The 3-D animated film “Epic” tells the story of an ongoing battle deep in the forest between the forces of good and the forces of evil. When a teenage girl named M.K. (voiced by Amanda Seyfried) finds herself magically transported into this secret universe, she must band together with a rag-tag team of fun and whimsical characters in order to save their world and ours. M.K. has a rocky relationship with her divorced scientist father Bomba (played by Jason Sudeikis), who suspects that the secret universe exists and spends his waking hours trying to prove it.
The other voice actors in “Epic” include Colin Farrell as a brave warrior named Ronin; Beyoncé Knowles as Queen Tara, the keeper of the the secret universe’s life force; Chris O’Dowd as Grub, an earnest snail; Aziz Ansari as Mub, a wisecracking slug; Josh Hutcherson as Nod, an apprentice to Ronin; and Christoph Waltz as Mandrake, the movie’s chief villain. Here is what Farrell, Seyfried, Sudeikis, Ansari, O’Dowd and “Epic” director Chris Wedge said when they gathered for an “Epic” press conference in New York City. After the press conference, I had a chance to briefly chat with O’Dowd about his HBO comedy series “Family Tree.”
A lot of you are known for edgier projects. Is it nice to be able to do something the younger members of your family can enjoy?
Farrell: I assume that’s for you, Chris?
O’Dowd: Normally I hate kids, so doing something they’re going to be able to watch is very pleasant. But just to keep up with tradition, I will be at every screening just cursing in the background.
Farrell: It’s lovely to be able to do something the kids can go and see, for sure. I have two sons, so it would be nice if they liked it. They don’t have to, of course. If they don’t like it the first time, I’ll just tell them it gets better in the second viewing. They do like “Ice Age.” It would be nice to go, “Look what I did!” But they could go, “Shite! Can you put back ‘Ice Age,’ please?”
Colin, where did you get the inspiration for your “Epic” character Ronin?
Farrell: The Fox lot on Pico [Boulevard]. It’s all there on the page. Chris [Wedge] has a really specific idea on how he wants everything done and everything to sound. I did a radio play back Ireland when I was 22 … It’s the first time I had done anything like this.
The level of attention that Chris had — I’d do 15 takes and then on the 15th take, he’d go, “That’s it, got it, done.” It was the same as the ninth or 10th take. It was fun, it was very liberating not to have the judgment of the camera there. [The radio show] was the only other time that I didn’t have a camera bearing down on me.
Can you take us through the whole process of recording the voices for “Epic”? Were the actors allowed to see their characters as they evolved in the recording booth? And can you talk about the decision to let the actor use all of their native accents?
Wedge: It’s a little different, I’m guessing, for you guys [the actors] than just being yourselves on the screen, because every animated character is a collaboration. There’s a design with the animators and the voice acting that inspires the performance. Usually, the voice actors come in a little bit later. We’ve got the thing all written, I try to pass on the script, we’ve got the characters designed, we’ve got some animation tests. We try to pitch to these guys an idea of what the movie is and what the character is going to look like, but when they go into the booth the first time, it’s kind of up to them to dig deep and come out with something.
You try to surround everybody with artwork but the fun thing about the process, the fun thing about working on the same character for a year and a half, I’m hoping, is that we come back a couple of months later, and they see their voice coming out of a character movie, and they see it interacting with other characters and they see it in the scene. That’s kind of where it gets workshopped, and that’s where the lines change and these guys can really interact and add and do their own stuff, do their own spontaneous thing. And we couldn’t get them to lose their accents.
O’Dowd: No range!
Wedge: No range at all.
For a lot of you, this is your first animated movie. Have you seen the finished film? What surprised you the most?
Ansari: I didn’t know it was animated. I was waiting for the role because I thought I was playing a slug. I did notice that there were a lot of continuity errors, because I was wearing different stuff every time I went in the booth. Also, I thought it was all going to be CGI around me. So that was probably the most shocking thing.
The three-legged pug is a memorable character in “Epic.” Did any of you have a squirrelly old pet growing up?
Farrell: I had a four-legged dog. It wasn’t that different.
Seyfried: I have a one-eyed, deaf cat.
Farrell: She should be in movies.
Seyfried: It’s getting to that point.You have to be wary of them because you can step on them.
Farrell: It’s like having a child.
