On the surface, Spies in Disguise may look a little childish at first, but in reality, its heart and humor add a lot of depth to this animated feature that is also a love letter to all of the great spy genre films that inspired it. The film is the kind of family-friendly entertainment that delivers a strong message by a stellar voice cast led by Will Smith, who voices the confident and debonair Lance Sterling. Then there’s Tom Holland, who voices Walter Beckett, a socially timid but very inventive scientist, who is the exact opposite of Lance.
ThatsItLA had a chance to participate in a roundtable interview with Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, the directors of Spies In Disguise, about the film, its message, getting the voice cast just right, and more.
When it came to turning Lucas Martell‘s 2009 animated short Pigeon: Impossible into a full-length feature, Bruno knew that it had to be something that fully embraced the spy genre but also have something that kids can take away by the end of the film.
“It’s funny when we first came on, Troy and I came from different places,” Bruno said. “I think what brought us together on this project was obviously it was a spy movie. You get all of the fun tropes, action, comedy, sexy cool design. When we first started getting into it, we both had this sort of the same idea for a message of: “In a world that doesn’t trust each other and pushes each other away, these two characters with opposing philosophies that learn to work together to save the world.” For many kids, this will be their first spy movie, so with that, we felt there was a strong responsibility to do something special.”
As for some of the inspirations, Quane said that they watched a lot of spy movies, which only made the job more fun because not only do they like it but they wanted to create a love letter to the genre. “We love spy movies. It’s my favorite genre. I always watch a lot of spy movies, because as a kid growing up it was a lot of fun. We really approach this – we didn’t want to make fun of spy movies, this is a love letter to spy movies. It’s a loving homage,” Quane said. “Taking a lot of moments from Bourne to Bond, when you know those shots – sometimes it is the way we use the camera, sometimes it’s a little bit of dialogue like Walter has a little science joke that is a very James Bond joke, so there are different ways we brought that together, and it was really in the idea of wanting to celebrate that and bringing families together. The other side of it is the design and look of it.”
“There’s sort of a golden era of spies movies in the 50s and 60s, and because we are in animation, we can make the movie mirror that,” he added. “So, when we were designing the world and lands, taking that Saul Bass idea with clean lines and that sort of inspiration, visually, but not making it feel like a vintage movie, just really taking the design principles and color principles and applying it to a very contemporary and current film. So, we could combine the best of worlds, especially all of those music and big Bond songs. We have ours, so even musically we went that way, which is why we got Mark Ronson, which we are so thankful to have him to come on board, the way he can take the big brass sound that sort of sounds yesterday but make it so current and hip today. Every aspect of that we were trying to reach across.”
At the center of the action is our every so overconfident and debonair Lance Sterling (Will Smith) Though his overconfidence gets the better of him when he ingests one of Walter Beckett’s (Tom Holland) serums that turns the spy into a pigeon. Bruno talked about the casting and how they ended up bringing one of their heroes on board to be the lead spy who also happens to be a person of color.
“When we started off coming with the story, the first thing we were doing was finding somebody who would stand up against a James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt,” Bruno said. “What we did was looked to see who our heroes were growing up, and the first one who had that swagger and could be arrogant but funny, and likable and charming and at the same time an action star, it always came back to Will Smith.”
Despite their desires to cast Smith, they weren’t entirely confident that they could sign him because he is such a big star. However, one little invitation changed all of that.
“So, we really started designing the character, not in terms of the actual physical design, but the story and the character in the movie, the soul of the character was Will Smith,” Bruno continued. “When it came time for our character to ask, “who do you want to go to,’ we were like, ‘can we go to Will Smith? Is that something we can do?” He’s like, “let’s talk to him.” When we met Will, aside from nearly passing out because you get to meet your childhood hero, what really attracted him to the movie was the message of everyone working together. From that point on, between Will and all our cast, it was an amazing collaboration. It was never just, ‘here’s some lines, read it.’ We were constantly talking about being sure that all these characters felt really grounded and authentic.”
“Yeah. They always say don’t’ meet your heroes, but in the case of Will [Smith], it proves that wrong, because he’s such a great guy. Just to come back to the original premise, it was right for the character,” Quane chimed. “Make the world as you want to see it, and he was the right guy and a great collaborator. “
The vocal inclusion also comes through in the rest of the voice casting, in which both directors wanted to feel authentic and genuine.
