One of the big movies hitting theaters this holiday season is Sing 2, the animated sequel to the Illumination Entertainment movie Sing, which ruled at the box office over the holidays in 2016. The film’s director, Garth Jennings, came from the world of music videos (as one half of the duo Hammer and Tongs) and directing live-action features like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and Son of Rambow (2007), but his transition into animation for his third feature film, allowed him to flex new muscles and bring new sensibilities to a film medium that frequently (and often desperately) needs a new influx of talent and creativity ala Jennings’.
For the sequel, Jennings introduced a number of new characters, including a hard-to-impress Vegas promoter, Jimmy Crystal (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), his spoiled-rotten daughter Porsha (pop star Halsey), and a long-retired veteran rocker named Clay Calloway, who could be the difference between koala Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) and his motley group of animal singers being able to launch a massive Vegas show. Oh, yeah, and Clay Calloway is voiced by none other than U2 frontman Bono. It isn’t just Bono’s first voice role, but it’s his first acting role, playing anyone other than himself, which is quite a coup in itself.
Below the Line got on the phone with Jennings a few weeks ago for the following interview where we talked about the challenges of making a sequel, partially during a pandemic, but mostly spoke about working with Bono, whose voice is almost unrecognizable when speaking as Calloway. But don’t worry, U2 fans – he also sings in the movie.
Below the Line: It’s been a few years since we’ve spoken, probably for the first Sing movie, but I’m now at Below the Line, so we’ll talk about your crew, heads of department, stuff like that this time. How long after the first movie came out, did Illumination or Universal come to you about what to do next, in terms of a sequel? I imagine it wasn’t long after the money started pouring in.
Garth Jennings: The boss of Illumination, Chris Meledandri, brought up the idea of a sequel. We were just chatting about it lightly over coffee and donuts and things early on, for about nine months before the first film was finished and out. We’re just chatting about it, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny?” No one was asking of it. We were just thinking hypothetically, “What would it be like if we did another one? What would that be?” And then it just started to evolve really, and then, by the time the film came out, we actually already had a sort of journey in mind, and that sort of a feeling that we were going to chase. It was lovely, actually, it was really nice to keep going, because I’d only just made Sing, and I learned all these new skills and worked with all this lovely team. It was so nice to not have to suddenly abandon that after coming so far with them. It was just lovely to just be able to build on that and take it further, not just with the lovely artists I worked with, but the characters themselves and the world that we started to create.
BTL: That’s actually the one thing you’re never supposed to do — talk about a sequel until after the first movie has come out. Very few filmmakers I speak to even want to think, let alone talk, about a sequel until then.
Jennings: That’s true. That makes sense, but I suppose we weren’t thinking about it… we weren’t pressurized, no one was asking for it. It was quite nice actually to talk about it as just a fun idea, just kick it around. But you’re right, this probably doesn’t make much sense, but it was lovely to do that.
Mr. Crystal (center, voiced by Bobby Cannavale)
BTL: Was this movie just your chance to do the giant weird sci-fi musical you’ve always wanted to do? Was that the motivation?
Jennings: [laughs] I suppose you’re right, and there were lots of personal ambitions realized in this film for sure. I love musicals. I love choreography, I love big shows, and coming from music videos, it’s lovely to put all those things I really loved into practice, but no, it’s really just that show came out of a desire for us to want to really graphically represent each character’s story and for it to come from Gunter the pig [voiced by Nick Kroll] to be a sort of wildly ambitious concept, compared to where they start by doing a traditional show, Alice in Wonderland. I love the idea that Gunter’s the one that’s like, “Let’s go space musical! Rockets! Robots! Planets! Lasers!” I loved that it was an idea that could come from Gunter.
BTL: It reminded me of the first time I went to London, and I ended up seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, so I was having flashbacks during that last bit of the movie.
Jennings: I remember seeing that as a kid, and it blew my mind. I’m sure if I saw it now, as it was, I’d be very disappointed. But when you go to see a Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas, it is mind-blowing, like that show, Ka. I went to see that, and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe the scale and the ambition and everything. It was just staggering.
BTL: When we spoke for the first movie, I remember talking to you about the challenges of switching to animation and some of the skills you learned. I assume the second movie would be easier if not for the fact that COVID hit, and I imagine there was still a lot of work to do.
Jennings: It was… I can’t remember the percentages of work left to do, but it’s still quite a lot. The story and everything was working — the story was pretty, pretty fantastic, and that’s the main thing. But yeah, it was tricky. I actually think because the ambitions to the film are far grander than the first, it seemed to scale up the challenges as well. It was lovely, because I was working with people I had forged a relationship with. That was the lovely part of it, and it was challenging, because we’re doing things we hadn’t done before at a level we’d never done before. But that was wonderful to see that start to materialize, start to become our reality. That was really breathtaking when you’re establishing things like those sets and things that are working. Oh, my gosh, it was just such a magical process.
BTL: When I speak to live-action filmmakers about production, there’s a very specific way those films are put together, starting with script, then production designer and art department, casting, etc. With an animated movie, you’re presumably starting with your cast in some ways, but you also have to get the music rights to all the songs they’re going to sing. Do you literally sit down and write out a full script to start, or is this something a little more organic that can be written as it’s being put together?
