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Author William Joyce On Bringing Rise of the Guardians to the Screen

William Joyce isn’t just an accomplished children’s book illustrator and author, he’s also an Oscar award-winning writer and director (for the 2001 animated short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) who helped to adapt his series The Guardians of Childhood into the DreamWorks feature Rise of the Guardians.

The film centers on childhood icons North (aka Santa Claus, voiced by Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman and Jack Frost (Chris Pine), who band together to defeat the evil Pitch (aka the Boogeyman, voiced by Jude Law).

While chatting with Joyce while he was in New York City, we also learned he’s a big fan of classic cinema. He worked with Guardians director Peter Ramsey and co-producer Guillermo del Toro to pull influences for the film (and its characters) from giants of cinema like Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Orson Welles. Joyce also talked about the frenzy of winning an Academy Award, how he learned to let go of his original material during the adaptation process, and how comic-book themes crept into his creation of the Guardians.

I have to say, I’m just in love with your short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. It’s so deserving of an Oscar.

Thank you! I highly recommend winning an Oscar.

I’ve watched the Oscars on TV since I was a kid, but I can’t begin to imagine winning one. What is that like?

It’s awesome. Let me tell you, two things: one is that, before they said our names, my brain shut off. Literally, it was like tunnel vision. I wasn’t hearing anything. And then I was looking at the guy in front of me, who directed La Luna. I was looking at the back of his head. I’m like, “Well, if he stands up, we lost.” But then I heard “Fantastic Flying” and it was the last things I heard before I, you know, began to scream. Then it was like all he atoms or molecules in my body separated and I was a gas. I didn’t feel like I had a body any more. My image in my mind of going up to the podium was just that I was floating.

William Joyce, left, and Brandon Oldenburg accept their Oscars

Tell me you had a speech prepared when you got up there.

You know, they said, “Practice what you’re going to say. You have 45 seconds. You’ll see this little thing counting down how long you have. Act like you’ve never said it before, make it spontaneous.” All this stuff. And Brandon [Oldenburg] and I had been like, “What the fuck are we going to say?” And so the night before we were supposed to go to some function and we were stuck in traffic and we pulled over to this dive bar … and drank until we had something that seemed like a speech that wouldn’t embarrass us that was 45 seconds. And we stood there on the podium and I said the first line of it and he was supposed to say the second line. The first line was, “We love the movies.” And then Brandon said, “We love the movies!” [laughs] And then I didn’t know what we said, but we said it enthusiastically.

Have you ever seen Michael Dudok de Wit’s short Father and Daughter? Because yours really reminded me of that. It affected me similarly, as well.

Yes! Thank you! Thank you very much! Because I love that short, I think it’s amazing. In fact, I was thinking, “If we can get that same kind of emotion as ‘Father and Daughter.’” You know, that is what I wanted us to do.

After having talked with many people who worked on this film with you, I was surprised, frankly, to hear that you didn’t cling to your material – that you moved away from your books and used them as a starting point for collaboration on something completely different.

Well, what I’ve learned in the process is that a movie’s one thing and a book is another. And in working on adaptations of my own stories before, it makes making the movie so much harder. You’re always looking over your shoulder. And there may be new directions — cool things — that come up, that you would like to take, but you feel constrained by the narrative. And the books to me were always about how these guys came to be. That’s what I presented to Jeffrey [Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation] and them from the beginning — was that I’m not interested in adapting any particular book, I’m interested in furthering their adventures. And Jeffrey was like, “Awesome! I’ve never had an author come in and say, ‘Don’t stay true to my book!'” And I was like, “No, I want you to stay true to the characters and the world.”

What were some of your inspirations as far as the look of this film, bringing it to a medium that’s not on paper?

Peter [Ramsey] came along and it was like, he loves all the same movies that I love. I’m a total movie-o-phile geek. So one of the first things he said was, “What movies are inspiring you for this film?” I’m like, “The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Wizard of Oz, Thief of Bagdad,” all that crazy old Technicolor.

I love hearing this kind of thing — the drawing-board stuff, how you look back to move forward. Did you do that with your characters, too?

Oh, that was the most fun part! One of the first things I did as we were developing the movie was I did inspiration reels. It was such a movie geek’s dream. There are things that you just gravitate to immediately — Sean Connery, I did almost all clips for Sean Connery for Santa Claus. There’s one called The Wind and the Lion, where he plays this magnificent Arab bandit chieftain with his Scottish accent. It was Connery and then there was some early Orson Wells stuff. This one where Orson Welles played this Turkish police chief in a movie called Journey into Fear, and he has this ridiculous accent. And he has the hat — totally the hat that’s in the movie.

Tooth Fairy

What about Tooth Fairy? I have my ideas about who she’s influenced by.

For Tooth Fairy it took a long time — it just kept kind of going to Audrey Hepburn.

That’s exactly who I was thinking of! I should’ve just said it!

It’s funny, there’s a lot of people in the business who haven’t seen any of this stuff. So I would make these reels and I would show them to these guys and they’re like, “God, who is this awesome actress?” And I’m like, “Her name’s Audrey Hepburn. She was a very big deal.”

You have to be kidding me. How does anyone not know about Audrey Hepburn?

No, I’m not. You’d be stunned. But they embrace it, so you have to cut them some slack!

What about Jack Frost?

Jack was all James Dean. And it was interesting because, you know, there’s not that much James Dean. But it was mostly stuff from Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. Not so much Giant.

I have to put Giant on my list. I love Rock Hudson. So this seems apropos: If you could double feature Rise of the Guardians with any movie, what would it be?

I’d have to go with a triple feature. It’d be a triple feature of Guardians, The Wizard of Oz and the 1947 film Thief of Bagdad.

I have to ask: Obviously film has informed your process, but what about comic books? Because the Guardians of Childhood series definitely is an Avengers, X-Men-style teaming up of classic childhood icons.

I wasn’t like a fanatical comic kid, but I did read them a lot. Also, in my childhood is when they were first coming to live on television a lot. You know, Batman the TV series — for whatever its peculiar merits — was on three times a week. They’re kind of goofball fun. It introduced me to the concept of camp. But every Saturday they’d have Superman cartoons — the old black-and-white Superman series — and so their mythologies have been a part of my growing up. But we always knew Spider-Man was fiction, but we believed in Santa Claus. We believed in the Easter Bunny. Their origins would be just as cool and in depth and exciting and bizarre as Batman’s.

Rise of the Guardians opens Wednesday nationwide.

Related: Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire Chronicles Rise of the Guardians

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