INTERVIEW: Director Timothy Reckart talks “The Star” – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: Director Timothy Reckart talks “The Star”

Sony’s The Star, which opens nationally on November 17th, marks the feature film directorial debut of Timothy Reckart, who earned an Oscar nomination in 2013 for his animated short Head Over Heels.

Jackson Murphy: This is the story of the Nativity from the animals’ point of view. Was it just a random thought one day, “We’ve never heard what the animals think about all of this”?

Timothy Reckart: The funny thing is – this script has been at some level of existence since the late 90s, actually. It’s been at the Henson company. I think it developed at the wake of “Babe” because it was originally developed for live-action. So I think the idea was to kind of do a “Babe”-style live-action movie of Christmas from the point of view of the animals.

But when I first encountered it, obviously much more recently than that, I was really struck by it because I thought, “Oh my gosh, how has this movie not been made yet. It seems so obvious because these animal characters are part of everyone’s Nativity set. They’ve always been there but no one has made the movie about what their side of the story was. So I was really excited to be part of a movie that just fits so naturally into the imagery that we already have of Christmas. And that also presents an opportunity to do it in a fresh way that we’ve never seen before, which is great for a story that everyone’s heard a million times.

JM: And was it challenging, in these politically correct times to make a holiday movie based on a religious event? In “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, Linus literally quotes The Bible. And a lot of people say they just couldn’t make a special like that these days. Was that ever a concern of yours?

TR: Well, we knew that our main target for this movie was the faith-based audience – people who are Christian and identify as such. You really have to think about who the audience of the movie is before you set out to make it because the whole time that you’re working on the movie, if you ever lose track of who the audience is for, I think you can really end-up with a misfire, and that has already happened recently with some attempts at doing faith-based movies – at capturing the faith-based audience.

I’m thinking of the “Exodus” movie that Ridley Scott directed a few years back. And that movie basically didn’t feel authentic to the audience. So of course we wanted a successful movie and that meant we had to be authentic in that way to the Bible source material. But at the same time, I think that what’s great about this concept is that we could have fun with it. We could let the Mary and Joseph side of the story be true to what’s in The Bible because ultimately our job was to make-up a story that’s off in the wings – that happens backstage. We had a little sandbox to play in without risking being… tampering with The Bible.

JM: This cast: Oprah, Tyler Perry, Anthony Anderson, Patricia Heaton, Zachary Levi, Christopher Plummer, and there’s at least a dozen more. Your casting director, Tamara Hunter, must’ve had a fun time putting this entire ensemble together.

TR: Yeah. The great thing about this is that we had a million – well, a million is an exaggeration, but not by a lot – we had a lot of characters to cast in this movie. There’s the three camels, and then there’s the three animals who live in the stable. And then there’s Bo and his friend Dave and their friend the sheep and the mouse. We just had all these parts we had to cast – all which had such distinct personalities. The process was really just making our Wish List. Who would we go to? And they’re probably going to say no, but who would we ask to do this part?

And the thing that was amazing with this was… most of the time they would come back with a yes even though we were kind of prepared to go way further down the list. It was certainly a case with Oprah, Tyler Perry and Tracy Morgan. What a great trio to play those camels. But it was the story. They all wanted to be part of this opportunity to re-tell the Christmas story in a new way.

JM: And because there are so many characters in this 90-minute film, was it tricky trying to balance screen time and making sure audiences form genuine, thorough connections with each one of these characters.

TR: Yes… Was it a challenge? Yeah. But the story really belongs to Bo the donkey. So in that sense, that’s where we spent a lot of our time – a lot of our screen time we wanted to invest in that emotional journey. But all of these characters do have distinct personalities. And I think that’s where having that cast really helps because there’s a certain shorthand you get in terms of getting to know a character when it’s Tracy Morgan going, “Hey! What are you?” in his big, belligerent voice. You don’t need to know the backstory to kind of know who he is.

JM: And these animals are so wide-eyed and have such a kind spirit to them. What was the design process like in making sure these animals could seem relatable to kids watching the film?