Jennings: It was a bit of both. What we did is we mapped out a journey and an emotional goal for everyone in the film, that the show would somehow do this for this character, and this for that character, and it would be great to feel this and that kind of music. “It would be great if there was a rock legend that’s performing as a lion, and it’d be so great that he was brought back by his own songs. Could you imagine if it was Bono? That would be amazing! I mean, that voice and that music, that would be perfect.” So, you’re sort of mapping out and then starting to fill in the story, and then, that obviously has an impact on how it ends. But it’s still the same kind of ambitions that we had from the very start. There’s a bit of both. It’s like big picture stuff, but then incrementally moving through it and trying to get better ways of getting there, I suppose.
Ash (left, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono)
BTL: How did you end up going to Bono? Was that part of trying to get U2 songs to use… and then, “Oh, by the way, we have a role for you,” or was it a little more involved than that?
Jennings: We went to him, asking him to play a part in the film, not to use the U2 music straightaway although that was obviously part of it. But we wanted to appeal to him as a character to play, and then, when he showed really interested it, which he did straight off the bat, it was great. I had a lovely long chat with him about the music and how it would be used and what this character is going to do. He had just so much to talk about when it came to music and singing, what that meant to him, and what these songs mean to him.
BTL: Did you actually go back into the studio and rerecord his vocals on some of those famous songs that are nearly 35 years old?
Jennings: Yeah, it’s incredible, and then with Scarlett [Johansson], the two of them working in the studio, just incredible! When you’ve got Bono in the room, and you go, “Right, let’s do Take 1 of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’” [laughs] And here’s the weird thing. His voice, I would go as far as to say that it’s better than it’s ever been. We actually had to get him to mess it up a bit and make it more not so perfect, because it just felt odd that this lion walks out of the cave and just has this exquisite voice straight off the bat. So we had to sort of… it’s very strange… to say to Bono, “Could you sing it a little bit less good, please?” [laughs] “Can you kind of ruin it a bit just to make it feel a little more plausible that you haven’t sung in 15 years?”
BTL: He’s been singing that song for 35 years at every single show I’m sure. By the way, how did you guys find Clay Calloway’s regular voice? Because I don’t think I would have realized it was him, since he has this amazing voice with no accent or anything like that.
Jennings: It was great. Bono wanted to… not audition as much as do a test with me before we started recording, to make sure we both could find a voice that I was happy with. I love that he was up for doing this, and we got to play around for a good afternoon or so with the script and pages. We would try all kinds of different tones, and just getting back to this really, really sonorous kind of lion growly voice, something that really felt authentic. I didn’t want it to sound like somebody doing a voice or putting on a strange voice. He already has a lovely character to his speaking voice. It was just about enhancing that and slowing it down and watching the breathing, making sure the breathing was at the right speed for a character that big. Clay’s a big character, and we had to kind of slow it down to the scale of his lungs. Finding that really helped, and I think it probably made Bono feel more comfortable going into the studio.
BTL: I want to switch gears and talk about the production design for the movie, since there are so many amazing locations and spaces, like the majestic Palace Theater at the end. I’m not sure if that’s based on a real theater, but it seems like a lot of work was put into how that looked and Jimmy Crystal’s home. Was a lot of that very early on in the process?
Jennings: Yes, the designs began right off the bat. Knowing we were going to go to Mr. Crystal’s office straight away. We knew we’d go there. We knew that there would be this huge Vegas hotel, and that there would be a theater in it, and I did a recce, sort of a location scout trip to Vegas, which sounds crazy, but I’d never been there. I’m from Essex in England, and it’s just about as far from Vegas, as you can get in terms of culture, and it was amazing to go there. I went round it, and I was blown away, and I saw a load of shows, and I came back and presented my discoveries to all the Art Department and the storyboard team, trying to get everybody to be seeing the same city I was, to take that anything’s possible attitude that seems to be present everywhere in Vegas — you know, the Venetian canals — and go, “Okay, well, let’s take the spirit of that and do our own version of the city.” That began very early on, as well as the new character designs and same for the costumes. We started them early for the end of the show. That was designed by Rodarte, the fashion designer.
BTL: Did you hire a lot of dancers and a choreographer for this one? There seems to be more dancing in this movie with some really huge dance numbers.
Jennings: I got to work with Sherrie Silver, who is an amazing choreographer. She did the This is America video, and she was fantastic to work with. We did a bunch of routines together, Sherry and I, with her dancers, and that was just great, because that just meant that we had this whole new level of inspiration coming from real professionals.
BTL: And that was done for the animators to use as reference?
Jennings: Absolutely. It was all for the animators. It wasn’t like we did mocap or anything, but we wanted them to have a real sense of… it’s a different language, and Sherrie has a really specific personality with her dancing. It felt really, really specific, a really strong voice in the choreography. If you’ve not seen her work, you must Google it, it’s just fantastic. She has her own YouTube channel.
BTL: Since we’re running out of time, I want to ask whether there was anything from the first movie that you didn’t get to do that you wanted to make sure to get into Sing 2?
Jennings: Yeah, there were a few things. One of them was this scene we had in the first movie, where Buster would get on a bicycle and chase after one of the characters and try to plead his case on a bicycle. It was a great scene, but it kept getting cut from the first movie. And then when we came to do the second movie, we had this moment right at the beginning when Suki, the talent scout [voiced by Chelsea Peretti], says it’s not good enough and just leaves in a taxi. I thought, “My God, this could be the moment we use that bicycle scene!” And sure enough, it just suddenly worked. We tried it two or three times in the first movie. It wasn’t that the scene didn’t work, it didn’t work in the flow of everything else. Suddenly, here it was, working here perfectly, and there’s a few scenes like that. I can’t think off the top my head of the others right now, but certainly, I remember that bicycle one.
Sing 2 opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 22.
All pictures courtesy of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment.