In a world where monster wrestling is a global sport and monsters are superstar athletes, teenage Winnie seeks to follow in her father’s footsteps by coaching a loveable underdog monster into a champion.
Within the last two decades, we've seen a surge in computer animated features, tackling thematic elements like loss, grief, fish out of water/undergod stories, with a dose of adult humor that goes over your eight-year-old's head. This surge continues as more streaming services come to the forefront with original content, this time with Paramount+ and Rumble. This family film pulls all the punches with a tight storyline, fun characters and animation, humor, and at the core - a universal message about the pressure of carrying on a family's legacy, which more than most can relate to. I had the great pleasure of speaking with director and co-writer Hamish Grieve about tackling thematic elements through story development, his personal connection to the story and character, the process of making an animated film, and collaborating with his editor.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: How did you initially land on this story and develop it to what we're seeing as the final movie?
Hamish Grieve: It was one of those strange animation processes where it was actually being developed for quite a long time and bouncing around and then all of a sudden it was being made and I kind of jumped in with both feet straight into the fire. But there was a lot of development behind the scenes and a lot of passion and people who really saw something in the graphic novel. And by the time it got to me, it was no longer in Victorian England, it was this crazy wrestling world.
Sadie: The animation world seems very niche, and outside of the realm of what a lot of screenwriters understand, and most likely won't have a full grasp behind the process of writing for animation, because it's such a huge undertaking. What is the animation process, to put it broadly, from development, finding the story, creating the animatics and then attaching someone like yourself as a director-writer?
Hamish: Yeah, it's an insane process. Everyone always says trust the process. [laughs] The process is different on every single movie experience. I started as a junior story artist on Shrek 2. And then I was head of story, which was a strange position that doesn't really have an equivalent in live-action, on two movies, Rise of the Guardians and Captain Underpants. This is my first movie actually directing, but I've been right in the mix with the animation story process. And like you said, it is different. On something like Shrek 2 especially, that movie was really created in the story pitches in the story room. I mean, we had a great screenwriter obviously, but the storyboard artists were creating a lot of the material and every Friday, we'd get in a room, back before computers, we’d get in this big room filled with panels and someone would pitch in front of us and it was some of the funniest people I've ever seen, and most of them actually have gone on to direct. And so that was one way of doing it through the storyboards. And of course, it's an intricate process. You make the movie in the animatics and then you get do-overs [laughs] you get to make it again.
By the time I got to Rumble, there had already been a couple of drafts of the script. I have a screenwriting credit because we started to write it as we made it basically. I had an incredible experience because my editor Matt Landon, is a really great creative editor and the Associate Editor and the editorial assistant that were doing the scratch for us and we'd have these storyboards and then we get these temporary performances. We were literally workshopping the material on a daily basis. I go and write some stuff in my script. They go and record the voices. Matt would like slap in some storyboards that we had, and we’d have a scene up and then we’d go, ‘Eh, let’s change this.’ A lot of the writing for Rumble was very much like a workshop process. So yeah, trust the process is different every time. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] Once you’ve gone through the casting process and finally locked in your cast, how much are their voices reshaping the character development as well?
Hamish: Yeah, because I was writing the script, I was able to keep it in flux. And then you have like, great comedic actors like Will Arnett, Jimmy Tatro, and Ben Schwartz, who's the most insane improviser I’d ever seen [laughs] he can literally do a five-minute riff that starts in one place, goes all around the globe and then ends up back where he started [laughs] it's like the most amazing high wire act. I was able to incorporate that into the script and discover with them the characters. The script is not locked at all. I think that's the producer's dream, right? [laughs] You have a locked script and then you make it and then it comes out, but I've never experienced that in animation. You get the voice performances, and the animators are actually animating to that. It's not like we ADR the animation, the voice performance always comes first and then that kind of informs the choices that the animators make as they create these characters.
Sadie: From your directing perspective and being an artist yourself, how much are you also helping influence the animation style, from the look and feel of it?
