An Exclusive Interview with Rio Director Carlos Saldanha


For many years, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have dominated the 3D animation field with Blue Sky Studios seemingly fine with the success of their “Ice Age” franchise and an occasional non-“Ice Age” hit like Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a who. With Rio, they may have finally cracked the magic formula that has allowed Pixar to receive so much critical acclaim and Oscar kudos for their animation work. (Two of Blue Sky’s Scrat shorts have been nominated for Oscars but none of their features.)

Carlos Saldanha, the director of all three “Ice Age” movies, decided to tell a more personal story taking place in his homeland of Brazil. Rio follows the story of Blu, a rare blue macaw voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, who lives comfortably in Minnesota with his master Linda (Leslie Mann) when a Brazilian ornithologist (Rodrigo Santoro) discovers him and suggests they mate Blu with the only remaining female blue macaw left in Brazil named Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway). Once there, Blu and Jewel are kidnapped by rare bird smugglers and end up on an adventure that takes them all across Rio.

The way the film captures every gorgeous aspect of the city of Rio is quite fantastic, but it’s also a movie that’s funny, romantic, poignant and features a terrific soundtrack of catchy tunes teaming legendary Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes with the likes of got on the phone with Saldanha earlier this week to talk about the movie, and we were thoroughly charmed by his enthusiasm for the movie he’d been wanting to make for many years. I know you’ve been working with Blue Sky on the “Ice Age” movies for a long time. How long have you had the idea to do this and how long did it take you to convince them to let you follow through and make the movie?
Carlos Saldanha:
Well, I had the idea for a while, I want to say about 10 years (laughs), but when I first had the idea, it was pretty much just kinda like a paragraph or a thought of an idea. Because I was working on the “Ice Age” movies, I put that on the backburner in the back of my head. But you know when you have something in the back of your head that you’re always thinking about, that was like, this movie. Every free time that I had, it was thinking about, “How can I make this movie? How can I make this movie?” But only about three years ago that really started to become more real. That’s when it became more of a reality for me. Probably because I was always putting it in the backburner because of the successes of the “Ice Ages.” We kept making more “Ice Ages” so I never had a chance. (laughs) The timing of those movies was very quick, once they finished one I was almost starting the next one. I was happy doing that, but then it got to a point that I said, “I have to make this happen, otherwise I won’t have anything beyond ‘Ice Age.'” I’d prepare a package of the story, like some visuals and stuff. They allowed me some time to do it. I presented the story. I think definitely with the success of “Ice Age,” I think that the comfort level with them with a new property was high and they know me and how I work, so when I pitched the story, they were excited about it. They saw the potential and decided to do it.

CS: Was it more about capturing “Rio” in animation at that point or did you already have the story of the two macaws, one in Rio and one in Minnesota?
No, I started off with the story, the plot was mostly about this character that came to Rio got involved with the local colorful birds, and then got caught into this whole thing about bird smuggling and taking the last of the species, extinction and all that. But the character that came to “Rio” originally was a penguin. This goes way way back because I kept collecting ads in newspapers about penguins washing out to the shores of Rio like on the Ipanema Beach and that happens every year, you know? I thought it was an interesting idea, some foreign creature that comes into Rio and kind of finding his soul, finding his heart in Rio with the sum of the culture, the colorful birds. I think it got caught into the middle of this issue of the bird smuggling and all that. But unfortunately, a few years back, there were a lot of movies in development with penguins like “Surf’s Up,” “March of the Penguins.” There was “Happy Feet,” “Madagascar” penguins, there was all this stuff happening and then the studio said, “Well, penguins are not really great.” But I loved that idea of bringing a foreign eye coming into Rio and then explore the city with a fresh eye. When I took the penguin out, I still had the story of the rare blue macaw and all that, so I decided to create more of a love story and adapt it to the whole thing about the two rarest of them all, who comes to Rio as a person that never actually lived in Rio for a long time, so I captured the essence of my original story.

