From ‘Wreck-It-Ralph’ to ‘The Simpsons’: A Chat with director Rich Moore

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rich-moore-exclusive-interview_450x254Growing up, there were few things I liked to watch more than ‘The Simpsons’. It was absolute genius to me, especially those first classic seasons. Fast forward to 2012, and my favorite animated film of the year was Wreck-It-Ralph. Go figure, the director of that flick is also one of the early helmers of ‘the hit FOX show. That sure got me excited for the chance to chat with filmmaker Rich Moore when Disney presented the opportunity to me. We had a fun chat which you’ll be able to see below. We pick things up right after our introductions and chatter about my puppy Ben (no, he’s not named after Ben Affleck, though I get asked that a lot). Enjoy!

Joey Magidson: I think your career has shown some amazing versatility, but I want to start things off with the reason we’re doing this…’Wreck-It Ralph’. How did you come to make an animated feature after spending most of your career until then in TV?

Rich Moore: Well, I started at Disney in 2008, and was invited by John Lasseter to cover the studio as a director, and John and I knew each other for a long time. He said, “I’d like you to come in and develop some ideas for a movie, and I want you to promise me that you’re not going to make what you’d call a ‘Disney film’. I want you here for you, for your point of view, and don’t try to second guess yourself. And if your thinking gets a little far in one direction of another, you can always pull it back… but I don’t want you to second guess, and to be true to who you are.” They were kind of amazing marching orders to get, you know, coming into a place like Disney that has such a long legacy of films, and could frankly become pretty daunting to a new person coming in – trying to live up to that huge legacy. And John mentioned – this is like a dream come true – that the studio had been trying to make an animated film about video game characters for quite a long time, about 15 years!

Joey: Wow, really?

Rich: He said that since the time he came in as Chief Creative Officer they had taken a crack at it, and it had not gone well, and they were putting it on the shelf about 6 months prior to me starting. And so he mentioned to me, “We’d really like to crack this video game story, would you mind, just as you’re developing ideas, think about that as one of them?”, and I said “Sure, I love video games so that would be fun and really great to do. So along with the other ideas I pitched to John, I also included this one about video games, and what I didn’t want to do was base it around one game, or make it, at it’s core, an action/adventure type thing, but that would be in there. More so it would be centered around this old-school character that was really questioning his role in the game, and really struggling with this existential crisis of ‘What’s the meaning of my life? I know I’m programmed to do this job, but what if I don’t like this job that I do every day? That felt really compelling to me, that it’s about someone who’s programmed – not just like a human being who has choices – but someone who was programmed to do one thing and wanted to fight against that. That intrigued me and when I shared it with John he felt intrigued too, and he said “This is really good. This is a story worth telling.” That was the genesis of the whole thing, and that was almost like four years ago that I pitched that idea to John, and I’ve been working on a movie ever since until we released this last November.

Joey: I remember, it was actually interesting, in New York it was hard to actually go see the film. The press screening was supposed to happen during the storm…

Rich: Oh, right! Right, right, right…

Joey: I remember when we first heard about it, because I’m a New Yorker, I don’t care. I assume nothing is going to interrupt my day. So I remember going, “It can rain as much as it wants, Tuesday I’m going to go see this…” And by Tuesday, my grandfather’s Mini Cooper had actually floated away…

Rich: Oh my god!

Joey: Things like that, and we figured, “Oh, maybe that screening’s not happening…”, because I remember Disney being like “Well, we’re not sure…”

Rich: “Maybe we’re… not… seeing this movie today….”

Joey: Exactly. They were like “We really want you guys to see this but we’re not sure if you can get to Manhattan, so we’ll see”. So I remember having to go the next weekend – it took forever to get to see it – and kind of sitting down (and it was the first thing I was seeing since the storm), and thinking “Wow, this is really, really funny!”. Having now heard how long it had been in development, it makes a lot of sense that you guys cracked a code recently because as much as many of the games are very recognizable to children of the 80’s, 90’s, things like that, I think having the ‘Call of Duty’ centric game really ties it in, and adds something that I can imagine five or six years ago seeming too one-track.

Rich: I think, having not really seen too much of, I asked John in the beginning, “If I really jump into this thing, do you want me to look at the old material, or what was created for it?” They said, “No, you don’t have to look at any of that stuff, if you just start with video games – that’s cool.” What I understand, from people who have seen the old material and some who worked on it, it was very kind of one-sided back in it’s earlier iterations. It was important to me for it to be able to, not just be a love letter to old arcade games or to that generation, but that it speak to all people, even people who didn’t play games, and not just people who knew the old games.

Joey: It definitely worked. I mean, I don’t play nearly as much as I did, in the late 80s and now being, you know 26 and having other things to do with my day. But I know my girlfriend’s not huge into video games, she recognized the classics – like her brother would play Golden Eye – but she was really into the movie

Rich: Oh, that’s cool!

