Universal Caveman Expectations: Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco on The Croods

The directors of the new animated comedy talk updating the old caveman cliches.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

At 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, Dreamworks Animation presented footage from its three 2013 releases on Tuesday, December 4. The Croods is coming out March 22 and it had 35 minutes of completed animation to screen. Nicolas Cage voices Grug, the father of a caveman family. Cavemen live by rules painted in a cave painting, basically “anything new is bad,” specifically stated in the film. Of course his daughter Eep (Emma Stone) is all about exploring and having fun. When an earthquake shatters the Croods’ cave, Grug does everything he can to keep everyone put, but the only place to go is through the prehistoric jungle with mini mammoths and piranha birds flying in a beautiful magenta formation.

Eep’s hopeful boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds) tries to teach the Croods about fire and shoes, leading to slapstick bumbling as the family burns down a field and tiptoes over spiked rocks. The baby Crood, Sandy, has no celebrity voice because she’s just feral. She’ll be sound designed by the technical geniuses. The directors of The Croods are Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco, and we sat down with them next to an omelet station (eggs are a recurring theme to the Croods too) for an exclusive interview on the upcoming film.

CraveOnline: There was so much action in the footage we saw, how monumental a task was it to put together and make sure it flows and isn’t overwhelming?

Chris Sanders: It’s the illusion of spontaneity that you have to maintain through a very lengthy process.

Kirk De Micco: Keep it fresh, after you do it a million times.

Chris Sanders: But Kirk and I, our sensibilities are so in line, we wanted to make sure that a caveman film delivered what we called universal caveman expectations. I think there are certain things people want to see when they go see a caveman film. They want to see guys that are fast and that are strong, but they have beginner’s minds. They’re not worldly, because you want to see these guys go through these challenges, and you wonder, “Well, how are they going to solve this? They don’t know as much as you and I.” Like lava, there are all sort of things we have on that list.

Kirk De Micco: Tar.

Chris Sanders: Tar pits are on the list. Things that are too big like bugs.

Kirk De Micco: And things that are too small.

So when modern day audiences see these cavemen resisting change, are they going to see the error of their ways and be more open minded in modern day?

Kirk De Micco: I think the big thing about it is the one that people really relate to, the one that you can get behind is the biggest fear of any change is a father’s fear that his kids are going to change, especially this daughter. There’s stuff with technology, you kind of play that out, it’s just satirical, doesn’t have any heart, doesn’t have any emotion behind it. There’s no real relatability because all of us have the new iPhones so we really can’t pretend we don’t want it. But the idea of a father who’s fearing change and who’s daughter is [embracing it] people will see.

Chris Sanders: None of the characters fears change as much as Grug, and Eep, she relishes change. She wants change. She wants to get out of the cave. So they represent opposite ends of the span and of course those are the two characters that have the most to work out.

I love the design of their little caveman bodies, especially the women. How did you come to how non-homo sapien they could be, but how human they still need to be?

Chris Sanders: One of the fun things about them is we gave each of them a different language of movement. Grug is much more a silverback gorilla. He poses. He poses like a silverback. He brings his chin up and arches his back. Eep, she moves like a cat so her whole language of motion was very catlike.

Kirk De Micco: And Sandy’s like a little terrier.

Chris Sanders: Gran’s more crocodile. She actually wears a crocodile skin. Thunk is the most challenged I think. He’s certainly very strong but the teenage son is probably the most clumsy. He’s not very coordinated.

Kirk De Micco: Yeah, he hasn’t really found his style yet.

Chris Sanders: That was one of those fun things about this movie, you could break away from the limitations of a live actor, but you don’t have the limitations of a traditionally animated character. This is a whole new thing so coming up with those designs, giving them the bulk and the power and yet keeping them fast and graceful, that was really a challenge. And if you look at the designs, I’m very proud of the character designs because there’s a real grace in the shapes. A lot of these larger shapes will terminate in these really delicate small hands or delicate small feet, so they feel like they can move fast but at the same time they feel like they can be very, very strong.

When I saw Grug making the scary faces, I could imagine Nicolas Cage in the recording studio doing it.

Chris Sanders: Dude, you have no idea.

Well, tell me. Do you have some video on this and was there some amazing stuff that was just too extreme Nicolas Cage for the movie?

Chris Sanders: There’s nothing too extreme.

Kirk De Micco: Never too extreme.

Chris Sanders: The one that really stands out in my mind is we had a recording session in Las Vegas, and Nicolas was about to go out to dinner with his wife. He was dressed up with his black suit, shiny black shoes, he looked like he was going to the Oscars. His hair was all combed and he had these sunglasses with black rims and blue lenses. The funniest thing in the world was when he was doing his lines, like, “Brhklhouih! I’m caveman!” He’s doing all that dressed like he’s going to the Oscars. I actually at that point had to stop and just say, “I’m sorry, I’m just enjoying this so much.”

