Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Leading the Prince

By Susan Ellis

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  I’d like the audience to feel inspired by the film, feel that there is hope for humanity. I want them to come out of the film feeling proud of being human beings.”

It seems a little thing to ask for, given that Brenda Chapman – along with co-directors Steve Hickner and Simon Wells – spent four years of her life working on The Prince of Egypt. And just consider her feelings for a moment. Here she is, wading into the Red Sea, if you will, wondering if this film, the very straightforward, non-silly story of Moses, the first traditional animated feature by DreamWorks, and her first as director, will succeed or get washed away in a torrent of bad reviews.

In the month before the film debuts on December 18th, Chapman, who worked on such Disney features as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast before being recruited by DreamWorks, was touring the country along with her cohorts, giving interviews and hoping for the best.

Flyer: The film opens soon. How are you feeling?

Chapman: Nervous. Four years of putting your life into one thing and then it all hangs on one weekend, it’s a little nerve-wracking.

How did you get into animation?

I began considering animation [as a career] in late high school, early college. I drew all the time when I was a kid. I loved watching Bugs Bunny. He was my favorite. It’s always been a part of my life.

When I seriously started thinking about it in junior college, I called up Disney and asked, How do I get into animation? They told me about a school in Valencia, California, CalArts. I studied there for three years and then Disney picked me up when I graduated.

Were you lured to DreamWorks by The Prince of Egypt?

The lure was just trying to do something different, to help build a new animation studio, with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. I helped develop The Prince of Egypt, and that of itself was such a challenge, so I had the fair share of the challenge I was looking for.

How did you react when you were pitched the idea of doing an animated biblical epic?

It was a very long, silent pause. I thought, Are you crazy? But when we sat down and seriously talked about ideas, I realized that we were going to handle it with respect, that we weren’t going to make the wacky Moses movie. I just realized that this has a lot of possibilities and it is the original story. A lot of stories are based on this. The story of Moses is the format for a lot of stories.

Are you worried that kids won’t like it?

My feeling as far as kids go is that it’s not for really little kids. If kids go, parents should be with them. I think they’ll like it because there’s all the action and drama and all of that will pull them in. My concern is that I’m hoping adults will get into it. I’m really hoping that this film will be sort of a stepping stone to opening audiences’ minds to what animation can be.

What I find a little frustrating after all these years of working in animation is in the newspaper you have all the upcoming movies – you have all your next dramas, your action-adventures, your romantic-comedies, the family film, and then you have animation, which automatically equals kiddie film. To me, animation can be all those other categories; it can be a drama, it can be an action-adventure, and it can still be a family film. Prince of Egypt happens to be drawn and not live action. I just feel like there’s room for animation to grow into other things.

What are the challenges of making an animated feature as opposed to a live-action film?

Well, basically creating the world from scratch. We can’t build a set and point a camera at it from every angle each time. We not only have to design the costumes, we have to design the person going into the costume. That’s why it takes so long to make one of these things.

Tell me about collaborating with the animators.

It’s basically working with the animators as actors. They have to have the skill where knowing how to move a character is second nature. We concentrate on the acting with them just like we do the voice talent. We direct the voice talent and get it where we want it to be and then we take it to the animator and take them through the same thing – motivation, character arch, and all that.

How was it working with actors who have nothing to interact with?

We just talk to them through the scene. We just have to try to make them visualize it in their minds. One thing that helps is we have storyboards. We have that visualization in front of them so they can see where their characters are, what physical world they’re in, who they’re near, who they are talking to, and all of that. They try to get that in their head and then they just close their eyes and try to imagine the world, and I just try to talk them through that as much as possible. With different actors you take slightly different approaches for how you talk them through it.

What was it like working with such big-name actors as Val Kilmer [the voice of Moses], Ralph Fiennes [Rameses], Michelle Pfeiffer [Tzipporah], and Sandra Bullock [Miriam]?

It was intimidating.

Are you a tough director?

I think I take the more gentle approach. They were all so wonderfully professional. They are stars because of how talented they are – they are not mediocre by any means. I didn’t have to explain a lot. They would usually get it. … Now, if they needed to be agitated and upset and I would talk to them more agitated and upset and it would make them jumpy. Usually I was able to just walk them through it.

Did the actors work together or separately?

Mostly separately, because it was hard because of who they are to get their schedules coordinated.

We never got Val or Ralph in the same room at the same time. They always were separate. We managed to get Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum for one scene. Martin Short and Steve Martin always worked together.

Is there a moment in the film that captures what you were trying to accomplish?

I think the incident that sort of summed up how we were going to do the movie was when we asked one of the story artists to come up with some ideas for this scene after the plagues when Moses goes to see Rameses. ... He had done this wonderful sketch of Rameses sitting in the lap of [a statue of] Pharaoh, and it just said so much about Rameses’ character and about the two brothers. That was when we realized that’s our story – we need to have all these events and the biblical epic center on these two brothers and their love for each other. It just epitomized the difference in the story to other animation – we were going more serious, more dramatic, deeper into real emotions, and that kind of thing. It just solidified how we’re going to take the whole movie.

They’re making a big deal about this being DreamWorks’ first traditional animated feature. How much pressure did you feel when making it?

We tried not to think about it while we were making the film. We just did the best we could and occasionally that would sort of sneak in. Luckily, there are three of us, three directors, and we would sort of shudder and go, Okay, we should stop thinking about this now. Let’s just move on. It’s hard now and we’ve been done with the movie for a couple of months and with all the publicity starting to kick in and everything, it’s a little scary.

They’re also stressing that you’re the first female director of an animated feature. Do you like this distinction?

It’s quite an honor, but I really didn’t think about it that much. I’m a director and I didn’t get hired because I’m a woman. I’d hate to think that people would think that. I would prefer to be thought of as a director, rather than the first female director. I sort of envy my successors … they just get to be directors.

When you saw the final version what did you think?

I was kind of overwhelmed. Finally getting to see it all together, with the Hans Zimmer score, such an emotional score, I was in tears. I’ve spent so many years working on this thing and seeing it all come together, it was like experiencing birth in a way. Finally it’s all there. Finally you get to see it all.

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