Director and screenwriter Jimmy Hayward gained early directorial prominence as a commercial director and was one of the original animators of the pioneering computer-animated television series Reboot in the nascent years of CG animation. He was then quickly recruited by Pixar Animation to work on the groundbreaking film Toy Story. Hayward continued working with the company for over a decade, during which time he animated on such beloved films as Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. Following his stint at Pixar, Hayward joined 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios as a writer and sequence director on the hit film Robots. Hayward’s feature animation directorial debut, Horton Hears A Who!, was a huge success, earning nearly $300 million worldwide. Hayward returns to feature directing, and also adds screenwriter to his credits with Free Birds.
Pre-production work for Free Birds at Reel FX began in 2009, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2011 that writer/director Jimmy Hayward came aboard to push the project into production. Hayward was joined by writer/producer Scott Mosier and Academy Award®-winning executive producer Aron Warner (the Shrek franchise). “As soon as Jimmy, Scott and Aron came aboard, the movie just shot off like a cannon,” says David Ross, President of Reel FX. “They all have a really smart yet oddball sense of humor, which is what this movie’s all about.”
Hayward’s extensive background in animation at Pixar and Blue Sky helped him immeasurably in creating a high-quality product made entirely outside of the studio system. “Jimmy is an animator’s director,” says executive producer Aron Warner. “He brings such passion to every session we have in editorial and in animation. He acts out the parts in great detail for the animators. He’s incredibly good at communicating what he wants to feel in a scene and what he wants to see on the screen.”
ToonBarn’s Marc Morrell was given the opportunity to talk to Free Birds Director Jimmy Hayward, as his movie is about to arrive in theaters tomorrow. Here’s how their conversation went:
Marc: After seeing a screening of Free Birds, one of your standout performances had to be George Takei’s role of S.T.E.V.E. We really think his performance was terrific.
Jimmy: Yeah, he was really good. We discussed the way he could sound, and at first, we were talking about him being a little more robotic. The more I worked with him, I had to find a starting place for him being a machine, and see how human I made him, and how human George wanted to bring him. The idea was that we wrote him to be Reggie’s Spirit Guide, his moral compass, the guy that shows him the way. George humanized him so beautifully that we moved our starting point much closer to that. So, it was a performance that we found very quickly with George. He’s extraordinarily talented and funny and sweet and a real pleasure to work with and I genuinely mean that – he was great.
Marc: Was it your idea or George’s to have his character say “Oh, My”, one of George’s signature lines?
Jimmy: That was our idea, me and Scott (Mosier). One of the things, though, he use to say that earlier in the film, and it was like 2 or 3 in the morning at Skywalker Sound, and we were missing the final reel of the movie. It was the last night of 3 weeks of mixing. Aron Warner, our Executive Producer suggested moving it 15 seconds later, which was a ton of work. So we had to undo everything we had done, but it was totally worth it. I do remember when I gave George the script, he said, “I see you put my ‘Oh My’ in there. You are Impossible. (in George’s voice)”.
Marc: (Laughing) That’s great! So, when you first heard the premise of the film, “Two turkeys go back in time to change the menu for Thanksgiving,” did you say, “Oh, I have to do that!”?
Jimmy: Yeah, I did. I was in a field in Louisiana, standing in a swamp, shooting, when I heard the premise, and I thought it was brilliant. (laughing) I was thinking, “You could do a lot of work with that.” I knew the premise had been around Hollywood for awhile, different scripts, different ideas. Scott and I really loved the idea and thought we could take a crack at it.
Marc: Reggie and Jake, played by Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, respectively, are our main characters. How did you develop their relationship, considering Reggie is a pardoned bird who has a great life, and Jake steals him away to go on this mission?
Jimmy: The difficult thing about this movie is it almost has two first acts. You have to introduce two sets of characters in two separate worlds. We had to introduce Reggie, because it’s really his story in the beginning. It was really difficult to compress the time down to get as much information about Reggie that you could, but get Jake in as quickly as you can too. That was the really tricky part. And ultimately, when you’re developing stuff, and testing stuff, you load it up, and you have to cut it down. It’s tough, because you gotta go in there and get rid of stuff you really like, but you ultimately end up killing a lot of great jokes, but it’s all in the service of the major relationships. The hard fast rule once they got together was buddy comedy stuff. Ultimately, we had to serve the emotional components of the story, and that was really getting Reggie to realize that he’s part of something bigger than just himself. You can’t do it alone. That fed into the main theme of the movie, which is the holidays are a time to stop what you’re doing, and appreciate the people you love, no matter what the holiday is. That was we had to service. Jake was a zealous, driven guy, on this unbendable mission, and people will find out why when they see the film. That was the thing. The emotional needs of the story had to be taken care of first. That was the key to unlocking those guys was to figure out what Reggie needed to learn, and how he needed to learn it, and Jenny figured into that in a major way. Having Amy Poehler’s character, Jenny, be the smartest character in the movie was the choice, which is what I wanted from the very beginning. For Reggie, ultimately, the things that make you root for a character is that he’s really a good guy inside.
Marc: Do you think this movie will actually change people’s minds about eating Turkey for Thanksgiving?
Jimmy: No, I don’t. I think if it does, that’s pretty crazy.
Marc: So, what is your favorite Thanksgiving food?
Jimmy: Turkey! (laughing) I get those questions alot. It’s really a buddy comedy that happens to have a holiday in it. The real message is appreciating the people that touch your life on holidays. In all these movies, where there’s great conflict, there’s a great story. People may say, “These guys are fouling with a great American tradition.” No, exactly the opposite. We’re just having a great time with two characters, and when you tell it from their perspective, they’re just trying to survive.
Marc: ReelFX, this was their first animated feature film, right?
Marc: How did they do?
Jimmy: They were great. They were fantastic. Top notch talent. People make movies. They got a lot of great people that were ready to get it done.
Marc: They were saying at ReelFX that when you and Scott Mosier came on board, things really took off quickly. So, was that based on your vast experience, knowing exactly what to do?
Jimmy: No, but I think Scott and have both been working in the business, we’re both the same age, and we both started at the same time very early in our lives. We know what we wanted to do, and we have a really talented group of people here to do it with. We just got to it. We wanted to make a really high quality film and we knew we didn’t have 5 years of development time to make it. So, we were just really specific. They were just a great bunch to work with, and they were really ready to make a movie. It was just time.
Marc: Thank you very much for joining us on ToonBarn, Jimmy. A lot of work went into this film and it shows on the screen. We wish you success as the film comes out in Theaters tomorrow.
Jimmy: Thanks, man. I’m glad you guys liked the film.
Go see Jimmy’s film, Free Birds, this weekend at a theater near you. Check your local listings for times.