Introduced and moderated by animation historian Jerry Beck, SDCC held a panel today to promote the fall release of Astro Boy. On hand to speak was director David Bowers, Producer Maryann Garger and stars Freddie Highmore (Astro) and Kristen Bell (Cora).
Q: How hard was it to place this classic, iconic character into a 2009 state-of the art movie that would satisfy audiences?
Bowers: Well, it wasn’t easy. It’s a huge responsibility. The comic is a classic. The first two TV shows are classics as well. It was interesting because it’s a movie for 2009. Looking at the original, it was created in the 1950’s. Although it’s a little retro now, it was very modern and cutting edge at the time. I really wanted to make an “Astro Boy” fresh for a new audience. I want them, because this is the first time they’re seeing him, to feel the same way as people in the 1950’s felt. So it is a bit more modern. Because it’s a CG movie, it’s a broader canvas. But really, the responsibility to “Astro Boy” is to look at what made the original terrific so I stuck very closely to original story of Astro which is very emotional and used that as a spine. It’s really a huge action adventure with a lot of comedy
Q: Freddie, you’ve worked with so many amazing director in so many great films. How did you approach this character?
Highmore: As David said, we wanted to change Astro Boy and make him more modern and that was my goal as well in creating him, just altering him slightly. I think that it wasn’t as hard as some people think because Astro Boy is a character we all identify with, really. We’ve all got a case of feeling different. In Astro’s case it’s being a boy trapped inside a robot’s body. But I think we can all identify with the feeling of wanting to fit into society and being accepted, either in society or into a group of friends or, in Astro Boy’s case, into a family. So that’s really how I tried to approach the character.
Q: Kristen, you’ve been mainly on-camera. Is this your first voiceover appearance?
Bell: Well, I do voiceover for a tv show called “Gossip Girl.” (Lots of cheers from the audience) But this is really my first cartoon and it’s a lot of fun. This is the first one where many members of the audience may be under 18 years of years. Is anyone under 18 years of age? (Shouts from the audience) So we have a few. Let’s watch the language, Freddie, ok? From my perspective, there’s a lot of work that goes into doing live action because you’re on-set all day. You sort of have to be at the beck and call of the camera when it’s set up. You have much longer days. There’s a lot more fun in doing a cartoon, I think. You get to come in a see so many different aspects that you’re really not involved in. You get to see from pencil sketches to when they animate it to when they add colors to when they add the 3D. There’s really so many steps. There’s so much work that you’re not involved in. It’s kind of neat to be a bystander and see it all come to life.
Q: Maryanne, how did you assemble the cast for this film?
Garger: It really was a goal for David and myself to have the best actors in the role for the movie. Fortunately, everyone we asked said yes. We feel very fortunate to have such a wonderful cast. Freddie, of course, is just fantastic as Astro Boy. And Kristen and Nathan. Hats off to both of them. We also have Nicolas Cage in the role of Dr. Tenma, who is Astro Boy’s father. He is a big comics fan and an anime fan. He has a real passion for the property, so it was really great to get him onboard. Donald Sutherand. How great is that? He’s our villain, President Stone. Bill Nighy is Dr. Elefun. (Huge cheers from the audience) We loved him so much we actually put him in twice. He’s Dr. Elefun and he also plays another robot character. We have Eugene Levy. There’s Nathan Lane as Ham Egg. We have Matt Lucas from “Little Britain” in the movie.
Bowers: We have Charlize Theron.
Garger: We also have a super-special cameo that we’re set to announce here. Playing one of the robots is Samuel L. Jackson. (Huge cheers, the panel moves into showing off clips)
Bowers: This clip plays about 20 minutes into the movie. I’ll just summarize what has happened. Dr. Tenma has lost his son in an accident in a laboratory. He’s just built a robot version of his son and has given the robot his son’s memories. So the robot thinks it is a real boy. He goes out a window. He finds he can fly. But it’s not the same for his father. He tells Astro that he’s not real. That he’s a robot. Even worse, he doesn’t want him around anymore. It is a fun film. Don’t worry about it. (Audience laughs) It’s not all doom and gloom. In this clip, we catch up with Astro and he’s sitting on a building. In the meantime, the villian, President Stone has seen the core energy source that powers Astro and wants it for his own purposes.
