Jared Stern began his career as a screenwriter with the Jim Carrey vehicle Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and subsequently worked on The Watch, The Internship, Dr. Ken, The Lego Batman Movie, The Lego Ninjago Movie, and Green Eggs and Ham. After accumulating all of these credits, he made his directing debut with the 2018 live-action movie Happy Anniversary, which he also wrote and produced.
Stern wears all three hats once again for his biggest film yet, DC League of Super-Pets, which he co-directed with Sam Levine. The animated family comedy, which opens in theaters on July 29, centers on Krypto (Dwayne Johnson), the beloved super-powered pooch belonging to Clark Kent/Super-Man (John Krasinski). Theirs is a friendship for the ages until cracks emerge as Clark prepares to take his romance with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde) to the next level.
However, after Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) kidnaps the Justice League (including Keanu Reeves as the voice of Batman), a suddenly powerless Krypto teams up with a ragtag group of freshly empowered shelter pets (voiced by Kevin Hart, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, and Vanessa Bayer) to save the day. And then there’s Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a hairless guinea pig whose allegiances are never quite clear.
Below the Line recently spoke to Stern by Zoom for an informative conversation in which he shared his affection for comic books, discussed what his all-star voice lineup brought to the table, and revealed what he’ll be working on next.
Below the Line: You’re a little kid sitting at home. Are you watching cartoons? Are you reading comic books?
Jared Stern: Oh, man, a lot of different stuff. I kind of read everything. I was really into X-Men, but I also loved the Batman stuff. It was when the Tim Burton movie came out. So, all the Batman of that era as well. I really liked the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle books as well. And then, cartoon-wise, God, I loved Transformers, G.I. Joe, [and] Thundercats, as did my co-director, Sam Levine, who, if you were to see his background, it was filled with all the toys of the shows I just mentioned.
BTL: The first film you wrote, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, got mixed reviews. My kids loved it. What did you learn from that experience going forward?
Stern: Oh, man, that was real early for me. It was a for-hire job. I just came in, there was a script, but they wanted it to be better, and I tried to make it as good as I could. They were like, ‘Great,’ and then they gave it to other people who then tried to make it better. I was learning the process. I didn’t have too much input on the final say. Honestly, the coolest thing that happened on that was, I wrote, for the office building where [Jim Carrey] worked, that it was the Flatiron Building in New York, because it’s my favorite building. They kept it and then they shot in the Flatiron Building. They actually shot inside, too, not just the external. They let me go to set one day to visit and I was like, ‘That’s just the craziest thing, that you write something, and then it happens.’ So, maybe keep that in mind. “Be careful what you write because it could end up happening.” I love that your kids loved it. I’m proud of that film, even though I didn’t have a ton to do. I think it’s a really sweet movie.
BTL: What led you into animation? How did you wind up on Lego Batman, for example?
Stern: When I was first starting, I was right out of college. My manager got a call for two of her other clients to do punch-up on a script at Disney Feature Animation. They were not available, so she pitched me instead and said, ‘This guy’s the best animation expert.’ I didn’t really know anything. I was just starting out. And I got that job. It was supposed to be a week, and it turned into another week, then like six weeks, and then six months. And I never left. I stayed at Disney Animation for almost five years. It was like getting paid to go to grad school in animation storytelling. I learned from some of the best to ever do it — Musker and Clements, who did Aladdin and Little Mermaid, and Moana, and Chris Williams, who just did The Sea Beast, and Sam Levine. That was my way into animation. I didn’t realize how collaborative it was. I came in as a writer, and they throw you right into a room with all the story artists, these amazing artists who draw the storyboards. You’re really finding the story during that part of the process, and changing it, and playing with it [and] adding [to it]. They’re drawing and they’re great writers, too. I loved it. It was like a great writers’ room, and I loved how collaborative it was. That got me hooked on animation. From there, I got into doing the Lego movies and so on.
BTL: Some of the animal characters we see in DC League of Super-Pets were introduced in Adventure Comics #293 in 1962. 60 years later, why is it the right time to tell this story?
Stern: It’s a good question. There are a lot of superhero movies out lately; I don’t know if you’re familiar with this [laughs]. And I love them. They’re great. I’m not someone who hates on it at all. I love it. It’s been a fun way to tell all different genres within the superhero vehicle, and this was just maybe a way that you haven’t seen yet. No one’s thought about “What about the superheroes’ pets? What are their lives like?” I think it’s fun, and it’s a way to poke fun at the bombast, perhaps, of some of the superhero movies, while also being an awesome, bombastic superhero movie.
