Writer/director Garth Jennings’ career has been like a pinball. After zooming out of the chute with some mind-blowing music videos for bands such as R.E.M., Radiohead and Beck, he ricocheted into sci-fi with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. He then bounced into a coming-of-age autobiographical movie called Son of Rambow in 2007. Now, he’s rolling out an animated musical called Sing.
“I haven’t seemed to follow a straight line, career-wise yet. I should probably join a mariachi band or something, just to keep things eccentric,” says Jennings with a smile.
But genre-hopping isn’t easy
There’s a learning curve on each one and Jennings admits working on an animated film was the hardest thing he’s done so far.
With Son of Rambow, he worked on the script with his producer then spent three months storyboarding it. “We just shot it. There was no rewriting. It was a very strict blueprint and we obeyed it.”
But working in animation, Jennings says he’s never rewritten anything more than Sing in his life – but for the all the right reasons. “The process is so mercurial. You’re in production for years and it’s a constant refining process. I’d send pieces to production then I’d have to make changes. I would be banging my head against the wall sometimes because I didn’t have the solution we needed. But it’s the biggest growing up lesson I’ve had since art school.”
Growing up in a small village in Essex, England, Jennings says art school really changed him. Getting through his program required commitment and pushed him to figure out who he was by forcing him to dig deep. Just like making Sing.
“It felt like that again. To work in a medium that I didn’t have the right experience for. I had used animation in all kinds of things, but it’s very different making an animated movie. The parts are all so disparate. You might have an idea in 2014, but you won’t see it done until 2015. It’s trying to hold on to all those pieces and not let it fall off the rail.”
Writing for animals
Though Sing takes place in a city that looks like a cross between Miami and Los Angeles, there are no human residents in sight. Instead, all the characters in the story are adorable animals who can sing their lungs out.
The protagonist in the film is Buster Moon, a koala bear who also happens to be a theater producer. We asked Jennings why he picked a koala. “Originally, it was supposed to be tarsier – a tiny little thing with huge eyes. But when we took it to the design area, we had two huge problems. One, it’s very small (tarsiers range from 3.6 to 6.4 inches in length). We always wanted Buster to be small, so everything appeared just a bit too big for him, but it wasn’t adorable, either. It looked like a psychopath – the eyes are so big! It was like a nightmare, I just wanted to turn his eyes off.”
In their very first meeting, Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri showed Jennings a photo of several koalas sitting together. “He said, ‘Do you reckon this could be a boy band for instance?’ I said, ‘Of course, I get it! So we ended up going back to that. Something about the koala just worked. It’s a bit weird really, because it’s all based on feelings as opposed to logic.”
The character Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the mama pig stuck at home caring for her 25 piglets, was base on Jennings’s own wife. “She had quit her job for ten years, trying to go back to work and reconnecting with that part of herself was a struggle.” The couple has four boys.
In addition to managing the creation of the original songs for the film, there are bits and pieces of a whopping 65 familiar tunes in the movie. Luckily, Jennings was able to hand pick each one because a large portion of the film’s budget was set aside just for the music. “You need a healthy budget, but you also need time and team that can start right from the beginning. We started plotting the music three years ago.”
The most difficult song to get was “I’m still standing.” “The only reason they were holding off on giving us that one, is they thought Elton John might be using it for one of his projects. But we didn’t give up for six months.”
Jennings finagled a meeting with Elton John’s husband, David Furnish. “I showed him an outline of the film and also how that song would be used in the scene. He was so lovely. He just wanted to be sure Elton’s music would be in safe hands.”
There was one song denied from the get-go: Prince’s “Purple Rain.” “This was long before he died. I’m a huge Prince fan – I caught his towel at one of his concerts and I still have it, so I really wanted to have some Prince in there. But it wasn’t a money thing, it was like, ‘there’s not rights going out for any of Prince’s music.’”
In hindsight, Jennings says he’s glad he didn’t get the rights to “Purple Rain.” “It was going to be used in a funny little quirky scene. But because we lost Prince this year, I wouldn’t have been so thrilled that we used it in a funny way. It was a huge blessing in disguise.”
Reaping the rewards of hard work
Now that the film is finished, Jennings is finally able to catch his breath and enjoy the fruits of his labor. “Watching it with audiences, which I’ve done a lot now, is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career. I’m really happy to be at this stage. It’s really nice right now.”
Sing opens Dec. 21.