This Friday, The Simpsons Movie, one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, especially for fans of the show, will be opening nationwide, and ComingSoon.net had a chance to attend a small press conference at a New York City bar made-up to look like Moe’s Pub with some of the creators of the television show and the movie.
Of course, creator Matt Groening was there, as was producer James L. Brooks, who was largely responsible for getting Groening’s characters their very own primetime show. Then there was producer Al Jean, who’s currently in charging of running the television show, producer/writer Mike Scully and David Silverman, the movie’s director who had directed many episodes of the show back in the day before co-directing Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.
And away we go…
ComingSoon.net: There was talk for a long time about doing a “Simpsons” movie, so why did it take so long and what made you decide this was the idea worth turning into a movie?
Al Jean: One thing that was difficult was we just didn’t have the manpower. In the beginning of the show, we had eight writers and five directors and there was no way we could have done a show and a movie simultaneously. We talked about maybe doing a movie after the show had ended but the show will never end. (laughter) And then it sort of became a reality in this decade.
CS: What was it about this plot that made you decide it would be better as a movie than a multi-episode story?
James L. Brooks: The stakes were enormously high. Matt came in and the first day at the table, we wondered what to do with the basic core idea that became the movie, but we kept on upping the stakes. I mean, survival of the town is at stake, survival of the Simpsons as a family is at stake, so we had never gone that big in the series.
CS: What did you feel you could do in a movie that you couldn’t do on TV?
Brooks: For David (Silverman) in particular, I think it offered great opportunities; things we could never begin to do on the show.
David Silverman: Exactly. We were able to do things visually that just would have been too time-consuming, too expensive to do on the TV show. Gigantic crowd scenes, very elaborate chase scenes. We’ve done some things that are very complicated on the show, but the movie allowed us a great deal more inventiveness than would be possible to do on the show.
Matt Groening: Everything in the movie is bigger. In a way, if every episode of “The Simpsons” is a celebration, which we try to make it, then the movie is like a big celebration. It’s a way of honoring the animators, allowing them to really strut their stuff and really go as far as they can with the art of the handwritten gesture. It’s a way of honoring the writers, because we were able to get the best all-star writers of “The Simpsons” and write our hearts out, and it’s a way of honoring all the great actors–Dan Castellaneta as Homer, Julie Kavner as Marge and all the rest. They really got their opportunities to do some great acting. The music, for the first time, you can actually be bombarded by. It’s big and loud and very ambitious. Hans Zimmer did a fantastic job with the score. He’s like the fifth Simpson. (laughter)
CS: How closely did you work with Hans Zimmer on that score?
Brooks: Intimately, and some of the key things that happened to our movie happened late at the sound mix. There’s very little later than the sound mix. When Hans had done these little goofs privately and he played them for us at the very end of the road, we just started putting it in the body of the movie.
Jean: He’s got a terrific sense of humor.
Brooks: Well, he’s German. (laughter)
CS: Why keep this movie and its plot so closely under wraps, especially coming into the week of its release?
Jean: I think at the beginning we wanted to keep the idea that we were doing it a secret, because we weren’t sure. We didn’t want it to get out if we changed our minds and thought it wasn’t worth doing. And then once it was a secret, people were so interested that made us want to keep it more secret.
Groening: And in the movie, we reveal what happened in the last “Harry Potter” book. (laughter)
CS: But how were you able to keep it a secret in today’s day and age?
Brooks: People helped us. Like I keep on saying, we showed this to maybe 2,000 people in total in test screenings, and we’d always ask them “Please don’t give it away” and they didn’t. They didn’t want to spoil the fun.
CS: Considering how long you’ve been working on this, how were you able to include some of the more recent references, like the Al Gore movie?
Brooks: The toughest part was that when we were writing it, at one point, Schwarzenegger went into a big political slump. His opinion polls were way down, so we were sweating whether he’d make a political comeback, so it was great when he did.
Jean: I even voted for him. (laughter)
CS: How difficult was it to write material for this script after writing jokes for 400 episodes of the show?
Brooks: We’re sort of used to that. I don’t think any of us anticipated the script being as tough as it is, and I do anticipate that scripts are tough, but beyond what I would think. It took us four years and there was a lot of trial and error. Part of the great thing for us with the movie is that we had a live audience for the first time. We heard where we got laughs, so our preview process helped shape the movie enormously.
