Talking Movies

March 16, 2011

Interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg

In a blast from the past here’s the full transcript of an interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg I did for InDublin.ie in November 2007 for the release of Bee Movie.

Jeffrey Katzenberg started his producing career at Paramount in the 1970s before moving to Disney with his mentor Michael Eisner in the 1980s. They oversaw an artistic renaissance at the House of Mouse with Katzenberg overseeing The Lion King among other hits. An acrimonious falling-out saw Katzenberg strike out on his own in the mid 1990s, establishing the Dreamworks film studio with Steven Spielberg and music mogul David Geffen, and heading up the only real rival to Pixar’s dominance of CGI animation. His legendary drive and persistence lured Jerry Seinfeld out of semi-retirement to write and star in Bee Movie, one of the last films released in 2-D by Dreamworks Animation; which from 2009 switched all its output to 3-D with Katzenberg himself acting as one of the principal evangelists for the new format.

Did it take a lot of persuasion to drag Seinfeld out of semi-retirement?
Well, it depends on how you would, what you think a lot is… (laughs) Because the thing that was interesting about it is that it took a very, very long time because I actually started approaching him about doing an animated movie when he was doing his TV show so you know that’s probably a good 15, 16 years ago I first approached him. He was always really incredibly accessible, you know I’d pick up the phone and I’d just call you know, I didn’t really know him: I’d introduce myself and he’d take the call and he’d say ‘Hey, uh, what’re you thinking?’ and I’d sort of pitch him the idea, he was amazingly polite – always said ‘No’. (laughs). And then, uh, I went to see him about 4 years ago, I actually went to see him in his office. I took, I had a story that I pitched to him for an animated movie and I took some drawings and some pictures and stuff that I had the artists put together. And, uh, he actually thought about it for a little bit and then he said ‘No’. Ha! What I could tell is, at least it planted the idea, it was something he really –he thought he understood why he could have done that movie and ultimately decided not to cos –the thing I came to learn about Jerry is he really doesn’t think of himself as an actor, in sort of the traditional sense – obviously he does act but he doesn’t think of himself as an actor. He explained to me that he’s never actually said somebody else’s words. The TV show, he did stand-up comedy. The TV show, he had collaborators that worked with him; you know he was a writer on the show. Then went off to do his stand-up work again, so pretty much his whole life he’s written his own work. And so that was really the breakthrough that I came to understand is he was never going to do someone else’s animated movie, he was never going to act in someone else’s animated movie. What was going to work for him was when and if there was an idea that interested him that he could do. And that’s what happened.

Are Dreamworks still a subversive studio?
Hope so, we’ve sure been trying, and sometimes we get it more right than others. But I think what has become, and hopefully will continue to be, a signature of Dreamworks animated movies is Number One: they’re sophisticated films, that have complex stories and complex characters that are interesting and appealing to an adult audience, they have parody and satire, they are a little irreverent, they are a little subversive and really – There was this wonderful great mission statement that Walt Disney had ‘I make movies for children, and the child that exists in all of us’. And 14 years later at Dreamworks I can say ‘We make movies for adults, and the adult that exists in every child’. And that literally has been our approach. And even for Jerry, coming in to be a part of this, he kept saying to me ‘These are films that, I’ve never done anything for kids – my sense of humour, my sensibility’s not for kids’ and I said ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of that –  the animation of the movie, the visuals of the movie, you’ll see – they’ll get this movie, you don’t ever have to talk down to them.’ And I think when you talk with him, one of the great surprises for him is, how blown away he is by how much kids like this film and he never once felt like he had to tone something down or dumb something down or make it less complex. People kept saying ‘Are kids going to understand what it means to go to court? To sue, a trial at the centre of all this’. Well they get it, whether they literally understand it or they just in general get it  – ‘Yes, somebody took something away from the bees and now someone decided the bees can have it back’ – yeah, they get it, they get the general aspect of it and that’s enough. {As an example, at the screening children laughed at Chris Rock’s line about just needing a suit to be a lawyer as he was already a bloodsucking parasite}Well, you’ve got bloodsucking parasite, they get it.

Some critics have criticised Dreamworks for casting mega-stars in their films rather than taking Pixar’s approach, do you think Dreamworks may have been too focused on star-power in voice-casting in something like Shark Tale?
No, cos that’s never what we’ve done. I’m hard pressed to understand that. Are you saying that Robert De Niro’s not a great actor? Or Will Smith is not a great actor? Or that Jack Black is not a great actor? Or Renee Zellweger is not – I mean these are the people that were in this. They’re all Academy Award winning, they’re the finest actors in the world. So, it sounds a little bit like sour-grapes to be honest with you. The fact is that I’ve grown up in Hollywood, I’ve spent my whole career there, I’ve worked with these artists and the greatest artists for my entire career and, I’ve been very successful at getting them to work in our movies and the truth is I’d rather have Ben Stiller, who’s a genius and funny and does great improvisational work and Chris Rock than some unknown. So what’re you going to tell me? That there’s a better comedian or a better comic actor in the world today than Ben Stiller? I don’t think so. Who? Who? I think everyone always looks to find some way to be critic of the moment, and I’m okay with that, I’ve lived my whole life with that, it comes with the territory and the fact is I believe that one of the signatures of a Dreamworks animated movie is, for the adult audience, there are going to be among the greatest actors and comedians in the world acting in these films, and they add a level and a dimension to it and Jerry Seinfeld is a perfect example – there’s no 6 year old who knows who Jerry Seinfeld is, or cares, they know he’s funny. They don’t know who he is but they know he’s funny, and whoever he is, and wherever he’s come from – but for those people who watched that TV show for 20 years – to hear him back in a film, to hear his comedy and his sensibility is like this long lost friend coming back into your life, it’s a joyful experience. I love that as an aspect of our films, I think it distinguishes us and makes it different from everybody else’s, and with due respect to whoever those critics are, and you say Pixar except the first Pixar movie which you know was made on my watch while I was at Disney – I actually made that first film and put them into business, and financed them – who was in the first Pixar movie? {Double Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and Tim Allen} Yeah. Uh-huh. So, they’re  – Tim Allen was in the no 1 rated TV show produced by our studio Disney at the time and Tom Hanks was under a long term contract at Disney at the time making multiple movies for us – both of which did this as a favour to me. I didn’t see anyone at Pixar saying ‘No, no – we don’t want them’. (Laughs). {I think the example critics like to give is Craig T Nelson for Mr Incredible, as he wouldn’t be a marquee name} Was he any more of an actor than Robert De Niro? It’s confusing to me. You know what, it’s probably the nature of competition is that the grass is always greener on the other side – someone’s always able to criticise someone on it. You know, I tend not to do that, I don’t like to go there, I’m very happy for our success. You know, our success has never been dependent on somebody else’s failure. So, I don’t have any malice to them. I have 10 years invested in the Disney company and have great, great friends who still work there doing great work there so I look forward to being able to see their movies when they come out so I get inspired by the work in their movies and it pushes me to want to do better work. As opposed to feeling critical about it I’m happy to tell you how much I like Ratatouille, how amazing I thought the animation was, how beautiful I thought the cinematography was, and I could go and on and on telling you how much I admire about the movie. I don’t find in any way, shape or form that that is demeaning to me or to your company, or to the movies that we make or the artists who are at work here. I don’t feel compelled to knock anyone else.

Do you think 3-D will endure this time rather than being a fad like in the 1950s?
I do, because what we’re all doing is not a gimmick and it’s not a trick, cheap exploitative bell and whistle theme park attraction. We’re all engaged in what is a new technology, a new level of tools that exist on the film-making side of the business, a new set of tools on the exhibition side of the business – these two things converging together at this moment in time are going to allow us to make an amazing new cinema experience that when people see this in their local movie theatres they’re never going back again – this is as revolutionary as when movies went from black and white to colour 70 years ago. And not only do I not think that it’s a momentary fad but I actually think we can sit here 10 years from now and you will see that the majority of big films being made, big entertainment films will be made in 3-D and exhibited in 3-D. I think 2-D movies will be around, they’ll still be made, they’ll still be shown but they’ll tend to be smaller films, they’ll tend to be art films, to be more personal movies but the bigger event populist films are all gonna be made in 3-D. {So the likes of Cameron, Jackson, Zemeckis and Spielberg will all shoot 3-D, but there’ll still be 2-D films?}  Yeah, and I think there will be and I think there’s an art to 2-D film-making and that there will be film-makers who will choose that but as I said I think you’ll see that the core centre driving force will be 3-D. And it will actually be the first real innovation in the movie theatre experience in our lifetime. And when you think about what’s happened in your home. Flat screen TV’s, High-Definition and now HD-DVD and HD-TV, stereo sound coming in – the In-Home experience has innovated in the last decade in ways that are so astonishing, meanwhile the movie theatre experience hasn’t at all. And this is now an opportunity for an exceptional innovation in the theatre experience that is going to get people to get up and get out of their house, you won’t be able to sit in your home and watch a film like this. You know, you saw the current generation in Beowulf which is incredibly impressive, putting aside the movie, whatever your feelings are about the film, the 3-D presentation in that film is dazzling. And what we’re doing is yet a whole other generation ahead of what they’ve done, and so when people see it  – you know there’s that wonderful cliché, picture’s worth a thousand words, well I’ve got a new cliché for you, a 3-D picture’s worth three thousand words. It’s pretty indescribable. {And even the appearance of the glasses has greatly improved} I agree. {Spielberg has loudly lamented the move from old-fashioned film to digital, is he won over yet?} I don’t think he would be lamenting so much today and the reason is that I think Steven who obviously is an amazing and probably the most amazing artist, looks at the aesthetic of film itself, and what happens in that chemical process, and the emulsions and how light filters through that, and I think that until recently he felt that there was a real difference in the feel, the textures of what happened with film versus digital. I think today he would say to you ‘I think I’ve seen now the technology of digital has finally innovated to a place where you can actually deliver the same quality experience, the same textures and feelings and sensibility that you could with film’.

