Once upon a time, way back in 2004, there was a book that told the tale of a very brave mouse. The book was split up into four sections, each telling the same story of rescuing a human princess from a different character's perspective. The book was a big hit and even won the Newberry Medal. But is was a book that would create some challenges to anyone wanting to adapt it into the big screen animated epic that it surely deserved. So it was with great excitement that Buzzine has watched a truly all-star cast of voice talents being assembled to give The Tale of Despereaux the love and attention that one of the very best modern children's books surely deserved. Our very own Emmanuel Itier sat down with Dustin Hoffman, Sigourney Weaver, Matthew Broderick and Harry Potter's Emma Watson to talk rats, mice, bravery and not getting distracted by all the other wonderful movies that they are all also in right now...
Emmanuel Itier: Matthew, have you managed to make contact with your inner mouse?
Dustin Hoffman: Or is he just happy to see you?
Matthew Broderick: That’ll be explained later.
EI: Was there one line in the movie that gave you a clue who Despereaux was at heart? This is a wonderful fairy tale. Emma, can you walk about the difference between this fairy tale and Harry Potter? Dustin, do you see your rat as being a descendant of Ratso in Midnight Cowboy?
MB: I’ve already forgotten my part of the question. Ah, my inner mouse? I just did what a variety of directors told me to do. No, I just really loved the story and I didn’t particularly think of him as a mouse. I figured once they did the drawings, it would be clear that he was a mouse. I thought of him as a kind of teen, or a boy trying to turn into a man, and I tried to take it seriously and think of it like my own life. I didn’t think too much about mouseness.
Sigourney Weaver: I think I said Despereaux did not know he was small.
MB: That’s right. I forgot that. I didn’t know I was small and I’m a gentleman. Didn’t I say something like that? That seemed to mean something.
SW: …And calling your cat Fluffy.
MB: Not scared of knives. I like cheese, I know that. We all discussed it pretty carefully and tried to take the story seriously, actually, so we tried to take the situation that I was in very seriously. I know that’s not a great answer.
DH: There’s not a sound bite in there.
MB: I know. I really want to talk about the bail-out plan for the auto industry. [Laughs] Thats what I’m waiting for.
Emma Watson: The land of Dor feels quite magical, so I guess it has that in common with Harry Potter. And also The Tale of Despareaux is based on a book by Kate DiCamillo. Apart from that, I think they’re very different stories and have very different messages, and Despereaux has such a strong character and identity of its own. Also, it was so fun for me to work in a completely different medium doing an animated feature. I’d never done that before. It was a lot of fun and I’m massively proud of it.
EI: Did you work by yourself the whole time?
EW: Actually, Matthew very kindly came in and did a couple of days with me.
MB: That was nice, and I got to go to London for free.
DH: [Produces a small rat] This guy was in my shirt. I wanted to time it right.
SW: He wants to be heard.
DH: And I had one for Matthew, but he wore a sweater…as he said, –”Thankfully…?”
EI: Is it a rat or a hamster?
MB: We’re not sure.
DH: It could be a cross.
SW: Hope there are no cats here. Oh, he’s got a fur coat. He’s not a normal hamster. Oh, he’s so sweet, I’m not sure he’s happy.
DH: He was peeking out. No, he’s not happy. All right, I’ll hold him. Sorry about this. I was hoping for a better take. My inner mouse didn’t start to grow until puberty. Okay. It’s a very tough house.
MB: I know.
EI: Reiteration of question about rat…
DH: You keep saying “rat” and I don’t know why I resent it, but I do. [Laughs] [Speaks to Kate DiCamillo at the back.] Kate, would you be offended? Would Roscuro be offended? Why don’t you guys come up here? You wrote it, you directed it…this is offensive.
SW: They’re cowards. They’re cowering in the back.
MB: They’re coming.
DH: Come on, give the press conference a little weight. I always thought press conferences were so ludicrous for actors, until the Bush administration — now I feel like it gave us a kind of dignity, actually.
SW: Compared to them.
DH: Yes, come on up here. These should be serious answers. Can you help me with “Would Roscuro respond negatively?” It’s the way he said “rat.” I don’t like…how would Roscuro react? I want you to say how you would answer that question. Please come up here.