CS: A lot of times when TV cartoons are brought to the big screen, they don’t look that great, but in this case, the animation looks amazing. Can you talk about the techniques you used that you can’t do on television for cost or other reasons?
Silverman: The format’s of course wider, but the backgrounds, we added more detail to them and more color variations and tone changes, not enough so it’d look totally different from the show but enough so it’d have more richness on the screen. Otherwise, you’d be looking at very large flat colors. In terms of the animation, we’d basically lavish the same intensity on every scene that we’d do to a specific shot on the show, where we’re going to lavish a lot of attention on this one scene, for this one episode. We tried to lavish the same amount of attention on every scene.
CS: How do you think that affects the audience’s connection to the characters?
Jean: Animation-wise and storywise, we’d have these moments that you can only get after forty minutes of building up a story where you suddenly go “Oh my God, I’m hooked.” TV is great in that you can do it week to week and you have the love for the characters, but that real deep emotion is what we were always trying to write for in the film.
Mike Scully: In the TV show, every five or six minutes you have to stop for three minutes of commercials. In this, you can really get deeper emotionally with the characters and the storyline.
Jean: But coming this fall, we will do that every week on the TV show. (laughter)
CS: Matt, what surprises you most about how these characters have evolved from when you created them?
Groening: Going back to the very beginning in 1987, the characters were very, very simple. Bart was very, very bratty and misunderstood, and Homer was always angry. I would say that a large amount of the transformation of the characters came from the actors. It was really a remarkable situation. Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner were assigned to do these roles. There was no choice: I had to use Dan and Julie. And they’re fantastic, they’re unbelievable, Dan Castellaneta as Homer and as Grandpa and Krusty the Clown and all the other characters, he’s absolutely stunning. Jim and I were talking earlier, and we agreed about our favorite scene in the movie, a scene in which Homer is trudging through the snow and he’s cajoling himself to keep going and then he disagrees with himself and it goes back and forth, and that’s an ad lib by Dan that’s absolutely unbelievable. Getting back to your original question, these characters did develop in large part because the actors embraced them. Yeardley Smith as Lisa is very similar in spirit to Lisa Simpson, and Nancy Cartwright, I don’t know where she channels Bart from but it’s real. Hank Azaria, who’s all the other secondary characters: Apu, Chief Wiggam and all the rest, and Harry Shearer, who’s both Mr. Burns and Smithers, they really own their characters and they’re very protective of them.
CS: Did you get that thrill when you sat in the theater for the first time and saw the characters come to life on the big screen?
Brooks: Absolutely. It was a big deal. Again, we couldn’t anticipate it.
CS: Do you think the movie will mainly be for diehard “Simpsons” fans or do you think it might attract people who aren’t as familiar with them?
Jean: We wrote it for people who really didn’t know that much about it. I think if you’re vaguely aware that “The Simpsons” is about a family that has problems, you can enjoy the film, and then if you are a fan, we’ve put in lots of little things like we do on the show where you’re rewarded and you get extra credit, but we were definitely shooting for the widest audience. And also, you don’t have to then see the show. The movie’s complete, not like “The X-Files.” But if you do like it, there is a show we have for you. (laughter)
CS: It didn’t seem like there were a lot of references to things on the show.
Jean: We didn’t want references to things you couldn’t get if you just walked in and were seeing the movie without knowing what you were getting into.
Brooks: And then we had some jokes that would reference that, and they just didn’t really work. Not that people didn’t get them, they just didn’t get a giant response. We had more jokes with specific characters showing up and saying jokes and it was like, well not a big response, so we found, almost to our surprise I would say, that we didn’t get anything from that.
CS: Is anything from the movie going to return to the show, for instance with what happened to Springfield, will that be remembered by the people and be mentioned?
Jean: There’s a couch gag at the beginning of the first episode that explains it, but the key to the show has always been that each episode goes back to square one, it’s sort of like a cosmic Möbius strip, so the movie will work its way into the show but again, you won’t have to have seen the movie to like the show.
CS: David, can you talk about what you brought from your experience working at Pixar on “Monsters, Inc.” to this movie?