Did you achieve your aims at Dreamworks before selling it to Paramount?
The answer’s yes. I did, I think it was an amazing ride that the three of us have been on together, are still on. For the live action movie business it really made sense to be a part of a larger company, and obviously today there’s some issues about how well the chemistry is working between these 2 companies, and they’ll sort that out in the coming year and see what happens with that but ultimately separating the two companies as we have done, the animation from the live-action, was really the right thing to do for investors, the people who gambled on us, who put up well over a billion dollars, nearly almost two billion dollars to start the company, this was an opportunity for them to be rewarded. I couldn’t be prouder of what we have done and are doing and this year’s been one of the most amazing years in the history of Dreamworks – whoever’s paying the bills, whoever owns what in it, the combination of the animation company and the live action company – it’s been a record breaking year, between Transformers and Shrek and Bee Movie and Blades of Glory and the Ben Stiller movie that’s just been out and the Sweeney Todd movie that’s coming at the end of the year; it’s been a spectacular year for the company and I know that David and I couldn’t be prouder –  couldn’t be prouder of the film-makers, team of people who have achieved this success.

Is it a myth that you got down on your hands and knees to beg Leonard Nimoy to reprise his role as Spock in the 1979 film, and will you have any involvement in the franchise reboot now that its makers Paramount own Dreamworks?
No. It is true, 30 years ago I did go to New York and beg Leonard to put on his ears again, which fortunately he said yes to so it was only – it would only have been humiliating if I had done that and he’d said no. (laughs). It was just slightly embarrassing that I did it and he said yes. But JJ Abrams is really spearheading this creatively, he’s written it and is directing it and JJ is one of the true great film-makers working in Hollywood today, he’s just an amazing talent. I actually gave him literally his very first job out of college, 20 years ago – back again in my Disney years and I’ve watched him over the years just turn into an extraordinary film-maker so I think the Star Trek Enterprise both the literal Enterprise and the figurative Enterprise are in great hands. {Have you heard anything about how it’s going?} I’ve heard it’s in good shape, so it’ll be fun.

Finally, is the rhetoric of the WGA in this strike action; that their poor individuals being scammed out of money by giant studios; liable to hinder the fight against piracy?
So I guess I’ll ask you a question, do you know how much the average writer is paid? Screenwriter, take a guess – working, a writer who is working as a screenwriter, as opposed to like a hobby. {I would have no idea, $80,000?} $200,000. I have to say, yes there are issues, there are legitimate issues and everybody will try and work thru them but as someone who has worked in Hollywood for my entire professional career, been a great fan and supporter of the Writers’ Guild, done great work with them over the years, couldn’t have more admiration for writers….these are not people working hard labour for $6 an hour minimum wage. These are among the highest paid people in a union or a guild in the world. So, are there aspects of this where they should be compensated differently or more? Maybe… But please let’s not go to a place where these are downtrodden abused people. Most people in the world would happily take half what they make and consider themselves well compensated, these are not poor downtrodden people who are being ripped off, it’s just not true. Okay? {Yeah, absolutely, thanks for your time} Thank you, sir.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] Talking Movies (click through for a great interview by Fergal […]

    Pingback by People I Respect: Jeffrey Katzenburg | The Animation Anomaly — July 11, 2011 @ 11:01 am | Reply

  2. […] and sort of agree with you in a tangential manner? GH: Yeah… FC: Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that […]

    Pingback by NetFlix Killed the Video Store « Talking Movies — April 23, 2012 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

  3. […] Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that […]

    Pingback by NetFlix killed the Video Store « Think About IT — April 25, 2012 @ 5:15 pm | Reply


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