[INTERVIEW] Filmmaker Karey Kirkpatrick on finding the heartbeat of ‘SMALLFOOT’

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(Clockwise from left) Gwangi (Lebron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez), Fleem (Ely Henry), Migo (Channing Tatum) and Meechee (Zendaya) in SMALLFOOT. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Co-writing and directing SMALLFOOT has brought together all of Karey Kirkpatrick’s strong suits. His unique sense of satirical wit, outstanding musical talent and keen insight into character-driven stories has made his film (OVER THE HEDGE) and Broadway (SOMETHING’S ROTTEN) offerings connect with audiences. However, it’s through a poignant and funny musical adventure about a Yeti (voiced by Channing Tatum) on a soul-searching quest to prove the existence of a mythical creature is where the filmmaker creates a love letter to the animated medium.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, the man of many talents spoke with us about everything from how the process of crafting the musical numbers snowballed, to Lebron James’ basketball schedule impacting his side hustle, to the narrative’s most empowering aspects.

Was this always going to be a musical?

No. It wasn’t decided until January of 2017 when they floated the idea. What happened was the studio changed leadership. Sometimes studios have a revolving door and animated movies take so long to make that it’s not uncommon for things like that to happen. Allison Abbate came over as the new head of WAG. She had seen a musical I had written for Broadway. She said, “Music only helps to elevate an animated movie emotionally, satirically through the storytelling. You know how to make musicals. Could this be a musical?” I called my brother Wayne, who I write with. We wrote two songs and storyboarded them and everybody went, “Yeah. Yeah. This could work.”

Then we had to set about where are the musical moments. Then it became, “Well, we have Common. What if he rapped it? What if Percy is singing about how desperate he is in the karaoke bar? Oh. He’s in a karaoke bar. What if a familiar song started?” “Under Pressure” was the song that popped into my head because that’s what’s going on with him. Fortunately, the surviving members of Queen and the [David] Bowie estate said, “Knock yourself out!”

I had a different idea for that very last song. They used to all take place in Yeti Village. There’s a character named “Suzie,” the girl with the pom pom ponytails. It was originally going to be that Brenda – Yara [Shahidi] – came up to Yeti Village to meet everybody. She’d drop her iPad and a pop song would start playing and Suzie starts singing. But when we wrote the song, one of our storyboard artists and our writer said, “I think we need to do a different ending.” They let the song inspire and inform what became our ending. Once we decided to make it a musical, it started fitting.

And the cast had already been in place when you wrote the songs.

Yeah. We threw Channing for a loop. He didn’t think he could, but he’s great. We had Zendaya and Common. Bonne [Radford], our producer, said, “What if he rapped the whole Cave of Secrets sequence?” On the way home, I came up with this phrase, “Let it lie,” playing around with truth and letting it go – and now you know the truth. I ran home to my studio and put down some lyrics. That was the easiest song to write because it was already a scene. We just took what he was saying in the scene, gave it lyrics and a rhyme.

(L-R) Meechee (Zendaya), Gwangi (Lebron James), Percy (James Corden), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and Fleem (Ely Henry) in SMALLFOOT. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

How was Lebron James in the recording booth? What was the first day with him like? Do you have to coach him?

He’s kind of a natural, playful guy. He loves movies. It was really cool to see somebody so iconic. His manager said, “You’ll love working with him because he has such respect for authority.” I said, “I’m the authority?!” He’s had a coach his entire life, so you’re gonna be another coach to him that he’s listening to, to be a part of this team. He doesn’t make it about him. He was absolutely fantastic. The only problem was that he kept winning when we needed to record with him. It was like, “Please stop winning.” The playoffs started and it went on for weeks and weeks. And we really needed to record him so we could start animating. He was a delight. I just love how casual he is.

There’s so many layers in the film: heart, humor, music, story, messages about existential questioning and discovery. You mentioned coming in a little late in this process, but what element for you came first?

It’s always story. Always. You have your basic story, but what series of events are leading us to something thrilling – particularly in animated movies. When you get to that quarter mark in an animated movie, if you’re not emotionally invested, you’re dead in the water. The job is if we’ve given you a character that you really care about and are invested in. Things that make you go “hmmm,” are things that are important to me. I can’t really get into a movie unless it’s about something else.

We knew we wanted to pay homage to our Looney Tunes roots. We have these great sequences our storyboard artists had done that really feel like old Wile E. Coyote sequences. What I’m most proud of is that people go and see it and say, “It was about more than I thought it was going to be about.” That was by design. As these things are going on in the world, that we make the movie relevant and pertinent, we started leaning into that rather than shying away from that, because we felt like the movie had something to say – and that we could do it in an entertaining way through charming characters and it’s not too preachy.

We weren’t trying to attack any one particular system. Just these things are universal. The phrase that kids hate the most, from their parents or teachers, is, “Because I said so.” It’s our natural tendency to just rail against, “Because I said so.” This movie is nothing but, “Because I said so.”

WARNING…. Potential spoilers ahead…..

(L-R) Stonekeeper (Common), Thorp (Jimmy Tatro), Dorgle (Danny DeVito), Migo (Channing Tatum), Meechee (Zendaya), Gwangi (Lebron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez) and Fleem (Ely Henry) in SMALLFOOT. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

There’s no real villain in this either. Like Common’s character would traditionally be that, but here, he’s driven by understandable motivations.

He’s not a mustache-twirling villain that’s motivated by the things most villains are motivated by: greed, a lust for power. He’s motivated by fear. He is doing the wrong thing for what he thinks are the right reasons. I think that resonates with parents, because we try so hard to do the right thing. And we don’t know when they’re so young. Like do I tell him about 9/11? I don’t want to damage, but I also want to keep them safe. Where he has gone villainous is when Migo says to him, “These are lies,” and he says, “Good lies to protect our world.” That’s a slippery slope. Is there a good lie? The movie says, “Not really.” The truth is complicated and scary, but it is way better than lying.

What sequence changed the most from the first story reels?

The opening song was a different song. It was called “Ignorance is Bliss.” Everybody thought it was a little too condemning of the Yetis. What I liked about it was that it was satiric. It’s like a BRADY BUNCH song. Kinda had a ‘70s, “Aww shucks,” “Sunshine Day” feel to it. And they were singing, “We don’t question this none because ignorance is bliss.” People felt it was a tad too on the nose. I still like the idea of having something subversive, but we came up with this, “Shove questions down inside you until they go away and that’s perfection.”

Meechee used to not be the secret leader of the SES. She was the Stonekeeper’s daughter and it was kind of a love story. She wasn’t a very interesting, strong female character. So when we came up with the idea that she understands thing like gravity and how television works – that she’s super smart and curious – that really gave us something to lean into.

SMALLFOOT opens on September 28. Check out our review here.

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Courtney Howard

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.