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William Joyce Interview: Peering Inside the Mind of 'Rise of the Guardians' Producer and Book Series Author

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Image attributed to William Joyce

William Joyce

William Joyce has achieved worldwide recognition as an author, illustrator and pioneer in the digital and animation industry. Named by Newsweek magazine as “One of the 100 people to watch in the new millennium,” Joyce has been heavily involved in the world of digital animation from its full-scale inception at Pixar Animation.

Joyce’s projects have been produced by nearly every major film studio including Disney, 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation. His feature films and television shows include the films Robots and Meet the Robinsons and the television series Rolie Polie Olie for which he won three Emmy Awards. He has written over fifty children’s books, and his Shreveport, Louisiana studio, Moonbot, produced an Oscar winning animated short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

“There were about a hundred rejection slips. I was getting a little discouraged. It just took forever, and was just a question of getting somebody. You just need that first person to go, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something interesting here.’”

The talented filmmaker is the executive producer of  the animated feature, Rise of the Guardians, which was released in theaters November 21, 2012 and is based on Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood book series. The film and books explain the mythologies of childhood icons such as Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

Additionally, he is the writer, producer and production designer on the Fox Studios feature film, The Leaf Men, based on his book of the same name. The Leaf Men will be released as the film Epic in the summer of 2013.

Joyce lives with his wife, Elizabeth and son Jackson Edward Joyce in Shreveport, Louisiana. His daughter, Mary Katherine, died from a brain tumor at the age of 18 on May 2, 2010.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bill, how’s the book promotion going?

William Joyce: Super Duper. Fun. We’ve been all over the place.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Out of curiosity, any relation to Ulysses author James Joyce?

William Joyce: Sure. All Joyces are related. We all come from County Galway, Ireland.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were born in Shreveport, and I’m in Alabama.

William Joyce: I was trying to place the accent (laughs). I thought maybe it was Brooklyn or Long Island.

William Joyce

William Joyce (H3O Communications)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Funny (laughs). Tell me a little about your childhood in Shreveport.

William Joyce: Well, let’s see. Did you ever see To Kill a Mockingbird?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course.

William Joyce: It was like that except there was more people (laughs). If you mix up To Kill a Mockingbird and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, you’ve got my childhood.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll need some time to think about that.

William Joyce: So do I (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the book, The Man in the Moon, the guardian, Nightlight, keeps the Man in the Moon (MiM) safe from bad dreams. How did your parents keep the nightmares away?

William Joyce: My parents were the nightmares (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, that’s for another interview (laughs).

William Joyce: I told you it was Tennessee Williams (laughs). No, I kid. Nightmares as a child … they just told me nothing was there and to go back to sleep. They’re a part of that generation. I was reading something the other day in The New York Times about how the World War II generation was just gruffer. They had been through the Great Depression, so they thought we had it cushy. Nightmares weren’t anything to lose any sleep over.

What my parents did have was an absolute, unwavering support in all of us pursuing our artistic endeavors even though they were totally baffled by that. My sisters and my cousins were all into the arts, so there was this great atmosphere. I was the youngest in this wild gumbo of artists, writers, musicians, photographers and actors. They encouraged all of that. They never once said, “Do something regular. Go be a doctor, lawyer or dentist.” They were like, “Wow! They really love this stuff, and that’s great! We grew up as sharecroppers and that was crummy, so you need to find something that you need to do in life.” They encouraged us very much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your interests began at an early age?

William Joyce: Day One. Making things up and drawing them. That’s what I’ve always done.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you rather read a book, draw a picture or watch a television show?

William Joyce: They’re all part of the same thing. Sometimes, I do them all at the same time and did back then.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting. Tell me about “Billy’s Booger.”

William Joyce: It was a creative assignment in elementary school to write our own story, so I exaggerated a certain situation. I was really bad at math, so I daydreamed about this kid who gets hit in the head by a meteorite. His boogers get superpowers, and his boogers are very good at math. It seemed like a very logical line of reasoning for me, and it made a good story. The kids in the 4th grade liked it, but it did get me sent to the principal’s office.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it a struggle to get that first book published?

William Joyce: Oh, yeah. Oh, my God (laughs). There were about a hundred rejection slips. I was getting a little discouraged. It just took forever, and was just a question of getting somebody. You just need that first person to go, “Wait a minute. There’s something interesting here.”

