As promised to readers of today's CulturePulp comic:
Here's a lengthy chat with Jerry Seinfeld and "Bee Movie" directors Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith. This edited transcript combines two interviews -- conducted Oct. 3 in two different rooms at Seattle's Fairmont Olympic Hotel.
As our story begins, I've walked into Seinfeld's suite -- and he immediately comments on the color of my raincoat....
JERRY SEINFELD: The past few people that have come in here [to interview me] have all been wearing navy, forest-green, dark-grey, black.... That's why I feel so comfortable here. Those are all the colors I wear.
MIKE RUSSELL: A couple of days ago, I re-watched "Comedian," which I'm a huge fan of --
SEINFELD: Thank you.
Q. I think that documentary gets at something essential about why people go into show business. And it struck me, watching the way you build your act in that: Are there similarities to the way you build an animated picture?
SEINFELD: Yes and no. "Yes" in terms of the amount of time it takes to get the amount of material you need. I would say that act that you saw me starting in "Comedian" was finished -- not that it's ever really finished -- about three or four years later. And it's about an hour-and-a-half worth of ideas. And this movie is about an hour-and-a-half, and it's about four years. That's about how long it takes to come up with that much stuff that you're happy with.
Q. Although I suppose it's not just you in the case of "Bee Movie." You're working with this gigantic team....
SEINFELD: No, not really, no. Creating the story did not involve a gigantic team; it was just the three of us. But the story structure is the most challenging part of making a movie -- and you don't have that in stand-up. It's just jokes. And story structure, when you get it right, isn't particularly funny, either. It's like building a bridge: "Here's where we're going to put the girders."
SIMON J. SMITH:
It was a different discipline for him, because it's a three-act arc of
a movie. It's not just making a funny -- you've got to invest in this
character and go along on the journey and feel good about it in the
You know the little presentation we did today [at the Oct. 3 media event]? I originally didn't have much to say -- I'd just introduce Steve. But Jerry said, "You should tell little stories from the movie" -- about the cupcake bake-off we had, stuff like that. And that's exactly how we do the animated process: You start off with a script that's greenlit, but that's not the final script by any stretch of the imagination, because you want to keep working it and massaging it and making it better. That's the same thing Jerry does.
What was really lovely and surprising was that Jerry was not precious about his material: He could throw out anything at any stage, and he doesn't care where it comes from. It could come from anywhere. It could come from us. We'd throw out lines all the time, and he'd go, "That's awful. I'm in the parking lot right now, out of the cinema." Or he'd go, "That's great! Let's put that in here." We'd banter about tone a bit, but he was great about collaborating.
Q. I interviewed Chris Rock once, and he made an interesting point about dramatic acting versus comedy: You can get an A for effort in drama, but there is no A for effort in comedy.
SEINFELD: That's a great line. Yeah, there's no "pretty good" in comedy. It's a very fragile little thing: It's kind of like one of those little puff desserts, you know? It's not that big a deal, but if it's wrong, it flattens out and nobody wants it.
Q. I know you work and massage comedy bits -- sometimes for years or months -- to get them exactly where you want them. And it strikes me that animation might be a really good medium for you -- because you get to do that not just with what you're saying, but with the actual shape of a thing.
SEINFELD: Mm-hm. It's true. I did know that I am well-suited to that kind of tedium. You know, just beating your brains against the wall for years and making tiny little quarter-turn-type adjustments on lines and takes and attitudes. I do like doing that.
Q. I was delighted to hear Patrick Warburton's voice in the
footage -- he's gone on after "Seinfeld" to become one of the best
voice actors working. I don't know if you've ever seen "The Venture Bros."...
SEINFELD: Really? What is that?
Q. It's sort of a spoof of "Jonny Qwest."
SEINFELD: Oh, really.
Q. And he plays the, uh --
SEINFELD: The Race Bannon character?
Q. Yeah. He's this homicidal bodyguard with a mullet.
SEINFELD: Really? Oh, I'd love to see that. Is it running now?
SMITH: Patrick is the biggest problem in recording, because he has everybody in fits. He has such unique takes. Jerry is literally curled up on the floor, laughing his head off, bleeding onto Patrick's mike.
Q. There's a long-standing tradition in animation where they record one voice at a time, for maximum control of the mix. But Jerry, you wanted to be in the room, interacting with all the voice actors.
Q. Did Seinfeld's insistence on being in the room create any technical issues?
SMITH: Sometimes you could pick out bits -- lines you want and don't want -- but you had to run the gamut. Sometimes we would say, "Okay -- everybody stop. Patrick, just run these last three lines yourself." It was like shooting coverage.
