[INTERVIEW] ‘SPIES IN DISGUISE’ aesthetics and appeal is found within the spy genre’s DNA


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Since MOONRAKER made ample use out of one pigeon’s expressions (specifically an infamous double take), the filmmakers behind SPIES IN DISGUISE levels up the playing film in the spy movie genre. Suave, handsome and arrogant Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) was known as the world’s greatest spy. That is until he got turned into a pigeon and is forced to work with a partner, wunderkind inventor Walter (voiced by Tom Holland), whose offbeat quick thinking and innovating isn’t quite Lance’s usual style. The duo must find a happy medium to not only save the world, but turn Lance back into his former self.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno stated that the narrative hook is where they took their cues from building out a fantastical world. Quane said,

“We took Lance Sterling, who is this amazing human physical specimen, broad shoulders and chest, and turn him into this funny, dumpy bird shape. All the other animals in this world are just animals. We needed that grounding reality of a human trapped in a pigeon body. Lance is the only one who can talk. He’s got little eyebrows so you can read his expressions. It’s this idea of an agent, who flies solo, becoming a flock animal.”

There was a little discussion about Holland using his British accent. However, they quickly nixed the idea, Bruno stated.

“For the character of Walter, he’s a character that hasn’t gone out and seen the world. Our conversations with Tom earlier was to keep him as a kid who grew up in D.C., who experienced a tragic past, and when he really gets out in the world, this like the first time he’s experiencing this new adventure.”

To provide a global texture, Quane explained they wanted the international cast of voices to keep their accents.

“It was about making it feel big and broad in its scope. We wanted that pallet of sounds. While Tom uses an American accent, Karen Gillan uses her Scottish accent and Ben Mendelsohn uses his Australian accent. We cast Masi [Oka], so when we have the Japanese character, he’s speaking true to his dialect. We wanted it to be authentic.”

Masi Oka, who channels his inner Bond villain playing a rotund, heavily tattooed Yakuza boss Kimura, explained he had fun giving voice to the character.

“I don’t get to play villains that much. He’s like a middle boss. He is a villain, but turns into a teddy bear. I loved that I got to play with that duality where you think he’s mean, but his deepest, darkest secret is he peed in a pool.”

Kimura (Masi Oka) and Lance (Will Smith) in SPIES IN DISGUISE. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/ Disney.

There were more takes done of that sequence. Some of them will probably not see the light of day as they were NSFW.

“That’s the great thing about animation voice over – you get to improvise. When you know it’s a joke line, we’d repeat off each other. We had a lot more darker lines, but because it’s a Disney feature, we had to keep it less blue. That we used one was cute.”

The film’s eye-appealing aesthetic harkens back to classic spy films and also a bygone era. Bruno wanted to make sure they paid homage to those films that came before theirs.

“When we first started, we did our research and enjoyed watching all the spy films. We watched the Bonds, the Bournes, the Hunts – all those guys. One of the things we loved was all those title sequences. But because this film is totally animated, we can do more of that. We looked at some of the Saul Bass stuff – some of their angularity and color language – to try to find ways to get that DNA into every frame.”

Quane quickly added,

“But not necessarily make it feel like a vintage throwback. We really wanted it to feel contemporary. It was finding what the aesthetic design principals we appreciated there, but make them feel very current.”

Bruno said their philosophy is also reflected in the musical fabric of the film.

“We did the same thing with the music, which is why we chose somebody like Mark Ronson. Mark does a great job of taking some throwback vibes, but giving it a contemporary spin so it really sounds full.”

There’s a toxic masculinity that’s inherent in the spy genre was something Bruno and Quane wanted to dismantle and subvert in their film’s gender politics. Quane stated,

“It felt like that was a poignant part of the message especially in today’s day and age. That was even down to the tricky casting of how we ended up with Will Smith. With Lance Sterling, we wanted to create a spy that stood alongside all the other great movie spies. But to that point, he’s a character who doesn’t work well with others and is very confident, but is charismatic. We needed someone like Will to come in and walk that line delicately to have this engaging character. We love to cheer for those characters, but sometimes they have the wrong end of the stick on how they see the world. Walter shows Lance that there’s a broader way of interacting with the world.”

Teamwork is an important theme the filmmakers thread throughout the movie. Bruno said,

“It’s not just about violence and explosions. It’s about coming together to save the world.”

Quane, elucidating about their use of action and violence, said,

“It’s not arbitrary or gratuitous. You needed it to counterpoint Walter’s message of ‘There’s a better way.’ When we use violence to solve our issues, all we create is more enemies. We draw a line that puts others across that line. We have to reach across and bring people together.”

Bruno thinks the movie is a suitable entry point into the beloved genre for the audience.

“We like to think of this movie as a love letter to all spy movies. We know that, for kids, this will be their first spy movie. We wanted to do it justice.”

SPIES IN DISGUISE opens on Christmas Day.

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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.