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Joel Crawford On More Puss In Boots After Last Wish Claws Its Way To The Top

Apr 7, 2023

At the publication of this interview, director Joel Crawford is likely on his way across the Atlantic to attend the 2023 BAFTA Awards. Crawford, a 17-year DreamWorks Animation veteran, is up for Best Animated Film for “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.” A word of mouth wonder that surprised many not only critically, but at the box office.
READ MORE: Antonio Banderas on “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” and whether he’s down for “Shrek 5” [Interview]
The original “Shrek” franchise spin-off, 2011’s “Puss in Boots,” was directed by Chris Miller, was a hit in theaters ($555 million global) and lost the Best Animated Film Oscar in a very competitive race to Gore Verbinski’s “Rango.” A second installment seemed like a given and, like clockwork, the feline’s human voice, Antonio Banderas, was asked when Puss would return at least once or twice during whatever publicity tour he was enduring. Over 11 years later, “The Last Wish” finally arrived in theaters and with better reviews than the original. The box office did not initially seem as welcoming.
After industry tracking showed a $30 million plus debut, “The Last Wish” opened to just $12.4 million over the three-day Christmas weekend. But, like “Avatar: The Way of Water,” it didn’t disappear. For six weeks the Universal Pictures release was either the no. 2 or no. 3 movie in the U.S. and was killing it overseas. In its 8th weekend, the film earned yet another $5.5 million. And that was after being on digital download sites for weeks. Currently at an impressive (and very profitable) $401 million global, “The Last Wish” is a rare animated success story in a marketplace where its competitors have been unable to balance the streaming and theatrical divide.
Speaking to The Playlist this past week, Crawford, whose first theatrical directing credit was “The Croods: A New Age,” admitted he was initially disappointed with the box office results.
“We were all so proud of the film, and even getting the critic’s reaction to that point was all positive. And so you are just like, one, is there an audience to see it? And then two, is the studio going to make more things like this because it’s a business? It has to deliver on that front,” Crawford explains “And so with that low, it just became even more awesome when the movie just kind of, and no pun intended here, clawed its way back to the top. That’s the best way I could describe it, where it’s just the audiences found the movie and we kept hearing not only were like 20-year olds, 30-year-olds, teenagers, all going to the movie, but they’re repeatedly watching it.”
That response has many wondering what will happen to Puss, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault) and newcomer Perrito (Harvey Guillén) next. The film teases that the trio may be returning to the Far, Far Away world of the original “Shrek” films, but is that the actual plan? Or will fans have to wait another decade for a third “Puss” installment?
Crawford replies, “I don’t know what’s going on with anything after this, but it was all this hopeful thing of we love these characters. We believe in this story that we’re telling and we hope that audiences will engage with it and demand more stories, both with the Puss and Boots side and also with Shrek. I feel like I can say based on the world’s reception of it, that it does feel like they’ve said ‘Yes, we want more,’ which I’m so happy about. But honestly, I hope to keep getting to tell stories with all of these characters.”
Over the course of our conversation, Crawford discusses what he took away from the previous “Last Wish” iterations, the important creative contributions from Hayek and Ray Winstone, that time Olivia Colman was trying to record without the police being called, whether his kids are impressed with dad getting an Oscar nomination and much more.
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The Playlist: I’m sure you had hoped for good news, but what was your reaction when you heard the Oscar nominations announced?
Joel Crawford: Yeah, it’s exactly right. Had hoped. Up to the nomination, it had been an amazing kind of ride of reception from critics and audiences, and so there was a lot of hope, but it’s a fantastic year for animation where there’s been so many good animated movies pushing boundaries in their own ways. So I was still, I don’t know, so just genuinely awestruck and grateful. It was awesome. And then I had to go directly from like, “Wow, we got nominated” too “Better get the kids to school,” back to real life. So it was a flood of emotions.
Can I ask how old your kids are?
So I have a nine-year-old daughter, a 12-year-old daughter, and then a 14-year-old boy. So we got elementary school, junior high, and high school.