STEVE HICKNER: And you did have mike separation. It's not just one mike between two guys.
Q. Jerry: Watching "Seinfeld," one might gather that you were a bit of an animation nut. I would imagine Fleischer's "Superman" is something you enjoy, and you've talked about doing "Seinfeld" in Claymation. Is animation an itch you've wanted to scratch?
SEINFELD: Yeah, I guess it was, or I wouldn't have gone ahead with it. But I didn't know anything about this technology -- exactly how they did it, the steps and the terminology. I knew I loved the finished product, in terms of how these movies look -- and I wanted to make those characters talk the way I wanted them to talk. So that was the attraction.
SMITH: I think as soon as he touched it, he realized it was a perfect way to express himself in a different way from the TV show. I think he really assimilated the way animation films are made.
Q. Well, having perfect universal control of every element must be almost narcotic.
SMITH: It is. And sometimes you have to say "No."
HICKNER: Yeah, sometimes the joke costs too much. [laughs]
SMITH: And sometimes there's a tendency after a year and a half to get a bit bored of a moment. And so you go, "Oh, let's try something else." And you have to go, "No. This is gold. Let's not touch this any more."
Q. Is a two-man directing team useful in that regard?
SMITH: I think it's good to have a different point of view. And we've worked together before. It's a behemoth of a movie: We needed as many people as we could get -- 350 of us working on it.
Q. It does strike me that "Bee Movie" is, in its way, a New York picture. And for all its bitterness about human nature, "Seinfeld" really was in love with the idea of New York City as a place. Jerry, have you been able to take that love affair further with this technology?
SEINFELD: Yes. The funny thing is, the whole story of the movie takes place in the same neighborhood that "Seinfeld" was set in -- the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is where I live.
SMITH: He was very insistent about where it was happening. And the production designer worked to mirror that, but in the style of our movie.
HICKNER: But Jerry approved every aspect of the design.
SEINFELD: Central Park has been a part of my life for 31 years, and a big part of the story is what happens in Central Park when the bees stop working.
SEINFELD: Yeah. Only it's more fun, because they have no traffic lights because it's so perfectly cooperative that they don't need them.
There's this one scene where the traffic is coming from two sides, and Barry and Adam are having this argument: "Do you ever things thing maybe work a little too well around here?" -- and you see all the traffic flowing through each other like osmosis. It's pretty funny.
Q. Congratulations on making the possibly first all-ages animated feature where the conflict is settled with a class-action lawsuit.
SEINFELD: Thank you very much. I've always wanted that distinction.
Q. From what we saw, The plot of "Bee Movie" sounds like three films in one: There's Barry leaving the hive, Barry befriending a human, Barry suing humanity....
SEINFELD: And you're only about halfway through the movie with the lawsuit. That's about the midpoint.
Q. So it's six movies in one?
SEINFELD: I guess so -- if you wanna slice 'em up.
SMITH: We did have people investing too much in that
[courtroom scene] -- so there is now a moment where a little light bulb
goes off and you realize it's not the end of the movie. We've got lots
more to tell you.
It's partly the way the story led itself. After a point in time, you'd go, "This is funny -- why can't we go here?" We don't want to stick to a traditional structure -- we wanted to give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expect it. The audience is enjoying themselves so much, it doesn't matter if it makes sense or not. It's just fun -- which is, as Jerry says, the root of "funny."
Q. You tested "Bee Movie" back in February -- you had screenings where you showed it with storyboards in place of --
SEINFELD: Oh, we've been testing it all along.
Q. How much has the film changed since then?
HICKNER: We re-worked the beginning.
SMITH: We chopped a bit off the beginning, and the last couple of scenes we tweaked. In February, we solidified the structure of the film -- what happens when, exactly. Then it was, "Okay -- let's shine this baby up. We've got the mold. Let's pour all the fun ingredients in." Then we just had to make it funnier -- because we'd been concentrating on the story so much, it didn't have enough Jerry in it. And so then we got Jerry, and Jerry got his friends back from the show, and they really started to make it a lot funnier.
Q. You guys did more writing after February?
Q. February-to-now is not that long to do that.
SMITH: What was great is that Christina Steinberg, a producer on the movie, was very judicious about saying, "This scene can go into production as animation, but don't touch these ones yet because I know you're gonna...." [laughs] She was really great at shepherding along the whole thing.
