[The following interview—taped at the offices of Allied THA in San Francisco—first aired on Celluloid Dreams.]
Groucho: You're probably a Rich Moore fan, or about to be, even if you've never heard of him. Among his many credits are 72 episodes of Futurama and 17 episodes of The Simpsons, including classics like "Marge vs the Monorail" and "Cape Feare." As part of an all-star team, he also directed roughly one-quarter of The Simpsons Movie. Now the two-time Emmy winner has directed the next big Disney Animated feature, Wreck-It-Ralph. It's the story, both hilarious and moving, of an arcade-game "bad guy" who goes off the reservation in search of existential meaning. Wreck-It-Ralph is John C. Reilly, joined by a who's who of top comic talent including Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, and Alan Tudyk, but for animation buffs the real star may be Moore, who dazzlingly takes audiences into several old school and new school video games that are both colorfully eye-popping and extremely well-populated...
I think no one would dispute that we’re living in a boom time for animation. And it seems like we might be moving into another golden age of sorts here—
Rich Moore: Mm.
Groucho: In that so many ambitious projects are coming down the line.
Rich Moore: Yes.
G: And this is certainly one of them. Over 190 characters, right?
RM: Yes. Quite a few.
G: (Chuckles.) And all of these different video game settings.
G: A lot more than normally one would have to tackle in a typical animated film.
G: Can you talk about the scope of the film and how you approached just handling that scope?
RM: Well, I never approached it as, y'know, that this was going to be more characters, bigger than any other animated film. We—myself and Phil Johnston, who wrote the movie—if there was one thing we said was we want this to be the funniest animated film that has the deepest amount of heart to balance that humor. I did know it was going to be spectacular-looking just due to the nature of video games and going to those different worlds. But it wasn’t until we were just kind of finishing up production that someone at the studio came up to me and said that we have 190 characters in this movie. And I said, "Well, cool." (Laughs.) Y'know? Because no one was like keeping a tally along the way. It was something at the very end. We knew we had a lot of characters. But we didn’t know it was that many. And I said, "Oh. Well, great!" You know. They said, "Well, Tangled had sixty. We have 190 in this thing." So it was not something that we embarked on—a record we wanted to beat or anything. It just kind of—it's what we needed.
G: It was organic to the story.
RM: Yeah. It was appropriate to the story, and yeah, I believe it is an ambitious project, y'know. My background—but it makes sense for me, if I consider the things I worked on in the past. The Simpsons, in its day, was ambitious. Not in so much that there were tons of characters in the early days—although there were. It did have a very big cast. But just the fact that we were trying to do an animated primetime show—that had not been done, y'know. That was unheard of in 1989 when we first started on it, and Futurama is very much the same thing. We were trying to do a lush, humorous sci-fi show.
G: With a lot more action.
RM: With a lot of action that could kind of stand head-and-shoulders with—side-by-side with the other sci-fi shows of its time.
RM: So I like a project with a challenge to it that has a scope and a scale to it. Because that’s the kind of thing I like watching. I like worlds that are bigger than life and films that are bigger than life that have a very kind of human message at its core. To me that’s fun filmmaking and something that I like to see.
G: Yeah. You mentioned the comedy of Wreck-It Ralph, which of course is very prominent. I think a lot of people might not consider how an animation director really needs to have all the skills that a comic actor would—
G: In terms of comic timing and expression—to land the jokes.
G: How did you form your—what were your influences, your comic influences, and how did you form your sense of comedy or humor?
RM: Oh, well, let’s see. My influences as a kid—I loved Steve Martin, you know, as a kid. I just thought he was the funniest man alive. I loved shows like The Carol Burnet Show growing up. Our family used to watch All in the Family and shows like M*A*S*H. All very situational comedy-type shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show: that was kind of my first exposure to anything made by Jim Brooks, y'know. Monty Python was a huge inspiration to me as a young person. I loved the Airplane movie, just the kind of absurdity of that type of humor. There’s a lot of—I loved Laurel and Hardy, as a kid, growing up, along with the Marx Brothers. When I was growing up in the '70s, there was a time that the local TV station would show those old movies quite frequently. I loved W.C. Fields movies. Mel Brooks was another,y'know, inspirational comedian to me.
G: And it has to be something that you as a director can really bond with voice actors about—
G: Because there’s this tradition of voice actors paying tribute to—
G: Performances that have come before—like in this movie, Alan Tudyk is doing his version of Ed Wynn, right?
RM: Mm-hm. Exactly.
G: And that was a hallmark on The Simpsons—
G: And Futurama as well.
