CHRIS MELEDANDRI (Produced by) is the founder (2008) and CEO of Illumination Entertainment, which makes broad audience films. The independent company has an exclusive financing and distribution agreement with Universal Pictures.
Illumination, which will produce one to two films a year over the next five years, is currently in production on a feature film version of Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax," which continues the successful collaboration Meledandri has had with Theodor Seuss Geisel's widow, Audrey. Other upcoming films include an original live-action/CG-hybrid film, Hop, starring Russell Brand and James Marsden and directed by Alvin and the Chipmunks' Tim Hill, which is currently in production, and the animated feature adaptation of Ricky Gervais' "Flanimals" books.
Meledandri was previously an executive at 20th Century Fox for 13 years. While there, he became founding president of 20th Century Fox Animation, which he headed for eight years, amassing more than $1 billion in global box-office revenue.
During his tenure, he helped Fox become a major player in the world of animated feature films and in 1998, he led Fox's acquisition of fledgling visual effects/commercial house Blue Sky Studios, which he built into a successful producer of animated features. He oversaw the creative and business operations of Blue Sky Studios, now Fox's wholly-owned CGI studio. While at the studio, Meledandri supervised and/or executive produced movies including Ice Age, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Robots, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Simpsons Movie and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!
Before joining Fox, Meledandri was president of Dawn Steel Pictures at Walt Disney Pictures, where he served as an executive producer on Cool Runnings.
Q. Despicable Me is the first film of the new production company Illumination Entertainment.
I founded and was president of 20th Century Fox's animation division, where we had had this tremendous series of movies: Ice Age and its sequels, Robots, The Simpsons, and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! After having been in the studio for over 13 years, in 2007 I made the radical decision to found a new company in partnership with Universal and call it Illumination.
Q. Who came up with the idea for this movie?
About three weeks after starting this company Nina Rowan, a colleague of mine, called and said she wanted to introduce me to a Spanish animator named Sergio Pablos -who had moved back to Spain from Los Angeles, where he had been working for years at Disney- because he had developed this story. So, we all met and he showed me these 15 to 20 drawings that were basically the essence of the movie. My reaction to them was immediate.
Q. What did you see in these drawings?
I thought they were funny, distinctive and narratively really well worked through. They triggered this process.
Q. How long did it take to complete the film from that point onwards?
Three years, which is pretty fast by animation standards.
Q. How would you describe Despicable Me?
I would say it is a film that is very funny and also has great sentiment. Despicable Me is the story of a super villain called Gru who dreams of defining his legacy, which is to steal the moon. And in the midst of trying to achieve this he encounters three strong-willed little girls who view him in a way nobody had ever seen him before; which is as a potential father, because they are orphans.
Q. What effect do they have on him?
The relationship that is formed between these three girls and Gru transforms him. So, by the end of the movie you realize we have redefined a family structure, and that what has been missing from this character's life and has led him to take on these ridiculously large endeavors has precisely been the love he has found in the girls.
Q. The film is dedicated to villains, which is not usual.
That came from taking my kids to the movies and realizing they were far more fascinated by the villains than by the heroes.
Q. Why do you think villains are more fascinating than heroes?
Because the idea of a character that is flawed is easier to identify with, and it gives you a tremendous source of comedy! We all have a certain wickedness in us, that some suppress more than others, which is fun. I believe it's compelling to have an antagonist as the protagonist of a movie.
Q. Steve Carell is the voice of Gru.
I had worked with Steve on Horton Hears a Who! And I was amazed by, not only his vocal performance, but also his creative contribution to the character. So, one of the first decisions I made on Despicable Me was that Steve Carell would be an ideal partner, and consequently he was the first actor on board.
Q. You surrounded him with a great cast.
For the rest of the cast we went through a process in which you sit back and fantasize about who you would have if you could chose anybody. Then you listen to their voices, try to discover what they can bring to their character to enrich them and imagine how they would sound together.
Q. Why did you choose Jason Segel to play the villain Vector, Gru's nemesis?
Jason is somebody we realized wasn't only an actor that played comedy well, but someone whose comedic talent was evident in his vocalizations.
Q. Was it difficult to find the three little girls?
We did these very large searches, because with kids you are generally not pulling from a pool of established actors, and threw out a big net. And through that process Dane Gaier -who plays Edith- and Elsie Fisher -who plays Agnes- emerged. But we weren't finding a Margo, until somebody suggested Miranda Cosgrove. And when she surfaced as a possibility it was clear that she was the answer we were all looking for.
Q. Then you have Julie Andrews as Gru's mother.
It just made sense to ask her to play a character unlike anyone else she had ever done before.
Q. How did you know the filmmakers Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin were the right people to direct this movie?
From Ice Age onwards I have sought out directors that come to the process with enormous talent, but that have never directed a feature film before. I had already worked with Chris on a number of movies where he had clearly demonstrated his abilities, and in Pierre I found somebody whose work spoke to me the moment I started watching it.
Q. How do they complement each other?
Very well, because Chris' background was routed in the storyboarding process and Pierre's was in directing character animation. The fortunate thing is that whenever you make a combination between two people that have never met you can only hope that there is a bond that is formed, and these guys not only directed well together but also became good friends.
Q. it has been a worldwide production.
After looking at the success we had with Ice Age 2 internationally, one of the realizations that hit me was that the leadership of the film was coming from different countries. So, in forming Illumination I sought out an international complexion for our creative team.
Q. Going through the credits we discover these different nationalities.
Yes, the story is by a Spaniard; the directors are French and English; one of our composers is Brazilian…
Q. The look of the film is quite unique.
Yes, and it was primarily defined by two individuals: the art director Eric Guillon and the character designer Carter Goodridge.
Q. And the music also plays an important role.
For the music we had the idea that Pharrell Williams could write the score and forge another interesting partnership with the wonderfully gifted Heitor Pereira.