Woody Woodpecker: Director Alex Zamm On His Approach To Bringing This Icon Figure To Life (Exclusive Interview)

Woody Woodpecker has that iconic laugh that resonates over 100 countries over the past 70 years.

Universal 1440 Entertainment presented a new hybrid film that blends live-action and animation with an original story of Woody Woodpecker.

The film is directed by Alex Zamm (Inspector Gadget 2, The Little Rascals Save the Day). It stars Timothy Omundson (Psych), Thaila Ayala (Rio Heat), Gram Verchere (Fargo), Jordana Largy (Monster Trucks) and Eric Bauza (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) as the voice of Woody Woodpecker.

Here’s the synopsis of this movie:

Woody must protect his forest home from Lance Walters (Omundson), who starts building his dream mansion in the forest with his son, Tommy (Verchere) and fiancée, Vanessa (Ayala). To make matters worse, Woody must avoid the clutches of two grizzly poachers. With a series of crazy hijinks to sabotage their plans, Woody proves he’ll stop at nothing to defend his turf.

LRM had a phone interview with director Alex Zamm late last month on bringing this iconic lovable cartoon character to life in this hybrid real-action/CGI film.

Woody Woodpecker is now available on DVD and digital download today.

Read our exclusive interview transcript below.

LRM: How were you approached for this project and how you finally got this off the ground?

Alex Zamm: Sometimes with projects, synergies do happen. To be honest, this project was twelve years in the making. I, originally, in 2006, was looking for a new project and was very excited in doing a hybrid film. My background was in cartooning and animation. I always wanted to do a hybrid film. With the technology has finally come to a price point, you can really integrate a cartoon character well.

I was watching cartoons one day and asked, “Why isn’t Woody Woodpecker in a movie? Why doesn’t he have his own movie?” He is a crown jewel of animation. He is a legacy character. I thought it was one of Universal’s best assets. He’s a spokesperson as a great comedy character. He hasn’t been in the public eye for a while.

I ended writing a treatment with my writer partner, William Robertson. We took it to almost every major producer on the Universal lot. We came close a couple of times. No one really saw the value of the character.

We made it sit for a while and periodically revive it to chat. I made this Little Rascles reboot for this division at Universal, 1440 Productions. They were so happy. They asked me on, “What do you want to do next?” I said I wanted to do Woody Woodpecker. They said it’s amazing. Their division just bought the rights from Universal to make the movie.

Right away, I showed them the treatment. They said, “We love it. You’ve captured the spirit of Woody. Let’s go make this movie.”

It took a certain amount of time. By the time we wrote the script, developed the look, scouted locations, now here we are. It’s twelve years later.

LRM: How did you managed to come up with the story for this film? With my memories served, Woody Woodpecker was a bunch of short films.

Alex Zamm: It’s amazing. In 70 plus years short history, there is over 200 shorts. It’s incredible. It is an amazing body of work. They vary. Sometimes he lives in this anthropomoric world with anthropomorphized animals. There are [characters] like Chilly Willy, Buzz Buzzard and all the Lantz world of characters. In other times, he was interacting with humans. The world [of Woody Woodpecker] is very varied.

We looked at all 200 cartoons and religiously watched them. It became a master class in Walter Lantz. We watched all the shorts. We had different categories for them. We observed on Woody’s looks and personalities had changed over the years.

For the price point talking about the movie and technology, it was more cost effective to only just have Woody and not to include the other characters we loved like Chilly Willy or Andy Panda. We said to only focus on Woody and the real world as a photo-integrated cartoon character. It’s similar in the realm of Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks.

We decided that Woody is best if he has someone to annoy or play against. Bugs Bunny works his best when he has Elmer Fudd to drive nuts. In that same realm, let’s make it a turf war comedy about a man who is trying to defend the land he’s building his dreamhouse on. On the flip side, there’s a woodpecker who believes it’s his land too and he was there first.

LRM: What kinds of versions of Woody that you had in consideration? We’re talking about seventy-five years of Woody. Did you not want to create your own version of Woody Woodpecker for this film?

Alex Zamm: Well, I think I did. Looks are very important. I’ve done so many movies that are carrying forward the brand. There were so many sequels to Beverly Hills Chihuahua and there’s Inspector Gadget 2. My job is to get to the DNA of the brand and to the mythology.

I felt that converting Woody Woodpecker from a 2D character to a 3D character was my stamp on the legacy of the character. It’s my very own contribution. Fans all have their own different versions of Woody that they loved. It’s like on how some people love the early version of Mickey Mouse or some people love the later version. Some people loved Batman from the Joel Schumacher days and some loved the Christopher Nolan one. Everybody loved the impressions on what resonated for them.

My job was to say okay that I want to take the best of Woody from all those different incarnations and make my own CG version of him. To that end, there were only five or six design phases of Woody. But, there were three top ones. The original one was more crossed-eyed with heavier legs. He then had the wind-swept hair later. Finally, there’s the classic papa dour, in which everyone knew and loved.

We went with the iconic last version of Woody. We made him in proportions more like a teenager. He’s a little more cute. We’ve found so much expressiveness in combining the different aspects of the design phases of him. We brought back his original green eyes. We made his tail feather much more expressive like it was originally. We had a lot of fun with him. In our version, we made a kookier version of himself as the way in the original cartoon grafted on to the cuter, human later version of the design.

