‘The Boss Baby’ director and producer on life, laughs and a love for animation

March 28, 2017, 12:00 a.m.
'The Boss Baby' director and producer on life, laughs and a love for animation
“The Boss Baby” producer Ramsey Ann Naito and director Tom McGrath

The upcoming animated film “The Boss Baby” tells the story of 7-year-old Tim Templeton, a kid whose parents decide to have another child. This child isn’t any ordinary baby – he’s a suit-wearing, executive-level “Boss Baby,” sent to Earth from Baby Corp to stop Puppy Co. from destabilizing the balance of love in the world by releasing a new breed of adorable puppies that will convince prospective parents to adopt puppies instead of having babies.

While “The Boss Baby” flaunts a star-studded cast – including Alec Baldwin, Tobey Maguire, Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel – director Tom McGrath and producer Ramsey Ann Naito themselves are seasoned professionals of the film industry. McGrath has worked on animated films for more than 20 years, including writing and directing “Madagascar,” as well as voicing the popular lead penguin Skipper. Naito has produced a plethora of films, including “The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie,” “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” and “Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins.” The Stanford Daily had the opportunity to speak with McGrath and Naito about their creative process in “The Boss Baby,” how they drew from their own lives for the film and how the movie spreads a message of love and acceptance.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): This story – the sibling story – is definitely an experience shared by a lot of people and a lot of kids. When you first encountered the original book version of this story, what about this book spoke to you? How did having the baby as a literal boss influence the narrative of this classic “sibling rivalry” story?

Tom McGrath (TM): The book was just great. You’re always looking for a story that can only be done in animation. When I read Marla Frazee’s book, the story felt really original about this baby in a suit, and it’s really about a metaphor for parenting. I have a brother who’s close to me who’s two years older. I was the boss baby of the family, so for me, connecting with the story and developing a story on a larger landscape – that was the experience I had with my brother and my family. I connected with this story because as my brother and I got older – in high school we were very competitive – we became very, very close. And so in a way for me, it was telling a story that’s more of a love letter, in a way.

Ramsey Ann Naito (RAN): Tom and I have known each other for almost 20 years, and when Tom sent me the script about three and a half years ago, my connection was through being a mother. I have children, and my first son was seven – just like Tim Templeton – when my second son arrived, and he was really jealous. We still live in a house with so much sibling rivalry, and so this story is really relatable to me, because I can only hope that over the course of my children’s lifetimes, they go on a journey just like Tim and Boss Baby to love one another, learn what family is, and so that was my connection.

RAN: You asked about the Boss Baby in a suit?

TSD: Yeah, the physical Boss Baby.

RAN: Well, I think Boss Baby being in a suit really allowed us to kind of skewer corporate culture, but through this little baby [laughs].

TM: And it was an opportunity to do a role reversal, with the baby as the adult in the relationship, and the kid is just a kid. That dynamic is really interesting. There’s also a little bit of subtext in that we bury ourselves in work and sometimes our family is sidelined. There’s the work-family balance kind of metaphor in there as well, but we just loved the idea that to a 7-year-old kid –

RAN: And work’s more important [laughs]!

TM: Being terminated means something different to a 7-year-old kid, all this business slang, to a 7-year-old’s understanding, was something fun to play with.

RAN: Like, “What’s a memo?”

TM: Just the idea that he aspires to have the corner office and personal potty [laughs] is funny.

TSD: Going off of that, like you said, there are a lot of jokes that cater to both kids and adults, especially parents who bring their children to see this movie. How do you create the balance between kid-friendly material versus material that adults will pick up on that kids won’t, [but] that still appeals to audiences?

TM: It’s always a goal. I think that when you make a film, you have to go from your gut, you know. We’re kind of childlike at heart when we make these films anyways. I remember watching Bugs Bunny with my dad – I’d get up early on Saturday mornings and he’d laugh at certain jokes and I’d laugh at other jokes. Especially since we had Alec Baldwin, he could be edgier and do funny things that adults would appreciate. I think you nailed it ,because when we started previewing the movie, kids saw Boss Baby as a threat – this little diaper, sock-garter-wearing baby – because they were taking the kid’s point of view. The parents could then laugh, because it’s Alec Baldwin as a baby.

RAN: Our goal was to make a film for everybody, and allow not only the comedy, but the emotion to be something that parents, kids, single people and mean bosses [laughs] could relate to.

TM: The rule of animation is to make sure you can understand the story with the sound turned off, and kids are always drawn to really physical comedy. We also have the dialogue [to which] adults can relate, and then the physicality for kids.

TSD: I was reading about the more retro, throwback animation style that the movie uses, and there are these sequences in Tim’s imagination, [such as] him pretending to be a ninja [in a] very specifically styled type of animation. How do these sequences make “The Boss Baby” unique?

TM: When I entered animation, it was 30 years [ago], and it was all still hand-drawn. I grew up with Disney movies and “Peter Pan,” and it just felt like there was this magical, enchanted world. As the computer came into play, it seemed like most movies were trying to do a realistic world. They started to kind of cross over into what live-action is doing. To me, what made animation special was the artistic world, so we really put a lot into the art of it, to make it feel like you’re stepping into a painting. It could be very graphic and very stylized. It was important to the story because having a childhood is something Boss Baby never experienced. We looked at the films from the ’60s, ’50s, those [types of] animated films, and we had heroes like Maurice Noble and Ward Kimball, and all these artists that had done really great work at that time. We were students of it, and we wanted to put in “The Boss Baby.” In a way, there’s a nostalgia in the film. It’s like you’re looking at a film from 50 years ago. It’s kind of a lost art.

RAN: One of our goals was to make this graphic look, which is an homage to the golden age of animation, and make it feel alive and feel artistic. Tom, you can elaborate on this, but even in this graphic world, the physics of baby jiggle and baby fat was really important [laughs]. I guess what I’m saying is that the balance of graphics and natural physics was something we had to really deliver on in this design, and in the interaction and animation and the expression. I think we had a task force on the baby fat – it was like a six-person task force.

TM: We put a lot of work into Boss Baby’s suit so that it wrinkled in the right way and that sort of thing. I think the challenge is to do something simpler is actually harder because you can’t disguise it with all this kind of detail and surfacing texture. It’s got to be a strong design statement. So when we approached the film, nobody used photography to surface everything. To get fabric textures, we actually hand-painted everything. Even the wood grain on the table was hand-painted to give it like a handmade feel.

TSD: Finally, I don’t know if this was the intent, but in these somewhat politically charged and trying times, the movie seemed to almost indirectly convey a sense and message of acceptance, especially near the end, and even in the credits and the music. Did you have these idea in mind when creating this movie, or did this kind of manifest on its own?

TM: Well, there is an acceptance thing. For us, in our deepest hearts, our themes are about love and the extension of love. It starts within a family, and if everyone realizes that it’s not about getting love but giving love, you get it back tenfold. If it starts in the family and the family get bigger and goes out into the world, it’s like what the world needs now is love. It seems like it’s a good time to remember that, especially in these political times when people are getting separated. If we can all be one big family, it’s a great message to kind of spread out there.

RAN: “The Boss Baby” is a heartfelt family film. It has this sense, in our characters, a sense of belonging. It taps this fear in this little kid of being replaced by their siblings. Ultimately, where we hope audiences walk away with is that there’s enough love for everyone. And family is about love.

“The Boss Baby” opens in theaters on March 31, 2017.

Contact Olivia Popp at opopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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