Affable, approachable and sensitive to the needs of his performers, Thor Freudenthal got his start working in special effects on the Stuart Little movies before he got the desire to sit in the director's chair. Having worked on Hotel for Dogs for DreamWorks and Paramount, the German-born, Gersh Agency-repped director is promoting his latest film, Diary of A Wimpy Kid, a film adaptation of the popular web comic-to-book series by Jeff Kinney.
On Wednesday, March 17, 2009, Freudenthal spoke with Fabio Periera about his journey to Hollywood and making the first film out of Nina Jacobson's independent production company, Color Force.
Fabio Periera: How did you make your journey to Hollywood?
Thor Freudenthal: The real reason I'm probably here is, to some degree, the movie E.T. As a little kid in Berlin, I saw that movie and my feeling was I had to go to California because aliens land there and they don't land in Berlin. The whole look of that world and the way people lived felt so foreign to me and so fascinating. I think to this day that experience of an 8 year old in the movie theater probably is the reason I got into the film business. It influenced me on so many levels.
In a practical sense, I was studying at the Berlin Academy of Art and I really didn't like it there. (Laughs.) It was very theoretical and I was very interested in drawing that was my background, illustrating. I did some graphic novels as a kid (and) I was looking for something like that and found out that my school had a partnership with the California Institute for the Arts--which I'd never heard of-- where three students each year could go to California and three students from California could come to Berlin. I applied and I was accepted. A year there went really well and I loved the place and the whole vibe and I finished school there and then started work.
What was it like transitioning from being an exchange student to deciding to working in the entertainment industry?
Well CalArts is fairly connected to one part of the Hollywood machine, which is the animation part. I made a short film my first year, which won a student Emmy and it got some recognition winning the Walter Lance award. So, because of that I was sort of carried into (animation). It was a time when animation was still booming, even in two-dimensional form, so there were offers to go join (a) digital animation factory like Disney or DreamWorks. But I decided to work for Sony Pictures ImageWorks, which was basically Sony's own in-house ILM-type division. And I did everything for them-- from character design on the Stuart Little movies to storyboarding projects. Especially on Stuart Little, it was a good front row seat to seeing everything that happened on that movie and how it was made.
What characters did you design for Stuart Little?
I was a part of the team of the people who drew the mouse, which went through hundreds of incarnations. What was interesting was that Stuart Little was (a live-action film) directed by an animation director, (Rob Minkoff), and we had the same background. He'd gone to CalArts years and years before me. He wanted to develop the movie much like an animated movie, which means every scene is storyboarded, the sequences are scripted as well as boarded, so I was part of the whole development part of the process of the movie, which was fun.
Was it then you realized you wanted to direct?
I definitely had a hunger for it at the time and I didn't know how to get there. It seemed like such an insurmountable task. What I did though was focus next on commercial making. I always thought of commercials as little 30-second or one-minute movies and really felt it would be a sandbox and learning experience to be able to start calling (myself) a director. So, I did a couple of spec pieces right around the time that Stuart Little 2 came out. I was hired away from Sony to start directing spots and slowly ascended to doing bigger and more complicated jobs. The great thing was that I got to go back to Germany every now and then and direct commercials there. It was about five years of gathering up a lot of useful experience through that.
Did you find it hard to transition back into filmmaking?
Well, when you do commercials sets, at some point, don't become intimidating anymore. Putting little stories on film, you get a little routine at it. When you first step onto the set of a feature film (after working on commercials), you've shot hours of footage and you know basically how it works. So, the first day of the first feature I made, Hotel for Dogs, I kind of knew what I wanted and how to get it. If you come into (making) a film cold, you might have more trouble. You need a little warm up period.
And (also I found) that dealing with ad agencies is not too dissimilar from dealing with studio executives and/or producers. When you do commercials, you work with an agency and a client and you're definitely after getting your best version of a spot and your vision for it on the screen. But you also have to deal with other people's agendas and needs and opinions and work them into your work. Which is basically exactly what you do when you make a studio film. Yes, you run the set and you make the movie but you get a lot of notes and a lot of requests. So, working in the agency world was a good training ground for that.
Were there any mentors that helped you as you transitioned into live-action filmmaking?
Not really (but) I would single out one person on the first movie I made, Ivan Reitman. (He) was an executive producer on the movie and really kind of, for what the movie needed, set my head straight in terms of what to focus on. He saw my commercial reel (and) he liked it a lot. He saw a short film I'd made, Motel, which (screened) at the Sundance Film Festival. He was a fan of all of it, but he told me one thing, which was interesting: "Doing these short pieces is like running sprints, but you have to pace yourself on a movie because it's a marathon. Focus on characters and getting emotions across, rather than making everything the most beautifully shot vignette that you can." (Laughs.)
How did you come to work on Diary of a Wimpy Kid?
Well, I was just finishing Hotel for Dogs when I thought I had (had) enough of kids for a while (Laughs). And then I met with (producer) Nina Jacobson who was about to embark on Diary of A Wimpy Kid. She showed me the book and I'd never heard of it. The minute I saw it, the first thing I said was, "Oh it has the word 'kid' on it. Do I want to work with kids again?
