EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Gulliver's Travels Director Rob Letterman
“Okay, in the traditional sense from the 1700s, they don’t go together,” allows Letterman of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire, “but in the comedy sense, they do. Perfectly.”
In what reality do Jack Black and Gulliver’s Travels go together? In short, you would think they wouldn’t — not that that would prevent Hollywood from trying, as director Rob Letterman reveals to CBM's Ed Gross.
Which is why, come December 22nd, audiences around the world will have the opportunity to see Jack Black living amongst the little people — and we’re not talking about Oompa-Loompas. These are real little people!
“This is a modern take on the traditional story,” explains Letterman, whose background is one consisting of CG features such as Shark Tales and Monsters Vs. Aliens, and who is making his live action debut with Gulliver’s Travels. “I read it when I was a kid and there are all of those animated adaptations of it — and because I come from animation, I was familiar with them. There are two quintessential images that stuck in my brain since I was a kid: the image of him waking up on the beach tied down by the little people, and then the image of him pulling an armada of ships behind him back to the ocean. Those images were burned into my brain, so when I was told Jack Black and Gulliver’s Travels, I said, ‘Get me in there!’ It wasn’t the script, it was the great opportunity the project represented.
This version starts off with Jack in New York City, working in the mailroom at the New York Tribune, where he’s considered something of a little fish in a big pond. His character has a crush on the travel editor (played by Amanda Peet) and to try and impress her plagiarizes a story, which ultimately ends up with him getting assigned to do a story on the Bermuda Triangle.
“All because he’s too shy to ask her out,” Letterman details. “It’s supposed to be a fluff piece, because the Bermuda Triangle isn’t real, right? So he goes out there and it turns out that it is real and he gets sucked up into a vortex. Later he wakes up in Lilliput and the small fish has become the big fish. He literally becomes the big shot for the first time in his life until it all catches up to him.”
Needless to say, that there is a lot of comedic chaos between the now giant Jack and the tiny society of Lilliput (whose citizens include Jason Segel and Emily Blunt) — and a heck of a technical challenge for Letterman.
“It was an incredibly challenging film to make,” he says, “because Jack Black is 120 feet tall in a world with little people, and everyone is portrayed as real. There’s just the challenge of the visual effects to combine the two, and where to put the camera and the lighting — it was just a tough math problem every single day, but I was surrounded by top-notch people and I was definitely buffered with a lot of talent to help me get through it.”
Primary among that talent was, of course, Black himself, whose abilities were somewhat surprising to the director. “Yes, he brings the improv and the ad-libs and really makes it fun and funny,” notes Letterman, “but the thing that I like the most is his grounded stuff. He’s really endearing and a likable person on screen because he’s a likable person off-screen. He’s a sweet person and that comes across and that’s my favorite part about a lot of the things in the movie — the sweet, emotional parts with Jack. And the other stuff, the physical stuff, is just hysterically funny. People just tend to laugh right when he walks into the room even if he hasn’t said anything, which is an amazing thing. For me, comedy without heart doesn’t quite work as well, so that’s a lot of what Jack brought to it.”
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