CS: There’s a great tradition for animation in Brazil going back to the ’40s when Walt Disney traveled down there with a team to collaborate on “South of the Border.” Did you do the same thing and bring some of your animators down to Brazil so they could get the feel for Rio or were they mainly working from pictures?
Yeah, we brought a team of people, like writers, animators. We got the art director because I wanted them to capture what was the essence of Rio. Because I’m from Rio, so I’m very biased and I know things that I probably take for granted or I think that everybody would know. But it’s tricky when you take somebody that’s never been there and it’s just having an experience for the first time. So I took a group of people. We were six total. We went during Carnival, so we actually became Blu for six days because nobody had ever been to Rio. I told them, “Look, I want you guys you to capture what catches your attention, something that strikes you as being different or odd or unique to what you’ve never experienced before because this movie is about new experiences and the story takes you to those places and allows you to change as a person, as a character.” We did the whole thing. We went and saw a very crowded beach. They went hang gliding. We went to the neighborhoods. We paraded in Carnival, so we went out in the big crowd and we had costumes on. It was really interesting to get all the reactions and their first impressions. That’s the stuff that we tried to capture. We all know and have enough reference to build Corcovado, Sugarloaf and all those sights, but the details of the sidewalks, the telephone booths, there was graffiti on the walls. The clocks on the city, the style of the buildings, that stuff, they managed to capture in the very accurate detail. Of course, the whole city was constructed in the computer, so we took a lot of liberties just to make it possible to construct it, but in essence, when you look at the movie, you can’t deny that you are in Rio. You feel that you are there. I think that’s what I wanted to capture the most – the vibe or the feeling of Rio.

CS: I haven’t been to Rio in about 10 years, but every single aspect I remember loving about the city is in the movie right down to the climbers on the face of Sugarloaf Mountain, which I was fascinated by. It’s really impressive what your animators did.
Well, I tried to capture the little details (which) are what make it special because the broad strokes you’d find in any other movie or you’d find in any other travelogue. The little personal touches that we make, the ride in the trolley. There’s a little more off of the beaten track elements of the city I wanted to convey.

CS: At what point did you have Jesse and Anne cast as the two macaws or have them in mind to voice those roles?
Well, they both were in my mind. When we do these things, first I create a profile of the characters that I want. Not the actors, but “Who is Blu? Who is Jewel?” I come up with a little story about them. Then based around that story, I got out and look for actors that I think could represent that story. So Jesse was definitely on the top of my list and so was Anne, but Anne came first and we started to record Jewel, but I struggled with Blu a little longer just because it was the main character and the writing for him was kinda tricky, because I wanted him to feel like this kind of book smart, routine kind of bird, a little awkward and all that. All the writing that I started off with made him feel a little bit not so likeable, and I was always struggling with it until Jesse came on board. When he starts to deliver those lines and we start to write for him and make the character more like him–or he’s making the character more from his life–it was kinda like there was no issues. He brought the character to life. I knew that I had the perfect casting for Blu when he delivered the first line of the script.

CS: He’s a great actor and very underrated so it’s great that he’s coming into his own now.
Yeah, he was totally under the radar for us, too. Back then “The Social Network” wasn’t out. I think he was shooting the movie or doing something, but I was a big fan of “Zombieland” and “The Squid and the Whale,” I loved him and I thought that he could bring so much to this character because he has the ability of sounding awkward, but naturally. Not only that, but he is likeable, he has a good heart. He is an actor that even when he… some of the lines in the movie that I felt that it might sound a little mean or he could sound a little not so likeable, he made it good. He made it work. He made it true to the character. I think that that’s his biggest quality is the fact that he’s charming and you like him regardless, you know?

CS: I think most animation studios like to do all the voicework first before starting the animation, but some will do temp stuff then match a voice to the character. Do you guys do any of the animation before having the voice cast in place?
No, we like to record first and then do the animation. It’s hard once you have animation to put the voice over it, because the animators like to hear the actors’ delivery of the line, the emotion that we got out of the acting, then it inspires them to come up with a physical motion of the character. It’s really important that we hear the voice first and then we add the animation to it. The process is to work with the actors first, get the performance and then work with the animators later in trying to adapt the vocal performance to the visuals.

