During our recent trip to Skywalker Ranch, Director Gary Rydstrom, a seven time Academy Award winner, sat down to talk with us about “Strange Magic,” a new animated film by George Lucas now playing in theaters everywhere.
Photo credit: Jana Seitzer
Gary Rydstrom (Directed by/Screenplay by) is a film director and sound designer. For Pixar Animation Studios, he directed two shorts, the Oscar®-nominated “Lifted” and “Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation.” For Disney and Studio Ghibli, Rydstrom directed the English-language versions of “The Secret World of Arrietty,” “From Up on
Poppy Hill” and “The Wind Rises.”
At Lucasfi lm’s Skywalker Sound, Rydstrom has designed and mixed many films, including “Terminator 2,” “Jurassic Park,” “A River Runs Through It,” “Toy Story,” “Quiz Show,” “Titanic,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Finding Nemo” and “War Horse.” He has won seven Academy
Awards® for sound and sound editing, and career achievement awards from both the Cinema Audio Society and Motion Picture Sound Editors.
In one of my favorite quotes from Director Gary Rydstrom during our interview, he talks about how hard love is and the honest truth that love is not always happy. ‘If you think about the songs in the movie that are love songs, there aren't that many positive love songs, which I always like to point out because love is hard. It's not always happy, but I love that part of it.'
The last in our series of our Strange Magic interviews features Director Gary Rydstrom as we chat about his vision for this film, casting a unique film like this one, falling in love, and what scene in the movie STILL makes him cry, in the latest musical, animated comedy from Lucasfilm Ltd.
Interview: Strange Magic Director Gary Rydstrom
Q: It was such a pleasure to work with you. You've had an incredible career, you've got seven Academy Awards for sound design and editing. You the directed Pixar shorts Lifted, and Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation, and you're also the director of the English language versions of the Secret World of Arrietty, From Up on Poppy Hill, and The Wind Rises. Wow. I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about what it was about this story that attracted you as a storyteller and filmmaker.
Gary Rydstrom: The karma and the irony of this movie for me is that I did have a long career in this building, a career as a sound designer doing sound effects for movies, and then by the end in the final mix I often felt at odds with the composer. It was kind of a fight between the composer and I to, you know, have our stuff heard. So I thought of it as karmic revenge from the universe that I get to direct a feature film here and its a musical.
But I was really attracted to it, as George is. American Graffiti is one of my favorite movies, and the use of song to help tell a story was really attractive to me, and this was such a great idea to tell a love story. If you think about the songs in the movie that are love songs, there aren't that many positive love songs, which I always like to point out because love is hard. It's not always happy, but I love that part of it, and making a musical was really fun.
Q: Did you have a character that was a muse to you, that you were most engaged by? Or was it everybody?
Gary Rydstrom: I actually like the Bog King, because that thing we talked about earlier about having your heart-broken. We all go through a thing that's a completely natural thing, when you get your heart-broken you say I'm not going to let myself be vulnerable ever again.
He [Bog King] goes to an extreme but it's something that I can relate to. It's so painful to go through something that makes you feel hurt and less than you should be, and you just don't want to do it again. So your solution for it is to put up this shield and never let anyone in again. I know we all do that, and I thought he was someone I could relate to. Once you get past that veneer and let your real self come out, it's so much more satisfying both for him and for the one he falls in love with.
Q: You assembled an incredible cast for the film, we have Elijah here, but can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work with them, and what they brought to their characters.
Gary Rydstrom: Casting is pretty key for a movie like this and as George said, you have to find people who can both act and sing.
Alan Cumming, both as actor and singer, amazing. Evan Rachel Wood is as good a singer as she is an actress. Sam Palladio who plays Roland is an amazing singer, as well as a very funny actor. Kristin Chenoweth who is funny and as I have said before, I was in the room with her as I was with all the actors when they were singing their songs, and when she hit some of those high notes in Love Is Strange, it was like my glasses broke. [Laughter] It was amazing.
I love being in the room with actors and it's really hard for them, because they're acting alone, they're not acting with other actors, it would be great if they did but it just doesn't work out so it's just them. You describe the scene as best you can, you do line readings with them to set up the scene. Elijah made me work the hardest, because I would line read with him, but he's very active and it requires a lot of energy, so I was often playing either the Sugar Plum Fairy or Dawn.
Part of directing the actors for animation is taking on that role and working with them. That's why it's fun. It's fun to help draw that out from the actors and be surprised by what they brought to it, and they all brought their own personalities to the characters once we cast them, they all brought something of themselves to it.
Simple things like Alan Cumming is Scottish, and the Bog King has about a twenty percent Scottish accent. Evan Rachel Wood is very much like Marianne but she's the sweetest, she's got the most amazing happy laugh. She's the sweetest thing but she can be tough as nails if she needs to be, so they all brought something of themselves to the role. I love that part of it.
Q: One of the key things in the film is that it's okay to be different and that your uniqueness makes you special This is a theme that you really integrated into the script, can you speak to that a bit? Why you think that message is important?
