Director Tim Hill Interview HOP

     March 29, 2011


The family comedy Hop, from the makers of Despicable Me, blends CG animation with live-action, to tell the story of E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand), the teenage son of the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Laurie). Hidden on Easter Island, off the coast of South America, there is the world’s most magnificent candy factory, where the Easter Bunny presides over a team of bunnies and chicks who work around the clock to prepare the candy-filled baskets that are delivered to children on Easter morning. Before his father can hand over the Easter Bunny title and all the power that goes with it, E.B. runs away to Hollywood, to follow his dream of becoming a drummer. Not long after he arrives, he meets Fred (James Marsden), a 30-year-old who is trying to pull his life together and find his place in the world. And, with E.B. uninterested in the Easter Bunny position, Fred thinks he just might have found his true calling.

At the film’s press day, director Tim Hill (Alvin and the Chipmunks) talked about the challenges of combining animation with live-action, what made Russell Brand and James Marsden his perfect leading men, and the reasons for not having done the film in 3D. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

Question: What was the biggest challenge of this film, compared to Alvin and the Chipmunks?

hop-image-tim-hill-james-marsdenTIM HILL: The challenges were pretty similar, but there’s always advances technologies that let you do more, especially with contact. The challenges were self-made. I figured out that I could do more, so I tried to do more. That was just something I wanted to do myself, to be able to use the way that things are advancing. On the technical side, it’s pretty similar. The way that we make the movie is pretty much the same. We shoot background plates and we put the animated character in later, but the basic filmmaking process is the same.

What led you to casting Russell Brand and James Marsden?

HILL: Casting was a collaborative thing. We love Jimmy. He was one of the first people we talked about, mostly for his natural charm. He has a screen appeal and he’s a real down-to-earth actor. These films are hard because you find, as an actor, that you’re talking to a coffee table for most of the time you’re supposed to be acting with this bunny. You pretty much have to manufacture that character in your mind, and it takes a skilled actor to be able to do that without feeling that it’s false or that it’s unreal.

hop-movie-image-03Jimmy really did a great job of not looking like it was manufactured, and that there really was somebody else in the room, when all he really had was a puppet we were playing with. Russell had done Dr. Nefario in Despicable Me, which was really funny. Just the idea of Russell as a naive, 16-year-old kid, with his accent and his ability to bring a lot of contrast to the character, and be naive and really articulate, would be really funny. He’s clever, witty, sensitive and caring. All those things were within one character. And, as we worked with him, we figured out that he was capable of doing all those things willingly. I just thought it was an amazing blessing for the movie.

Were there any discussions about doing this in 3D?

HILL: When you look at the movie, I’m not sure what 3D would bring to it. It’s not an action movie. There are very few sets. You could make a case for maybe getting a little more out of the Easter Island factory in 3D. But, in general, the question I kept asking was, “Why? What makes a film better by making it in 3D?” It’s probably past the point where you can just use 3D as a marketing tool. If you say, “It’s in 3D!,” everyone goes, “So what? We’ve seen it.”

The motivation to do it really wasn’t there, for both the content of the film and the style of shooting we were using, which was situational. It didn’t really lend itself to the visual part of 3D that makes 3D really exciting. You plan for it and you use the space differently. This is more of an intimate comedy. It’s almost a buddy comedy. You wouldn’t shoot that in 3D.

hop-movie-image-05This film focuses on Easter in a very non-religious way, but Easter has also become very commercialized. How did you approach dealing with that?

HILL: In these movies, you have to clear some of the images that are on the screen. You can’t put up a Hershey’s Kiss without calling up Hershey’s and saying, “Can we use this?,” and then a relationship develops, if they’re interested. But, with the Peeps, we found out that they didn’t want anything to do with us. We were like, “Oh, no, how are we going to have a Peep machine?” It turned out that Walmart makes their own Peeps. We just wanted the image of it because it’s like a candy cane. If somebody copyrighted candy canes and you couldn’t use them for your Christmas movie, you’d probably be pretty disappointed. There was an emphasis on certain candies because they were the most common Easter basket candy. There are certain iconic candies that fill up these baskets. That was the main thrust of how we treated the candy.

When did you decide to add Russell Brand into the movie, as himself?

HILL: That was an inspiration that came from John Cohen, a producer on the movie. It popped into his head one day and he called Russell’s agent. We floated the idea and Russell was like, “Sure, but I only have 10 minutes.” So, he showed up and we were in the basement of the Orpheum Theatre, and we could only do three or four takes. I just added on the idea that the mirror image of E.B. is different than E.B., for another layer of screwing with the idea that reality is being broken. It’s a fourth wall joke.

tim-hill-image-02Which is more difficult to work with, animated characters or real actors?

HILL: I would say they’re different. You’re trying to get the same thing. If you’re dealing with an animated character like E.B., there are three things you’re trying to do. You’re creating a real animal that’s photo real, has real fur and looks to be real through his acting. And then, you have a human side of him, so you have this anthropomorphic part of him, where he can talk and he walks like a human, but he’s kind of walking like a bunny. And then, the third thing is that he’s a caricature.

All those things have to work together when you put him up there on the screen and make him act and talk. You have to be able to find which of those strengths you want to emphasize, in any situation. If he’s covering a lot of distance, he runs like a bunny. If he’s walking into a room, he walks on two feet, which bunnies don’t do. The trick is to not have the audience go, “Why is he doing that, when he’s a bunny?” I hope nobody does that when they watch the movie. Those are the things that you have to really watch out for. You take it case by case and shot by shot, and decide what of those three assets you’re going to emphasize. That’s a difficulty, in itself. Finding the right combination of those things is the hardest part for me about using an animated character in the real world. Luckily, you have some time to develop that.

When you’re on the set with an actor, you have a few minutes to do multi-takes, and you pretty much live with that later. There is something about animation that lets you evolve it, which you can’t really do with an actor. They’re just different animals.

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