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Published: Friday, 11/7/2008

'It's a very collaborative process,' Ohio-born film producer says

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

That Madagascar was a hit probably wasn't a surprise. The animated tale of New York Zoo animals that escape to the wild was certainly kid-friendly enough to make it a family-film must-see.

But a worldwide haul of $533 million? Now that was surprising - even to the film's producer, Mireille Soria: "You always hope for that. And as we were making it ... we saw the reaction of people who were not involved in it, and we were obviously hopeful that people seemed to like the characters and thought it was funny. We were thrilled, but who knows."

Soria returned as producer for the Madagascar sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, which opens today. And in a recent interview with The Blade, the producer and Ohio native certainly doesn't seem to be feeling any stress to replicate the first film's box-office magic.

QWas there added pressure on you and the Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa's cast and crew to repeat Madagascar's success?

AWe obviously want to be able to give people what they expect. There's a reason why they are coming back to the theater if they have seen it before. We think that is because the characters are very likable and it's funny. I think this is as funny if not funnier than the first movie. For us, one of the things that's unique is that we have this combination of big, broad physical comedy combined with somewhat sophisticated dialogue and characters who are urban and from New York. We are always walking that line of, we're incredibly silly and absurd but we can't cross the line where we lose credibility in the character.

QWere there any difficulties getting everyone to return?

AThat's kind of the great thing. They all came back really, wonderfully happy. For those who haven't done an animated movie, it really is a leap of faith [for actors]. We have early versions of the script ... and we're asking them to come and play with us, usually in a room by themselves [with us] saying, "This is what it's going to look like, and it's going to be great," so it's asking a lot of trust. I think they were really great about it. Once they saw what we were doing, the fact they wanted to come back so willingly was really fantastic. And then knowing the characters, so it's not a matter of finding the voice, but for each of them it really gave them much more of an opportunity to be additive to the process and to really improv. It is a very collaborative process, and you've got Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac, Andy Richter, Alec Baldwin all adding things.

QHow much improvising by the actors happened during the recording process?

AThey do a lot. We don't use all of it, but there are gems that we get from them. Sacha, you give him a few lines and he goes off for 15 minutes on each one. Of course, 90 percent of that is an X-rated movie, so we can't use it, but we get gold from each of them.

QBernie Mac died in early August. Talk about his performance in the movie.

AThe role he plays is Alex the Lion's father. He's the leader of the pride. We needed somebody when we were casting it whose voice conveyed strength, and at the same time he is harsh on his son, and is somewhat rigid, and believes he knows the way things should be and the way his son should be. We were afraid that unless we had a very special person voicing that character that he would not be likable. With Bernie - it came through on his TV show - he has strength and he can be harsh, but the heart always comes through, the great warmth always came through. He really brought that through in his role of Zuba, Alex's father.

QYou must have been shocked by his sudden death from complications related to pneumonia. Most of the reports up until he died suggested he was on the mend.

AIt was a shock to all of us when he died. He was just so young. He had been ill, but we certainly didn't expect that. We were saddened. We had finished all the recordings.

When we record with the actors we always bring the most recent thing we have to show them of animation and lighting. And Bernie was always, "No ... I want to see it with my family." So the very sad thing is, he didn't get to see this, so I'm going to take it ... and we're doing a screening for his family and friends so they can see it. It's what he wanted.

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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