Joey: I think some of the things that hit really well were, for some reason, the image of Wreck It Ralph to the racing game, and them being next to each other in the arcade, it does bring you back to the days when people played at arcades. You’d have the wrestling game next to the shooting game next to the old game that your parents would play, and for some reason I keep having the image of old WWF wrestling games, where there were two buttons you just kept hitting until someone fell down, that kind of simplicity.

Rich: ( Laughing ) Keep hitting ‘X’!

Joey: Exactly! Or finding out from your parents that there was a pattern to Pac Man, we would play with our eyes closed and things like that. Things that would never occur to us now, because to play Madden you need three hands and a real NFL playbook.

Rich: Right, (Still laughing)

Joey: To see the dichotomy was being handled really, really well, besides just being hilarious. And one of the things I like it about it now, like I said, going over your resume a little bit, is that the type of stuff you were making previously played into making this not just about one thing, because I mean, you were on the ground floor for the Simpsons, you’ve done a lot of Futurama… shows that have made their bones in taking what you expect and making three degrees to the right, and two up, and like it’s own little cheat code.

Rich: I think working on things like the Simpsons and Futurama, they were so character-based, we always thought of the character first and being true to the characters no matter how ridiculous they were. We always treated them as people you could relate to, and they were ultimately kind of human beings, and not just cartoon characters. I think that’s why, especially with the Simpsons, that it appealed to that audience at that time and still today. It amazes me – I was just talking with someone on Sunday who’s been with the show from the very beginning, when I was there, and he’s been working on it since then… only the Simpsons. He said “Yeah, we’re getting into Season 25 in a month!” and I’m like, “My god, I remember back in Season One, when we thought, ‘well… we’ll be lucky if we get picked up for another season, maybe three, but I’m sure by then people will kind of figure out that it’s just a cartoon and they’ll tune out”, but there’s something just really magical in those characters in the beginning that people really invested themselves in the show! The audience really wanted to know more about these characters. The world of the Simpsons just became so big, and it felt like our world. Even a story like ‘Wreck It Ralph’ taking place in a world of video games with all these different genres of video games, it was important to me that the characters be people that we could identify with, and that the audience would want to invest their interest into, and that the world – even though it’s fantastic – felt like our world, and was interesting enough that we wanted to explore it. In a way it’s like the Simpsons and Wreck-It-Ralph are very similar at their heart.

Joey: Yeah. Especially, I think, the scene of Ralph talking with the villains, bring the AA meeting aspect to it. That felt like the first five seasons of the Simpsons. Actually, about a year ago, I went back and started from the very first episode, and through the first four seasons, right before seeing it actually. It is interesting that so many of those moments are like that, what can we take that we wouldn’t normally see, like Wreck-It-Ralph, in a supposed ‘family’ animated comedy, and the Simpsons were the same way – What can we throw in there, what did Roseanne do that we can make a cartoon character do? And just kind of comment on it a little bit. In the first couple seasons, Homer’s not an idiot, he’s just kind of angrier than you’d expect.

Rich: Yeah, he was kind of hapless. There were a lot of episodes where Homer was the one actually trying to improve the family, where Homer was the one embarrassed by the family, and looking for answers and trying… taking the family to shock therapy and things like that.

Joey: That still may be the best episode ever.

Rich: Yeah, so it was really those episodes… it was really season one, finding the groove of the show and that’s what was really cool about it. When we kind of come back season after season and expand on what we had done the season before, or even the episode before. That’s what I loved about working with that crew of people. It reminds me of where I work now – we really complimented each other, and we would learn from one another. If someone was doing this in one of their shows, we would try to kind of implement it into the show that I was working on, just to get the feeling of consistency through the whole season with the whole family so it felt like their was a foundation there, that there was a lot to this world and especially the family. So those who were looking for it in the audience could feel this consistency that ran through the whole show. We have that same kind of collaborative spirit going on at Disney. I feel really great to be able to bring stuff from my experience to things that you might think really apply, like the Simpsons to Disney, but really they are closer than one might think. Again, I feel like above anything else, my job is to tell an emotional story with characters that we enjoy and care about and set that all in a world that feels interesting, that we want to kind of visit.

Joey: I think that’s a good point – if you look at what Disney did, even if you just look at 2012’s releases, there’s a lot of influence that you wouldn’t necessarily see in Disney. I know the popular coin was Brave was Pixar trying to make a Disney movie, and Wreck-It-Ralph was Disney trying to make a Pixar movie and Frankenweenie was Disney trying to make a Universal monster movie. It’s really interesting to see. And we’re big on the Oscar race and I think what has people so confuses is they’re trying to put them into a box this year, you know, you don’t have just ‘the Pixar movie’, ‘the Disney movie’, ‘the foreign movie’, the hand-drawn one, you didn’t even need a name most years. This year you have such a weird situation where The Pirates looks very different from everything else and then you have three really strongly related Disney films, and then ParaNorman, which people get confused with Frankenweenie. Even ParaNorman, which is a very different tone than most of these movies, works in a couple moments that you don’t expect. I came to that one really late, and there’s a joke at the end of the movie that’s so not a kid’s joke, but again, you’re like, “Oh my god, they got away with that!”