[Kate comes up and sits in Hoffman's seat]
Kate DiCamillo: Okay, standing in for Dustin Hoffman. None of you all want to see me. What was the question? [Laughs]
EI: I wondered if this rat was a descendent of Ratso Rizzo.
DH: You think it’s funny?
KD: I do think it’s funny. I thought it was funny when he said it the first time. I think that this rat is absolutely a rat unlike any other. And you know what? If you’re going to give me a microphone, I’m gonna talk because this movie is different from the book in a fabulous way, in that Roscuro becomes very much a hero, and there’s that wonderful moment where there’s a rock pulled aside and the light comes through, and he apologizes to that, and to me that’s a critical moment in the film.
DH: All you have to do is just say that was my answer when you write it.
KD: That said, Dustin, now I’ll go away. That was really fun. Okay.
DH: She wrote the book, got the Newberry Award, and she’s only, I think, now about 19.
EI: Emma, what about your character?
EW: She’s basically your quite generic princess. She’s very beautiful, and she lives in the Land of Dor and everything’s great, but then she loses her mother, and what makes it worse is that she also loses her father because he goes into this state of grieving and he just kind of locks himself away from his people and his responsibilities, and also from his role as a father. So she’s pretty lonely, she’s pretty isolated, she’s kind of literally locked up in this tower, and she can’t really be part of the real world. So I thought it was interesting and felt very sad for her.
I thought the conversations she had with Despereaux were really charming, and I really fell in love with the scripts and the book more than the character. It did take me a little bit of time because, when you work on a film, you do voice recording and, if anything goes wrong, you do a couple days of ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement — dubbing). But a lot my performance is quite physical in the film because I’ve been kidnapped and there’s a rat in my room. It was hard trying to get all of that into my voice — the emotional and the out of breath and the screaming. It was fun. I was actually given a toy Despereaux who I could speak to, so I had kind of a substitute. So yeah, it was really interesting and great fun.
EI: When you start doing this process, you’ve seen the character but it’s not animated. How does your performance change as they start showing you scenes and you see how your voice is being used? Do you change your performance? And for Dustin and Matthew, did you get to work together?
DH: We met years and years ago and we were friends, and then we did a film called Family Business. It didn’t do well, and we vowed never to work together again.
MB: And yet, here we are.
SW: But separated — they wouldn’t sit together.
DH: It’s not by accident that he’s on one end and I’m on the other. No, we didn’t work together, but I will say, for my part, it was quite wonderful because… I don’t know about the other actors — there were other actors in the room — and we not only sat at the table trying to interact, but Gary Ross, the producer, had us moving around and he had a guy with a boom following us around. I thought, if this film doesn’t turn out good, I’m going to kill him. But for my part, he’s extremely responsible for this stuff. He wouldn’t let me read the script because he knew I would ask for rewrites.
MB: Again, I’ve completely forgotten the beginning of the question.
EI: How your performance changed once you saw the animation…
MB: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve actually done a few of these now. This one was particularly detailed, and I remember moving around too, which I had never done before. Even when we recorded, we were in a big room with boom mics, so it was a very natural feeling. You see sketches of your character, you read it, and then you have to trust the people who tell you what their plans are. And then you record a little, and then they animate a little, and then together, you get more of a feeling for what they mean as you see more. And as they hear you more, they might adjust things, and the character grows into what it’s going to be over a couple of years usually. It’s very interesting, and it’s sort of fun for the actor. I find I have to really try to listen to what the creators want, and then also try to bring as much humanity as I can. It’s pleasant. There’s no big rush when you’re doing it, there’s no lighting and a crew of guys who want their lunch, so you can take your time, you can stop for a little while, chat, and go back. It’s nice for the actor.
SW: I didn’t get to move around. He wouldn’t let me. And I think I was the person they started with, because the narrator has to usher people into this world and introduce these characters, and it was really exciting to be that person, which Gary described as children’s eccentric aunt with a cigarette. He’s forgotten that now, but he did at one point bring in a couple of interns for me to talk to, because I really wanted the sense of telling this story to children, because it gets very scary sometimes, and I wanted them to know that I was always with them and I would take care of them, and I’d get them back to the light. So it was very interesting. I’d never done the narrator before, and I found it very, very interesting, and I must have come back — I don’t know how many times darling — at least two or three times a year in the last three years, as it evolved, which was fascinating.
EI: Sigourney, did you have to have a certain personality for that narrator?
SW: Well gosh, I have to say that I probably used my own experience telling stories to my daughter, because I think that you have to actually draw pretty deeply into whoever your storyteller is, and of course the storyteller — the narrator — in Kate’s book is very, very strong, charming — you know, “come a little closer, get comfortable…” I think it’s one of the nicest introductions to a book ever written for families. My daughter was a little too old to actually read the story aloud to her, although we read all the Harry Potters out loud, and I didn’t realized until I sat down next to you that you were Hermione. And we worship you. But anyway, so I tried to not put anything over; I tried to just find the person in me who wanted to take care of all these children.
EI: How was it to not step on the other characters — in other words, to not be a character yourself?
SW: I was like a big umbrella. I was able to hold my arms around the world that all these characters lived in and be a kind of person to bring them all together, so I was really with the readers — the experiencers of the story. I had one foot in each world — in your world and in their world, so I was really more like you than one of them.
EI: Is there still a place for fantasy and innocence when you wake up to headlines like Mumbai? And did you guys nimble on anything through the course of this?
SW: We just ate some rat sandwiches. Listen, Obama won. I think there are fantasies [that] do happen.
EI: Matthew, is your son excited that there’s a movie for him finally?
MB: Yeah, he is. He said he didn’t want me to come here, but I said, “I’m coming for Despereaux, that’s why I’m leaving,” and he said, “And when you’re there, what happens?” “I talk to people.” “And then is there some sort of screening?” “Yes.” “And at the screening, what happens before you go into the screening?” “I talk to more people.” “When you leave the screening what happens?” And I’m like, “Well, sometimes they give me a bag.” “What’s inside the bag?” “Yeah, there might be some kind of toys, I’m not sure.” But he very much wants a stuffed Despereaux. That’s what that entire story was leading to, Dustin. Do you think I told that well?
DH: Yes, I’ve heard you tell it once before better, but it’s not a great audience. I mean, Sigourney warmed them up a bit.
EI: Emma, can you tell us where you are in Harry Potter land right now?
EW: Yes, we begin filming the seventh one in February, and the sixth one will be released in July of next year.
EI: And the seventh is going to be in two parts, and you’re going to work on it for a year?
DH: Don’t talk about the other films.
EW: Yeah, exactly. Thank you Dustin.
SW: Harry Potter who?
DH: Bring them back, bring them back, bring them back to Despereaux.
EW: This is much more exciting. We’re a long way off a film being released or a film being made, so to be honest, I don’t have a huge amount to talk about.
EI: Dustin, how helpful was it working on Kung Fu Panda prior to this? Or did you work on this first?
DH: I think I worked on Kung Fu Panda first, yeah. This was different. Kung Fu Panda was similar to what you guys are saying — the man in the glass booth. This was much more interactive. I will say this, because some of the actors have been saying this: when movies first started, as far as I can tell, because I was there, it was silent, and when you went to the rushes, you looked to see what you could do better, it was cheap, and the Chaplins and the Keatons would redo 90 percent of it. That’s what they were there for. So what I’m getting at is that they could spend all the time in the world, if they wanted, making these movies and these animated films, which get extraordinary writers and directors and animators who will spend two, three years, and it is the way a movie should be made. It can’t because of the money, but like any other art form, painting or writing, you can go back and redo and redo, and all of us are brought in and they’re looking at it and they’re redoing it. You don’t have to get it right the first time, and I like it.
EI: Did you have the luxury of seeing the fully animated character while you were doing it?
DH: No, you’re really trusting these people.
EI: Emma, can you talk about what you think the message of the movie is? And Matthew, do you see this as having a sequel?