Seyfried: Yeah, that’s what they say. Children: the same thing as pets. [My cat’s name ] is Fran, I think she must be like 15. She has big tumors around her but she’s fine, she’s great.
Farrell: I rescind that blessing.
Seyfried: I love the fact that we’re going to talk about my cat. I guess I really want to talk about Fran. She’s a black and white… She’s a street cat. Whatever, enough about Fran.
Ansari: I think we just heard a great pitch for a new animated feature. Fran. I see the poster in my head right now.
O’Dowd: I think we should hurry and shoot it.
Seyfried: She reminds me of that dog.
O’Dowd: I have a one-eyed trouser snake.
Wedge: And he’s fun to play with!
Seyfried: Did you bring it with you?
Farrell: Is he or she playful?
O’Dowd: You can easily step on it.
Farrell: Does it like to have its belly rubbed?
Seyfried: What’s his name?
O’Dowd: Tiny Tim. Unfortunately.
For Amanda and Colin, as the story unfolded for you, how did you relate to believing in what you can’t see (which is one of the story’s main themes) and the wonder of nature?
Seyfried: All of these characters are real people somewhere in these crazy circumstances. It was hard at first. I think, as actors, we are expected to have these crazy, wild imaginations, with no distractions and no real world. I like to dive into reality as much as possible. I didn’t have anything, I just had a black box. I really don’t know if I could have done it without Chris [Wedge] because he’s the most animated person I know. The whole world is in his head and he was able to convey that world to me so well, the way he spoke, and the way he used his hands.
Wedge: I used my hands a lot with Amanda.
Seyfried: It was really magical. He created a really, deeply, magical world.
Wedge: I was going to say, Amanda was amazing when she got in the booth. There was no calisthenics or jumping jacks, like most of these guys had to do to get ready to speak into the mic. It just came right out of her. Whatever scene we were working on, we had a little conversation about what was going on and … bang, it came right out.
Farrell: I can’t believe you’re judging me for my calisthenics.
Sudeikis: It’s process; it’s your process.
Farrell: I thought it was a safe and creative environment.
Wedge: It’s not.
Farrell: What happens in Blue Sky doesn’t stay in Blue Sky.
Wedge: You’ll get the DVD extras.
Farrell: It was all there. It’s just play. It’s all make-believe, regardless whether you have tangible material or a physical space of an environment to inhabit. It’s a radio playing in your fridge magnet or it’s an animated film, it’s all an extension of your experience multiplied by your imagination. With that in mind, it was fun to do.
I love nature. I have a nice back garden. I go there, whether I’m at home in Dublin or the west coast of Ireland. I just did a film up in Northern Ireland, which was by a lake called Lough MacNean in Fermangh, which was beautiful. Central Park is out there.
Nature seems to be one of the most exciting things to pay attention to. It is about that. There are so many things that I believe in that I can’t see, like compassion and kindness and the emotional life of every single person in this room, and so on and so forth.
Ansari: Damn, that was deep.
Wedge: Let’s just all take a moment now.
Farrell: All lights your candles now, please. Assume the lotus position.
Amanda, your “Epic” character M.K. falls in love with a guy who’s from another world, who’s unattainable. Have you ever fallen for someone who’s unattainable?
Seyfried: Yeah, an idea. You fall in love with ideas. You fall in love with your fantasies. That happens all the time and it’s depressing.
There’s a line in “Epic” that says, “The good guys need as much help they can get.” Why is this? Why do good guys need more help than the bad guys?
Farrell: Bad guys are single-minded; they don’t care about anyone else. They have one thing in mind, a common goal, and it has nothing to do with the common good of people. It’s single-mindedness. And anybody who’s compassionate or cares about anyone else, maybe their self-interest is diluted.
Wedge: That was a line that Amanda reads in the voiceover in the beginning of the movie: “The good guys need all the help they can get.” I put that in, just so people would be rooting for the good guys.
Seyfried: Because sometimes you don’t.
Wedge: Just so they know they’re the underdogs.
Ansari: Like “Fast 6,” Do I root for [Dom] Toretto, he’s a bad guy but I’m enjoying what he’s doing, he’s committing crime but I’m still enjoying watching them? But I also love The Rock, he’s the good guy, and then they team up at the end of “Fast 5,” that’s why it’s so great.
Wedge: Thanks for giving that away.