In those days, they would still take unsolicited manuscripts which most houses don’t anymore. You could just send them in. I call it the slush pile. They usually have interns go through the slush pile first, so it’s the least qualified people who are the first line of acceptance (laughs). I finally got my stuff to an editor at Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins. After a year of trying and a hundred rejections, the door opened, and I’ve been a part of the club ever since.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought of relocating, especially due to the film work?

William Joyce: We almost moved a couple of times and then just didn’t. My career would have been different if we had moved. I probably would’ve gone crazy by now, would’ve made more movies and been richer, but I probably would have been divorced four times or something. It worked out the way it was supposed to. It hasn’t hampered my career. That’s for sure.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Can you create everything at Moonbot, your studio in Shreveport?

William Joyce: Trying to (laughs). We’ve got 50 people now. We couldn’t make a feature film yet. It will take more people than that, but we’re working toward that, and we’re having a ball.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is DreamWorks as good as it gets for a filmmaker?

Rise of the GuardiansWilliam Joyce: No (laughs). It’s very good, but making a big movie is a different experience than making your own short or an app or making any one of the things that we do. Making a big movie is a very … it’s like planning D-Day. You have to form coalitions, and you have to play politics, and you have to get everybody to agree.

I have an idea and usually have to convince 24 other people that it’s a good idea before I go any further. When I go in to Moonbot, I go to my creative partner and ask, “Do you think it’s a good idea?” He goes, “Yeah. It’s a good idea.” Then, I tell the guys, “We’re going to do this thing today.” They say, “Okay.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And, then everyone breaks for lunch (laughs).

William Joyce: Yeah. You just go out and do it. A big movie costs an extraordinary amount of money, and that money is all up on the screen so you get to do the big opulent thing. That’s great and fun, but it’s just a lot of logistical work. Doing a book is a much smaller and more private endeavor, and that has its own charms as well.

I like doing all of them. I can’t say one thing is better than the other. They’re different, so who’s to say it’s as good as it gets? It’s as good as it gets in the big time movie business, but there’s more freedom in other stuff.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love the characters Sandman and the Man in the Moon.

William Joyce: Thank you very much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why are the books just as entertaining for adults as they are for children?

William Joyce: Well, I don’t write for kids. I write for myself. I think I write for the grownup in every kid and the kid in every adult. I never think of them as just for kids. I think that’s kind of like talking down. I never talk down to anyone who I think might be reading these books.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): To me, illustrations of Pitch, the Nightmare King, are sort of Tim Burtonesque. Perhaps it was the general aura of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Do you enjoy Burton’s work?

William Joyce: You know, that’s a movie I actually didn’t like. I can usually point to a bunch of stuff and say, “This came from this and that came from that.” Everything from The Guardians is much more influenced by The Wizard of Oz, The Thief of Bagdad, Greek mythology and Celtic mythology.

Pitch really comes, more than anything, from an image I had as a kid in a recurring nightmare that I always thought of as the boogeyman. The boogeyman was chasing me, and I couldn’t run. Have you ever had that dream where your feet just weigh a ton? There was this guy that had sort of a formless shape … guess it comes from that more than anything.

I can usually tell you straight out where the influences are, but that guy is a little murkier because I really hadn’t thought about it. He came out of my childhood psyche. Yes, I like Burton’s stuff, but he really wasn’t an influence on this.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): These guys who are the guardians have been described by some critics as avengers. Is that accurate?

William Joyce: I disagree completely. They’re not avengers. They’re guardians. They are not avenging anything. They’re guarding the children of earth. I mean, I can see the point that they’re a bunch of heroes that get together, but if you’re going to parse it out and be accurate, they’re not avenging. But they’re cool.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They are very cool.

William Joyce: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you ever have actors in mind for the character voices as you’re writing the books?

William Joyce: Usually it’s somebody from the past. In this case, they asked me early on in the pre-production of the movie to put together what they call an inspiration reel where you take scenes from different movies and say, “This is how I see this character.” You take actors that you think fit what you’re aiming for.

