Directors Yuh Nelson and Carloni dish on Kung Fu Panda 3

Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro CarloniFollowing the success of Kung Fu Panda 2, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson couldn’t wait to begin working on the third film. She is joined by director Alessandro Carloni, who has also been with this film since its inception 12 years ago.

In Kung Fu Panda 3, Po has new challenges to face and there are new characters who add a feisty flare to the bowl of mixed personalities. We sat down with the directors to talk about the film and how Angelina Jolie‘s kids had a part to play in it.

You both have been with the film since the inception almost 12 years ago. How has Po evolved over the years?
That’s an interesting question, because our goal was to let the story continue while keeping him the same. It’s important for us not to feel like Po used to be a bumbling goofball and insecure, and is now a confident hero. We cannot have that. So our goal is making him learn something while still remaining himself. In a way that very concept became the theme of this very movie. Meaning, when Po says “I love being a dragon warrior so why should I learn any more?” And Shifu says, “Well, if you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than what you are now.” In a way, the question of how do we keep Po growing became the problem for our movie: what does he have to learn?

What trait do you admire most in Po?
I admire his endless enthusiasm, because he’s got this great, geek energy, he’s so enthusiastic. He’s a fan of everything; you can’t hope but be a fan with him. There’s not an ounce of jadedness in Po. That’s what I really appreciate.

Alessandro: And it’s such a rare thing, I find. You know, even finding friends who, wherever you go, they’ll be happy to be there or happy to be with someone. It’s a rare gift when someone is as positive and genuine as Po is. It’s really rare, and that’s why I really love him.

How did you connect with this film emotionally?Kung Fu Panda 3
Jen: I think in some ways, it always comes down to the connection between the characters for me and what they mean for each other. When finally everyone comes together to help Po, that scene where Li has this big moment, that will always make me well up.

Alessandro: Definitely.

Jen: It’s amazing a film can take you there. It’s amazing that something like that, a character, an actor, a performance, can take you there. That connection between father and son, and what a father is willing to do to save his son, is a real emotional core of the film.

Alessandro: I think the interesting thing is that, as filmmakers, for us it also comes down to the technicality of how to tell the story in a specific moment. And more often than not, it’s all about making sure we witness an emotion through a character. In this case, it’s Li because, well we can’t really give away that particular moment, but overall in general it’s more Po. Jen and I are making sure we portray an amazing scene. I remember one particular scene, we play this amazing battle in one of the sections of the movies, and at some point, we asked, what does Po feel about it? I remember Jen in that particular moment, in the room when we cut the movie, she picked up her tablet to make drawings and she’s basically cut a whole path to make sure we cut back to Po’s expression to see how he feels about it. Because that is the key to get into the emotion of a movie. You can never really witness something from afar.

I heard that Angelina’s children recorded animal noises for some of the pandas in the animated film. How did that come about?
: Yes, the actors wanted to involve their families. I think the reason why a lot of them do these films is because they can share it with their families. In Angelina’s case, in the first film, she was actually about to have her twins, they didn’t even exist yet, and they’re in the movie.

Alessandro: That’s right.

Jen: Jack [Black] had his son in the movie. Actually, first Dustin had his grandson in the movie. Jack heard about it, and asked, “Can I have my son in the movie?” And then Angelina heard about it, so, “We gotta get my kids in the movie.”

Alessandro: And she brought four of her kids.

Jen: So they just came in one day, and she was in the booth with them, and she was having such a good time with them. There was a moment where the kids were giggling and she’s literally tickling them herself.

Alessandro: They were shy, you know, they’re not actors. We wanted them to laugh, so we just sat on the floor while Angelina was tickling them. It was really fun.Kung Fu Panda 3 - Kate Hudson

Kate Hudson is so energetic and funny! How much do the stars get to improvise?
Jen: They have a lot of liberty to go off-book. We actually approached her because we thought her energy was so bubbly and so wonderful, and she has so much life to her. And Mei-Mei is about that. She’s got so much confidence. She’s so out there. And she’s going to be the first girl-panda that Po ever sees. She is just a great, fun female character. When we were recording her, she was having such a good time and laughing so hard, that there are times that we literally had to cover some of the moments where she just lost it and started laughing in the middle of her line. We had to cover it with, like, crowd noise, because her take was so beautiful. It’s like, “Ahh, she’s laughing! We’ll just keep it.”

