Interview: The Angry Birds movie directors talk Vancouver, mobile games, and pigeons

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Interview with Angry Birds directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly

One of the biggest and brightest family films of the summer, The Angry Birds Movie, is about to fly onto screens across the world. First-time directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly have helmed the new computer animated picture from Rovio Entertainment that features an all-star voice cast including Jason Sudeikis, Danny McBride, Josh Gad, and Sean Penn.

Clay and Fergal attended a recent crew screening here in Vancouver that was followed by a charity screening of the film benefitting The Frames Film Project. We sat down with the directing duo to speak about their experience making the movie in Vancouver, their storied careers that led them each to this point, and their favourite memories from making the movie.


Clay Kaytis Angry Birds Director Interview

Columbia Pictures

Thank you for inviting us to see the film with the crew! It must be really rewarding to host a screening here with everyone who worked on it.

Clay Kaytis: We’d see these guys every day making the movie and we know how hard they work on their individual scene or texture or model, and now it’s great that they get to see the movie all completed.
Fergal Reilly: It’s a real thrill for them, and for us to share it with them. These guys, they poured their hearts and souls into the movie.
CK: And some of them get to bring their kids, which is a big reward for them! Their kids get to see the movie and laugh and enjoy the work their parents did. It’s pretty special.

I liked the shout out to the babies that were born during production.

CK: Making a movie takes a long time, and a lot of babies get born during that period.

With your backgrounds in animation and storyboarding, how did the conversation start to bring you in as directors on this film?

CK: Even though our careers are very similar and we have all the same friends in the industry, Fergal and I had never met before Angry Birds. It was this strange sort of Michael Jackson/Janet Jackson thing.
FR: I’m Michael.
CK: John Cohen, our producer, he was attached to this project and he just contacted us both. He had known us from the industry and from our biographies and our work and he just approached us and said, “Would you be interested in working on Angry Birds?”

Why did he approach you from the start with the role of director in mind for you both?

FR: It was an interesting process because John was trying to pick personalities who would work together on this project. So it was almost like casting, he was searching around for the right two guys with the right combination of skills and attitude to do it.
CK: My whole career I was an animator, then I became the Head of Animation at Disney and worked on movies like Tangled.
FR: My whole career’s been in story with movies like The Iron Giant. And I worked in live action as well. I worked with Sam Raimi, I was one of his guys for a while. Yeah, my background is kind of varied. But our natural sort of areas fell into place and there was this great combination of chemistry.
CK: We’re almost now like brothers in a weird way. We’d talk about our favourite movies and touchstone films that we love to refer to and talk about. Everyone always references Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, those are the classics. But there’s this second layer where we’re both like, “oh yeah! I love that movie.” We’d spend a lot of time laughing and pulling up clips to reference what a moment should look or feel like.

It’s nice to have someone you can have a movie shorthand with.

FR: That was kind of essential because we were split up. Clay was up here in Vancouver and I was in America. There were two sort of studios, one in Sherman Oaks and one in Vancouver. We made the movie very fast – two and a half years.
CK: They had worked on the story and done some artwork, but when we came on board it was a two and a half year process.
FR: It was really fast. I think John, you know, did a great job pairing us up. The first meeting that we had, after we left this restaurant in Santa Monica, we were standing in the parking lot for like three hours just talking about, “oh we could do this, and we could do this…” It was an instant sort of click.
CK: In a great way! We’ve never been at odds, like, “no, the movie should go this way!” We were always like, “this is our film” and we always had the same vision and sense the whole time.

Fergal Reilly Director Interview Angry Birds Movie

Columbia Pictures

When you’re recording the actors, did you let them run wild or try to keep them reigned in?

FR: We did both. We definitely went in with John Vitti’s script pages and our own ideas and the first priority was to get the pages. It was definitely a very collaborative process with each of the actors. They all came with their own ideas and with animation, we use the recording process as another opportunity as another chance to experiment with the character and create new comedy and write new things and try out new things. It was a very collaborative process. You would be a fool as a director to ignore the improvisational and writing skills of the cast that we had! They’re all writers and comedians in their own right. Some of them will only develop the character through their own process, it was really exciting for us. We loved it. You’d come out of each recording session with sore stomach muscles from laughing so hard.

You can’t have a guy like McBride and tell him to turn that comedic genius switch off.

FR: Not going to happen! And each of them has their own way of sort of tackling the characters.
CK: They take ownership of it and they start to kind of drive the characters, sharpen the tool. [The character] Chuck is a fast-talking guy and Josh Gad would actually talk so fast. We didn’t speed him up, that was him going a mile a minute and improvising at the same time.

How much of that process with the actors informed the animation and character modelling/design? The character voiced by Maya Rudolph – you can almost see that familiar actress behind the character, talking with her hands like she’s doing.

FR: We sort of had an idea of the type of character, the archetype. But we really wanted to give her room. The character of Matilda was originally quite a small part in the movie but then when Maya came in it was just like – oh, we’ve got to get this in the movie! She’s so good that she just started to fill out all these ideas about the character. She expanded.
CK: All the characters had this aspect where she was the sweet kind of mothering nurturing written character but we knew that she sort of had to arrive at this place at the end of the movie. She could ride anything and deliver it all.
FR: We pitched the character to her as sort of a reformed angeraholic. She sometimes came back to that idea to sort of tamp it down. It was great fun. But until you start cutting the characters together, you never really know what kind of comedic electricity you’re gonna get. We just started putting Jason, Danny, and Josh together and every time those three were on screen together was magic.
CK: In an early draft of the movie, the trio kind of split up and did different things. We had to figure out a way to get them back together because they’re just so fun together, as a trio. It wouldn’t have been quite the same with them apart from each other.

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You can really buy into the characters as this little dysfunctional unit.

FR: It’s magic, because it’s not like we recorded the three of them together at once. They were all separate.
CK: And most of the time, Jason was in New York and we were on Skype with them, it was a really kind of interesting experiment in building a movie.
FR: We would try things out and we would already know from a previous record what another character had said or done. Sometimes we would let the actors see that, and then other times we’d hold back just to sort of see what they do. And then we’d cut the two ideas together and it would be magic.

Did you play the game a lot before this project?

CK: I actually did, yeah. When I was making Tangled every night when I went to bed, that was my decompress thing. I’d play Angry Birds on my phone. I wouldn’t allow myself to move up a level until I finished each one with three stars. So I finished the entire game with three stars before I even knew that this movie was going to happen. I was kind of a freak (laughs).

It must have been so fun for you to work in all these little tiny details that players of the game will immediately recognize.

CK: Our approach was to first and foremost tell a funny and compelling story. We know there are so many fans of the game – the fact that we could fit some of those details in and people would feel that recognition.
FR: So many people of all ages play the game that we wanted to do it organically and not be totally on the nose with the references. A little nod here or there to the game is nice – and Rovio really liked that. They were fans of fitting more of that stuff in, but we were very careful to keep it organic.

Angry Birds Movie Director Interview Fergal Reilly Clay Kaytis

Columbia Pictures

What’s next for you guys? Would you direct something together again?

FR: We love working together and if the right project came along we would certainly love to do it. But it’s sort of too early to say.
CK: It’s funny how you were just in the screening with the crew, and we had another screening today for charity [supporting the Frames Film Project], but I can not wait for it to open wide and see what happens with the movie, see how the world receives it. I don’t think I can think of anything other than where we are right now! This film is plenty.

Would you say you want to focus more on directing in the future?

CK: Yes, directing’s very fun.

In regards to your fellow filmmakers, who inspires you?

FR: I learned a lot from Brad [Bird], he was a great mentor to me. I learned even more from Sam Raimi. I worked with a lot of directors that would give me tips. For example, in Sam’s case, he would actually bring you on to set, he’d bring you to casting, you would ask him a question about his choices and he was totally great to answer anything. My film school was really working on those movies. You pick up something from every director that you work with, especially in the story department. They’re either letting you run loose to pitch them ideas or they’re letting you into their process so you’re seeing how they do it. Either way, I was like a sponge, just soaking all of this up.

So I was walking here and I got shit on by a bird. What’s the angriest bird story that you have?

CK: When I was living here, I lived in an apartment. I left for work one day with my window open and when I came back I had this cover on my bed with pigeon footprints all over it. I found feathers everywhere. I never found the pigeon but I was terrified for like two weeks that it was just waiting to burst out of a cupboard and get me! I have photographs to prove the existence of this winged visitor.
FR: On Spider-Man 2 I was scouting locations with the location scout in an alley in downtown L.A. They basically let you into the alley, lock the gate behind you, then let you scout the whole alley, take sketches and pictures. But man, that alley was like pigeon city. I had a new jacket when I went into the alley and when I came out I was completely white from head to toe. I was cleaning bird poop out of my camera for days. (all laugh)

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, best of luck with the film’s release!

CK: Thank you! I was here in Vancouver for two years making this movie. My wife stayed in L.A. so when I was up here and I needed something to do, Vancity Buzz was what I checked every week!


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Dan Nicholls Born out of the prairies and driven to a love of film at a very early age, Dan has been writing about movies online and in print for over half a decade. He currently resides in the west end of Vancouver and doesn't get outside nearly as much as he should.
@dannicholls

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