Following over 25 years in animation filmmaking, Chris Wedge is stepping into live-action feature directing with Monster Trucks – the story of teen boy who, reluctantly, befriends a strange creature from deep within the earth. Co-founder and producer at Blue Sky Studios, Wedge helmed Epic, Robots, and Ice Age (in which he voices the acorn-obsessed Scrat) – while contributing to the development of other fan-favorite films, including Rio and Horton Hears a Who!, among others.
As a result, Wedge’s experience with animation and track-record for heartfelt storytelling, paired with a desire to take-on the new challenges of a live-action production, made him a smart pick for Monster Trucks – a film that blends high-flying real-life car stunts with complex digital creature characters. We had the chance to chat with Wedge, on the Vancouver set of Monster Trucks, along with producer Mary Parent. Together, the pair offered-up new details, teasing what moviegoers could expect when Monster Trucks hits theaters this winter.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Monster Trucks, check out a brief breakdown of the plot, courtesy of Wedge:
Tripp’s town has been transformed by all this oil money. Friends sold land leases and their parents moved across town to bigger houses – and he doesn’t have any of that wealth. He wants to get out of town, so he’s been building a truck at a junkyard out of parts. He thinks he’s about to finish it – and then this thing comes and it gets him into trouble. But he befriends this thing, the creature, and he hides it. The creatures in our world are like octopuses on a beach. This giant thing can hardly move, but once it gets into the truck, it’s a super suit for the creature and it’s a super car for Tripp.
What initially attracted you to this whole thing?
Chris Wedge: A few things. I wanted to make a live-action movie for awhile, that was part of it. I thought about it for a couple weeks and came up with a take for it that really appealed to me. It’s a big adventure movie. I don’t know how much you guys have seen.
Mary Parent: We saw a little bit of the truck, second unit, to get a reference point for what it was and I emphasized how the movie is – there’s the action but it’s very grounded. It’s all about what if this really happened – what if? A very grounded character story, very real emotions.
Wedge: Yeah. For me, look it’s a crazy concept, right? It’s a fun, crazy concept, but to get inside of it I wanted a grounded story and I know from animation that you can throw all the crazy color and design and motion at it, but at the end of the day what the audience really wants is character. So we found a great character story at the center of this thing. It’s basically the story of a kid and a monster, which may be the first and only friend he’s had. It’s got a lot of heart, and a lot of comedy and a lot of great surprising action.
Parent: And wish fulfillment, as they say, I want one of these trucks when I go back to L.A. Although, the traffic’s pretty bad here too. The idea of being able to leap over, cut in front of line, is hugely appealing. Wouldn’t that be awesome? They just keep getting bigger and bigger, which is sort of what happens with SUV’s and everything else, right?
Some of the comparisons that were made earlier, it’s kind of like E.T., but it does sort of feel like a return to those 80’s movies about a lost kid who discovers some sort of supernatural thing.
Wedge: Yeah, yeah, no apologies. It’s an update on that kind of thing, of an alienated kid that trips into a supernatural set of circumstances, and it takes off from there.
With Monster Trucks and Earth to Echo coming out and things like that, do you think people are tired of gritty, terrible, depressing universes and just want to see something more inspired? In the 80’s there was a whole slew – like Goonies and E.T. – where it was like an action-adventure and there was drama, but at the end of the day everybody isn’t terrible.
Wedge: We don’t go to the movies to hear the news. It’s all wish fulfillment and escape, isn’t it? You know what the title of the movie is – we’re not going to be dealing with world events here. We’re making a big, fun adventure movie. You know, Mary said “grounded” and that was important to me and I wanted to put it in a world that was realistic, so the events would seem that more fantastic.
When you originally start out and you’re like, we want one truck to emote, with animation you can just make the truck emote. Did you realize exactly how much you were asking them to do with hydraulics and things when you first were going to make a truck into a character?
Wedge: They did it happily, nobody said that’s impossible.
Parent: It surprised me. I didn’t think they’d actually be able to pull that off. I was surprised at what they were able to do.
Wedge: I was pleased and surprised at what they were able to do. I knew we could switch out from the real trucks to CG trucks whenever we had to. But, that thing, you saw it acting. When it’s in the movie, I swear it looks animated already. It just moves with that kind of purpose. Just the design of it and the way it sticks out from the rest of the environment and the rest of the trucks, it already looks like a character, which is what I was after.
Parent: It has a lot of personality.
Seeing the truck move makes the concept of the movie a lot clearer, you see how it breathes.
Wedge: No, it’s alive. You’ll feel that it’s alive. You’re not really going to see it moving until you’re in the middle of the movie, once everything’s come together for Act Two.
