dance sequences because I like them; I like to animate dancing because it’s fun and visual. We’d done a lot of electronic music in Samurai Jackand even in Dextera little bit, and for the features, I wanted to get even more authentic. Not that Mark couldn’t do it, but you want the true authenticity when you do electronic dance music, where it’s very easy to make it insincere.
I knew Tiësto from just listening to different music, and we contacted him, and he was totally into doing it. Next thing you know, we used some of his music in the temp for the animatic, and it started [sounding] really good. We had this one session where the first time he scored it, he really just did it as a song. And I was like, “No, no. You’ve got to get in there and actually score some of the action, but with beats and different speeds and tempos and all this stuff.” I kind of beatboxed it to him in a way, and he totally got it. He came back with this amazing dubstep feel, some EDM, all this stuff mixed in. It’s kind of my favorite thing to do funny, cool action with this hardcore contemporary music, on the big screen, so it was great.
Then as far as the Macarena goes, we had that from the script stage, and I think every single executive wanted to get rid of it. [Laughs] But then everybody was laughing at it. It’s just one of those things, when we wrote it, where you go, “This is either going to ruin the movie or it’ll totally work.” And luckily, the audiences responded so well to it that it kept surviving.
With HT3, you had some additions to the cast, including Kathryn Hahn and Jim Gaffigan. What did they bring to the table?
For Kathryn Hahn, for Ericka, since she was going to be Dracula’s love interest, we didn’t want to do like a generic pretty girl. We wanted to have somebody exactly as eccentric as Dracula is, but in a female version, and we needed a comedian that would be matching Adam’s talents. I’d seen Kathryn in Bad Momsand other stuff, and she’s always so strong and funny, so that was a pretty easy choice. When she comes in, she is like an explosion of energy, which is great for me, to work with somebody who is so outgoing, and totally got it, and was excited. Jim Gaffigan is someone I’ve always been a fan of. I think he’s got one of the most interesting deliveries and voice textures, so I’ve always wanted to use him for animation. He seemed like a very natural fit for Van Helsing.
Van Helsing is a character that we actually struggled with because we made him so ugly and off-putting. [Laughs] In the preview screenings, people weren’t laughing at Van Helsing, and I couldn’t understand it. We needed a lot more massaging to almost tell the audience, “It’s okay. He’s ugly in a funny way, not in a scary way.” That was a very surprising thing that we had to deal with because we’d see the animation dailies and it’d be 30, 40, 50 people all laughing, and then I’d take it to the preview screening, bringing it in with all the confidence in the world, and nothing. Crickets. It really blew me away.
Then of course when that happens, my bosses are like, “Oh, we’ve got to get rid of him. He’s bringing the scores down.” So now, that’s a whole fight for that character. At the end of the day, I don’t think anybody thinks anything about it, but it was a huge fight to keep him. Because [Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman] Tom Rothman wanted him out of the movie since day one. But he let me nurture it and nurture it and get it to a point where then basically it was too late to get rid of him.
It’s fair to say that this series of films been your first major exposure to the reality of studio notes?
It’s new on this scale. I think it’s always around in television. I was really fortunate in my career where I always had executives who were very like-minded. We were essentially always doing the same things, and then in features, it’s so much more pressure, so much more money. It’s that opening weekend, and if you don’t get it right, there’s no second chance. Where in TV, “Oh, next week’s episode is better.” So, there’s all that pressure to get it right, and you’re doing it from scratch, and there’s this whole machine built in to support you. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars, the pressure is huge and everybody’s judging it.
That’s the thing about being in the mainstream, under the microscope. Anything you do differently that usually is going to be great, you have to really fight for. Because all of a sudden, “Wait a second, that’s different, that’s unusual. Why are we doing this?” It’s the risk/reward type of philosophy, so you’re definitely fighting for things a lot more than you would on a normal TV schedule. But at the end of the day, it’s not my money. So I’ve got to make sure that I’m spending the money wisely, and it’s going to be worth it at the end.
Looking back at your work on the Hotel Transylvania films, what do you think they’ve meant for your career, and for you as an artist?
It’s great to be successful. How many films—family films, animated films—don’t hit their audience, and just kind of go away? So, completing three movies, where each one is [as or more] successful than the last, is amazing. Really, it was all paying my dues to a degree where I want to do an original. I want to do something unique, something very different, and push the art form. Because we’re still kind of stagnant. We’re doing some good films, technology has gone a long way, but storytelling-wise, we’re kind of repeating ourselves. So, you want to break out of the mold, on the mainstream. Of course there’s the Isle of Dogsand the independent ones that are doing crazy, good, creative stuff. But I always feel like I want to push the medium and see what kind of stories I can do. Maybe a big animated action-adventure, R-rated. Who knows? So, it’s all a proving ground. “Yes, Genndy kind of knows what he’s doing, and he’s proved it, and his movies have been successful. And now, let’s move on to one of his originals.” It’s difficult, but in retrospect, that’s always the goal, to do my stuff.
Has your box office success been helpful in allowing you to take steps toward your goal?
It definitely helps. I don’t think it goes all the way; nobody’s saying, “Here’s 100 million dollars. Do whatever you want. We love you.” You’ve still got to get past the gauntlet. Sometimes the gauntlet is good, because if it survives, you know it’s going to be strong at the end of the day, at the finish line. It’s definitely getting me to get different ideas through easier; there is that trust, and I get it. I know that it’s a big risk and responsibility. It’s people’s jobs at stake sometimes, with these movies, so if it bombs, I can always get another job, but some people won’t be able to. I totally get it, the complications of it. But at the same time, that’s what the big fight is always for, is to push.