Check out my review of “Rise of the Guardians” here! It’s now in theaters.
There exists a real guardian of childhood. His name is William Joyce. He cherishes children’s imaginations and believes in protecting them at all costs. To this end he has written and illustrated fifty children’s books and counting, and been the creative force behind numerous animated films, including “Robots,” “Meet the Robinsons,” the short film “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (which received this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Short), and now “Rise of the Guardians,” new in theaters this Thanksgiving weekend.
Joyce has been inspiring children for decades to love reading, learning, and dreaming, and never to stop believing in the power of their own imaginations. With his new film, Joyce brings us a heartfelt story about the characters that infused our own childhoods with magic, including Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. As the Executive Producer of “Rise of the Guardians,” Joyce brought to life the book series he created, “The Guardians of Childhood,” in tandem with the movie’s five-year development.
Joyce has been a friend to Reel Mama and very supportive of my blog and its mission to inspire creativity in children. Our first interview was about his creative body of work and the new Numberlys app released earlier this year by Joyce’s Moonbot Studios. I am delighted to welcome him again to ReelMama.com for this exclusive interview. [Note: My questions are in bold.]
Reel Mama: What is the premise of “Rise of the Guardians”?
William Joyce: The premise is that the icons of childhood that we’ve all believed in, the Man in the Moon, the Sandman, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and Jack Frost, are magnificent heroic beings. They all know each other; they’ve all worked together, and they have vast domains to do their good deeds. They are unified against a common enemy, the Boogey Man, whose name is Pitch.
Reel Mama: Talk about your fascination with some of these characters. These are really archetypes of childhood. How did you get interested in these characters, and why did they speak to you so much?
William Joyce: When I had children, then I had to start telling them about these guys, and I realized that the mythologies were pretty weak and shallow — unformed. If they ask a lot of questions about Super Man I can tell them everything: Super Man comes from the planet Crypton and so on, but I couldn’t tell them anything about these guys [from Santa Claus to the Toothfairy].
I thought that was a shame, and then I had the feeling that they needed a little rehabilitation. They didn’t quite have the majesty that they had at least in my imagination as a kid, and so I started taking it very seriously and really got into it, and then it got bigger and bigger and became this epic, this difficult-to-tame epic. I decided it would be 13 books: seven picture books, one each for their origins, and then five novels that would link their stories together — how they came to be, and how they first faced off with Pitch. I’ve done two of the picture books and three of the novels now, and I did those all while working on the film (we’ve been working on the film for the last five years). I just wanted to show these guys as grand heroic characters and not as pitch men for fast food chains.
Reel Mama: I think it’s great that you’ve been able to breathe life into these characters’ backstories. You’ve created your own mythology, and kids are going to love that. There’s a theme in your work about the importance of children’s imaginations and protecting that — in your stories children’s imaginations are often in jeopardy somehow. In “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” the books are in jeopardy if they aren’t read. If the imagination isn’t engaged, it can become a dangerous thing. Can you talk about the importance of children’s imaginations, creativity, and why that’s such an important thing to you?
William Joyce: It’s a sort of state of grace that [children] live in of “anything’s possible,” and they don’t know how things work yet, so the possibilities of flying monkeys and dinosaurs running through the streets and giant gorillas and wicked witches, all that seems highly probable to them. I think it’s lyrical and wonderful. There’s a famous story about an editor at Harper Row named Ursula Nordstrom — she was Maurice Sendak’s editor — and she would go into a school and ask of five year olds, “Who in here can sing and dance and draw?” And everybody would raise their hands. When she went into a class of second graders and ask that same question, about half as many people raise their hand. She asked a room full of fifth graders the same thing, and maybe five people raise their hands. She’s asked, “What are we doing wrong, that they’re ‘unlearning’ to sing and dance and draw?” We sort of squeeze the imagination out of children, and make them believe so much in what is in front of us. We forget the poetry of possibility is important.
Reel Mama: My mom is in art education, and she’s been talking to me about something called the “Creativity Crisis.” Enough creativity isn’t fostered in our children. They’re too over-scheduled, and they don’t have time to be bored and just be creative. It’s something I’ve been exploring on my blog for a while.
William Joyce: I totally agree. It drives me crazy. We’ve made childhood into a job. Everybody worries about getting into the “right” preschool, so that they can get into the “right” grade school, high school, and college. I went to college, and I don’t even know what my SAT scores were. I got in, and we didn’t study that hard, and we all did okay. So to what end are we putting these kids through this “fact machine,” and how are they supposed to turn out better than we were? We did fine. The trains are running on time, basically. You know, cannibals aren’t on every corner. We keep discovering new stuff and making advances, and so to what end are we tying these children to this railroad of learning? Are they going to do so much better? Are they going to be happier?
