Saturday, 18 January 2014

interview: Karey Kirkpatrick (1998)

Originally published in SFX in early 1998, this was, I believe, the first major interview with Karey Kirkpatrick. At the time, he was working on Chicken Run and a Thunderbirds movie which eventually fell apart (for reasons unconnected with the script). This interview predated his involvement with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie.

Your first screenplay was The Rescuers Down Under. How did you get that job?
"I went to film school at USC. While I was there, my partner Byron Simpson and I wrote an animated screenplay, which not too many people do because at the time there was really only one market for it, which was Disney. But I have a musical theatre background - started as an actor - and he and I wanted to write musicals because we both write music. So our first thinking was: where can we do this and make money? And our first thought was Disney. So we wrote this musical and brought it to them and played it for them. They had a piano in an office there; he sat down and played and we sang the songs, and at the end said, ‘What do you think?’ And after a little bit of discussion they called us and said, ‘Look, we don’t like this particular project, but we like the talent.’ Because they were in the business of doing musicals. It was a little bit rare to have somebody who wrote all three - wrote music, lyrics and dialogue - so it was something that they weren’t looking for.

”So they brought us on board as summer interns. We wrote a few Mickey Mouse shorts, and they liked the way we wrote dialogue. At that time The Rescuers Down Under was a script that was in need of some work, so they asked us to come in and tell them what’s wrong with Rescuers, and what would you do to fix it? So we did that, and they said, ‘Okay, why don’t you come on board and write that?’ and they offered us a full-time staff position. So for three years I was a staff writer, with Byron as a partner, at Disney. Rescuers was the only thing that I wrote that got produced because they only make one a year, so the ratio of scripts developed to scripts produced is pretty high."

Did you find that material from unproduced scripts could be revamped into new scripts?
"No, I found that they pretty much owned every idea that I uttered. So if there were any ideas that I had that I wanted to do later, I had to pretty much keep them to myself. There were a couple of original ideas that I had, that I worked on, but when I left there they belonged to Disney. Pretty much the way it worked was that we would go in and have development meetings every Monday. Then after I’d finished one project, they’d say: ‘Okay, this week you’re going to be doing Romeo and Juliet - with ants.’ I actually did work on that. You work on it for a while, then send the treatment off to Jeff Katzenberg and he gives you the thumbs up or the thumbs down."

How many staff writers do Disney have?
"At this time there were probably about six, I would say, off and on, doing all sorts of different things. When I started there, Oliver and Co. was being made, so it was really before this animation renaissance. The next film that they did was The Little Mermaid, and that was really big. Then Rescuers after that. Unfortunately, Rescuers got sandwiched between Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which were their two biggest of all time. Rescuers was the first one where they didn’t use cels. They had perfected a process of going from computers to film. It was always hand-drawn, but the inking and painting and photography was gone."

So it was scanned into computer and then transferred from computer to film?
"That’s right. And that’s why the opening of Rescuers is really spectacular. A boy goes out and goes flying with this eagle. The opening shot is a tracking shot across the Outback towards Ayers Rock, with all this stuff rushing by. It’s stuff you really couldn’t have done in the old style of animation, because you’re limited by things you stack up in a room. I think that opening shot moves through 32, 35 different planes. It was breathtaking."

Did they put you and your partner on this because it was a new technique, and new writers wouldn’t be hidebound by previous conventions?
"No, we had got put on board because we had written a couple of Mickey Mouse featurettes, that they were doing back then. They released one called The Prince and the Pauper which we didn’t write. They were doing lots of ‘Mickey in classic fairy tales’: Mickey in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Mickey the Pied Piper..."

Were these for TV?
"No. They released one as a short before Rescuers, a twenty-minute thing. I think they were going to do them as video. When we were writing those, we got known as being pretty good at telling a story without using too much dialogue. The problem most live-action writers have when they come into animation is depending too much on dialogue. So the trick in any situation is to try to let a picture tell a thousand words, and it’s even more true in animation because it’s a superficial medium. So I guess they just saw something there.

