Producers Christina Steinberg and Nancy Bernstein faced an interesting task when they signed up for Rise of the Guardians: to oversee the realization of a very different, and dark, DreamWorks Animation film while corralling the creative minds of co-producer Guillermo del Toro, director Peter Ramsey, author Bill Joyce and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire.
That’s to say nothing of acquiring, and managing, the talented cast to voice the characters — an Avengers-style gathering of childhood icons North (aka Santa Claus, played by Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Sandman and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to defeat the evil Pitch (aka the Boogeyman, voiced by Jude Law).
While in New York City promoting the film, Steinberg and Bernstein sat down with Spinoff Online to discuss how they wooed the voice cast, working with the acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, del Toro’s scrapped early pitch for the film, the actor originally slated to play Jack Frost, and more.
What drew the two of you to Bill Joyce’s material in the first place?
Christina Steinberg: I think his reputation, obviously, and my love for everything he’s ever done. I’m such a big sci-fi/fantasy geek and just sort of grew up on the E.T.’s and the Spielberg movies, and then I think it’s always been a dream of mine to try and reinvent a Wizard of Oz-type of movie for today that my kids could watch and kind of feel what we felt when we were kids watching those movies – which I don’t think there’s much of any more. They’ve all gone to that kind of cynical pop culture place.
Nancy Bernstein: For me, pretty much the same. There was this physical storybook of Bill’s with this amazing art, and I just was drawn to it immediately, and I was also drawn to the very lofty – if you will – notion of creating a classic. And as well, do something different at DreamWorks that would make this kind of an epic adventure. A little less cartoony … the notion of kind of doing that a bit further was intriguing for me.
This film feels very timely. We’ve had this onslaught of comic book movies like The Avengers and X-Men, where a group of heroes band together to save humanity. But this is an incredibly different spin on the idea, using icons from our childhood.
Steinberg: This has been in development for Bill for 20 years, and for us we’ve been working on it for five years, so it’s funny now – everyone says, “Oh, it’s The Avengers for kids!” but when we started there wasn’t Avengers yet! And Bill had always brought it to us as, “These are the original superheroes!” We loved that idea. But it is funny how since we’ve been working on it, now just the zeitgeist of the world, it is superhero-heavy right now.
Bernstein: And I think like Bill, also, these things are very important in our homes. We all have kids – we’re all just big kids at the end of the day. We make animated movies! [laughs] It’s like, how much can you keep your kid believing? Because it is a big scary world out there and their imaginations are what keeps them intact.
Nancy, you’ve been in visual effects for a very long time, so producing an animated film seems to be a natural progression for you. I’m sure it aided you very well for the job, but was there a learning curve you weren’t quite prepared for?
Bernstein: At the time, when the material came in to the studio and I was head of production, I had said to Bill, “This is the only movie that I’d want to do.” And I think you’re never really quite prepared – every movie’s different. For an effects person who’s been doing it for 30 years, it’s not about developing the coolest thing, it’s about really being in service of the story. It was the right movie for me to do for my first movie.
Guillermo del Toro mentioned that he had a pitch in an early meeting about where he thought the story should go, and it got shot down. What was the pitch about?
Steinberg: It’s actually funny, his whole other idea was about going through the eyes of Jaime [a young boy who believes in the Guardians] and making Jaime the central character, and not having it be Jack Frost. So we just had gone very far down the line with Jack Frost and were madly in love with him, and madly in love with the idea of him being this origin story of the newest Guardian. So we were very married to that. So his other idea, we said, “Well, that’s great – it’s just we’re sticking with Jack Frost.” And then two weeks later he was like, “I’m so glad we did!”
Bernstein: While we were designing them and thinking about the characters and the story, we were designing the visuals in concert with that. And so we had tests on the dream sand very early on. And we did them in 3D to get people to try to understand the scope of where we were headed, so even Guillermo was taken aback when he saw the visual promise of the movie. He didn’t really have much to add! He helped us with the bunny design.
I love that the Easter Bunny was made Australian once Hugh Jackman signed on for the role, and North is Santa with a Russian accent. In that vein, this is a really fantastic cast. I heard that Alec Baldwin was actually in consideration to play Pitch before he was cast as North? And wasn’t Leonardo DiCaprio on board as Jack Frost for a while?
Steinberg: Alec – he wasn’t really in consideration for Pitch, when we were first going through our pitch list, we had Jude [Law] as the ultimate – we loved his voice when we heard it. But we had said, “Well, there’s also Alec” – we sort of had a group of them. But then the minute we said “Alec” we were like, “Wait a minute, Alec? Alec’s North!” So we quickly said, “He’s gotta be North!” So it was a blink of a thought, but he wasn’t really anyone we seriously talked to about it.
Bernstein: And I remember we started listening to Alec’s accents, like some old work that he had done with a variety of accents, and I remember you [to Christina] we like, “Oh, my God, he could be almost anybody!” But he was so North.
Steinberg: He’s so talented, he could’ve been any of the characters, we knew we really wanted to work with him, but it was really always North. And Leo – we had talked to Leo a long time ago, but it was a different incarnation of the project long before Peter [Ramsey], when there were different writers on, it was like the first two months that Bill had brought the project. So that never really was anything serious. We hadn’t started the movie yet. So with Peter it was always Chris [Pine].
And were all the other cast members your first choices for the role?
Steinberg: Yes! All of them! It was incredible! We literally just went around the world wherever they were and pitched them the movie.
What did you do to woo them?
Steinberg: Honestly, it’s the art and the imagery and the idea of reinventing these characters. We had such beautiful character design and early artwork and literally they all said yes in the room. And we had some tests of the nightmare sand and the Sandman sand – early tests – and they literally were like, “Yes! Yes!” within 20 minutes. It was great!
Was there ever a conversation of whether or not this would be in 3D?
Both: It was never a conversation.
Bernstein: Since we started doing 3D at DreamWorks – you mean stereo, right? We make everything in 3D.
Steinberg: And it’s how we design every sequence, we think about the 3D. To be honest, I am not the biggest fan of 3D always – this movie was made for 3D. I mean, the minute that we started seeing these environments and the visual effects. … I think it’s a better experience than 2D. And I rarely feel that way.
Bernstein: For me it’s not just the spectacle of it for what we were able to design in, it’s that we do have larger than life characters and incredible fantastical worlds. But we wanted these worlds to be places that could be there – that you could go to, that were physical. I think what the 3D does in a way is it makes it more intimate. In some ways it’s about the big giant spectacle, but in other ways – if treated properly – it brings you into the story more. So that was important for us. We really abused the medium.
I noticed that Roger Deakins got a shout-out in this movie. He’s been the visual consultant on How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel. What was his involvement in Rise of the Guardians?
Steinberg: He’s amazing. He was very, very involved, especially at the beginning before he went to shoot Skyfall. But he was involved in lighting and in camera for us, and really consulted, really helped early on with how we wanted the movie to look. And even when he was away shooting Skyfall, we worked interactively with him – our production designer and our visual effects supervisor – like a couple of times a week, he would look at key frames and give ideas. He was really a part of it.
Bernstein: He’s one of those guys. I mean, he’s not only so talented, but he inspires the people around him, and so for our team … it just raised their game, and also validated what they wanted to do to a certain extent. When you have Roger Deakins attached it’s like you get to do stuff that you want to do and you can’t necessarily articulate in an animated movie, and then the studio people are like, “Oh, well Roger thought … and Guillermo” – you know? It’s great. They were dreams to work with.
Steinberg: It’s a crazy group of people. Each one is more talented and more of a genius than the next.
Bernstein: And without ego getting in the way!
Rise of the Guardians opens today nationwide.