Between Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the Underworld franchise, Fright Night, Dark Shadows, “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries” and, of course, the Twilight saga, there is no shortage of the centuries old blood-sucking character in movies and TV.
Sony Pictures Animation is adding another movie to the list, sinking its teeth into the fun with Hotel Transylvania. On Thursday, the studio gave Comic-Con attendees a sneak peek of the movie which, as the title implies, stars the vampire of all vampires, Dracula. Voiced by Adam Sandler, the movie is in theaters and 3D September 28th, 2012.
A few weeks ago, The Seven Sees joined other members of the press at Sony Pictures Animation’s headquarters in Culver City, California for the first look at the movie, including four clips that were funny, incredibly entertaining and showed a great story focusing on Dracula’s relationship with his daughter, Mavis, voiced by Selena Gomez.
“As soon as I heard the concept of a hotel for monsters and Dracula as a dad,” explains Tartakovsky, “that’s what really hooked me in because I’m a father of three and that idea was really accessible to me.”
Dracula has built the hotel to protect his daughter, Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez), from humans. It’s also a place for his monster friends – Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his wife Eunice (Fran Drescher), Murray the Mummy (Cee lo Green), the Invisible Man (David Spade), Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz), the Werewolf family (Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon) - to visit and hide from the outside world. And they’re all headed to the hotel to celebrate Mavis’ 118th birthday … so in vampire years, she’s becoming an adult.
When a human, Jonathan, unexpectedly shows up at the hotel, his presence sends Dracula into a panic, trying to keep the identity of his guests safe. To help him blend in, Dracula dresses up Jonathan – voiced by Andy Samberg – as ‘Johnnystein,’ Frankenstein’s supposed cousin. Things only get worse for Dracula when the young and energetic Jonathan meets Mavis. But Jonathan’s free-spirit attitude may win over Dracula yet.
Typically, actors record their voice-overs for animated movies by themselves, but the Hotel Transylvania cast packed their comedic talents into one room to deliver their characters’ voices. At the press preview, I sat down with producer Michelle Murdocca (pictured below with Tartakovsky and Gomez), who told me how the actors changed the dynamic of the movie. Plus, she addressed the saturation of vampires, zombies and werewolves and how this story is different, and we also talked about making traditionally scary characters fun for younger audiences.
Michelle Murdocca: Well, it’s funny, I was at [Sony Pictures Imageworks] ten years ago and I was working on The Polar Express and they approached me – Yair Landau (former Vice Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and President of Sony Pictures Digital) approached me – and said, ‘Would you be interested in working in the animation division as an executive?’
GH: You have a lot of CGI, visual effects experience.
MM: Yes, a lot of it. So I said, ‘Well, I’ve always been a producer, but let me read what you’ve got. I want to see what projects you have.’ Because I always knew the next natural progression for me was to be a creative producer. I was so involved in Stuart Little and [Stuart Little 2] creatively that it felt like that’s where I should go next. And I love animation and animation just seemed like a great fit for me. So I read everything, and Hotel Transylvania was one of eight projects that I read that we had acquired, and I said, ‘Ok, I will sign on if I can produce Hotel Transylvania.’ And they said, ‘Absolutely.’
So it was ten years ago where I first read a treatment for Hotel Transylvania. It was very different that it is today, but, it’s the same world, same characters, just a different story. So yeah, ten years, a really cool world that I knew we could do something great with.
GH: Ten years ago, vampires, werewolves and zombies didn’t have the level of fame they enjoy today. On one hand, it seems great for all of you because they are so popular and familiar. But on the other hand, are you worried these characters are overexposed or that it looks like you just jumped on the bandwagon and trying your hand at it?
MM: I think if we were just a vampire movie, that might not be the greatest choice. Because we have a world of monsters that everyone knows, monsters that people kind of know theoretically, I think our world…probably a lot of these little kids have never even seen some of these monsters. So I think it’ll open up a whole new monster world for them. It’s something that the parents can enjoy. There’s a lot of comedy, there’s a lot of physical comedy, there’s a lot of comedic dialogue; so I think there’s something there for everyone. I think that children will really love the physical comedy and there are a lot of jokes for parents, and with characters and actors that they all know and they probably love some or all of.
GH: In those regards, it reminds me so much of what Pixar did with Toy Story, bringing all of these characters and toys together that many kids didn’t know about anymore.
MM: Right. So we open up a whole new world for kids. And I have 4-1/2 year-old twins, and when I showed them Dracula, that’s the first time they ever saw Dracula, besides a costume. So, kids don’t know these characters – they don’t know Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Werewolf – they may know the costume, but they haven’t been able to watch those movies. Maybe they’ve seen “Scooby Doo”…
GH: “Sesame Street”’s version of Dracula…
MM: Exactly. So this is what we’re calling the new version of Dracula. I think it’s really fun for kids to explore characters.
GH: I have to imagine, right off the bat when you know you’re making a movie full of monsters – animated and for kids – there has to be such an effort making them not scary when many of them are so traditionally rooted in horror. So where do you even begin with making scary characters fun and so different?
MM: I think of it is in the character design. We had an amazing array of character designers – Carter Goodrich, Craig Kellman and Carlos Grangel from Spain – these three, top-notch, world class character designers, and we just said [to them], ‘It’s not going to be a scary movie, it’s definitely going to be somewhat comedic,’ – and this was pretty early on when we started doing the character design – ‘we have this list of criteria that we have to stay away from because [the characters are] Universal trademark, and go crazy!’ Most of these guys do family films, so they know that we can’t make Dracula look too scary. We had many different designs for Dracula, so many different designs. It’s like, ‘How old do we want to make him? How young do we want to make him? Who’s going to play him?’ So all of that plays a part in it.
Frankenstein was never scary. He was always a more sweet, endearing character.
GH: Which he actually is anyway.
MM: Absolutely. In our minds, he was a sweet, endearing character who was misunderstood. And so we made him…sweeter. He’s not scary, he’s fun. He’s the big, lovable uncle.
So we also took a look at, ‘Ok, who are these characters going to play in our movie, and how do we want them to come across?’ I think Steve Buscemi as the beaten-down werewolf…he really looks like that.
GH: That’s very striking, actually, that all of the characters resemble in some way the actors voicing them. And you do have a top-notch voice cast.
MM: Yeah, it is quite an impressive cast.
GH: Did the movie take on a different life once they came on? Was the script re-written for their sensibilities?
MM: Definitely. When Adam came on, it really became Dracula’s movie. Once we started casting…we basically wrote to the character and to the guys. ‘Who’s playing this and how would he say it?’ When we got them in the room, they weren’t that interested in riffing and making up their own jokes because these jokes had been written specifically for them. So it was just about, how do we play these jokes so that they land, so that they’re really funny, so that we deliver. So yeah, it was all very well thought out know who our characters were and who our cast was and how to [bring that] all together to make something really funny and genuine.
GH: It is so unique and fun that the actors did their voice-over sessions together, not solo. It’s almost unheard of.
MM: Really hard to do.
GH: It must have made it so much easier!
MM: It definitely makes it easier. We really wanted to try it. It’s not something that we’re able to do that often in animation because they’re all off shooting live-action movies, and this is something that we only need them for four hours here and there. So we got really lucky that their schedules had them in L.A. the same day [last year], and we brought Andy Samberg in. So he had to fly in on a Sunday night right after doing “SNL” and then fly out the next day, but it was totally worth it to get them all in the same room and watch them play off each other. It was really pretty cool. And then there were a couple of other sessions where we had maybe a smaller group, but there was one where we had five of them in the room at the same time.
GH: Andy’s character is so funny. Was he brought on as a result of he and Adam working together on That’s My Boy?
MM: Yeah, but Andy also is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, so we already have a relationship with Andy. He was somebody that we had been thinking about, but then when Adam came on, it was a no-brainer. The two of them play really well off of each other.
GH: The father/daughter story – unless my memory is completely failing me – is not one we see too often in movies.
MM: No, it’s not, which is why this was really exciting when Adam came on, and we said, ‘Ok, what is it that makes Adam as Dracula so special?’ We had Mavis as a character and we said, ‘Let’s really highlight the father/daughter story of it all and play Adam/Dracula as a character who is really terrified to let his daughter out into the world. What parent isn’t terrified to let their child out into the world and to let go and to believe that it’s all going to be ok, that they’re going to be safe and be able to take care of themselves?’ So it was really a story that worked for us, it worked for Adam as a character, and it worked for Adam personally because he’s going through it all right now with two little girls and getting the first-hand feel of what it’s like to be a parent.
GH: And it worked for Selena Gomez perfectly in that role because she’s basically the same age as the character.
MM: Totally works for Selena.
GH: Not to mention, she has a great fan base. So you really struck gold with her.
MM: Yeah, Selena is gold. She’s really fantastic.
GH: What did she bring that all of you maybe hadn’t envisioned in the character before she came along?
MM: She just brought a quirky sweetness and a real, genuine…she’s not really a teenager anymore, she’s becoming a young woman. So she definitely brought that sincerity to the role that I think is hard to get. Sometimes you have stars in Hollywood and they’re jaded and they’re definitely older beyond their years. And I think that Selena is really mature for her age, but she’s definitely living in it, and you really get that feel for it. You get that vibe from her.
GH: Cast and characters aside, the look of the movie is great. It’s easy to forget how much production design goes into an animated movie. There are all of these details in the sets, the landscape, the characters’ hair … where on the list of challenges and complicated aspects of an animated movie is that?
MM: It’s a very detailed world. The style and the character design and the “look” of the picture is something we spend a lot of time on. It’s probably at least a year in just development on what we want this picture to look like and [creating] the right world for these characters. And then it’s designing the characters to fit into the world. It then all goes hand-in-hand with the digital group, because first we do it all in 2D, so we do it in our art department, and then [we question] how it’s going to look in 3D. So we start off with drawings and paintings, and then we take it all into the 3D world, so we have a lot of collaboration with the 3D team. They may say, ‘You know what, that’s character is not ever really going to look this way in 3D,’ and then we have to go back and re-design it a little bit. Or, ‘This environment needs more detail, more texture,’ so there’s a lot of collaboration, back-and-forth between the art department and the 3D/CG group.
GH: As a producer, you must be thrilled to see two different animated movies – Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and Brave – performing so well at the box office, between them holding the number one spot for three weeks.
MM: Two different animated movies that are really taking over box office so far for the year. It’s pretty amazing. So yes, I’m very excited to be in this field and feel very lucky to be doing what I’m doing.