by: Rilio Mastrantonio
In a private room in the back of the Lucky Strike in the AMC River East Theater in Downtown Chicago sits native Chicagoan Director of Over the Hedge, Tim Johnson, and the super talented and funny Wanda Sykes who plays Stella the Skunk in the movie. We are about to discuss the potential summer blockbuster Over the Hedge with bowling alley sounds crashing in the background.
What was it like growing up in Chicago?
Johnson: This is still my hometown. I have been in California over 15 years now, but this still my home. Chicago is a real city. I mean it got the arts, it’s got the cultural opportunities, and it’s got the neighborhoods. I have never been any place in the world that was as open to the experience of what a city offers than Chicago. I have lived all over the city, Evanston and lived in Hyde Park for a while. Except for February, I don’t miss February. February you should just cancel and do a daylight saving times thing and move it forward.
How did growing up in Chicago affect your filmmaking?
Johnson: This is a real family town and my parents raised me right. It was a good place to grow up. I had the best of both worlds. I was out there in the burbs. When I was six years old I lived right next to a cornfield and by the time I was eighteen I lived next to twelve more miles of suburban homes. This film we are doing here, Over the Hedge, is autobiographical. I am like one of those little animals that woke up and the suburbs arrived.
How do you compare live acting to doing voice-overs?
Sykes: This was challenging, because in live action you have so many other things to use. You are fully armed, you can use facial expressions. They take away your weapons you are just in there with your voice alone and you don’t get to play off the other actors or have a set to work with. You have to just listen and be directed and totally trust.
Did the experience on Crank Yankers help with this film?
Sykes: It is totally a separate thing. Not at all. Crank Yankers it was just us in a small room in Vegas making phone calls like we just turned 13 again playing on the phone. This movie was different, a character, a person that has a journey not just a crazy lady with my butt stuck to the toilet seat.
With live action you usually only have 2 or 3 major stars, in Over the Hedge there are over 7 major stars, how do you deal with that?
Johnson: The good news is they are kind of on your turf. As Wanda said it is a very different thing. You come in as a performer and it doesn’t matter if you are Bruce Willis or have never done any performance before you are kind of at the mercy of the directors. They have to tell you what you are doing. There are no costumes, no sets so you have to say where am I. Where is the character? In the arc of the story where is the character physically? Do I have to shout? Is the person I am talking to far away or close? It is really fun as a director, because you get a relationship with the actor that is pretty special.
How often are you together as a group?
Johnson: We didn’t do a table read and have never recorded them together. That is the way my past films have been also.
Tim, what lead you to animation?
Johnson: I started as a compulsive doodler. I have always drawn all my life. The opportunity at a certain point in college to take advantage of the resources at Northwestern. To take my little doodles to turn them into a whole stack of doodles and turn them into a piece of film was too much to pass up. I made two short films in college and then hit the streets with those to try and get work and I found it in Chicago. I was doing televisions commercials here and eventually ended up with a great outfit that is still here, Post Effects, hired me to run one of the first computer animation systems in the whole country that was back in 1986.
Tim, did you work on Shrek?
Johnson: We did Antz first and I was directing that and then Shrek came along and I was just a story consultant. I actually had fun just coming in and riff’n story ideas?
Tim, how was it jumping from Shrek to directing?
Johnson: I was directing TV commercials and I directed part of a Simpsons episode but nonetheless going to a feature where your responsibility is to hold and audience through 90 minutes of story is a challenge.
Wanda, any practical jokes during the recording?
Sykes: It was all business but a lot of fun.
How does being in Over the Hedge compare to being in Curb Your Enthusiasm?
Sykes: Larry is so talented. I loved doing that show. You don’t know what the story is about until I get there. We just run it three or four times and that’s it.
Has anyone taken any ribbing about the characters in the movie?
Johnson: I wouldn’t want to be Wanda when the film comes out. With your friends you have just put a big old target on your chest.
Wanda, you have “My super ex-girlfriend”, “The Barnyard” and “Evan Almighty”, so what is next?
Sykes: I am working on Evan Almighty. We will be shooting that in June.
How do you juggle all the projects you are working on?
Sykes: I am looking forward to some minor surgery, maybe a a ski trip to get some rest.
Wanda, if you had to do your dream project what would it be?
Sykes: Something in women’s sports. Maybe coach a team or something.
Wanda, a celebrity team or regular team?
Sykes: A normal team even at the high school level. My favorite sport as a spectator is football, I love the NFL. After that basketball, but basketball and baseball are a close second.
Tim, would you ever consider directing live action?
Johnson: I have gotten in a conversation about it, but I started in animation. It is a fantastic creative group of people to work with. I love making films for the family audiences that parents will love and kids will love. My dream job is right here. There is a job that I never could do and I am jealous of someone like Wanda who can walk out stage and get that immediate laugh. She walks out and in an hour gets more laughs than I get after four years of work for an eighty minute movie.