You’ve probably heard of “Angry Birds” — the popular phone app video game, or you’re one of the many who can’t stop playing it. Now, the interactive game that’s taken the world by storm is the subject of an upcoming animated feature by Sony Pictures, hitting theaters in summer 2016, and directed by the very talented team of Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly, who also served as writers and producers. Brain World had the opportunity to talk with Kaytis and Reilly on their experience directing a movie and all of the creative challenges that it entails — particularly when it comes to adapting a movie from a game that mostly consists of a bird and a slingshot.
Brain World: Tell us about your role in the production of “The Angry Birds Movie”?
Clay Kaytis: We are both directors of the movie, so we have been on since the beginning — when we had a screenplay, and we were hiring artists and staff to build the movie. Our role is to take the script and turn it into a movie to watch as a rough cut before it gets animated to see how it plays. We spent at least a year doing that. And then it never stops really. We always work on the film and keep improving it, and try to go beyond what was in the script. We come up with new lines and characters and jokes and ideas.
Fergal Reilly: Our job as directors was to create a movie out of the basic premise of the “Angry Birds” video game, which shows a group of angry birds trying to rescue their eggs from some pigs. It is a very thin premise, but our job as the storytellers was to create an entertaining, interesting, and funny movie out of that. We had a blast doing that over the past two-and-a-half years. When we both came aboard there was a basic screenplay, a first draft by Jon Vitti, that the producers had been working on. We took a look at that and we started to deconstruct it, and we rebuilt it into a very funny, animated movie for everybody.
BW: I heard the game stimulates people to break preconceptions and think outside the box to find ways of reaching their goals — is that something that is emulated in the film in some way?
FR: Well, the whole process of actually building the story and creating the movie and making it entertaining is a very out-of-the-box exercise. We try to approach it with creative thinking, especially for comedy. So the process for us is to constantly challenge ourselves to think beyond set boundaries, because that way you get the most unexpected and fun solution to what seemed like fairly difficult problems. Basically, the process of creating a story is the process of thinking in very unexpected ways. Even to create characters you have to do that, because the unexpected is always more interesting and fun to an audience.
CK: The “Angry Birds” game sets you up with almost insurmountable tasks. You are armed with a slingshot and these little birds have to somehow conquer these levels, and that is a microcosm of what we have to deal with in the movie. We have to figure out a way to take that and make it into a larger story that is compelling. We related to the game in terms that these birds are set up with this huge task and we have to clue off the game and show that these characters are figuring things out in an organic way for instance, Red figuring out what these pigs are up to. Part of the process of developing a story is creating a journey that the audience can go on, a journey of discovery. Red’s almost in these detective situations, where he’s solving this puzzle. And then the obvious mayhem that happens in the game where the birds find out that the pigs took their eggs and have to find the way to get them back. So we do use some of the elements from the game in the movie.
BW: How come the whole island is happy and then these three or four characters are angry?
CK: We do have this premise, that these birds in this island are fly-less birds, and they’ve never been visited by any other creatures. They have no predators or really any problems; they live a pretty idyllic life. They are innocent. They have never known enemies — they wouldn’t assume that anyone would have any harmful intentions.
FR: They have no knowledge of the outside world. In their world, their knowledge of the world begins and ends on the shores of the little island that they live on. So, this gives it that comical, naive narration. When the pigs show up, these are alien creatures to the birds. So they are fascinated by these pigs and welcome them with open arms. And Red, our main character, is the only bird that has ever put out barriers between himself and any other creature. He isolates himself from the other birds and he isolates himself from his own happiness in a way. He is the only one who recognizes that these pigs might have some other purpose. They are not just coming to be friendly visitors. They appear to be friendly and cute and cuddly on the surface, but they might have other intentions, other motives for visiting Bird Island, he believes.
BW: So Red, the most “Angry Bird,” is the one finding the problem and leading the way to the solution?
FR: Yes, Red doesn’t make it easy for himself. He never makes it easy on himself in any interpersonal relationship he has. So even though the pigs are friendly toward him at the beginning, Red is always raging up against everybody he meets. He kind of says and does the things we wish we could do in real life. It all starts off with a personal problem for him, because by being constantly angry, he commits the worst possible sin that you can commit on this island paradise that he lives in, and he gets sent to anger-management class to deal with his own personal issues. So for him, it’s learning how to problem-solve his own ways of dealing with people, and that gets expanded to the community.
CK: Yes, it’s really about challenging his anger. In the beginning of the movie, he’s not in control of his emotions. It’s a journey of understanding his feelings and controlling his anger and using his anger appropriately — which is something most of us can relate to. That journey is also what helps him relate to other characters. It is actually a pretty compelling psychological journey that this guy goes on. But part of his anger issues are that he is a person that sees the negativity. It is not the truth of life, but he kind of focuses on the indignity of life and other birds may shrug it off. It is a somewhat unfortunate situation, but Red is the guy who stares them down and tries to resolve them. He’s a realist. In a strange way, he becomes the involuntary spokesman for the birds and finds his place in society. Over the course of the film, you know what his voice is and how the other birds can relate to him.
BW: Can you give one example of something that took a turn you never expected as you developed the movie?
CK: I think for us something that was pretty unexpected is that there is an actual very emotional payoff. We landed at a place making the movie that is a touching moment. I don’t think we expected that. We expected to make a kind of sprawling comedy with a lot of action and jokes, but there is this heart that came up through the events of the stories that definitely surprised me.
FR: Yes. It is surprising how likable an angry character can actually be when you start to understand him. Watching people get angry as long as you are at a safe distance is always kind of funny. It is a funny situation to explore. At the beginning, everybody’s concern was, “How do you make an angry character appealing to an audience?” It was a challenge for us. But by working through Red’s issues, we were actually able to create a very lovable, funny character that everybody responds to. Part of it is good writing, part of it is just us taking the character and putting ourselves in situations that make us angry. It is a very natural emotion to be angry. There is a saying: “Anyone can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry at the right person, at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not in everyone’s power and it is not easy.” Philosophers and writers and artists have been dealing with the emotion of anger since the beginning of creative thought. This is pushing it further down the road, working on that idea in a humorous way.
BW: What is the core insight one can get out of the movie?
CK: The movie is kind of telling the truth. Anger is not a bad thing. What is important is how we deal with it. We talked a lot about the fact that anger is not a negative thing. It is a natural response and it is a clue to a person that things aren’t right. In that way, for many of the birds in the village that Red lives in, it is an awakening. And it is connecting to their emotions rather than suppressing them. Ultimately, it is about balance.
FR: Right, anger can be a very motivating thing. If you are ideally happy all the time and in every way, it is sort of complacency in a way. You know, it doesn’t drive. It isn’t necessarily keeping the status quo. You can be happy by doing that but you can also drive action by engaging other emotions.
This article was originally published in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2016 issue.
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- Games for Health: Exploring How Video Games Can Improve Health and Health Care
- How Do Video Games Change Your Brain?
- Our Musical Birdbrains: Why Do Birds (And Humans) Sing?
- The Importance Of Play: An Interview with Dr. Jaak Panksepp
- Will We All Be Gamers Someday?