We met with Gary Rydstrom director of Lucasfilm’s Strange Magic. He talked to us about finding true love when you least expect it, the importance of casting plus he shared a song from the movie’s soundtrack that made him cry.
Gary, you directed Pixar shorts Lifted, and Toy Story 2, Hawaiian Vacation. You’re also the director of the English language versions of the Secret World of Arrietty, From Up on Poppy Hill and the Wind Waker, wow. Tell us a little bit more about what it was about this story that attracted you as a storyteller and filmmaker.
GR: Well, the karma and the irony of this movie for me is that I did have a long career, in this building mostly, a career as a sound designer, doing sound effects for movies. By the end, I found that I often felt at odds with the composer, so it was kind of a fight between the composer and I to, you know, have our stuff heard. So I thought of it as karmic revenge from the universe that I get to direct a feature film here and it’s a musical.
But, I was really attracted to it as, as George is, and American Graffiti is one of my favorite movies. The use of song to help tell a story was really attractive to me. This was such a great idea to tell a love story. And, and if you think about the songs in the movie that are love songs, there aren’t that many positive love songs, which I always like to point out. You know, because love is hard, it’s not, it doesn’t always, it’s not always happy. But, I love that part of it and making a musical was really fun.
What character was a muse to you? What character did you find most engaging?
GR: Well, I actually like the Bog King, because of that thing we talked about earlier about having your heart broken. And, I think we all go through a thing that’s completely natural. When you get your heart broken, you say, “That’s it! I’m not going to! I’m not going to let myself be vulnerable ever again.”
He goes to an extreme but it’s something that I can relate to, you know. It’s so painful to go through something that makes you feel hurt and less than you should be, and- and you just don’t want to do it again. So your solution for it is to put up this shield and never let anyone in again. And I, I know we all, we all do that. And, I thought he was someone I could relate to. So, once you get past that veneer and let your real self come out, it’s so much more satisfying both for him and for the one he falls in love with.
You assembled an incredible cast for the film, can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work with them and what they brought to their characters.
GR: Well casting is pretty key for a movie like this and as George said, you have to find people who both act and sing and that the whole Alan Cumming, both actor and singer amazing, Evan Rachel Wood is as good a singer as she is an actress.
Sam Palladio who plays Roland is an amazing singer, as well as, a very funny actor. Kristin Chenoweth who is funny and as I have said before, I was in the room with her as I was with all the actors when they were singing their songs and when she hit some of those high notes in “Love Is Strange,” it was like my glasses broke [LAUGHTER]. But, it was, it was amazing. For years again, I was doing, sound effects as a career and I hadn’t really worked with actors much.
Then, as I started to for animation, I really love it. Animation is the same thing. Animators are actors too. But, I love being in the room with actors and it’s really hard for them, because they’re acting alone. They’re not acting with other actors. It’d be great if they did, but it just doesn’t work out so it’s just them. You describe the scene as best you can, you do line readings with them to set up the scene. Elijah made me work the hardest, because I would line read with him, but he’s very active and it requires a lot of energy. So, I was often playing either the Sugar Plum Fairy or Dawn.
And I was, I was actually pretty good at it. But it’s part of directing actors for animation is taking on that role. And, and working with them, that’s why it’s fun, you know, since I don’t really act, I’m terrible at it. But it’s fun to help draw that out from the actors and be surprised by what they brought to it. And they all brought their own personalities to the characters once we cast them. They all brought something of themselves to it.
Simple things, like Alan Cumming is Scottish and the Bog King has, you know, we talked about it. Give it about a twenty percent Scottish accent. So, it’s a twenty percent Scottish accent. Evan Rachel Wood is very much like Marianne, but she’s the sweetest. She’s got the most amazing happy laugh. And she’s the sweetest thing, but she can be tough as nails if she needs to be. So, they all brought something of themselves to the role. I love that part of it. I love what the actors brought to this and I’m actually most proud, as George said. And I’m going to quote this, I’ve never heard it before, but it’s a great idea.
It’s that it takes twice as many actors to make an animated film, that’s brilliant. I’m really proud in this movie of that combination of the animators drawing on what the actors do with the voice, and creating that side of the acting. And together, creating a character that it’s still magic to me when that works.