BTL: Your movie, I think, strikes the right balance between story and action, as well as superhero lore for adults, and fun colors, bright animation, cute pets, and lessons to be learned for little kids. How important and how complicated was it to strike that balance and appeal to all ages?
Stern: It’s really hard. It’s much easier to just make a hard-R-rated movie, but you want an audience, and we’re trying to make a movie for everybody. My goal is always to not go, “Oh, well, this joke was for kids. This joke was for adults.” Sure, there are going to be references that kids aren’t going to get, but my goal is, as much as possible, to have the audience… the whole audience, from eight to 80, having a fun ride and invested in the characters the whole time. Are there some things that play at different levels? Absolutely. But the goal is to make something that is fun and emotional, and filled with action that everyone can enjoy every step of the way. It’s hard, but when that happens, it’s worth it. It reminds me of movies I loved growing up and the movies that do it so well now.
BTL: You’ve got an A-list cast here, from Johnson and Hart to Kate McKinnon, who steals the show. Talk about finding the right voices for the characters…
Stern: It’s great if you have a big, famous person in your movie because it’s going to hopefully help get people to watch it, but really, what’s going to get people to watch a movie is if you make a good movie. We tried to just cast voices that fit with these characters and that would be fun and would tell a great story. You’re going to get lost in it, and you’re not going to be watching Dwayne Johnson. You’ll be watching Krypto by the end of the movie. That’s Krypto. Hopefully, we pulled that off.
Dwayne was perfect because he does cocky. This dog has superpowers and is going to fly over all the other dogs, [but] he’s also got this bit of vulnerability to him. That’s really the sweetness. So, Dwayne was great. And Kevin Hart… obviously, those two guys are going to be funny together. But I think Kevin brought something different for this. He thought, “Okay, he’s going to end up being Batman’s dog.” So, he brought a little bit of Batman. He’s an older dog. He’s been in the shelter his whole life, so there’s a little bit of history to this character. And it’s still funny. Kevin and Dwayne are still great together, but he’s doing something different and special that lets you really get lost in that, and he becomes Ace the Bat-hound. So that’s those two guys.
And I agree with you, Kate is fantastic in the movie. I’ve seen it 1,000 times and the stuff that I still laugh at almost uniformly is her line where she talks about having a pimple. I don’t know why. I’m not a big laugher, but every time I see it, I still laugh at that line. She did a lot of characters on SNL that were old-timey Hollywood, and we were writing this character who’s very dramatic, melodramatic. I knew that Kate would be able to make her funny, but does (the performance) make you still care about her? Because she’s wounded, too. And then, of course, you care. She nailed it.
BTL: You directed this with Sam Levine. Were you a two-headed monster or two halves of a whole making this movie?
Stern: That’s a good question. Sam drove me crazy making this movie in the best ways because he is relentless. He wants everything to be great. He just pushes and pushes, and when he thinks something is not working, he will never just roll over and say, “Alright, fine.” He will push back, and that’s amazing. I came up as a writer, and so I have a lot of experience in animation working on all these animated movies, but I’m not an artist. He has a fantastic visual sense, and I think our movie looks really beautiful. I have my taste. I was in all those meetings. I went to see all the animation as it came in. But that’s not my specialty. If you’re loving something about the way that movie looks, that’s really thanks to Sam and all the amazing artists that work beneath him.
And here’s a quick, fun story about us when we worked together at Disney, many years ago. My grandmother would always call me and say, ‘Oh, so-and-so down at the pool, her cousin works in Hollywood.’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to know this person, Grandma.’ She called me one day and said, ‘A cardiologist’s nephew works at Disney.’ I was like, ‘Okay, sure. Does he walk around the park in one of the costumes?’ She said, ‘He works in animation. His name is Sam Levine.’ I said, ‘He’s sitting right across from me and we’re working on a movie together!’
BTL: What’s next for you?
Stern: Well, for starters, I took a break. It was, like, 10 years going straight from Green Eggs and Ham into Super-Pets. So that was nice. But as a producer, I’m still going strong on a couple of great new animated movies that will be coming out through Warner Bros. The first is called Toto, which is a story of The Wizard of Oz, but from the point of view of the dog, which is fantastic. And then I’m also working on a Cat in the Hat movie, which is really exciting. That’s going to be a fully CG-animated Cat in the Hat, and I think it hopefully will be The Cat in the Hat that everybody deserves.
DC League of Super-Pets opens Friday in theaters nationwide.