CS: One thing I liked about the movie is that you include human characters in it. As you know from the “Ice Age” movies, it’s easy to create a world of talking animals, but in “Rio,” you created two separate worlds, and you didn’t have the animals talking to humans and stuff like that. Could you talk about the decision to have human characters and how you decided to integrate them?
In movies where you have to mix animals and humans, I liked the decision of the world. I always thought that was a very successful approach throughout, that you can keep the audience connected to both stories – you cannot keep them separate, but you keep them connected to what we perceive as being a natural relationship. For example, like in this case, it was the relationship between the owner and it’s companion or its pet. People do talk to pets and they just treat pets as kids. Vice versa, the fact that you always feel that your pet is understanding exactly what you’re talking to them about. So that communication, I wanted to be very strong, but in all of that, you don’t need to have words. You don’t need to have the two of them talking, sometimes it’s just a look, sometimes it’s just a reaction, a facial expression that conveys that. I believe that I didn’t have to spoil that magic moment by just adding words to it. For me, animation the less amount of talking you do, the better because I believe that you can do a lot with expressions and with moments just in the acting.

CS: Is it hard to have birds make expressions? Birds’ faces are not exactly the most expressive.
They are tough. They’re very tough because they’re pretty much eyes and beak, especially the macaws, they have just a gigantic beak. But we worked really hard to get as much facial expressions for the birds, especially for Blu and Jewel because of their eyes. Their eyes are off to the side a little bit which makes it tricky because we’re used to the human, two eyes in the front kinda feeling. We managed to find the most appealing area just that we can shoot them right and make the beak manageable enough that it still looks like a beak, but the birds could talk and can think and have expressiveness. We worked really hard into trying to make that. Starting the movie, that was one of my biggest concerns, would I be able to make the birds expressive? We worked really hard into trying to solve that issue. At the end I was very happy with the final result of the birds.

CS: One of the hardest things about making animated movies these days is you want both kids and adults to relate to the characters though they have different sensibilities. Did you see the human characters as something that the adults would be able to relate to more?
No, actually, I didn’t think about the humans that way. The humans were always part of the story because I always wanted that relationship between Linda and Blu, so I never thought about them being a target for the adults. Definitely, because they’re older in the story, they are more mature in the story, and they have a more relatable relationship that I think people will connect with them, but I didn’t create them for that reason specifically. But they do create a different layer that you can have a little bit more layers for adults and less for kids.

CS: In a movie like this, which is very much a personal project, are you given a little more freedom because of the success of the “Ice Age” movies?
There was a trust going into this project that I could do something unique and also, I could do something that was for all audiences and for the world. They knew that I wasn’t going to go into an indie space and just make a movie that’s just for a small niche of people. They knew that I was going to make it because I pitched it that way. I pitched it being a movie for the world, a movie that would have elements of a lot of heart, a good story. Also, not only that, it would have elements that would be universal like music and all those things. Of course, I can say that “Ice Age” helped me quite a bit because they saw what I could do with movies and the success of the “Ice Age” movies of course gave me a little bit more respect. It gave me a little bit more trust that I could make this work. Because I am from Rio, when I shared the movie, it’s hard for them not to agree with what I’m doing because I was trying to be very truthful to the place and all that. When they didn’t understand it, I tried to do my best to explain it or to make it work, so there was a lot of collaboration, but at the end, the story stayed very close to what I originally intended and it was sort of like a sign of their trust in the process that we’ve been developing for the past few years together, working together.

CS: When the studio went down to Brazil, they must’ve been surprised that the city actually was as beautiful as it was in the movie. They must’ve thought you were making it look nicer than it actually was, but it actually is that beautiful there.
Yeah, no, it was tricky because… actually, in some aspects, when we entered the parade, they were impressed because of course, the parade in the movie is like insane. But they were saying, “Wow, this is gigantic. I thought that you were exaggerating, making us do all this work (laughs), but actually we should’ve done more because this is so much bigger than I expected.”

