Shrek is unlike any animated film you have ever seen. A cartoon for adults, it’s a fractured fairy tale for everyone. Paul Fischer spoke to the film’s directors, DreamWorks head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, and actors Mike Myers and John Lithgow for the inside scoop on the making of Shrek.
“When we started Shrek, we wanted to make a fairy tale come to life,” says New Zealander Andrew Adamson, who directed the film with Vicky Jenson, “as if you opened a storybook and stepped into that world.” And what a world it is. Fairy tale creatures come alive, but not as you expect, in this often hilarious tale of the green ogre who, like Garbo, wants to be left alone, but gets caught up with a fast-talking donkey (Eddie Murphy), a brash but beautiful princess (Cameron Diaz) and a somewhat diminutive villain (John Lithgow). In the title role is Mike Myers, who assumed the role following the death of original Shrek Chris Farley. Introducing the first media screening of Shrek, an enthusiastic Myers remarked how much he fun he had bring the character to life. “It’s such a great story about accepting yourself for who you are. We live in a society with a warped sense of who’s beautiful and who’s not, and I think the message of this movie is that everyone is beautiful.”
Shrek, loosely based on a novel of the same name, is set in a far mythical swamp, home of that bad tempered ogre named Shrek, whose once precious solitude is suddenly shattered by an invasion of annoying fairy tale characters. There are blind mice in his food, a big, bad wolf in his bed, three little homeless pigs and more, all banished from their kingdom by the evil Lord Farquaad (Lithgow). Determined to save their home–not to mention his own–Shrek cuts a deal with Farquaad and sets out to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (Diaz) to be Farquaad’s bride. Accompanying him on his mission is wisecracking Donkey (Murphy), who will do anything for Shrek… except shut up of course. Rescuing the Princess from a fire-breathing dragon may prove the least of their problems when the deep, dark secret she has been keeping is revealed.
Co-director Adamson, who had been with Shrek for the past five years, was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief now that the film was ready for audience unveiling. “It seems like we were never going to”, he says amidst nervous laughter. But Adamson need not worry. The film, which is the first animated movie to screen in competition at Cannes in three decades, is garnering strong reaction. The director agrees. “I’m obviously pleased it’s getting a good reaction.” But not necessarily surprised “because the animation process goes on for so long, that you reach a certain point where you start knowing that it’s going to be OK.” He and his team reached that point a year ago, he says. “Ever since then it seems to have gotten better, which is nice.”
It’s hard to imagine that a comic fairy tale such as Shrek would even come CLOSE to controversy, but with the film’s pointed satire of a noted theme park and various fairytale characters, rumour has it that DreamWorks boss Katzenberg, who of course left Disney under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, has been accused of paying back his ex-employer the only way he can: Through animation. “We showed each and every scene to lawyers as we went along,” Adamson insists. “We certainly did not want to be sued by Disney.” Apparently lawyers ended up giving their blessing – without any cuts, Adamson said. Similarly, the animators turned to Disney World for inspiration when they portrayed Farquaad’s make-believe kingdom. But Adamson points out that it was appropriate. “We wanted Farquaad to create a make-believe fantasy. We toyed with poking fun at Universal City and Las Vegas, but we decided the most recognizable one to children was also the most fun to play with.”
Adamson acknowledged that some older viewers are likely to view the film in the context of DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’ s famous legal feud with his former employer, Disney. “He certainly enjoyed the jokes,” Adamson said. “Even when we made fun of .Beauty and the Beast,’ which is one of the Disney movies he was proudest of being involved with. “But the movie’s too good-hearted to be any revenge-based thing. If people think that, they’re really missing the point of it, which is to turn fairy tales on their ears.” Adamson laughed at many observers’ suggestion that the evil Farqaad appears to be modelled on Katzenberg’ s old nemesis, Disney boss Michael Eisner. Katzenberg is bemused by all the fuss. “Have you MET Eisner? They look NOTHING alike, so it’s ridiculous to make that assumption.” On the contrary, Katzenberg reiterates, “If that heritage were not loved by everybody and respected throughout the world, including by us, then you couldn’t satirise it. You have to start with the fact that you must acknowledge how important, distinctive and distinguished it is. I know in my heart that we have been playful with it and I know that we have not been mean-spirited.”
The DreamWorks boss is happier to discuss the genuine thrill of having Shrek go to Cannes in competition no less. “It’s probably one of the most amazing things that has happened to me in thirty years in the movie business”, says the man who steered such Disney hits as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King to box office glory. “To be invited to the single-most prestigious and important international film festival in competition for an animated movie, is just extraordinary.” Katzenberg, who became involved with animation more by accident than design, remains genuinely surprised “and amazed at how far we’ve come.” Shrek, which is visually the most remarkable example of the genre thus far, epitomises the advances of technology and the increased role of the computer to create life-like characters. “Part of what’s exciting about all of this, is that it’s made me reinvent MYself, because I started in a twentieth century enterprise, with its roots clearly in the thirties and forties. It’s now a world that has clearly moved into the 21st century and everything about it is very different.” That difference, he says, is defined by a movie such as Shrek “which uses the computer in a way that we only dreamed of five years ago.”
Award-winning actor John Lithgow, who so beautifully voices the comically villainous Farqaad, took his children on a tour of Northern California’s PDI studios where the film was being made “so I can see for myself what they were doing, and it was amazing. I think the staff was a bit overwhelmed by having a real-life actor in their midst.” Lithgow, himself a writer of children’s fiction, found the prospect of voicing this character clearly irresistible, and says he got the part “because in the past I’ve been a villain and more recently a comic, so they must have thought I’d be the ideal comic villain.” Lithgow, who is over 6 feet tall, had fun playing the much shorter character “which I’m sure was part of the joke.”
Voicing a character in an animated film is unique. To begin with, it’s all done well before any drawings; it’s the first step in a lengthy process. “It’s certainly very peculiar as acting goes”, Lithgow explains. “Because you never actually act with the other actors; you’re in splendid isolation.” He says that “you’re flying blind —- not always knowing what you’re doing. These sequences that you’re only ever TOLD about, really never come alive till you see them.” Such as the film’s funniest sequence featuring John: The Muffin Man. “Yeah, I thought I was very funny that whole run, but it’s 10 times funnier when you actually see it. animated.” The actor adds that “there’s this exhilarating moment of discovery when you see the film and you say: Oh THAT’S what I was doing.”
Shrek is a film that caters for everyone, not just for children. “I’ve seen the movie play with both audiences, and we get very different, but positive, reactions”, says Katzenberg. But the DreamWorks boss also points out that as impressive as computers are, it doesn’t mean the end of traditional animation either. “There’s a place for all of it. Our next film, Spirit, is very traditional, and we’re working with Aardman on The Tortoise and the Hare, different again.” It’s all about breaking the rules and changing with the times. Shrek is destined to do it all.