Reel Mama: Could you talk about your partnership with fellow “Rise of the Guardians” Executive Producer Guillermo del Toro (famous for “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy”) came to be?
William Joyce: Guillermo is like the Mexican Santa Clause: larger than life and incredibly generous and big hearted, and a masterful, exuberant, fearless storyteller. We’d been in production for a couple of years when he came on, and he came on at just the right time. We were bumping around a little bit. We didn’t know how to make the story as simple as it needed to be, and as strong as it needed to be. Guillermo came in and shook us all up in the best kind of way. He came up with terrifying, wonderful plot ideas. He’s very supportive of the artist, filmmaker, and storyteller, so any time we had any kind of trouble with certain “highers up,” he would come to our defense, and he would say, “Let them, it’s going to be okay.” It was just awesome, and we’re going to work on more stuff together. He’s not only a great collaborator but he’s become a good friend.
Reel Mama: Can you talk about projects you might be working on with Guillermo del Toro in the future?
William Joyce: It is too early to do that. We are bound to do it, and we have some specifics, but it would be [feigning a pompous voice] injudicious of me to speak of these things at this early date.
Reel Mama: My readers will be so excited to know that there are more collaborations coming up between you and del Toro! Was del Toro responsible for the transformation of some of the characters in terms of changes made when you were adapting the books? I noticed the Easter Bunny got a little bit of a different look and seems a little edgier. Is that something he contributed to?
William Joyce: I don’t know if Guillermo was a part of that or not. That was always the plan, that the books are 300 years before the movie, and the characters would have evolved from the earlier time in the book. Santa (named North in the book and movie) doesn’t have a beard yet in the book. I can’t remember if Guillermo was a part of figuring out exactly how far we took them away from [the books].
I do remember a lot of specific plot things that he came up with that were really strong. The dramatic depth of Sandman was all Guillermo’s idea and makes the movie much stronger. He’s very well versed in mythology and fairy tale logic and operatic needs of story, especially in a fantasy setting. I think there was some design tweaking that Guillermo was in on, but to me it was more his spirit and story sense that strode like a colossus through the last two years of the movie.
Reel Mama: I’d like to close with a question about your own childhood. What was it like?
William Joyce: It was odd, but I think everybody’s childhood is odd. I was the youngest of an extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. All my siblings and cousins were very artistic and our parents were not. [Our parents] are all sort of baffled, sitting around wondering, where did all these children come from? They’re very supportive. They’re country people, and here they are sending my cousins off to Juilliard, the music school. I grew up in this atmosphere of opera singers and writers and photographers and actors and artists, and I just sort of soaked up all this stuff, just because it was in the air.
I think the main catalyst — there were a couple of things — was that one of my cousins took me to the movies. She took me to my first movie, Disney’s “Babes in Toyland,” at this cool old movie theater that’s downtown in Shreveport, the Strand Theater.
I’d already been drawing–I always drew and I’d always written little stories, but the idea of a movie I didn’t quite understand yet. I was only three. But I’m sitting there, and I’m like, “Well, this is cool. I like this building, and we’re up in the balcony. Balconies are cool. All the chairs are facing this one wall; I wonder what that’s about?” And then that one wall lit up and there was this other world on that wall, and it had toys and adventures and mad scientists and heroes and villains, damsels in distress and damsels not in distress. I was like, “This is awesome, and they give you popcorn!”
Every Saturday from then on, they would have a Saturday matinee for kids — and usually it was something like “The Wizard of Oz,” or “King Kong,” or Errol Flynn’s “Robin Hood,” or “Thief of Bagdad,” and I would go see these movies, and they just transformed me. I was like, “This is the coolest thing ever.” And I would go home and draw pictures and make up stories about what I had seen.
So that’s kind of how it all started melding together for me, but the best part of this whole process on “Guardians” was that we had one of the three North America premiers of “Rise of the Guardians” at that very same theater in my home town, the Strand Theater, which is still there and still magnificent. So I got to show what I hope is my grand entertainment on the same screen that first fired my imagination. It was intensely satisfying for my life to take that very rare but cherished symmetrical turn. Every audience I’ve seen it with has just loved it. Children are beside themselves, giddy, and happy, and excited and going along with it all the way. It’s so much fun to listen to them when they’re leaving the theater: “I like Jack Frost the best! I like Sandman the best! I wanna be the Sandman!” They’re talking amongst themselves and they’re seeing these characters the way I’d hoped they would, seeing them as living beings, and it’s just like manna. Some good stuff.
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