“These spy movies are global,” Quane said. “So, we have Karen Gillan, in it. We have her using her natural Scottish accent, which a lot of people aren’t familiar that she’s Scottish. Ben Mendelsohn, our villain, we have him use his Australian accent. Masi Oka – it was really important for us that he could speak fluent Japanese. We were true to that. Even in our loop group, we made sure that it was all Japanese. We wanted to make sure you felt that a broad range of accents and the reality of that.”
Of course, when it comes to these animated films, it isn’t easy to get the entire cast to do their recording sessions together. However, Spies In Disguise proves that with the right talent, it can feel as though everyone was in the same room. “Both Will and Tom were gracious with their time,” Qaune said. “We definitely had more recording with sessions with those two than we would normally have in an animated film because it was important for us that the comedy wasn’t just a one-line zinger, but really about banter. Both Tom and Will love to ad-lib, it’s like their superpower. They were desperate to work together, but it’s Will Smith and Tom Holland, they are both busy guys. For us, we both get to go in a room and read with Will Smith, how cool is that?”
He added, “so we would read back and forth, and if Will Smith would start going off [script], we would play along and see where it went. And we would go back to Tom and tell him we made some adjustments. And then Tom would discover some little things, so you go back to Will. The process was a lot like that. Both are such great collaborators and so gracious that they were really good at getting the dynamic in. I think you feel the difference in how those characters interact on screen even though they have never physically shared the same space. And it was a lot of fun for us. And even then, Ben Mendelsohn. He’s so funny, and so gracious, and so charming, and then he flips that switch and you get chills.”
“He’s the funniest guy in the world who always has to play a bad guy,” Bruno laughed.
Even the domestic casting had a level of honesty to it. Quane added how they brought Reba McEntire’s wonderful twang in her voice to add a “texture in that tapestry of the casting and the characters so you could feel the big world of it because a lot of times in animation, too, it can get the feeling of being very small very quickly, so we really wanted to make sure it felt big.”
Spies In Disguise also happens to be one of the first films to be released since Disney acquired Fox earlier this year. While there was some belief that the change would have an effect on the animated film, Quane explains how that acquisition may have actually helped it.
“A quite big portion of time we were under Fox. It was a pretty big historical merger that happened. But when they came on, we screened the movie for our new Disney family and they were right behind it,” Quane said. “They liked what we were saying with it, they liked the action, they liked how current it was, because at that point we had Mark Ronson, Anderson Paak, and a lot of musical artists attached. They really liked us. The only real thing was the release date, that was really because we were shifting from a Fox distribution to a Disney distribution, and as we all know, there’s a lot of Disney distribution. The fact that they gave us a Christmas day release date really says how much they believe in the movie. And they have been amazing partners.”
The global aspect of the film is taken a step further with Walter’s personality and love for the Otaku culture.
“That came out of the idea of Watler’s belief that we are better together,” Bruno said. “Walter is basically a hopeless romantic at heart. The whole idea of the movie is a buddy comedy. We basically say that at its heart it is a spy movie that really is a romantic comedy. There is this bromance with Lance and Walter, who really loves being in the action. So, we were thinking it is like a soap opera, you watch it because you like seeing people coming together, and he is just a hopeless romantic. The idea of making it a K-drama in that sense, it just felt unique, we had our board artists, who came up with the idea, it just felt like such a specific and unique aspect to it and the heightened nature of it, to begin with, just the style of its production just felt so right for Walter and unique to his personality.”
And a big part of any spy film are the locations, and Spies In Disguise gets to visit a lot of familiar and exotic locations that we would see in any typical spy film. So in terms of how they chose some of them, Bruno said it came down to one simple question, “where do I want to go?'”
Quane added, “We turn a spy into a bird, which is a huge and crazy idea. So we wanted to make sure there was a grounding in reality to that world. So that the most ridiculous thing was that, otherwise it gets wacky. So we took a trip to D.C. and marked a bunch of the landmarks, Japan, we really wanted to be grounded in those locations so that people who are familiar with them would go, ‘oh, that seems very familiar. It was really important for us to make feel iconic in those locations.”
Spies In Disguise opens in theaters on December 25, 2019.