What was it like working with Dustin Hoffman?
Alessandro: Well, it’s really an amazing experience because Dustin Hoffman is such a legend. If I have to be honest, we tend to be less productive with him because he has so many amazing stories. Every now and then, he goes into character, and then we say something that reminds him of something and then it’s like, “OK, forget the movie, let’s just listen to this for an hour.” If he has a story, we will listen to it. It’s fantastic. Frederico Fellini, and then all these amazing people he worked with.

Jen: Stories from The Graduate, all this stuff.

Alessandro: It’s weird being in the presence of a legend.

Jen: It’s like film school.

How do you balance humor, heart and action in a film like this?Kung Fu Panda 3 - Jack Black
Jen: It’s a tough dance.

Alessandro: Oh yeah, it’s really complicated.

Jen: But it’s very important because if you have humor, you can go into deeper emotion. If you have action, you can go to a quieter scene. They literally help you enhance each one and go further on each one. So what we do is we would figure out what the scene’s about and then we go, “Wait, we’ve gone through a long stretch without any humor and it’s feeling too dark” and then we’d go do a pass and put the humor in. Or do a pass and figure out, “Did we get the emotion right?” Or do a pass and see if we got the action right. We always have the three, like, we’re juggling.

Alessandro: In a way, the curse of that, in order to get it right, you have to keep watching the movie. Over, and over…

Jen: Over and over…

Alessandro: And over… So you really have to have a lot of patience with yourself and your product and your craft, because you can’t just say, “OK, put some comedy here, put some emotion there. Done, moving on.” Well, watch it. How does it feel? It feels too heavy. OK then, there’s not enough comedy.

Jen: They feed off each other. Jokes come out of an emotion, like, “Oh that totally triggered something else” and then we would just add things as it felt right.

Alessandro: But the truth is that, none of it would work, unless you have actors that can deliver that. You know, Jack Black is a comedic genius, but if he was just that, you wouldn’t care for Po.

Jen: Those are some of the most, my favorite moments in the film is when Jack goes to those emotional places. And you feel for him so much.

Alessandro: With a lesser cast that balance would not work.

J.K. Simmons compares you two to the Coen brothers. He said, “Like Joel and Ethan, Jen and Alessandro are the “beast with two brains.” What do you say to that?
Jen: That’s quite a bit of praise.

Alessandro: That’s high praise.

Jen: J.K. Simmons is amazing. He’s got such range, he’s so funny, and he’s so threatening. Working with him was such a joy because all you have to do is tap a little bit there, tap a little bit there, you don’t have to ask for too much. He comes with so much power.

Alessandro: It’s amazing how his character was a surprise to us, that he could bring so much humor. Because, of course, he’s known for how threatening he can be and then just by making the character a little bit vulnerable, through the script and through our story, he took that and ran with it and became hilarious. Whenever he becomes bitter, insecure, or petty about people not knowing him, his legend, his character becomes truly, truly funny. And we got huge laughs when we watch it, all thanks to him.

The film took almost three to four years to make — what is the most challenging part of the process?

Jen: The middle.

Alessandro: There’s a trust, because, you know, you come up with a brilliant idea, you think, you love it for a month, for two months, maybe you even love it for a year. It’s hard to love your ideas for three years.

Jen: Or four.

Alessandro: Or four. So you have to get to a point where you’re like, “OK, you know what, we did love this idea. We did, it was a great. But we hate it now.” It’s OK, we have to trust that we loved it. And not having that trust can destroy you. You have to have that trust.

What’s next for you?
Jen: Vacation.

Alessandro: Yeah, we get to sleep, shower and eat now for the first time in four years.

Are you working on a fourth film?
I think we make each film to be as satisfying, it has to be in order for us to feel excited to work on it. At the same time, the world and characters are huge. It’s really up to the fans and whether they want to see another one.

~Marriska Fernandes

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