Do you ever wonder what your pets do when you leave them alone? Chris Renaud takes us into that unseen world and shows us that some things are better left unseen. Renaud is the filmmaker behind Minions and Despicable Me, and now with The Secret Life of Pets we get a glimpse of what happens when we go out and leave our pets alone. The Secret Life of Pets is a laugh out loud movie about Max, a mixed terrier who’s devoted to his owner. One day she brings home a new dog, Duke, and the two are forced to live together. Jenny Slate, Louis C.K and Kevin Hart are some of the animated voices, that provide a lot of the hilarity that ensues as a rescue mission ensues.
Alexandre Desplat is a name every Oscar watcher knows. This year alone we have heard his work in Meryl Streep’s Florence Foster Jenkins, The Light Between Oceans, and we will revel in his work again in the soon-to-be-released Star Wars: Rogue One. I sat down with both filmmaker Chris Renaud and composer Alexandre Desplat to talk about how the idea was born and the challenge of putting the idea together, and why New York was the ideal setting.
Awards Daily: You’re both based in France. How does that work for you when it comes to the creative process.
Chris Renaud: It worked out really well. I’d go to Alexandre’s studio, and we’d sit. It was nice to have a real face-to-face in the room. It was imperative as we had to deal with everything, and just at how fast we had to go, that’s what made it possible.
AD: The rest of your team is based out here?
CR: The physical picture itself is made in Paris. So, the studio has around 700 people. In LA, I don’t know the exact numbers, maybe around 40-60. You have Chris Meledandri based here, and marketing, legal are all based here in LA.
AD: How has technology changed for both of you, and has it helped with having the long distance work relationships?
CR: It allows certain things that we couldn’t do before. Very often, I’d record the actors via Skype. I never met Kevin Hart until the premiere because his schedule was so crazy that I was never actually in the same room as him. That’s rare, but again it makes it work because we can connect via Skype and that’s the biggest change is communication. Even meeting with Chris Meledandri here in the USA, we had standing meetings a few times a week to discuss what we were working on.
Alexandre Desplat: In general, it’s a great tool because I’m able to send a piece of music and to have feedback within two minutes is incredible. I can send music to the other side of the world, or even the other side of Paris to Chris and get an immediate reaction. Once the face-to-face has become a routine you can use the internet to fill in the gaps.
AD: It’s a huge crew when it comes to animating a film. Where does it all begin?
CR: It begins with the thought. Chris Meledandri was sitting at a table and said, “What about a movie that explores what your pets do when you’re not home?” That was it. That’s how this started, and from there we had to develop the story, the characters, and we were all over the place.
The fun part about that idea is how open it is, but that can also be the challenge. Your pets could be flying to the moon or solving a murder mystery, and we had to figure out how to make it relatable. I think that’s what the audience responded to. The simple moments like the Dachshund who scratches his belly with the mixer, or the poodle who plays rock music when its owner goes away, that’s what resonates.
It’s simple and has clarity to it. Once we hit on the basic elements, that’s where we start, and then we go into the storyboarding and script writing, and animation tests.
This was an interesting project because I played with the animators, what do your pets do when you leave? A lot of those animations test that came out of that are seen at the beginning of the movie, that scene. I hadn’t worked on a project like that that grew organically either people contributing memories of their animals or as I said, playing with different character ideas.
AD: I have to ask, do you have pets?
CR: I’ve had pets pretty much my entire life, except maybe a couple of years when I was out of college. I’ve had dogs, cats, guinea pigs, gerbils. Yes.
AD: Was New York always going to be the original setting?
CR: I can’t remember us talking about anything aside from New York. I think it was always the obvious choice because of the dense nature of it. It felt like it could be the place where this could happen where there could be a secret subterranean world, even with the animals in the sewers. It just felt like in New York you could imagine a secret world of your animals and they could get from place to place. In LA, they’d have to take an Uber.
AD: And Paris has already been done.
CR: [laughs] It doesn’t even have the density. We went for a French illustrator named Sempé who would do the New Yorker cover, and it would be a wall of windows with two little characters in the corner. That was one of the big inspirations, and we ran with that idea. You can feel it’s a network of tubes and tunnels that you can explore.
AD: The music is very New York. How would you describe it?
AD: Fun jazz mixed with the orchestra. It gives energy and the orchestra brings emotion and epic feelings.
AD: What discussions did you have?