"It was great, it was a really great experience working at Disney. When Byron and I worked on that there were also nine storyboard artists, all in the same vicinity. We would write something; a storyboard artist would take it and board it, then they would give it back to us. They had made changes, and then we would refine what they did. It was close to collaboration. That was my first professional writing experience at age 23, 24: baptism by collaboration. And I never got into that frame of mind of being set in my work. I got used to being a member of a team, and I guess that was an attractive feather in my cap. It was really invaluable."

Did you get the job at Disney because of your connections from working at EPCOT?
"Well, indirectly, because when I worked at EPCOT, I did improvisational theatre for a company that was subcontracted by Disney."

Was that basically keeping people happy while they’re queuing?
"At EPCOT, they have all those different Pavilions, representing the different countries. They have the Mexican Pavilion, the Morrocan Pavilion, the Italian Pavilion, and each one is different. I worked in the Italian and the United Kingdom Pavilion doing audience participation street theatre, like the stuff you see at Covent Garden. In fact the troupe that I worked with performed at Covent Garden, although I never did."

Had you been to Britain?
"I had never been. My first trip to Britain was after writing James and the Giant Peach. I had been to Paris, but never Britain. We did bastardised versions of Romeo and Juliet, things like that, with really bad fake British accents. That was also a great experience. And here again, that was where I first started deciding I wanted to write. One of the guys from that troupe, he left that company and came down here, started working for Walt Disney. So he was the one who made the initial phone-call: ‘I know this guy. I saw the script that he wrote. I think you should take a look at it.’ It does depend on who you know."

After you’d done Rescuers, was James the next film you did?
"No, I actually wrote a film for Propaganda Films, which was a small company producing videos. That’s where David Fincher came from. They were starting to branch into features. They had done Candyman, Kalifornia. They had the rights to a children’s book, The Little Vampire. I was hired to write that screenplay, which I did. Then they sent it to Disney, asking if they wanted to co-produce. I had just gotten off three and a half years at Disney, and they sent me right back. Disney replied, ‘No, we’re not interested in making this.’ But one of the executives over there had read the script, was reminded of me, and he rang me up and said, ‘Why don’t you come in and have a crack at Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves? We have this idea for a new Honey movie.’"

Was that when it was still planned for a theatrical release?
"They sent it to Jeffrey and Jeffrey decided, ‘No, I don’t think we’re going to continue this script.’ So it sat there for a little while, but off of that script, David Vogel, the President of Disney, read the script and really liked my first draft. So he called and said, ‘We have a script that needs attention.’ They were going to shelve the current draft of James and the Giant Peach, so David said, ‘Before you do that, let’s have one more crack at it.’ So he sent it out to a few different writers. As a writer, you get a script and get asked: ‘Read this. Tell me what’s wrong.’ I knew the book - I’d read a lot of Roald Dahl - so I read it and I wrote up a twelve-page document: here’s what I would do to fix this. I met with Henry Selick. And that’s how I got the job."

Was it always planned that James would be a stop-motion picture with a live-action framing story?
"I’m pretty sure it always was, right from the beginning. Nightmare Before Christmas had been about 80 minutes long at a cost of something like $25-30 million. They wanted James to be longer, but couldn’t afford to give it a bigger budget, so they decided one way would be to have a live-action framing story. So it was already like that when I came on board, and I’m pretty sure that the concern at first was budgetary. I think they could probably have done it all as stop-motion, but I’m not sure it would have worked. Because this voyage across the ocean was a breaking point in the story, like The Wizard of Oz."

It’s also a bit like The Phantom Tollbooth.
"Yes, it follows a relatively classic structure, which makes it difficult, from the movie’s standpoint, to give it a through-line. That’s one of the first things that I noticed as soon as I came on board; that in order for this to work as an hour-and-a-half movie, it needed something that connected the beginning and the end. So I suggested the two aunts, who gave him the sense of adventure and mystery. I met with Lucy Dahl beforehand. She had some say in who she would like to write the script.