RM: And I think that that’s—we try to replicate, I think, what we think is funny. I think that, in my household, my Dad was a funny guy. And he always used humor as a way to kind of cope with life. If something was not going well, it was just kinda "Oh well, that’s—" and he’d make a joke about it. So it became kind of a comedy, or just having a sense of humor about things became a way of just seeing the world from a young age. So, in making this film, y'know, of course that’s gonna come through. And to work, like you say, with those comedic actors—and we all kind of have our favorites of what makes us laugh, and when Alan was—when I presented to Alan the idea of King Candy being this kind of jocular Ed Wynn type, it’s like he just went right to it. He knew exactly what to do with that, y'know. He didn’t do just a straight Ed Wynn imitation. He had his own kind of take on it where he would say, "You know, it’s a lot of Ed Wynn and then a good portion of Ruth Gordon thrown in there."
G: I think some Garry Marshall maybe.
RM: Yeah, a little bit of Garry Marshall is in there. A little Charles Fleischer; Roger Rabbit is in there. And that’s, I think, the beautiful part of it is that from the nugget of an idea—"Well, this is kind of—this has the DNA of an Ed Wynn character"—and then interpreting it through the actor’s interpretation, you have something that feels kind of "Oh, that’s familiar, but it’s new. But it feels totally new. And it’s fun to see again." You know, and [Ed Wynn] feels very appropriate for the situation, for the character.
G: Yeah. We should talk about the animation itself, of course, as well.
G: There’s so many creative approaches to interpreting these characters. And of course the settings, the production design, the art direction—
G: Is amazing. What, for you, was the toughest nut to crack in terms of the animation? What did you have to keep revisiting to just get it exactly what you wanted?
RM: Well in the 8-bit world—in the game world that’s Ralph’s home, like his hometown where he comes from, I decided early on, well, this should be very—a simple world and with pretty limited animation that was evocative of what we know of those games—what like Pac-Man and what Donkey Kong and Dig Dug look like from the outside. And John Lasseter, who’s the colleague and the executive producer of the movie, said, "Go for it. I mean really, really push it. You’ve got to really push it and stay true to what—and celebrate like what makes that 8-bit kind of funny, you know, and charming and appealing." So I would work a lot with the animators and remind them constantly—now you got to remember, these guys and girls are classic Disney-trained animators who are going for a believable, realistic performance—
G: Evocative expression.
RM: A lot of expression, a lot of follow-through, a lot of squash and stretch. And to be saying to them, "Okay, everything you know to be true about what you do in your job, put that aside. I want you to do everything that you think is wrong. I want it to be limited and pop-y and staccato, and I want the poses to look almost kind of unnatural and stilted." And a person—an artist doesn’t make that change overnight. Especially when it’s not part of—"Well, this is not what I believe animation to be." So that took a lot of reminding the artists, a lot of like "I want you to trust me on this." I kind of know now what Columbus must have felt like, sailing to America, that "Believe me, the world is round. There’s gonna be land eventually. We’re going to get there." And it was fun. It was really fun to see, as the style kind of cracked, that people would kind of say "Oh, I get it. Oh, that’s so cool. It’s so funny." And then you get to a point where you can’t stop 'em from doing that style. "Now look what I can do with it. I can push it like this. And look how far I can take it." And it was a really fun part of the process to try different things in the movie and watch people really have a lot of fun with the style that we created for that world and really make it super-appealing.
G: In terms of the story, it’s an existential story, which really works very well, I think, in terms of the emotional heart of the film. And then there’s this MacGuffin of he thinks he’s going to solve his existential crisis—
G: By getting this medal.
RM: Yes, yes.
G: This golden medal.
G: And we’re moving into Oscar season.
RM: Yeah. (Laughs.)
G: Hollywood is a town that puts a lot of emphasis on awards.
RM: True, yeah.
G: Is this something you can sort of relate to, I guess, is my question?
RM: Um, well, I mean I love the conceit of the movie, y'know. I knew from an early point that if we were making a movie in these big fantastical worlds that it needed to be grounded by something that was existential and something that was very personal and internal to the character. And the idea of fixing that hole in his soul with an external device, with a trophy or something, I think is a really good story, and then in the struggling to get that external thing really kind of finding—y'know, it’s a relationship with another person that helps him kind of mend or take care of that inside job that he needs—is to me—it’s—I love this kind of story. And I love being able to present it. Being able to relate to it (laughs), I would say, just personally, being able to present the story is award enough for me. Y'know, it’s like the experience of making this film and working with the talented artists and craftspeople at Disney has been so wonderful that if there is something that comes in the end of this awards season, then to me that’s just icing on the cake.
G: Well, I hope everyone and their grandmother goes to see the movie.
RM: Well, thank you.
G: It’s wonderful. Very funny.
RM: And don’t forget grandfathers!
G: And grandfathers. (Laughs.)
RM: Don’t leave them out.
G: Yeah, the ones who talk like Ed Wynn.
RM: Yeah. (Laughs.)
G: All right. Thanks a lot, Rich.
RM: Thank you very, very much. My pleasure.