Rob Minkoff remains best known for co-directing The Lion King (with Roger Allers), but his increasingly varied resumé also includes two Stuart Little films, Disney's The Haunted Mansion, and martial arts epic The Forbidden Kingdom with Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Now Minkoff's at the helm of the WABAC machine for the small-to-big-screen revival Mr. Peabody & Sherman, executive produced by Tiffany Ward. She's the middle child and only daughter of the late great Jay Ward, producer of the classic cartoons starring Rocky and Bullwinkle, Sherman and Peabody, Dudley Do-Right, and George of the Jungle, among others (don't forget "Fractured Fairy Tales"). As keeper of the flame, Tiffany Ward has served as President of Ward Productions Inc. since her father’s death in 1989, and has also been President of Bullwinkle Studios (the joint venture between Ward Productions Inc. and Classic Media of New York) for the last decade. I spoke to Minkoff and Ward at San Francisco'a Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: I'm a big fan of all the Jay Ward material, so it's great to see this getting a fresh launch. The press notes don’t really get into the long journey with the property. Originally the idea was to do a live-action/animation hybrid, right, like your Stuart Little films?
Rob Minkoff: That’s what was suggested. So Tiffany had brought the property to Classic Media, and my producing partner, a guy named Jason Clark, met with someone at Classic, named Bob Higgins, who went on to run the Cartoon Network. And Bob and he had lunch, and then Jason came to me after lunch and literally said, "What do you think of Peabody and Sherman?" And I said, "I love Peabody and Sherman!" They said, "What about making it into a film?" I said, "Fantastic." I didn’t know what it would be about, I had no idea how long a journey it would be, but it was really that idea: the characters seemed so compelling to me and kind of rich, so much potential, that it seemed like a great thing to do. We met with Tiffany, Tiffany wanted to make it into a film, we sort of said let's join forces, and then begin the process, and that was in 2003 probably. We did not expect or know—in fact, when you really think about it, the amazing thing is that somehow we managed to stay in lockstep about the whole notion of making this movie over so many years and never lost faith that somehow it would happen.
Groucho: With this version, when you knew you were going to make an animated feature, where and how do you start in adapting the original property into something that first satisfies superfans like you two, and me, and then hopefully satisfies people who won’t be familiar with the material at all.
Rob Minkoff: I think first it comes from being a superfan myself, and working with almost everyone on the production who was also a superfan. So I think we all came at it with the right intention and desire to be true to the original, to do it justice, but not to make a slavish copy of the original. Again, we were talking about the history of Jay Ward and what he was doing. It came from an era, a time, in which television animation didn't exist, so he was kind of inventing it. And the budgets were quite low, so in order to make the best show he could make, it was all about the writing and the characters and the intelligence of the humor. And so that, the content of the show, is what we were trying to be true to, to make it as smart as possible, to make the jokes work on two levels and make sure there was enough for adults as for kids. Those were the elements, I think, or the pieces of it, that were our inspiration.
G: Can you talk a little bit about adapting the character models and designing the post-millennial WABAC?
RM: Sure. Well, again, if you look at the designs—in fact, it's in this great new book, written by a friend [The Art of Mr. Peabody & Sherman by Jerry Beck]—you see Peabody and Sherman, and they are essentially the simple cartoon renderings of the characters that we have. So we weren't changing Mr. Peabody and Sherman. We've still got Sherman with the giant head, the big mop of red hair; Mr. Peabody and Sherman, they're roughly almost the same size; Mr. Peabody is a little shorter than Sherman. The round glasses are obviously so iconic. That was one of the original things early on that we experimented with. We said if we're going to modernize it, maybe we should give Mr. Peabody square glasses. We tried that, and Tiffany said, "No." She vetoed that idea; it's like "No, no." The iconic round glasses are so much a part of who they are as characters that we didn't want to move away from that. And partly we realized that, again, it was being on the inside of it that made us think, "Well, this'll be kind of a comment. People who know the original will say, 'Oh, they’ve gone this other way," but again we were making it for a lot of people that didn’t know what it was. And so we wanted to make sure we brought enough of what it was in its original form to launch it for a whole new generation.
G: Of course, it's got, like you say in the text of it, the content of it, also the puns and the semi-educational, historical aspect. It never occured to me till this morning—since this came out in 1959, I think, was the original cartoon—
Tiffany Ward: Mm-hm. Yes.
G: It was only a few years before Doctor Who premiered in the UK. And I was thinking this quite possibly might have been an unacknowledged inspiration for that, with the time machine with the acronym [TARDIS], and it was really a show designed to bring history to kids.