LRM: And thank you for that. I’ve always enjoyed the humanoid version of Woody Woodpecker. Especially the fact that I’m always fascinated with cartoon characters having hands. They all have four-fingered hands for some unknown reason.

Alex Zamm: [Laughs] I don’t know how that came to be. That’s a great story. You could do a whole documentary or podcast on that. How did cartoon characters wind up with four fingers? Maybe it’s a cleaner silhouette. Maybe it’s the bridge between humans and animals. And where did they get all those gloves from too?

LRM: [Laughs] That’s right. Now one of the most difficult thing you had to do was finding the right voice for Woody Woodpecker. If I recalled, there were many different voices for Woody Woodpecker. How did you manage to come up with the voice and settle with Eric Bauza.

Alex Zamm: It’s a very good question. The voice is a signature part of Woody. There’s his laugh, his red-hair top and his silhouette. Now if you didn’t see any of them and just heard his laugh—you would know the character.

I went through the process of listening through the original Woody voices. It was Mel Blanc, who did Bugs Bunny and dozens of other voices for Looney Tunes, as the original voice. Then there were a lot of original artists in between. Walter Lantz’s wife, Gracie, did the voice for twenty-two years. That’s really the voice everyone associates with the character.

We looked at a lot of actors, both males and females, to do the voice. To tell you the truth, I didn’t look at their names. I listened to close up to seventy-five interviews. We kept on whittling them down to who had certain voice qualities that I liked in the character with certain attitudes and bravado.

By the time I was done, it was down to two actors. Then I selected the one and turned over the little card with a number. I’ve put numbers on them for each actor. It turned out it was Eric Bauza, who I’ve had the pleasure working with him on a test short called Marvin the Martian a couple of years ago. Eric and I have gone on to other things. It was so ironic that out of all these people—it was Eric again.

For me on why it was Eric and why I connected him to Woody, I really needed an actor who could do Woody’s voice and had dramatic chops to really act. Not just to imitate a voice. I needed someone to give me the dramatic scenes and the layers to the character. The third quality was with that someone had to have that comedic background with improv. Eric is definitely a comedian and a fine actor.

It gave me the ability to do improv, which is one of my backgrounds. It was great to improvise with him during a recording session. He was a triple in that way. That’s how it came to be. That was the long-winded story arrived to Eric for the part.

LRM: There’s a lot of slapstick comedy throughout the film. How did you get the actors to play along with an imaginary character that is not on the set?

Alex Zamm: What do you mean an imaginary character? It’s all a documentary.

LRM: [Laughs] Absolutely, right?

Alex Zamm: I really believe that you’re making a hybrid film or anything that has a surreal element in that world—half the job is to make the audience care about it is make the actors understand on what’s going on too. They need to care on what’s going on. They need to know on where they’re looking. They need to know on how they’re reacting physically to things.

Part of the job in doing an animated film like this is to help the human actors to believe that Woody is in the same scene with them. There are a lot of exercises we do. I’ve done it with a lot in Inspector Gadget 2, like stretches and physicality of things coming out of his body with the tech and contraptions. When he believes it, then we believe it.

We have the boy Graham [Verchere] and Tim Omundson to really connect in the scenes with Woody is very important. They needed to understand on where exactly Woody is going to be during rehearsals. With myself and the visual tech supervisor Victor, we were walking around with a stuff animal on a stick or by hand. We would act out the scenes during rehearsal. Everybody knew, the camera, the dolly grips, the actors—everybody knew on where he was going to be.

LRM: How did you find the balance in making this as an international film? We’re talking about a beloved character, who is loved in over 100 countries.

Alex Zamm: That’s a great question, Gig. It’s a difficult one to answer. The goal is always to make a film that appeals to adults and to kids. Not to mention to the kids’ side to all adults. I knew that physical comedy translates to any age and to any nationality. It translated well into any international language.

That was the easy part. There are cultural things that will inevitable will or won’t translate. For instance, the film’s primary group is the Brazilian market, because he’s never been off the air in Brazil. He’s very much a beloved character there. We wanted to be respectful and true to that audience who loves him there. At the same time, we didn’t find out until well into production that Brazilian culture was not big on eating peanut butter cookies. There’s a whole running thread in the movie is with Woody constantly munching on peanut butter cookies or they’re called Peanut Butter Bonkers. If we known that, we would’ve adjusted it to the Brazilian markets. The fact that Woody is a grifter and a moocher—I think will translate internationally.

There are always challenges. With every movie, there are certain humor that is specific to one culture and not to another. My hope is that there will be enough there for everyone to enjoy with the physical comedy, the verbal comedy and the story. There will be enough there to be true to the character and Walter Lantz.

LRM: One last question, what is your fondest memory of Woody Woodpecker?

Alex Zamm: Probably as a kid sitting on the couch, watching the cartoons and seeing the potential of a troublemaker getting away with so much. There’s the joy in which he did everything. He is transformative. He always had the ability to peck and turn anything. His superhero power is that he could cut things into anything his mind can imagine. He’s like the Green Lantern, but with wood.

LRM: [Laughs] Nice comparison.

Alex Zamm: I’ve always enamored by his joy and his mischievousness by sitting on the couch after school. I have my milk and cookies to watch Woody cartoons. It’s always a treat that I look forward to.

LRM: It’s been my pleasure in speaking with you. Thank you for this conversation.

Alex Zamm: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it, Gig.

Woody Woodpecker is now available on DVD and digital download.

Source: Exclusive to LRM

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