"As I explained it to her, a book - especially a children’s book - commands a different kind of storytelling. Very few people read a book in one sitting, and a lot of times parents are reading this book to their children. You can read a chapter at a time, and by the time you get to chapter ten or twelve, you’re not that concerned with what happened in chapter one, tying all the plot up. But in a 75-minute movie, it was just 75 minutes ago that you set this ball rolling. It would be nice to have everything resolved and come together at the end. So the biggest change that we made, that people still come to me and say: ‘Why didn’t you kill the aunts right away?’ I tell them that we have to have them show up in New York City. It’s something for James to overcome to show that he’s grown."

You adapted that into a children’s book, as well.
"That was actually Lucy Dahl’s doing. Lane Smith had done all these incredible drawings for the movie [NB. Not Lane Smith the Lois and Clark actor - MJS]. That was his job: conceptual designer. He designed the look of the characters and so on. He had about twenty drawings that he did, and the storyboard artists and the model-makers used them as a point of inspiration. After we were done, Lucy would see these drawings and say, ‘They’re breathtaking. What will happen to them?’ ‘Oh, they’ll be buried in the Disney archives somewhere.’ So she said, ‘Why not release them as a children’s book, telling the story of the movie?’ And she very kindly suggested that I be the guy to write the story to go with them. That’s how that came about. The only thing that Lane had to generate for the book, was that he hadn’t done any drawings for the live-action sections of the story, so he drew about five more pictures, and that became the book."

After James, did you go back to Honey?
"Well, during James I was actually working on another film for Disney, just another assignment. I found out, during the making of James, that they were going to make Honey as their first straight-to-video film. The reason they could do that is that by going to television resolution you can save money on the effects, by not having to get it to a projectable format. So they were going to give that a shot, and decided while I was on James to bring in another writing team to rewrite the script I had done."

So you weren’t involved in altering it from a $40 million script down to a $7 million script?
"No. I was on James at the time, so they brought somebody else in."

Were you happy with the film that Dean Cundey directed??
"Yes. The finished product, I thought was really good, with some good laughs in it. The only disappointment for me, was that when I had originally written it, the premise is that the kids think that the parents are away and have a party. In my head, that party escalated into something that’s more akin to Sixteen Candles or Say Anything, a huge party, out of control, with 150 kids."

In the end it was about five or six.
"In the end it was nine, politely listening to music. I had pictured something much more out of control. But that’s very costly, having that many extras for that many days. It makes it a much more complicated production. So that’s the only part that was a little less than what I had expected. The Hot Wheels sequence was in my first draft, so that was nice to see. It was a fun script to do, because I could walk round my house and think: where would be an interesting place to be if you were a quarter-inch tall? I had a sequence where they fell in the aquarium. Whereas in this one they float in a soap bubble, in my version I had them rise out of the aquarium in a bubble from the aerator. It really was fun to see that script, because it had been held then resurrected."

What came after James and the Giant Peach?
"I worked on a script for Disney that’s still sitting there; I don’t think they’ll make it. It was called Me and My Shadow. It’s interesting: I get a phone call, saying, ‘We have an idea for a movie.’ I say, ‘Okay.’ And they say, ‘A guy gets separated from his shadow.’ And I wait for a few seconds, then say, ‘Is that it?’ ‘Yes, that’s it.’ So I’m supposed to go off and build a story around that, which is awkward. You’re torn as writer: you’re glad that somebody’s offered you a job, and you’re eager to take it, but you’re also struggling because you’re not sure what to do with this. I get kind of frsutrated because it’s such a long shot that you’re going to crack this nut. They just have this inkling of an idea.

“Then a company called Interscope approached me. They had a film that was called Frank, about a kid Frankenstein. Here again, they had a script and they said, ‘This isn’t working. Read it. Tell us what you can do.’ So I read it and said, ‘Here’s what I think...’ So I worked on that one for a while, and that was where the Thunderbirds project first came to my attention. They had done some work with Peter Hewitt. Polygram owned the ITC library, and Interscope is a Polygram company, and Working Title is a Polygram company. So initially Interscope was going to do Thunderbirds. They introduced me to Peter Hewitt. What’s funny about Thunderbirds is that the film executives at Interscope called me in to say, ‘We have a film idea that we think you would be good for,’ having just worked with me on Frank. They said ‘Do you know the Thunderbirds?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Okay, well we’re doing a live-action version of the Thunderbirds.’ They started talking about Lady Penelope and Parker and all these different people for about five minutes, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.’ Because in America, the Thunderbirds are the formation flying unit of the United States Air Force!"

