The animation community, artists and fans alike, need no introduction to the singular Genndy Tartakovsky.
But the same perhaps cannot be said of Sony, which this week releases the visionary director’s sequel to his highly successful feature film debut, Hotel Transylvania. From the infamous Sony hack that revealed creative interference from Hotel Transylvania 2 writer Robert Smigel and star Adam Sandler (whose execrable Pixels was one of the worst, and most offensive, films of 2015) to the studio’s removal of Tartakovsky from his beloved Popeye reboot, Sony still doesn’t seem to understand that it has a cartoon visionary in its midst.
Fortunately, this tumultuous industry backstory doesn’t necessarily come through in Hotel Transylvania 2, which despite its uneven pacing and story still manages to offer more cartoon creativity and hilarious gags than pretty much anything else in animated film’s blockbuster marketplace. But speaking by phone from Sony, it doesn’t take long (at all) for the stubborn and refreshingly frank Tartakovsky to hold forth on his frustrations with the way Hotel Transylvania 2 and Popeye were handled. They are, of course, balanced out by Tartakovsky’s persistent optimism for his next fantastic Sony project, Can You Imagine?, although it is still only in development, as well as the growing certainty that his poetic, timeless Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack will make an inevitable comeback.
And while the same may not be said about his baby, Sym-Bionic Titan — smothered too early in its crib by a short-sighted Cartoon Network, a cancellation that compelled Tartakovsky to abscond to Sony — the Dexter’s Laboratory auteur is nevertheless holding his head high and hoping for the best as Hotel Transylvania 2′s box office returns will come in during a Halloween season in which it has no real competition for the hearts and minds of the all-ages demographic.
I spoke with Tartakovsky about all of these subjects, and why animated feature films, despite perennially appearing in the top five most financially successful movies of the year (any year), are still maddeningly treated like second-class citizens in a cinema industry running short on original ideas.
The last time we spoke at length, you were taken aback by Hotel Transylvania’s success, so this time I hope you’re more prepared.
Genndy Tartakovsky: [Laughs] Hopefully, it doesn’t go the opposite direction on me. I guess it’s good that I was working. We’ll see.
For the first film, you took over a languishing project that had passed through the hands of multiple directors. Is Hotel Transylvania 2 your film, with your stamp on it?
Genndy Tartakovsky: No. Parts of it were easier the second time around, because everyone kind of already knows what it is. We’re not trying to discover the animation style. But at the same time, I think Adam and Robert Smigel really wanted to take control of the second film, because that’s kind of what they do. It’s an Adam Sandler project, and he’s running the show, to a degree. So Hotel Transylvania 2 was more difficult that way.
You know, if everyone is cooking at the same time, it’s kind of hard if they’re throwing in different ingredients when I might not agree. It makes it more complex. That part was more difficult, especially for me and where I’m coming from — which is doing 20 years of television pretty much on my own. I’ve collaborated with everyone I’ve ever worked with, but it’s pretty much my decision, you know? But now it’s like I have to fight for my ideas and decisions, and as a director that’s sometimes stifling and difficult.
You didn’t find that to be the case in the first film?
Genndy Tartakovsky: In the first film, I was just bullish out of the gate. I had no clue how anything worked, so I just went for it. With this film, there were more guidelines and rules set up front about how they wanted things to work.
That’s shocking. Your cooking metaphor makes sense if everyone’s a cook, but you’re the only cook here.
Genndy Tartakovsky: [Laughs] Right. Well, sometimes it doesn’t quite work that way. Look, we all collaborate, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. On this film, some things got better, some things not so much. But that’s the feature business. When you’ve got high-stakes, big-budget films, everyone is going to make sure their talent is served, if you know what I mean.
Sorry, it’s alien to me to try and seize the reins of an animated film from someone who’s proven to be one of the best there is at it.