In that context, were they your sort of touchstones for the movie? Was there sort of feedback important to you at all, even during this entire process? Or were they like, “Oh, that’s Dad’s work. I don’t even care”?
They have become a bit jaded with me working at Animation Studio and since they were in kindergarten, they’d come into the studio and it was just kind of a normal thing. But no, I would say actually during the pandemic back in 2020 when we were wrapping up “Croods,” it was interesting how our families, the whole crew, your family becomes actually in a way more engaged in your work because they would see what you’re working on. And even before that, I used to bring the kids into the studio to watch when we do a screening for ourselves. And so you do kind of have a built-in focus group there. But mine, you would think they’d be extra kind to their dad. Mine go the opposite way, especially my son. He’s like, “I’m not going to laugh. There’s no jokes that are going to make me laugh in this Dad.” And so it was like a challenge. We got him, we got him.
It’s not just you, I don’t think any kids want to give love to their parents’ work, especially at that age.
Absolutely. Actually, I will say one of the surprising things with “Puss In Boots: The Last Wish” is we set out to make the movie for everyone. And it’s a movie that kids can watch, families can watch, but one of the fun things was my son telling me that at his high school, there were big groups of friends that were going to “Puss and Boots.” And we constantly kept hearing this with different people saying, “Oh yeah, my 20-year-old, him and a group of friends went and watch ‘Puss and Boots.’” And what was neat with this movie was it kind of expanded the expected audience and has really grabbed hold of another kind of generation, which is just super cool.
I was going to ask you about this. I don’t know how much you care about box office, but when the movie when it opened during the holidays, it didn’t have the most blowout weekend. Just $12.4 million. But now? I believe in distribution terms, it’s at an 8x multiple*? It has gone way beyond expectations because of word of mouth, which is a testament to you guys. Were you worried after that opening?
*Note: A traditional opening weekend to final box office result is a 3x multiple.
By the way, I love this question because it’s this balance of when you’re making a movie at a big studio, it’s art and its business. And my job as a director is to create great art that connects to the audience. And especially in this movie, we took some really big swings. You look at the style of it. The look is this painterly style. We used Stepped animation, which is kind of leaning more towards anime, and then traditional CG. The story, the tone goes to some new territory, especially for a “Shrek” world where we dip into a darker tone, this Grimm fairytale inspiration. So there were a lot of big swings we took. And so when the movie came out in the theaters and that opening weekend didn’t perform as we would’ve hoped, it was disappointing because I think you’re excited for people to embrace something that’s pushing the boundaries of what animation can be.
And we were all so proud of the film, and even getting the critic’s reaction to that point was all positive. And so you are just like, one, is there an audience to see it? And then two, is the studio going to make more things like this because it’s a business? It has to deliver on that front. And so with that low, it just became even more awesome when the movie just kind of, and no pun intended here, clawed it’s way back to the top. That’s the best way I could describe it, where it’s just the audiences found the movie and we kept hearing not only were like 20-year olds, 30-year-olds, teenagers, all going to the movie, but they’re repeatedly watching it. And that I think in addition to families has given the movie these insane legs at the box office, which it’s awesome. It’s cool.
In many ways, it is because of the pandemic. I think everyone thought no one would take their kids to see animated films at the movie theaters anymore because it’s going to be on Disney+ or HBO Max or Peacock or whatever. Have you had any feedback from friends at other studios being like, “Thank God you guys pulled this off”?
Yeah, I mean, by the way, it was awesome at the beginning of the year for “Top Gun: Maverick” to kick off that way where you go, theaters are alive, and there are certain movies you have to see in a theater. And for us, we always designed “Puss and Boots,” like, this is a big movie. This is a roller coaster of emotions. And so we wanted people to be able to experience it that way. I do think it’s interesting that you mentioned Disney+ and that Disney and Pixar made the choice to start putting things straight to streaming. And Universal has been very much behind theaters and believes in having confidence that there’s an audience for those kinds of things. And so I’m actually very thankful that Universal stuck to its guns and delivered this movie in the theaters and that audiences are discovering and rediscovering it and that’s not a knock against streaming.
