Sunday, April 21, 2024

Interview With Genndy Tartakovsky On “Hotel Transylvania 3” “Samurai Jack” & More

By Edward Douglas 

​When Genndy Tartakovsky was brought on to direct Adam Sandler’s 2012 animated movie “Hotel Transylvania,” he already had a lot of success in animation and  built quite a fanbase having worked on “The Powerpuff Girls,” while also creating popular Cartoon Network toons “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Samurai Jack,” He also had made a series of “Star Wars: Clone Wars” animated shorts, which in my mind are still one of the best iterations of “Star Wars” going back to the original trilogy. All that television work led the Russian-American animator to three Emmys and two Annies, as well as dozens of other awards nominations.

“Hotel Transylvania” did well enough that Sony Pictures Animation quickly got into making a “Hotel Transylvania 2,” although it never seemed certain Tartakovsky might stick around for a third movie, because he had other things on his plate including an animated “Popeye” movie. Not only did Tartakovsky bring back “Samurai Jack” in the past few years, but he also wrote and drew the “Cage!” mini-series which revisited Marvel’s Luke Cage in the ‘70s with a similar toon style as his

During that “break,” Tartakovsky also came up with an idea that would bring him back for “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Break,” which puts the Sandler-voiced Dracula and his extended family on a cruise ship to the Bermuda Triangle, not realizing that the pretty cruise director is a relative of Dracula’s arch-nemesis Van Helsing. 

A few months back, Sony Animation invited me to watch some footage from “Hotel Transylvania 3” and learn more about the new characters, and afterward, I got to sit down with the director for the brief interview that follows. 

Hotel Transylvania

​I’m kind of surprised you’re back for a third movie, but I was also surprised when you did the sequel.

Genddy Tartakovsky: That’s funny. The second one, we did it at the same time as ‘Popeye’ – that was kind of the selling point to do the second one. “I’ll usher the second one long, because it’s pretty straight-forward, and at the same time, I’ll do ‘Popeye,” so that was the second one. After that, I was completely done. I even got “Samurai Jack” going kind of right after, and it really was that trip. Kristine [Belson, President of Sony Pictures Animation] started calling and asking about the third one, and I was like, “No, I don’t want to do it.” At the time, I think they wanted to open up the franchise bigger, so they had some sort of international heist thing that they were thinking about, and I was like “Definitely not,” just because I know the franchise is at its best when it’s monsters and family. Then, that year, as I was saying, I got to go on this cruise, and then it started to hit me, and this idea started to develop, so I called her back and said there’s this idea that I had with the cruise, and she said, “Oh, my God, that’s awesome.” And I go, “But let’s make it bigger, let’s make it an even bigger movie.” She agreed, and I was able to write the movie with Michael McCullers and then it became even more of what I wanted to do even on the first two. It’s a really good third one because it’s pushed it beyond what the other two were.

Did Adam Sandler write the first two?

Yes, with Robert Smigel. I didn’t write any of the first two.

So how involved was Adam with this one? Was it a little more hands-off?

Yeah, he was pretty much completely hands-off, because he was busy. He’s got that big Netflix deal, so he’s doing those movies, and basically, he didn’t have the bandwidth to do this again, also. I got to write it and shepherd it into… like we all have little directions where we thought it should be, and so, I was able to shepherd it a little bit more to where I think it should go.

Hotel Transylvania

And you’ve added new characters like giving the Invisible Man a girlfriend. Where did the werewolves get so many kids? I remember they had a few in the first movie.

No, they’ve always had… at one point, we said they had 300 or something in one of the movies, but yeah, they’re kind of always around. In the first two movies, she was always pregnant, so she was always having litters, right? This time we had them with the little babies, and yeah, they have a horde of little ones.

Even when Mavis got married in the last movie, I thought she was something like 13 in the first movie. Obviously, that’s in vampire years…

(laughs) Yeah, she was like 118….  It was a strange second one where she got to be a mom so fast, but that would have been good to flip these movies, so this one would have been second and the mom one would have been third, but it all worked out, and people liked Dennis, of course. But she’s older in vampire years.

You wrote this movie and directed, but you did all this stuff in between like “Samurai Jack” and some shorts, and you wrote and draw the “Caged!” comic book during that period, too?

That’s right.

That was all in the three years since “Hotel Transylvania 2”?

That was a very productive… it was really most of 2016, so after 2015, the movie comes out, I start to look around and see what’s going on. It was actually during some of my interviews for the second movie where somebody asked me. “You were announced to do a comic book a few years ago,” and I said, “Oh, right,” and then what happened was in 2008, I got approached by Marvel to do one of their characters. I said, “I’ve always loved Luke Cage, and I’d love to do a super-‘70s half comedy, half action type of thing,” and they were all for it, and I go, “But I can’t have a schedule.” That’s my one thing because I was really busy, and they actually agreed, so I actually wrote it and thumb-nailed it in 2008, then I started to draw it, I got busy. Then my editor left Marvel, and so by the time 2015 comes along, I thought, “Oh, they’re never going to want it at this point, but I’ll put it on the internet, and if it so happens then it’ll be,” so of course, I put it out there, and somebody called Marvel and the Marvel editor called me and said, “We still want to do this if you want to,” and I’m like, “Sure,” and then I did it. (laughs) 

It was a bear for sure. With animation, I get to do a crappy doodle and then it goes through the system, and it becomes beautiful at the end. With the comics, what I draw is what is in the comic forever. It took a lot more time, but I’ve always loved comics, so it was a burden of pleasure to do.