Genndy Tartakovsky: Thank you. You know, it’s animation. We are the art form that everyone thinks they can do, and that goes across the board. That’s the curse of animation, because it’s considered for kids. It isn’t treated with the same respect that live-action gets, even though animated movies are always in the top five most financially successful films of the year, which is how success is judged.
I don’t want to get too interpersonal, but you’ve kind of thrown me for a loop…
Genndy Tartakovsky: [Laughs] I’m sorry! You know, I’m always very frank because I hate it when people are like [gushing], “Oh, everything is great! It’s perfect!” I like reading the true stories, because they’re more interesting.
Let me ask it this way: Did you win more battles than you lost?
Genndy Tartakovsky: Yeah. I think, at the end of the day, yes. From the film that we started out with, to the film that we ended up with, we ended on a high note. But that’s the usual process; storytelling in animated films is very organic. You start from one spot, and hopefully get better each step of the way, and we definitely did, by leaps and bounds. You know, there was some stuff in there that we wanted to cut, but Adam really liked, and since he’s the executive producer he definitely has that power. But there’s also a lot of good stuff left in.
We talked about making the first film less photorealistic and stiff. Is that something you fought for?
Genndy Tartakovsky: Yeah, the animation style is very similar to the first one, except we tried to push it further, especially with expressions. You’ll see that Drac’s expressions have an even larger range. We really messed around more with the size of his eyes. In the big, final fight sequence, I decided we might as well give everything that I was planning to do on Popeye a shot. All the slow-motion, funny punches, because Popeye is all about the funny fights. We just went for it, and I think the animators did a really good job, because that stuff is so hard to do in CG.
It reminded me of the way the Powerpuff Girls used to kick Mojo Jojo’s ass.
Genndy Tartakovsky: It’s funny, because I was trying to stay away from some of my normal tropes. But then I thought that I never really got to do any of them in CG, so let’s see how it feels. So I got to do a punch with a swish pan behind it; all of the posing was very much to my sensibility.
Tartakovskian, if you will.
Genndy Tartakovsky: [Laughs] My purer stuff for sure was in there. It’s all visual; there’s very little dialogue in that bit.
You mentioned Popeye, and I don’t know if you want to be frank about it, but I really want to know why you’re not doing that film.
Genndy Tartakovsky: Basically, we did a screening, and it was great. Internally, everyone was super happy with it. I think it was also exactly what King Features wanted. We had a great reaction.
But this was also during the culmination of the Sony hack, and I could feel that something was going to happen soon. So after the screening, I didn’t get an answer from them, which was weird because everybody was so positive. Usually, we meet and talk, and get notes. But they had a meeting on their own, and that was it. I just got a phone call afterward telling me how great it was, which always makes me suspicious. If they just call to tell you it’s great, there’s something going on, because they didn’t offer any notes. Later on, I personally went to see Amy Pascal, and said, “Look, I’m a big boy. I can take it. I just need some information.” And she said, “Look Genndy, we love you, but we just don’t like Popeye.”
Genndy Tartakovsky: And that was the core. I think they’re still developing Popeye, trying to find a way to make it, but just not the way I was making it, which I think was very sincere and respectful to the way Popeye was.
We once talked about your approach to Popeye, which was to enhance the fluidity of those cartoons and characters, which was the great thing about them.
Genndy Tartakovsky: Yeah, not only were those characters really well animated, they were animated really funny. Which is an even harder thing to do, to elicit laughs just from movement. But that’s why I’m in this industry; it’s what I love. Popeye had that in spades; the way those characters moved was really funny. I was so looking forward to it. That little test we did was just a scratch of what we had planned.
Is there a chance Sony would ask you to pick it up again?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I mean, you never know. There’s a reason every project usually takes seven years to get going, because of this type of stuff. But right now, I just don’t see it coming back to me.
So where does that leave you? You had a two-picture deal?
Genndy Tartakovsky: For Popeye and Hotel Transylvania 2. The development of Can You Imagine? was kind of part of that. So right now we’re continuing with its development, and trying to find a place for an original idea at Sony.