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.”
NEXT PAGE: Dome concerns, Will there be a Simpsons Movie 2?
6. There was concern about the dome plot after Hurricane Katrina.
Brooks told the writers that any Simpsons movie would need to provide a compelling reason to watch beyond 30 minutes, that “you wanted to find out what was going to happen,” says Jean. “We had the idea for the dome and we thought, ‘Okay, that’s something we’d want to see them get out of.’”
But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005 — after grim reports surfaced about the conditions inside Superdome, which was sheltering displaced New Orleans residents — the producers became concerned that a dome-based storyline (which came from those late-2003 meetings) would seem insensitive. “At that time, there were a lot of headlines like ‘People trapped under dome,’ and ‘Horrible conditions inside dome,’ so we were worried that people would go, ‘Oh my god, this is tasteless,” recalls Jean. “So [then-studio chairman] Tom Rothman who hadn’t read the script yet, in 2005, read the script, and said, “Two years later, this will be fine. Nobody’s going to make the connection.”
That was true. In fact, the dome-based connection that people would make was a few years later, between 2007’s The Simpsons Movie and Stephen King’s 2009 novel Under the Dome, which unspooled a story about a mysterious dome that falls from the sky and quarantines a town. “Thank god that Under the Dome didn’t come out until after we did that,” says Jean. “I don’t know what we would thought if that come out in 2006.” [Asked about the similarities years ago, King said that it was idea he had been working on as far back as the ‘70s and ‘80s.]
7. The angry mob scene was in search of a punchline.
One of the most visually striking moments in the film is the scene where the citizens of Springfield band together with torches and come after Homer for bringing about the lake/dome calamities. The scene was incredibly intricate to bring to life, requiring up to 3,600 drawings. “I wanted to push all the way through” the crowd,” says Silverman, describing his direction. “It took us the longest time: ‘Well, what happens at the end of this push-in?’ We originally ended up on Lenny and Carl and Moe, and they say some joke. And then they pushed in and we ended with Sideshow Bob saying ‘Kill Bart! Kill Bart!’ ‘No, we’re killing Homer!’ ‘Oh.’ And he walks away disgusted. [We ultimately decided], ‘Oh, we push all the way back and we end up on Homer saying, ‘You idiots are going the wrong way!’ and they stop and turn.’ It sure took us a long time to figure that one out.”
Jean confirms that the search for the perfect punchline for the mob scene was arduous, recalling one in which “they were going ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!” and then you cut to a group that’s the Springfield dyslexics and they were going ‘Llik! Llik! Llik!’ It didn’t work.”
8. The writers had a tough time thinking outside the bubble.
The Simpsons teams spent lots of time writing and rewriting this movie — up to 150 drafts were penned — and one particular area that proved the biggest headache. “The rough part of the script, which we worked on again and again, was between the Simpsons escaping [the dome] and the Simpsons returning to Springfield,” says Jean. “And that I still think is a little rough. I agree with that criticism that there were some funny observations, but it felt like you were just waiting for them to get back. Once Marge does the wedding video and then Homer starts maturing, you feel like there’s a narrative drive again.”
Jean — who notes that the single-most rewritten scene was the one in the hotel room where the family decides to go to Alaska — explains that the writers gravitated toward the Alaskan adventure for multiple reasons. “You can do jokes like, ‘We’re staying in Alaska and we’re never going back to America,’” he explains. “We thought visually that the snow would look cool. You have the jokes with Homer and the dogs, and Homer and the snow.” But many adjustments and cuts were made along the way; a song about Alaska, with music by Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics, ended up out in the cold.
Several scenes that depicted life in domed Springfield after the Simpsons had left were jettisoned as well. “We thought, ‘People are going to probably want to see, ‘Here’s how everybody’s dealing with things in Springfield,’” says Silverman. “And what we found out in previews is that people didn’t really care what was happening in Springfield. They were more interested in what was happening with the family. People had more empathy and sympathy and interest in how the family was doing and what was their story. It wasn’t as necessary as we thought it was. We were answering questions nobody was asking.”
One scene that pained Silverman to part with featured Krusty the Clown trying to cheer up the kids in Springfield as the town ran out of electricity. “He was doing a live show in the darkened theater and he was going to tell a funny story,” he says. “He shines a flashlight under his face and the kids get really scared by the scary shadow being projected and the scary lighting on his face as he’s trying to go [imitates goofy Krusty laugh]. Then Sideshow Mel runs in with Mr. Teeny on his shoulders, yelling ‘Return to your seats!,’ and his and Mr. Teeny’s shadows about the size of King Kong and the kids all run out screaming. I thought that was pretty funny.”
Speaking of clowns, one other scene that did not make final cut is a scene involving an insult clown named Scuzzo whom the Simpsons worked for as at the circus. (He also went by Scummo in another version.) “I think Matt pitched it,” says Jean. “He remembered this clown who was kind of sleazy and who was always making fun of everybody. He had a long series of jokes taunting people.” (Scummo called passersby everything from “flat-top” to “skinnie-minnie” to “high-pockets.”)
