Some people might say that The Croods is a movie thousands of years in the making.
Of course, for DreamWorks Animation, the journey began less than a decade ago, when the studio announced Crood Awakening as a joint venture with Aardman Animations. The picture was to be their fourth collaboration, following Chicken Run (2000), Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) and Flushed Away (2006).
John Cleese of Monty Python fame signed on to pen Crood Awakening with Kirk DeMicco, a co-writer on such films as Quest for Camelot and Racing Stripes. In May 2005, DreamWorks issued a press release with the following description: “Set in the Stone Age, Crood Awakening is a comedy about a big man in a small village called Crood. His position as leader of the hunt is threatened by the arrival of a prehistoric genius who comes up with revolutionary new inventions… like fire.”
But then an unexpected twist came in November 2006: DreamWorks and Aardman announced an end to their partnership.
Crood Awakening picked up steam once more when Chris Sanders joined DreamWorks in March 2007. The Lilo & Stitch director had left Disney in December 2006, due to creative differences over his then-directorial project American Dog. At DreamWorks, Sanders planned to direct and significantly rewrite Crood Awakening. After one year on the project, however, he was asked to join Dean DeBlois as co-director of the studio’s How To Train Your Dragon. Fortunately, the move paid off as Dragon became a critically-acclaimed blockbuster in 2010 and gave DreamWorks a new franchise.
In May 2009, DreamWorks announced that Sanders had returned to his Crood project, with a new co-director – original co-writer DeMicco – and a new title, The Croods. The studio’s press release revealed a revamped synopsis for the feature: “An old school caveman must lead his family across a volatile prehistoric landscape in search of a new home. The outsized flora and fauna are challenge enough, but the real complication arises when the family is joined by an alarmingly modern caveman whose search for ‘tomorrow’ is at odds with our hero’s reliance on the traditions of yesterday.” Nicolas Cage would later be cast as the family patriarch Grug, whose free-thinking daughter Eep (Emma Stone) falls for a progressive guy named Guy, voiced by Ryan Reynolds.
Nearly four years later, The Croods is finally hitting theaters on March 22, with critics suggesting the film was worth the wait. In an Animated Views exclusive, Sanders and DeMicco discuss the evolution of The Croods, from its earliest conception to the finished film. They also offer the latest on their other endeavors, including DeMicco’s work on the live-action/CGI Hong Kong Phooey and Sanders’ involvement with the Dragon sequels.
Animated Views: Kirk, you were involved with The Croods back when it was called Crood Awakening, in 2005. What originally brought you to the project?
Kirk DeMicco: I had written some scripts with John Cleese. John and I came over to DreamWorks, where they showed us ideas, environments and launching pads for some films. One of them was a movie on cavemen. It was still the same theme: the fear of change. But at that time, it was really more focused on the fear of technology and the changing of technology and how to keep up with that.
Then the story evolved over time, when Chris came over in 2007 from Disney. That’s where we really started focusing it on the Croods as a family, with the fear of change being more personal and relatable.
AV: About the original “fear of technology” storyline, I read elsewhere where you joked that John Cleese is terrified of technology.
KDM: Exactly! He’s completely convinced that technology is going to ruin the world – that it’s already ruined society to the extent that we have less-personal relationships and more interfacing through computers, and that all other sorts of technology aren’t good for society. Yes, he’s definitely afraid of it.
AV: Chris, this was the first movie you worked on at DreamWorks, wasn’t it?
CS: You know, it’s a funny thing: yes and no. It was the first project I came to work on, but the first movie I completed was How To Train Your Dragon. I was on this film for one year when I was asked to take over direction on Dragon.
How To Train Your Dragon was really my true introduction to all things CG. That was my crash course in CG. It changed my feelings about The Croods. When I came back to The Croods, I guess you could say I really understood the true potential of CG and what it could accomplish, which was a big change for the crew. So, in a way, The Croods is my first and second project.
AV: At one point, Kirk, you left to direct Space Chimps, and then, like Chris, you came back to the project.
KDM: Yeah, I left while I was still writing on this. I didn’t become a director until after Chris went to Dragon. Writing was something I could do from a distance. Typically, you’d be able to write on things and not be at the studio every day. So, it was a little bit of a different situation. But yes.
AV: How much of Crood Awakening made it to The Croods?
KDM: Thematically, the fear of change came through. Grug and the character who became Guy – Guy is the “winds of change”; he’s the metaphor. So, he’s always been there. But it really wasn’t until we landed on the father/daughter story that I think it really crystallized, because that’s when it became emotional. The idea of being afraid of changing technology, inventions and things like that – they’re kind of intellectual fears; they’re not really emotional fears. But when we crystallized that it was the fear of this dad losing a daughter possibly to a man he doesn’t really like at the beginning, then it really became something that you could connect with emotionally. That’s where I think you could say the film really became The Croods. It became the family story; more specifically, it became a father/daughter story.