Silverman: I learned from them and also at DreamWorks, but it was all starting in the same format at Disney, is to get your script up on reels as fast as possible. Don’t wait. Get it all up on reels even if it’s a little crude. Get it up there so you can see what’s working and what’s not working, and I think that one thing if nothing else that I brought to it.
Brooks: That and don’t charge for snacks I think.
CS: And what did you get from watching widescreen movies like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World”?
Silverman: Very much the sense of staging. It’s hard to talk about specifically, but the overall sense of staging. Here you have a wide format, and how you place the characters so your eye goes to where you want it to go and how you balance it out. What’s good about a script like “The Simpsons” in general is that because there are so many characters generally in a scene, the wide format is good for you. You can place them and do some very nice compositional set ups that way.
CS: Can you talk about how you played with the pace of the humor, the action and the form compared to the TV show?
Brooks: One of the things that happened, that we came to realize after all the work we’d done, is that almost every line in it is crucial to either setting up a joke, delivering a joke or telling you something you must know. Nobody says what a nice day it is. Nobody says “Will you pass the butter?” Nothing that isn’t essential to one of those things happening in the movie. And then at a certain point it’s such a breakneck speed and the nature of what we want to accomplish means that, we have one key scene, which I think is so important, I think it’s the longest scene in the movie, and I think that’s crucial. That pile-on is crucial, it tends to be true in movies that you’re supported by these pile-ons and that’s the most important one, where we gain control of our pace. We’ve been breakneck, we’ll be breakneck again, but we get to do a different rhythm when it’s important to the emotion of the piece.
Silverman: Visually, we got a nice rhythm too, of having scenes where we cut to this character and cut back and forth, and you have very long one-shot scenes where you don’t cut at all. I was very happy we got that rhythm. I was very happy we got more long scenes, like Homer acting up a storm in a storm.
Jean: When we were working that scene, I remembered a thing from Moss Hart’s autobiography where he was having trouble with a play and someone said to have one scene where people sit around and talk about what’s happened. It was really good advice. You want people to just get into it and feel like they’re in it and not watching it.
CS: Do you know how many characters you got into the movie?
Brooks: Just under 100 speaking parts in the movie. We got them all.
Silverman: We certainly have a lot of the main secondary characters. I would have to consult my notes and see how many we actually got in.
Groening: I can’t think of anybody we missed.
Silverman: There were many places we were combing recent episodes to try and find characters that literally just showed up in one episode just to sprinkle them in the background, so there were no non-Simpsons characters in the movie.
CS: Were there any guest voices that didn’t make it to the movie because they were edited out?
Brooks: Yes, there were a few. We always had to serve story, so even if we loved somebody who came in and it worked, no. When you do the tough cutting it’s always about story.
Silverman: Which is true in live action films, too.
CS: How did the celebrity voices start on the TV show?
Jean: I believe originally Albert Brooks worked with Jim and there was a part that called for someone really funny, and he brings material to the table too. You just turn on a tape recorder and he’s hilarious. Penny Marshall was in the first episode recorded, although it wasn’t the first episode that aired. The first season it was sparing, and then it became cool and we started realizing we could meet people like The Beatles by writing them in.
CS: Because animation has to be planned out so far in advance, were there any happy accidents in the movie?
Silverman: A couple. One happy accident was something that Jim asked for very late in the game, about something emotional you want to get in terms of people just about to get out of a situation, and I was able to utilize what had already been animated and rejigger it and rearrange it, and I think we got it done in about an hour using existing materials.
Brooks: It was very late in the game, later than you’re supposed to do anything.
Silverman: Yeah, so that’s what I would call a very happy accident.
Scully: And Spider-pig was a very late addition that we thought was funny in the room, but we had no idea how strong the response would be to it.
CS: And what happened to the pig?
Brooks: Well, yes.
Jean: He staged a hold-out in the second half of the movie.
Silverman: You know pigs they come, they go.
CS: You’ve killed off characters before, are we to believe we won’t be seeing SPOILER any more on the television show?
Groening: Now I’m sad. (laughter) I think he’ll recover; I think he will. He seems to meet his doom every now and then.
Silverman: It’s just a hole through his trunk.
Jean: We actually had a scene in which Homer got impaled on a barbecue.
Brooks: I still miss it.
Groening: It was very troubling.
