Kris Pearn interview: ‘The Willoughbys’ director
“‘Grey Gardens’ meets ‘Arrested Development'” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re conceiving an animated film for children, but that was exactly Kris Pearn‘s pitch for his adaptation of Lois Lowry‘s book “The Willoughbys.”
“It immediately struck me as that kind of ‘Arrested Development’ dysfunctional family story and yet there was an element of wildness of those kids that I could relate to in terms of being a father to my own children [in the entertainment industry],” Pearn tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Film Animation panel (watch above). “That idea of these odd children finding their way in our modern world — that was kind of what I pitched back. It’s kind of like a ‘Grey Gardens’ meets ‘Arrested Development’ for kids, and they latched onto that.”
Pearn, who’s helmed “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” (2013), himself latched onto the “subversive, kind of Roald Dahl humor” in Lowry’s book and wanted to translate that onscreen. The film has dark themes — the Willoughby children, which includes Tim (voice of Will Forte) and Jane (voice of Alessia Cara), want to be orphans because of their selfish, neglectful parents (voiced by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) — and Pearn was well aware there had to be comical counterbalance to that.
“I wanted to talk about that real subject matter without it being a drag and also give it its place where the audience had permission to laugh, to be entertained by the characters. Ultimately, it’s an optimistic ending,” he says. “Working with my production designer, Kyle McQueen, we always wanted to make sure the film doesn’t feel like a documentary, unlike ‘Grey Gardens.’ We wanted to feel like this is a parable, this a cat’s tale … there are giants, there are candy people who have factories, there’s that joyful chaos underpinning the story.”
They also wanted the Netflix film to feel like handmade. Though it’s computer-animated, Pearn used “2D principles” to capture a throwback feel, like stop-motion-like movements in the characters. “The illustration of repression coming through controlled movement was really something that we talked about very early. When you take 2D principles where you don’t do pose-to-pose animation and you’re removing frames and you remove motion blur, very quickly you end up in a world that looks very stop-motion,” he shares. “And the other thing was that we always wanted to have this feeling that this was a handmade movie, like you could go to Michael’s and buy all the stuff to make this film.”