Written by James Mottram Sunday, 14 June 2009 19:09
As Disney's hilarious Bolt comes to Disney DVD and Blu-ray, Roll Credits talks exclusively to the film's director Chris Williams!American White Shepherd dog Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) has spent his life as the star of a TV show, on which his character has superpowers. When he finds himself seperated from the studio, however, he finds he must cope with the realities of life with the help of alley cat Mittens (Susie Essman) and a hamster named Rhino (Mark Walton). And, as director Chris Williams tells James Mottram, working with animals 'aint a problem when they're animated...
Chris, you came into Bolt after production had started and was a project on which you replaced another director. How did that come about?
It was a movie called American Dog that was being directed by Chris Sanders. It’s a thing that happens sometimes in animation. It happened with Toy Story 2, and Ratatouille went through a similar change. Unfortunately Chris Sanders and John Lasseter [Head of Pixar] had creative differences and when that was resolved John asked if I would work on the film. At that point you’ve got hundreds of people who are working on the movie, and need it to be going forward and be good. And when John asks you to do something you say yes, so I signed on! It was certainly daunting at first but I was humbled by the crew and how much they galvanised around the film, around John Lasseter and myself, and really pushed themselves to make something they can be proud of.
Was it difficult to come into the film at a late stage and take over?
I think the nice thing is that John [Lasseter] wants every director to feel connected and committed and responsible for the final product. So when he asked me to come on he didn’t say ‘Can you go back and work on and tinker with things’, he basically said ‘I want you to make your movie, and today’s day one’. And so we ended up keeping the premise of a dog who’s the star of an action show who comes to believe in the fiction of the show, but beyond that we pretty much changed everything. We rebuilt the characters, we redesigned things, we changed the plot. It put a great deal of stress on all of the departments, who were suddenly forced to redo a lot of work on a compressed schedule.
Strangely, that really challenging schedule made the movie better. I think that people were rising to the challenge and there was this energy, [and with] a difficult schedule so that any problems that arise can’t be swept under the rug! You have to confront them, fix them or you’re not going to make your deadline. In doing that, in forcing people to really focus, there was this incredible energy and momentum that started building. Unfortunately when you’re in a situation like that you end up working through lunch, and you’re working six or seven day weeks and you’re spending late nights there. But I’ve never heard people complain so little about working so hard! Because they started to believe that this could be something that ultimately they could be proud of, and that’s a very motivating thing.
You were also very lucky with your voice cast, which includes John Travolta as Bolt and teen star-of-the-moment Miley Cyrus as Penny. How did you make your choices?
One of the great things about working for Disney and Pixar is that you have really famous and talented people who are here to work on your film. It’s nice to have that opportunity. But John Lasseter’s first criteria is, ‘Who’s best for the part?’ Sometimes that’s someone who’s wildly famous and sometimes it’s someone who’s completely anonymous. We run the gamut in Bolt because we’ve got John Travolta who is one of the biggest icons ever and then we’ve got Susie Essman from Curb Your Enthusiasm and then we have Rhino played by one of my co-workers [Mark Walton], one of the story artists at Disney, who obviously isn’t a big ticket name or anything but he was just right for the part.
John Travolta was perfect because he can play both sides; he has a knack for playing really cold blooded ruthless characters, but he also has an innate sweet side and so for that reason he was perfectly cast for Bolt. And Miley also brought a lot to the role, and surprised people with what she could do as a 15-year-old actor. Most of the stuff in Hanna Montana is very fun and very light, and suddenly we were asking her to play a character who thought she was going to die and only wanted her dog to survive. That’s a pretty heavy place to ask a 15 year old to go, but she got there and I was really impressed by how professional she was.
We were thrilled to have both of them in the movie, but it’s also nice to know you have a boss like John Lasseter who never puts much of a premium on that kind of thing and how famous they are.Some of the film is set in the world of movies; were these scenes directly influenced by your experiences of Hollywood?
A lot of the Hollywood stereotypes we indulge in are based on something! You meet those people; you meet agents like our agents, directors like our directors and aspiring screenwriters like the ones in our movie. If there was no truth to it, it probably wouldn’t be funny. I like to think that it’s very playful satire, it’s not at all cutting. Obviously I made a choice to move to Los Angeles and we are all electing to live there and be part of this crazy city and crazy industry – there certainly something in it that is appealing to us, but there’s certainly a lot to have fun with.
What extras can we expect to see on the DVD?
To me the coolest thing is that our head of story Nathan Greno directed a short that features Rhino, so it’s five more minutes of animation. It’s a pretty stunning short film and the reason it turned out so well is because we [used] our big Bolt crew. [We] were trying to reach the finish line and get the movie done, [and] everyone was ready to return to normal life and go on vacation. And we said, ‘Everyone get back to your desks we’re doing five more minutes of animation because we have this great short film idea!’ And the nice thing is the machine was functioning so well at this point that people just banged out this fantastic animation. That’s probably the killer extra you’ll get on the DVD or blu-ray
Bolt was show in 3D on its theatrical release, were you concerned about replicating this for the home entertainment release?
To me my job really is about story and character, and the 3D team were working on stuff side by side and separately from us. I was concentrating on was hopefully coming up with memorable characters and something to make you smile and make you laugh and hopefully have some emotional resonance. The 3D doesn’t really enter into it in a way, in what I do for a living.
Bolt is released on Disney DVD and Blu-ray on June 15