I really wanted to stretch and work with adult actors but I started reading the book and the book was too original, too hysterical in tone. It kept in my brain and kept nagging at me because of how I grew up drawing. I dug up these old sketchbooks and notebooks--essentially diaries that I'd drawn and written--and opened them up and found astounding parallels to Greg Heffley. When I showed them to Nina and (Fox Studios), they were pretty baffled. That was my way in and gave them the confidence that, sensibility-wise, I could do this movie.
What were some of the films that influenced the style and tone of Diary of a Wimpy Kid?
First and foremost it was A Christmas Story by Bob Clark, because of its total perspective on things. Especially the way the movie is shot and told solely from the point of view of the main character. That was a big inspiration and it strikes the chord of (a) funny, blatant depiction of comedy and childhood nostalgia.
When it came to actually doing the movie, what did you leave out of the book for the film version?
Well, the good news about adapting this book is that I felt we had a lot of rich characters to draw from--very three-dimensional well defined kid characters, which you don't often see in movies about childhood. That part of life is portrayed as chipper and this seemed more true to what kids really feel.
The challenge with the book is that it's incredibly episodic. You can basically open it at any page and read a new story about what happened to Greg on a particular day. So the challenge was, how do you interconnect it? How do you hang it on a structure that takes you on a journey with the characters? What we came up with was a friendship story between Greg and his best friend, Rowley. (It's) really kind of a friendship-slash-love story the way I perceived it. In Greg's seeking acceptance and appreciation from the world, He discovers too late that he's had it all along from his friend. (He) loses his best friend in the process and has to win him back.
Along the way, we had to drop many, many, many funny nuggets in the book that deal more with his family life and focus on his parents. Once we made the decision to focus on these two boys and their story, everything around them took a little bit of a back seat. There's still texture in the movie but it's not the main focus.
Having grown up outside the United States, how did you approach the idea of a young boy trying to survive American middle school? Is German middle school similar to the way American middle school is portrayed in the film?
Great question, in Germany there is no middle school! Germany goes from 6 years of elementary school right to high school (but) I clearly remember the ages of 10 through 12. Even though there is no middle school in Germany, I had the same fears Greg Heffley's character feels when he is going into middle school and (is) thrown into a group of kids with different ages and (in various) stages (of) puberty. On my way home from elementary school, I would pass a high school every day (and) it was a big building that seemed scary to me back then. (Like Greg in the movie), I heard voices from inside that sounded much deeper then my own; I saw kids that needed to shave and kids smoking cigarettes. That experience walking by the high school as an 11 year old and about to go there really frightened me. I told my mother that I never wanted to go there because I wasn't ready to be with these strange looking adults.
Where did the idea for the "cheese touch" come from?
That was an idea Jeff Kinney had in the book. The cheese itself is a major character in the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. When I filmed the cheese touch scenes, I thought of it much like the ring in The Lord of the Rings. This idea from Kinney was a different version of the cooties, where whoever touches the cheese, has the "cheese touch" until he passes it on to someone else. Whoever has the cheese is ostracized and is an outcast, and is viewed with absolute awe and terror by Greg Heffley.
Were there any major obstacles for you to overcome, as a director, in putting this film together?
The major obstacles all had to do with children. The first one was finding the right actor to play Greg Heffley because Greg seems like a jerky, selfish, and lazy character. To find that actor and to make him relatable, it took us five months to settle on Zachary Gordon. Zack made it feel like his cockiness stemmed from vulnerability, a sense of wanting to belong, which everyone can relate to.
The second major obstacle was making a movie with limited hours in a day to work with the kids. The children were only available for seven hours per day to shoot, so every minute with them on the set was precious. This is more difficult than working with adult actors who can do all day shoots.
What did you learn from the process of making the film?
I'm a very stringent planner of things. I tend to storyboard every scene and really try to lock it down. If you look in The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary, some of my storyboards are in there. It's all very detailed but what I learned is that you have to use that as a jumping off point when working with children because there are discoveries everyday of what they can and cannot do and how certain moments land. If they don't land, you've got to come up with a quick backup plan to solve your problem. More than on Hotel for Dogs, this movie taught me to stay very flexible and stay focused on the needs of the performers because they were so young.
What are you planning to do next?
Though (working on Diary of a Wimpy Kid) was a great experience, my main goal (is) to work with someone older than (age) 18 (next) time. I feel I'm hungering the partnership you can have with adult actors in front of the camera. I sort of got a whiff of it working with Rachael Harris (in this film and) Don Cheadle in Hotel for Dogs. I want to do more of that. There's a comic book adaptation I'm developing at Paramount called Agnes Quill, which is a ghost-hunting comedy set in New Jersey. There (are) other scripts coming in everyday, so I'll stay open and see what happens.
Do you think you'll ever direct German-language films too?
There's a temptation to go there and do something small and interesting one day (but) I think at this point, I'm focusing on this region. I love watching German movies and catching up with what's being done there. There are some amazing movies coming out of that country, I'm very proud of that.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is Rated PG and opens domestically today.