Writer-producer Al Jean and director David Silverman take you behind the scenes of the hit film adapted from TV's forever-running animated comedy
Ten years ago today, The Simpsons gave fans something that they had been dreaming about for nearly two decades: The chance to pay to see the show they normally watched for free.
On July 27, 2007, The Simpsons Movie was unleashed into cineplexes across the country, with that very idea taunted to the audience by Homer at the beginning of the film as he watched an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon at the theater. As excited as fans were, producers were doubly anxious, praying to Jeebus they didn’t sully the good name of Fox’s beloved animated comedy-turned-multi-billion dollar franchise. As series creator Matt Groening told EW at the time, ”Nobody wants to be the one that rams the ship into the iceberg.” And as Al Jean tells EW today, “We had something that had been on 17 years and so many people had so much invested in it emotionally, and you felt like the potential for disappointment was huge. I’d seen it in other movies based on TV shows. So what I felt when it came out and still feel is: We at least did pretty well.”
The Simpsons Movie — which was released between the show’s 18th and 19th season — scored more-than-respectable reviews on its way to earning $530 million worldwide at the box office, so, yes, pretty well. And perhaps it was extra impressive, considering that the plot involved poorly disposed-of pig poop: Homer adopts a pet hog, inadequately storing its waste in a leaky silo in his backyard; then, ignoring Marge’s advice, he dumps the feces in the already troubled Lake Springfield. The massive toxic reaction prompts the evil head of the EPA — with the authorization of President Arnold Schwarzenegger — to drop a clear dome over Springfield, which makes the angry town residents to turn on Homer and his family, who escape through a sinkhole and hightail it to Alaska. Marge gives up on Homer after he refuses to join them in returning to rescue Springfield after they learn that it is being turned into the next Grand Canyon, but ultimately Homer has an epiphany, returns to Springfield, and saves the day on a motorcycle with Bart, who — we forgot to mention — skateboards naked through the town earlier in the film.
The transition to the big screen was helped by a team of Simpsons all-stars (John Schwartzwelder, George Meyer, John Vitti, David Mirkin, and Mike Reiss were among the returning scribes, joining producers Groening, Jean, James L. Brooks, and Mike Scully) as well as a director and his squad of animation artists who was always thinking big (screen) picture. “Even from the very first season, certainly by the second season, we were always very cinematically adventurous on the show,” says director David Silverman. “We were certainly helped in no small way by having Brad Bird as a consultant, because he is one of the most intelligent, cinematic directors and really got me thinking hard cinematically about how to approach the show and looking compositionally, so in some respects we already had that going for us. I think we did a really good job of keeping it true to the way it felt on the series — but enriching it for the movie.”
EW asked Jean and Silverman to enrich Simpsons fans by cracking open their memory banks and pouring out a few revealing stories from the making of The Simpsons Movie on its 10th anniversary (and the Simpsons’ 30th!).
1. In an early pitch for the movie, it was not Russ Cargill but Steven Spielberg who was planning to blow up Springfield.
The idea of a Simpsons film had been floating around almost as long as the show had existed. (There was fleeting talk of turning an in-the-works-episode titled “Kamp Krusty” into a movie, but it instead remained a season 4 episode.) At another point, there was a never-pursued suggestion of doing an anthology-style “Treehouse of Horror” movie. Once the contracts were finally signed for a movie, ideas were chucked around more seriously (What if Homer and his family realize that their lives are being filmed for a reality show?). The first official brainstorming session for The Simpsons Movie began in late 2003, and Jean recalls that on Day 1, Scully suggested a story in which Oscar-magnet Steven Spielberg, playing himself, was going to shoot a movie with Tom Hanks in Springfield, and “for whatever reason, he would have to blow it up.”
Also in that initial session, inspired by a story about pig-waste management that he’d read in the news, Groening introduced the idea of Homer adopting a pet pig but having nowhere to dispose of the animal’s crap. The producers latched on to the pig idea but absorbed the town-destruction angle from the Spielberg story. “The idea of what would happen to the city in the catastrophic sense would be part of the movie under the pig plot,” says Jean. (And coincidentally, Tom Hanks ended up voicing Tom Hanks in the film, as the spokesman for the “new” Grand Canyon that Springfield would be turned into.)
2. Initially it was not Grampa Simpson but Marge who had that crazy vision in church.
That early sequence in the film, which saw never-quite-all-there Grampa Simpson fall to the ground in a religious-like trance and spew a seemingly nonsense warning about a “twisted tail!” “a thousand eyes!” “trapped forever!” and “eepa!” was originally animated with Marge in that role. “It had some jokes and setups and payoffs but overall it wasn’t entertaining,” recalls Silverman. “You’re sort of waiting for it to be over. Once we put Grampa in there, the scene became funnier and actually made more sense. With Grampa, you already accept it. And what’s stronger is Marge is observing this, and nobody seems to pay [attention] to it. That helped her story even more, than if she experienced it and nobody did anything about it.”