RM: I think so. I think we have in some ways forgotten—and which is good to remember—that this was there first. And I don’t know if you know this, but the internet archive that’s been in existence for decades now is called the WABAC.
G: Oh right. Yes, yes, that's right. Well, back in the late '50s, the notion of a dog and his boy was just a clever irony, but now it can be or almost has to be a sort of metaphor for alternative families or mixed families, for lack of a better term. Can you talk a bit about how you see family values playing out in the story?
RM: Sure. Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s about a boy and his dog, and the dog is the boy’s father, and that makes them a kind of an unusual family. And if you think about that in the context of 1959, it had a totally different meaning, and probably one that would have gone right over everyone’s head. But looking at it from the perspective of today, you can’t help but look at them then and say they’re the original Modern Family. It’s an alternative family, and what’s wrong with that? And there are alternative families of all shapes and sizes today, in all varieties, and so we couldn’t help but say, "This is taking place in the modern world, so what's that going to be about, and how is that going to relate?" And we wanted to ask the question “How would Mr. Peabody feel about that?” Because we thought Mr. Peabody is a character that is so exceptional in so many ways that he wouldn't even have given it a second thought that he could be a good father to Sherman. And so he would have just gone ahead and immediately said, "I’m going to raise this boy, I'm going to be a great father, and I’m going to teach my son." And yet there's a kind of an implied question, which is “How is that going to actually work? And is it going to work? And how is Sherman going to feel about having a dog as a father?" And again, this notion in the movie was: Sherman is going to school for the first time, and so he’s actually going to be going out into the world for the first time, where he’s going to get a reflection back on what the world might think of that, and it may not be okay. Sherman would have never thought about it either, growing up as Mr. Peabody’s son, but suddenly Penny is there to kind of make fun of him and say his father's a dog. And that idea seemed like a really great, kind of truthful idea just about who these characters are. You know, Mr. Peabody, in that scene in the bedroom when he’s putting Sherman to bed, and says, "What happened?", and Sherman says, “She called me a dog.” I love that scene because Mr. Peabody is hit with this—
Tiffany Ward: Taken aback.
RM: He's taken aback, He's so stunned that he can't even figure out what to say. Because it's never occurred to him, as smart as Mr. Peabody is, to think that maybe it would be an issue. And then when he is confronted with it, then all sorts of real emotions come up, which is like "Oh my God. What if I—I've put Sherman in this—I didn’t think about Sherman when I adopted him. I didn't think about what this would mean and how this would affect him." Y'know. And to me, the fact that he doesn’t know what to say is kind of great 'cause he's a character that sort of knows what to say in every possible circumstance and somehow, in this one moment, has really no words. And so, for me, that was the heart of that idea, which is: if you’re different, how does the world reflect that?
G: Yeah. You mentioned Penny—of course, the new character—and when you’re adapting this into a feature-length story, you expand and you add characters. I guess, in a sense, you could look at it as "Mr. Peabody and Sherman and Penny," too. She’s a part of this adventure. How did you approach creating a character that would fit into that—
RM: Well, interestingly, she wasn’t a girl in the draft of the script that got greenlit by the studio. She was a boy. A nemesis for Sherman. And we had to find a new writer because the writers that had written that script had sold a show and they had to leave, to showrun it for television. And so we met with a bunch of people, and Craig Wright came in. Craig, who has never written a movie or animated anything and mostly known as a playwright and writer for television, came in, and his inspiration, his idea, was let’s take Sherman’s nemesis and turn him into a girl. And that was the breakthrough idea for us. We were like "That’s a great idea." And the simple explanation was: the evolving relationship between Sherman and Penny would put the right kind of pressure on the father-and-son relationship. Suddenly their symmetry is thrown off, and it was that idea that Mr. Peabody and Sherman—that are fixed in time and space in the original—that their relationship never changes...it doesn't evolve. And in a ninety-minute feature, that was the thing that was very important to add to the rest of the historical, crazy adventure fun. Like when we needed a character, something kind of core to deal with. So I think that the invention of Penny had everything to do with that, and then from that idea to the final movie, the whole thing changed, because that idea was such a strong idea.
G: Now for both of you, when you watch the film, what’s your proudest moment? Or what’s the bit that makes you squirm happily every time you see it?
TW: The bedroom scene.
RM: (Chuckles.) Squirm?
TW: Yeah, squirm. No, that means— G: No, I mean in a good way!
TW: The scene where "She called me a dog," and when Peabody exits, I love that whole thing, as an emotional—not as a bad moment! (Laughs.) Yes.
G: That’s what I mean, yeah!
TW: I don’t think—I mean other than the villain, I loved a lot of the parts, but that would be my favorite.
