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The Willoughbys Interview: Director Kris Pearn On Crafting This Roald Dahl-Esque Animated Tale

There are plenty of movies out there about bad parents. Roald Dahl adaptations are filled with stuff like that. Matilda is one such book and film that comes to mind that really showed a neglected child. Author Lois Lowry really seemed to be channeling that energy with her book The Willoughbys, and it’s spilled over into the adaptation. Written by Mark Stanleigh and Kris Pearn and directed by Pearn, this animated Netflix film very much harkens back to that energy.

I had a chance to speak with Pearn about this directorial effort. In our conversation, we discuss the dark(ish) nature of the film, its optimism, and how it harkens back to kid stories of old.

The film hits Netflix on April 22!

Below is the official synopsis for The Willoughbys.

“Convinced they’d be better off raising themselves, the Willoughby children hatch a sneaky plan to send their selfish parents on vacation. The siblings then embark on their own high-flying adventure to find the true meaning of family.”

LRM Online: So let’s talk about the Willoughbys. I really enjoyed the movie. It’s not your common, for anime, happy end… Well, it has a happy ending, but a different kind of happy ending.

Pearn: Yeah. It’s a weird movie. Thank you for watching it, it was four and a half years or close to five years working on it. Our goal is always to make something that was not your standard run of the mill story. I think the novel from Lois Lowry gave us an opportunity to be really creative in how we subvert the medium, so I’m glad that’s coming through.

LRM Online: So why did it take so long? Four years, was it because of the story or the the organization? Please share.

Pearn: It’s animation, that’s sort of the way these things usually go. It’s a very labor intensive process. So for me on this one, it’s pretty fast actually. Like I’ve worked on movies that took much longer to go through the cycle of development and all that.

So that was sort of when I first started writing the script, that would be 2015, so ultimately we were in production for about two and a half years with the full crew, which is about as fast as you can go, I think with the resources we had. So it just takes a while. It’s slow motion, stand up. The kind of, tell a joke and wait two years to see if it hits.

LRM Online: Wait. So Kris, you directed and you also wrote it?

Pearn: Yeah, I wrote it with a friend of mine, Mark Stanleigh. We started drafting in 2015, and over the course of the process, I like to work in a writer’s room very much like a TV style. So we had an ongoing writer’s room with a set of creatives that were there the entire way. So there was a lot of people contributing.

LRM Online: And you, if not mistaken from what I read when I looked up, you also play a voice?

Pearn: Very small voice.

LRM Online: It’s still playing a voice, doesn’t matter.

Pearn: It’s one of the first. I’ve been a story artist for a long time and we do what’s called scratch voices, because it takes us a long time to audition the material. So what happens is you end up just getting used to certain jokes or the way something sounds. So I was lucky enough to be a blueberry in Cloudy 2, and then I got to be a couple of elves in Arthur Christmas. So this one, I got to be a creepy guy in a garbage truck.

LRM Online: That’s fun. So the Willoughbys is based off a novel, by Lois Lowry, and so how did you come across this novel and make you decide, this is the one I want to write a film for?

Pearn: Actually it was the producer at Bron, Luke Carroll, we had breakfast in LA, we had mutual friends, and he had just optioned the book. Ricky Gervais was already attached, so there was a bit of momentum, and I went and I read the book and immediately was attracted to the idea of this subversive story that was poking fun of children’s literature.

And I came back and my pivot on it was, what if we poke fun at children’s film? And the elevator pitch was sort of worked up as Grey Gardens meets Arrested Development for kids. So the idea of leading into this, almost like this idea of a legacy and a family being stuck, and this sort of earnest optimism in all the characters being the thing that they’re colliding about. So that kind of sitcom set up where nobody knows they’re in a comedy, none of the characters know that they’re being funny. But ultimately it’s like a sitcom in a way that they’re trapped on the set and there’s three cameras capturing them.

So that was something that the studio got behind. And then in that kind of way that you’re lucky and you get a good casting, I think the creative instincts that I was feeling lined up to, sort of what they were excited about, we just started jumping into the sandbox.

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LRM Online: And then also like for The Willoughbys, for the film, I did not get to read the novel, but based on what I watched you cover some pretty delicate topics, but in such this really cool humor that it makes you feel like, okay, it’s not too bad. There’s the optimism in it.

Pearn: Well one of the things I think I was attracted to is this idea of a story about the tropes of children’s literature going back to Roald Dahl, and I’m Canadian so I read Mordecai Richler when I was a kid. And I love the idea of the world isn’t always friendly, and in that kind of way that Roald Dahl is able to, in a cartoony way, present really real issues that children go through but in a metaphorical way that he could not pull off of the sharp bits, but talk about it and have that conversation with the audience.

I think when you read a story, often I think you can get away with a bit more of that subversiveness. So one of our challenges was how do we maintain that, that thing that Lois Lowry was really clever about, but allow an audience to enjoy it. And I think when we look at our design choices and the casting for the characters and even at how the music plays, I was always trying to in a way not play the darkness. I didn’t want the film to feel affected. But really it’s an optimistic film, and each of the characters, while they might be making mistakes, they’re earnest mistakes.