For the inspiration reel for The Guardians, there were many Sean Connery clips for North (Santa Claus). We considered casting him, but he’s 80 something years old, and his voice has aged, so it just wasn’t possible. There were several times that Connery either played Russians or Arabic or Italian characters, and he just had this bigger than life exuberance. That’s what we wanted. But Alec Baldwin captured that beautifully.

For Pitch, I chose this one actor from the 1950s. His name was George Sanders, and he won the Academy Award for All About Eve. He played this acerbic Broadway critic named Addison DeWitt. Later in his career, Sanders was the voice of Shere Khan in the Disney version of The Jungle Book. He dripped that elegant suave menace, and that’s what I wanted for Pitch and what everybody agreed upon.

For a while, we were actually thinking about Alec Baldwin for Pitch, and then someone suggested Jude Law. I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” We wanted Pitch to be kind of alluring. I think for a villain, somebody who’s so cool, you’d almost want to hang with him. If he were not some screaming maniac freak, but kind of cool and seductive, you’d be like, “Wow. He’s not that bad.” Anyway, we did that for each one of the characters. It’s amazing how close in the casting that all the actors came through what we had envisioned.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s quite a cast – Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Jude Law and Dakota Goyo (as the child, Jamie).

William Joyce: Yeah. Absolutely. There’s one line in the novel that suggests that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t even be Australian, but it says he actually formed the continent. The Easter Bunny is a Pooka, a Celtic mythological creature. Harvey (in the 1950 film), the invisible rabbit, was a Pooka. I just usurped that. The Easter Bunny is visible, but he’s been around since the earth was formed. It was originally egg shaped and that made it rotationally unstable, so it was actually getting closer and closer to the sun.

The Easter Bunny made it round which he found less interesting aesthetically, but he knew it would save the planet, so he used his incredible digging skills because he was a giant rabbit. When he formed the continents, he was the proudest of Australia. From that one line in the book, we got an Australian superstar to be the voice of the Easter Bunny … Hugh Jackman!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is the Man in the Moon a metaphor for God with Nightlight being an angel?

William Joyce: Nah (laughs). I don’t think in those quasi-religious terms. I’m just thinking in mythological terms. I know that as a kid, I looked at the moon as something past reality or beyond the earthly. There’s a fine line between religion and belief. We’ve been asking our kids to believe in these characters that we know aren’t true, but we seem to need to give them belief whether it’s in a religion or something.

We want to believe in things, and we want our kids to believe in things that we can’t see … believe in something that’s bigger and better and bring order to things. I think these guys, these icons, are part of that human need, and it’s just very interesting to me that over several hundred years without anybody declaring it, that we’ve come out with these several people that we voluntarily tell our children are real. We must need to do that, so I felt like they were being ill served of late and starting to fade away.

Kids don’t talk about the Sandman and Jack Frost as much as they did when I was a kid, and it seems a shame. As I started working on this, I felt a certain responsibility to get it right, to make their beliefs seem more probable.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bill, when you won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in February 2012 for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, do you remember those moments after your name was called?

William Joyce: Yeah. I remember every instant of it vividly more than anything I have ever experienced (laughs). We did forget out speeches when we got up here to speak. They really urge you to have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to say, and they give you a very distinct timeline which you can see ticking down as you’re up there. You have 45 seconds to say what you’re going to say, and after that they cut your microphone off unless you’re being really funny.

We thought of something to say and had kind of gone over it, but when we got up there, our minds went totally blank. The one thing I did not know as it was happening was what the hell I was saying when we were accepting the award. I wasn’t sure of it until I saw it on television when I got back to Louisiana because we had taped it. But as we were going around to the parties after the show, people were saying, “Gosh. We really liked your speech.” We had no idea of what we had said (laughs).

If there was one blank we had, it was then. We kept looking down and thinking, “We have 45 seconds. There are 6 billion people watching.” I’m looking down and George Clooney is 6 feet away with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones and half the stars in Hollywood, and I’m just going, “Wow. Okay. Start talking dude and don’t curse.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You sunk right into a fog (laughs).

William Joyce: Yep, but evidently it was an articulate fog or an enthusiastic fog or something because everyone seemed to like it. I know I said something about swamp rats, which is a phrase I’ve never uttered in my life. I don’t know where the hell that came from.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Swamp rats?

