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‘Sausage Party’ Director Conrad Vernon On Vindicating Box Office Results Of An R-Rated Animated Experiment

Deadline logo Deadline 12/23/2016 Matt Grobar
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A re-teaming of Seth Rogen with director Conrad Vernon, following 2009’s Monsters vs. AliensSausage Party was a risk, financially and creatively—a film that spent years in development before Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures came on board to jump start the process. Co-financed and distributed through Sony Pictures, the raunchy animated romp was the fruition of a long-held dream of Rogen’s, an R-rated Pixar film, proving that animation isn’t a genre, but a format with which to play.

Very much in sync with Rogen’s ambitions, Vernon worked with Rogen, director Greg Tiernan and others to find a visual style for the film, twisting and shaping the mundane, everyday space of a supermarket into a hilarious and terrifying universe unto itself. Below, Vernon discusses working with composer Alan Menken on the film and the vindicating results of one successful experiment in animation.

How did you get involved with Sony Pictures’ Sausage Party?

I’d worked with Seth [Rogen] on Monsters vs. Aliens and we’d gotten to know each other, and he called me one day and said, “Evan [Goldberg] and I have something we’d like to pitch to you. Would you mind coming by my place tonight?” I went by and they sat me down, Jonah Hill was there, and all three of them said, “We’ve always wanted to do one of our type of films, but we wanted to do it like a Pixar movie.” While he was pitching this to me, I was thinking how much I had always wanted to make an R-rated animated film, since I saw the Heavy Metal trailer when I was a kid. No one had ever done it in CG, so, I figured, this is an opportunity to do something I always wanted to do. Not only that but to open up the business a little bit, and be able to make animated movies that weren’t just for this one audience, was a real opportunity.

How did you arrive at the visual style for the film? The film brings cinematic scope to an otherwise banal, everyday kind of world.

When we were reading the script, it was very funny, but visually, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just turning a corner and going down a new aisle every single time. We did break down the whole store, saying, “We want this to be a journey. We want the different aisles to be different countries, so it feels like an Around the World in 80 Days type of adventure.” Then, we started thinking about, how do they get from aisle to aisle without just walking into them?

We figured, okay, they can climb on top of one, and I know on top of the aisles, sometimes they have potted plants that you can buy, so I said, “That should be a jungle. They can go through the middle of an aisle, into a crack of an aisle, which is how they get to Firewater’s cave.” So, it doesn’t become repetitive, going from aisle to aisle. That was more of a storyboarding type of concept.

Visually, we wanted to make it feel like a world, so we wanted to pick aisles that would be very different from each other. “Okay, let’s have an Asian aisle, and make it look like Chinatown, so we can get all the lighting and the colors, but then let’s do the frozen food section, so it feels like they’re going across Antarctica.”

Reportedly, the budget was fairly small for a feature-length animated film. Did that present its own challenges?

What was nice is we did have a smaller studio in Nitrogen, who, because it was their first feature, were willing to do it for a little less than they normally would. I think all of us on the film did it for a little less than we normally would, because we were in love with it—it was a passion project, really, and then we didn’t have a studio overhead, where they had four or five different films going on at the same time. Luckily, because we were doing this with grocery store food, we really just had to animate boxes and jars, and there wasn’t a lot of hair and clothing we had to worry about, which jacks up the price a lot.

What was the thought process in developing the musical number that opens the film, and getting Alan Menken on board?

We always knew we wanted to open it up with a big, Disney-esque type song, and we kept referencing Belle, in Beauty and the Beast, how she dances through the town and she talks about herself, and she talks about what she wants, and the town says, “Well, this is how we are, and this is how we see you.” It generally sets the whole film up. I was working with Alan and his lyricist, Glenn Slater, on another movie over at DreamWorks—I pitched them the movie and they thought it was really funny, and I said, “Do you know anyone like you guys that would be willing to do this? Because we don’t have a lot of money.” The lyricist said, “Well, I work cheap,” and Alan said, “If he’s doing it, I might as well do it.”

