The truth of the matter is that there’s never really a clear cut path for anyone, no matter your walk of life. Destiny has a habit of rearing allowing people to create their opportunities for themselves.
That’s one of the many narratives cruxes in Ralph Breaks The Internet which is in theatres now and will undoubtedly be yet another smash hit for the house that the mouse built as Disney and the industry at large find themselves jumping into the year of 2019 which just might be one of the biggest years yet. I got the unique pleasure to sit down with producer Clark Spencer about not only his work on the film and the challenges that it presented him but how he ultimately full filled his destiny and got to work at Disney.
Dave Voigt: Everybody loved Wreck-It Ralph because it was leaning into the joke dealing with other intellectual properties and being very self referential and having fun with itself. Now with Ralph Breaks The Internet opening it all up to the world of the internet I’m so curious, especially with your job as a producer and while a lot of the things the film pokes fun at are under the Disney umbrella, I’ve got to imagine that it just makes your job as producer about 100 times harder when you have to get so many things cleared and approved, even more so then it would be on a regular project?
Clark Spencer: You’re right and for some reason I keep ending up on these movies where we always have to go and get rights clearances to do these kinds of things but the real interesting thing about the internet is that because it exists and these companies exist on the internet we can use their names and logos almost always with no problems. The big catch however as a producer is to make sure that we are always being respectful and making sure no one is being shined with any kind of negative light and in a way that kind of made the process pretty easy to protect ourselves. From a storytelling standpoint we are creating worlds that are wholly our own like Knowsmore.com which is our Search Engine then our social media example in Buzztube which really is basically Buzzfeed meets YouTube, and the online racing game Slaughter Race, the online game we created ourselves and in there we can do anything that we need from a storyline perspective. However we also go to eBay and we see Twitter and Google and things like that in the movie because to it us it really felt like if we had omitted all these popular brand names then it just wouldn’t have felt like the internet, just an awkward approximation of it. It’s like in the first film how we had characters from the games we created interact with pre-existing ones to make it all feel as genuine as we could.
Walk me through the origins of deciding to do a sequel because you really are opening up the story to a level that feels like it could be pretty daunting especially when you have to deal with so much material coming at you creatively on a day to day (if not minute by minute) basis.
For us, we really didn’t start off with an idea that we were going to make a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph. Even when the film came out, it wasn’t something that got broached straight away, it wasn’t until about 6-8 months later when the directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston were talking about what they might want to develop next? It started out as just something about the internet but the idea of introducing Ralph and Vanellope to the internet was when the ideas really started to open up, with Mr. Litwak plugging in a modem at the arcade and they now had a way to get to the internet, that’s what really got us excited about this idea. However, to your point, the internet is so big and it’s so vast and you really could go anywhere in this world and that’s when story really becomes your main focus, to figure out the best story to tell. You can’t get too distract on tangents of “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” and you have to stay focused on where you want the characters to go. That really helped us find the focus for the narrative and to stay on point.
And you know it’s funny you bring that up, because we live in such a time that after the opening weekend the first thing on anyone’s mind is doing a sequel but it’s fascinating that it all really came together in a much more organic way.
And honestly I think it’s pretty hard to make a sequel! There’s a sense that it can be easier because you know the characters and the worlds that the are existing in but I’d argue that it’s way harder because you are immediately setting yourself up to do something that just has to be better the original. There’s that immediate Godfather Part II type pressure on you and it’s hard to recreate. I think for all us we’re so happy how the film ended up and its successful in going to places that the first film never went to. The vehicle of the internet itself allowed creating these really unique challenges between the friendship of Ralph and Vanellope. We were so focused on being true to the original ideas but placing it all in something that was fresh, exciting and new.
This is something I’m always curious about because there are always so many misconceptions on what the job of the producer is, or an art director or what have you… But as a producer is there one specific area of production that you try and focus in on or are you just one of a few guys trying to lead this village of people while making a movie?
It’s a little bit of both because my job, as I see it is to determine what the vision of the director is and how do I get that up on screen? There’s 800 or so artists who work on a film like that so I am responsible for bringing them all together, creating the teams, making sure that everyone is communicating and the visuals are happening in the way that we need them to happen. So we craft a whole schedule and assign various chunks of the budget to that oversight. However at the same time I see my job as trying to figure out how to give the directors enough space so that they can tell the right story.
It’s an easy thing to set a schedule and just mandate what needs to happen on Monday and what needs to be done by Wednesday and so on and so on but that really doesn’t lend itself to being conducive in a creative environment. It’s about finding that balance between allowing creativity to run free but still having parameters and forcing times when decisions have to be made. In animation we get a luxury in that we really get to put our movies up several times, about every 14-16 weeks during project like this we watch the feature at its various stages, and then we can see what can go to production and what still isn’t working and needs to be torn apart or restructured in storyboards. It’s like juggling lots of different pieces at the same time.
And this is something that you really can’t do in a live action shoot either?
Exactly and to your point, in a live action shoot they are going to work the script over and over and over again until they think it’s ready to shoot, then they’ll go shoot it and then they’ll assemble it all in editing and at that stage you’ll figure out what you have and how you’re going to make it work, but whatever you’ve shot is basically the story that you have to tell. At that point in time you are basically committed, but for us in animation it’s different because we’re not making the whole movie at one given moment in time we are constantly making it and remaking it over the course of several years. Granted we’re always looking for what the beginning and what the end can be but that middle part can always be shifting and in motion over the course of those several years. We can have a certain segment ready to go, but be uncertain of how to get our characters there or out of there to their next situation; we’re always tweaking and trying to find the absolute best way to tell the story.
The sequence in the film with all the Disney princesses is just so dead pan funny that it actually caught me by surprise as the film really leans into the joke and pokes fun at itself, but also at things around it like the Disney universe. How do you straddle that line in making sure you don’t go too far with the joke, do you have to call over other people during production or is it a case of really get preapprovals on what you want to do? Navigating that from internal standpoint just fascinates me…
It’s really a little bit of everything. When the initial idea came up to take Vanellope; who is a princess in her own right from the first film and have her meet the princess’ from the other Disney films we knew that this could be a great bed for comedy and make for a fantastic moment in the film and how it really came around because it was also a great device to use for the overall storytelling and opening people up to concept of destiny and questioning it. Vanellope’s destiny might not be Sugar Rush, it might be somewhere else and it’s a critical part of the storytelling. At the same time to your point we really first and foremost want to make sure that we have fun with all those characters as well. This is where Phil & Rich really are so brilliant because it did come in early conversation if we had maybe gone too far. We obviously wanted to be very respectful to all of these characters as the princesses are really such a very important part of the legacy of our company. Part of the reason we are all working at Disney because they were all character in films that we fell in love with so when it was written and we were comfortable with it, we did share that around to make sure that not only everything was respectful but that it all felt organic from who these characters were in their original films. We wanted it to feel like it was the Disney Princesses in a room together and never an approximation.
I think that’s why this universe really works, because it’s honest to the characters like Ralph and Vanellope while still having plenty of kid friendly humor, but there’s also those jokes for the older fans that land really well even though they might sail over the heads of some of the younger fans…
And you know I think that’s where we’re really having a lot of fun in the animation department. There was a point in time when animation really just felt like it was for the kids and by proxy the parents who were taking them to see the movie. It’s not necessarily what we wanted but that’s how the world was working at the time and you tend to aim for your target audiences as best you can. Ultimately to me I just see it as another medium of film, 70mm, Black and white and so on but you always have to make sure that the storytelling will be broad enough to bring in all of those other audiences. That’s an area where I feel like we’ve always tried to push boundaries and I think that the level of storytelling in the animation is world is something that I’m probably the most proud of these days. The stories are trying to play on different levels, we want the adults and the parents to be entertained and laughing at things that get them emotionally engaged and we want the kids laughing at completely different things as well and being engaged by it. Even that hardest of demographics which lands in the about 14-30 range if the storytelling is then there’s no reason that it can’t be a date movie or something you see with a group of friends., it really all comes back to the story.
I think that’s the thing that really has me the most excited these days. When you look at a film like Zootopia which we all worked on together and when it was initially pitched as this story about bias; it’s pretty deep subject matter for an animated film. But then again why shouldn’t we do that? It really feels like the type of storytelling that we should be doing. Sure it’s a Disney animal film and we’re using that trope but why not tell a story about an important social issue that we all face every single day and it’s things like that which really keep me excited about my job, day in and day out.
Is there a movie, or a moment that got your here? People always think that there is a clear cut career path to working on big films like this but I’m always interested in hearing about those pivot point moments that we all have in our lives.
It’s funny because I started my career on Wall Street; I was a finance guy…
You’re the guy who finds the money…
(Laughs) Exactly and it makes sense given into what I’ve transitioned into now but I hit a point about four years into working on Wall Street and I just knew that I didn’t necessarily want to look at myself in the mirror 30 years from now still doing the same thing because I just never had a passion for it. I asked myself what I truly loved and it was always entertainment. So I moved out to Los Angeles and I got a job at the Disney company right at the time The Little Mermaid was hitting theatres. For me that was truly a transformative moment because while I certainly had seen plenty of animated movies as a kid, Jungle Book was a personal favourite and my grandparents even owned a movie theatre when I was young so that bug for the movies was already in me. However it was Little Mermaid that unlocked that thing in me that I was drawn to as a kid and am still drawn to now.
Of course I didn’t start in the animation department, I was in the finance division but I strategically and carefully worked my up until I got a chance in the animation division and have just worked my way from there until now.
It’s funny because I personally found myself in a similar situation and people always tend to think that career paths are just clear cut but in fact it is that long and winding road that we all have to navigate…
And you know I always try to say that to people; if you have a genuine passion for something, try and make it happen anyway that you can. Even if it doesn’t happen, you have to know that you tried and creative your own opportunities.
Ralph Breaks The Internet is in theatres everywhere now.