Frozen II isn’t the only animated movie taking aim at families this Christmas season. Klaus, from Netflix, tells Santa Claus’s origin story and features voice performances from Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, J.K. Simmons, Will Sasso, Norm MacDonald and Joan Cusack. First-time director Sergio Pablos worked as an animator for Disney in the nineties, and wrote the stories that became the basis for both Smallfoot and Despicable Me. In his first foray as director and producer, Pablos channeled his experiences and sensibilities into this heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining film-for-all-ages. I talked to Pablos about the making of the film, including why he wanted his first movie to be a Christmas movie and how an inside joke made its way into the final cut.
AW: First of all, I loved this movie. There’s something so universal about it. My first question is you and your co-director [Carlos Martínez López] are both Spanish. How did you make a film that feels so American, or is at least so relatable to American audiences? Are Christmas traditions here the same as in Spain?
SP: Not quite, no. But one of the first things I learned when I got into feature animation was that we have to make universal films. I mean, there’s no way, with the expense and the scope of what it takes to get one of these things done, we have to strive to get to as many people as possible. So universality has always been something I look for in my stories. We have a tradition of the 3 wise kings in Spain but that’s actually a tradition that’s only shared in Spain and Mexico and parts of Italy, I think, so it would not make sense to make a grand scope film for that. We do celebrate Santa Claus so our kids now get 2 runs of presents now. But it’s more about finding that right story. Working at Disney, I worked on films that were set in France, like Hunchback, or Africa, like Tarzan. So I always feel like I should not be limited by my own culture, I should look for the right story, wherever that is set, and make sure it’s universal.
AW: So how did you and Carlos come to this particular story, especially since this is your directorial debut. What was it about this one that made you say this is the one?
SP: Well Carlos joined me later. In the beginning, it was mostly me doing the seeking for that story, but I thought that there was something interesting in the fact that there was no canon, no widely accepted origin story for Santa. Depending on who you ask, you’re going to get the historical answer or the religious answer or one of the many traditions from every different country. I thought if I could find the honest, non-controversial version of that story, it would be interesting. And then when I landed upon this idea of making Klaus a more human character with a past and pairing him up with a very selfish postman, I realized that that relationship could really carry an interesting story.
AW: It’s so clever and heartfelt that’s what I love about it. Let me ask you when there are so many Christmas movies out there, especially animated classics, what made you want to make another and how do you make it stand out and be different?
SP: Well, like I said, it’s so difficult to come up with that idea that you go, “that has potential.” You just follow it where it leads and when I realized that actually, this story about Santa—if I took this angle—could be interesting, that’s when I realized, I guess I’m making a Christmas film. [Laughs] After that, you realize, well, there is a gold standard for Christmas films and you’ve got to try to become part of that small list in the rotation every year. It’s a very select group and it has great films in it and how do we make ourselves different.
I found there’s all these tropes that are very common in Christmas films, so we made a list of what not to do, like let’s not make it about saving Christmas, or things like that, right. But what if we took away the magic? At least postponed it as much as I could and try to explain the origin of Santa through a plausible way. It could be a lot of fun to explain how traditions get started and only at the end bring in the magic to explain how this man could become a mythical creature, eventually. To me, that was an interesting engine: the irony that all that’s good about Santa would come across through the actions of a selfish guy. I really felt it could drive the story, but it also felt like it had the potential to have a lot of heart, and if I could find that kernel of wisdom, that would simplify the Christmas spirit in its own way.
AW: How much of the Saint Nicholas traditions that are all over the world play in?
SP: Well we had to be selective because we had to only choose the ones that were known everywhere, so if there was a particular version that was only known in a certain country in Europe then that wouldn’t work. Also, we had to make a rule for ourselves that we’re not telling the origin of Christmas, we’re telling the origin of Santa, so let’s make sure we separate them. So there were suggestions, like “how about we invent the Christmas tree” and I was like, no that’s not really intrinsically related to Santa—let’s be mindful of the fact that we’ll have people from every creeds that will be watching this film and we want everybody to get something out of this.