I called Seth and Evan and said, “Would you guys be interested in actually having Alan Menken kind of parody himself?” and they said, “Absolutely, that’s a huge get.” Alan came in, met with Seth and Evan and Greg [Tiernan] and myself, and we just gave them an idea of what we were looking for, story-wise. He started pounding out different melodies—he did, I think, probably 10 or 15 different melodies, and the one that we actually decided upon, we loved it because it had a longing to it. That was the word we all came upon, when we heard that one, like they long to get outside. It’s aspirational.

In making a movie that vivifies food products, what was the thought process in determining how the characters would move through the world?

While I was at the VIEW Conference in Italy, I watched [Zootopia director] Byron Howard talk about how many animals they watched, and how they caricatured the movement of those animals. We did the same thing, but it was more personality-driven.

Frank was kind of a loose, friendly guy, who doesn’t get stressed easily, and then you’ve got the tight-lidded, angry guy in Jonah Hill’s character, and then you’ve got the meek nerd in Michael Cera. You’ve got Teresa, who’s confident, but also very frightened of her belief system, and afraid of letting her lust out, so she walks a little tighter. We did walk cycles for all these guys, and then we did test pieces in animation. We started with the type of food they were, like hot dogs were cute or wiggly, and taco shells would be a bit more stiff. We knew we wanted the lavash to have Arabic robes, and then there was the bagel, who was a little bit more neurotic. We just did some walk cycles, and we grabbed some Woody Allen dialogue, and we grabbed some Seth dialogue, and we did animation tests to just figure out how they moved, based on their personalities, and how would a hot dog really walk?

What was the most challenging sequence to animate?

The most challenging one, technically, was the liquor aisle, because not only did we have hundreds and hundreds of bottles and cans, and different sizes and shapes, but we also needed some of them to be see-through, how was it going to look like a liquid is in there? We lit all that really dark, with some really fluorescent type of lights. I think we were going for Bourbon Street, at about 11 o’clock at night, for the liquor aisle. All these reflections had to reflect off of the glass bottles. So technically, that was a pretty difficult sequence.

The most difficult sequence, story-wise, was the Mexican aisle, and I think that we did the Mexican aisle six times. We had El Guaco being this major villain, the one that gets bitten, “Oh, my Guacan balls.” That guy used to be a major villain, but he was competing with Douche. So, after boarding it out twice, where he was this major villain that Douche ends up killing, we pulled both of those out. We had gone with one version where he was on top of a tower, killing taco shells to terrorize the aisle, then we went to another version where it was like a telenovela, where it was over-the-top dramatic, and we did all these zoom-ins and camera moves, like they have in a Telenovela, on Univision. We decided it just wasn’t working, so we rewrote it like a 15th time, to what it is now in the movie.

This film was considered a financial risk and something of an experiment. Given the box office success of the film, what do you hope these results will mean for the future of the industry?

I certainly hope we’ve kicked down a door that basically says that animation is only for children and families, because I do think that there are fans of animation who are adults. I remember when I went to see Shrek 2, when it was at the theaters, I took a friend, and it was a 10 o’clock showing, and the theater was packed, but it was all packed full of adults. If we have adult animation fans, then we can make adult animated movies, for them. It doesn’t mean kids don’t go see it—if the parents choose to bring their kids to go see an adult animated feature, that’s up to them, and there’s plenty of kids who are 14, 15, 16 years old that I saw seeing Sausage Party.

It’s not like we’re trying to leave anyone out, it’s just that I think there’s a bigger, broader spectrum we can hit, within the art form of animation. I think we can start doing other genres in animation, because everyone seems to see animation as a genre, and that’s because there’s only one type of film being made in animation, for the most part. I’m trying to say it’s an art form, but you can have genres within the art form, and I think that’s what we need to expand upon. What I think it means is, there’s more opportunities for filmmakers that want to work in the animated field, there’s going to be more jobs for people, and they won’t only have two or three studios to choose from. Hopefully, there will be more studios, and those studios maybe will make more films, because they have a broader palette to work with. I just hope it expands on many levels, the whole industry.

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