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Welcome to Awards Contenders. This awards season, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2020 (and that extra period of 2021 that allows them to qualify), and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with director Joel Crawford and animator Heidi Jo Gilbert of the Golden Globe-nominated animated film The Croods: A New Age.
**SPOILER WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for The Croods: A New Age.**
The Croods: A New Age — one of the few smash-hit movies of this pandemic — features one of the final film performances of Academy Award-winning actress Cloris Leachman, who passed away at the end of January. As the voice of Gran (the Queen o' Wimmins), Leachman inspires the Croods and the Bettermans, the sequel's warring families, at a crucial moment to team up to form a new tribe, the Thunder Sisters.
According to director Joel Crawford and animator Heidi Jo Gilbert, it was actually Leachman's own personality that inspired this prehistoric plot development, as they revealed to SYFY WIRE, along with some other creative choices that nudged the film up the evolutionary ladder.
Do you sit around in a room and try to dream up animal hybrids together? Were there any you thought, "No, this is too weird…"?
Heidi Jo Gilbert: Early on, another story artist and I were each coming up with creatures on our own, and we both separately came up with the same creature: half chicken, half bulldog. We didn't ever come up with a name for that one. For me, it kind of felt like designing Pokémon.
We need to talk about Gran's wig, Wigasus. How did that even come about?
Joel Crawford: That was one of the weird creatures we actually amplified. At the dinner scene, everybody had a secret they reveal. Initially, one of the writers put in a joke that Gran reveals that her hair isn't just hair, but a creature living on her head. We were like, "You can't introduce something like that and then never see it again." It became this idea that Gran has, essentially, a scouting hawk. It can help them find the missing men. It just felt like a perfect part of the Thunder Sisters.
How did Cloris Leachman help bring the Thunder Sisters to life? What were some of the acting choices she made? Maybe with how she named everyone or something?
Crawford: I'm glad you brought that up. I mean, the biggest thing with Cloris is her comedic timing, her snappiness. She has this fire in her. Her acting choices inspired us so much. It made us go, "We can go crazy with this." We were like, "Gran has to have had this warrior past." So we made her the queen matriarch of a warrior tribe of women. Cloris definitely inspired that big choice in the movie. There is a moment she improvised where she's talking to Dawn, to give her a new tribe name. Dawn goes, "I'm Dawn." And Gran goes, "No. You're Sister Sunset!" It was all in the way she delivered it. She added this extra spice to it.
That naming sequence was inspired by heavy metal album covers, the ones with Conan the Barbarian-type drawings?
Crawford: It's kind of like hair metal, glam rock, something you'd see airbrushed on the side of a van. The production designer added almost like a black light, glow-in-the-dark paint, because of the powdered dust from the trees. It was just so much fun to push the look of the environment.
Gilbert: We redid the face paint multiple times to make it more dramatic. That scene was actually a case where we had some of the actors' voice recordings before I did storyboards, which is not usual for us. But since we had all the amazing acting, I could just go crazy with the character expressions. Before, the scene was just something like, Gran says, "We are the Thunder Sisters!" and then they ran off. Didn't we expand that scene because Emma Stone and Kelly Marie Tran had such great line reads, yelling "Thunder Sisters!" to each other?
Crawford: Absolutely. Emma would just go bigger and bigger, and Kelly would react to that and go even bigger. They were firing each other up.
In the deleted scenes revealed on the DVD, Grug goes into the cave within a cave within a cave, and discovers one of his deepest fears — Gran saying she's going to live forever. How does Cloris Leachman passing away affect things going forward, should there be new adventures with the Croods? Will Gran have to die? What would her death mean to the Croods?
Crawford: Excellent point. That was an early attempt at the scene in the mind cave. One of the reasons we did a different path was because it felt like a bit of a holdover from the first movie. For us, the idea of Grug having this contentious relationship with Gran didn't feel right anymore, so we decided to bring more positivity to Grug's point of view. He's more worried about his daughter leaving.
Obviously, we don't even know if we're doing a third film, but we love these characters and we want to keep telling their stories. But yes, as a team, I've talked with the producers about that kind of overarching thing of when it could be a poignant moment at some point when Gran passes, but we honestly haven't figured out all that yet.
How did the sound for the monster come about?
Crawford: Mark Mothersbaugh did the score, and I pointed him early on to the score for Akira. It's so strange and otherworldly. I said, "I want something for the creature sounds so that the music tells you it's something out of this world." He found a Bulgarian choir that does this beautiful, almost haunting kind of chant. When I heard it, I was like, "This is perfect." It was a fun surprise. We also did a lot of strange monkey sounds. We always called it the lame Planet of the Apes. So there's plenty of weirdness in there. [Laughs.]
What other films did you reference?
Crawford: I'm all over the map. We referenced Step Brothers, 21 Jump Street, Seven Samurai... Working with Nic Cage, he would pull different things from cinematic history. There is this monologue where Grug gets wistful about the one time he had a banana, and we played a little harmonica cue from Once Upon a Time in the West. When Nic heard that, he went, "Ah! Henry Fonda!" He transformed into Henry Fonda for that part of the performance. He also pulled from James Cagney.
I don't think this is spoiling things, but, at the end, he and Phil become bros, and they're calling each other "best bros." Going off the Thunder Sisters' heavy metal feel, Nic was like, "Can I sing one of these lines?" He just belted out, "Bros for life!" [Laughs.] It was so surprising. But it was like, "Oh, these two grown men are just so excited to have a friend, they can't help but yell."
The Croods: A New Age is available on digital now and will be available on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD on Feb. 23.