Director Chris Wedge Talks Monster Trucks
This weekend, Paramount Pictures will release Monster Trucks, the live-action debut of lauded animation director Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Epic), founder of Blue Sky Studios. We visited the set of this sci-fi family adventure back in June of 2014, and due to various circumstances it is only now getting a wide release stateside. Fortunately, the movie did not sit on the shelf because it was bad. On the contrary, it’s actually a super fun kids movie in the spirit of ’80s Amblin films or Disney live-action movies of the ’60s and ’70s. Stars Lucas Till, Jane Levy and Thomas Lennon are all terrific, and the cute monster Creech is an adorable and inventive big screen creature.
We got the chance to talk 1-on-1 with Chris Wedge about the delays, challenges of directing live-action and making an original family adventure in the age of IP-driven content.
ComingSoon.net: How has the process been getting a chance to work on the film with an extended post period like this?
Chris Wedge: (Laughs) Well, you know, the truth is that the post period was never extended. I finished the film in 2015. It’s been sitting on a shelf since October 2015.
CS: Wow, okay. And so, in terms of that, how do you kind of weather the expectations when you have a film postponed like that? Because I saw the film, and it’s a great kids’ movie, and there was a lot of trepidation going in, because oh it’s been delayed. It’s been on the shelf, the usual stuff, when a movie gets postponed, but it’s a great kids’ film. And how are you reconciling with that?
Chris Wedge: I went into this—look, when they pitched me the idea for this movie, that a monster lives in a truck, I thought it was silly, right? And you know, I didn’t jump right on it. But a couple of months went by, I was in post-production on “Epic,” and a couple of months went by. And then a take fell into my head, just how to do it and it was how the story should be done. And what appealed to me about it was that it was just nothing but fun, big, gigantic, silly fun. And you know, I said, “Yes, let’s do it. Let’s go.” And so, the intention of the movie was always to make something gigantic and weird and fun. And it was never supposed to be anything but. Well, what the film does, I believe, is for kids just to see something fun, and for adults to remind us of the movies that we liked when we were kids.
Chris Wedge: And you know, people are saying it’s a kids’ movie. I didn’t make it just for kids. But I think that the tone of it, when we started to screen it, when we were finishing it, and you start to show it to audiences, it became clear that it was family. And we just amped up the fun in it.
CS: A lot of people have been comparing it to things like “E.T.”, but to me, it harkens more back to sort of the live-action Disney films of the ’60s and the ’70s, like the very kind of good-spirited, youthful adventures kind of thing.
Chris Wedge: Yeah, I get it. I mean, I grew up watching “Herbie, the Love Bug,” and you know, “E.T.” hit me at a formative time. And all of those Amblin movies, “Gremlins” and I don’t know. You know, they’re all movies where there are kids at the middle that happen to know more than the adults do, and they’re doing the right thing and the adults are trying to stop them. That’s basically where the fun of this comes. And then, just that there’s some, I think, completely unexpected relationship between a weird creature and a truck, and the kid that wants to help it. What I kept thinking it was, as we were making it, was “E.T.” meets “Fast and Furious” with trucks.
CS: No, that’s cool, yeah. And it’s interesting to me that it takes place very much in the heartland of America, but it’s not really like—it’s portrayed very like, sympathetically, like no one’s a yokel. Everyone is just kind of trying to make ends meet and get by. How important was that setting for you?
Chris Wedge: Well, that was my idea. I thought if you were going to make a story that was this weird, you should ground it in some place to really exaggerate the fantasy. So I set it in a North Dakota oil boom town. And I just wanted to break down in there with the grit of it, you know? Some kids get money from land leases from the oil company and some kids don’t, so Tripp’s working in a junkyard at night and piecing his own trucks together. And this creature comes into his life. I’ve wanted it to look gritty and real, I didn’t want the sets to look too colorful or cartoony.
CS: Right. And there’s definitely sort of an environmental subtext, but it definitely feels like kind of an aspirin in the applesauce kind of thing. It doesn’t feel like it’s too heavy-handed. What was your idea in sort of dealing with that, artfully?
Chris Wedge: Artfully is a good way to put it. You know, I wanted just enough to get in the dramatic tension in the story, but not to make it a gigantic message film. I mean, (Laughs) you can’t take this too seriously, right? I mean, because not much of the movie is going to go over anybody’s head. I just wanted to setup enough to make the story entertaining, and I happen to think that the guys that frack are the bad guys, and that the people that are trying to stop it are the good guys. And putting a little civilization of creatures under there that we hadn’t discovered, and so, we dug that deep down into shale rock. It seems like an appropriate way to bring some attention to it.
CS: Right. Yeah, and in terms of the female lead, Jane, I really liked how she was sort of the romantic aggressor, I guess, as opposed to the other way around. How did you and her approach that dynamic?
Chris Wedge: Well, her role was always supposed to be fun. There’s a little bit more material in the script than made it onto the screen, but she’s very bookish and concerned about the environment. And she’s probably more into her school work and career than into boys, but when Tripp comes along, she can’t resist. And so, they’re a bit of an odd couple. They come from two different sides of the tracks, and the idea is that it would be a challenge for her. And she played right into it beautifully.
CS: It’s funny because it seems like the only thing his mind is on is on cars and engines and then later monsters. But yeah, it’s funny to sort of see the two of them play off each other like that.
Chris Wedge: Yeah, yeah. I had fun with all of the actors. I mean, I have fantastic people in the cast. Amy Ryan and Barry Pepper and Thomas Lennon and Rob Lowe, Danny Glover is amazing. And you know, everybody got very serious about who that was. It got very specific and clear. And so, there’s so much chasing and fantasy in the movie that there’s little time for character development, so we had to make it all very specific. And I think it works really well.
CS: Yeah, definitely. And one of the things that sort of fascinated me is that I had been to visit your facility in Connecticut, the Blue Sky facility, and you’ve cultivated a very specific sort of artistic and corporate culture there. And it was very much your own. And here you were, sort of diving headfirst into a big sort of live action studio movie, where you were kind of the hired hand. What was that transition like for you?
Chris Wedge: Well, I had a lot of creative control on it. They pretty much leave you alone while you’re shooting and making your own first cut. And I have to give them credit for taking my pitch on this. I mean, they had some ideas about what it should be and they had a script, which I rejected. But I had a lot of fun, yeah. It was a big studio movie and there was all the pressure that comes with that. But those collaborations—I mean, the movies are big because they’re collaborations, right? Everybody’s working on them. And there’s a lot of energy at the core of it, which is really thrilling, and a lot of—and you can’t quite describe the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night in British Columbia with a crew of 250 people shooting through rain and fog and darkness, how that kind of brings everybody together and focuses them on the work. And it was a very elevated, creative feeling that was a lot of fun.
CS: I remember you telling us when we were in Connecticut that a big part of your day is leaving the BlueSky campus and going off into the woods and kind of walking and meditating, whereas when you’re on a set, like you said, there’s 200 people, there’s all these trucks and gear and stuff. It’s a much more visceral environment than maybe what you were used to.
Chris Wedge: Well, I mean, we have 500 plus people here at Blue Sky. And so, if you’re in the center of one of these productions, you’re spending full days running from one group of people to another and screening and talking and acting and writing and cutting and, you know, the pace wasn’t that much different. It’s grueling when you’re shooting, absolutely grueling. But it’s also over very quickly. (Laughs) In animation it goes on for years.
CS: Yes. That is true, yeah. Animation’s more of a marathon. Speaking of which, so are you back now? Are you back at Blue Sky?
Chris Wedge: Yeah, I’ve been back at Blue Sky. They gave me a sabbatical to do this, and I’m sitting in my office right now.
CS: Do you have any specific projects that you’re spearheading or that you’re diving into?
Chris Wedge: Oh yeah, no, for sure. For sure. I have my hands full of projects in development at different stages. And I’m writing and cooking stuff up. And some are animation and some are more hybrids like this one and some are just straight live action things, and just back to it.
CS: Well, for you, what was the big sort of takeaway, now that the dust is kind of settling? What’s been the big takeaway from “Monster Trucks”?
Chris Wedge: The big takeaway? I don’t know. I think part of it is, look, I know for the people that look at the industry and see this project, it seems like it took forever, but it didn’t. You know, I think that maybe there was some political upheaval at the studio while we were in post, but our film hit on schedule. And then I think in deference to Paramount’s marketing team, I think it’s a tough movie to sell.
Chris Wedge: I think it’s so unusual, that I think they wanted some more lead time to just get their promotions for it right. I think that’s what took the time. You know, the takeaway for me? I don’t know if I have one. It was a back to school project for me. I wanted to make a live-action movie. I wanted to see what it felt like to be behind a camera and work with a crew, and I just had a ball. You know, people were supposed to see this movie a year and a half ago. (Laughs) You know, that’s when we finished it. Other than the kind of extended wait for the release, the whole thing is pretty thrilling and fun.
CS: And it was kind of thrilling for me, too, in a sense of like, I mean, I was on the set and everybody was kind of like, “Oh, what is this?” And then, even when the trailer hit, everybody’s like “Monster Trucks”? Come on. But then, to see the movie and to actually be like, “Ok, this is not ‘Moonlight,’ but it is exactly what it set out to be.”
Chris Wedge: It doesn’t make any excuses. When I’m thinking of stuff or when I’m working on stuff, I think everybody does this, you just work from someplace that excites you and you can’t always tell how the movie’s going to be perceived when it’s done. You have no idea what environment it’s going to be released into. You don’t know what will be in the news. You don’t know what news will be about your movie. You don’t know what other movies will be around it, when it’s released. You just don’t know. So you just make the thing, and hopefully, once it’s done, people get it. I mean, I’ve experienced both ways.
CS: Sure. And what’s interesting to me about looking at your career is like, you’ve launched a major franchise with “Ice Age” and but now, when that movie came out, it was an original animated movie. And there’s still this pervasive fear culture in Hollywood about being wary of original ideas or the things that don’t have an IP attached to it. And your career really isn’t that. All the movies you’ve directed yourself have been original films. So how do you deal with that? Do you feel like a dinosaur now?
Chris Wedge: You know, I don’t know. I was thinking about this today, because I’m sitting here working on a treatment for another just original thing, and I was just trying to make it work and I was trying to recall the feeling that I had when I was making “Ice Age.” And I did think about this, because it was just naiveté, you know, and just doing what you wanted to do that makes that movie, just working from inside something. And only after, I think only after the movie comes out, do you have any perspective on how it’s going to be accepted or how it affects the culture. So I think part of what’s happened to me is, I think the reason they called me on to do “Monster Trucks” is like, oh, here’s a franchise-maker. Get this guy on it. He’ll make this into a franchise. And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a little bit of crazy pressure.” But I can’t look at it that way. I just think, “Oh, this would be cool, and then this would be logical in a weird way and here’s how we’ll cast it and here’s how we’ll shoot it. This will happen, that’ll happen. I don’t know if it’s going to be successful or not.
CS: But it’s like, I think just from my perspective, it’s insane, the way the business is going, just because, for example, our site has been around since ’98. And I looked at the top 10 box office movies in 1998, and I think there was like one sequel and one remake and the rest were original movies. And it’s crazy to think that we’ve gotten to the point where we’re just at total IP saturation. And I mean, the wishful thinking part of me hopes that people will get tired of it, that we’ll hit a threshold, people won’t go to see the Chef Boyardee movie or whatever IP thing they come up with next.
Chris Wedge: I understand completely why it works this way. The studios are trying to get attention away from iPhones and iPads and computers and Netflix and get them into theaters, and that requires spectacle on some level, right? And it involves a huge financial outline, a gigantic rolls of the dice. And I think if you’re in business to make entertainment, you’re going to try to do things that have the most assurance of success, and that’s why there are sequels out there. And believe me, now I love most of the super hero movies that are out there. (Laughs) You know what you’re going to get. I love—oh my god, the “Star Wars” stuff. I’m the first one in the seat with my 3-D goggles on. But so, look, I want to make sure you understand that I’m grateful to Paramount for giving me a shot at something gigantic and ridiculous. I mean, I hope it pays off for them. I know it pays off for the audience because I’ve sat in the screenings and I’ve seen the scores and they love it. We just have to get people to see it.
Monster Trucks is now playing in theaters everywhere.