Everyone’s favorite smartphone game has now become America’s #1 family film as The Angry Birds Movie continues to delight moviegoers. Last week, I had a chance to chat with the film’s producer, John Cohen, about the process of bringing this story to life as a film.
Beeb Ashcroft: You’ve got a unique challenge with something that is video game-based, and especially something that is a smartphone game, it’s such a new concept – how do you translate something like that into a movie?
John Cohen: That is what excited me the most about this as a possible movie. The Angry Birds games have been downloaded now, I think, 3 and a half billion times. It’s so crazy. And that’s a lot of people that know the games, have played the games, love the game. And when you have a property of that size, with that kind of connection with families and with people in the world, it’s normally something like a book property, like Harry Potter, for example. Every single detail in Harry Potter is beautifully spelled out for you. The names of every character, every prop, every location, and if you’re lucky enough to be a part of translating something like Harry Potter into a movie, you are just carefully translating someone else’s vision, and trying to bring that to life and not mess it up. With something like Angry Birds, we have all of the great value of the connection and the awareness of the property, but not a lot had been defined. There are of course some characters that are popular from the game, they have unique abilities: They use the slingshot because they’re going up against these dumb green piggies who have stolen their eggs. Beyond a few core things, it was really a blank slate. And so, the process of translating that into a movie, we approached more from the perspective of other movies that I’ve been a part of – as an example, like Despicable Me, or the Ice Age movies, where we’re telling an original story of how that strange conflict came to exist between these flightless birds and these green piggies. And so it was such a cool opportunity to be able to tell an original story, but have it be something that everyone in the world knows.
Beeb Ashcroft: That’s a cool way to look at, because you’re right – we all know it, but it’s still a blank slate to be projected on. This movie also has such a hilarious voice cast, and I’ve got to imagine that must have been crucial bringing the story to life. How did you decide who to get on board?
John Cohen: Oh my gosh, we were so lucky to get all of our first choices. All the people that are just the funniest, funniest people in the world. And, when you’re doing something in animation, [for] an actor performing is a very unusual experience for them. Because you’re really stripped of all of the tools that you have in your bag of tricks as an actor to really perform. If you think about it, an actor comes in, and she or he is in a recording booth, alone, without any other actors, with only their voice, and without any costumes, without any sets, and it’s a pretty abnormal environment. So, the best way to get spontaneous feeling, really organic, natural performances from actors is if they are great improvisational comedians. And, all of the actors that we have in the movies have that fantastic ability. When you see someone like Kate McKinnon come in and read her script and her lines, or Jason Sudeikis or Josh Gad, and they already have good lines because we had a good script, and they take those lines and they come up with new ideas and they make them even funnier, and really get to know their characters and are able to bring those characters to life through just their voices.
Beeb Ashcroft: So you encouraged improvisation for this film?
John Cohen: Yes. I think it’s an important thing to do, it’s an important part of animation, especially when you have people who are this talented, not only as vocal performers, but as improvisational comedians and writers. Each actor is contributing a lot in their role.
Beeb Ashcroft: Right, and I noticed there’s a lot of SNL alumni on there – that makes total sense to me, because they have that gift to come up with just such amazing stuff on the spot.
John Cohen: Oh, my gosh. The recording sessions are like you’re watching a comedy show. We come out of the recording sessions and for an actor, because they’re alone at a microphone, it can be exhausting. It can be a very tiring session because again, they’re not sharing the spotlight with anyone else. They are just on, for hours at a time. And for us, we leave a recording session, and we’re wheezing because we’re laughing so hard. And so, it is a great joy to come back into editorial and be able to pick the best line among, sometimes, dozens of great options for a line, and so it’s a lot of fun.
Beeb Ashcroft: Oh, I can only imagine! Going back to what you were saying earlier about how this game obviously has an all-ages appeal, another thing I think about having a cast like this is the movie itself can appeal to anybody. Did you think that was important, that parents could enjoy this with their kids and it wouldn’t just be a kiddie movie?
John Cohen: It is so important. You know, as we’ve made the movie, we were always looking at it through the lens of the entire family. And wanted to find comedy that we knew kids would love, but also wanted to find comedy that we laughed at and we found genuinely funny. You spend a long time – months and months and months – in a small group of our core team: Our directors, my producing partners, Catherine Winder, Mikael Hed and David Maisel, our editors, Kent Beyda and Ally Garrett, and we all sat around and we would laugh at the movie and these scenes every day, and we thought it was hilarious. But when we started to show it to audiences, and we had families in a packed theater and we heard the same reaction now from hundreds of people, that is always the most satisfying part of the process. All of a sudden, the movie takes on a life of its own and you hear laughter from beginning to end. What I’m so proud of with this movie is that [it is] not only funny. I think audiences and so many parents have said this to me – friends of mine, and even just anecdotal conversations, that they’re so pleasantly surprised that the movie is emotional too. And that they make an emotional connection to these characters and feel that heartwarming quality, especially at the end.
The Angry Birds Movie is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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