Illumination Entertainment has had a string of successes with two Despicable Me films, their spin-off Minions, and The Secret Life of Pets, which is currently dominating the box office. Now, the production company is hoping to continue its hot streak with its next film, Sing.
The animated movie, which hits theaters in December, sees Matthew McConaughey voice a koala struggling to save his theater. He decides his best option is to stage a singing competition. Rounding out the all-star cast is Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Edgerton, Seth MacFarlane, and Tori Kelly.
EW talked to the film’s writer and director, Garth Jennings (A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) about making his first animated film, creating a made-up world from scratch, and why McConaughey was the perfect choice to voice a koala.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How much work do you have left on the film?
GARTH JENNINGS: We’re finally emerging from the end of the movie-making process. I just walked back from having approved the last shot of animation, which is a big deal for me — it’s a milestone. You literally have called within 30 seconds of being done, so this is fun.
During your career you’ve done a number of music videos and a few live-action films, so why did you now want to do an animated film?
It wasn’t so much the case of wanting to do an animated film, it was just when I sat down and met with Chris Meledandri (Illumination’s CEO) and we talked about a story [that] I just wanted to do, and of course it happened to be animated. I use to do a lot of animated films when I was at art school. That was an easy way of making a short film, because you could make it on a table top with plastering, and you didn’t need to rent a car or any of the stuff, so it was a pretty convenient way of telling stories. I was writing it for Illumination, and then Chris asked me if I’d like to come and direct it, by which time I had fallen in love with the whole world, the characters, the story, everything, so it was very, very easy decision to make.
Where did you find the inspiration to create this entirely new world and these new characters?
That was the fun. The world itself was less interesting to me. We set it in the real world, and the focus is entirely on the characters. I just wanted to focus on relatable, funny, heartfelt characters and wanted to make sure that the world didn’t distract from that. So even if a mouse does drive a Ferrari, I don’t want it be shrunk to fit the mouse. I want a regular sized Ferrari with a mouse at the wheel and just a tiny adaptation like a little seat and a tiny seatbelt, and that’s it. So there’s no big deal, he just happens to be driving a very nice Ferrari. And the world itself really is inside the theater; that is its own sort of world. It was very important that that world felt entirely believable and realistic — and magical like it should be.
How did you go about selecting the songs that your characters sing in the film?
Most of it was written into the script already because almost every song is doing a job other than showing some talent — it’s got to sort of tell the story. So a lot of the song choices were coming during the writing process, and of course you discover others along the way, but that is one of the most fun parts of the job is playing loads of music and sharing ideas and playlists with each other. We need something that does this and sort of tells that part of the character’s story at this point, and you would sort of explore those. We have over 104 licensed songs in there, and it’s this huge music melting pot.
How did you decide which animals your characters would be?
That was the first thing back when I first met and Chris started thinking of ideas, I did character breakdowns. And the pig, for instance, was very much based on my wife, and she wasn’t thrilled when I said I based a pig on you, but then when she saw the pig, she realized why, because it’s an adorable thing. The fact was that my wife had given up her job, she was a fashion designer at the time, she quit to have kids, we’ve had four sons. And then she was really struggling to get back into work for two reasons, because she thought maybe she’s too old for it now and having been out of it for so long it felt like maybe she should just stay with the kids. And now she’s back designing clothes, and it’s fantastic, but she went through a big journey to get there and she was truly an inspiration for that character. Why a pig? I just love them, I do. Ever since I saw Babe, I thought pigs were flipping marvelous. And Buster, for instance, is a koala. And some people thought, “Oh, is he Australian or something like that?” None of the animals have anything to do with where they originated from in our world. In their world, they are like human caricatures, so Buster, I just needed to be someone, who was very small but very sort of potent and a ball of energy. And the koala was just this funny thing, this tiny little guy with this huge theater, and it just sort of made sense. It was just quite easy to imagine an animal that would fit that role. I would start with a human thing and then think, “Well, if she’s that shy, I’d love to see a shy elephant.” And it just sort of sticks. It’s like naming people; once a name feels right, you just go with it.
Speaking of your main character, Buster Moon… Matthew McConaughey has played characters with names like Rustin Cohle on True Detective and Newton Knight in Free State of Jones; it seems Buster Moon fits right in. How did you decide on that name?
It was always Mr. Moon. I always loved the idea of Mr. Moon and the Moon Theater; that just felt right. And then Buster Moon came about because I wanted a name that felt like came from the golden era, those names that you associate with like Buster Keaton, I suppose, and that sort of golden age of film. Zero Mostel, those kind of names. Like who the hell is named Zero Mostel anymore? And Buster Moon just felt like a name I loved saying and a name that felt like it was somehow attached to that romantic past.
What was it about McConaughey that convinced you that he was the one that could carry this movie?
He has the most lyrical voice; it’s quite musical. It’s a very tuneful voice, distinctive. And there’s that energy with him and those are key, key ingredients for any animated film. When you have to remove the entire physical person, and you’re only left with their voice, Matthew’s voice is pretty three-dimensional. I knew we needed somebody who could be incredibly optimistic and always to the point of it being infectious, but without it being irritating, with it being genuinely, infectiously optimistic. Obviously if you were watching True Detective, you wouldn’t be going, “There’s my koala.” But when you see the range of his work, it’s so diverse, and we were proven right within the first 10 minutes of the session — it was just fantastic.
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Besides Matthew, you have an A-list cast with Scarlett Johansson, Reese Witherspoon, and others.
Yes, because of course we wanted the best voices and the best actors, but also they had to be able to sing in most cases. Even Matthew sings a little bit, but that’s not his role in the movie; he just happens to sing a little bit along with Scarlett Johansson. But they all had to have the ability to sing. We knew Reese could sing, we’ve all seen Walk the Line, and we all knew Scarlett could sing beautifully and Taron Edgerton. It was so nice to know that the voice cast wasn’t going to step aside and have someone else come in and sing the songs for them, that they would be invested with a character all the way through. And although that was a challenge, it was exactly the right challenge to have for everyone, and they were all marvelous. Recording pop songs with people like Scarlett and Reese is about as good as it gets.
How did you go about matching actors to their characters?
It would come down to tone and energy a lot of the time. We knew that the character Scarlett is playing for instance is a goth punk kind of porcupine, so she sings a lot of loud, screechy rock, and Scarlett just felt like the right energy for that. When I heard her sing, she could nail it; she has a really great husky tone. And Rosita (Witherspoon’s character) is bright, energetic, deals with everything at home, climbs on top of every situation she gets into, and sings very sweetly, and again, that felt like a no-brainer.
What would you tell audiences that they can expect from your film?
I certainly set out to make something just wonderful in every respect, because what I love about animation is that those animated films I adore can push every button. They can make you laugh, they can really make you cry, and touch you and just really get to your soul, the good ones do. And I really think that we’ve done that here, and not only through the characters, not only through the story, but through the music.
Sing will be released in theaters on Dec. 21.