Santa's got a brand new bag in Rise of the Guardians
If you think there’s no connection between a convent perched high among the Himalayas in the 1940s, and one of the most technically accomplished 3-D kids’ films you’re likely to see this year—think again. As director Peter Ramsey eagerly tells the Georgia Straight in a phone call from New York, Rise of the Guardians—DreamWorks Animation’s dazzling adaptation of the Guardians of Childhood book series by William Joyce (opening today)—was greatly inspired, of all things, by the tempestuous Freudian melodrama Black Narcissus.
“I love it,” Ramsey says of the 1947 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film, a tale of nuns gone bonkers on a clifftop overlooking Darjeeling. “I love that movie to death. I talked about this with Bill Joyce a ton, because he’s also a huge Powell-Pressburger fan. The vividness of those movies, you know? They have an almost hallucinatory quality to them, just the sheer beauty of the colours. A lot of the feel of Black Narcissus.we tried to steal for the Tooth Fairy’s world and for Pitch’s lair. And I think there’s a lot of those vivid Red Shoes colours in Santa’s world. The North Pole, to me, that rich, Technicolor red, bold—all that stuff has a little bit of the Powell-Pressburger feel. I think the whole movie is kind of trippy-looking. That side was a nod to them.”
It’s hardly surprising that Ramsey speaks in such visual terms. He worked as either the storyboard artist or the production illustrator on some high-class eye candy over the years, including Fight Club and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He recalls being blown away by Coppola’s thought process. “I was already a dedicated worshipper of his, but it only got greater getting to work with him for a solid year,” he says. “The open, free-ranging hunger for ideas, looking for the new combination of things, and just the way he dug into research I thought was really inspiring.”
Ramsey credits his work with David Fincher, meanwhile, for teaching him a thing or two about “staging and economy”—“his films feel so complex and baroque, in a way, but working with him, I saw just how ultimately simple they are”—and he talks excitedly about some of the other masters he brushed up against. Chief among them is legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, known as the Prince of Darkness for his work on the Godfather movies and the films he made with Alan Pakula. Ramsey got to work with the two of them on their last film together, 1997’s The Devil’s Own.
“He was very complimentary and I was a quaking mess,” Ramsey recalls with a laugh. “Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Klute… I was incredibly lucky. I’m sure I threw a bunch of extra shadow in there just for him. Parallax View was definitely one of my formative movies.”
It might have been slaughtered by the critics, but Ramsey also had a hand in the enduring and now iconic imagery that came out of Independence Day. His first big film as a director, however—and it’s a really, really big film—is one for the iconoclasts among us.
In Rise of the Guardians, Santa (aka North) is reinvented as a shithouse-sized bruiser with a Russian accent, courtesy of Alec Baldwin, while the Easter Bunny (aka Bunnymund) shows up with anger-management issues and a voice that sounds suspiciously like Hugh Jackman’s. Joining them in a sort of League of Justice tasked with protecting the wonder, hopes, dreams, and memories of the world’s children are Isla Fisher’s flittering and translucent Tooth Fairy (itself a miracle of design and rendering) and a mysterious, mute, gnomic version of the Sandman.
The latter two characters point to another of Ramsey and Joyce’s visual touchstones, in this case the neorealism of illustrators N. C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. “All those guys who Bill Joyce has in his stylistic mashup that he does with his work,” Ramsey states. “It has sort of a storybook, burnished feel to it.” As for Jack Frost (Chris Pine), he’s an angst-ridden teen with a mischievous streak and a painful amnesia when it comes to his mortal years. The Guardians persuade Frost to join them when Pitch, a bogeyman given a dandyish twist of evil by Jude Law, makes his bid for world domination.
And here’s where Ramsey and his team exemplify the thoroughly modern Hollywood. Meticulously animated matte-black steeds with flaring nostrils announce the arrival of Pitch while also reminding us of the ringwraiths from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The similarity isn’t coincidental.
“We thought, ‘Okay, it’s a big-studio tent-pole movie,’ you know?” Ramsey begins. “Michael Bay and Star Wars for kids was kinda the idea we were going for while trying not to lose the quieter parts of the story or that essence you see in some of the scenes, like when Jamie [Bennett] sees Jack; the more contemplative moments, the fairy-tale moments. It’s a fast-moving movie with a lot of big visuals; there’s sort of a subtext that’s got a spiritual quality to it, like you have in Star Wars or the [Harry] Potters. That was tonally what we were going for. Lord of the Rings was another big one; we’re discovering new worlds; there are a lot of nods to history and legend. To me, that was really appealing to think of these characters stuck in something with the richness of a Tolkien-type world.”
The mythic side of Rise of the Guardians is something Ramsey credits to the “genius” of Joyce. “We were very lucky to get to work with this incredible idea that he had. Which is, ‘Let’s just take one step to the left and look at these character from a little bit of a different vantage point—and shock ourselves with these new versions of them—so we actually see them again,’ you know?” He adds that Joyce keyed into something essential when he came up with the one thing that Santa et al can’t survive: the loss of belief.
“They are, literally, real emotional forces in your life,” he says. “They have a presence. Somehow that never really goes away, even when you tell yourself they’re not real years later. They’re still real in some part of you, and to me—to already have that kind of emotional connection with the audience and to be able to work with that in a movie—that’s what really got me excited and intrigued about the project in the first place.”
Ramsey was so excited and intrigued, in fact, that he gave over a full and intense three years of his life to Rise of the Guardians. “I was just in a panel discussion with the guys who directed Wreck-It Ralph, Brave, and ParaNorman, and I said, ‘Guys, I’m sorry, you know how it is,’ ” he says with a chuckle, explaining that he hadn’t had the chance to see any of the animated films. “These past three years, it’s been hard to read books; it’s been hard to watch any movies. Your brain is always going back to the project. It’s really freaky.”
Ramsey adds that he wasn’t quite the absent father to his three kids, two of whom are still teens, but he was “absent enough”. Hopefully, they still believe in the existence of Dad.
Watch the trailer for Rise of the Guardians.