Parent: And the sound design, we had a meeting two weeks ago and sat down with Skywalker, whose going to do the sound, and so, creating the creature’s voice, I don’t mean voice literally because it doesn’t talk, but in terms of how it sounds, and an engine and all of the above. It’s going to be really cool. But, it’s a big job, you know?
How well is the creature going to fit in with the real world? Cartoonish is probably not the right word, but how well is it going to fit in with living, breathing humans? Or is it something like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke?
Wedge: No, it doesn’t feel like it came from a different style world, we’re being very careful. It’s a very specific looking creature and it does very specific things, but it looks like it came plausibly from our world.
Parent: It’s photo-real. Yeah, it’s a good question, though.
Wedge: It’s more Jurassic Park than Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Very good answer.
Parent: We were talking about it this morning. It should feel real, and there’s a mastery and a challenge, and a wish fulfillment to being able to tame this creature. And, if it’s too easy and fuzzy right out of the gate there’s no challenge, you know?
Wedge: The fun things for kids will be that I’ve got a giant secret that I have to hide from everybody, I’ve got a dragon in my basement that I can’t let anybody know about. That’s part of it.
When we were talking to Lucas he said, on set Jane caught something in the script that didn’t make sense. I didn’t know if that’s a behind-the-scenes kind of thing you could talk about?
Wedge: That couldn’t have happened. (Laughs) Never happened, never happened.
Parent: What was it?
Wedge: You know, look, here’s the weird thing. I don’t remember what it was specifically. In animation we can make anything, as long as it sticks in the same style we can make anything. And here we’re creating a very specific fantasy from a bunch of different character perspectives and a bunch of plot logic perspectives, and just setting. It could have been anything. Jane’s very good at catching that stuff.
Parent: She’s smart.
Wedge: In fact, that’s her character in the movie, very type-A focused and driven towards her academic career. So she’s all over this stuff.
A lot of the animators that have been making the transition to director have been very successful. I’m wondering, what did you learn from those examples and some of the less successful examples of animators. What was the learning curve for you?
Wedge: That animators have made live-action movies hasn’t been part of it for me, that’s other people’s careers and paths and it has nothing to do with what you do. I’ve always wanted to make live-action movies. When I was a student, my path was through animation and I got an opportunity to do this. I finished a movie last year that I’d been working on for six or eight years and I felt, I’ve been at Blue Sky for twenty-seven years. And, I thought while I could still do it, I wanted to try it. So, I got this opportunity to do this and I jumped right in and this movie’s going to be done before our next animated movie from Blue Sky is done.
Did anything throw you for a loop or surprise you about the live-action process?
Wedge: Yeah, I’ll tell you a few things did. I had a lot of apprehension going in that I wouldn’t know what I was doing, but when I got in the whole process was working with the actors. The other prep is the same, developing the script is the same, and all the pre-production is pretty much the same. You’re dealing with people that are making giant electric cars that can act, but so many people bring all their excellent work from their disciplines that you can count on. What surprised me was how much I loved working the scenes out with actors on the set. Once the cameras are set you really know, you get about fifteen minutes or half an hour to really focus a scene and then just play it and shoot it. So, that’s fun.
Is it still tightly story boarded?
Wedge: No, no. I did a lot of storyboards that I threw out because you walk onto a set and it’s not da-da-duhn duhn da-da or the camera can’t go there or who knows? You walk onto a set and you figure it out when you get there. I mean, you know what you want and the storyboards can help the details. It’s a lot different than animation. (Laughs).
Are there any parallels with the coverage? Do you find yourself using the same styles in shots you did in animation here?
Wedge: That’s a lot different. That’s a lot different. I think in a different process, or if we had more time to shoot the movie, I might do it differently, but I never think about coverage in animation, because you just move into the sequence the way you want to move and you put the camera wherever you want. Here there are economies you have to take advantage of because it moves very quickly, so you’ve got to shoot a master, and then you have to push in for coverage. I didn’t really even know.
Parent: When you’re lighting one direction you’ve got to shoot everything that way. And if you have an idea and you’ve already turned around it’s not as convenient.
Wedge: There are all sorts of variables. How long is this actor going to last? Is this actor going to peak at a certain point? This one’s really solid so we can do their coverage last. It’s a big puzzle.
Parent: And you get wonderful surprises too. That’s the beauty of it.
And the fact you have so many cars coming over and explosions doesn’t make that process any easier, either.
Wedge: Yeah, but all those sequences are kind of separated when we’re shooting. It’s been fun.
What’s your interaction with the second unit?
