Exclusive Interview: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger Talk KUNG FU PANDA 3

Li (Bryan Cranston) and Po (Jack Black) bond in KUNG FU PANDA 3. Courtesy of DreamWorksAnimation.

Li (Bryan Cranston) and Po (Jack Black) bond in KUNG FU PANDA 3. Courtesy of DreamWorksAnimation.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

The incredibly creative and clever writing team of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have built and fostered many animated film franchises over the years, entertaining us with the further chronicles of characters like Alvin and Chipmunks and SpongeBob Squarepants. Now, they return for another awesome chapter in the lives of the karate-chopping characters in KUNG FU PANDA 3. In this iteration, Dragon Master Po (voiced by Jack Black) is called upon to seek out his roots just when a new threat, Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons), is presenting itself.

At the film’s recent press day, we sat down with the dynamic duo where we discussed everything from the challenges they faced coming up with a third story, to how Po is similar to comedy writers – even taking a trip down memory lane to when Ian McShane recorded a profanity-laced version of his lines from the first PANDA.

FreshFiction.tv: Given that they referenced the pandas in second film, were these ideas and arcs conceived simultaneously? How far in advance did you sketch this out?

Jonathan Aibel: In retrospect we felt so handcuffed by that last line: ‘My son is alive.’ What if he just said, ‘Po is alive.’ Then it doesn’t have to be his Dad. You’re kind of forced to make a go of it. We didn’t put that in with the intention of we know where this is going. We put it in as a tease. We had to figure out, Okay. What is that story?

FreshFiction.tv: What were the biggest challenges for coming up with a third story? Was it the villain?

Jonathan Aibel: Yeah. The usual; who’s interesting for Po to battle against. Who you haven’t done before but who doesn’t compare to who he’s faced before. Who do you want to add to the world and where can they go where you haven’t seen before.

Glenn Berger: I’d say the single biggest challenge was what lesson does Po, who’s already become the Dragon Warrior and all his dreams have come true, still need to learn? How does he need to grow as a character? That was the big question to answer. Without that, we’ve got no movie.

FreshFiction.tv: I loved all the philosophies here: the more you take – the less you have. If you only can do what you can do, how will you do more? What were some of the most resonant ones for you?

Glenn Berger: Those are two. The other is when Mr. Ping is talking to Po’s biological father and talking about more love. It’s weird that we’ve spent so much of career worrying about the jokes. These PANDA movies allow us to get credit for lines like that. Suddenly it’s like, ‘Hey! We’re real writers – not just joke writers!’

Jonathan Aibel: There’s a way you can try to be more serious and profound in an animated movie than you can in, sometimes, a live-action movie where it can seem a little corny or stilted. There’s something about the artificiality of the world.

Glenn Berger: I think no one can say, ‘That’s not really what a goose would say to panda,’ because we’ve brought them into this world. There’s a turtle who says profound things. Let’s keep doing that.

FreshFiction.tv: Is there a magic trick to blending humor with the resonance? It really felt like these are earned moments in this series.

Glenn Berger: That’s the thing of not betraying the trust of the audience. If it’s relentlessly jokey or – an easy mistake to make – is if it’s a really, really heavy moment, to not trust the audience and try to undercut it with a joke. Sometimes your biggest laughs are the ones that come out of an emotional moment. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] would encourage us. ‘Don’t be afraid to let it be sad or profound when it’s profound and not constantly undercut.’

Jonathan Aibel: Movies try to make a distinction between “funny movies” and “serious movies” and life, unfortunately, isn’t always just the funny stuff. Everyday there’s a moment of sadness and comedy. Our movie really tries to reflect that – given the full journey.

Glenn Berger: Given the character of Po, which we’re never gonna let him go, he’s the kid of person, similar to comedy writers, when faced with an emotional situation, their impulse is to be funny about it because they don’t know how to deal in another way. If it’s true to the character, Po can do that – and his Dad can too.

FreshFiction.tv: What was the sequence that changed the most from the first story reel to the finished product?

Glenn Berger: Wow. Maybe the easier question is, ‘What didn’t change?’ These movies are constantly in flux.

Jonathan Aibel: Probably the hardest moment was figuring out what happens when Po’s father arrives and what that next scene was.

Glenn Berger: Not the reunion moment at the restaurant but the next.

Jonathan Aibel: We had scenes where Po’s father was a bit of a simple farmer who came to visit. We wrote a scene where he’s in the fanciest place, wiping his feet on the curtains – kinda like a BEVERLY HILLBILLIES feel to it. It was funny but there wasn’t a lot of depth there. When the idea came of if Po’s father was more like Po and he was just as enthusiastic when they went to the Hall of Heroes that Po destroyed in the very first movie. He was almost more Po than Po. And then that whole part of the movie came to life.

Glenn Berger: That scene not only solved what needed to be there, but also suggested what the rest of the movie needed to be between those two characters. Those are always very satisfying changes where it helps the rest of the movie.

FreshFiction.tv: Were you at the recording sessions?

Jonathan Aibel: We were there for some – usually in the beginning when an actor is finding the role and you’re kind of there if they are questioning.

FreshFiction.tv: It’s such a delicate process- you don’t want to step on toes.

Jonathan Aibel: Yeah. An actor’s very vulnerable especially when it’s just their voice and they are standing there and see nothing but ten faces on the other side of the glass wall that press a button and say, ‘That was fantastic! Thank you!’ And then they all turn to each other and huddle, ‘Maybe we can do one more?’ We try not to be those extra faces.

Glenn Berger: Considering, it’s not just our third go at this – it’s also Jack [Black], Angelina [Jolie-Pitt]. Look, they know what they are doing. It’s really crucial when there are the early records with say J.K. Simmons or Bryan Cranston, who are still finding… Or Mei-Mei, when Kate Hudson came on, that was part of a re-imagining of that character. It’s really important to see, ‘Oh. That’s an interesting spin on the words. How do we write more words that go along with that?’ If you’re lucky, they are bringing even something better to the character that we can then run with.

Kai (J.K. Simmons) unleashes selfishness in KUNG FU PANDA 3. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Kai (J.K. Simmons) unleashes selfishness in KUNG FU PANDA 3. Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

FreshFiction.tv: Was there any test animation done to Bryan Cranston’s BREAKING BAD, “I am the one who knocks?” Or from J.K. Simmons in WHIPLASH or OZ?

Glenn Berger: [Laughs]

Jonathan Aibel: I feel like for J.K. they pulled more from JUNO. You’ll take lines just to put them in the character’s mouth to see. I don’t know that there’s anything too Walter White-ish.

Glenn Berger: Going back to the first movie, with Ian McShane, I don’t know why we thought it would be a good idea or why our producer allowed it to happen, but the first script pages had all this swearing. He did like a DEADWOOD version of the scene. He went for it. It was a neat way to get that out – we’re all huge fans – and loosen things up. But we didn’t do that with Walter White.

FreshFiction.tv: Did I see in the end credits that a few of the Jolie-Pitt kids do voice work in this? How did that come about?

Jonathan Aibel: We weren’t there.

Glenn Berger: If I had to guess, certainly in the second movie, we got some really useful feedback from her [Angelina Jolie] on biological and adoptive parents. I know that these movies mean something particularly special to her. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was an aspect of it.

FreshFiction.tv: Where do you two find your “chi?”

Jonathan Aibel: Hmm…

FreshFiction.tv: Have you not been asked this yet?!

Glenn Berger: No!

Aibel: I like to think of the wisdom of Oogway and the lessons he teaches Po – I like to think we try to put into practice – about how you have to be in the moment. I don’t mean every single moment. When we’re writing and working on one of these movies, the hope is what you’re doing that day, that week, is meaningful and enjoyable. It’s often frustrating, but at the end of frustration is some form of reward. To try to enjoy that because that’s your job – your career and craft. If you pin all your hopes on outcome – whether it’s box office success or failure, then that’s a harder way to live in Hollywood.

Glenn Berger: There’s a zen saying, ‘Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.’ Nothing changes. So the first movie is a hit. Great. That doesn’t mean writing the second movie is easier or harder, but our day to day existence, which is the only thing we can control when we sit down in front of the computer to write each day, is the only thing independent of if the movie will be a hit or if the critics are gonna like it. The only thing we can do is try to enjoy our work day each and every day.

FreshFiction.tv: You guys are at the forefront of world-building many franchises.

Glenn Berger: [joking] It’s exhausting. Was that what you were going for?

FreshFiction.tv: Right?! Aren’t you tired? It’s exciting though.

Jonathan Aibel: Yes, but… We had started writing live action movies and they weren’t getting made. When PANDA came along, we jumped at it because it looked like it was getting made. Before you know it, there are three, four franchises we’ve been lucky to be a part of.

Glenn Berger: I’m going to make sure my daughter reads this because recently I was asking her to do something and she said, ‘It’s the weekend. I’m trying to relax.’ ‘It’s my weekend too!’ She said, ‘All you do for a living is sit in the chair!’ Now I’m going to tell her, ‘I’m a world-creator.’

KUNG FU PANDA 3 opens on January 29.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, 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.