The battle between good and evil has never been so much fun. Just ask filmmaker Tom McGrath who has devoted the last two years of his life to bring Megamind, an affectionate take on the superhero genre, to the big screen . . .

The director has worked long days – and nights – at the head of a 600 plus strong production team that includes 60 animators and the considerable voice talents of a stellar line-up of actors – including Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey and Jonah Hill – who portray the dastardly Megamind (Ferrell) and the dashing Metro Man (Pitt), and those caught up in the middle, as they battle for control of Metro City.

And along the way there were plenty of laughs, not least when the actors were let loose in the recording studio, an unpredictable rollercoaster ride that produced spectacular, sometimes unexpected, results.

Take the time when Ferrell – who plays several roles in the film as well as the super villain known as Megamind – was improvising as he set about creating a character called Space Dad.

“What’s great with animation is that you can have a direction for a scene, an objective for a character, a motivation, but then the words used in how you get from A to B can be played with,” explains McGrath. “For example, with the character of Space Dad Will came up with this whole Marlon Brando riff.”

Movie buffs will know, of course, that the late, great Brando played Superman’s father, Jor-El, opposite Christopher Reeve as planet Krypton’s most famous son in the much loved 1978 movie, Superman.

Ferrell, in an hilarious take on Brando as Jor-El, suddenly had a whole new handle on Space Dad and McGrath knew there and then that he had successfully mined comedy gold.

“We were laughing so hard when we were recording it that I decided I wanted to put that in the movie. So we went back and re-designed the character and added more scenes with Space Dad so we could play around with that character.

“So how we develop is pretty malleable and the great secret about animation is that you can see the film before you make it, with the storyboards and the voices, and you can change it for the better. With animation even up to the 11th hour you can try and make the film better.”

McGrath clearly believes in giving his stars free reign when it comes to finding a way into the character. Actors who are used to utilising every sinew and muscle and conveying all sorts of emotions through facial expressions, with live action can find working in a recording booth – mostly alone – on an animated movie a challenging experience.

In fact, McGrath knows that from personal experience having done a considerable amount of voice work himself in films like Madagascar and Madagascar 2 – which he co-directed – Shrek The Third and Flushed Away.

“It’s tough. The thing about it is being behind the mike and I know this because I’ve done it myself, is you feel really vulnerable,” he says. “You don’t have much to work on, you just have your pages. So I do know what it’s like.

“And with Will I would sit right next to him behind the glass and we would let it roll and not worry about it and throw things back and forth and then you get into a place where you can just experiment and not feel so formal. Because you are really in a vacuum and you have to try and move beyond that.”

"Brad's character is Elvis Presley compared to Will's who is more like Alice Cooper!"

With Brad Pitt, too, McGrath would adopt a somewhat unconventional approach. The director likes to use a rock ‘n roll analogy when describing the two characters at the heart of the film, Megamind and Metro Man. “Brad’s character is Elvis Presley compared to Will’s who is more like Alice Cooper,” he smiles.

And when Pitt came into the recording booth, at first the actor struggled to let loose. But then they came up with a very rock star idea that unlocked the character.

“It’s great when you get the actors into a physical place,” says McGrath. “And with Brad his character, Metro Man, is more like Elvis Presley. And when he first arrived it felt like he wasn’t getting it and he had to stand behind this mike in a booth.

“And then we decided to try it with a hand held mike and we got this hand held mike and he grabbed that and started walking around the whole studio, doing his lines, and he really got into it because you can be physical in that way. And for him that was the key. And when we listened back it was just great.

“There is something about an actor moving around when they are doing the character and it’s how their voice, their presence, their timing, is affected by it. And you know, each actor has their own way of approaching it.”

Pitt was starring alongside established comedic actors like Ferrell, Fey and Hill, and he more than held his own, says the director.

“Brad has a great voice and he is very funny,” he says. “We knew we wanted comedians because that’s how we like to work – work-shopping the story, as opposed to live action where you develop a script for several years and then you shoot.

“We’re shooting and developing the script at the same time, so for me it’s really relying on Will and Tina and what they bring to it with their improvisation, and also Brad.

“In fact, Brad was really great. We pitched the idea of playing this hero to him – he is Elvis Presley to Will’s Alice Cooper, you know in a battle of the bands super-hero world, and he just had a lot of fun with it and brought a lot to it.”

Mostly, the actors recorded their voice work in isolation. But McGrath wanted Ferrell and Tina Fey, who plays fearless reporter Roxanne Ritchie, in the studio at the same time.

“With this film we wanted to be a little different because there is a love story between Will and Tina’s characters,” he says. “So we did three recording sessions where we got them together and didn’t worry if they were going to step on each other, took out the glass (separating the recording booths) and just let them play off each other.

“And for actors like them it’s much more rewarding because they actually have something to play off and a lot of that is actually in the movie. It’s really important to get that chemistry but often it’s very difficult because everyone is doing different movies at different times and you can’t really get everyone together. So when we did, it really paid off.”

The story, says McGrath is an affectionate tribute to the superhero genre – with plenty of twists. In fact, Megamind delights in turning the whole comic book world upside down. Megamind is a brilliant super-villain but he’s not what you’d call successful. In fact, every attempt he makes to conquer Metro City fails, mostly due to the caped superhero known as Metro Man. Until one final confrontation when Megamind finally gets the upper hand. But when he does, he begins to realise that every villain needs a hero.

“Will was the obvious choice to play Megamind because the ambition was to be an action comedy and to take the genre and turn it on its ear,” he explains. “And the way we wanted to do that was to specifically tell the story from the villain’s point of view.

“We wanted to know his origins, how he became a villain and the whole nature versus nurture thing, you know, ask the question, do we have a choice with our destiny?

“And we wanted to invert the characters. The villain becomes a villain through circumstance, not that he doesn’t have a great soul, and finds out that maybe he is playing for the wrong side.

“The hero is also kind of more of a façade of a hero, and the reporter turns out to be very strong and actually doesn’t need anyone to rescue her – she’s probably the strongest character in the movie. And Jonah, we can’t really talk too much about his character specifically but he does have a large part in the movie. There’s a bit surprise there but I don’t want to give it away.”

Megamind is McGrath’s first solo directing job – a daunting challenge but one he has clearly relished. “It’s harder to do animated films in solo terms without a co-director because the time is so taxing but I have great people that I work with.

“They are my key personnel and I really rely on those guys. You can’t meet with everybody but if you have a great group of people around you that believe in the same movie and want to tell the same story, you’re good as gold.”

Megamind is shot using the very latest 3D technology and McGrath is delighted with the results. “It’s great and doing a superhero movie in 3D is a great opportunity and the approach is to enhance the story and it seems to me, especially after Avatar, that you can do a lot of storytelling and bring people into the world, which is really important.

“It’s a great tool, particularly for the flying scenes or action scenes, and it’s great to fall into the action with the characters. But even with the emotional scenes as well we’re seeing that 3D has a great effect. It’s beyond the stage where it’s all about pointy sticks and it just immerses you in a world and for me it’s thrilling to work in 3D.”



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