The equivalent of our Red Arrows.

And you weren’t familiar with the TV series?
"I had never seen it."

It has never been properly syndicated in America, has it?
"Well, it was, sort of. People who are about 40 years old remember it, but I was born in ‘65, when the show came out. When I saw it, it looked vaguely familiar. Maybe it was recalling some two-year-old’s memory that was stored somewhere. So after about five minutes I had to come clean and say, ‘Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So they sent me home with a treatment that Peter had written and the pilot episode of the show, and then I came back the next day when I had formulated some ideas. I met with Pete and we chatted, and in a couple of months I was in london, developing it with him while he was in pre-production on The Borrowers."

By this point had you watched the whole series?
"Yes. All 32 episodes were given to me on video-tape, so I have them all. I’m now an expert. I went to a film library in London and read about Gerry Anderson and Thunderbirds. Because movie executives, the people at Polygram, they really don’t care if it stays true to the show because in their eyes, it has to play in the American market, and then subsequently at the world-wide box office. A movie studio won't do a $75 million experiment. Actually, Bean just totally reversed that idea. But Pete and I were thinking: ‘There’s a lot of really, really rich stuff in there.’

”And Pete had a very specific vision for how this should be. This should be a sort of retro look at the future. The charm of the show is that it was made in 1965 and its view of the future is ‘atomic energy is good’ and so on. I remember, in one of the first drafts I wrote, somebody picked up this cellphone, because I would try to use little things, and Pete would correct me and say, ‘No, everything has got to be big. With big buttons on.’ As opposed to Star Trek which has black panels with LEDs and little buttons. Everything in Thunderbirds has big switches; big knobs; big, bright, colourful machinery. Where other things are high-tech, Thunderbirds is low-tech. I really bought into that. I thought, ‘That is what will make this film unique.’ A big, colourful version of the future. So we started working on the story. I’m now into my fourth pass at the script. The first draft I did was 150 pages and probably would have cost more than Titanic, so we’re continually trying to call in the budget, keep it managable. Whenever we’re together working on it, we always come back to: does that feel ‘Thunderbirds’? Does that feel like a Thunderbirds thing?"

On the one hand you have an American market where a lot of people aren’t going to be familiar with Thunderbirds, and on the other you have the UK where you would be hard-pressed to find anybody under about 40 who couldn’t name every character. It’s intrinsic to Britain in the same way that Sherlock Holmes is. So is it tricky catering to those two different markets?
"I think that’s why I was hired: because I’m not a British writer. When I came clean and said, ‘I don’t know this show’, I thought, ‘I’m not going to see this job again’. But they said, ‘Actually that’s good because we need somebody to develop a movie who doesn’t know it all.’ Like over here, had I written The Brady Bunch Movie - The Brady Bunch is like Thunderbirds; you know every episode - I would be filling it with lots of inside jokes."

Which would have passed right over our heads.
"Exactly. So I wanted to take from Thunderbirds the stuff there that’s rich and really good. To be honest with you, I sit down and I watch the series - and it’s very frustrating. Because firstly, they look amazing. I don’t know if you’ve seen them lately, but they still hold up today. The art direction, the model work. Derek Meddings; the guy was a pioneer. The colour saturation - beautiful. There’s a lot of great work going on there. However, I think on a story and character level... Those came second."

There’s a lot of padding in some episodes.
"I think they had the idea and Gerry Anderson put Thunderbirds out there and all of a sudden it was really well received. The first ones they made were a half-hour, and because everyone liked Thunderbirds they ordered longer episodes. The first nine episodes were made as half-hours, then they added more footage. I think all of the history around the characters in Thunderbirds grew as the series grew. But there are things in there that when you’re a writer trying to create a movie for an audience that’s a tad more savvy, there are many frustrating things there. Like: it’s a top secret organisation, and yet the brothers turn up and show their faces to everyone at the rescues. When they leave, they go: ‘Now remember, this is secret. Don’t talk.’ That’s not very clever.