Ansari: That’s “Fast 5”! You should have seen it by now, Chris! I didn’t spoil “Fast 6!”
Colin, “Epic” is your first family film. Is this a new direction for you in your career?
Farrell: All of us are going to be animated from here on. I’ve actually painted the inside of my house in Los Angeles a luminous green so I can shoot myself and send myself to the studios so they can put me in whatever environment that they wish.
I don’t know. I got bored carrying guns, I think. I’ve got carried a lot of guns, shot a lot of guns. I don’t even like them. I hate the things. I just do different things all the time.
Chris Wedge, at what point in your life did you realize that animation was meant for you? And what are the basic elements that turn an animated film into a classic?
Wedge: I grew up in the middle of nowhere. I had time on my hands, and my friends were a long bike ride away. I got into animation when I was around 12. The truth of it is I didn’t really prepare myself for anything else in life, so hopefully it’s going to continue to work out.
When you’re inside making the movie, you don’t know what else is happening out there, You don’t know how your movie is going to turn out. You don’t know if it’s going to be good or not. Every day you do what you can to make it something you believe. I think that’s the biggest thing. You just want to believe. Don’t get me started on animation. Unfortunately, in our culture, people think it’s for kids. I was a kid once but I didn’t necessarily watch the stuff that was for kids.
Now I’m a grown-up and I don’t watch too many cartoons anymore. I want to make a movie that’s for a broad audience, I want to make a movie that excites me. When I was a kid I liked the movies that I didn’t understand completely: things that my parents were watching, situations between the adults, that moment at a drive-in theater where my mother always said, “Maybe you should take the kids to the snack bar now.” I wanted to see what was going on there.
Sudeikis: I’ll give you some websites. I can recommend some websites. You have a credit card? You don’t need it, but…
Wedge: Not that there’s any of that in our movie. I want truth on the screen. I don’t want to talk down to anybody. I want to include everybody. I want everyone to feel big.
Seyfried: There was one thing you said to me before I signed on to this project, and it stuck with me, and it was one of the mainly the reason I jumped in. You want this film to get kids outside in their own backyard and try to find that world within what they have around them. I used to do that. And I think it’s lost now.
You see these children grabbing their parents’ cell phones because we’re all distracted by them, and they want that. It used to be different. I feel like this movie brings us back to the wonders of nature and the universe and what we have all around us that we forget about. When I watched the movie, I was like, “God, there is so much that’s going on — these strange-looking leaves. Everything has a story to it.”
Wedge: And now you’ll be able to watch it on a cell phone.
O’Dowd: The point is: Cell phones are great!
Farrell: My 3-year-old never tries to grab mine because he has his own.
How much of “Epic” was improvised?
O’Dowd: Little bits. I would say 90 percent of it was scripted. I did one session with Aziz, and then I kind of left the country. Due to some … they dropped the charges, it’s not even a thing anymore … I shouldn’t have even … It was fine … Don’t print that!
Wedge: We took Chris’ words and rearranged them to make them funny and make different sentences out of them while he was gone.
O’Dowd: For the other characters.
Ansari: The first long session that we did together was really fun. It was fun to play off each other and be in the same room.
Sudeikis: I would say that those guys carried the weight of a lot of the humor. My guy was more a spine that gets us into this world, introduces M.K. to it. I’m probably more the heart and soul of it; you probably misread it. Mine was like a modern Jimmy Stewart take. Tweedledee and Tweedledum over there. But if you laughed at it, then whatever. That’s cool, too.
Chris, how did you get involved in the Christopher Guest-created show “Family Tree”? What’s the story behind you getting cast in the show?
O’Dowd: It’s not that exciting, really. I’m a huge fan [of Christopher Guest]. I just wanted to meet him and try and convince him that I was the guy. And then I met him, and we talked, but we didn’t actually talk about the project, really. We just talked about construction work that was happening in London. It was a lot of small talk. And I was like, “Oh hoot, I don’t know if he’s interested in me.” But then the next day, I got the call that I got the job.
Has Christopher Guest seen your movie “The Sapphires” yet?
O’Dowd: He has. He loved it. [He says jokingly] He told me he loved it, but he is a liar, as far as I can tell.
What’s next for you?
O’Dowd: I write a TV show called “Moone Boy,” which is set in the west of Ireland. I’m directing the third series of that this summer. That’s on Hulu.
For more info: “Epic” website