David Lindsay-Abaire has enjoyed a faceted career as a Tony Award-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (for his 2007 play Rabbit Hole, which he later adapted for film) and screenwriter (along with Rabbit Hole, he has credit on 2005’s Robots and 2007’s Inkheart).
His latest project is DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians, which reunites Lindsay-Abaire with his Robots collaborator Bill Joyce, author of The Guardians of Childhood books on which the film is based. Also on board is producer Guillermo del Toro, who fully embraced the film’s darker angle. Something of an Avengers for kids, the movie pits childhood icons North (aka Santa Claus, voiced by Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), Sandman (who doesn’t speak) and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) together to fight the evil Pitch (aka the Boogeyman, voiced by Jude Law).
While promoting the film in New York City, Lindsay-Abaire spoke with Spinoff Online about how he chooses his diverse projects, writing a very different kind of DreamWorks film, how being a parent helped him (and the rest of the crew) realize the story, and his upcoming work – which includes the Sam Raimi-directed Oz: The Great and Powerful and the Raimi-produced Poltergeist.
I think it's kind of funny that you and Bill have the Oz connection. He took a lot of inspiration for the Rise of the Guardians characters from The Wizard of Oz.
Bill Joyce did? I never heard that!
I presumed you guys talked about it!
Never! He never mentioned Oz! I'm glad he didn't, actually. Now that you mention it, I guess there are a lot of similarities – all right! [laughs]
You've worked on really varied projects: musical theater, animated films -- you wrote Rabbit Hole, which is a completely different genre from what you’d done previously. How do you choose your projects?
I like to say yes to things that I've never done before. I hate to be pigeon-holed. I'm mostly a playwright. I had written a bunch of really absurdist comedies, and people responded the way they did, and I saw my name starting to appear in other people's reviews, and I thought, "Oh, I need to do something different now." So Rabbit Hole was a very deliberate departure. I've never done a horror movie, so Poltergeist was offered to me, and so I'm doing Poltergeist. And for the animated stuff, I did one animated move with Bill Joyce.
That was Robots, right?
Yeah. I didn't have the best time on Robots, and I left that project when they decided to do something very different with it, and so it was nice to reconnect with Bill. So this really feels like the first animated movie that I've seen through. The thing that appealed to me was that it had very big emotions. And yes, I wanted to do an action-y kind of movie because I have kids … I knew there had to be comedy. But at the end of the day, this is a movie about despair versus hope. And so when it was pitched to me, I said, "Does DreamWorks really want to make this movie?" Because it's tonally not like a DreamWorks movie.
It seems like a very concerted departure from some of their previous material. There's no silly sidekick in this, you don't get the patented DreamWorks facial expressions.
Yeah! They let it be timeless and epic and all the things that I'd hoped, but you don't know if they're really going to make that kind of movie. You know, you're often, "No, we love your idea for the movie, come on in!" and then a year later you suddenly realize, "Oh, wait, 12 people are making 12 different movies!" And that never happened with Guardians. I mean, of course the process is difficult because it goes on forever – I've probably been on it for three years. That's the best thing about the process and the worst thing about the process. But by the end of the movie, all the stuff that didn't work fell away and it is what it's supposed to be.
You touched a bit upon the dark angle of this movie: Did Guillermo del Toro's involvement help you push the boundaries further than you thought you could?
He certainly embraced it. I will say, the darkness was there from the very beginning. I didn't know how dark they were going to let us get, because it's a family movie, but again – that was one of my big questions when I signed up. Like, “Look, the villain is the boogeyman, and the boogeyman is the representative of every childhood fear that exists – are you going to let him be scary? He needs to be scary!” And DreamWorks were like, "Yeah! He needs to be scary in the way that the Wicked Witch is scary in The Wizard of Oz." As a kid, I was terrified – but it's important! That's what makes the stories great! If you don't feel like these characters are actually in danger, then you don't care. And the movie is very much about childhood, and preserving the wonder and joy of childhood. And so fear has to be a real thing.
You had so much of Bill's material to work with to build this script – which isn't always the case. Was he really married to his original content, or did he let you run with things and build upon his characters and their stories?
He was not married to anything, no. Because those books are wonderful, but it's mostly backstory, and so he doesn't have a book where Jack joins the guardians and they all work together to defeat Pitch – like, that book doesn't exist. He has the book about how Sandman became Sandman and how Pitch became Pitch – he has the origin stories. At the end of the day, that was incredibly useful to the fabric of the movie, but ultimately not the plot of the movie. We took the seeds and the threads and we strung them together into a story that was a story about Jack Frost learning to believe in himself so that other people can believe in him.
If you look at this world of comic-book film adaptations, there's a lot to be learned from what you guys did. You rightfully assumed the audience already knew all about these characters, so you gave them quick introductions and then you went right into the story.
We went back to that a lot, because Bill has so much material and it's all so great, there was a struggle like, "Well, how much should be put in?" People are already walking in with a butt-load of information – so you don't have to surprise them and give them little glimpses of these characters that they didn't know about. Oh, Santa Claus has tats and it's not the elves that make the toys it's the Yetis – and those things are really wonderful discoveries, but when you have a story to tell that's not the origin of Santa Claus or whatever it is, get it out of the way! We've got to tell our story! So that's what dictated all the decisions we ended up making.
You have a lot of surprising accents going on in this movie – Santa is Russian and the Easter Bunny is Australian.
We do! Santa is Russian in Bill's book – he's a Kossak. So that is grounded in the book. The Australian Easter Bunny came about when we cast Hugh Jackman. Jeffrey Katzenberg was like, "Let him do that Australian accent!" And then once we started digging in, it made total sense that the character that is literally from Down Under – something so earthy and grounded – it just worked well. We didn't want a fussy English bunny – to have a kick-ass Australian guy whipping around a boomerang was great.
I also love that you put two massive swords in Santa's hands. That combined with the "naughty" and "nice" tattoos on each forearm, forget about it!
[laughs] Well look, my son is 11 and he was 9 when he saw the first artwork and he was like, "Santa has swords?" It's just like – that's all you need! He was so excited that Santa had swords!
Did your son have any input when it came to certain details?
A lot of enthusiasm! [laughs] He was very excited.
Well, most of the people involved in the production of this movie have kids. I love to imagine that they all hung around here and there, throwing in feedback whenever they could.
Well, there was that! But more to the point, I think because the movie is about preserving the wonder in childhood, we always had a touchstone. Just wanting to preserve that childishness about them – the childish chaos and the joy, all of those things. We have a very personal connection because we do not want to see that extinguished in our own children. So we kept going back to that place that was very personal.
You mentioned Poltergeist. Is Sam Raimi working with you on that, as director?
Sam is not directing it.
Ah, okay, I read something to the contrary.
That's a false rumor. He's one of the producers. That's how I got hooked up, because we've worked on a few things together. That would be awesome if he was directing, but he's producing.
You guys don't have a director lined up yet, right?
No, not yet.
Has Bruce Campbell's cameo made the cut in Oz: The Great and Powerful?
I'm not being cagey – I haven't seen the last cut. I haven't seen him in the movie, but I think he's in it. I do think so!
Rise of the Guardians opens Wednesday nationwide.