AV: Was Crood Awakening going to be a stop-motion animated film?
KDM: Yeah, it was originally going to be. That’s the way it was first announced by DreamWorks. It was going to be done at Aardman, as a stop-motion film. And that’s a very different beast. Obviously, there are limitations to what you can do in stop-motion. You can bring amazing things to it. But with this film becoming a road trip movie, with as many sets and characters and the kind of vistas and environments that we go through, we wanted to take people on an adventure, and we were able to do that with CG.
With stop-motion, it would have taken on more of a domestic angle. When we started, it was right for that medium. But once it went to CG, we wanted to see as many environments as we could, to really take the audience on an adventure through a world they had never seen before.
Kirk DeMicco, left, and Chris Sanders
AV: Could each of you describe what your co-director brought to the picture?
CS: One of the most important things to happen – I think the most important thing to happen – during the development of the film was something that Kirk came up with. When I left The Croods, it was a story about an entire village of cavemen, with Grug the dad being the chief of that village. That was a version of the film we had worked very hard on for about a year. As well as we were able to make that version of the story work, it never really got off the ground.
I left to work on Dragon. And during that time, Kirk spent some quality alone time on The Croods. He called me one day and said he had something to pitch to me. I came down, and Kirk said, “I want you to try this on for size: No more village. We’re getting rid of everybody except one family. A pseudo-caveman family loses their cave, and they go on the world’s first family road trip to find another one.” I just lit up. It was absolutely the right thing to do. It had unburdened the story from a lot of weight and a lot of complexity it just didn’t need. And finally, for the first time, it was really able to get off the ground. So, I would say that of all the things that happened on the movie, that was the single most important change that ever occurred to the story.
KDM: People ask us how we split things up. Chris and I wrote the story together. So, I don’t know what it would be like directing or co-directing off somebody else’s script that we hadn’t written.
The thing is, Chris coming from storyboarding and me coming from screenwriting, there are a lot of things that Chris can do by being able to storyboard scenes. I can write a scene, but then a storyboard artist has to translate that. Chris, because he has the ability to storyboard, is a great help. A lot of times, we’ll have a scene, and we won’t really know exactly what to tell the storyboard artist, but we’ll kind of know what we want. That’s when Chris can go off for a week and sit down with his pen and paper and actually storyboard it himself. It’s sort of a secret weapon. We’d get to a place in the scene that we just couldn’t crack, and that would be the way sometimes it would open up. We’d be like, “Finally!”
Writing the film together made it great. It’s a big production. There are tons of departments and tons of meetings, and you’re always going from place to place. Chris and I share a very similar sensibility when it comes to things. Since we knew the material so well, and we were never fighting over the material, I feel that’s what gave us the ability to be open and know what each other wanted. If Chris had to be somewhere, I could go to the crew and be able to answer all the questions. Because we had that writing process, we knew where the vision was locked down, and where sometimes we would be like, “Hmm, not really sure. Let me double-check that.”
AV: I’d like to talk about the look of The Croods. People usually imagine prehistoric times being dark and dingy. But The Croods is just the opposite, full of vibrant colors.
CS: We wanted the moment where the Croods step into this new world to be reminiscent of the moment where Dorothy leaves Kansas and steps into Oz. For The Croods, it is as foreign a place, as foreign an environment, as we could manifest. We really wanted the audience to feel that moment, along with the Croods.
The opening of the film is staged in, basically, an American desert. We found it to be a very beautiful place. Personally, I love being in Utah; this environment is very much like that. It’s very monochromatic; it’s very red. And it’s very open. One of the aspects that we wanted to play up is that the Croods come from a place where they can see for many, many miles. When the Croods first take a look at the new world, it is everything they have never seen before. It is absolutely the opposite of where they come from. It’s lush; it’s dense. There are troves of plants. When they fall into this new world, they can’t see very far; they can see for only a few yards, which is very different from where they come from. So, that’s really the reason for the colors.
The Croods come from an environment that is monochromatic. This new place is noisy; it’s colorful. It’s hard to see where you’re going. It has depth to it. They walk along these gigantic tree limbs and the roots of trees. There are no level spots. One of the things you’ll notice about the new world is that it has a lot of up and down to it. So, color was just one aspect of the new world that was designed to throw the Croods off-balance.
AV: Cinematographer Roger Deakins acted as a consultant on The Croods. How did he contribute to the look of the film?