Wedge: We interact as much as we have time to. We’ve done a lot of pre-visualization for the second unit. We talk it over quite a bit. But they’re out there doing the same thing we’re doing. It’s all happening in real time. Speaking of coverage, they’re just all over it.
Parent: It was all prepped under his vision and then you guys speak multiple times a day, going to meet again tonight, try to meet a couple times a week.
Wedge: And if you have material to look at, you have things to talk about: We’ll do it this way, or we’ll do this that way or put more cameras on that side when you do that, or I like those shots where bla la bla. Building Blue Sky and making those feature films, I know a lot about delegation. I’m one of those people who really enjoys having someone do something better than you could’ve done it, that it’s in your movie anyway. I like that, so I like trusting people and handing it over, and giving them as much creative latitude as you want for yourself.
Did you utilize the brain trust at Blue Sky at all for this project?
Wedge: No. I’m on a little sabbatical from Blue Sky.
Given that you voiced Scrat in Ice Age, have you thought about voicing the monster yourself?
Wedge: We’ve been voicing it on set.
Parent: He does. Chris does a lot to help the actors.
Will you do it for us?
Wedge: We should save that for the movie.
Parent: His performance for the family reunion is incredibly emotional. (Laughs). It was late at night. It was like two in the morning. You did a good job though – you’re good with the voices.
Wedge: Well, we’ll see. The voices for the creatures are going to be fun. They’re going to be very distinct.
Can you say anything about what you’re basing the voices off of? Like animals?
Wedge: Oh, they’re animals.
I didn’t know if you’re like, “It’s kind of like a whale mixed with dubstep.”
Wedge: That’s a good idea. (Laughs).
Parent: He sounded like a whale the other day, at first I thought it was an animal that had been hurt outside, that noise that you were doing.
They don’t communicate with human-like speech, but they would be communicating with each other with speech?
Parent: Not speech.
Wedge: Well, their own. They’re very intelligent animals. They’ve evolved separately from us, unbeknownst to us, isolated from us.
Are they as intelligent as humans?
Wedge: No, but they’re very soulful. They understand that they don’t have the same kind of, oh let’s see, they’re very adaptable. They have what we’re calling a hive mentality. Or kind of a collective consciousness, where one nearby them learns something, the other one picks it up very quickly.
Parent: Like ants or bees.
Lucas talked about how Tripp has to master Creatch. What does the creature bring to Tripp’s life? How does the creature help him?
Wedge: Tripp’s got issues. He’s kind of alienated, kind of an emotionally isolated seventeen year-old. He kind of feels like a loner in his own town, the place he grew up.
Parent: Never got over his dad leaving.
Wedge: His town’s been transformed by all this oil money and friends sold land leases and their parents moved across town to bigger houses and he doesn’t have any of that. So he acts out. He wants to get out of town so he’s been building a truck at a junkyard out of parts. He thinks he’s about to finish it and then this thing comes and it gets him into trouble. Into worse trouble that makes him want to leave even more – and then he kind of befriends this thing, the creature, and he hides it. He hides it in this truck and the creature realizes – when these creatures are in our world, they’re like octopuses on a beach. They’re completely vulnerable and awkward. This giant thing can hardly move, but once it gets into the truck it’s like a paraplegic in a wheelchair, it will do a marathon faster than you can. So it’s a super suit for the creature and it’s a super car for Tripp.
Emotionally, what is the transference going on?
Parent: To connect again. For me that’s been so resonant in this movie and you really feel the character’s yearning and you feel his isolation – literally and emotionally. For him, learning to have empathy and to connect again and actually be able to trust something, you know. (Loud passing noise). Yes, they put a train next to a studio where people shoot, if you’re wondering. And yes, it does go by all the time when you’re shooting.
Wedge: All the time. Anyway, it’s the first thing he’s ever really cared about and he has a penchant for defending underdogs anyway. That’s one of the principles that makes him kind of interesting.
Parent: It’s like how I talked about how he and Meredith first meet. He’s in detention where he’s actually been defending another kid, standing up for another kid.
Wedge: But he won’t take credit for it. It’s just something he naturally does, fights for people he feels are going through the same thing he is. He can’t fix anything in his own life so he helps little things in other people’s lives. And the creature is one of the things he feels early empathy for, so he wants to figure out where it came from, why these other people are chasing it. He’s in between trying to figure out what’s best for it. It doesn’t come easy for him, but he gets there. It comes into his life and kind of fixes his life at the end of the day.