One of the key things in the film is that it’s okay to be different and that your uniqueness makes you special. This is a theme that you really integrated into the script. Can you speak to that a bit, why you think that message is important?
GR: Well, if you think about it. We are really surprised. I think by how we fall in love and who, and it comes at us. I hear this over and over from people. It comes at us as a surprise. Oh, I didn’t, didn’t expect that. And what I think the steps when that happens, if analyzed falling in love, is that when you reveal your true self, then the other person falls in love with that true self. Often, we try to hide that true self, because you think it’s odd or different or it’s not in the norm. Or, it’s not what other people our age or group should be like.
And you hide it because you think, “Who would fall in love with that?” But, then we fall in love with what makes you unique. So, in this story, I wanted Marianne to essentially be told by her father and everyone else in some ways that, “You’re being a little odd. You’re just acting up a little: what you’ve done now- after her heart is broken, and what she’s become. It’s her version of what the Bog King becomes: this kind of Goth protective tough girl.
When you first introduced the movie, you said that this movie is really about finding beauty in something you didn’t expect to find beauty in. What example in your own life did that happen to you, where you found beauty in something you didn’t expect to find beauty?
GR: Well that’s interesting. In the movie we do place as a metaphor, kind of a dark forest that you find beauty in. And sometimes in art you see and I love art. And yet there are some paintings that have kind of a horrifying darkness to them. But then you can still see the beauty in the darkness. The same thing happens with music, especially modern music, which is a little more dissonant.
I know John Cage was always a favorite of mine, but it took a while to kind of find the beauty in it. So, it was some of that more modern music, you kind of have to get past the surface of it, in a weird way. And, then you find the beauty, I don’t even know how to describe it. One of my favorite jazz artists, I love jazz, is Thelonious Monk. He does these indescribable combinations. When I first heard them, I thought, “This is not making any sense, it’s not connecting for me.” But then, when it does connect, and you kind of see the beauty in it.
And of course people, there’s always people that when you first meet them, you go, “Oh. I just, I can’t stand being around this person.” Then, six months later, you’re best friends. That happens to me a lot. I think well, it certainly happens with people. I think we do judge people at first. Then, once we get to know them, it’s amazing who we become best friends with or certainly amazing who we marry. So, we always have to get past that, the outside: the cover of the book, to find out what’s great inside. And, by great that’s when we use the word beauty.
Speaking of art, the visual arts in this film is stunning, it’s beautiful. Were you inspired by any particular artist, or fairy artists.
GR : Well, this is a lot about artwork that goes back to some of the early stuff that George did. I think they drew inspiration from classic sort of fairy tale art and some people did classic fairies, but made it their own. There is, as George said, it has a realism to it, so it’s not quite as, ethereal, as some classic fairy art might be from the classic fairy books and all that.
I think all that was drawn together, but I think, under the ideas that make it a part of our world. You know, the back yard idea, so that the fairies, a lot of the design of the fairies were drawn from butterflies. So, things that really exist, so that for one reason if we were to imagine the story, if we see the fairies from a distance, we just think they’re butterflies. So, that works for the story, as well as, a design thing. Then, characters like Bog King and some of the fairies were mashups, visual mashups of insects and different creatures.
I have no idea what the Bog King is, he’s not a cockroach,I don’t know what he is, but when I first came on this show, there were a lot of, there were, things that… You know, bugs inn glass and butterflies and stuffed mammals, and the imp, I don’t know what the imp is either. The imp is just kind of a mashup of different small mammals. So, I think nature was kind of one of the key things to draw on what really exists in nature. And kind of build it together into a world that makes sense and holds together, and feels like it’s part of our world.
What is your favorite song in the movie?
GR : Well, I’ll give two answers. “Strange Magic,” is my favorite musical moment in the movie because it kind of sums up the movie. It’s a beautiful song, an ELO song. Evan Rachel Wood and Al Cumming sing it beautifully. It’s a duet, and originally it’s not a duet.
It says what the movie says. It’s also one of my favorite looking sequences in the movie. So that works. But, the moment that makes me cry every time, is when Elijah sings, “Three Little Birds to Dawn,” at the end.
Strange Magic is in theaters now and is rated PG. Read our other coverage from Skywalker Ranch and interview with George Lucas and Elijah Kelley.