”So it was part of my job, figuring out ways to keep their identities hidden. And to really play up this fact that Jeff Tracy’s this billionaire that owns an island and has five rich playboy sons, that the world thinks are these John F Kennedy Jr types, born with silver spoons in their mouths, that they don’t do anything. Nobody knows who International Rescue are. Even the President of the United States doesn’t know who they are or where their secret base is. The other problem is that you can’t really tell a movie about people who just show up at random rescues. Because in essence, the Thunderbirds are firefighters. You look at the movie that Ron Howard did, Backdraft; in that movie they had somebody who was behind these fires. So the plot of the movie is: alright, somebody’s setting all these fires. We are telling a movie about firefighters, but we’re also trying to figure out who the villain is, what’s going on here. In a similar vein, in Thunderbirds, somebody’s behind some of these disasters that we’re showing."

It’s not The Hood, is it?
"The Hood is in the movie, but is an operative of the big villain. The Hood is a master of disguise that’s out there working for him. Someone is trying to get at International Rescue. That’s what gives us our plot, and as long as you have that, you can hang all the fun and the characters of it. Lady Penelope and Parker are such great characters to work with."

You’re keeping all the main characters from the series. Brains?
"Oh yes. I can tell you the characters: Lady Penelope, Parker, Jeff, all the brothers of course, Kyrano, TinTin, Brains, The Hood."

Have you got Grandma in there?
"Grandma isn’t in there yet, but she’s on the sidelines in reserve in case we need her."

She never did much except make cups of tea.
"And we have reporter Ned Cook [From the episode ‘Terror In New York City’ - MJS], who has made his way into the script. So those are the main characters that we use. I’ll tell you something funny. One Polygram executive read the script, this was right after Men in Black came out and made a lot of money, and I kid you not, one of them said, ‘Could one of the brothers be... black?’ We said, ‘I don’t think so...’ Pete and I just looked at each other and went: ‘Uh... no.’"

A lot of people are waiting to see what the actual vehicles look like? Have the designs been finalised?
"Yes. People are going to be so pleased. Because if you went in and you looked at the drawings right now, as a guy who knows the series, and you looked at Thunderbirds 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, you’d look at them and go: ‘Oh yes, they look like them. Uh-huh, that’s exactly what they look like.’ Then if I pulled down a chart and said, ‘Let me show you the old ones,’ you’d go, ‘Oh wow, there is an improvement here, just a bit more updated.’ But you wouldn’t look at them and go, ‘Oh my God, they’ve totally changed!’"

So Thunderbird 2 has still got the pods and things?
"Oh, absolutely. Just the lines have been changed a little bit, or maybe an engine casing here, or whatever. But they look terrific. The artists drew them up and then they were scanned into a computer so that we could start playing around with them. Because a lot of them will have to be computer-generated. We’re not building little models. Pete put together a little computer-animated sequence of them flying and dropping a pod, and Thunderbird 4 going into the water. It looks absolutely great."

Is FAB 1 in there?
"Yes. Our job is to build these really incredible action sequences, the rescues, and to tell an emotionally interesting story that has to have intrigue; Lady Penelope playing top secret agent games. It’s set all over the world. It’s a very global, big, big story. We're being very dilligent about staying as true to the series as we can, and still make it an exciting action movie."

What’s the projected date to start shooting?
"I think they’re planning to start shooting this summer, in July. The script that we’re working on now, should be the one that they greenlight. There may be some changes, but they mostly want to make sure that we have a managable budget."

Are they shooting in the US or the UK?
"The UK. It will be based out in Shepperton, from my understanding. So all the sound stage work, and all the effects work, will be done in the UK. Peter Chiang is the effects designer. Then of course we’ll be on location."

So there should be some hot casting news soon. Everybody’s waiting to hear who’s going to play these roles.
"And that’s something that we should be pretty clear on, because last year I got it back that Joanna Lumley had been cast as Lady Penelope, which was really sloppy journalism because it’s not true. I know Joanna from working with her on James, and it’s not fair to Joanna, it’s not fair to the production. But no-one has been cast. Although of course names get thown around. At one time, somebody threw around Julie Christie. I think Peter did say that he viewed Lady Penelope as a younger Julie Christie, which was possibly not the right thing to say. But in fact I just saw a trailer for a film that had Julie Christie in it, and my wife turned to me and said, ‘She looks just like Lady Penelope.’ With Lady Penelope, it’s pretty important that her age be hard to tell. You’re not sure if she’s older or younger; she’s somewhere in never-aging land. But no-one’s been cast."