Kirk De Micco: It was like a one-man show that would be running forever.

Chris Sanders: It really felt like he was on stage.

Did the Dreamworks changeover to Fox happen during the production of your movie?

Kirk De Micco: It was towards the very end of our production. It was in September or August and we’re coming now on December, so we were probably the most tail end out of any of the productions.

Did you notice any change on your end or did any of the higher ups come in?

Kirk De Micco: We did some presentations. It’s not like it changed because we didn’t do them anywhere else. It was just when we were ready to start doing presentations, we were doing it to them. It was actually a natural flow for us.

Did you have to look at Ice Age also to make sure you weren’t too similar? Both are not accurate to prehistoric times.

Kirk De Micco: You shouldn’t be using them in history classes.

Chris Sanders: I love the Ice Age films. They’re so inspirational. They’re just relaxed and they’re funny. I don't think you want to be too uptight or it becomes too heavy handed.

Kirk De Micco: We always wanted a real strong slapstick Warner Brothers/Looney Tunes [sensibility]. We wanted to bring that in because we’ve all seen cavemen in live action where they usually look like actors walking around like this, but they can’t run at 50 miles an hour like a caveman could. So that was what we wanted to have fun with.

Chris Sanders: I find the Ice Age films, there is just an audacity and a broadness and scale that is just perfect which we want to capture as well.

Kirk De Micco: We also, Chris and I both want to checkerboard the tone between being able to play that comedy being broad but then still go for the emotion.

Chris, do you think we’ll see Stitch again?

Chris Sanders: Oh boy, I hope so. I always take my vacation to places my daughter will like, and I’ll tell you, it’s so fantastic every year we go to Disneyland or Disneyworld, just to see Stitch there. It’s like visiting an old friend. I love that he’s just there and he’ll always be out there. Especially, I took a trip to Japan and Stitch was all over the place in Japan so I was having a ball. Every new town I went to, I’d get Stitch stuff. I came back with a ton.

But any plans?

Chris Sanders: Oh, none that I’m aware of.

Did you have to leave How to Train Your Dragon 2 to do The Croods?

Chris Sanders: The way it worked was I came to Dreamworks originally to work on The Croods and one year into production, they asked me to leave Croods and go over the Dragons because they were making some changes over there. So while I was at Dragons, Kirk remained on Croods and I think Kirk made the biggest, most important change in the entire film. He called me up one day and he told me about this idea he had of focusing the Croods story on a caveman family tree, the world’s first family road trip which I thought was amazing.

What did you have before?

Chris Sanders: It was just a bigger story. It had more characters. It started out as a larger story with a larger group of characters.

Kirk De Micco: More of a village. The one thing that was hard with a village situation was we kept on seeing all these great things from Vis Dev. They’d be like, “Look at this world we’ve come up with!”

Chris Sanders: The village became an anchor. Originally it was nice to have a home base but after a while, it began to feel like an anchor because you couldn’t get away from it.

Kirk De Micco: It became very domestic.

Chris Sanders: And to answer your question, while I was on Dragons, Kirk started to see some amazing changes so in my last couple days of Dragons, I was already back on Croods working away. So now that The Croods is in its closing phases, there’s a little bit of work on Dragons I’m starting to pick up.

It must have been gratifying when it was successful, not only to generate a sequel but a half hour TV special too.

Chris Sanders: When you’re successful at creating a world like that, it starts to generate its own stories. As you’re sitting around and talk about it, you start to go, “Wow, I hope we get an opportunity to tell those stories.”

Did the sequel hit the ground running more than the development on the first Dragon?

Chris Sanders: Absolutely, absolutely. One of the most lengthy processes people never get to see, is the creation of a world. The design sensibility, the sensibilities of the shapes, what are the surfaces going to look like and even what are the physics going to be? Do you want it to be a more cartoony kind of world or do you want it to be a more realistic kind of world? All these things have to be worked out and that is an immense job. It takes a lot of very talented artists quite a while to do. So once you establish those rules, it’s a lot easier the second time around because then you can just focus on the story you want to tell. You don’t have to go into a meeting and talk about, “Okay, what are their noses going to look like? Okay, let’s talk about noses.” Three hours later, “I’m tired of talking about noses. Let’s go onto here.”

Kirk De Micco: Or you don’t have to get there and have somebody go, “Do they have to be cavemen?”

Lastly, did Emma Stone love Eep’s big strong thighs?

Chris Sanders: Emma was such a fan. When we started, we only had some drawings to show, but through the process, we were able to show more fully realized versions of herself. She was so enthusiastic about this. We just had a session with her, everything fully animated, fully lit, ADR and she was just so excited by it.

Kirk De Micco: We got super lucky with both Nic and Emma because I think Nic has this amazing ability to play a dad who’s basically constantly disciplining his children but you always like him because he’s just so hangdog and the weight of the world is on his shoulders. He’s got his heart in the right place all the time. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel