Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Our movies are, more than the Disney/ Pixar movies, pure comedies. Our movies don’t get as heavy or as serious as that – and that’s okay.
Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul are a trusted comedy writing team in the biz. They’ve made you laugh and feel all the feels for decades now. If you’re aware of such illustrious animated characters like supervillain-turned-nice guy Gru, or his loveable, nonsense-speaking squad of Minions then you are familiar with their work. If you saw last Summer’s box-office juggernaut THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS, then you’re also well-versed in their irreverent sense of humor. And if you’ve made BUBBLE BOY a cult classic, well, then you’re a super fan of theirs (and their musical based on it will blow you away).
The dynamic duo have returned once again to Cineplex’s with DESPICABLE ME 3, a continuation of the further misadventures of Gru (voiced by Steve Carell). In this third chapter, Gru meets his estranged twin brother Dru (also voiced by Carell). Mayhem ensues when the both of them are together, but also in the world at large when 80’s child star-turned-bitter-bratty-villain Balthazar Bratt (voiced by Trey Parker) threatens to destroy Hollywood.
I sat down to speak with the affable writers about everything from the film’s gestation, to the cut scenes, to how they really feel about those critical Pixar comparisons.
What’s great about this franchise is at the heart of it is the notion of unconventional families. It keeps returning to explore that family dynamic. Did you know immediately this one would be about expanding Gru’s bloodline?
Ken Daurio: We did not. Where does the family go from here?
Cinco Paul: That was the struggle. We had six to eight months going back and forth on what the story was going to be and who it was going to involve.
KD: Because in the first we had flashbacks to Gru as a young boy. For a long time, we thought his family consisted of Mom and him and we don’t know where Dad was. And then there was the moment at lunch.
CP: Lunch with Chris Meledandri. We talked about, ‘What if Gru has a twin brother?’ But then Chris said, ‘But we have those flashbacks.’ And then I said, ‘But what if it’s a PARENT TRAP situation?’ PARENT TRAP was the solution.
KD: Thank you Hayley [Mills]!
CP: Once we had that then we realized what this movie is about. It’s about sibling rivalry. We did realize that each movie expands the family, which you pointed out, and that felt perfect to us. We thought what’s Dru like? The exact opposite, which would drive Gru nuts. Someone who’s a hugger – touchy feely.
KD: There’s nothing more fun than annoying Gru. We love putting Gru in situations where he’s annoyed.
You guys nailed the brother dynamic. The scene at the dinner table where they’re only amusing themselves is so on point.
KD: That scene was so fun to write and so fun to watch Steve record. The first cut of that scene was 3 minutes long. It just kept going on and on. Steve had so much fun playing against himself.
CP: And trying to do him imitating another version of him. It was very complicated. I remember when we figured out what sort of scene it was going to be. We wanted to use the fact they were twins. The breakthrough was they think it’s funny and they’re entertained by it, but nobody is fooled.
Being that we’re on the third DESPICABLE ME, were there kernels of ideas developed for the others that you put aside to put in here?
CP: We did try to use something that had gotten tossed from DESPICABLE ME 2, which was the idea of the Council of Villainy. We had it in there and it got cut. And we had it in this and it got cut.
KD: So I think it’s dead.
CP: Clearly we need to learn our lesson that we can’t shoehorn that in. We keep trying to bring it back to life.
Maybe in a short or something?
The end credits show a brother vs. brother, spy vs. spy story. Is that something that maybe could’ve been its own feature? Have I just incepted you for DESPICABLE ME 4?
CP: No not really. We did like this sort of fun promise that two brothers are on opposite sides, but they’re still brothers so they can set that aside for family reunions and holidays. We thought it was a fun dynamic. It’s not necessarily.
KD: It’s one of those things that’s kind of an abstract. I think that’s part of the reason they did it with the animation style being different. It was always a theme of “brother versus brother” as we went through writing the film. But how literal that was changed and evolved as the story changed. Conceptually we always loved that imagery. There could be more… in the future.
Writing a villain catchphrase seems like a lot of fun. Walk me through how you came up with this one. How did you arrive here?
CP: It was so based on our love of horrible 80’s TV shows. SMALL WONDER was a big influence on this. Gary Coleman on DIFF’RENT STROKES. ‘What chu’ talkin’ about Willis?’ That was the time of these catchphrases. That doesn’t happen in shows anymore.
KD: It’s so not of this world. People don’t have those. And ‘Sit on it, Potsie!’
CP: ‘Up your nose with a rubber hose!’ I don’t know where it came out of, but we loved the idea he was a child star. He would commit some kind of crime and say, ‘I’ve been a baaaaad boy!’ It just felt like a catchphrase. There was a lot of debate of how many times should he say it in the movie before people get irritated.
KD: But we kind of wanted people to get irritated with it.
Did you write in all the 80’s references, or is it also the animators coming up with some of the gags?
KD: We had a lot.
CP: We did. I think we compiled a big list of visual stuff that we sent to them. Because the animators are all in Paris – most of them are French and maybe didn’t have the awareness of American 80’s references.
KD: Their references are different than ours.
CP: But a lot of them overlapped. The movie is for audiences all over the world so we want them to not be specifically American.
Was there anything you couldn’t use because of licensing?
KD: I don’t feel like we had to cut anything we wanted.
CP: We didn’t. We got Rubix Cube. We got Simon. And musically, to be able to get the Michael Jackson song and these other songs. One day in the studio, we fed Trey 12 different songs. He was singing “Karma Chameleon.” I don’t think he sings that [in the movie] anymore.
Speaking of the music in these Illumination movies, it’s like you have carte blanche. Do you write these songs into the script?
CP: When we write a song into the script, it’s usually a placeholder. It’s an idea. Here’s our suggestion.
Here’s the tone….
CP: Yeah. Sometimes it gets used but often it creates a conversation and we land on something else. The Madonna song at the end, we weren’t sure initially, but we think it really works.
KD: For the DESPICABLE movies, we are fortunate to have access to Pharrell, who creates songs for these movies and that’s such a treat. Often we would write a scene and at the head of the scene we’d write, ‘Amazing new Pharrell song kicks in.’ He will come up with something that fits perfectly.
I giggled like an idiot for like an entire scene at the “You told me dad died of embarrassment” line.
KD: Thank you for that! That one flies by real fast, that line.
CP: We were nervous that that one wasn’t going to land. But that’s one of our favorite lines. It goes by quickly.
You’ll get mileage out of me for years with it. The absurdity of that concept…
CP: He grew up hearing from his Mom.. How horrible is she?!
CP: “Your dad died of embarrassment on the day you were born.” [laughs]
Do you have favorite lines that you’ve written over the years for Gru?
KD: So many of them are things that Steve comes up with as well. The whole voice was something he came in with during the first movie and that has helped our writing so much. Now, with that voice in our head, it’s a lot easier to come up with lines that are funny for him to say.
CP: There’s several lines in the treehouse scene we like. ‘It’s a combination of gummy bears and meat.’ I really like the online gambling joke where he’s like, ‘And let’s not go to Katie’s house anymore.’
What sequence changed the most from your first reel to completion?
CP: One of the things I was sad to see go was the Cheese Festival scene. We were building a story where Lucy was going to become a crime fighter in Fredonia. A purse-snatcher grabbed an old lady’s purse and Lucy went after him.
KD: There was a great chase sequence through all the cheese. Cheese statutes and stuff.
CP: She was making all these horrible, cheese-based puns. ‘This is nacho day!’ We recorded a bunch of them. But that had to go because ultimately we landed on more of an emotion-based story for her – like ‘I’m the new stepmom. I’m capable of this.’ Ultimately we felt that was more rewarding and involved the girls.
Is that a difficult balance to find between the humor and the heart?
KD: There’s a lot of humor and we can just pile that on. Finding the heart – you can’t go too far. If you can get genuine heart, we hold on to it. If we can find that moment in a film, because we know that around it we can always add jokes and Steve and Kristen will make it funny.
CP: Our movies are – more than the Disney/ Pixar movies – pure comedies, really. We have heart layered in there and want you to care about this family. But our movies aren’t like… One of my favorite movies right now is INSIDE OUT. But that’s not our sort of movie. Our movies don’t get as heavy or as serious as that – and that’s okay. You need both! You need to go and laugh your head off too.
KD: We always talk about that. A lot of times reviews will say, ‘Well. It doesn’t have the heart of Pixar.’ We say, ‘Well we weren’t doing that. It’s not a genre.’
These films have such a legacy. Are you ever surprised by it?
KD: It’s totally a surprise. When we made this first movie, the company was brand new. This isn’t based on a franchise, a toy or a game from the 80’s. We were like, let’s try this!
CP: There were no expectations. We thought it was good, but you never know how people are going to respond to that.
KD: It felt like a small project. We weren’t this big established company – we were just making this movie we wanted to make. The first movie, nobody would make toys based on the first movie because they didn’t even think it was going to be anything. No toy company would sign on.
CP: The Halloween after the movie came out, to just see in my neighborhood, so many kids dressed as Minions, or their Dad’s dressed as Gru. It is really like a once in a lifetime thing – a movie like this that hits.
KD: And now when you see these tee shirts and stuffed animals and memes with the Minions, it’s kind of like a pinch-me situation. Like we won the lottery.
The Minions became a cultural phenomenon. How do you write for that? I would’ve formed this question in Minion-ese, but I thought it wouldn’t be translated right.
CP & KD: [laugh]
KD: Their real creator is Pierre Coffin, the director. He’s invented that language. He’s the only one who does it. We’ll generally write the dialogue in half-English. We know what they’re saying, and he goes with it and creates his own thing.
CP: Sometimes we’ve attempted to do our own thing in Minion-ese. And then Pierre would say, ‘That doesn’t mean anything.’ What are you talking about!? It’s all nonsense Pierre! You said, ‘Tikka Masala.’ Does he have a dictionary somewhere?
KD: We have gotten a few actual lines in there.
CP: Like ‘Beedo.’
You both have been at Illumination for about a decade now?
CP: Since 2007 is when we first started working on DESPICABLE ME.
Have you noticed any changes in how they develop their projects?
CP: The process is still pretty much the same. It’s Chris, and Chris is a very hands on producer. He was very involved from the get-go in DESPICABLE ME and all the movies they’ve done.
KD: The thing that’s changed is we’re on the third movie and there are more challenges. We’ve done a lot of things already. The challenge of coming up with the new take that feels like we’re not just remaking the same movies. The process is the same for the creative side.
CP: Once you’ve worked with someone for so long, there’s a shorthand. And we understand the process better.
KD: In the beginning, we’d fight for a line or a scene. We’d fight and fight and fight because we knew it was going to work. And now, we’ve realized, just let it go. Try something else. And that happens a lot.
Is it harder to get an original like PETS made still, or not really anymore since you are pretty trusted now?
CP: We’re pretty trusted. Pixar has this issue and Illumination is sort of getting bogged down a little bit with sequels. But it’s hard because it’s so tempting and you have all the assets already and you know it’s going to be successful. I think both Pixar and Illumination are seeing originals being crowded out by originals.
KD: But Chris really did have this vision early on, as far as, he wanted to create these franchises – these movies people love. And so he still is the force of ‘What’s the next big thing going to be?’ He’s still doing it.
DESPICABLE ME 3 opens on June 30.
Feature Photo: Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is back in DESPICABLE ME 3. Courtesy of Illumination Entertainment.