INTERVIEW: “Captain Underpants” Director David Soren – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: “Captain Underpants” Director David Soren

The books have been wildly popular with kids (of all ages) worldwide since the first was published back in 1997. Now DreamWorks Animation is hoping Captain Underpants will be a perfect fit for the big screen. Director David Soren, a long-time fan of the series, joined me for this “brief” Q&A on Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie:

Jackson Murphy: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Captain Underpants books. They were huge when I was in elementary school, and they’re still so popular today. Did you have any connection to them before working on this movie?

David Soren: I did. It’s funny, 20 years ago, I happened to be in a book store. I had just moved to LA, and I stumbled across the first Captain Underpants book in the store. I picked it up and started leafing through it. I thought “this is really silly and looks fun”, and before I knew it I read about half the book right there in aisle and thought, “Man, I wish I came up with this idea myself. It’s so good.” Years later, I had kids of my own and read them to my son and my daughter. And when DreamWorks approached me to direct the movie, I was very familiar with the books and a huge fan.

JM: How closely did you work with author Dav Pilkey?

DS: Dav was pretty involved early on on the movie, and about a month after I came on we met and bonded very quickly. We both taught ourselves to draw by copying Peanuts comic strips, and we loved Charles Schulz’s work. [We] had many of the same influences. He was a big fan of The Little Rascals, as was I, and The Three Stooges and Popeye and all kinds of things that we ended-up having in common, as well as some friends of ours, too.

So we hit it off pretty quick, and we showed him a bunch of our artwork at the time, and I talked him through some of the script changes we were making. And I think by the time he left, he felt very confident that we were capturing the spirit of what he had created and really empowered us to take risks with the material. He’s not a fan of adaptations that are word-for-word translations. He sort of finds them boring and like, “Why bother going to see the movie if it’s exactly like the book?” And [likes] it when something new is brought to the table. So that was super empowering, and it gave us a lot of creative freedom. And he really trusted us, which he didn’t have to do, and I really appreciate.

JM: And it seems like, though the animation style here is a little different than most DreamWorks Animation movies, the illustrations from the books are really similar to the animation you’ve created for the film.

DS: These books have been around now for 20 years. You’ve got kids who are now college age or older who’ve grown up on them, and they symbolize their childhood in many ways. And you’ve got kids who are just learning how to read, who are being introduced to them completely anew. It’s… a unique opportunity to be able to appeal to quite a wide range of ages.

And those drawings are so iconic. Dav’s a great illustrator, as well as a terrific writer. He gave us a lot to work with. They’re very cartoony. They’re very expressive. Our character designer, Rune Bennicke, who comes from a classical 2D background, is also a terrific animator (ended-up being our co-head of animation as well) did a terrific job adapting them and making them ready for primetime CG feature treatment. And then [Rune] also did a bunch of animation tests, 2D; all hand-drawn, that were also really instrumental in helping us find our animation style.

JM: The story of the movie focuses on two kids who hypnotize their school principal into becoming a superhero. Were there any principals or teachers you had in school that you wish, even for a day, became a superhero?

DS: Look, we all have good teachers and we all have lousy ones. So yeah, sure. There were definitely a few that I wouldn’t have minded a little hypnosis (laughs)… to be able to change those years. I had a principal in high school that I pulled a bit of a prank on. I did a giant mural of him on one of the stairwell walls that ultimately he did not approve of. It was shortly after whitewashed. There was certainly a little thing between me and some of the principals I had.

JM: And you used that experience and put that energy into the story for this film…

DS: Absolutely. The most appealing factor of these books to me, and I think why they’ve been so beloved over 20 years now, is that even though they’re called “Captain Underpants”, they’re really about these two boys, George and Harold – these wildly imaginative fourth graders and their friendship. And it’s a creative friendship, which is really rare to see in books or movies for that matter – and rang really true to me. Most of the friendships in my life that I treasure the most are creative in nature, and I love the chance to be able to bring that kind of creative partnership to the screen.

JM: In Captain Underpants, Kevin Hart, Jordan Peele and Thomas Middleditch from “Silicon Valley” all voice kids. What made them the right choices to voice characters much younger than they are?

DS: Like I said, the books have been around and are cherished by people in their 20s and 30s. And we really wanted to be able to speak to that age of people as well as the newcomers. And, you know, just the sheer comedy value you get out of professional comedians far outweighs what you’re going to get out of a child. Those guys – we auditioned them all at a very early table read, and you could just tell it was gonna be a great fit.

Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch had an amazing chemistry. Ed Helms just nailed the sheer stupidity of Captain Underpants in a brilliant way. Nick Kroll, who voices Professor Poopypants, didn’t come into the movie for quite a while… and then suddenly had his first line and his opened his mouth and this insane new Swissland accent came out of it and just slayed everybody. We ended up casting virtually everybody at that table read. And then, the rest is history.

JM: You’ve got Weird Al doing a very fun “Captain Underpants” theme song for the movie. It’s almost nostalgic in its style. Did you give him free reign to come-up with all the lyrics?

DS: When I was prepping for the movie, I was just scouring through all the books, and in the first one, one of the pranks that George and Harold pull is that they take-over the intercom system at the school, and they play six hours straight of Weird Al Yankovic songs. And I remember highlighting that and circling it and staring it and writing in the margin that we have to get Weird Al Yankovic at some point.

And about two months ago, we approached him, and he actually knew all about his cameo in the books and was very excited to do it. So he came in – he saw the movie. Tonally, it just seemed like the perfect fit. And we talked about classic theme songs that we both grew up on, like the old Batman one with… Burt Ward – the 60s Batman one; the Spider-Man one from back then, too – and sort of taking some of the influence from those, but obviously updating it for a superhero that’s referred to as Captain Underpants. So: giving it a silly twist.

We all just wanted it to work so much, and he just nailed it. I think, again, it was just sort of the perfect fit for the movie and a sensibility match. And I couldn’t be happier with the result. My kids have been begging me to play it every time we get in the car now – for the past month.

JM: Besides Captain Underpants, who is your other favorite cinematic superhero of all-time?

DS: Oh, man. Well, I mean, in terms of cool factor you’ve got your Batmans, your Spider-Mans and your Supermans right at the top of the list. I was always a big Spider-Man fan. He was my favorite. And somewhere in the middle of that list you would probably put… The Flash, the Green Lantern. And then you keep scrubbing down the list, you might get to some more forgettable ones; some lesser elite, not-so-cool ones.

And at the very bottom of that list, in terms of just sheer, not cool factor, would be Captain Underpants, who I think really has become my favorite of all of them. (laughs)

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy is a movie critic and entertainment columnist. He is the creator of the website Lights-Camera-Jackson.com, and has made numerous appearances on television and radio.
Jackson Murphy
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