KDM: Chris had worked with him on How To Train Your Dragon. Roger is all about taking away light rather than adding it. A lot of animated films use sort of what you’d call “comedy lighting” – it’s bright, and you can see everything. But for this film, Roger helped certain sequences like when Eep sneaks out of her cave at night, and she’s chasing a torch. Ryan Reynolds’ character is carrying this torch, and Eep is chasing the fire’s light through a canyon. That’s really all about lighting in the shadows – having the conviction to let the edges go completely dark, and to have this girl be in the cave when she first sees the light go through it.
That was really what he brought to it, helping us define what those scenes could look like, so that they had sort of a grounded look. It really complimented what we were trying to tell with the story. It feels like you’re out there in the canyon, and there’s just this one little torchlight. He really brought that sort of grounded realism, as much as you could say there’s realism in an animated film.
AV: You created some new creatures for The Croods. What was the creative process behind them?
CS: We really wanted to populate this world with prehistoric creatures that were fresh and different. We were, in a sense, inventing our own time period. Early on in the development process, one of our artists drew a combination creature. It was a creature made of two familiar creatures, creating something you’d never seen before. Both Kirk and I became very, very enthusiastic about this idea being a controlling idea for the whole film. So, we asked that they continue to riff on that idea.
Most of the creatures in our film are combination creatures. The “macawnivore,” which is a giant, green tiger, is a good example: he is part saber-tooth tiger, part macaw. His coloration is that of a parrot. We have a little “crocopup”: he’s part crocodile, part dog. He has the coloration of a skunk, so I guess you could say he is actually three creatures put together. It was just a controlling idea that we used to create a new world.
AV: Kirk, I have to ask about another intriguing film you co-wrote: the live-action/CGI Hong Kong Phooey.
KDM: It’s intriguing to me, too, my friend! [laughs] Find out what’s going on with it!
AV: [laughs] You don’t know the latest on the project?
KDM: Well, I do know a little bit. I’m still friends with the guys at Alcon, who are doing it. Brett Ratner is still involved. There was something going on recently, they said. I saw one of the guys about a year ago – might have been ten months ago, to be honest. We set that up long before there was a Kung Fu Panda; we had hoped to have the “kung fu dog.”
But I think they are close on some things. I hope it sees the light of day; I think it will one day. I’m a huge Hanna-Barbera fan. So, that’s why I’ve worked on a lot of that kind of stuff. It’s the kind of stuff that I love.
Hong Kong Phooey in a test reel for the character’s live-action/CGI film
AV: Chris, I was surprised to see that you aren’t co-directing the sequel to How To Train Your Dragon. How much involvement do you have with it?
CS: I haven’t had enough yet. But I’ve been involved with reading its scripts, giving notes and talking to Dean [DeBlois] quite a lot while he’s been writing it. The Croods has kept me very, very busy, right up until the very end. I was actually slated to do a little bit of storyboarding. I have not begun to do that yet. I think now that I’m coming to the end of The Croods, I may get a better opportunity to actually jump in and do some storyboarding and such. So, I guess the answer to your question is, as much as I’ve been able to do so far.
AV: Is it possible you might co-direct the third Dragon film?
CS: [long pause] That is a good question. I will not commit either way to that. [laughs]
AV: What projects are next for each of you?
CS: Ooh, good question, good question… [pause] Good question – excellent question! You have a lot of excellent questions! [laughs] I have not committed to anything yet. There are many possibilities, none of which we have committed to yet.
AV: The Croods is set in prehistoric times, but it has a message for today’s audiences. What do you hope people take from the film?
CS: Well, the interesting thing about this movie is that, even though it’s about cavemen, it’s really about change. The caveman dad, Grug, has a job to keep his family alive. The way he does that is, he keeps them inside a cave, and he never lets them out. So, Grug is really hiding from change. But change is going to find him. That’s the message of the movie – we all have to deal with change at some point in our lives, sometimes catastrophic change.
In this case, change finds Grug and knocks his cave down and forces his family out into this exotic new world to embark on the world’s first family road trip. And on that journey, they change. That’s the neat thing about working on this movie – it’s really a universal message and a universal story. At some point, everyone is going to have to get a new job, or they’re going to change schools. They’re going to have kids, and those kids are going to grow up. Or you’re going to grow up, and your relationship with your parents is going to change. And that’s the cool thing about this movie – it’s a human story transcending age and nationality. It is absolutely universal.
Our sincerest thanks to Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, and to David Hail at DreamWorks Animation.
For more information on The Croods, be sure to visit Chris Sanders’ official blog, where the director has posted a series of deleted storyboards from the production. View each part here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.