TR: Our character designer for most of the animal characters was David Coleman. I’ve admired his work for many years. He does great animal designs. The goal was to come-up with animals who felt like real animals, not to anthropomorphy them. They’re never going to stand on their hind legs if that’s not what they really do. They’re not going to use their hooves as hands. So, on the one hand, to make them anatomically inspired, but then, on the other hand, to make them emotional.

And I think that came-in not only to the design process, giving them, like you say, bright eyes and clearly readable smiles. But also it came down to the animation style. We didn’t stick strictly to animal behavior. We really allowed for some squash and stretch – used for basically as an expressive tool.

JM: You earned your Oscar nomination for the animated short film “Head Over Heels”. It’s fantastic. I saw it just before the Oscars that year as part of the Animated Shorts presentation. So inventive – so wild, but so heartfelt, too. And that film has a core relationship to it. How did making that film help with the relationships we see in “The Star”?

TR: It was a really direct correlation in my mind when we were designing the characters of Mary and Joseph, and I don’t just mean the character designs – I mean designing the personalities for them, so there would be conflict and a certain amount of complementarity. It’s really, based on my experience, in my own marriage and looking at other marriages, it’s that most people are odd couples. There are very few married couples where the husband and wife are just the same person.

I think it’s more dynamic to watch a married couple where there is… two different points of view on the world. That’s definitely what “Head Over Heels” is about. It’s about that experience. And so with Mary and Joseph, we purposefully created Mary to be… open to improvisation, not a terribly big planner, not terribly organized, where, on the other hand, Joseph is, basically a carpenter. And in this day and age, he would be an engineer, I think. So this is a guy who’s planning everything and packing everything for the trip to Bethlehem. And he needs to make sure it’s great.

And with these two points of view: Mary, who’s open to whatever life is gonna bring her, and Joseph who is always trying to get ahead of it – to plan for it – I think they both have things to learn on this journey to Bethlehem. And it made for some fun – just the dynamic of a marriage which has two different personalities and are both trying to make the marriage work.

JM: There’s so much music in “The Star”, too: Fifth Harmony, A Great Big World, and Mariah Carey sings the title song. What made her right to sing this “Star” song?

TR: People call her the Queen of Christmas, and that’s really true. “All I Want for Christmas is You” is… the modern classic of the Christmas season. And when Mariah expressed interest in doing something for our movie, we thought it just was a great opportunity. What’s really exciting is that a song for our movie would be different from “All I Want for Christmas is You”, which is really on the secular side of Christmas – just in terms of the feeling of the season and the romance of it.

What “The Star” called for was something more along the lines of a carol – something inspired by the original story. And she’s got such a great voice, and the song that she gave to us was this epic heartfelt ballad. We wanted to make a movie that felt epic in scope, and I think the song really communicates that size.

JM: It is a very nice song. You said at a seminar you gave at a school that, “Life is a collection of moments” and that moments are so powerful. So for the families who go see “The Star”, what kinds of moments should they expect?

TR: There’s definitely some comedy, which is one of my favorite parts of the movie. But I think in that talk I gave, I really was trying to emphasize the life-changing power of moments and the idea that you can make an argument to somebody, but that’s not as powerful, often times, as that person just having an experience. And one of the few ways you can make a whole country, a whole society, share that experience together, is to make a movie that presents that experience.

So, in that sense, what I’m hoping to inspire the audience of “The Star” with is the idea that… you can do something great even if doesn’t look so great on the outside. That’s really the theme of the Nativity story itself, but it’s also the big theme and lesson that Bo the donkey learns on his journey. He feels called to do something big and great in that outside world, and helping Mary get to Bethlehem doesn’t seem so great on the outside, but in the end, he learns that things can have a humble appearance even when they’re very important.

JM: So besides this film doing well in theaters and families really enjoying it, what else is on your Christmas List?

TR: Oh, man. Probably some R&R to be honest. The movie’s finally done, and all I want for Christmas is sleep.

JM: Could Mariah do that as a new version of the song?

TR: I’d love that version. Trust me.

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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  • JodyMorgan

    I’m hoping for the best for this movie, but I have to be honest, that trailer’s not inspiring.