Matt Groening, James Brooks, Al Jean and David Silverman talk about the challenges bringing their near two-decade series to life on the big screen.
There has been more secrecy about The Simpsons Movie than possibly any other film of recent memory. Yet finally, it has arrived, and nobody is more relieved than its filmmakers.
As creator and cartoonist Matt Groening arrived with the film’s executive producer, Oscar winner James L. Brooks, along with fellow creator and producer Al Jean and director David Silverman to finally confront the press, Jean laughingly says, “It’s a relief to be able to talk about the plot of the movie.” It’s equally a relief for those of us who have seen it. The Simpsons Movie continues to satirize the environment, pop culture and politics, as well as fatherhood, childhood and marriage.
It’s taken 18 years to get the much-loved series to the big screen “because we’re lazy,” Groening explains to a packed press conference in a Beverly Hills hotel. ” We’ve been asked that question quite a bit and we don’t have a good answer. Why has it taken eighteen years?” It’s Jim Brooks, the Oscar winning director of Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment, who adds his response, laughingly. “My current answer is fifteen years to get up the nerve and four years to get it done.”
Much has changed, of course, since a young and impressionable cartoonist called Matt Groening, created these odd yellow figures on a the Tracy Ullman Show over two decades ago. Now considered a pop cultural classic and the longest running prime time comedy series of all time, Groening and his Simpsons have clearly evolved, says Groening, smiling. “What’s great about this movie is that on the TV show we were working very quickly, on a tight schedule, and tight budget, while on the movie we were able to work on the script until we got it right and we took a long time writing the script. Then we went into production and we tried animation that is far more ambitious than anything we’ve ever done in the past and I think it’s inspiring to the entire Simpsons enterprise.”
Indeed, rather than merely transplanting TV characters to the big screen, director David Silverman, who has previously directed episodes of the series as well as the Pixar feature Monsters Inc, says adapting the show to the big screen presented particular challenges. “It was always a balance of what you wanted to elaborate on for the big screen but you don’t want to cut your ties from what the show is, with wanting crazy, goofy looking animation characters who act more and more like human characters act. That actually calls for more restraint than people realise, so we try to think of the people who are animating and we realised we wanted something that has a control to it.” Brooks says that “we really tested the system, because at the end of the road, two weeks past where you’re allowed to make any changes, where it’s impossible, where things are being processed, David even managed to make some key changes in the key emotional scene in the movie, so there were two acting changes in there, which I think really added to it.”
Asked if they aimed to add things to the movie, which they could never get away with in network television, Brooks says “strangely, nothing that we weren’t able to do in the early days of the show but lately it’s become very repressive. We’re so happy with the PG13 because of ‘irreverent humour throughout’; I mean, we won’t get a better review than that,” Brooks says, laughingly. Al Jean adds that “in television what happens is in the light of the Janet Jackson thing, all networks got constricted by the FCC, so the movie takes a little more liberties and we wanted to do a story that was more of a movie story and had a more emotional nature. So it wasn’t like Southpark where we were going ‘OK, we’re going to now show things we couldn’t show on TV’. We wanted to make a movie.”
One of the key elements of both the movie and series is their ability to consistently target contemporary issues, yet Jean says it’s not quite as specific as one might think. “Well what happens with both the show and the movie, is that we work so much ahead that we actually don’t do Jay Leno type jokes about things of the moment, but about larger trends like the environment. We’ll do themes like how hard it is to get prescription drugs in the United States that are horrible and with this film what we found is the longer the time went between after we started, the more the issues in the film became relevant, so I think we lucked out.” Groening adds, “The fact is this has been a collaborative effort from the very beginning of the series and on the Simpsons I will say that we definitely like to comment on what’s going on in the world and we try to be funny.”
One can’t imagine that when The Simpsons first aired in the US some 18 years ago, that it would attain such extraordinary longevity. While nothing lasts forever, there is little indication that the series will end any time soon, enthuses Brooks. “This movie has been enormously energising, because it’s all home grown, just so many of the people connected with the show contributed to this movie. Everybody was around it and we’d have a draft, we’d circulate it to the show writers, they’d give us feedback. So I think it’s been a great bonding, energising thing so we haven’t felt better in a long time, but I tend to be pessimistic.”
Groening is far more hopeful about the show that, after all, launched his career, admitting that “I always thought the series would be successful if we could get it on the air, I thought kids would tune in for sure, but I didn’t know if adults would give an animated prime time TV series a chance. I would say that one of the interesting things about this whole process has been that as famous and big as the Simpsons have been around the world for the last eighteen years, we were basically working in the dark,” says Groening. “We worked very hard on the show and then we’d go home and watch it with our families. And with the making of the movie, the attention that it’s got, the promotions around the movie, and the enthusiasm of people, it’s been all staggering.”
Yet, a contemplative Groening, who is very much a cartoonist at heart, says he remains surprised and gratified that the series has lasted 18 years. “As a cartoonist, this is beyond most cartoonists’ dreams. People go into cartooning because they’re shy and angry. I went through a phase where people would introduce me at parties as a cartoonist and everybody felt sorry for me. ‘Oh, Matt’s a cartoonist.’ Then people further feeling sorry for me would ask me to draw Snoopy, Garfield or something. And now, the feeling of success, being asked to draw Bart and Homer is unbelievable after all these years. If you look at the design of Homer, there are very few lines in that face, no human iris. It’s just a dot and a circle and all you have to do is change the shape of the circle slightly and he’s the greatest actor of the 21st century.” As for the challenge of keeping an almost 20-year old TV series fresh, Jean adds “It’s the greatest thing in the world to write for the universe of The Simpsons and the topics you can touch on. You can do emotion, you can do slapstick and it’s the greatest job I’ve ever had.”
Industry pundits are predicting huge success for The Simpsons Movie, but ask these guys about a sequel, and they are laughingly dismissive of the idea. “We started this movie because we had bought all the ownership rights to pink donuts,” Jean says, laughingly. “So we’d have to think of a similar concept for movie 2.”