Q. So you're out doing this 10-city road show and they're still rendering back home....
SMITH: No. It's done. Last Sunday. [Sept. 30]
HICKNER: We locked the print late last week.
SMITH: We had some amazing people on this thing.... Wait till you hear the pollen jocks [in the movie, the macho test-pilot bees]: We took some P-51 Mustang engines and ramped them up by 160 percent, and they sound phenomenal.
Q. Jerry, I won't trouble you to recount the story of how you first mentioned the title to Spielberg at dinner [as a joke, which Spielberg immediately turned into a movie pitch] --
SEINFELD: Thank you.
Q. Yeah, I know.
SEINFELD: You know, there's no way for me to know how many people have heard it now. I've told it at least a thousand times. I keep thinking, "People have heard this already," but they keep asking me like they haven't. But there's no way for me to know. So, you know, I try to accommodate them.
Q. Well, I hope you haven't been asked this too many times, but the part I'm curious about is the oh-crap moment afterwards -- where you go, "Okay -- now I actually have to come up with a story."
That part I thought would be easy. Which it wasn't. I thought it would
only take a few months: "I'll get together with some friends from the
show. We'll hang out. It'll be fun. We'll pull some ideas together.
I've seen these animated movies -- they're not that good, you know?
It'll take no time at all."
And I turned in the script and they liked it, and Jeffrey Katzenberg said to me, "You can be involved in the production as much or as little as you like." And I said, "Okay -- as little." But then as I saw each step, and I got totally involved.
I said, " What if I recorded with the actors?" Things like that started happening. And they said, "Well, we've never done that before." And I said, "You'll get much better stuff that way: You can ad-lib, you can overlap. I can get better performances out of them."
And just step by step -- over the next year -- I completely got involved.
Q. Do you speak the tech language?
SEINFELD: I do now. I had to learn all the words: "animatic" and "layout," you know, "render." I didn't know any of that stuff before.
Q. Barry Sonnenfeld once talked to me about getting good performances out of special-effects characters in "Men in Black," and he said getting there was like "trying to get actors out of guys who are really good in math." What's your take on it?
SEINFELD: I would say acting with guys who are good in math would be an improvement over where I thought it was. To me, it was just acting with Gumby and Pokey figures that you buy in the supermarket. They don't do anything. And so it's you and the animator, but the animator is the ultimate control -- and even though it took four years, we used every second of it. I wasn't done when they took it away -- I would have kept going.
SMITH: Um ... yeah. It takes a while. I mean, you meet with
the animator and beat out what you think the character should be doing,
and about a week later you see a third pass of that.
I think you have to have an idea in your head of exactly what you're doing, and you can't deviate too much from that -- you'll get into real trouble if you keep changing your mind. It all falls apart. The animator loses faith in you, they lose faith in the story, and they lose faith in themselves -- and you get confused.
So it is sort of acting in slow motion -- but you have to know what you want all the time. And that's not to say the animators can't ad-lib great stuff themselves -- there's some great stuff in the movie where they added in stuff at the early stages, when you can block things differently. They'd put in little idiosyncrasies, really fantastic stuff.
Q. You have to have a through-line. I'd imagine in something like this, where's there's a lot of money involved, there could be an impulse to needle a thing to death -- to tweak it and tweak it and tweak it -- and forget that every moment is part of a whole.
SMITH: It's a danger at the beginning and it's a danger at
the end. Because in the beginning, there's only one thing you're
looking at, and everybody's focusing on it. And that's where the
experience comes in -- knowing there are plenty of battles to be had
after the one about this shoelace. Let's just move on, shall we?
And at the end, you're desperate to make sure everything's perfect, and so you have to monitor the situation and be smart enough to go, "Okay -- that's enough. We have to stop right here. Let's move on." Jerry had to learn that, too.
Q. Jerry, I'm curious if I could get you to elaborate on a concept you've discussed elsewhere in explaining your success -- the concept of "not breaking the chain." [pause] Does this ring any bells at all?
SEINFELD: See, I'm not exactly sure what you're referring to. There are two potential ideas here. One is, on my show, I was there with the writers. I was there with the actors. I was there with the editor. That's one chain -- the writer is always there, the writer being me. I don't like to break that chain. I never give the script to the director and go, "Good luck."
Q. "Go nuts."
SEINFELD: Yeah. But there's another kind of chain -- of just constantly improving on what you do.
Q. The career chain, as it were.
SEINFELD: Well, that's a -- you'll have to be more specific. I don't what you're talking about.
Q. [laughs] You know, I should probably just ask another question.
SEINFELD: Yeah, okay.