EW: There are so many good ones. I felt like this was, and I’ve watched a lot of animated films. I love animated films, so I feel like I can speak with a bit of knowledge. It felt really different to anything that I’ve ever seen before, because it felt like it wasn’t patronizing to children. The messages that are in the film feel really profound and philosophical, and I loved the ending — a serious ending about forgiveness. I thought that was incredible, that this chain reaction happens where the king was hurt so he hurt his daughter, and Pea was hurting so she hurt the servant girl, and hurt Roscuro, and the whole thing kind of just took off, and just by one person saying sorry and really meaning it, everything could be restored. It was amazing. And my other favorite message was that every girl is a princess. I thought that was such a beautiful message — that Mig, in her father’s eyes, is a princess, and I just thought that was beautiful. I really love it. It works on lots and lots of different levels. I don’t think it’s just a children’s film; I think anyone can go see it and get something from it.
DH: She likes it much more than the Harry Potter movies.
MATTHEW: I also loved the movie, and I also think it’s shockingly beautiful. Animation seems to keep changing and growing, and this is a very special one. A sequel? I don’t know. It’s such a complete story, I think. I always think that wouldn’t happen because everything happened that was meant to. It’s such a satisfying story, but I’m certainly available, if that’s what you’re asking.
EI: Sigourney, you’ve done a combination of voice and come sort of #3D technology for Avatar. Have you seen any of the footage that James Cameron showed recently?
SW: Very well-tried. My lips are sealed about the fabulous 3D adventure of Avatar, but it does look great. It’s true, again, for all of us, as artists, there’s a trust in a new technology. They do need to begin with actors with real beating hearts and rushing blood and working minds, even though they picked us, but I think that’s where the smart directors take everything — from the living people, and in the case of Despereaux, Despereaux is like this very ornate, beautiful orchid almost, that, as you move one side, another story comes up. What I think is so generous about the movie to children — I agree with Emma — they have confidence the children will be able to follow the twists and turns and ups and downs of this story, and I think the big message that I just love from it, and I loved it in the book too, is mice aren’t born knowing how to cower — they have to learn that. I loved that. I think it’s a very inspiring story for all ages. It’s all about redemption, that we all have it in us to make the right decision and be redeemed, and I think I find the father story with Mig so moving, and what Tracey Ullman does with Mig, that part of the story just breaks your heart. And again, Gary and Kate bring everyone back together and it’s resolved until the next whatever, but I think it’s really a story about big things like forgiveness and redemption.
EI: I understand you can’t talk about Avatar…?
DH: There’s no follow-up questions here.
EI: I had four follow-up questions, as far as an actor doing the voice and technology…
SW: Well, you know, performance capture — they’re using all of you physically and vocally so there’s no difference, except that you get to scamper around covered with green dots and make believe that this is a gun and this is a tree… It’s just like the way you do theatre, so I felt totally at home.
EI: So we can’t mention Last Chance Harvey at all?
DH: No, I’d like to spend the next hour talking about Last Chance Harvey. Emma was wonderful to work with. I want to say one thing, because Sigourney inspired me. First of all, your question about the rat –the serious answer is there is a very compelling line in what Sigourney is saying about kids, because kids take in information — those of us that have had children — take it in the way adults take it in also. In other words, they take it in in a kind of subconscious way or an implicit way, not necessarily totally conscious, but it gets there in imagery or metaphor. And in that first five minutes, I think Sigourney says some line about some people think a rat is a rat no matter where it’s from. That’s a very important line, because if you just insert another nationality or another or another race in there, then you start to see what the movie is talking about. In other words, that you break down the stereotype, because those of us that know rats know that they’re all different and they are all individuals.
SW: They do eat mice, though.
DH: They do eat mice, yes. In fact, mice eat mice.
EW: There are lots of different types of rats. My friend has rats as pets. She does. She has two.
DH: Rats or mice?
EW: No, rats.
DH: Real rats?
EW: They’re very clever. They’re very intelligent.
EI: What do they feed them?
EW: I don’t actually know.
EW: I didn’t quite go that far.
MB: The movie Ben was very good, if you like rats.
SW: I have a gecko and I feed it live crickets, and I’ve gotten used to that.
MB: I have crickets.
SW: We have to meet.
'The Tale Of Desperaux' in is theaters now from Universal Pictures.