CS: There are little things in the parade that I love like the crocodiles on skateboards; is that a real thing or is that something you guys made up?
Yeah, it was a real thing. There was that and then we were developing the story we were like, “Oh my God, this is so perfect. He just had a skateboard, you know?” (Laughs) We love skateboards, so we have to do that.

CS: I was curious how much you take from real life and how much of it came from imagination because stuff like that is perfect for the story obviously.
I did a bunch of research and I saw a bunch of ways that people used skateboards. There’s a way to fit big lizards and stuff like that, I thought was really cool. I thought this would be good because it would create a fanatic that would help us with the story. Actually, when we were parading, there was a stray dog that came into the middle of the parade. We were in the parade that day and we were on top of the float looking down, and we saw this dog and it was so funny because the dog would be wagging its tail, looking at the people, but nobody would pay attention to the dog, then all of a sudden the dog would just walk alongside somebody that was dancing or something. It was really funny and there was like, oh my god, this is perfect because we have the dog right in the middle of the parade and had the best time.

CS: We have to talk about the music obviously because getting Sergio Mendes involved is huge, and the music is such a big part of the movie. We don’t see a lot of songs in the movies from Pixar or DreamWorks Animation–Disney has obviously done it for a long time–but you guys really brought that element to it which we haven’t really seen in that many modern animated movies these days. So, can you talk about that?
With Sergio, you’ve been to Brazil and it’s hard to think about Brazil without thinking about its music. It’s really part of the culture there. There’s Brazilian music in the US but there’s just a different style. They’re so embedded into the culture, the whole samba and the whole thing about the local song, the bossanova and all that. That’s one thing that wherever you go in the world, somebody will know about Brazil or somebody will have a connection with Brazilian music, so it’s something that’s very universal for us. I thought the best person that I see doing that is Sergio Mendes. He’s been around the music world for 50 years, but he’s still so active and he’s still collaborating with so many good artists that it’s amazing that he never stopped in time. He always is advancing and I thought that he would be perfect because he’ll be able to bring the heart and soul of Brazilian music. At the same time, it’s embracing new styles. We had and we had all these actors that sing like Jamie Foxx and Anne Hathaway, and he brought in Carlinhos Brown, a Brazilian percussionist. And my composer John Powell, he is British. We had all these great elements from all over the world that we combined it in the middle using him as a center force for the music language of the movie. I really sat back and enjoyed the show because I was telling them, “Look, you need this kind of emotion here.” I was giving them what I needed in terms of emotionality for the story. They were doing what they do best, like, conveying feelings and emotions through the art that they know which is music. It was incredible just to be a little bit of an audience in this moment because it was so incredible and so beyond what I could have imagined it to be and these guys working together, watching them work was so mind boggling, it was just incredible. You have other elements too, like Jemaine Clement coming from a completely different approach like “Flight of the Conchords” meets Brazil. It was really insane how it all finally got together in a very special way. Musically, we’ve done little musical pieces here and there like in “Ice Age 2” with the vultures, but this was special. I cannot compete with Disney, they do the best musicals. Truly, the essence of musicals is almost created by them, but I didn’t want to do that because I felt that this movie was not a musical. I conceived this movie as a movie, but music was an integral part of the story, so I wanted the music to be very present and very strong, but not necessarily in an overtly musical piece. In what we have, it’s just like a celebration of music as the story unfolds. The only part that I think is more towards like what the Disney language of musicals, the Nigel song where he talks about his back-story.

CS: Do they do all that in England, all the music? Where did you end up getting them together because obviously Sergio’s from Brazil and John’s from England as you mentioned?
Well, Sergio is based in LA, so we brought everybody to LA. lives in LA. We brought Carlinhos Brown from Rio to LA. Jemaine, luckily he was shooting a movie in New York and LA, so we managed to like, get meetings out there. So, LA was our main place where we got everybody together.