Q. I know "Abbott and Costello" is a big influence for you. People always talked about how "Seinfeld" broke the sitcom mold -- which it did -- but you were also resurrecting a lot of old stuff.
SEINFELD: Yes. Yes. A vaudevillian type of tone. I mean, it's just the kind of dialogue that I like. It should be crispy and crackly. That's what I kind of listen for when I listen to a scene. People would say, "This is working," and I would say, "Yeah, but it's not crackly." Like when you step on that bubble wrap? That's what I want to hear in a scene, from the actors and from the lines.
SEINFELD: Yeah. That was the intention. Let's just make it two adults trying to be overly polite about a cup of coffee.
SMITH: That came out of the ad-libbed conversations between Jerry and Renee: "Just talk about coffee and ask Barry if he'd like some."
Q. The two live-action teaser trailers for this movie -- with Jerry and Chris Rock in insect costumes -- were brilliant. But did they create any confusion or perceptual issues? Did anyone think that was how the movie itself was going to look?
SMITH: We weren't really worried about that. Originally in
the script, there was an idea to have live-action sequences with Jerry
and Spielberg. And I said, "I don't want to do that, because you're
ruining the investment in the character -- you're breaking the fourth
wall. Why don't you put that in a non-animated trailer?' And Jerry
said, "That's a great idea."
Those trailers were nice because they reminded you how much you like Jerry, and they differentiated us from every other animated movie out there.
HICKNER: Last year in particular was a very crowded one for animation. So we wanted to stand out a bit.
happened with animated movies, as you've probably noticed over the past
couple of years, is they've gotten into a bit of a rut -- and the
public is getting bored of the product. And they realized unless they
got some fresh, clear voices in there, these movies are going to come
back to earth.
They had been in this position where each time one of them came out, the public felt like they had to see it, and you could take anyone. You could bring your grandparents and your kids, and everybody would have a good time. But they didn't follow through on that promise in the past couple years or so.
So they very much wanted me to come in and take over. They wanted a completely fresh voice. That's what Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted on, and he said, "I'm not gonna interfere with you." And I had the same reaction as you: "Really? That's not what I've heard."
Q. Katzenberg's known for being extremely hands-on.
SEINFELD: He is. He's extremely hands-on. But good to his word, he gave me his comments and his opinions all the way through, but never pushed me in any direction. It was great. And so we have this movie now that doesn't feel like it came from any studio that you would know. I mean, you can recognize a Pixar, a DreamWorks -- you can just kind of feel it. This feels like it came from someplace else.
Q. The flying sequence we saw during the media event was lovely. Simon, Steve told me your work on [the theme-park ride] "Shrek 4-D" was a big help on that.
SMITH: When we read the script, it was like, "Barry goes outside the hive and has an amazing ride." [laughs] I had in my mind a rollercoaster: You go up above a tree, you sort of level off and go around a corner, and you go down into Central Park.
Q. I think when people hear "Jerry Seinfeld cartoon," it might be easy to assume it would look like a three-camera sitcom. So it was nice to see: "Ah! Cinema!"
SMITH: There's a lot more of it in the movie, actually.
Q. You're running afoul of certain things we see in these sorts of movies, and I'm curious how you're freshening them up. You've got talking animals. You've got an environmental message. How do you give that a fresh take?
SEINFELD: I never thought of it as a talking-animal movie.
And it isn't so much an environmental message as it is about the
cooperative dynamic of life. That's [the bees'] principle of survival,
and that's the larger principle of survival of everything on earth.
The funny thing is, colony collapse disorder started happening right in the middle of the making of our movie -- after we already had the story in.
SEINFELD: Yeah. I didn't.
Q. And it's not just "30 Rock." It's "The Departed".... He's killing in small comic bits.
SEINFELD: He is just about the funniest guy, in person, to talk with, and he's got such incredibly good comedic instincts -- as good as anybody I've ever seen. But I knew that from the time I saw him in "Glengarry Glen Ross," in that famous opening scene. That's a comedy scene. And it's hilarious.
Q. How does Portland, Oregon rate as a comedy scene?
SEINFELD: Great. The Pacific Northwest is, to me, the best of America. If I had to leave New York, I would live somewhere in this area. I just like the vibe here.
Q. Pretty mellow.
SEINFELD: Yeah. But not. People are pretty sharp here.
Q. And dressed in green.
SEINFELD: In dark earth tones, yeah.
THE OREGONIAN'S "BEE MOVIE" COVERAGE: