IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Puss in Boots'

Thursday, 27 October 2011 09:06 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Puss in Boots'

When Shrek hit theaters in 2001, the winkingly self-aware comedic fantasy tale announced DreamWorks Animation as a unique rival to Disney, which dominated the animation game for decades.  Audiences loved the adventures of Shrek, Donkey, and Princess Fiona, voiced respectively by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz, and the film was a huge hit.  DreamWorks pretty much immediately got to work on a sequel that would expand their fairy tale world and keep the clever references coming for the grown-ups in the audience.  When Shrek 2 debuted in 2004, it quickly became the most successful animated film of all time, a record it maintained until 2010, when Toy Story 3 finally unseated it.

While Shrek 2 introduced a whole mess of new characters, the most popular of them – and almost certainly the most popular element of the film itself – was Puss in Boots, a swashbuckling feline voiced by Antonio Banderas.  With his sword-swirling heroism and overzealous ladies' man charm, Puss in Boots is sort of a combination of Errol Flynn and Pepe Le Pew, with plenty of Latin suavity and kittenish adorability thrown in as well.

After four films, the Shrek franchise has retired, but Puss in Boots lives on his third theatrical adventure, Puss in Boots, a spin-off feature arriving in theaters this Friday.  Shrek the Third co-director Chris Miller directs the prequel, which follows Puss on a quest to find the mythical goose capable of laying golden eggs, a quest that leads him to his appearance in Shrek 2.  Originally conceived as a direct-to-DVD release, the project is now a 3D, family-friendly blockbuster poised to kickstart the new movie season.  IAR's Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand at the Puss in Boots press conference in Los Angeles, where voice actors Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Amy Sedaris discussed their roles, fairy tales, and vocal acting.

"In the beginning, it was just a recurring character," said Banderas of his rakish animated alter-ego.  The actor became involved with the franchise shortly after the first film's success, and was unprepared for the response when the character finally appeared onscreen years later.  "I didn’t know that it was going to have a long career of 10 years now. I wanted to give him a voice that doesn’t match his body. It goes in the exact opposite direction. Cats aren’t supposed to talk like that. He doesn’t even talk like me. I created a voice for him that is more deeper. I think in that contrast is the source of comedy. That creates the comedy. I think it was at the Cannes festival in 2004 for Shrek, in front of everyone, there were so many interruptions by the audience every time Puss talked. We were missing lines because people were laughing so hard at Puss. At the end I had a dinner with Jeffrey Katzenberg and he commented to me the possibility of a movie for just Puss."

Even though the swashbuckling spin-off has a slightly different tone thanks to its leading cat, Puss in Boots is still very much an heir to the Shrek films, and, like those films, it re-appropriates familiar fairy tale characters and puts a clever spin on them.  Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, Bad Santa) and Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy, Jennifer's Body), for example, voice adult versions of nursery rhyme standbys Jack and Jill, who infamously went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.  Now grown-up, Jack and Jill are both hulking, murderous outlaws racing against Puss throughout the story.

A newcomer to voiceover work, Thornton relied upon Miller, who has an extensive animation background.  "Our characters were completely different than the story we read as kids," Thornton explained.  "Humpty Dumpty at least was an egg. Our guys were these huge, fat… my guy looks like Henry VIII's mentally challenged brother or something. I completely relied on Chris [Miller], not having done this before. He gave me who the guy was.  My only job to was to come up with a voice that kind of fits him. You look at the characters drawings, and you look at yourself – I weigh 140 pounds, and you look at this huge guy, I just had to sound like my voice had more weight to it, if you will.

Sedaris actually worked with Miller before, as she voiced Cinderella in Shrek the Third.  While she played a more classically enchanting figure in that film, she was attracted to the lumbering physicality of her new character, saying, "I liked Jill’s size in the movie. If this was a regular movie, they wouldn’t have wanted me. I thought she was attractive. I love that they gave me a husband in the movie and the entire pig family. In my family, we compete to see who is going to be the best aunt or uncle, and because of this movie, I’m winning."

Another familiar character is Humpty Dumpty, a sentient egg and Puss's buddy who masterminds the plan to find the goose and its golden eggs.  Humpty Dumpty is voiced by Zach Galifianakis, a longtime standup comedian who became a ubiquitous figure in popular culture when The Hangover became the biggest comedy of all time in 2009.

Anyone who has seen Galifianakis's standup is well aware that he has a keen ear for the absurd, and the oddity of this role was not lost on him as he described the character, explaining, "The Humpty Dumpty character that I play, and I never thought I’d say that sentence in my life, and I finally have… thank you Jesus. I think Humpty Dumpty is a little all over the place. He’s a little emotional. He’s a little greedy. I think he’s a little vindictive, but he is also trying to have a friendship ultimately. But, his greed gets the best of him. I think down deep in his yolk, that he is an okay guy."

Ever devoted to rigorous method acting, Galifianakis tirelessly researched Humpty.  "I interviewed the real Humpty Dumpty," he said.  "He is 90 years old and lives in Vermont. You know, Chris really gave me all the information I needed to know and the context that I needed to do the voice work. All I know are vague childhood memories of Humpty Dumpty, but also children throwing eggs at me – is not much about Humpty Dumpty. But Chris filled it in and did do some specifically direction that he saw for the grand scope of the movie."

The second lead of the movie is not a character familiar from nursery rhymes or fairy tales.  Salma Hayek voices Kitty Softpaws, a romantic foil for the swaggering Puss in Boots.  Banderas and Hayek have previously appeared together in no less than four movies, starting with Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, and continuing with its sequel, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, as well as Spy Kids 3D: Game Over and Frida

While the vocal acting for animated features is usually done one-by-one, with each actor recording in isolation, Banderas requested that and frequent co-star Hayek be allowed to record together.  "The technique is to work individually," he said.  "I’ve been doing that for almost two years now with Puss in Boots. But, this particular case, I asked our director Chris, to give us the opportunity to work together. So, we had a session together. Actually, I think it’s some of the best stuff we did together and made it into the movie. For whatever reason, we worked individually in the past, if something works, you better not touch it. Probably the worse enemy of an actor is to be self conscious. We just try to work together nicely since we had the opportunity. So, we did that session and it was great. We improvise a little bit. If we had done that individually, it would have been very difficult."

"There’s nothing left to say," Hayek added with a laugh before going on praise Miller for guiding her through her first animated film.  "I’m just grateful that I had some training with improvising," she said.  "This is the first time I did an animated movie. I was scared to be by myself. Chris is an amazing director. I really cherish the experience I had with him on this. He trained me, so by the time I got to work with Antonio, we really had the character. I knew who she was, so that helped me. Also, he took me out of the box because he really pushed me to explore improvisation and comedy. In these two years, I think I got so much better because of him. He really encouraged me and it really helped me for when I finally got to do the sessions with Antonio."

Her improvisational skills must have come in handy, as she described Miller's unorthodox approach to her first days on the film.  She said, "I didn’t prepare. I never got to see the script. Chris never showed me the script! I just showed up blind. There were no drawings or anything at the beginning. Chris would just describe the scene to me. It reminded me of my grandmother who would tell me the most amazing tales and you had to imagine everything. It was like that. He walked me through the production design. Then, we did the scenes."

For his first time voicing an animated creation, Oscar-winner Thornton similarly relied upon the expertise of his veteran director, who himself has lent his voice to DreamWorks features such as Monsters vs Aliens, Madagascar, the Shrek films, and now Puss in Boots.   "I’m a rookie at this," Thornton explained.  "And so for me it was a great experience period. Chris, as Salma and Antonio said, is a terrific director. I wouldn’t have known, left to my own devices, how to do something like this. Chris just stood there and said, “Say this and say it like that.” I just went, 'Oh, okay.' I like working with a director in the animated world because usually in live action movies, the director is the first guy I go over and grab by the neck. I didn’t have to strangle him one time.

After years of playing Puss in Boots, though, Banderas had no difficulty finding the character and enjoying the work, even for the fourth time. "I get really physical when I’m doing it," he said of the recording process.  "Sometimes Chris has to remind me to get closer to the microphone because I’m unaware of what I’m doing physically. It’s just all amazing to me. I came to this country without even speaking the language. The fact that they call me to use my voice is such a paradox. When I got to America, I thought if there was something I could not do, it would be animation. Here I am. I know the thing is working when I see the guys in the booth laughing. It’s embarrassing to say this, but it’s easy. It’s fun. You don’t feel like you’re spending so much money as when you are doing live action. There’s 200 people there, spending all this money with each passing minute. In animation, if you want to throw out whatever comes to your mind, you’re allowed to do it. Chris will not say, 'Don’t do that.' You’re putting together pieces of a puzzle. You take all that work and all these fantastic people on the creative side of the movie will put this together."

I know the teaser poster above has the original release date of November 4th, but Puss in Boots unleashes its full feline fury in 3D and 2D on Friday, October 28th.

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