Emmy-winning TV director Rich Moore (the man behind classic “Simpsons” episodes including “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Cape Feare”) tackles his first big-screen movie this Friday in Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph.” For his feature debut, not only did Moore have to convince lead actor John C. Reilly to overcome his aversion to animation, he decided to make a real arcade game version of the fictional “Fix-It Felix Jr” game in the film.
Moore spoke to Moviefone about why Reilly was the only one who could play Ralph, why he wasn’t afraid to work with “blue” comedian Sarah Silverman (and what scene made her cry) and his hopes for a sequel.
At what point did you know you wanted John C. Reilly for this?
Very early. As soon as we kind of figured out who the character of Ralph was and we realized the movie was going to be about the “bad guy.” With the wrong piece of casting, that character could be unappealing — it could become a character that you’re not really rooting for. So it was very, very important to me to have someone who could play a guy that’s supposed to be a little unruly, but make them very appealing and lovable. And John was one of the first people that Phil Johnston, the writer, and I thought of when Ralph was developed. As an actor, he brings so much humanity to every role. I love his characters, even the ones that are deeply, deeply flawed. Like, I want his character in “Boogie Nights” to make his record and make a lot of money, even though it’s a horrible idea. I want him to succeed, because there’s just something so affable and naively innocent about his endeavors. So in my mind, no one could pull it off like John. And I said to him when he was considering it, “I don’t know how we could make it without you. I don’t know who could play this other than you.”
He told me he wasn’t convinced until you agreed to let him work with all the actors in the same room.
I wanted him to be comfortable with the process. I wanted it to be our process that we created together and not something that was sticking a square peg in a round hole and then wonder why you’re not getting good results. I like our process. It’s pliable. When you’re working with someone like John, you want his best. And it just seemed the way to go. Looking back, I can’t imagine that we ever considered any other way.
Did the actors go to some places that you weren’t expecting?
Well, definitely when we recorded the scene when Ralph breaks the cart with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). We were all moved because John and Sarah, they’re not just standing frozen behind the mikes. There’s a lot of emotion going on. And John would act out that he was breaking the cart. And it was like watching a scene in live action being filmed, that they were able to look into each other’s eyes. She was able to watch the physicality of what he was doing and after each take, we would have to stop because Sarah would take it to a place where she was crying. John would say, “My God, Sarah, that is so heartbreaking.” And she’d be like [wiping tears away], “Oh, I’m acting.”
Sarah’s not really known for being family friendly. Was there ever an issue about hiring her for a Disney movie?
No, no one came to me and said anything. From the day her character was conceived, in my mind it was Sarah. She was there at the table read that we did of the first draft of the script and she killed it. And from that day, she and Vanellope were synonymous. No one ever came and said, “Would you consider someone who’s a little more in the ‘Disney’ vein?” We weren’t hiring her for her past stuff, we just wanted the best actress for the role. Eddie Murphy was in “Mulan” and “Shrek” and his act was pretty filthy.
And now Eddie Murphy mostly does family-friendly movies.
I hear that a lot about Sarah. Even Robin Williams was filthy back in the day. No one really complained when these guys [were cast in animated films], why does that come up with Sarah, I wonder? I don’t know if it’s because it’s a woman who does blue comedy. Even Ellen DeGeneres, when she did “Finding Nemo,” people were like, “Have you heard her standup? It’s a little racy.” But once it hits, then that all goes away. So I think it’s about to all go away for Sarah too.
It seems like Jane Lynch was perfectly suited for her character as well. I can’t imagine anyone else as Sgt. Calhoun.
Jane’s character started as a man, so it was going to be a male sergeant from a military game. But the problem we ran into was that it seemed like we’d seen this character before. It’s become a cliché. And Phil and I thought, “Well, how can we turn it on its ear?” This was actually before “Glee” started that we considered Jane. And we both knew her from the Christopher Guest movies and “Talladega Nights” and one that Phil and I both really liked her in was “Role Models.” And so we went right to her as someone who could play tough and funny and kind of quirky.
Now there’s a real Fix-It Felix Jr. arcade game. How did that happen?
As we were making the movie, we thought it would be really, really cool if we were also making an arcade cabinet game that we could bring to Disneyland or some different arcades around the country and say, “Look, we found a Fix-It Felix, Jr. game from the past.” What they did was, they took an old Donkey Kong machine that wasn’t working anymore and we wrote a program for this game. It was a lot of trial and error. We had this team that would go off and work on it and bring it back. My notes would always be, “Go simpler. More crude. We need to dumb it down so it really feels and looks like one of the games from the past.” And they ended up programming it using the old 8-bit boards from those games. There’s old cathode-ray tubes inside there to give it that look. And I’m really, really proud of how they came out. I think they look so cool.
How many are there?
We only made one at first and then when people from marketing saw it, they said, “We need more of these!” They wanted to put them in all the different parks and take them to different theaters. So we had to figure out a way to make 70 machines. We were like, “We don’t want to be remembered as the people that bought up the last Donkey Kong machines and gutted them to make Fix-It Felix Jr. cabinets. We can’t do that!” So we figured out a way to make them from scratch. They’re aged to make them look like they’re from the time period. I’m amazed. They are so authentic. The game play, the look of them, all the little details.
You have a lot of cameos from classic characters in this movie. Were there any that you wanted but you couldn’t get, like Donkey Kong and Mario?
Well, for those two, we were always looking for a way to use them in the movie, and they’re both such big, iconic characters that we were only going to use them if we could think of a way to use them well. We didn’t just want to do a cheap, “I’m here too.”
Was it a creative call or more of a licensing thing?
There’s been lots of talk, “Well, they couldn’t do it because Nintendo wanted a lot of money.” That was kind of misconstrued from a joke that John C. Reilly and I told at Comic-Con. You tell one joke and suddenly it becomes gospel. But no, it was totally creative. We wanted to use them right. As we were going down the line and trying to find a spot, we realized it’s not working organically. We thought, if the movie does well and people like it and hopefully, knock wood, if people love it the way that we do and if we make another one, then let’s find a moment that’s appropriate and really give them their due rather than try to shoehorn them in.
Do you think this could be as big as the “Toy Story” franchise?
I hope so. I love the world of it. I love the characters and I really like the people that I work with day to day on it. If we did it again, I’d be like, “Let’s just get this family back together again.” A lot of new friendships were forged and we brought in a lot of new people who never worked at Disney before, so it felt really invigorating. I would love to do it again.
When you get to play the game, Felix can actually die. So there’s your sequel: Felix dies and they have to bring him back.
There you go! How much is that gonna cost?
We’ll talk. I’ll be in touch!
“Wreck-It Ralph” hits theaters this Friday