Hamish: Animation is and all filmmaking is obviously very collaborative, but animation is excessively so especially because you have to spend so long with each other [laughs] it’s two years with this family. So obviously, I'm driving a kind of an idea of what I want. But then you have these insanely talented artists. We had my friend Simon Otto, who was head of animation on all the How to Train Your Dragon movies, and he came in as a kind of consultant for a while. We kind of figured out the animation style organically because it has to serve the story and in this case, you've got these giant monsters and the movie is kind of a sports movie about wrestling. If it was just totally cartoony, like Looney Tunes cartoons, I don't think that there would be any like stakes or weight, you wouldn't buy any of the drama. But at the same time, you don't want to be horrifically violent as these two giant monsters whack at each other, so it was really threading the needle with this one and finding a style. And I come from animation, I love animation; I still want it to feel like a cartoon, I’m not trying to do realism or trying to do realism plus.
Sadie: Right. I'm curious about the heart of the story, which I believe is this idea of a family legacy coupled with, as Steve’s character pointedly says, “daddy issues,” but carrying on this idea of a legacy in their own unique way. Were you and Matt Lieberman pulling from something personally to draw inspiration from?
Hamish: We kind of jumped into the movie with both feet and were trying to figure stuff out. It sort of had this structure with the two parents who have the GOATS, the greatest of all time, which is quite a weird story to tell. I mean, the more typical story is the kind of Billy Elliot story - I want to dance but they say no, but in this story, the parents are the best and the kids kind of want to be like their parents, but can never live up to that; it's a weird specific story. And I was just trying to figure it all out. And then my dad [laughs] called me on the phone and said, ‘How old are you right now?’ and I mumbled, ’47.’ And he went, ‘Uh-huh. Yeah, I was 47 when I directed my first feature film.’ [laughs] And he goes, ‘What's your film called?’ And at the time, it was called Monster on the Hill, and he directed a film called On the Black Hill, which is like a kind of little artsy European film in England. And I went, ‘Oh, shit. I’m making a movie about myself.’ [laughs] I got into cartoons instead of art movies. [laughs] I realized, oh yeah, everything becomes personal no matter where you start from you end up kind of putting a lot of yourself into it. It did become like a personal movie, but what really clicked for me was how universal it is. Because obviously, we don't all have parents who are the greatest but we all have parents, or maybe we don't, but we're all trying to figure out what that place is that we come from the legacy that we kind of come from and then how to kind of incorporate it into our own life and kind of find our own path. Once I figured out that specific story actually could be universal, everything made sense.
Sadie: It's so universal. Going off of that, hypothetical question for you, is there a legacy that you hope to leave behind in the world of animation?
Hamish: Oh my gosh, no. [laughs] I genuinely have never thought about that, because I think I've always been so caught up in the kind of the process side of it. Having come from story it's always so much about getting a bunch of really talented people together and trying to kind of figure out this crazy puzzle. And that's sort of the fun part of it. And everything else is kind of gravy. [laughs] I really hope people have a great time watching this film and kind of take a little bit more away from it and they might have expected from a giant monster wrestling film, I'm not sure you expected it to have too much heart. If there’s any legacy, it's like a pleasant surprise maybe? [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] It is a pleasant surprise! With this being your first animated feature that you've directed, is there something that you learned during the process that you're going to use on the next one or something that you wish you would have known before putting on the director's hat?
Hamish: Every day it was a massive learning curve and learning experience and I remember the three things that I was kind of most nervous about, which was directing the actors, directing the animation, and the music side of it, because those were the things I had the least experience. And of course, it has to be the most fun and most interesting because I had the most to learn. I hope if I get the opportunity to do another one, I'll take all that with me. But again, the overriding lesson was kind of make the process enjoyable and kind of enjoy every day of being able to solve creative problems with incredibly creative people. I just feel so fortunate that that’s my job.
Sadie: What made you want to become an animator?