G: And for you, is there a particular moment that every time you see it, you just think, "I’m so happy about that moment," that that’s in the film?
RM: (Long pause.) I think that’s the one. For me it’s sort of—it’s unusual in that it really does feel real. Y'know. It’s a total fantasy movie, but the emotional content in that scene is very real.
G: Satisfying, yeah. So by my math, there’s a little under seven hours of source material on Peabody and Sherman...does that sound right?
TW: Ninety-one episodes of four-and-a-half minutes, so yeah, if you do the math. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) Yeah, I think so. So was there any short or couple of shorts in particular that you would keep going back to as a reference? Like if you wanted to shorthand somebody like "If you really want to know what it’s all about, watch this one first. It has it all"?
RM: The one that we did watch quite a lot was actually the pilot episode because I think in an early version of the movie, we had no setup. We just sort of plunged Mr. Peabody and Sherman right into the middle of France without explanation and left it for kind of a long time. And then we realized pretty early that it was too much for people that were uninitiated. If you knew the show, you could kind of swing with it, but if you didn’t know the show, you were like "I don’t quite understand what the dog and the boy—what their relationship is, who is the dog and how did he get a boy?" So we then looked at the original pilot episode, which really tells the story of Mr. Peabody and how he found Sherman, how he adopted him and all the kind of the issues surrounding that. And we said, "Well, we should have that in our movie 'cause it'll help just kind of bring everyone up to speed." So a lot of what was in the original show is in our movie. I mean, some of the lines are the same. You know, when he says, "Dad." He goes "Dada." He says, "No, Sherman, you shall call me Mr. Peabody or, in less formal moments, simply Peabody." And that’s a line that was in the original show.
G: Yeah, yeah. Do you, Tiffany, have a particular favorite of those ninety-one segments?
TW: I don’t. I mean, yes, the number-one episode sets the whole story up, and from then on they’re just episodic. So I’d probably go with that, but I don’t have a favorite.
G: I think people probably want to know plans for the Jay Ward franchise, as it were, or what else is in the works? There’s the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" short.
TW: There’s the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" short, which we haven’t decided how we’re releasing exactly. My focus is on this movie, and hopefully we get to do many in the future. We do have an option on a "Rocky and Bullwinkle" movie. And we’re starting on production of "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" for a television show. And we’re also in production on a "George of the Jungle" cartoon series for the international television market.
G: Alright, interesting. I was going to ask actually about how active both of you were in the script development process and [in] suggesting the time periods. Did you give input on that? Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, Revolutionary France. I’ve heard that there are many that were considered and left out and that kind of a thing.
TW: Well, I really was not active at all in the script process. I really just get to see it later, not at movie but a script level to make sure there’s nothing that they wouldn’t do, so this is all Rob's.
RM: Oh, thank you. Yes, yes. I got together with Tiffany many years ago, brought it to DreamWorks in 2005, have been sort of in the middle of the production and process of development from the very beginning, so it’s sort of, you know—all the many versions of this movie, I’ve been right in the heart of. The time periods is interesting because we did try many different—went to many different places. But we sort of ended up with this core group because they helped to tell our story. So we needed to learn more about what the movie was about and really that happened, as I said, once Penny came into the picture and it started to become clear what the relationship story was. And then the historical periods could then play as ways of understanding how the Peabody and Sherman relationship evolved, and seeding some ideas. So all of the historical sequences have a kind of a relationship, whether it's obvious or not, with the core Sherman and Peabody trajectory, so that they felt essential as well. Because, again, you could go to any place, any time, meet any historical figure, and yet, if that was the case, it would feel much more random. They needed to actually feel germane to the core, so that each of them...they're helping to kind of frame an idea about the characters.
G: Yeah. Part of the fun of making a movie is the research, I think, for actors and for directors. And I read that you brought in swordfighting and jousting experts for the animators. And I wonder also if anybody looked into time-travel research.
RM: We did! Actually, we did! Yes, research is a big part of making any movie, and we hired a guy named Ken Wharton, who is a physicist. Came in basically as a consultant about the theories of time travel. And as the story was evolving, and before we'd actually made ultimate decisions about what was going to happen in the movie and how things were going to work, he came in and sort of gave us a dissertation about the differences between the block universe and the multiverse, and the variety of films that apply to either of them, and how they might impact our story development. So we absolutely did. And as—if you've seen the movie Looper, there's a great scene where Bruce Willis says, "Trying to explain time travel is like moving straws around the table. It's impossible." And it can be. We tried to keep it sort of simple.
