10 Minutes with Oscar Nominee Chris Miller

The director of Puss in Boots on his competition for Best Animated Feature, making Cool World, and why the film has nothing to do with the fairy tale.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

When I reviewed Cars 2, I joked that it was awful nice of Pixar to sit out the Oscar race this year. I didn't mean it literally, but that's exactly what happened: the studio that won the Best Animated Feature Oscar four years in a row didn't get nominated, leaving room for films like Puss in Boots, the Shrek spin-off directed by Chris Miller (on DVD and Blu-ray February 24, incidentally), who also voiced the Magic Mirror in the original film. With less than a week to go before the ceremony, he took the time to speculate on the competition this year, why Tintin wasn't nominated and why his film doesn't follow the original Puss in Boots storyline. And just for the hell of it, I got him to talk about his first gig in Hollywood, working on Cool World, Ralph Bakshi's wacko live-action/animation hybrid that starred Kim Basinger and a young Brad Pitt.


CraveOnline: “Academy Award-Nominee Chris Miller.” How does that sound?

Chris Miller: Yeah. Yeah, I have it on all my coffee mugs at home.


Have you told everyone you know to start calling you that? “Academy Award-Nominee Chris Miller, you take the trash out right now!

I walk around the house all day long, repeating that over and over again. [Laughs.]


Has your life changed at all? I always imagined my schoolyard bullies calling me up to apologize.

[Laughs.] Gosh, I don’t know. It is nice. It’s all still a bit surreal to me, to be honest. It’s great. What I’m proud of, I guess most of it… I loved the process of making this movie more than any [film] I’ve been on, or been part of, and to share that collectively with the other filmmakers that have poured three years of their lives into this film, it’s something that we’re all proud of. It’s great to get that acknowledgment.


Have you thought about where you’d keep the statue if you win?

I don’t know, man. What does one do with that? I don’t know…


I’ve heard people say their bathroom, or over the mantelpiece…

I think you would need to clear out all the furniture in the house, so it just sits there in the middle of the floor, with one pool of light [on it]. I don’t know. We’ll see if I have those kinds of problems.


Touche. It’s actually a really interesting category this year, with two dark horses [Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris] and no Pixar. What are your thoughts on that?

It is. It’s a pretty great year, in terms of that list of nominees. It was unexpected to me, and really welcome at the same time. Everyone who’s on that list, they’re all, I think, deserving to be there. But then what I really appreciate about it, is that it just speaks to the diversity of the category, that you’ve got this incredible international flavor. You’ve got a film from Spain, and a film from France, and they’re more traditional in their approach [to animation]. Then you’ve got the CG 3D films, you’ve got a CG film in there that is, by choice, not 3D. And I just love that. It speaks to the art form, really. That animated films can come in so many different forms, and I think it’s great. It makes it just fundamentally interesting. But I don’t know… I’m not really sure which way it’s going to go.


It’s so diverse, but a lot of people are saying – and of course I’m just asking you to speculate – that The Adventures of Tintin didn’t get nominated because there’s some sort of bias against performance-capture. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

I don’t… [Thinks.] I don’t know. I mean, I can’t… I’m not sure. I’m not sure if there’s truth to it being left out because of that. Because like I said, I look at the list and every film that’s here, in my view, has a right to be. And I look at Tintin, personally, I think it’s just a great film. It really kind of blew my mind. And, I couldn’t imagine that movie not being in the style it’s done in. Motion capture is perfect for it. Steven Spielberg used it really brilliantly. There were a couple sequences in that movie, in particular, that just blew my mind. They were otherworldly experiences for me. [Laughs] – Where they’re trying to get the map, the motorcycle chase, it’s such beautiful choreography and staging and blocking, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the motion capture and the 3D combination. So I look at that scene [and] I’m like, that’s what Steven… that’s what he wanted to do. That’s what was in his mind. So I think it’s a great film.


Let’s focus on Puss in Boots, because that’s why we’re here. I was watching the film, and one of the things I’d like to ask you about is the story development. Because what you came up with is very fun, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the original Charles Perrault story.

It doesn’t, does it? [Laughs] – We moved completely away from that!


What inspired you to go that route?

I think, you know it’s interesting… There was a time… The character, the first time he appeared in Shrek 2, he already stepping so far away from the origin. The Spanish Antonio Banderas cat is nowhere near the original. And there was a brief period too, when developing Puss in Boots, when we tried to embrace the original story. But we discovered very early on that it wasn’t servicing the original [story], and it certainly wasn’t servicing this character that Antonio had helped create. So at that point we just made a conscious decision, let’s not tell that story. Let’s tell a version of Puss in Boots that is a reflection of our view of a fairy tale, of a classic story, the story of a legend. And frankly, let’s get him as far away from the Shrek universe as possible too, because this character is different. You can take him out of that universe and create a world just for him, that’s a reflection of this character that came along in Shrek 2. Once we really embraced that, it’s amazing how the character led us to the story, led us to the style, the approach in filmmaking, and really liberating me in a way, to just have fun with the character.


I extensively Googled “Kitty Softpaws” and found no fairy tales with her as a character. Was I not looking hard enough?

[Laughs.] I was going to say, what came up?


Nothing. I got nothing.

You can get in trouble, just typing that into your computer, you know? It’s dangerous.


[Laughs] – Even “Puss in Boots” is a problem with the Safe Search off.

She’s new. She’s fresh, man. That’s a fresh invention.


There aren’t a lot of sexy housecats in fairy tale myths.

The thing I liked about Kitty… We definitely wanted a character that would be Puss in Boots’s match. She has a sex appeal, but I guess I liked that that’s not her main thing, at all. She’s just a really strong character who took this liability in life – claws being yanked out – and she turned it into this asset. And I liked that she’ll stand up to the cat. She’s not typical in this way, in terms of fairy tales. She’s not the female character, that princess character that’s waiting to be rescued, or waiting for a man to take charge. She does it herself. And I also appreciate the fact that Puss in Boots actually appreciates that in her, and celebrates her that way. I’m pretty happy about the way that character came out.


Here’s a question I have to ask, and I don’t know how often you get this, but Humpty Dumpty… There’s that bit where he talks about what happened in prison.

Oh yeah…


Humpty Dumpty got raped in prison, didn’t he?

Well, I don’t know. Let’s see…


It wasn’t over easy…

“You know what happens to eggs in prison? It ain’t over easy.”


What else… I’m trying to think of what that means!

It’s definitely dark, man. Prison life is not fun for anyone. I wasn’t there. I really have no idea. Nor do I want to know, quite frankly.


[Laughs.] Chris, I have to ask, because I was a big fan of this other film. You worked on Cool World, right?

Yes, I did! That was my first job out of college.


That’s so awesome. I was wondering if you could share something about that film, because a lot of people don’t talk about it much.

Ralph Bakshi… Oh my God, that was amazing. That was the greatest collection of freaks and castaways and wayward souls of animation. It was really an amazing studio that was set up in Burbank, and yeah… It was Ralph running the show. He hired myself, he hired Tom McGrath who directed Megamind and the Madagascar movies, and another friend of mine, Dave Wasson. We went down, we showed him like two drawings, [and] Ralph was just like… He didn’t have anybody working there so he just hired us on the spot. And we got paid like 600 bucks a week to design characters and do walk cycles. For months we did that while he shot the movie. I mean, everything about that film was just on the fly, changing daily, weekly, by the hour and I loved it. Ralph is just such a giant personality. He owned any room he was in, and it was beautiful. Not a good film, but a really good experience. [Laughs.]