Jean remembers that the original version with Marge required a lot of shouting, which was taxing on Julie Kavner (who voices Marge). “I felt very bad when we didn’t end up using it, but it just took people out of the movie,” he says. “They were too sad that Marge was crazy.”
3. The star-making moment for the pig, a.k.a., Spider-Pig, was born from a scrapped pedicure.
While the idea for Homer to have a pet pig came on Day 1, the swine’s popular alter-ego, Spider-Pig, was not born until much later. Deep into production, the producers were reconsidering a scene with Patty and Selma disparaging Homer to Marge while they all got pedicures. (The punchline involved Groundskeeper Willie, who was also getting a pedicure, complaining about their gossip.) But then Mirkin pitched a conversation between Marge and Lisa (something they didn’t have elsewhere in the film), and it connected to Marge’s story with Homer, and pedicure gave way to pig.
“What was great about the way that David was pitching it was that Lisa was talking about her new possible boyfriend very excitedly and Marge was listening, very pleased with it, and she says, ‘That’s great, the important thing is a man listening to you because there’s nothing better than — how did these pig prints get on the ceiling???’” says Silverman. “And then you see Homer going [mimicks nonsense ‘doo doo doo doo’ singing] with the pig and that made us laugh. And Al Jean said, ‘Yeah, he could be the amazing Spider-Pig!’ and that inspired me to come up with the lyrics to the song off the top of my head: Does whatever a Spider-Pig does/Can he swing from a web?/No, he cant, he’s a pig.”
“The next thing we knew, it was half the ads,” recalls Jean. “That was the one thing that was a very late addition that suddenly took over the whole movie. I wished they hadn’t advertised it quite as much — because it was really just a little joke.” Still, there were a few more parts of the film in which Spider-Pig might have made an appearance, including in Homer’s epiphany dream sequence. “In the background, you had Spider-Pig in a full Spiderman outfit, sans the head, so you could see the pig face because his face was so funny, and he was swinging from web to web, shooting out of his hoofs as he’s going from totem pole to totem pole in the background,” says Silverman. “And Al was like ‘Oh, I think we’re tired of Spider-Pig at this point.’ Yeah, you’re probably right.”
4. A moment between Homer and the pig rubbed a test audience the wrong way.
There was a brief scene where “Homer was less nice to the pig,” reveals Jean, and it didn’t play well at all with a test audience in San Diego. “That was a mistake,” he admits. “We took that out, immediately. It was one little thing, but it made a huge difference. I hate to be numeric about it, but his character likability fell 10 points.”
5. The producers wondered if Bart’s naked skateboarding scene would saddle them with an R rating.
One of the most outrageous moments of the film — and perhaps the film’s most finely orchestrated sight gag — involves Bart taking up Homer on his dare to ride around Springfield naked on his skateboard; as we follow his journey through town, Bart’s private parts are inventively covered up by pointing fingers, a Frisbee, flowers, a remote control car, a dove, a sprinkler, and a fence… before a gap in the fence shows only Bart’s junk while blocking everything else. “Matt said he always wanted to have Bart skateboard naked,” recalls Jean, “and [writer-producer] Mike Scully had the idea that we actually showed his penis for two seconds.”
Silverman, who credits storyboarder Martin Archer with bringing these blocking jokes to life, sums up its cheeky charm like this: “That was a very conscious thing: the amount of space was used to block his privates was the reciprocal space to expose his privates and everything else is covered up. It was like a negative, and also it’s timed just right so the laughs hits and as soon as people are laughing you cover it up.”
The Simpsons folks knew that the gag would get laughs, but wondered if that Bart’s bits would also get the movie slapped with an R-rating. “There was talk back and forth,” remembers Silverman. “We were legitimately nervous of what the MPAA rating would be because we had no idea. We were very happy when we got PG-13; we weren’t going to release an R-rated movie. It was so silly and nonsexual that it got past.” (In the family-friendly version of the movie, there’s a black circle blocking Bart’s privates that reads: “Only available in European versions.”)
Silverman remains proud of the sequence. “That was the thing that nobody would do,” he says. “If you did that in live-action, you’d have a R-rating immediately. A number of films have done [the shielded privates joke]. Austin Powers couldn’t have the button on that joke because it’s live-action. In animation you can get away with it. Although probably not with Homer. Somehow with Bart we can get away with it.”
Oh, and in case you were curious how they determined what size to make Bart’s member… “The idea was to make it of a certain size that seemed funny,” says Silverman. “Not making it colossally large like flapping in the wind — although it was rendered that way as a joke. It’s about the right size that ‘Oh, that looks funny,’ especially as we reveal it like, ‘Oop! There it is!’ People say, ‘What was your yardstick of what size to make it?’ It’s whatever seemed to make us laugh the most.”
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