Storks director on the film's surprising Neighbors connection
Nick Stoller shares his personal inspiration for the animated avian film
The link between raucous fraternity comedy and animated bird movie doesn’t seem necessarily obvious, but there’s a deeper connection between Nicholas Stoller’s films than you’d first imagine.
As Warner Bros.’ Storks flies into theaters (sorry) this weekend, audiences will scoop up the CGI tale of a renegade stork (Andy Samberg) who vows to deliver the last human baby to its rightful owners. He’s aided in his mission by Tulip (Katie Crown), a human orphan raised with the storks, who have now eschewed delivering babies and instead deliver high-tech merchandise for an online mega-store.
But beneath the surface of the fun family comedy, there’s a greater rumination on the myth and message of parenthood and pregnancy, insists Stoller, the film’s writer and director. Stoller is primarily known for comedy — and some of it, like Get Him to the Greek, Neighbors, Sex Tape, and The Five-Year Engagement, particularly raunchy — yet he’s also flexed muscles in creating accessible stories for families, as in The Muppets and, in this case, Storks. The latter, he says, is perhaps his most personal story to date, but that doesn’t quite mean it’s wholly unlike the rest of his oeuvre.
EW chatted up Stoller to get his take on his first time up to the animated plate.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Coming off Neighbors 2, what was the genesis of your idea here?
NICHOLAS STOLLER: My wife and I, our first child was really easy, and honestly Neighbors was a lot about that experience and how there’s a baby in your life, feeling like it’s over. And then our second child, we ended up having a lot of trouble. We had to use a lot of science, to our surprise, and there was a moment when we thought that we wouldn’t have a second child. I immediately felt like I had spent a lot of my first child’s infancy complaining about my life instead of being so excited and thrilled I had a baby. Then, we fortunately were able to have a second child, so Storks is really about that. Obviously there aren’t scenes in an IVF clinic, but it’s about the miracle of children and the miracle of babies. It sounds cheesy, but that is what it’s about at its core, wrapped in a lot of fun silliness.
That sounds far more personal than the target audience might realize.
Whether or not one goes through fertility struggles, with our second kid we felt way more thankful for her, and even when she would be throwing s— fits, I just found that I would look at her differently. I had a different experience with her. It really put into perspective how short your kid is a kid. That’s kind of the genesis of it. And then on a more emotional level, I was really excited to do animation and do something that my kids could enjoy.
Is that why you opted to direct instead of just write the screenplay?
The movies I’ve directed have all come from a deep emotional place. To direct something, especially an animated movie, it has to be something that’s so emotionally meaningful to me that I’ll be willing to spend years on something. It’s because it’s such a personal story for me that I decided very quickly that I actually wanted to spend years on this. It’s almost like a form of therapy in a way. I couldn’t imagine handing it off.
What ground rules helped you define the world of these storks, who have moved on from babies?
The best animated movies all have a comedy premise. Even something as serious as Wall-E. The idea with this was basically, storks used to deliver babies and they now deliver for essentially Amazon.com. That was the premise that I honed in on pretty quickly once I figured out that I wanted to do a movie about storks.
Given the Amazon satire, did anything change in technology in the real world over the last few years that shifted the story?
The two things we removed from the movie, in trying to keep the movie as timeless as possible, was we had Kelsey Grammer’s character at one point wearing a Google Glass type of device. And that disappeared when, really, Google Glass disappeared. And the other thing was, we had him dress as Steve Jobs during a presentation. But we were like, “You know what, that’s a joke we’ve seen before.”
What did you learn about animation here?
It’s the most visual kind of film. You’re constantly thinking visually because it doesn’t exist; you have to draw everything. And so I think it helped me stretch that part of my brain and my visual capacity as a filmmaker, especially because I come at filmmaking from a screenwriting and dialogue standpoint. And I did codirect it with Doug Sweetland, who directed Presto for Pixar, who was in charge of a lot of the amazing character animation, which was essentially the acting. I was in charge of the first chunk of it, figuring out the story and story reels, and then he moved to Vancouver to really fine-tune the animation. It’s been a cool process. I also brought a lot of the improv and stuff that I do in my live-action movies. We improv’d a lot of the movie before we cast it, so it has a liveliness to it that I think translates. I always tried to record with both actors in the booth at all times.
Did that freak out Doug?
[Laughs.] Everyone was really excited! I came into it with that idea. It’s the most collaborative medium, really. I think that both Neighbors and Neighbors 2 were made in the process of Storks, because it took so many years, but what ended up happening was they were very respectful of the script and recorded it word for word for me. But the script for me is more of a guideline than the actual movie, so when we went into the recording booth, I basically threw out the script and started to just workshop. All the actors and producers were like, “Wait, we don’t have to follow the script?” They were all very excited to get to explore that way.
Actor-wise, who was the most formative at the beginning of the filmmaking process?
It’s a two-hander between Andy Samberg and this actress named Katie Crown, who I don’t think many people know about. We cast her as a scratch actor, and she came in and was incredible, and from the beginning, I was like, I think she’s going to be impossible to replace. And Warner Bros. were like, “Yes, keep her, her voice is special.” So she really created the character of Tulip from the beginning. She was a big part of it. And then there’s this guy named Steve Glickman who helped create one of the weirdest characters in the movie, Pigeon Toady, and again we workshopped it with him and were like, “I don’t think we can replace his voice—it’s so weird and specific.” So we kept him as well.
What’s someone like Kelsey Grammer, who’s an animation veteran, like in the recording booth?
He has such a storied career in animation, so I was a little nervous when we started working with him, because he’s an icon of both TV and animation. And he was awesome. He’s incredibly collaborative. He just wanted to make sure the character wasn’t too much like Sideshow Bob, too much in that register. That was his only concern, and I think the character was pretty different.
I’ll only ask this since you compared the film to Neighbors yourself: Are there any jokes from Neighbors that didn’t make it in that you thought, maybe I can rework this and get that joke into Storks?
Oh, that’s funny. I don’t think there was any crossover! But in making both Neighbors and Neighbors 2, I don’t know if anyone will make the connection yet, but these movies have way more in common with Storks than people realize. The themes are similar. I think they all share an essential — I would argue, though I’m sure other people will be like, “What are you talking about?” — they all share an essential sweetness that I think I aspire to put in every movie.
Storks hits theaters on Sept. 23.