So you’ve now revitalized a part of a franchise where they first installment came out, what, 10 years ago?
Over a decade ago for sure, yeah, 11 years ago.
And fans have been waiting for this sequel, it was in development for a longtime and then it sort of went away. I feel like no one’s really been honest about this, when you came to the project was it stalled because the powers that be didn’t like the storyline? Were executives not excited about making it?
It’s hard because I’ve been here at Dreamworks for over 17 years working on other projects and I would see that firsthand where I’m like, oh, “Puss and Boots 2,” here it comes. Like, nope. And so while I don’t have all the inside information on the previous attempts at making it, the common denominator with all of them was this idea that Puss was on the last of his nine lives. And that’s a great hook. To their credit, it seemed like [the studio] didn’t want to just release another sequel until they really crack the story. And so when myself, Mark Swift, the producer, and Januel Mercado, the co-director, when we came to the project, we gravitated toward that perfect hook where you go “Puss and Boots” is on the last of his nine lives, there’s a wishing star, there’s one wish. We had the advantage of hindsight where there are amazing talented people that have come and gone and really have worked on this. And so we looked at everything and then we said to ourselves, “But why are we making this?” And for me, I got really excited about how absurd the premise was about a cat having nine lives. And I love the fairytale world. I worked as a storyboard artist on “Shrek Forever After.” I love playing in that world. And I go, “That’s such a fun premise, but underneath it all, it’s about mortality. It’s about one life and how special that can be and who we choose to share it with.” And for me that was kind of the pitch to the studio where this is going to be a comedy, this is going to be a big adventure, but it’s going to go to some new territory, both visually, stylistically, but especially emotionally. And, I guess, just back to your question about why it finally got made, while I can’t speak to why it didn’t get made before because I wasn’t in that situation, I do feel like there’s something to what we’ve all been through as a world in the last few years and so many changes in life and the way we operate, in the way we connect with each other and in thinking about mortality, and I’m not just talking about adults. Kids have seen this and been experiencing these things, so it felt like this is something to address. And it felt like in a weird way, “Puss and Boots: The Last Wish” was a fairytale for this time, and that meant addressing some thematic things that are challenging for audiences, but hopefully cause them to reflect on how amazing life can be.
One of the things that I keep hearing from all my friends who see it is they always talk about how great Antonio and Salma are together. And I’m 99% sure they did not record together. Is that correct?
No, you’re a hundred percent right that they did not record together. In animation, you [often] don’t have the advantage of a live-action set where two actors can be in a moment together. And so it’s my job as a director to create those moments by engaging with our amazing cast and basically trying to create spontaneity in the process of animation, which everything in animation has to be built from scratch. So one of the things we would do is we would improvise a lot. And I love improv. It’s a way of just finding the treasures you haven’t discovered yet. We would always get what’s in the script, but especially within Antonio and Salma, what we do have is their real-life relationship where they have been best friends for so many years that they know each other. It was funny because one time I was going to play a clip of Antonio for her, and she goes, “I know how he sounds,” and she did this impression of him that was spot on. And I was like, “Oh, we’ve been gifted so much in terms of their dynamic on screen.” But I’d say even beyond just Antonio and Salma, all of our cast really kind of went above and beyond. They all brought amazing performances as actors, but they engaged as people. They listened when I walked them through the story and they each brought an insight into them themselves as human beings. And a lot of times after I was just done pitching the story, we would go to the writer and rewrite things because they would discover things.
I was walking [Ray Winstone] through the story of Goldilocks and how she essentially is an orphan and has found these bears but doesn’t realize they’re her family, she wants to wish for a human family. And when I got to the moment where I told him that Goldie doesn’t believe he’s her father, Ray had this emotional reaction just listening to the pitch where he goes, “Well, I guess some people just stick around to the porridge is gone.” And it was like, “O.K., that’s going in the script.” These moments where all of the actors would just be so honest and trusting and it was this kind of constant back and forth of rewriting and I think you can feel it on the big screen.
You have such an amazing cast even for an animated film. But a lot of your actors were super busy even during the pandemic. And you are not their first position, you aren’t their second. Would you ever worry, are we going to get Olivia this week? Are we going to get Florence? Are those ever stressors making a movie like this?
If Mark Swift, the producer was on here, he’d say “yes.” For me, I have an amazing producer who worries about those things and I didn’t have to. I knew we’d get it. And honestly, Mark, I’ve worked on two movies with him and he’s like, a good friend and such an amazing producer that he makes things happen. But I think what was awesome is after the first record with each of the cast, I realize that when they show up, they show up. So they could have a bunch of things going on and when they’re there, they are bringing 110%. I love Salma. If we’re recording something and it doesn’t feel right, she’ll go, “Wait, wait, why is this here?” And we would talk about it and she would challenge things. We would rewrite on the spot or we’d improvise. I think the benefit of how we work in animation is you have a bunch of people making this movie and as long as we all know where we’re going, you kind of figure out how to get there together.
As someone who does many interviews often with people overseas at strange hours, were you ever recording at insanely odd hours Los Angeles time because it’s the only time one of the stars could do it?
My wife and I have crazy schedules where she’s actually a postpartum nurse in the hospital. She works nights. And so we have this thing with the busyness of the kids, I drop them off at school, she picks them up. And that’s something important to me. Being able to drop my kids off and those conversations we have in the car. But there were a lot of mornings where it was like, “I’m not dropping the kids off. I’m here at the studio at four in the morning because of our record time. But it was a fun process.” One memory, Olivia Coleman was so generous that even though she was on a shoot and I feel like I’m going to get the location wrong, I think it was in Ireland and it was during the time when you had to just quarantine before you could actually show up on the set. So she was in this little hotel in Ireland with very thin walls. And she had her recordings iPad set up and we were having her yell the most ridiculous things and she was like fully committed, but she’s like, “Security’s going to come to my room soon. They think I’m being murdered.” And I knew the walls were thin because she would be like, “Wait, hold on.” And you could hear somebody walking past in the hallway. I was like, that is a tiny hotel.
That is a tiny hotel.
But it was that thing where it was like everybody did whatever they could and I’m so thankful for that.
Obviously, the movie ends with this potential teaser that Puss is returning to see his old friends in the Shrek world, but this particular movie is now a big hit. And in theory, even though this was “The Last Wish “you would think there might be another Puss and Boots movie. Do you think there’s a door open for a third chapter? Or do you feel like the franchise is just going to focus on reinvigorating the Shrek world?
Look I don’t know what’s going on with anything after this, but it was all this hopeful thing of we love these characters. We believe in this story that we’re telling and we hope that audiences will engage with it and demand more stories, both with the Puss and Boots side and also with Shrek. I feel like I can say based on the world’s reception of it, that it does feel like they’ve said “Yes, we want more,” which I’m so happy about. But honestly, I hope to keep getting to tell stories with all of these characters. It’s been so cool to see, here we go full circle with the first kind of thing we talked about where yes, the actors [are] not actually meeting, there’s Harvey Guillén who plays Perrito, met Salma Hayek Pinault at the premiere. And it was amazing the chemistry and the back and forth they had just right away and those kinds of things where it’s just like they just clicked and seeing Antonio and Salma together. Now that they’ve all met you kind of go, “Oh, I just want to keep telling stories with this amazing cast and these characters.”
Do you actually know what you’re doing next or are you still sort of in the ether figuring out what’s next? And this can be off the record too.
I would love to keep telling stories with these characters, the “Puss and Boots” world, the “Shrek” world. But so the answer is like, no, I don’t know what I’m doing next. I want to continue telling stories of these characters we’ve established. And then also there are some original projects that I’m working on developing. Because I’ve done two sequels now and it’s weird when you say like a sequel because I think by taking on a sequel to make it not just seem like another one, as a director, you have to go to make it an original in your mind. Now I live in this world of fuss and I want to tell more, but I am looking forward to telling some other original projects as well.
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is still in theaters nationwide and available for digital download.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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