Interview: MARS NEEDS MOMS Director/Writer Simon Wells

Contributor; Seattle, Washington
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Interview: MARS NEEDS MOMS Director/Writer Simon Wells

Mars Needs Moms director Simon Wells has had a fairly eclectic career over the last two-plus decades. He's worked as an animator and live-action filmmaker on movies like The Prince of Egypt and the Time Machine, with journeyman efforts on Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future II and III. His latest--the mocap sci-fi comedy based on the story by illustrator Berkley Breathed--features a bratty little boy named Milo (Seth Green) whose mother is kidnapped by aliens from the red planet, and his efforts to get her back.

I spoke to Wells yesterday about the making of Mars Needs Moms and the winding path he took as a filmmaker to get to this point.

ScreenAnarchy: What attracted you to working on Mars Needs Moms?

Simon Wells: Well, initially, it was Bob Zemeckis getting in touch and saying "Would you like to do a motion-capture film?" And I've known Bob since, oh, the mid-80's, when I started up on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and I was the Supervising Animator and also storyboarded a lot of stuff on that film. Then, I went and worked on Back to the Future II and III, and then much later worked on Polar Express for about a year. And so I've always gotten along with Bob and always admired him as a filmmaker, so the possibility of kind of working as his right hand, as it were, was very attractive.

And then, I said, "Can Wendy [Wells, the director's wife] and I write it?" and he said "Sure!" And so the idea that we got to spend a year at the Bob Zemeckis school of screenwriting was too good to turn down. So I think that that was my initial attraction to it: [it] was more to do with who we would be working with. And then we also felt that Disney was very much in support of Bob's ImageMovers Studios. So it looked like a really good idea.

And then we read the book and saw that there was an emotional kernel in it that was really strong. And we can span this out into an 85-minute movie. And there's, if you like, a thematic idea there for expansion and enlargement.

ScreenAnarchy: You mention the technical aspect and your excitement with working with Mr. Zemeckis on mocap--why were you drawn to this technology? And along the same lines, what do you feel Zemeckis was able to impart on you with regards to the script?

SW: Whoa, that's a lot of questions [laughs].

The thing about mocap--I've done a lot of animated movies, but interestingly, I've never directed a CG animated movie, but I've been around a number. But I've also directed live-action and there are pluses and minuses to both.

The thing about animation is that you work really hard to generate a sense of spontaneity between characters, which you get automatically with live-action with actors working together. On the other hand, what you have in animation that you don't have in live-action is the degree of control. Basically, what you shoot on the day is what you've got in editorial and like it or lump it.

So motion capture represents kind of a blending of all of the good things of both sides of the world. You get the spontaneity of actors working directly together; you get the guide of one actor doing the whole performance--you know, a dozen animators or more will work on that character. When you're taking it through the animation process, you have Seth Green or Dan Fogler being the essential guide of what that character is and how that character performs physically. So they're not just doing a voice, they're doing the whole kind of mannerisms and behavior. So that was a lot of fun.
Part of the fun where's it's massively more fun that live-action is that you don't have to keep stopping and resetting the camera, and the actors don't have to try to get themselves back up to speed. Because what happens in live-action is you shoot a couple of lines and then you go, "Okay, we're going to reset the camera, you can go back to your trailer for half an hour." And then they come back down and try to get themselves back to the emotion where they were this morning.

That was very attractive and interesting and I thought that I would have quite a lot to bring to the animation side of it, having been in animation and have worked a lot of animated movies.

So then, your other question was about the screenwriting? Bob is an amazing screenwriter but weirdly and even more amazing development executive. He's incredibly good at--he read our first draft and he had three notes. They were big notes, but he didn't bog us down with all kinds of detail. He just said, "Okay, let's just do the big stuff first." And then every month as we went through, we turned in another draft, another iteration and he'd get into more details and questions.

And he was also very good at asking the question that would make you rethink stuff without telling you what he wanted you to do. Or, at least he'd say, "Here's your problem, guys, here's what you've gotta fix. I'm not gonna tell you how's you'll do that--that's up to you." Which is frankly, really good. The worst thing in the world is when people say, "I want you to exactly this," because they haven't lived and breathed the writing of the screenplay, and they don't know the characters as fully as you do. So, very often if you get that kind of note, they're very rarely the solution to the problem and you kind of have to delve back into what was it that was prompting the suggestion rather than actually the suggestion itself.

ScreenAnarchy: What were some of the best notes that you received that got the script to where it needed to be?

SW: Well, the one that I remember being particularly devastating--there were a couple that were pretty devastating--one was early on was the character Ki [Elizabeth Harnois] didn't exist in our first draft of the screenplay. And Bob read it and said, "There's something here. But I know why boys are going to want to see this movie, and I know why parents are going to see this movie, but why are girls going to see this movie? You need--I don't know--you need some kind of positive role model teenage girl character. Maybe she's a Martian? I don't know. You guys sort it out." [laughs]

And the character Ki kind of exploded into the script. It was one of those moments where we thought she was kind of taking over the story. We had to be careful with the state of Milo. That was kind of fun.

The other thing I remember as being devastating was [when] Bob dismantled our third act. He just took it to pieces. Just by pulling one little string, everything unraveled. And he was absolutely right, and we learned a lot about structuring narrative drive from his notes on our earlier takes on the third act. They were done with minimal notes that lead to sort of major thinking.

ScreenAnarchy: What I'm hearing is--and this should be a note to all of the aspiring filmmakers out there--is that it's good to be receptive to the notes that you're getting?

SW: Oh yeah. And actually, one of the greatest compliments that Bob paid us during the process was this: he said that, "I like working with you guys because you don't fight me on stuff." And we would listen to his notes and take them onboard and actually say, "Now I understand what he's saying and I agree with it." We weren't precious about the things that we'd already written. You know, there were dozens of scenes that we had written that we were actually in love with when we wrote them but, you know, they don't fit into the actual movie we're making so they've gotta go.

And yes, the more open you can be to what people have and what the notes are--you may not necessarily agree with them all, and they may not all work, but for aspiring screenwriters listening, being open to other people is really important.

Actually, I'll tell you, I experienced that in a big way--and this is sort of a hop, a skip, and a jump--but the film The Prince of Egypt was full of music by Hans Zimmer. He literally likes people to sit in his studio with him while he composes. He likes to write a little bit, turn around and say "What do you think of this?" And he's so open, and so transparent in his process--it's a fascinating thing--it means that people, for instance, those directing the movie, are very, very happy with the score because they were there when it was written. They were part of it.

So, it's a very good way to be.

ScreenAnarchy: One of the things--looking over your credits over the years--is the sheer diversity of titles that you've worked on. What were some of the major influences on you as a director and filmmaker?

SW: I've been very fortunate to run into a lot of terrifically great and talented and powerful people. Very early on in my career, I met Zemeckis and through him, Spielberg and got to work with a number of directors who worked under Spielberg, which was extraordinary.

And through Spielberg, I managed to work with Jeffrey Katzenberg for many years--who, while not being a filmmaker in the creative sense [as] someone like Zemeckis or Spielberg is, he's still someone who really understands filmmaking in a very deep way on many, many levels. As a guy to work with, and as a voice in the editing room, he's brilliant.

So yeah, I think I've been extraordinarily fortunate and to be sure, I thank my lucky stars for that. I've been able to learn a small modicum from each of these guys and I count myself very lucky.

ScreenAnarchy: What are you up to next?

SW: We have a number of things we're writing--we actually have a screenplay out at the moment. In the way of most screenplays, it'll probably go into Witness Protection Program. But we're talking to a whole bunch of people about it and that's probably a live-action and visual effects piece. We write three or four screenplays a year and most screenplays don't get made, most screenplays don't get bought--you just have to keep on going.

I'm helping out at Dreamworks Animation. I've done some storyboarding stuff for them because Jeffrey very kindly keeps an office open for me, and I repay that kindness but coming in to do whatever I can to help power whatever movies they've got through production. But we haven't actually got anything fixed yet.

Mars Needs Moms hit DVD and Blu-Ray on August 9th.

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