Rich: It comes out of nowhere. And you know, I think that’s why animation is in good shape. A feature animation today is in really, really good shape. As someone who’s at the studio, no one who’s at our studio said, “Ok, I want you guys to make a Pixar-type movie”, and at Pixar, no one said, “I want you to make a Disney-style movie”, and no one said to Tim Burton, “we want you to do your take on a Universal monster movie.” It really came from the creative minds, you know, the people on the ground. It came from Brenda Champan and Mark Andrews, that Brave was their brain child and the studio embraced it, and Wreck-It-Ralph was my creation, and the studio never said, “This is too much like a Pixar movie.” They really welcome the contribution of the creative people at the studios, and I’m really excited to be there. I’m really excited to be there with John Lasseter, who’s the Chief Creative Officer of both studios of Pixar and Disney animation because it does feel like a place where you can try something thats out of the norm, other than your classic fairytale type movies. Not to say that there isn’t room for that, because there is, looking at the slate down the line, there’s a great combination of traditional fairytale kind of films and then more contemporary animated films, more in the line of Wreck-It-Ralph. As a high point in a career creatively, and I’ve worked on some really, really amazing things with amazing people, but creatively, as a director, this is a real high point.

Joey: It looks like it might wind up with the Oscar in the end, and that’s a testament to quality. It’s been a hard category to predict, but of late, Wreck-It-Ralph is really coming to the top and I think that just speaks to the comedy and just how good it is, in the end. You just mentioned that this is a high point, and my question for you would be, what’s next? Obviously, there’s at least chatter about a sequel, and I’m sure there’ll be one even if they had to get me to direct it, but I’m sure at the same time, having a hit and cracking the code of this one, there has to be an open mind to some of the other stuff you have an interest in. So I’m curious about what’s next.

Rich: There has been chatter about another one, and I would definitely love to be a part of it. I do have other ideas for other things down the line, but I really, really love these characters and I love the people I’ve worked with on the movie. On this movie I got to work with old friends, people I’ve known forever from college, brand new people that I’d never met before who were veterans at Disney, and became great friends with them. People I’ve been fans of forever like John C. Riley and Sarah Silverman, I’ve absolutely come to love these guys. I think everyone from top to bottom would love to revisit this world, me included, so on the creative side, there’s nothing but anticipation to kind of go back and keep expanding. It’s like with the Simpsons, the way it was fun to come back season after season and revisit that world, and expand on what we’ve done before. I think it would be fun to work with these characters again because I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s there, what we could do with the subject matter and these characters.

Joey: Oh, yeah. Definitely. And just look at how many games come out and how iconic some of them get. And if he were to move to, say, home consoles, there’s a thousand movies that are there.

Rich: That’s where I’d like to go next. Home consoles, social gaming, mobile games, that type of stuff. We’ve just talked mostly about arcade cabinets in the first one, and like you said, we got a little bit of contemporary culture, the feeling of that, into the movie, but it would be good to jump head-first into that whole world.

Joey: The same stuff is there. You look at the old Atari type games, there were Wreck-It-Ralph type consoles, and in my uncle’s basement there’s Pong next to the old Nintendo, next to an air hockey table, next to a VHS player and upstairs there are PS3’s. There’s a ton that can be done there. With a cast like that- John C. Riley, Sarah Silverman… I didn’t even know Ed O’Neil was in there until after the fact.

Rich: It was a dream cast to work with. Everyone embraced the movie 100%, a delight to work with. They really gave their all when they were acting, not just with the comedy but with heartfelt areas also. By the end, at our last recording, we were so sad for it to be over. John said, “Man, you know, this is the longest job I’ve ever had.” I said, “What, you’ve never been on a production longer than two and half, three years?”, and he said “No, I’m not talking about in show business, I’m talking about any job! I’ve never had a job that went on this long! So I’m really kind of said it’s over.” We said “Well, hopefully this won’t be it.” And we’ve got our fingers crossed that it won’t be.

Joey: I saw you got to work in the voice of Bender too, that didn’t get by me!

Rich: (Laughs) Yeah! Good old John DiMaggio. I love him, he’s an old buddy. Any time I can spend working with him is a good time.

Joey: This was fun, just like the movie!

Rich: Oh thank you so much!

Joey: As someone who’s big into old episodes of The Simpsons…

Rich: Those early ones, we were really given a lot latitude to create the show, you know. It wasn’t until recently that I looked back and thought about how much that meant to me. It was more than just a job, and you don’t really think that when you’re doing it.

Joey: I miss the days of Homer wearing a tie, so I definitely appreciate it.

Rich: (Laughs) That’s right! He used to wear his tie and his ID badge!

Joey: This has been great. Congratulations again on the movie.

Rich: Thank you.

Joey: It was a pleasure, so hopefully we can talk again on the next one!

Rich: Well, thank you. Hopefully sooner than later.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!