Q: There’s a new character in the film, Cora, that Kristen plays. David and Maryann, what’s the story behind this new character?
Bowers: She wasn’t in the comics, but she’s a great character. When I was looking at the story and trying to figure out what kind of movie to make, I took a lot inspiration from “Oliver Twist” which was the story of a kid who doesn’t really have a home to go to and goes through a lot of adversity. Cora is really the Artful Dodger of this. Nathan Lane is definitely Fagin. But Cora is just smart. She’s resourceful. She has a little bit of power. In our movie, there are two communities. There are people on the surface of the Earth and there are people in Metro City, the floating city that Astro’s from. Cora is originally from there but now lives on Earth. She’s sort of a foil for Astro at first. She’s suspicious of him. He lands in her world, but they form a friendship.
Q: Kristen, how does Cora help Astro Boy? Can you talk about her character?
Bell: Sure. She’s kind of sassy. She’s kind of the den mother to this group of Peter Pan-type boys. She’s got a very tough exterior and a very soft interior that you don’t really see until the end of the film. She befriends Astro and they have whole arc of being torn apart and feeling betrayed. Hopefully coming back together. I don’t know. See it. But she’s fun. She’s wonderful.
Q: Does Astro have a crush on her? Is it a love story?
Highmore: Well, I think there’s sort of relationship going on, but it’s mostly a friendship. He doesn’t have anyone in the world to talk to or share things with. He meets her after being abandoned by his father.
Q: David, can you set up the next clip?
Bowers: The difficulty here is that, between the last clip and the clip we’re about to see is that a whole movie has happened. I’ll tell you briefly what’s going on; President Stone has this military robot called a Peacekeeper that Dr. Tenma has created for him. It’s an
amazing thing. It can take up parts. If it finds a tank, it can take the tank and use it for parts. Astro has sort of has to make a choice of saving the city from Stone’s Peacekeeper robot or or whether to fly away to freedom. He has to make the right choice while, at the same time, Cora and the other kids have discovered that Astro is a robot and not a kid. So their loyalties change. They’re not quite sure if they want to help him or not. From the last time we saw the Peacekeeper, it’s grown from about eight feet tall to twelve feet tall. So this is Astro flying into the city to save the day.
Q: David, how did working at Aardman affect you? Because “Chicken Run” and those things are totally different.
Bowers: They’re very different, but they do come from a similar place. There’s the humor. I grew up in Northern England with an English sense of humor. Aardman is fantastic at finding dangerous situations and finding what’s funny in it or a twist in it. Finding a way to keep it believable. Hopefully that’s what shines through. There’s a lot of comedy in “Astro Boy.”
Highmore: If I can add on, I think that definitely this film, at its core, there’s action and the fighting that we see in the couple of scenes that we’ve shown you, but there’s a lot more. You saw the comedy. There’s emotional moments as well. I think this film is not just for kids. It’s for adults as well and it’s one they can go to with their family.
(The floor is turned over to questions from the audience)
Q: I’m from Michigan and there are being offered a lot of incentives for films to shoot there. Kristen, have you read any scripts that you might think about doing in Detroit?
Bell: I would love to come to Detroit and shoot a movie. I don’t think that maybe I have the pull — although I’m flattered — I don’t think that I have the pull to bring a film there myself. But there are plenty of films that say they’re shooting in Detroit and I am keeping
my eye out. I would love to go back there. They’re building huge studios there. So if anyone is making a movie, do it. There’s a lot of good stuff there and they need it.
Q: The foley-work was awesome. Care to comment?
Bowers: Yeah, definitely. We have an amazing sound supervisor, Richard Anderson. He’s worked like “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Gremlins.” There’s this fantastic list. All films I grew up with and loved. Every now and then I’m trying to get him to slip in a little bit of the Millennium Falcon here and there. He put a bit of “War of the World,” the original, into “Astro Boy,” which was delightful. We’re mixing the movie right now, which you can probably tell. We just wanted enough animation that you guys can see it.