And so in a lot of ways, I think that’s where that Arrested Development metaphor applies, because it’s not like everybody’s good but they’re all motivated. And there’s this idea of the parents, while they’re kind of the bad guys, I always sort of felt like they are children themselves, and while we don’t talk about their backstory and how they ended up in this situation, there is that sort of naivety that they bring to the table, that ultimately they needed to have this coming of age story.

And really they’re a cautionary tale to the children. If children don’t have their coming of age story, if they don’t break down the wall and ideas then they might end up in the way that the parents have ended up, which we don’t want for them.

So the movie to me touches on those things that I grew up loving, whether it’s Stand By Me or Goonies. Some of those stories were a little darker, meant for probably an older audience. And I wasn’t, I watched them, but I liked the idea that you can talk about what it feels like to be a kid growing up and not always the perfect situation. So, that to me felt like an opportunity to do something different.

LRM Online: Did Lois Lowry already have a chance to view this?

Pearn: Yeah, we’ve shown her, we showed her an early cut. It wasn’t the final, final product. I think she has seen the final product too, but yeah, she’s been very supportive. And I think she appreciated that we didn’t pull off on trying to talk about some of the things that she was dealing with in her book.

LRM Online: Do you think, I mean, I don’t know, but maybe you could start something with the Anastasia novels?

Pearn: Oh, you think we could start something with that? Is that the question?

LRM Online: Yeah. I remember reading those, that’s why I ask.

Pearn: Oh, weirdly enough, that was the very first thing I ever worked on was the Anastasia movie, I came at the very end of that as a 2D animator. So maybe. Maybe it’s like a full circle thing.

LRM Online: Yeah, that would be awesome. Giving ideas, I don’t know.

Pearn: They’re rolling off.

LRM Online: So can you just real quick talk a little bit about the casting. You had great actors in there, you had some comedians. The cast looked great. And directing them, how was that?

Pearn: It was such a privilege. I think I’ve been lucky enough to work on a lot of really interesting films and I’ve worked with a lot of interesting actors over my career. And I think the takeaway is always, there’s a poster which is important, but I really love casting from the idea of what the character is and how that voice can come through the writing.

So I’d worked with Terry before, and when I was thinking of Commander Melanoff this idea of him being this Daddy Warbucks, Willy Wonka, Citizen Kane kind of potential, billionaire gruff guy. To me that’s Terry, because he is that way. He’s intimidating, big, but then the second you meet him, he’s the sweetest person you’ll ever meet. And he’s so generous and we felt like that character…

Same thing with Will. I’ve worked with Will on a few things and this idea of a character who can be a little stubborn and a little bossy and a little overbearing. But at the heart of it you kind of get the sense that he’s so likable, and that’s the way he was in The Last Man. So there’s ultimately that casting sort of felt like it was coming from that organic place.

And when I work with comedians, I never try to live on the page. And so I think the main joy for me is going into these sessions with somebody like Martin Short and just letting them play with the characters. And a lot of times, what we would end up using in the film weren’t the words that we wrote, we’re building off that improvisation that comes from character opportunities.

And so as much as animation is slow motion and it takes a long time to put everything together, I think when you’ve got a great task like this you’ve just got permission to wander, and you give yourself permission to find the voice as opposed to telling an actor and do something.

So I think that’s where the real… For me, comedy is immediate, but it’s always coming from a motivated place. So, so long as I do my job and make sure that the characters feel motivated and at the actor understands the characters, then we can really play with them. And over the course of three and a half years of recording with these various actors, by the end it was amazing to see how they can just own their roles.

Another example is Maya Rudolph, she started off as a very broad character, but as a human she’s a mother and she’s such a gentle, sweet, kind human being that ultimately this idea that Nanny represents love. And she comes into this house full of these kids who are starved and kind of mummified and they need to be woken up. Her gentleness is the thing that we ended up going with.

And there’s some really funny Nanny moments in the film, but she was originally going to be the broad character, but she ended up becoming the straight person against the kids, and that just made it work. And it was really her, even the idea of her calling Tim “skinny bones”, that’s what she calls her son.

So those are very personal things you start to find along the journey. And I think that helps. I think in terms of just making the film not feel like it’s a bunch of people recorded in separate buildings, but they’re all connected by the casting.

LRM Online: I see. Everything just collided very well. Yes, Maya has one of those lovely voices that she has. To finalize real quick, is there anything else that you might be working on that you happen to be able to share?

Pearn: Well, the political answer is that we’re working on a bunch of things, but it’s hard to tell what’s going to come out of the ground. I grew up on a farm, so everything that I analogize I use farming metaphors. So I think animation is a bit like, you put seeds in the ground and you hope that stuff bubbles up.

But because it takes us so long to make these things, you’re always looking out for that thing you want to spend five, six years on. So right now I’m in that phase of my career where I’m just auditioning some ideas.

LRM Online: Okay, well thank you so much for your time and discussion of The Willoughbys. Viewers are going to love it, and looking forward for everyone else to see it.

Pearn: Thank you. Really nice to spend some time with you and nice to meet you, and I hope you stay healthy and safe.

The Willoughbys hits Netflix this Wednesday on April 22!

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