AW: The voice acting is always so crucial to animated success. You really lucked out with Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Joan Cusack— who I love— and J. K. Simmons, among others.
SP: You’re not kidding.
AW: What was it like to work with them?
SP: Well, like you said, we lucked out. I mean we pretty much got our first choices on it. I thought we were going to have a couple of big names, but in the end even getting people like Joan Cusack, Norm MacDonald, Will Sasso was incredible. We went with what we knew about their acting ability. J.K. was a no-brainer! I mean, he’s so likeable in everything he does, so we knew he could play that range of scary at the beginning to a very likable, honest, sweet character. His part was pretty much…I don’t want to say figured out, because there was a fair amount of improvisation, but not quite as much as we had to do for Jesper. Jesper was a very tricky character to figure out because he’s completely unlikable and irritating and if they don’t want to go along on the trip with this guy, then I’ve lost them for the whole film. So Jason was the one that kind of helped me figure it out. Jason came in and we spent the first couple of sessions trying a different approach. How much of a jerk is this guy, really. How we make sure that he’s selfish but not antagonistic. So we tried a few things. With those conversations, I could go home with a better understanding of what the character was, based on his performance, and I was writing to that tune. We both got in sync after a while. But the key was to let Jason experiment, let him go crazy with lines, even if a line is, “yes, please,” he will turn it into a 20-minute rant and I’m ok with that. So much of the material that ended up in the film was not scripted, you know, because he would find better options. I was very much encouraging him to do that he was very much looking forward to that too.
AW: So you built the film around the performances? Did they record first and then you animated to those performances?
SP: That’s always how we do it. We always record first. We do write the script and we board the script and then we record performances, then we pair the performances with the storyboards and we cut them into a sort of story reel that we can watch and judge how it plays. Often times we’ll realize there’s a better way of doing that, let’s go back and write new lines, so there was a lot of back and forth. But it’s different for each character. Jason and Rashida both elaborated on the material. The plot was still the same, but they would find better lines or better ways to deliver things and I was very open to revising. Because, you know, English is not my first language and this is my first script, so I know there’s room for improvement. [Laughs] So I was very open to it.
AW: Tell me a little bit about the animation process. Is this hand drawn or computer? What was your process?
SP: It starts being hand-drawn. It’s filmed very much in the same way that I worked when I worked at Disney back in the late nineties. A lot of it is the same. We added a couple of items into the pipeline, to be able to add this volumetric lighting on top of the characters, which is something that has traditionally been an obstacle for 2D animation. I thought it was time to not just make a nostalgic, 2D-looking film, but to try to push the medium forward as much as we could. So lighting was a key part of it. There’s still a fair amount of CG, there’s still a lot of 3D elements in it. There are things that just do not make sense to have guys draw by hand, like wagons and props and things like that. Sometimes, there were 5 reindeer pulling on the sleigh, all with harnesses—that would be insane, so we would replace them with CG-generated reindeer because it was just easier. Whatever ended up looking good on the screen with a reasonable amount of work.
AW: I wanted to ask you about the cinematography and the lighting. It’s so beautiful— really something you don’t often see, that level of detail and varying moods in an animated film. Tell me a little about the look of the film.
SP: Well it was liberating for us to have the ability use light as a storytelling tool because that’s something that you easily can do in CG, but 2D is very limited. So the moment we actually knew we could do it, we made sure we used it to support the story as much as we could. Lighting was used very much in a storytelling way. There are a lot of things that you’ll notice and there are things that you may not notice, like we used this term psychological lighting [laughs]. Which meant you didn’t have to be realistic per se, you just had to support the mood of the sequence. There’s that one sequence where Jesper starts asking kids to send letters in exchange for toys, which we played like he was basically dealing drugs. But if you go back and take a look at it—it’s a bit of a montage—you’ll see that, in every shot, Jesper is in the shadows, because he’s being shady. So there are things like that that, hopefully, are landing subconsciously. We were very mindful of making sure we used as much of that as we could.