William Joyce: I referred to the two of us as swamp rats being from Louisiana. Everybody thought it was hysterical, but I don’t know where I got that. I never heard it. Never said it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s surprising what will come out of your mouth while in a fog (laughs).

William Joyce: Well, thank goodness it wasn’t expletives deleted (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you still get upset over negative comments or reviews about your work?

William Joyce: Oh, yes! I hunt those people down (laughs). Only a handful of times have I called into question somebody’s ill chosen opinions and/or words. Usually they’ve been pretty swell about it, but it’s always been when I thought they were terribly wrong or when they were actually factually incorrect. But you don’t ever get over that stuff.

It’ll mess up my day, and I’ll curse those people until I die (laughs). There was a couple of movies that I worked on which I thought were lousy, and when the people said they were lousy, I agreed. But if I like it and usually I do, I don’t let it get out there unless I like it. If they don’t understand it, then I curse their names.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Losing a child is an unthinkable tragedy. You took a break from the film project when your daughter passed away in 2010. How do you continue working after a trauma like that?

William Joyce: I just couldn’t be there every day while she was sick. I wasn’t able to be in Los Angeles all the time, but I kept up with it. I worked on the books all through her illness. It was good to be able to do that work. It was essential. My work has always been my refuge, so I needed it then worse than ever. I got six books and a movie done in the course of that time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mary Katherine gave you the idea for the characters when she was a little girl?

William Joyce: She inspired the whole thing because she asked me one day if the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus knew each other. I was like, “Yeah. They knew each other.” I’d opened a can of worms or Pandora’s box or something because when I answered that question in the affirmative, there were many more that followed. I had to come up with good answers and found myself getting really intrigued by this idea, and then it just overtook my creative juices for a number of years.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did Mary Katherine have a favorite character?

William Joyce: I don’t think so. Anytime anybody asks me that, it’s tough, and I’m sure she felt the same way. It’s a “Sophie’s choice” you really don’t care to make. It’s like, “I made them all up. I like them all.” Each one is a different facet of something I hoped or wished or hated. I even like the bad guys.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You created the characters for the children’s series Rolie Polie Olie.

William Joyce: That was exactly our family. Olie is a boy instead of a girl. I switched the sexes and made the boy older and the girl younger. My wife does not play the drums or bowl (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And, that’s the only difference (laughs).

William Joyce: Pretty much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bill, will the innovation continue to evolve in children’s literature?

William Joyce: It’s just going to become different. You’re still going to carry around a book that’s printed on pages. I don’t think that’s going to go away. It just works too well. You can drop it in the water, and you can still read it. You can drop it on the floor, and you can still read it. It doesn’t run out of batteries. Even your dog can chew on it for a while, and you can paste it back together. You can still read a book.

Technology is fun, and I’m having a great time embracing it and experimenting with it. I’ve done several book apps. We call them story apps, but I think that’s stupid because it’s a whole different thing. I think they’ll be story apps that will be sometimes combined with books. An app we did with Morris Lessmore really combined the text and the structure of the book with the animation we’d done with the short and was telling the story in a different way. It stands on its own as a separate thing. You combine it with the short, and you see a slightly different version, maybe an expanded version. You see a slightly extended version of it in the app, and then in the book experience, the text itself tells you things you weren’t able to explicitly say in either the app or the film. They all become a variation of the same story.

We created a new app called the IMAG-N-O-TRON, and you point your iPad at the Morris Lessmore book, and it will make the illustrations come to life on your iPad in three dimensions. They’ll run around and do stuff. Even then, it’s not just a trick, it’s a thing that either tells a story a little bit more or a little differently or fleshes it out a bit.

I think that all literature will move in directions like that, but a story is still going to be a story. They’re still going to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and there will be archetypes people will always be attracted to. It just may not always be on a piece of paper, but it has never always been on a piece of paper. This stuff is just a new way to get the same stories we’ve been getting all along.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have Epic coming out next year starring Beyonce Knowles, Colin Farrell, Amanda Seyfried and Steven Tyler.

William Joyce: Yes ma’am. Sure do. That one has taken a long time. We’ve been working on that for over ten years. It’s really beautiful. I’m very proud of The Guardians and Epic. I think they are the two best I’ve had the pleasure of doing.

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