Parent: And in some ways he becomes a father figure to the creature. Sort of what he didn’t have, he’s able to bring to that creature. There’s more of an unlikely group of people that come together to form a family in his life as he begins to reunite that family. It’s a disparate group of people that wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths but this creature and this event brings these people together. Tripp and Meredith being an example of people who wouldn’t ordinarily socialize or hang out.
Does this mean that if they’re hive minds, if they teach the parents to drive trucks and they’re hive minds they can drive the trucks faster, are they going to go home and teach all the other squid monsters to drive trucks?
Parent: Yes, actually.
Wedge: That’s act four. (Laughs)
Before you guys go, really quick, you and Mary were talking about setting up a franchise. Do you guys have ideas for sequels yet?
Parent: I try and make a good movie first. If that happens then hopefully other things will organically unfold, you know.
Lucas Till was joking about planes and other creatures and stuff like that.
Parent: He’s got a very creative mind. (Laughs) I love that he’s thinking ahead.
Wedge: He just wants to drive an airplane.
Parent: Exactly. That’s what it boils down to.
Chris, there’s one question that came out this morning and we didn’t really get a definitive answer. A couple of actors were in North Dakota, why? Why that choice of locale?
Wedge: That’s where I wanted to ground it. That’s where they’re doing all of this drilling into the shale.
Parent: These towns have been taken over.
Wedge: The towns have just been taken over. I went to visit Williston, North Dakota and there was a boom in the 80’s that died and now this boom is hitting because of new technology. Part of it is the technology, the deep well drilling and the fracturing of the rock down there. I mean, that’s how we get to these creatures. We’ve never drilled deeper. And, I looked at that town and I thought the oil companies are moving in and transforming the town and the people in our story are going through the same things they’re going through in those towns.
Parent: There’s a whole culture with it. Restaurants pop up, housing pops up. There’s positives and negatives to it.
Wedge: It’s nothing but trucks there. Nothing but trucks.
Can you talk a little bit about casting. Why Lucas and Jane?
Wedge: Actually, they were the toughest to cast because we were so specific about what we wanted. A lot of it is first what you want and then meeting people – because I didn’t know a lot of the kids that we were talking to at the beginning. And then getting one and then the chemistry between them. There’s a lot. It took us months to cast those two. But then I was very fortunate – a lot of the other casting were my first picks lined up or were very close to my first ones.
Parent: We had a great casting director, John Papsidera, who does all the Chris Nolan movies and he just did a Jason Reitman movie. There’s a lot of young kids in this age range that are cast and he really sort of had his finger on the pulse in terms of who the stars of tomorrow are. And Lucas, I’m sure you’ve met him, he’s got all those qualities. He’s got humanity, he’s got sort of this heartthrob kind of tough guy, even those he’s a big softie. Jane has impeccable comic timing.
Wedge: The camera loves both of them.
Parent: Yeah, it really does. And they’re both on the precipice. He’s obviously working his way up as Havok in X-Men, a small role but leading to other things. Jane has really just started and you know Suburgatory, I don’t know if you saw it, she’s quite good on it. She’s pretty and has comic timing, it’s an interesting combination.
Any stories from the casting process that were totally ridiculous? Because Lucas and Jane said when they were auditioning they had fake monsters there.
Parent: Maybe. Just trying to think.
Wedge: Yeah, it’s funny, we kind of threw that on them. Lucas, fortunately is amazing at that stuff. I had no idea he’s at talented as he is, when we met him. I had no idea when he auditioned; I was just looking at him, his chemistry with Jane ultimately. I had no idea he’s as good as he is. He really is impressive.
What is the biggest challenge of bringing your vision of the film to life?
Wedge: (Laughs) The biggest challenge is bringing my vision to life. I mean, you take it a step at a time. You come with a big, fuzzy ambition and you do it a step at a time, what fits. You have to learn to be instinctive and just say what you think and not think too deep every moment because it’s easy to get caught in logic loops.
Parent: He’s done a great job. These movies are a marathon. It’s like the amount of days that you shoot and the hours, after four weeks of nights we kept saying to him, we realize there’s a lot of nights, and he’s shot every night, and that’s the challenge which is not to compromise when you start to get tired. So you haven’t so far, unless you’re going to breakdown (Laughs).
Wedge: We’re so close, we’re so close.
Parent: We’re watching closely for signs. (Laughs).
How are you feeling right now? Are you ready to go back to animation after this? Or do you want to stick with live-action?
Wedge: I’m ready to get the shoot done. I’m ready to cut the movie together. I can’t wait to see it cut together. I mean, we have a long post-process that’s mostly animation, which I know how to do, but fortunately someone else is going to do it. I’m sitting on the other side of the table.
Monster Trucks is set for release on January 13, 2017.