AW: Talk a little bit about the production design, especially the look of Smeerensburg. What was the inspiration for the design of the town?
SP: Well, figuring it out was the job of my production designers, Marcin Jakubowski and Szymon Biernacki. My description to them was, we know this town is going to end up being the perfect Christmas town, so your job is to find the other extreme—how far away from that can you get. So the introduction of this town is as extreme as possible. They worked backwards from there. They got inspiration from some very well known artists. People who are familiar with Disney’s work will recognize Eyvind Earle’s style. If I mention that he was the guy that did most of the background design on Sleeping Beauty, you’ll probably see that connection there. So there was a bit of all their inspirations and ideas, not to plagiarize anybody’s work, but to try to get the right influences and that was something that would help it have its own personality.
AW: Talk to me a little about the song choices you make in the movie. It’s going along with one sort of vibe, but then you bring in the modern pop songs.
SP: Yeah, I know, I don’t know if everybody’s okay with choices. [Laughs] First of all, we treated Jesper as a very extemporaneous character in the film. He talks modern, he behaves modern, and that was always intended to make sure that he felt like he did not belong here. And funny thing, as we’re trying to put together reels, whenever we tried these things, there was something interesting about how that also conveyed that. So we tried “How You Like Me Now” for that montage and it turns out it worked. When we tried to do a lyric version of it, like more of a score version, it just did not have the same vibe. So we did what works best. Maybe there’s a better way but we sure didn’t find one. [Laughs]
AW: No, they do work, I was just wondering what your thinking was.
SP: Well I’ll tell you what, that rap the plays in the film? That was a joke by my editor. It was an inside joke, but then it turns out we couldn’t find anything that worked better. We tried so many options and none of them were as funny, and we ended up saying, “I guess we have a rap in the film.” But that was not by design; it’s just how it turned out. We tried what was a very popular rap and we actually intended to get the rights for it, but it was way too expensive, so we ended up doing our own rap for it! But yeah, it was literally a joke from my editor, but it turns out it was still getting one of the biggest laughs in the film and we really couldn’t find a better version, so we just yielded to the evidence!
AW: So there’s a wonderful lesson here: a true selfless act always sparks another. What’s the challenge of getting the perfect tone to get a message across while still being fun and entertaining and the kids don’t know that they’re being taught a lesson. Is that a tricky thing?
SP: It is very tricky because it can become very preachy, but I think the trick to it is to have a lesson that you actually do believe in. [Laughs] It’s basically our version of explaining the Christmas spirit. I do believe that there’s some truth to it, that if you actually hold the door for somebody, they are likely to hold the door for somebody else, right? So we just thought, if Santa, our Santa, which is Klaus, could be the ultimate symbol for altruism, the ultimate guy to do good unto others without expecting anything in return, and we give him a counterpart of a guy who needs to learn that lesson, and we centered the relationship on the transformation as a slow burn that comes across as honest and genuine, then maybe it works. I mean, the rule usually is to get the people to laugh with the characters first, because you create an attachment between the audience and the characters. Usually, when you laugh with them, you’re more likely to worry when you put them in dire straits later on. But there’s no perfect formula and so many times you try something that doesn’t work. A lot of it is trial and error and some things that seem to have no hope to work end up working better than your first choices. It is really more about setting that goal—this is our truth, what’s the purest version of our truth that we can put on the screen. And then you probably try about 20 times until you land on it.
AW: I know it’s the kind of film I want to watch over and over again. It reminds you that you can do a Christmas movie and it can be fresh. I was curious, what is a movie you always love to watch at Christmas time?
SP: I’m a sucker for It’s Wonderful Life. It always gets me every time.
AW: Yeah, me too.
SP: It’s not as meaningful if you watch it in June. [Laughs]
Klaus is certainly available to stream exclusively on Netflix.