Rob Letterman Exclusive Interview GULLIVER’S TRAVELS DVD/Blu-ray; Talks STRETCH ARMSTRONG

     April 19, 2011


The family adventure comedy Gulliver’s Travels, starring funnyman Jack Black, is out on DVD/Blu-ray this week with 90 minutes worth of extras and special features, including eight deleted scenes, a gag reel and various behind the scenes featurettes. For those unfamiliar with the story, this version of the classic tale brings Jack Black’s irreverent humor to the role of Gulliver, an underachieving mailroom clerk who takes a writing assignment traveling to Bermuda, only to get shipped on the fantastical island of Lilliput, which made up of tiny little people who aren’t sure what to make of the bigger-than-life figure. After the little fish in a big pond suddenly becomes the biggest fish around, he realizes that size doesn’t matter and it’s how big you are on the inside that counts.

During a recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, director Rob Letterman talked about making the shift from animation to live-action, what he loved about the story of Gulliver when he was first introduced as a kid, what viewers can look forward to in the DVD/Blu-ray special features, working with such a terrific cast of actors, and that he hopes families will get the experience of enjoying this film together. He also talked about how he is currently in development on the action film Stretch Armstrong for Universal and Hasbro, with Taylor Lautner in the title role. Check out what he had to say after the jump:

rob-letterman-imageQuestion: Since you were primarily known as an animation director, prior to Gulliver’s Travels, how did you come to this film? Were you approached by the studio, or did you go to them to pursue doing live-action?

ROB LETTERMAN: Yeah, I went to them. The movie was set up at Fox with Jack Black, who was producing with John Davis and starring in it, and they already had the script, which went out for directors. I got my hands on the script and thought it would be a great opportunity to make that transition out of animation, and I love Jack and really wanted to work with him. I have fond memories of the Gulliver’s Travels book, as well as some of the old animated Gulliver’s Travels movies, so it just seemed like a great opportunity. I went out and basically auditioned for the part. Ten meetings later, I somehow got the job.

What was your first experience with the story of Gulliver’s Travels, and what was it about the story that you most identified with?

LETTERMAN: As a kid, I read the book. Back then, I took it literally as a fantasy adventure. I loved the Max Fleischer animated Gulliver’s Travels movie that came out in the late ‘30s. There were these images that were burned into my brain, of him waking up on the beach, tied down and towing the Armada boats across the ocean. I just remembered those things vividly. So, that was what drew me to it. And then, later in life, looking back at the book, I realized that [Jonathan] Swift was actually writing an irreverent comedy/political satire/farce with scatological humor all over the place. It was so ripe for comedy and it was intended to be a comedy. It wasn’t intended to ever be taken literally, as a fantasy. He was actually making fun of the travel adventure Robinson Crusoe. It was just this silly thing, and he was ahead of his time, in that regard. Even though we took a lot of license, it seemed appropriate, in many ways, to do a comedic version of it. It’s an amazing book with an amazing history to it. It was very ground-breaking, at the time. I don’t know what Swift was thinking. Maybe he was playing a joke on everybody, by writing it. It’s really great.

What can viewers look forward to with the DVD/Blu-ray of the film? Are there any favorite special features on it that you’re really looking forward to people getting to see?

rob-letterman-jason-segel-imageLETTERMAN: Yeah, there’s tons of stuff on it. There are 90 minutes of extra footage, featurettes and things on it. It’s a lot. I personally worked on the deleted scenes, which I love. They’re near and dear to my heart, but they just couldn’t fit into the movie, so it’s a great chance for them to live on. So, I put those together and I put a little gag reel together. It was fun. It reminded me of all the craziness that happened on the set. And then, there’s a moment in there where Jack teaches the kids how he does his War Dance, which I love because my son, who was almost three at the time we were shooting it, would just watch him do that dance and memorize it to where he could do it. So, it just seemed like a great thing to have on the DVD. My kids love that.

Were there any specific scenes that you deleted that, at the time, you were totally bummed over having to cut out, but thought, “At least people can see them later on the DVD/Blu-ray”?