Gary Rydstrom: If you think about it, we are really surprised I think by how we fall in love and with who. I hear this over and over from people, it comes at us as a surprise. I think the steps when that happens, if I can analyze falling in love, is that when you reveal your true self, then the other person falls in love with that true self. Often we try to hide that true self because you think it's odd or different, or it's not in the norm, or it's not what other people our age or group should be like. You hide it because you think, who would fall in love with that, but then we fall in love with that what makes you unique.
So in this story I wanted Marianne to essentially be told by her father and everyone else in some ways that you're being a little odd. What she becomes is her version of what the Bog King becomes, this kind of Goth protective tough girl. So being different is not only okay, it's what's required, and learning what's different about each other is what's required for falling in love.
Q : When you first introduced the movie, you said that this movie is really about finding beauty in something you didn't expect to find beauty in. What is an example in your own life that you found beauty in something you didn't expect to find beauty in?
Gary Rydstrom: Sometimes in art you see it, and I love art. There are some paintings that have kind of a horrifying, or a kind of a darkness to them, but then you can still see the beauty in the darkness.
Same thing with music. John Cage was always a favorite of mine, but it took a while to find the beauty in it. One of my favorite jazz artists is Thelonious Monk, who does these songs. When I first heard them I thought, this is not making any sense. It's not connecting for me. Then when it does connect, you kind of see the beauty in it.
And of course people, there's always people who when you first meet them, you go ‘Oh, I just, I can’t stand being around this person', and then six months later you're best friends. I think we do judge people at first and then once we get to know them, it's amazing who we become best friends with, or certainly amazing who we marry. So we always have to get past the outside, the cover of the book, to find out what's great inside.
Q : Speaking of art, the visual arts in this film are stunning, it's beautiful. Were you inspired by any particular artist, or fairy artists?
Gary Rydstrom: A lot about artwork goes back to the early stuff that George did. As George said, it has a realism to it so it's not quite as ethereal as some classic fairy art might be.
All this was drawn together under the idea to make it a part of our world, the back yard idea, so a lot of the designs of the fairies were drawn from butterflies. Things that really exist. One reason was if we were to see the fairies from a distance, we would just think they're butterflies. Then characters like Bog King and some of the goblins were mashups, visual mashups of insects and different creatures.
I have no idea what the Bog King is, he's not a cockroach, I don't know what he is. When I first came on there were a lot of bugs in glass, and butterflies. I don't know what the imp is either, the imp is just kind of a mashup of different small mammals. So I think nature was one of the key things to draw on.
Q: How hard was it to let go of the sound design aspect? Or did you help them along or give your input? Is that difficult to let go of?
Producer Mark S. Miller: He gave his input. [Laughter]
Gary Rydstrom: The producer will tell you that I gave lots and lots of input, the mix might have gone on a little longer than it could have. It's funny that in my directing career, directing shorts at Pixar, the hardest thing for me to do is the mix, it's weird. You’d think it’d be the easiest thing but it is hard, to not be able to physically do what you know you can do.
In this case I worked with Tom Johnson who is the lead mixer, the re-recording mixer on this movie. He and I went to USC Cinema School together. He mixed my first movie when I made a sixteen millimeter film at USC, he was my mixer. Tom, the fact that he was able to mix this, kind of makes me teary even thinking about it. So if you can lean on someone who you love and trust, then it's not so bad.
Q : It sounds amazing, especially in this theater, just incredible sound. So I've asked everybody else for their favorite song in the movie, and it doesn't have to be your absolute favorite, but maybe one that you enjoy more than others.
Gary Rydstrom: I'll give two answers. Strange Magic is my favorite musical moment in the movie because it kind of sums up the movie. It's a beautiful song, an ELO song, Evan Rachel Wood and Al Cumming sing it beautifully, and Marius' arrangement of it is beautiful. It's a duet, and originally it's not a duet, and it's a beautiful duet.
It says what the movie says. It's also one of my favorite looking sequences in the movie, but the moment that makes me cry, with Elijah here, the song that makes me cry every time, is when Elijah sings Three Little Birds to Dawn at the end.
It was worth every penny buying that song, and when Bob Marley sang it, it also made me cry. To have a movie that you know so well, and can still get moved by things. It's really Elijah’s performance of that moment, when he sings it to her and his voice is breaking.
Meredith Bull who is the voice of Dawn, working in that scene she and Elijah aren't together. They're doing this in two separate different times, and she's crying and saying I love you, and Sunny is saying, they're not together at all. The magic of it coming together with the animators, I go, oh, that's why I do movies, you know. That's great.
About Strange Magic
“Strange Magic,” a new animated film from Lucasfilm Ltd., is a madcap fairy tale musical inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Popular songs from the past six decades help tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion. Lucasfilm Animation Singapore and Industrial Light & Magic bring to life the fanciful forest turned upside down with world-class animation and visual effects. Directed by Gary Rydstrom (“Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation,” “Lifted”) from a story by George Lucas, “Strange Magic” is now playing in theaters everywhere.
‘Strange Magic' Official US Trailer
Portions of the material and expenses for this event has been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios, all opinions are my own.