Scully: When they fall off the window without the plank Homer falls and lands on the barbecue pit. There was a pointy rod sticking out of the barbecue for some reason. Homer’s impaled on it–it’s really horrifying–and he says “Oh great, the perfect end to the perfect day” and runs away with it sticking out.
CS: You guys have dealt with the censors while working on the television show for eighteen years. How was dealing with the MPAA?
Brooks: The MPAA did something so great. You know we’re PG-13 and they can say it’s because of language, they can say it’s for anything. They gave us PG-13 and said “irreverent humor throughout” and it brought tears to our eyes.
Jean: We wanted them to add “and brilliant animation.” (laughter)
CS: What couldn’t you do in this movie that you wanted to do?
Jean: Do it quicker. (laughter)
CS: The marketing for this movie has been especially unique, with the 7-Eleven’s being turned into Kwik-E-Mart stores and the Springfield contest. How have you felt about that stuff?
Brooks: It’s been great; we feel beholden. I’ve never experienced anything like it, what the marketing did for us. From the very beginning, when we announced it was a movie and we just had a notion, “Can we do it in the theaters and just do a funny little thing about it?” And they said yes, and we did our Superman deal. God, how long ago was that? (laughter) So from there on in, if you had a goofy idea, they’d eat it up and they’d run with it.
Groening: You know, so many movie promotions, you hate the movie by the time it comes out because you’re so sick of the cups. With this, with the Kwik-E-Mart promotion in particular, it was really wild. If you can go into those 7-Eleven’s and see the displays, it’s like entering “The Simpsons” universe.
Brooks: We’re going to Springfield, Vermont tomorrow. That thing turned out to be great fun for the people involved.
Jean: There’s this great thing where there’s this prehistoric drawing in England where they drew Homer next to it, and there was a headline, “Simpsons Anger Pagans” which is a headline we’ve always wanted. (laughter)
Silverman: The only religious group we hadn’t yet offended!
Scully: We finally got to them, pagans 18 to 49. (laughter)
CS: Considering how long it took to get this movie going, is a sequel realistic or is it something that will have to wait until after the show’s done?
Brooks: We finished the movie so recently. As you know we have a joke about it.
Jean: I would think too it’d be the same role as this movie where we would do a sequel if we had a great story and we wouldn’t do it just to do a sequel. You see movie that come out where you’re like “why did they do another one? I loved the first one so much.'”
Groening: So what we’re saying is 18 years from now. (laughter)
CS: Al, between doing the show and making the movie, have you had a chance to get any sleep?
Jean: No, and when the movie’s done, we have to go back to the show, but if you have to devote your life to one thing, this is it.
CS: What is your typical day?
Jean: Start at nine and end at midnight.
Brooks: And then Al would go to work on the show. (laughter)
Jean: You’d push things later. We’d be auditioning foreign language voices for Albert’s part in the movies, so you do that at 11 at night or something, but there’s just always “Simpsons” stuff to do.
Silverman: And then on the animation side, we’d go all night, because we had to hit the deadline, it had to get done. We’ve been sleeping a lot more since then.
CS: What haven’t you done yet on the TV show that you want to?
Groening: This coming season on the TV show, which is in the works, is just about our most ambitious yet. Al, you should speak to some of the stuff coming up.
Jean: Yeah, the premiere is September 23rd Stephen Colbert plays a life coach that Homer gets because he wants to turn his life around and he’s great, the next week we have a show that has Placido Domingo and Maya Rudolph as guest stars, where Homer becomes an opera star, and he has these groupies who are these middle-aged matrons that chase him around and Marge is really jealous. We also have Jon Stewart coming up later in a political show where they move Springfield’s primary to first in the nation and the candidates come and invade the town and the town is so disgusted, they all write in “Ralph Wiggum” so we’re actually trying to start a “Ralph for President” boom in 2008.
CS: Do you generally have the entire season planned out and then animate it one episode at a time?
Jean: We have twelve episodes of the next season written and recorded. They’re animated overlapping; there are different teams of animators. One director will handle this and then the next week a different team will handle another show and so it goes, and they overlap into the next show.
Silverman: It takes seven or eight months to complete one episode, so you have to overlap.
Scully: It’s very confusing.
Groening: And a certain amount of time travel’s involved, too.
The Simpsons Movie opens everywhere on Friday, July 27.
(Thanks to Robert A. Levin for his help transcribing this.)