CS: You realize this movie’s going to be like “Night at the Museum” where tourism to Brazil is going to get insane after people see this movie, you know that, right?
I don’t know. (laughs)

CS: Have you been to Brazil with the movie yet? Have you shown it there?
Yeah, we actually had the world premiere there, so it was about three weeks ago. We had the world premiere there. It was crazy because all the actors went, and it was the first time that it had happened to Rio, that you had a top-notch Hollywood cast just coming to Rio for junkets and a premiere. It was incredible. It was funny because it was their first time in Rio too except for, who has been to Rio many times, but for everybody, it was the first time and it was incredible – they looked like kids in a candy store. Everywhere they went, they recognized the movie and they recognized them. It was so crazy the way that they finally were living in real life what they thought was a virtual world that they were creating with the movie. That was really great.

CS: I remember when I visited Blue Sky a few years back, all of the animators had gone out to see whatever the latest DreamWorks Animation movie was, and I was curious by how the other animation studios like Dreamworks Animation and Pixar influence what you guys do out there in your own world of White Plains. Do you guys let what’s going on at other studios affect what you do?
It’s funny because even though it’s a big business, it’s a small world. We ended up knowing everybody and there’s a lot of exchange – there’s a lot of people from Blue Sky that end up working at Pixar or DreamWorks Animation and some people that worked there come work for us. It’s a big family, so in a way, we root for the other studios to do well because you want to watch good animated movies. We want our craft to be well-represented regardless of which studio makes it, but we do want to know what they are doing so we don’t do something similar. It’s very important that we kind of create original content of whatever content we create, that we protect them so we don’t get a similar story, so we continue to be unique. But everybody here goes to every movie that comes out there and they praise them as they should. When they’re good, they talk about the pros and cons. We always try to feel like hopefully we can do something as good as or hopefully we can do better. We are very realistic, and also at the same time very complimentary of the success that happens out there. At the end of the day, what we want is animation to be seen as a high-end product. If everybody succeeds, it gets a good word out that animation is done with high quality and I want it like that.

CS: Where do you go from here with this? I love this movie because it’s a standalone story, and it could be very much like “WALL•E” in that sense, but as seen by “Ice Age,” when a movie does well, you obviously want the same characters in more movies, so can you do other things with these characters and concept?
I don’t know. It’s tricky. I’m still in the kind of shellshocked mode of just being finished with a movie. I’m kinda like thinking about, if I ever do another story with it, what will that be? I don’t know. I haven’t stopped to think about it. Even at this stage, I’m developing other stories that doesn’t have anything to do with “Rio,” so I’m kind of like “Whoa, if I have to do another one, what would that be?” But again, similar to the “Ice Age” stories, I would look for something that attracts me or something that feels like I’m taking the story to the next level, I’m moving onto something that would advance the stories, or maybe the stories that I didn’t tell. I’m looking forward to if that happens, just to think about it, but right now, I have to say that I’m completely just trying to get this one out the door and see what happens and then go from there because it’s too much – I need some time off to reboot in a way. (laughs)

CS: Having this personal story you’ve been wanting to do for 10 years and to finally be done with it must be awesome.
It’s great. In a way, it’s the ultimate dream come true for me. I always dream about making movies, and I’ve always dreamed harder about making an animated movie, but with a personal story. This was like one of them.

CS: Are you involved at all in the next “Ice Age”? It’s kind of crazy that they’re already doing a fourth “Ice Age” now.
I think it’s fast and furious going right now. We started already the animation, so things are really shaping up. I’m not that involved because of “Rio,” but I’m available for any support or any help that they need. We have an amazing team of directors working on it, the same team of animators working on it, so it’s a great project. I have all hope that it’s going to be better than the stuff we’ve done before, but I’m around just to help out. We’re a big studio. We’re a big family. We all help out each other, so now that “Rio’s” over, maybe I’ll be able to get involved a little bit more, or just to interact with them a little bit.

Rio opens nationwide on Friday, April 15.

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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