AD: Chris is very open, and so when we talked about New York and jazz, it was a very quick decision that we made early on. We never thought it would be anything else. It was obvious that the jazz element would feature a lot, but it would need melodies, and epic adventurous themes, the force an orchestra can bring. So, we mixed a big band with a large 85-piece orchestra. We had a choir as well, so at times there would be 120 people involved.
CR: I think along with the idea, the opportunity to work with Alexandre delivered something very distinct. For influences we were talking Woody Allen, Henry Mancini and what I think is cool about that is when you look at scores for animated films, and there are a lot out there, it’s just something playful and unique. I felt you hadn’t heard it before. There are very strong themes too. When I hear, Meet the Pets, I’m in it, I’m in the movie with the characters.
AD: Well, you have that frenetic pace of how it’s going to be, and it’s just a teaser of what is to come. Also, I sense influences of cartoons from when I was growing up.
AD: For me too. I’ve been growing up with those same cartoons, I always dreamed of approaching that virtuosity and being able to use this material for a film nowadays was great fun and a great challenge too. I was at Capitol with these great legends of jazz, and it was quite an experience.
AD: How do you manage to continue in doing so many animations ?
CR: I love to work. From my perspective, I love challenges, and the opportunity to work with and create different characters and move on, it’s like a live action, but not as fast. It’s just fun. It’s been a terrific experience, and it’s in line with my sensibility. I come from comic books and television, so it’s a little bit down and dirty. With comic books, I’d get a script and it’d be done in twenty days. BOOM! It’s like let’s figure it out and move forward, and I like how we make films, especially with Illumination.
AD: What was it like for you, Alexandre, going back to animation?
AD: Guardians was fantasy, and this was more comical. The score never tries to make you laugh. It’s funny, it’s merry, but it doesn’t have something that plays stupid to make you laugh.
CR: Those were the conversations we’d have and how to develop it so the music supports rather than tells you something. I think that’s an elegant way to go.
I think the word cartoon has become a dirty word, and I don’t feel that way, I feel The Secret Life of Pets is a cartoon. [laughs]. It’s supposed to be funny. An opportunity to imbue a film with that comedic sensibility through the music is great fun and serves to make us distinct.
There are so many animated movies, that it would be a shame if they were all the same in music and tone. So, this year has 27 films vying for animated feature.
AD: It’s crazy, in a good way, and great for animation.
CR: You have everything from The Red Turtle to The Secret life of Pets. It’s finally maturing where you have this range of voices in these films.
AD: I must say this film is impertinent, not politically correct, and mischievous.
AD: As you say, we had ideas and we played them. It comes back to jazz. When a musician wants to play a solo, he plays a solo, he plays the solo he wants, he’s got this freedom. I love what the movie has is this freedom.
AD: That’s what I loved about it, it was almost like an homage to the cartoons that we grew up with.
AD: And, you always wonder what your pets are doing all day. What did you find to be a challenge with this project?
CR: One of the main challenges, was the character of Duke. He comes in as the aggressor against Max. So, the balance was getting that empathy and balancing that aggressiveness. Even when we were making the movie, we were still finding that balance. It was a similar challenge to the character of Gru in Despicable Me. He was a villain, but how mean did we make him. It’s a crucial thing though because Duke along with Max are the main characters. If the audience isn’t with him, and that creates a big problem as you’re moving through the movie because they’re not with you.
The biggest thing was finding that balance of empathy and aggressor.
AD: I had too many notes [laughs]. There were a lot of cues to pick and underline from. Also, this mix of jazz and orchestra is all through the film, from A-Z, finding the right moments and making sure the ear doesn’t get tired of the sound, of the tempo and rhythm. There are many things you need to be careful of, in the same way the story has to find a balance, so does the score, tone wise, emotionally, not too sad, and not too funny, and not too dark. Most importantly, the tempo is crucial on a film like this, but it’s the tempo of each scene. If it’s too frantic, and too fast, you get tired. You have to make sure it’s staggered.
AD: Did much change throughout the process?
CR: Oh yes. I think once we locked into the movie, it stayed, but finding what the movie was, that was a long process. What I was alluding to, the concept was great and strong but we were everywhere in developing what the story should be. It took us a while to find the story. So, that was the hardest part.
AD: When you compose, do you work on numerous projects?
AD: Just one, otherwise I’d be dead. [laughs]
AD: The good news is we have the sequel to look forward to.