British-born filmmaker Garth Jenning radiates an earnest enthusiasm, tinged with an ironic self-awareness, both in conversation and in his work. He makes his animated feature debut with the film “Sing,” in which a koala bear named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) tries to draw an audience for his struggling theater with an amateur singing contest that quickly spins out of control. The movie opened Wednesday.
After a successful run as a director of music videos and commercials, Jennings made his feature film debut with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a sci-fi comedy adaptation of the beloved Douglas Adams novel. He followed that up with the sweet “Son of Rambow,” about two misfit schoolboys attempting to make their own movie inspired by “First Blood.”
It was Chris Meledandri, head of the successful animation company Illumination Entertainment , that called Jennings one day to have tea. Soon Jennings was packing up with his family and moving from England to France to work on “Sing.”
The movie boasts an impressive voice cast that also includes Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Nick Kroll, Tori Kelly, Leslie Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson and Jennings himself in a small role.
The film is a jam-packed jukebox musical, as even Jennings couldn’t quite recall just how many songs are in the film: “I genuinely don’t know,” he said in an interview the day after the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Running a wide gamut from Beyoncé to Pavarotti, the film includes a new song featuring Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande. “Sing” recently received nominations for best song and best animated feature at the Golden Globes.
There’s a little bit of animation in your music video work, but did you consider yourself an animator?
No. I did used to make funny little animated films when I was at art school, but no, I’m not from an animation background. Most animated films are directed by people who have been working in animated films all their lives, they’ve come up through some kind of animation school, they were storyboard artists, there’s an evolution. Technically there’s no way I should have been allowed to solo direct, but I got to write on my own and direct on my own and have the complete full support of Chris [Meledandri].
What was it like figuring out how to write for animation? Anything can happen in that world, you don’t even have to obey the laws of physics.
From the beginning I wanted all the usual laws of live action. There are obviously exceptions — there’s a moment where Buster falls off a ledge and is caught by a wire, and that wouldn’t happen. But essentially, the camera moves, the lives of the characters, all had to be grounded in reality. There had to be real consequences to their actions. So even though it’s a world where they are all animals, I didn’t want to be interested at all in what that animal’s traits were normally. I just wanted the animals to be human caricatures. It’s something that’s in every picture book when you’re a kid, a frog driving a car, like those Richard Scarry books. I was so used to foxes and dogs being firemen and that wasn’t a big deal. From the outset it’s not an animal word, that was always the fun of it.
The voice cast is full of big names, even down to relatively small roles. Is there ever a point where you’re thinking, we could do this with less well-known performers?
One of the things I’ve learned, and this is going to sound a little pretentious, but honestly, there are no small parts. I’ve recorded quite a lot of stuff with other people, thinking exactly that, “Oh, it’ll be fine.” There’s a line for instance where a giraffe has been selected and Buster says, you’re in the show and the giraffe says “What, are you talking to me?” And that’s the only line. And I recorded that with three different people who, that’s their job, to be like B voices. And I’m not joking, it never worked. I remember sitting in the edit suite and thinking I know a friend of mine [filmmaker Wes Anderson], and if I write to him right now, he’s going to nail it. And so I emailed him, asked him to record the line into his phone and he sent it back like five minutes later and it was perfect. When you’ve only got a tiny moment to tell that character’s story, it’s even more important. For instance, Leslie Jones, you could say, oh it’s a small part, but … [that character needed to] have all this enthusiasm and energy and Leslie has about as much enthusiasm and energy as any human being I’ve ever met.
The movie draws from all different styles and eras of music. Was that important to the feel of the movie?
I remember watching the opening of the London Olympics, and there was a spectacular musical thing that Danny Boyle did, a montage of every type of music, and it was so exciting. So it was so nice to say, we can have Pavarotti, we can have the White Stripes, and if it works, we can fit it in there. You may not know this song, folks, but in the context you’ll enjoy it. I remember seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy” with my children and now they all know “The Pina Colada Song” or 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and love it, because it was presented to them in a way that was really wonderful, really enthusiastic. And I know if I had just put those songs on at home they’d have been, “Nah.”
Do you have a favorite song in the movie?
I don’t have a favorite song, but there’s a moment, at the car wash where we use “Nessun Dorma,” and I’m very proud of that moment and what we were able to do there. It’s everything I love about films, everything I’ve wanted to do. I feel like that’s got a lot of me in it, that bit. It’s stupid and it’s sort of sad and you can’t help but laugh. And Pavarotti carries you out. For that reason, I love that bit the most.
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