Moving on to Chicken Run, how did you get on to that?
"Well, Jake Eberts is the producer, and he was the executive producer on James. While I was working on James, he said that they had just landed a deal with Aardman. Jake and Lenny Young, the co-producer actually went and saw A Close Shave when it first came out. They screened it at a theatre near the academy. He went to see that and then he turned to me and said, ‘You know, we’re still trying to figure out how to do the feature. And if you’ve got any ideas, let me know.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll think about it.’ Meanwhile, I went off and was working on Frank. When I hooked up with Lenny at a later date, he said, ‘Oh, they came up with an idea that they want to do.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘It’s The Great Escape with chickens.’ And I said, ‘What a great idea!’ They were going to hire a British writer to write it, so they hired Jack Rosenthal."

An odd choice. He’s a very good, very respected writer, but he’s never written animation before.
"No, he hadn’t. But I think their big concern was making sure that it stayed very, very British. And I absolutely agreed. Because Wallace and Gromit, Creature Comforts and all that are quintessentially English. So their thinking was: let’s get a guy in like Jack who’s written loads of plays, he’s great with character, let’s have him do this.’ Then his script came in and wasn’t quite what they expected. So they had a conversation with Jack which I understand was very amiable, and he said, ‘Well, this is the way I live and breathe, but if it’s not working for you, then no hard feelings. Look around, get some other opinions.’ This is when Lenny called me. He had suggested to Jake that they send it to me, and Jake knew me from James. And this was the exact same situation that I was in on James: ‘We’ve got a script. It’s not quite working. Take a look at it and tell us what you would do.’

”So they flew me over to Bristol, and I spent two days with Nick Park and Pete Lord. It’s very confusing, knowing all these British guys called Pete. I hear a British accent on the phone going: ‘It’s Pete here...’ We talked about what the script would be and what I would do, and I went away and they said yes. So I came back over to Bristol, and we all went up to the Yorkshire Dales - to Wensleydale, ironically - and pounded out the script in what was probably the two most creative weeks of my life. I can’t say enough good about these guys. Pete is a very collaborative guy, which is great for a writer. We came up with a lot of great ideas, and a 30-page outline. I went off and had four weeks to write that. I was living in London from August to November, working on Thunderbirds, because they had set up a think-tank over on Great Portland Street. We had artists, visual designers, set designers: all working together so they could share ideas. So I was in London, working on Thunderbirds and Chicken Run, trying to make sure they didn’t get confused. We actually spent four days working on the Thunderbirds script in The Royal Crescent, Bath."

Is the final draft of Chicken Run done now?
"It’s funny you should ask. I finished the latest draft. You know Dreamworks is the distributor? We’re getting together on Thursday and having a big pow-wow: Jeff Katzenberg, Jake Eberts, all of us are going to be in a room, talking about my script. Hopefully I’ve got all the right ingredients in the story. That’s especially important in claymation. If there’s something that I wrote in live-action, the dialogue could continue to be polished. When you get actors in to read, they come up with new lines. So it’s a very, very organic process. It’s organic nature is treated as a good thing. They don't call it ‘the creative process’ for nothing."

Have you got anything lined up after Chicken Run and Thunderbirds?
"I don’t. My wife’s having a baby in three weeks - that’s my next project. I’m going to be working on Thunderbirds and Chicken Run pretty much all year. After that I want to sit down and work on something that’s my own. Ever since James and the Giant Peach, I haven’t had the downtime to develop a project that I can go out and try to set up. So that’s probably what I’ll do. But sometimes you get a call that you can’t pass up. That’s what Chicken Run was. I’ve had a really good time on both these films, and they’re both going to get made.”

[In fact, this version of Thunderbirds never got made. A completely different film was released in 2005, when Karey filled me in on what had happened to his version. - MJS]

interview originally posted 3rd March 2005

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