You also drew thumbnails or some sort of storyboards for this movie, too?

Oh, yeah. Tons, always.

Hotel Transylvania

How does that work – do you have a full script as well as images together?

Yeah, so the way it works is we write the script first, then once the script gets approved then we start storyboarding. I had a team of about ten to 12 people or so, and we put a full animatic with scratch voices. Like I’ll do the scratch of Dracula, and we have other people on the crew doing scratch [voices], and then we have an internal screening, and that’s kind of your first go at it. “Okay, this feels right…” because it’s a visual medium, and they always say in live action that there’s the script you write, the script you shoot and the script you edit, right? It’s the same thing in animation. There’s the thing that we write, the one that we storyboard and then the animated version of it. The first storyboard version was real positive. It’s definitely the right idea – we didn’t have to start from scratch. At that point, you just start tweaking. “Oh, we need more of their story or less of this story,” and you start to find the movie.

I want to ask about working with Mel Brooks because it’s amazing to me that he’s still alive, but also that he’s going on tour with these after-movie QnAs. What’s it like working with him in the recording studio? Is he so funny you can just let him go? 

I mean, he’s Mel Brooks. Part of my comic sensibility was shaped by his movies, and so, the initial recording session from the last movie was super-nervewracking and stuff, but he’s so energetic, and he’s so live and so funny, and he has all these stories. He makes it easy, and then yeah, he’ll come in and do his lines, and he usually kills it. He’s really smart, and he knows what joke you’re trying to tell. Sometimes he will ask… “Okay, you do the line,” and I’m like, “Uhhh….” Instant flop sweats and you have to perform in front of Mel Brooks and you do your best, and he’s like, “Okay, I get it,” and then he’ll do it great.

Was there any inclination to have him and Adam do stuff together?

Since the second movie, we’ve always wanted to, but everybody’s schedules are so limiting. On the second movie, Adam did pop by once to say “Hi” to him, but on this movie, everybody’s always separate.

Are you doing another movie with Sony Animation after this one?

We’re not sure yet. We’ve been talking about stuff, yeah.

Is that “Can You Imagine”?

Oh, well that one’s gone already. (laughs) I was working on that, and that was like when the old guard left and the new guard came in, a lot of projects don’t survive. 

Was “Popeye” part of that, too?

Kind of, yeah.

Hotel Transylvania

What was the motivation to go back to “Samurai Jack”? I remember asking you about it for the first “Hotel Transylvania” which was around 2012, and at the time, you figured it was dead but then it was revived?

Yeah, since it went off the air, it felt like it got more and more popular every year, and then finally, after I finished the second [“Hotel Transylvania”] movie, I was thinking what I should do, and then I was like, “You know, everybody still asks – the first question is always about Jack,” no matter what interview I do or wherever I speak or teach, so I go, “I’ll just send an Email to Cartoon Network and see if they’re even wanting to do it,” and then Rob Sorcher said, “Well, it might be too adult for us now” — because Adult Swim starts at 8 where before it started at 10 when I was there — “But I’ll send an Email to Michael Lazzo who runs Adult Swim.” He used to work at Cartoon Network, so he worked with me on “Dexter’s Laboratory” and we have an amazing relationship. [Michael] called me the next day and said, “How many and how much?” And that was it, and then I said, “Okay, I guess this is happening.” Within two weeks, we had a deal, and we started writing.

Did you storyboard all of those, too?


You must be a really fast artist. 

(laughs) The secret is that I work a lot. It’s not an easy thing. I put a lot of time into it. The thing I always look at is that I’m 48, and when you have an opportunity to do your own thing, you can’t say “No.” You know what I mean? You have a lot of offers to do a take-off on this or everybody else’s IP, but to actually do your own is so special, so whenever somebody gives me the opportunity or I make the opportunity to do my own thing, I’ll take it. You never want to look back and go, “Well, I only gave this 80%.” You never want to have excuses. From “Dexter” through “Powerpuff” through “Samurai” through “Clone Wars,” I can say I gave it 110% mentally and physically. That’s all I had. So if there are faults, there are faults. 

Your “Clone Wars” series is still my favorite “Star Wars” thing going back to the original trilogy, and I always hoped they’d do more of it or branch off into longer movies. Do you have an interest in doing more comics?

Yeah, I mean, I love it. I always want sound and movement as I do it, but yeah, who knows? There are conversations that I had recently that there might be some interest, so we’ll see. Like everything is always open.

“Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” opens on Friday, July 13.

You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW

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