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Collaboration: Looney Tunes

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By Mary Ann Skweres
When director Joe Dante and film editor Marshall Harvey collaborated on Warner Bros.’ Nov. 14th release Looney Tunes: Back in Action, they faced a host of challenges combining live-action, traditional 2-D animation and cutting-edge 3-D CG effects. It helped that they knew each other well, having already worked together on five other features: Amazon Women on the Moon, The Burbs, Matinee, The Second Civil War and Small Soldiers. Their latest effort stars Brendan Fraser, Jena Elfman and Steve Martin along with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and a multitude of Looney Tunes characters.

Below the Line: [To Marshall Harvey] When you met Joe, what was your first impression?
Marshall Harvey: His sense of humor. Before I met him I saw a documentary on Roger Corman. It had an interview with Joe. He was so hilarious that I was excited when I met him.
BTL: [To Joe Dante] How did you meet Marshall?
Joe Dante: I met Marshall as someone else’s editor. He was down the hall; at New World we were all together. I knew him as a friend before I knew him as an editor. The first picture we worked on together was Amazon Women on the Moon. We got along great.
MH: The rest is history.
BTL: What talents and traits have led to this continuing collaboration?
JD: There was the time he got really mad and threw the tape across the wall on The Second Civil War. You never really know what’s going to happen. He’s very volatile.
MH: Don’t put that in the article, although it’s all true.
JD: I’m kidding. Marshall is very steady. It takes a lot to get him perturbed. Editors do a lot more work than they did before. They do the job that used to take five people. Editors used to be able to take a break. When it was like, “Let’s look at that scene in reel five,” you’d get reel five, put it on the Kem, and wind down. You could think about your laundry list, think about what you wanted to do with the next scene. Today, there’s no time to think. The producers drum their fingers when the computer save button comes on for 25 seconds: “Why isn’t anything happening?” Marshal seems able to respond well and still come up with the creative ideas that you want from an editor. Am I supposed to say stuff like this in front of him? He’ll want more money for the next picture.
BTL: How did you get involved in Looney Tunes?
JD: They asked me to do it. I’ve done pictures like this before, but I don’t want every movie I do to be the same. This fits firmly in the Small Soldiers and Gremlins category of movies with little creatures. On the other hand, I’m very loyal to Looney Tunes. They were on TV every time I came home from school. I was a friend of Chuck Jones and wanted to be true to the legacy of the cartoons I grew up with. These characters have personalities and a special a meaning to people. We tried to keep that in mind – to make a real old-fashioned Looney Tunes movie that was modern enough for kids today to relate to.
BTL: Who made the decision to combine 3-D and 2-D?
JD: First the decision had to be made that the cartoon characters would be 2-D. There was a movie a few years ago called Rocky and Bullwinkle. They animated the characters in 3-D, like in Shrek. The result was bizarre. They didn’t look right. So the movie didn’t work. That was not lost on the studio. They realized this was a traditional animated movie. Roger Rabbit was the last movie of this size to be done with live actors interacting with cartoon characters. That picture used different techniques. If a cartoon character was supposed to carry a knife, they had to float it on the set. Then the cartoon character was animated to go wherever that knife went. You don’t have a lot of control. As a result, sometimes the interaction of the characters was rather odd.
BTL: What were your biggest challenges on the film?
JD: Getting them to agree on what the script was. Which never happened. This picture was constantly being rewritten. It’s one of those build-a-movie-as-you-go projects.
MH: We did a lot of trial and error. The producers might feel there was a better gag to be had. We would try a line out. If it wasn’t funnier, we’d try something else.
JD: With cartoon characters, dialog can be changed as long as you write a line that fits in their mouth. In the quest for a good line, some of these lines changed 15 times.
BTL: What was fun about this film?
MH: Working with Joe, because of his sense of humor.
JD: I shine in adversity. It was actually a very arduous picture to make.
MH: I thought it was going to be a really easy job. We would lock the show and then sit around for months waiting for animation. It didn’t turn out that way.
JD: You’d think a movie about Bugs Bunny should be a light-hearted romp. This picture cost over $100 million. That’s a lot of responsibility.
MH: The other fun thing: getting a chance to watch Steve Martin work. Comics with perfect comedy timing [are] always the easiest stuff to cut together. You can’t mess with their timing. If you do…
JD: …the rhythm is off.
MH: If you throw of his rhythm, he’s no longer funny. It’s important to go with the flow of what he did. Even though he improvised from take to take, somehow he always matched.
BTL: What was your learning curve with all the technology?
JD: When you’re making a movie this complicated and long, by the time you get to the end, the technology is different than the technology you started out with – it’s already obsolete.
MH: People got pregnant and delivered babies and we’re still making the movie. We had about a year of postproduction – much longer than normal.
JD: A movie with this much animation would ordinarily take an extra six months longer than we had. I honestly didn’t know if it could be done.
MH: The hardest thing of having a prolonged postproduction with a comedy is that…
MH and JD: …it’s not funny any more.
MH: Especially to producers. They get tired hearing the same joke. They lose faith that the original intent was probably the funniest.
JD: We’d try to remind them of how they laughed the first time they heard it. That’s the biggest danger, because you can fall out of love with something that is perfectly good because you get tired of it. There’s been cases where we’ve jettisoned things that I thought were working because people got so tired of them they said, “We’ve got to come up with a better line. That’s not funny anymore.” I mean, how many people are going to see the movie 200 times?

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