Yet another vestige of that part of the movie found life eventually somewhere else. “The Simpsons were escaping in a King Tut exhibit, and Bart got caught in a coffin and Marge was going to let him out,” says Jean. “And Homer says, ‘That boy has got to get over his fear of coffins.’ We used it in the show.” [See: Season 19’s “Funeral for a Fiend.”]
9. The film’s central villain, Russ Cargill, was less menacing at first look.
Voiced by Albert Brooks, the nefarious EPA chief who hatches the dome plan — followed by Operation Turn Springfield into the Grand Canyon — went through some growing pains. Cargill looked different — more harmless — in his original conception. “He was a pear-shaped potbellied guy with a higher waist and no shoulders and a big nose and receding hairline,” says Silverman, who notes that Cargill was supposed to be introduced in a scene at the Washington correspondents dinner, where he was given a table way in the back, but the scene was cut. “He was more of a design like Kirk Van Houten. Old Cargill looked like ‘Okay, here’s the wimpy guy, here’s the nebbish, downtrodden hardluck case.”
Brooks recorded lots of material in this incarnation of Cargill, but at a test screening in Portland, Oregon, the producers realized that the character was simply talking too slowly and was too depressed. After a trip back to the literal drawing board, he was given the sharper jaw and broad shoulders (“the alpha male type striding in, the take-charge type of guy,” says Silverman), and his demeanor was modeled after former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “Albert actually brought a pair of glasses to look a little bit like him, and he recorded everything that’s in the movie in about an hour,” says Jean. “We just had him come up and speak much faster, much more upbeat, optimistic character even though he was still a bad guy.”
Silverman marveled at the transformation in Brooks’ performance. “When we had the previous [version], I could sense as we were working with Albert, he just kind of had nothing. He was like, ‘Well, is that what you want?’ He never had that before. Anytime we pitched him a character, he would run with it. Clearly we were in the wrong direction, because Albert can’t mine comedy out of it, and Albert can mine comedy out of a teaspoon of dirt. And then when we came up with this approach to him, he could run with it. That gave us great confidence.”
The original Cargill lives on, though. Because the marketing tie-in products had to ship early, Burger King offered up the meeker version of him.
10. A few songs and celebrities wound up on the outside of the dome looking in.
Two big songs were cut from the film: the aforementioned Alaska song, as well as an opening number, “Springfield Saturday Night,” which was excised after the first test screening. The latter featured “people partying on Saturday night and it ended with them all being hung over on Sunday morning,” recalls Jean. “What it felt like was you’re watching it and you’re going, ‘Well, this isn’t going to amount to anything, it’s not part of the story,’ so nobody wanted to keep it.”
While Hanks and Green Day did make it into film, other famous voices, such as Edward Norton (as the man crushed by the dome), Isla Fisher, Minnie Driver, and Erin Brockovich, weren’t so lucky, as you may have heard over the years. But what were some of these roles? Brockovich appeared in connection with “the environmental disaster and her fight against cancerous chemicals,” says Jean. Driver played a grief counselor who “was lifted into the dome to tell them to talk them out of being sad that they were going to get blown up,” he revealed.
There was also a never-recorded scene where Marge was to appear on The View to tell everyone about what was happening in Springfield. “A lot of things were cut because it seemed to have a great pace for the first half, and then a great finish,” says Jean, “but we just didn’t want anything to slow it down between that.”
In terms of famous non-Earthlings, slobbering aliens and fan favorites Kang and Kodos were also supposed to end the movie by riffing on the small plot holes. “They said something like, ‘How come the bomb blew up the dome but didn’t hurt anybody inside?” says Jean. “And then we thought ‘Well, if you like the movie then it’s kind of saying, ‘Why did you like it?’ So we decided to take it out.”
Will there be a Simpsons Movie 2?
Baby Maggie finally speaks during the end credits of the film, and her first word is one that still hangs in the air: “Sequel?” No official greenlight has been issued for a second Simpsons movie, and Jean and Silverman speak of a follow-up only in the broadest of terms. “I’d love for there to be another one,” says Silverman. “We’re still a ways away from it. We talk about this and that. We’re thinking it over, but nothing’s happening just yet.…. It’s still daunting because it really knocked the stuffing out of us to do the movie and the show at the same time.”
Ideas have been floating around for several years, and the movie has been discussed “just in the vaguest strokes, just in the possibility of it” insists Jean. ”I’d say [it’s in] the very earliest stages.” A few years ago, he revealed that a season 26 episode that featured Homer and his family being taken by Kang and Kodos to Rigel 7 was originally slated to air in season 24 before but it was held back while it was considered as a possible movie idea. Right now, “I certainly am cautious about a couple things,” says Jean. “I wouldn’t want it to be risky in terms of budget, and I would not want it to be anything that we did purely for the money. I would want it to be a really great movie. I personally feel no need for another one unless it’s great.”
In other words, you waited nearly two decades for the first one — you can wait a little longer for the next.