Hamish: Well, I was I was always one of those kids that drew monsters and Star Wars monsters. In England when I was growing up, there weren’t these schools they have like America to learn animation, like CalArts, like my contemporaries went to CalArts and places like that. And if you went to an art school in England, you're basically going to join a band and be poor, right? [laughs] and become a conceptual artist. I kind of didn't do that and I just I went to university for my English and film, but I kept drawing. I’d draw flyers for friends who were playing at nightclubs. And actually, it was my dad who started using me to do storyboards. It was a very roundabout kind of way and then I ended up moving to America not to pursue my animation dream but because I met my wife. It was never that, ‘I want to be in animation.’ But I got this crazy opportunity at DreamWorks. And my first movie was Shrek 2, I was basically doing clean-up for some of the story guys there and I was like, ‘This is the most amazing job in the world.’ [laughs] And I spent a year desperately trying to play catch up. Because I’ve worked in live-action and storyboarding, and I actually worked on set a lot, I’ve been like a Second AD and stuff, those experiences were really useful for me. I kind of came at it from a slightly different perspective and a lot of my contemporaries just came through the kind of CalArts cartoon mill I guess you could call it. [laughs] And so again it wasn't a thing that I was desperately set on, but once I arrived there, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Sadie: That's amazing, especially that roundabout way of doing storyboards for your dad. What is a head of story in animation?
Hamish: Basically, when we make one of these movies, we make them storyboards first - we make a kind of rough animatic with temporary voice actors a lot of the time until we can get the main actors cast. And basically, it’s like ten people scribbling - you either get handed the script pages or sometimes you don't get handed pages [laughs] you're just told the idea of the scene, like Puss in Boots has to break out of Fairy Godmothers factory or something. And then you pitch your scenes to the director and that goes through a few rounds - it's always iterative. And then it goes to an editor and you end up with a full movie of animatics and storyboards and then you show that and you tear it to pieces [laughs] you sit in a room for like a week and say everything that's wrong with it and try and figure out how to do it again, and you do that eight or ten times - but not on this movie, we didn't have time. You do that again and again until you can actually see what the movie is and then you start slotting in the actual more finished pieces and it goes to layout and it goes to animation. And so there are all these other stages, but the story stage is when you figure out what the movie is, and I think that's actually where a lot of animated movies, the Pixar movies, some of the DreamWorks movies have been so successful because they come from this workshop of very creative people workshopping material again and again and again.
The head of story is the person who's kind of wrangling the story artists and is between the director and the story team and is helping. It’s a very kind of in-between position and you kind of make it what you will. I was the story for Peter Ramsey who went on to direct Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and he was amazing. He taught me so much about how to have quiet authority [laughs] to get the best out of everyone because they're enjoying themselves. It’s of one of those in-between positions but the great thing is you’re in the room. I got to sit in on two movies, Guillermo del Toro came in on Rise of the Guardians and spent a weekend in a hotel in Calabasas with him breaking down story. Been in a room with Edgar Wright kind of pitching stuff through and trying to break the story. I’ve had all of these experiences with amazing artists and just seeing how they work was super valuable.
Sadie: What’s the creative collaboration process like working with your editor and how early on are they brought in?
Hamish: Well, the editor is such a creative partner in animation film. And Matt, we actually worked together on Captain Underpants at DreamWorks, so I knew him pretty well, and he's incredibly creative and very opinionated, which is great. [laughs] He was my creative partner really in this movie. That's really where the work gets done; you're taking storyboards and layer in the animations coming in and the voice performances and you're shaping them in that room for hours and hours on end. [laughs] Unlike live-action, if you don't have the material, you still have the opportunity to go out and create it, so you're kind of shaping what you have, and then going, ‘Oh, why don’t we try this?’ or ‘We need more of that,’ until you run out of time and money - in general, you can do that. [laughs] Just the opportunity to kind of try stuff is what editing an animated movie is all about.
Rumble is now streaming exclusively on Paramount+.