Oh, didn’t you hear? There’s a movie called The Boss Baby! And it stars Alec Baldwin as a newborn business-baby! And he’s sort of reminding people of the president!
Believe it or not, DreamWorks Animation’s latest release (birthed via cinema-section on March 31) measures up to more than its alliterative title and breezy concept. The Boss Baby comes from a popular 2010 picture book by Marla Frazee but morphed into something far more comedically rebellious and disarmingly emotional thanks to Michael McCullers’ screenplay and the work of director Tom McGrath.
McGrath, primarily known for his tenure directing the Madagascar franchise, is a longtime animator who cut his teeth on projects like The Ren and Stimpy Show and Space Jam before engaging with DreamWorks (he directed the studio’s 2010 Will Ferrell feature, Megamind). Here, the 30-year veteran explains his respectful approach to The Boss Baby and its unexpected timing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s your relationship to the type of subversive humor that we get so much of in The Boss Baby?
TOM McGRATH: A lot of it was having Alec right away as the adult in this relationship, and finding as much humor as we could get out of these two characters. I had a relationship with my brother where I was the younger one torturing him. And Michael, who wrote Austin Powers, came at it from the father point of view. We tried to have as much fun as possible. We also wanted to go back to an old style of animation, a style like Chuck Jones, which is very physical. I remember loving that stuff as a kid. I grew up on Blake Edwards movies—you know, The Pink Panther—so my parents would laugh at jokes that were more adult, and I would just laugh at the physicality of it.
How early did Alec have to be locked in before you could really develop this around him?
To get the movie off the ground, I took a baby from Megamind and took some lines from 30 Rock with Alec talking to his daughter on that show as Jack Donaghy, and I had an animator animate this cute baby with those lines coming out, and it sort of became a calling card to the movie as we were writing the script because we could just show anybody—any executive—this clip, and they would go, “Oh I get the movie. That’s funny.” So that really kind of sold the movie. Now, the big question is, will Alec do it? We were fortunate because I had worked with Alec before on Madagascar 2. And it was a couple years later when we approached him when we felt like we had a solid script, and had him come in and pitched him the story, and I think he saw the heart in it. Having four brothers himself, he kind of lived the sibling rivalry story. So we were fortunate. We didn’t have a back-up plan, I can tell you that.
The timing of this release is obviously so interesting, given Alec on SNL and the Trump of it all. What are you finding most interesting about when this movie has landed?
A lot of people think these movies could have been made in the last three months and they go, “Was this based off Trump?” And to me, I think it’s actually great. Alec is a hardworking guy, and he’s very funny, and it’s no surprise that he can do Trump. He always came in and gave us his De Niro or Chris Walken, all these characters that he’d transform into, and so it’s no surprise — of course he can do Trump. But who knew six years ago when we started this… you never know where Alec’s going to be, where the country’s going to be, what the climate’s going to be. But a lot of people, I think, even looks-wise, see this little blonde baby in this suit, and it’s not a hard leap to project [Trump] on it.
How much improvisation did he bring into the booth?
The thing about Alec is, it’s like workshopping a play. There was music in the dialogue. He rarely would just record one line. He would actually go back to the top of the scene and go, “I think it needs to build.” He was the conductor of his own voice. He’d go back and redo dialogue and hit things differently. And as the director, I’m going, “I know why you’re making these choices and modulating, and I’m going to use it because you’ve redefined the whole scene.” He knows his own voice so well and how to modulate it to do better or make the payoff greater. In a way, he was his own best critic in the way that he would analyze it. And that’s something new to me. He was really invested in this character he was creating, and I imagine he must do that with all his live-action films, too. He doesn’t phone it in, that’s for sure.
Was technology pushed here in any way for your animation department?
I’m happy with the look of the picture because personally, when I got into animation, it was 30 years ago, and animation was dead. What got me into it was watching Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan and Chuck Jones and “One Froggy Evening,” and I loved the drawn look of animation. And as the computer age came in, we [started to] do “realistic” very well, texturing everything, but it felt like animation was more art-driven in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. I remember thinking, with computers, can we see the hand of an artist more than we see the rendering power of a computer? Now we’re so used to detailing everything and having a certain technology on all our movies, so we actually had to create new technology to do the more graphic stuff in this, like in the fantasy sequences. We had to create our own pipeline team of artists that worked solely on the fantasies, with the idea [being that we were] making shorts within the film. I also remember Calvin & Hobbes, and the kid was always in his imagination world. And there are these great Chuck Jones shorts that I remember where this kid Ralph Phillips had this active imagination, and to say [we pay] homage to those is very fair.
Let me ask about the nudity. All the baby butts.
The partial nudity.
When did you first clear the hurdle of showing one, and then when did you decide, “Let’s do a thousand”?
[Laughs.] Well, it’s challenging. And I was kind of worried about this [being] a cheap joke. But for some reason, Mary Blee in our editorial department just loved it. It just made her laugh so hard, the little butts, and I think there’s something very endearing about it from a parent’s point of view. But you have to do it in the right tone. It can’t be too creepy or too weird. Even when we modeled the butt, it had to go under a lot of scrutiny, because they can look too realistic and kind of grotesque and weird, and it was a tricky one to get around. It’s a sight gag, but it could have been on the chopping block until we previewed it with a family audience probably eight months before release, and the kids just thought it was really funny, and that’s your voting audience.
Kids generally reject being called “baby,” so what philosophy did you hatch to get around that general hurdle when thinking about that audience?
It’s really interesting you bring that up. When you have “baby” in the title, it can be tough. Particularly, there’s an age of kids, probably between 7 and 12, where they’re really rebelling against the baby side of it. But as we developed the animation style and the humor, we just hoped it would appeal to that generation. And there’s a lot of slapstick, quite honestly, that helps us transcend the whole baby thing. To me, more importantly, having done the Madagascar movies, which are very gag-driven and don’t go deep at all, and there’s no relationships. … I mean, it’s very surface-y. I am the first to admit that. And too many characters. But this was an opportunity to focus on two characters and do a character piece [where] you didn’t realize you cared about these guys until the end. That was our spine.