G: (Chuckles.) Well, I thought the idea of Sherman taking out the WABAC for a joyride is such a funny idea. It's an obvious question, but if you had the WABAC, where would you take it first?
TW: I probably would go back to Cleopatra's time in Egypt. Yeah, I used to really be fascinated with Egyptian history when I was back in elementary school. So that might be one of the places I'd go.
RM: I—you know what? I would probably take it to Liverpool in the early '60s to see the Beatles playing at the Cavern. That's what I would do...
G: It's interesting that you had this high-profile casting change that played out in the media. Can you explain how that came about?
RM: So Robert Downey was someone who we thought would kind of be a great Mr. Peabody. Probably obviously 'cause the Sherlock Holmes character shares a lot of traits—at least the way we saw it. And the problem was that, at the beginning of the production, he was just starting on Avengers, and literally was not available to us. And we were trying to get him to get into the studio to start working with him, and it just became impossible. And so rather than hold up the production on our side, we said we have to work with somebody who, y'know—
G: Right. Is available. Yeah.
RM: Is available. I mean, ultimately I think it was kind of fortunate because Ty Burrell has turned out to be such a great asset to the movie. And what was interesting is, at the time, part of the reason Robert Downey was being considered was he was a giant movie star. Y'know, that's kind of one of the drivers about who is going to play parts. Because when you're at this part of the movie, promoting the movie, and you have a giant movie star who's part of your movie, it helps. They'll go on Ellen, they'll go on The Tonight Show, whatever. And so that's always a kind of a factor in trying to figure out who will play the parts. It's not always the best thing because creatively you want to make sure you're getting the best actor for the role. But it is a reality, and so when he was really not available to us, we kind of said, "Let's just pick the right actor." And Ty Burrell was just starting in Modern Family, was not a huge star at all. In fact, I don't think I'd heard of him when somebody said, "What about Ty Burrell?" I'm like "I don't know who that is." And because of it, he actually came and auditioned, which is unusual, and if you're a big star, you would never audition. And Downey didn't, y'know. So we were going based on his previous work. So we never even got a chance—and I was nervous too. It was like "How is he going to be? Is he going to be Peabody? I don't know. Is he going to play the part?" Y'know, I don't know. So we never really got to cross that bridge with him. And instead we worked with Ty, and he came in to audition, fantastically collaborative, super-funny, really great, smart, y'know, good timing. And very collaborative. So when we said, "We really want to find the character," he's obviously nothing like Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. He needs to be a super-intelligent dog, and have this kind of mid-Atlantic cadence to his voice. He would listen to the original show. He worked with us to find the character. And so it's been a great collaboration.
G: Yeah. I gotta ask one more question...you grew up in Palo Alto...I read that you said, I was the beneficiary of great teachers when I was in school, I had great teachers who knew how to bring history to life, in the way that they told compelling stories with interesting characters.” Do you want to give a shout-out to anyone in high school?
RM: (Chuckles.) I had a couple of great high-school teachers. One was Miss Turner; I don't remember her first name. And the other one was Win Belton, who was a history teacher who taught—it's very interesting. It was American History, but he was African-American. And I didn't realize this until much later: we focused primarily on African-American history. And it was fantastic. It was great.
G: And your arts education?
RM: Well, Mr. Walt Buhler was sort of the art teacher that I remember. I did also a lot of theater and music at the time. And I had two great teachers: one was Miss [Marjorie] Klein, who is no longer with us. The other one was Mr. [Joe] Fenwick, who was the theater teacher at Paly.
G: And do you remember which theater you used to haunt the most in Palo Alto?
RM: Well, I did shows at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, at TheatreWorks, I even did one show at the Palo Alto Players. But we used to be at the Lucie Stern Community Center, so did a lot of work there. And here's the great story about that. I was in a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1977, I think, with a guy named Kirk Wise, who was a friend of mine.
G: Wow, yeah.
RM: And we met on that show. We both discovered that we liked to draw cartoons. We ended up making an animated movie together, we submitted it to CalArts, I got accepted in 1980, he came in '81. We both ended up working at Disney. He directed Beauty and the Beast.
G: Right, yeah.
RM: And I directed The Lion King.
RM: There you go—that's a Palo Alto story! And, on top of that, my friend Jeanette Smith, whose mother was Jane Frasier-Smith—Jane Frasier-Smith was apparently very close friends, at Stanford, with a guy named Frank Thomas, who is one of the "Nine Old Men" animators. And Frank Thomas' wife was named Jeanette; [my friend] Jeanette [is] named after her. And Frank and Ollie, who are a famous pair of friends who worked at Disney, met at Stanford.
RM: Palo Alto.
G: There you go. (Laughs.) Thanks a lot!