Kate Atherton writes for Bleeding Cool:
When four of the cast of Gulliver’s Travels (Jack Black, Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly and James Corden) gathered together to meet the press in London this December, it became clear what a job director Rob Letterman must have had on his hands, just to keep these guys under control.
You know, the intent for me is to go off script on purpose and this is really a dreamcast and that was awesome. Juxtaposing Jack’s comedy style with the UK comedy style was great and it made it semi-impossible to make the movie frankly but we had so much technology designed not so much for the visual effects but so that we could capture all of the adlibbing and improvisation. And that was really important. It makes it very natural besides all the set pieces and visual effects. What’s most important about it was the characters.
First there was James Corden admitting that he had never read Jonathan Swift’s classic 18th-century satire: ‘I’ve already fucked up. I’ve already fucked up’, with Billy Connolly (‘Jesus Christ’) and Jack Black agreeing (‘So much for the opening weekend…’). Then there was Emily Blunt complaining about how difficult she finds it to watch 3D movies with 3D glasses on top of her own thick glasses. This produced a plea from Corden:
However, we dont want to put people off seeing the film if they have huge glasses.
Amidst all the jokes and the goodnatured ribbing – especially directed towards Emily Blunt (especially for her confusion over penguin movies), it was clear that it was the mix of talents that had drawn each to their roles. The combination of Jack Black and Billy Connolly was quite a draw for their fellow actors.
The appeal for me was Jack was already involved in the movie in the first place and it was a great opportunity to work with him. And then I read the book when I was a kid and I always loved it. I loved the images from some of the animated adaptations of it but in retrospect, having read it later in life it really was meant to be a comedy and a satirical comment on the cultural references of the time of Swift and a parody of adventure travels, probably a parody of Robinson Crusoe. It seemed like a great opportunity to do a comedy take on it, which hadn’t been done. It’s always been done as a fantasy adventure and so the take that Jack and John Davis, the other producer on the movie, had was to start off in the modern day and bring in contemporary references so that we could do our own satire.
It was such an amazing cast it was a no brainer to want to be involved in any capacity, to be honest. That was the reason for me. I thought it was a great script with a great director and a great cast.
Emily Blunt was drawn by both Jack Black and the script:
I’ve never been in a family movie and I just loved the dialogue and the heightened way in which all the Liliputians spoke I thought was really funny. I was charmed.
She was the reason I did the movie, Catherine Tate. The rest of the actors I couldn’t give a shit about.
Jack Black was “drawn to the project because I loved the fantasy adventure elements. It’s my favourite genre and the comedy – there was lots of rich potential and I just liked the challenge of updating a classic. There’s a lot of pressure there but there’s also a lot of fun opportunities to be part of the great history of a 300 year old enduring piece of literature. Me and Jonathan Swift will go down in history together.”
A new film technology was developed specifically for Gulliver’s Travels, DualMoCo – or ‘Dual MoCo RoCo as the cast referred to it. Rob Letterman:
It’s literally a camera system that was designed for this movie. It’s two cameras that can operate at the same time. And so, for example, at the end of the movie, there’s a War song and a big set piece with 250 background extras are dancing with all these guys at a royal navy academy in Greenwich and it was all choreographed. And Jack was on a miniature set 100 yards away dancing simultaneously and both cameras were filming at the same time. We could move the cameras around and they were in sync and I would see it overlaid on my monitor so it was really amazing. And you’d have your piece in your ear and Jack’s voice was broadcast through a loud speaker. It was just a big production. But it was really designed to capture performances so that they could happen organically.
There is one scene in the film in particular that will make all the kids in the family laugh* and that is Gulliver putting a fire out in the palace and saving the life of the king (Billy Connolly) with the only liquid to hand, as it were. Billy Connolly remembered the moment fondly:
It was brilliant. It was orange juice, We [points to James] were singing the national anthem as we were being peed on and so our eyes were open and so…’
Those days are the days that I remember most fondly really because growing up in Britain and having an interest in British comedy, to be able to spend some of the longest days on earth – 10, 12, 14 hour days – just sitting with a hero is just an amazing thing and I remember it really fondly and I remember thinking it was an honour every single hour because every story, every single question leads into Billy telling a great story and you just think ‘Oh my God, I would pay a lot of money to do this and I’m being paid just to sit and listen to him!’ So they were great days. Urine or no urine in your mouth.
It won’t be long before we’re all standing behind James, though. He’s a brilliant dynamo of comedy.
He has a wonderful technique every time he comes up and does anything with you. As he leaves he touches you somewhere he didn’t touch you the last time. And it was a joy for me. I was in hysterics laughing. I was wondering where I was going to be stroked next time he approached! It was a joy and I love you.
Billy Connolly was asked about England failing to win the World Cup bid:
I think it’s a shame that England never got the World Cup. I didn’t realise it had been so long until adults were saying like Cameron, the Prime Minister, was saying that it didn’t happen in his lifetime. I’d forgotten it had been that long. And when Qatar’s getting it… I mean, good on them, but come on! Give me a break!… I would have been really happy for England to get it.
Did Connolly enjoy being a king? He said:
It’s terrific to be the king. I’ve been the king for a long time, it’s a joy. It’s an absolute joy to swan… So little is asked of you. You get the sparkliest uniforms and sword and you just swan around. It’s fabulous. I tried to be a kind of Prince Charlesy king. I think if he was a king he’d be a jolly casual sort of king and so I tried to be him. I rather like him.
Chris O’Dowd plays the villain of the piece, General Edward. Emily Blunt:
That guy’s a genius? He is so funny it’s weird. I found it impossible to get through a scene with him. Because he’s bad, he pushes you really hard. It’s sort of like a game for him just to see if he can make you laugh and I’m really easy prey and so it was pretty difficult to do a scene with him. Because he’s kind of known for being a bit of a slacker, isn’t he?
And he’s also known for being kind of a loveable slacker. You don’t think of him as a villainous guy but he’s a tremendous actor and ge was able to tap into some evil. But it’s always really funny evil… And while he’s being horribly male chauvinistic and just downright dastardly, you’re laughing the whole time. I think he’s going to get an Oscar some day and he’d better give me a shoutout because I feel that I was there for the discovery of the man. He won’t give me a shoutout. I’m gonna blow a Kanye if he doesn’t. I’m gonna go up there and grab it.
The difficulty of acting at two different scales at the same time did cause the actors some trouble, especially Billy Connolly. Jack Black:
I hate to bring this up again but because of [speaks very loudly] our new technology developed for this film – the Dual MoCo RoCo – we were able to act simultaneously and interact. We weren’t able to look at each other of course as they’re looking up at the sky, I’m looking down at a speck on the ground, but we could hear each other live in real time and have real like interactions and you can tell. You can feel it in improvisational moments of reality.’ Billy Connolly: ‘You can tell because I look the wrong way all the time… I was waiting for the voice. Some people go for the little laser on the wall. I’m a voice man.
We started off with tiny eyelines which were just like tape and Billy sort of missed those and we moved on to tennis balls to get bigger, He didn’t quite get those either. Eventually, by the end, we had these giant eyes on cranes staring down to make sure that Billy could really nail that eyeline.
It’s really weird when you’re staring at a laser point on a building and the guy you’re supposed to be talking to is over here talking and everything in your body just turns toward him. You just can’t help it – well I can’t help it.
Despite Emily Blunt’s reservations about how comfortable it is to watch a 3D movie, Billy Connolly had nothing but praise for its execution for Gulliver’s Travels:
I think the 3D in this film is fantastic. I didn’t know quite what to expect. I’m a wee bit bored with 3D, with people riding on geese shooting towards you, blue people shooting at the valleys. I’ve really had enough already. But in this film there’s nothing that flies towards you, there’s none of the 3D tricks. Nobody throws anything that makes you go ‘wooahhh’. The whole thing just glows and I love it. I think artistically it’s outstanding.
Back to Billy Connolly and the penguin:
I try not to tell people I was turned down as a penguin and stuff like that but… them’s the breaks. I’ve had a wonderful film career when you consider where I’ve come from and what I do. I’m delighted. I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever.
You were turned down as a penguin?
A penguin or the penguin in the Batman films?
It was a penguin.
In what? March of the… no. [Much laughter]
You were turned down for a documentary about penguins?
It was that penguin thing. They wanted me as a Presbyterian penguin.
I wouldn’t go to Australia to talk about it and so I didn’t get it.
Fuck ’em, say I.
Gulliver’s Travels is in cinemas now, in both 3D and 2D.
*Editor’s note: But not many of the adults.