Thursday, July 24, 2008

MONKEYING AROUND: An Interview with SPACE CHIMPS director, Kirk De Micco

When I arrived to meet first-time director, Kirk De Micco, in the lobby of the St. Paul Hotel in Montreal’s financial district, I was made to wait. It’s not that De Micco actually made me wait; it’s just that he was seeing dozens of press people throughout the day and the guy scheduled before me was running late. So I ordered a latte and I waited to meet the man behind the monkeys that all the kids are talking about. Wouldn’t you know it? The man is a big kid himself.

SPACE CHIMPS is a rarity in the Hollywood production system. It is an independent animated feature. As animation takes a lot of time and a lot of time means a lot of money so independent can still mean upwards of 40 or 50 million to make but that’s chimp change compared to the $150 million plus price tag attached to animated panda or robot movies you may have seen recently. There is something else about SPACE CHIMPS that makes it unique. This is an animated movie for kids. That might sound obvious seeing as one could assume any cartoon is for kids but that just isn’t the case today. Today, studios want to reach out to an audience far and wide so that means parents and young adults too. SPACE CHIMPS doesn’t bother with all that pandering. They’re in it for the little guy.

The little guy in the movie is a little monkey really. Ham III, voiced by Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg, is the grandson of the original Ham that flew into outer space decades ago. His turn has arrived but his impending space voyage is getting in the way of his bustling circus act. You can’t fight destiny when it calls on you though and thanks to SPACE CHIMPS, destiny is now calling out to De Micco.

Before De Micco got down to it, he was taken by the presentation with which my latte was served. The sugar, both raw and refined, was served in squares with circles hollowed out in the center so that they could be spiraled up a short pole. Leave it to the cartoon guy to be distracted by a pretty visual presentation.

Joseph Belanger: First of all, congratulations. This is your first time out directing a feature film and that pretty much means this must be your first time out touring with the project, making the rounds. How are you handling all of this insanity?
Kirk De Micco: It’s been pretty neat, I gotta say. We saw the film this past Saturday at the Fox studios in L.A. A lot of people brought their kids. They all seemed to enjoy it and the kids are really taking to it. Everyone seems happy to have brought their kids to a nice movie. It’s just been a positive type of vibe, which is what we set out to do. Hearing kids laugh, y’know, this is why we were up so late all those nights.

JB: On the subjects of pleasing the kids, there’s a school of thought these days about animation that there are animated films for kids and then there are others that are just as entertaining for adults so they can have fun too. SPACE CHIMPS doesn’t seem to be concerned with making sure Mom and Dad are having a great time. It feels like all you cared about were the kids, which is oddly refreshing.
KDM: If you go to Disneyland with your kids, I would hope that you would have fun on all the rides but the experience is more aimed at the kids and it is part of growing up. The movies I loved as I was growing up may not appeal to everyone else but they mean a lot to me. Animated movies it seems are often lumped together as one type of movie just because they’re animated but with live-action films, there are comedies made just to be comedic and other movies that are for other reasons or groups of people. Animation isn’t a genre; it’s a medium. It’s just got a fun, joyous spirit.

JB: So I would assume you’ve been into animation for a long time.
KDM: I think animation, curiously enough, for me, I was always into Looney Tunes and Hanna Barbara cartoons. I always think of animation in that vein. As much as I love a Disney film, it’s a particular type of film but animation, cartoon animation, is still what I watch over and over again. Television animation seems almost entirely geared towards kids too. If you look at the SpongeBob’s out there and all the things that I love to watch, it always has that rollicking spirit.

JB: And even within television animation, you have your SpongeBob’s that are geared toward kids but you have your Simpsons that kids laugh at but I can never understand how they get the jokes. Still, both of these shows know their audience.
KDM: I know. Nothing is worse than a movie that tries to please everyone and finishes by pleasing no one. SPACE CHIMPS was more like an independent film. We had a limited budget. We made it up here in Canada; we were far away. We didn’t have to deal with studio restrictions to turn into something it wasn’t. I mean it’s coming out on 2500 screens but as far as animation goes, it’s still a little film. Our budget is like a fifth of the WALL-E budget. In that respect the people at Pixar couldn’t be free to make a movie that is just for kids because there is just too much money at play. We just wanted to make a good kids movie with a solid, simple message.

JB: And SPACE CHIMPS has a good message. Slacker monkey overcomes his own resignation to be the best monkey he can be, no matter where that is. He was a little cynical for an animated monkey, mind you.
KDM: He is cynical, yes. Andy Samberg, who voices Ham, has a very sardonic approach. Ham doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just gliding alone, pretty happy to be a circus clown, entertaining kids.

JB: How did the idea of chimps in space come to be?
KDM: I was watching one of my favorite films, THE RIGHT STUFF, and there’s this famous line where the Sam Shepard character, Chuck Yeager says, “Do you think the monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?” So I started thinking, what if he did? I found that Ham cover from Life magazine 1961 and he’s just sitting there all serious. So I thought what if the never do well grandson has to figure out that he’s got the right stuff. It just sorta took off from there.

Listening to De Micco speak, I couldn’t help but see a little Ham in him too. While he’s certainly not coasting through life, he’s plenty happy just entertaining the kids and he’s most certainly got the right stuff.

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