John A. Davis won an unexpected Oscar nomination for his family hit animated feature Jimmy Neutron, and the director returns with a richer, more layered and complex feature cartoon, The Ant Bully. The film revolves around a 10-year-old boy who embarks on a remarkable journey.
New in town, friendless and tormented by a neighbourhood bully, young Lucas Nickle has been taking out his frustration on the innocent ant hill in his yard. But one day the ants retaliate. Using a magic potion, they shrink Lucas down to ant size and sentence him to live like an ant in their colony. In this strange, new world, Lucas will learn important. In this exclusive interview, director John A. Davis talked to Paul Fischer about this and future projects.
Question: Now, it seems that ants have proven to be a very popular insect in animation. Why is that?
Davis: Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think people are preoccupied with insects in general and I think, ants are more interesting in terms of, living in these super-organism colonies but as far as The Ant Bully goes it was something that came to me as a book that Tom Hanks sent and… which is how my experience with ‘Ants’ started. It was a book that he used to read in his son’s room and thought it’d make a cool movie and sent the book to me right after Neutron came out because Tom liked Neutron. So that kind of started the ball rolling.
Question: Were you surprised that Jimmy Neutron got an Oscar nomination? I mean that was kind of the beginning of when animated films were finally recognized as a separate category by the Academy. How do you feel about that nomination? Did it kind of give you a sense of justification about what you were doing?
Davis: Yeah. I mean it really was good and such a shock too because I didn’t really have a whole lot of expectation about being nominated, although it’s cool timing that we happened to have a movie and they happened to just open that category for Best Animated Feature. And what was funny is that, I got up early to hear the announcement just on the off chance and for some reason we thought that, of course Nemo and Shrek were going to be nominated but, we thought, well, maybe there’s a chance we would get that third slot but forgetting that they actually announce it in alphabetical order so the first thing they announced was Jimmy Neutron and we just like… [Laughter] …dropped our coffee.
Question: What do you think sets Ant Bully apart, because I mean this movie is opening around the same time as Monster House. They’re obviously very different films but animated films, get a certain percentage of the kid audience so what do you think sets this one apart?
Davis: Well I think that just in terms of the types of stories they are and we’re kind of like there’s Monster House and there’s Ant Bully and there’s Barnyard… boom, boom, boom… but I think they’re very different types of movies. I haven’t seen the other films yet but just from what I know of them, I mean, Monster House seems to be more of a like a horror movie and Ant Bully I think is more of an action adventure, sort of film, and then, Barnyard looks to be more of just sort of a zany comedy kind of movie. So, I think that the movies are very different from one another and I think that hopefully there’s room and an audience for all of them.
Question: Is that a danger, that there are so many animated films being released virtually simultaneously?
Davis: Well I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. I mean I think that as long as good movies are being released… oftentimes they tend to sort of feed on each other. Like you’ll see a movie and you think, wow, that’s really good. It makes you want to turn around go see another good movie you know. But then if you see a string of bad movies they kind of may turn you off for a while like, nah, I don’t want to see a movie. But as long as all the movies are well made then I think that the audience should be primed to go back for more.
Question: Now… this film attracted an extraordinary array of voice talents. I mean you’ve got Paul Giamatti, Julia Roberts, Nick Cage. I mean it’s quite a heavy hitting group you’ve got there. Do you think part of that was Tom Hanks’ involvement or was it pure and simply the story and the original source
Davis: Well, all of these guys were just dying to do a John Davis film – I mean that was… no.
Question: That’s what I heard. That’s what I heard. That was my next question. [Laughter]
Davis: No, no. I love saying that. No. Obviously having Tom on as a producer really validated the project and I think, opened some doors for us to at least get the script in front of some of these actors. And then I was really excited because they responded to the script, which was flattering and made me really happy. So it was really amazing to see just the embarrassment of riches we have in terms of our cast and, it’s sort of intimidating to think that, oh, okay, now I have to go direct Meryl Streep. But then when you get down to working and directing, you really get down to business and it’s really about the project. And, I’ve got a responsibility to get what I need as a director and I have a responsibility to them to give them the information they need to build this performance.
Question: How do you build a performance with actors like that, because you have to call them in a few times to get the voice performances right. I mean is that a challenge? Are there scheduling problems when you’re dealing with people like Streep, or do you try to get those guys in quickly and get them done quickly?
Davis: Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly right because they’re very, very busy. They’ve got a lot of films and a lot of projects they’re doing and you can never get them together to read together, which is always the way you’d like to do it. But typically animation is done, where you’re recording them all individually and then you have to put them all together and make it sound natural, which is always very tricky and very difficult – which means that you have to get kind of a whole spectrum of performance from the actors because you never know how the other person is going to read it, even though I can hear it in my head and I know what I want, but it’s a fluid process. When you get in the studio with them other ideas come up and it means that you have to cover a lot of things. I’m also constantly writing in the margins and re-writing the script and, tweak the dialogue so that not only it fits what they’re bringing to the character but also to make sure it’s going to play nicely with the rest of the cast.
Question: do you notice how much more advanced techniques, computer techniques have become while working on Ant Bully?
Davis: Yeah. Neutron had a very specific look that I wanted to go after. It was almost like a George Powell puppet-toon, you know. It was very simple, cartoony, very colorful and very stylized. But with Ant Bully I wanted it to be a lot more detailed, very much more lush environment, because just the journey that Lucas goes on – he shrunk down and going into this other world – that it have a sort of immediate quality to it so that when he’s fighting wasps there’s a heightened sort of visceral impact to it, and it put a lot more demands on our technology, and also of our animation and reading these characters. So we kind of turned it over with different tools and went into a lot of research and development while we were in production, which is always a little scary, but our crew really did a fantastic job to pull it together in time.
Question: Are you aware also of your own maturity as a filmmaker when you compare what you did with Ant Bully as against Neutron?
Davis: Yeah, I think that Ant Bully is definitely a more complicated film in a way because there are more characters. The characters have a little more complexity to them. It has a lot going on with this little sort of triangle of Zoc and Lucas and Hova where, Hova being sort of this hippie chick and sees the good in all things and very maternal sees a different solution to the human problem than Zoc, her boyfriend has, and so when Lucas enters the colony it puts them diametrically opposed to one another. So there’s a lot of plotting going on, more so than I think than we had in Neutron. Plus I had these two separate worlds to juggle and set up really quickly, which is the whole world of a human and the world of the ants and then how they sort of collide.
Question: what would you say about Neopets and is that definitely your next project?
Davis: Well right now I’m just kind of waiting to see. There are a couple of other projects that I’ll be doing first. My next film to actually write and direct will be a live action film for Warner Brothers that I’ve always wanted to do, which is adapting a Robert Heinlein novel called The Star Beast. So it’ll be my first live action, and it’ll have animation in it but it’s exciting because it’ll be a little different, something new to learn. And it’s a story that I’ve always wanted to adapt. I just really love the book.
Question: So that’s like a summer ’07 deal or later than that?
Davis: Yeah, probably it’ll be later than that. But Neopet is that project that I was talking to a producer about and talked to the Neopet folks and I know what I would do with it and I think there’s things that can be very cool, but it’s not something that I’m going to be writing. So at this point I’m just waiting to see a script on it.