LETTERMAN: I didn’t think about it when I was cutting them out. I was just mostly bummed. But, when they actually approached me and asked, “Do you have any deleted scenes?,” I dug back through the bins with the editor and we found all this great stuff. It was really fun to go back and relive those moments, and not have to worry about how to weave those scenes into the overall story. They could just be their own moments.

When you include so many extras on the DVD/Blu-ray, do you have to start thinking about that early on, in the production?

LETTERMAN: I didn’t think about that, personally. There’s a real machine behind this stuff. The window from theatrical release to DVD release is shrinking, so there’s a whole team of people who are just there, gathering as much as they could, knowing that this was coming down the pipe really quickly. It never really affected me. I never thought about it, but I knew it was going to happen. We saved every little scrap we had, and then it was gathered up. I’m excited that they got everything. For me, personally, it’s a record of that moment in my life, so in a selfish way, it’s awesome. And then, at the same time, being a parent and having two young kids, I buy Blu-rays and DVDs all the time. It’s like buying a toy. They’ll watch these movies 100 times, and you want to have something on there beyond just the movie, so that you can keep exploring the disc. I like that part of it, too.

Because this movie was more challenging and complicated than the average live-action movie, with regular size people in a world of little people, do you think people will be surprised about how much work went into this?

LETTERMAN: I hope so. If you do your job right, no one realizes you did your job, and that’s a good thing. You strive for that. So, if a handful of people look at the making of the film and realize, “Oh, my god!” It was so complicated. It was like doing quantum physics calculations every day while you’re telling a joke. It was so insane! So, they can feel my pain.

What have you learned from this experience that you can take with you to any future live-action endeavors that you’re a part of?

LETTERMAN: Well, I now know all shades of the color green, having spent 90 days staring at that green screen. I’ll never forget that color, as long as I live. No. For me, personally, it was a huge learning experience, not just ‘cause I had the chance to go from animation to live-action, and it was amazing to get that chance, but it’s a movie that touched on so many aspects of the craft. There’s the visual effects aspect. There’s purely just shooting and performance, which I love, and working with the actors. There’s dealing with all the action. We had little moments of action and explosions, and being on a boat and shooting out in the ocean, which I don’t recommend to anybody. There was also working with children and animals, which is not easy to do. And then, we were on location in England, which isn’t always sunny. At any time, a cloud would come over us and just rain on us and shut us down. It was like the University of Gulliver’s Travels. It was a huge learning experience for me.

Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next? Are you already working on developing something?

LETTERMAN: Yeah, I’m writing a movie I’m hoping to direct, called Stretch Armstrong, with Taylor Lautner as Stretch Armstrong, for Universal. I’m working on that right now. I have a couple other things cooking, but that’s what I’ve got my fingers crossed for.

Is it a challenge to do a film like that, where you have to create an entire backstory for a toy?

Stretch Armstrong imageLETTERMAN: Yeah, that was the opportunity for me. There was the blank page aspect of it. I knew the toy when I was a kid because I basically tore it in half. I wanted to see what was inside, so I ripped it apart. I’m sure I’m not the only kid who did that. But, I’m hoping to surprise a few people. It’s not a movie about a toy. It’s trying to create a new character from scratch, really. That’s what’s fun and challenging about it. It’s been really good. I love working with the group I’m working with – the Hasbro people, and Universal and Imagine. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are producing it. It’s crazy! I’ve been having a good time. You never know. It’s so hard to get movies made, but I’m working my butt off, trying to get it done.

As a filmmaker, did Gulliver’s Travels teach you things about 3D that you can apply in the future?

LETTERMAN: Yeah. It was my second 3D movie. Monsters vs. Aliens was the first, and that was really always intended to be 3D. Gulliver’s was converted to 3D, and I wasn’t as involved in the 3D process on that, but I was really happy with the result of it. The guys who did it, did it in a very aesthetically pleasing way, which is what I gravitate towards, especially for young audiences. So, I learned a lot about it, and I’m really comfortable with the technology and the medium of it. The bigger question of, “Is it here to stay or not?,” is such a funny thing. It’s just a medium. If the movie is terrible, then the 3D sucks. If the movie is fantastic, then the 3D is good. I don’t know. I don’t think every movie should be in 3D. I hope the Coen brothers don’t do their next movie in 3D. I don’t think they have any plans to. But, at the same time, Martin Scorsese is doing a 3D movie (Hugo Cabret). A lot of amazing filmmakers are. Not just the obvious of Jim Cameron, but Spielberg is doing it and Peter Jackson has worked in it. In the hands of those types of people, it will just keep getting better and better, and we’ll see.

What do you hope that people will take away from the experience of watching Gulliver’s Travels?

rob-letterman-image-03LETTERMAN: I have two little kids and I enjoy watching movies with them, and I can’t watch every movie with them. Sometimes it’s because it’s obviously not appropriate to watch The Bourne Identity with your kids, but a lot of times it’s because it’s torture to watch the movies that they want to watch, as a parent. I really respect parents having to sit through that, so I try to do things that can entertain the parents as well, and still be appropriate for the kids. I always have that in the back of my mind, being a parent myself. I think this is one of those films. I love the shared experience of watching a movie with my kids. One of the great joys in life is when we’re all laughing together, at the same thing. I aspire for that, and this movie delivers, in many ways. That’s what I hope people get from it.

Did that gauge make you more aware of what makes a good family film and how far you could go with the humor?

LETTERMAN: Yeah, I think so. I always go too far and then, fortunately, in the editing room, we can take it out, or someone makes me take it out. I’m more and more sensitive to that, as my kids get older and repeat everything they hear me say. I really am aware of that. I know what parents go through, in that regard. It’s nice to have things out there that they can feel comfortable letting their kids watch.

What do you think it is that makes Jack Black so well-liked by audiences?

LETTERMAN: Here’s my theory about that: Jack Black is a really great person, in real life. He’s really sweet and he’s super-funny. In many ways, he is that character that you see on the screen. And then, he’s a dad and he loves his kids, and he’s just the nicest guy. He’s the kind of guy you just want to hang out with and be friends with, and I think that translates in the movies and I think that’s why he’s a story. My theory of what makes people likeable stars is that they’re likeable. He is just an awesome guy, and that really comes across in the movie. My favorite parts in the movie are sometimes the sweet, emotional, heartfelt parts, more than the big laugh-out-loud, crazy, physical comedy parts.

Did you ever have any moments of guilt over all the ways you tortured your lead actor, or was he just totally game for anything?

rob-letterman-image-02LETTERMAN: Yeah, I felt guilty every day. The first day of shooting, and it was my first time shooting a live-action movie, we did this one scene with Jack in this whirlpool storm in the Bermuda Triangle. We shot on the backlot at Pinewood Studios in England, in February, which is not warm at all, and he had to pretend to be in the Tropics on a boat, while we were using wind machines and rain machines and water cannons. For some reason, we decided to start with the hardest scene. I don’t know what we were thinking. And then, a storm blew in and things started crashing and cameras started breaking. The wire on Jack was live and I could hear him saying, “Rob, get me out of here.” That was the first day, and I was like, “Oh, my god, he’s going to hate my guts.” By the end of it, I had tortured that poor man and he couldn’t have been nicer. I made him take his shirt off and we shot him in slow motion, shooting him with cannonballs. He is a trooper.

What was this ensemble cast like to work with? Did you enjoy getting to work with them?

LETTERMAN: My favorite thing in the whole is getting to work with the actors. All the technology on this particular movie was designed to make that happen. The magic was getting the equation of the cast right, picking the right people, making sure they liked each other and that there was a chemistry there, and that they all feel free to ad-lib and improv and bring their ideas to the table. That was my favorite part, really.

Was there an adjustment to having all of these actors together, instead of dealing with them individually in a voice-over booth, like you have to do for animation?

LETTERMAN: Yeah. It wasn’t an adjustment in a bad way. It was an adjustment in a really good way. I enjoyed it. I wish I could do that in animation, and just get them all together in one room. It would be so much better. But, the way you get your cast in animation is by accommodating their schedules, so you end up piecing it together. So, being able to do that was a good skill to have, but the thrill of having them all there, interacting with the sets, was awesome.


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