Garger: We also have some amazing music. Our composer is John Ottman and we just recorded the score in London. That’s really elevating the movie as well.
Q: Are there any easter eggs for fans of the original comic book or tv series buried in there?
Bowers: Yes, there’s quite a few. I’m not going to give away all of them. We have Osamu Tezuka himself in the movie quite a lot. He’s a character actor. In the Japanese version Simo Koto Tezuko doing the voice, which is really special. There are lot of characters from the “Astro Boy” universe in there. You’ll see them.
Q: Freddie and Kristen, Were there any scenes that you guys had to do that you were emotionally moved by?
Highmore: Yes, I think there are quite a few scenes that are emotionally moving. I think that, as an actor, you actually have to be in that emotion yourself. Just doing a voice you need to be as committed to the role as you would be playing another. So that means, yeah, if you’re upset in the scene, you need to be ready to cry. That’s the best thing to do. But it’s really up to the audience, all the people in this room and all the people who see the film who need to be pleased in the end.
Bell: I think that’s true. There are scenes where you need to get emotional. You can’t really fake it just because you’re not in the mood. Then you hear it back and you go, “Oh god, that’s crap!” Sometimes it is. Sometime you sound like you’re trying to get out of a speeding ticket or something. You really do need to be present. There are a few parts in the movie — because I just saw it for the first time — and I cried. And I knew what was going to happen. But it is very moving. It’s really, really sweet.
Q: I’m almost 50 and Astro Boy is one my oldest and most beloved superheroes. I’m just wondering how you’re handling the pressure of knowing that I’ve waited all my life for this. Because if you get it wrong, me and millions of other people will be deeply and darkly
Bell: I really hope you like it and I will be happy to take any and all of your notes.
Highmore: I first met Maryanne and David to discuss the piece and they were just entirely dedicated to “Astro Boy.” There are just fans all around the world. I just want to make sure that everyone around the world, everyone like you, gets to see “Astro Boy” and gets to experience it.
Q: Were either of you familiar with “Astro Boy” before and, if not, did you read the manga or watch the anime before hand?
Bell: Well, I wasn’t familiar with it at all. Then I was exposed a little bit. David told me anything and everything, especially about how big he is in Japan. Because Cora is a new character, I didn’t do as much researching into reading the comic book or watching the old stuff because she’s sort of a new addition into the world of “Astro Boy.”
Highmore: I did take a few of the Manga comics for inspiration, but I wanted to make it a bit my own so I didn’t catch the 1960’s TV version.
Q: Kristen, what is it going to take for a “Veronica Mars” movie to happen?
Bell: F-yes, I’ll do it! Provided that I’m not over the hill because, let’s face it, I’m close. My hair’s not grey yet, but it’s close. Rob Thomas wrote a treatment and pitched it to Warner Brothers, but Joel [Silver] and others at Warner Brothers just said there’s not enough enthusiasm to make a movie. We just need to let Warner Brothers know that there is enthusiasm and people will go see it. It just needs to make it’s money back. It’s not going to be expensive to make and I think that you guys would all love to see it. We just have to write letters. Maybe get another plane. Who got that plane? No one knows what I’m talking about. Someone got a plane to fly by the CW with a sign.
Bowers: I think a really, really great way to show your support for a “Veronica Mars” movie is to turn out in droves for “Astro Boy.”
Bell: That’s really not a bad idea.
Q: Kristen, do you get a chance to sing in this movie and/or will you be singing in movies in the future?
Bell: I don’t sing in this movie. It’s just not appropriate. Believe me, I tried to slip it in. But we’re currently working on a musical version of “Heathers.” It’s everything you want it to be. Trust me on that. That’s supposed to be out sometime in 2010. So you can spread the love.
Q: Are we going to see the classic look of “Astro Boy” in this film at all?
Bowers: This is a classic superhero origin story. So when Dr. Tenma created him, he looks up at the Astro that we all know and love. By the end of the movie, when he’s sort of figured out who he is and what his destiny is, he absolutely, 100 percent is the classic Astro Boy.
Astro Boy hits theaters October 23rd.