For centuries, tales of monsters, creatures and otherworldly beings have delighted, entertained, terrified, and intrigued people of every culture throughout the world. The works of literary masters passed down through the ages eventually made their way to Hollywood and so was born the “creature feature” and, eventually, the science-fiction flick. In many a sci-fi movie or television series of the 1950s and '60s, the genesis of the tale often began with the interception of a strange signal beamed from a planet in another galaxy, usually underscored by the requisite spooky organ music. Aliens would then arrive, and either wallop or teach Earth's inhabitants a thing or two about getting along in the universe.
The tale of “Monsters vs. Aliens,” however, originates from a few very earthbound sources–behind the walls of the Glendale, California campus of DreamWorks Animation with two veteran feature film directors named Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon.
The mere mention of the word 'monster'–especially when paired with the word 'alien'–customarily lights up the eyes of any filmmaker (like Letterman and Vernon) who ever spent a Saturday afternoon planted in front of the television, watching a black-and-white cautionary tale (Don't mess with Mother Nature! Radioactive fallout renders creatures gigantic!) in the form of a 1950s 'B' movie.
Not only were Letterman and Vernon enormous fans of the films, they were also heavily influenced by the style of the poster art of the genre. The evolving style of “Monsters vs. Aliens” was influenced not only by 'B' movies from the '50s and their printed advertising, but also from the Mad magazines of the period, which boasted the likes of iconic and influential illustrators Jack Davis, Don Martin and Jack Rickard. (Savvy viewers will recognize the homage to these sources during the war room playback of archival footage of the pre-capture sprees of Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., The Missing Link, B.O.B. and Insectosaurus.)
Letterman had just finished helming the Oscar-nominated DreamWorks Animation hit “Shark Tale” when he scheduled a meeting with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg to discuss his next project. “He asked me to take a look at a project that was in development about monsters,” recalls Letterman. “I had always wanted to do a comedy, kind of like the film 'The Dirty Dozen.' Oddly enough, it turned out to be a way to do my 'Dirty Dozen' comedy, as the Monsters are a type of rogue team that goes up against aliens invading the Earth…and so I loved the idea.”
For Vernon, the tale of the fantastical group's clash began some 6,000 miles away. The director offers, “I was in Cannes for 'Shrek 2,' and I was looking over an early draft of the project. I saw that it had an element of a 1950s 'B' movie, which I had never before seen in animation. I thought that was a really interesting concept to tackle and how great it would be if we could give this gang of misfit Monsters personalities, and satirize those kinds of films at the same time. I especially thought it would be fun, since we pay homage to different styles of filmmaking and different genres of film. I thought that would be pretty interesting to try and take on.”
For Letterman, teaming up with fellow monster movie lover Vernon had great promise: “Conrad's really great, a talented director and storyboard artist and a voice talent as well…I mean, he's the voice of the Gingerbread Man [from the 'Shrek' movies]. It was a great advantage, because he could do all of the actors' voices–he impersonates every single person in the cast. So while we were developing the story, we could build the movie while we were waiting for our chance with the actors. That was just one wonderful side benefit. We really bounce off each other well.”
Vernon was also more than comfortable with sharing the “Monsters vs. Aliens” director's chair: “From the beginning, we didn't try to delineate jobs, but rather to create a back-and-forth way of working. We were in constant contact, pitching ideas about scenes and characters to each other. Our goal all along was to create a cohesive and entertaining film, and we did that by keeping each other in the loop. That assured that we both stayed on the same page about every aspect of the film, and we weren't off separately making two very different projects. Always being clear about what film we were making–that kept it on track.”
Meanwhile, a world away (well, in the alternate universe of the live-action world, anyway), a producer was being recruited to join the MvA-ers. Lisa Stewart–who has worked on such titles as “Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire”–took a meeting, and her life took an unexpected turn…
“When Jeffrey Katzenberg calls, you take the meeting,” recalls Stewart. A talented and successful live-action film producer, Stewart had just wrapped production on a film and was looking forward to a break when she got the call to meet with Katzenberg and tour the studio's Glendale animation campus.
It was on that tour that Stewart's fate was sealed. “I saw this really great iconic image of Susan,” explains Stewart. “She was sitting on the roof of a gas station. Her fiance has just dumped her; she's taking stock of her life. It was such an evocative image. I thought to myself, 'This is a woman I want to know, I want to tell her story, I want to be a part of that world!'” The matter that she had never worked in animation did not intimidate Stewart in the least: “Great storytelling is great storytelling, and I had to see Susan's story through.”
The fact that Susan's story arc appealed to Stewart comes as no surprise. Throughout her career, the producer has a track record of bringing to the screen strong female characters, and the casting of Reese Witherspoon cinched the deal. “I've known Reese for a number of years as a friend and, when I found out she had been cast as Susan, I thought it would finally be a great opportunity to work with her.” Two co-producers also joined the gathering bunch, Jill Hopper Desmarchelier and Latifa Ouaou. Together, the pair can boast of more than 25 years of production experience at DreamWorks Animation, and that experience was put to good use by Stewart and the directors.