Hey, does this sound familiar?
Continuing a pattern he pioneered at Disney when he cast Robin Williams in the animated film “Aladdin,” DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg chose three of Hollywood’s most recognizable movie stars, Brad Pitt, Michelle Pfeiffer and Catherine Zeta-Jones, to provide the lead voices for “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.” In this compact and breezy version of the classic
“Arabian Nights,” Pitt plays a dude-like Sinbad, Pfeiffer a Catwoman of a goddess, and Zeta-Jones, Sinbad’s secret and principled heartthrob. Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love”) plays her fiance and Sinbad’s best friend, while Dennis Haysbert (“Far From Heaven” and TV’s “24") creates a formidable presence as Sinbad’s warrior sidekick. The film is scheduled to open July 2.
The Times’ Lynn Smith recently sat down with Katzenberg, Pitt, Pfeiffer and Haysbert to discuss their work in the film, which took more than three years to make. The actors had worked separately, reading their lines in front of video cameras. The round table marked the first time they had all been together in the same room.
Did you cast the actors to fit the characters?
Katzenberg: Oh no. You think of Sinbad as a character and say, “I could have anybody in the world to play him.” Brad was our first choice.... Brad Pitt in this movie is everything I’ve always dreamed of seeing Brad Pitt do in a film. He’s heroic, he’s a rogue, he’s footloose and fancy-free and fantastic in doing all these bigger-than-life battles -- and then gets his comeuppance from a woman and a dog.
Katzenberg: Spike challenges him.
What’s the biggest difference between live action and animation?
Pitt: Who’s going to say it? I’ll say it. The hours. They’re much shorter. It lets you have a life....It was a much more relaxed atmosphere. There aren’t hundreds of people and millions of dollars ticking away with the moves you make.
Haysbert: I love how you can get that banter when you’re not even speaking to the guy you’re supposed to be speaking to. A lot of the credit has to be given to the writers and the person you’re reading with.
Katzenberg: I don’t think enough credit is given to the value that actors and actresses bring to these movies. They’re all being humble, but it’s about finding a character. It’s no different in live action. Look at what Michelle created for that character. I don’t know if you remember, but the day she absolutely nailed it was the day she wore a very long scarf for some reason.
Pfeiffer: I was freezing.
Katzenberg: There was something about taking that scarf and throwing it around that got you in this place to be in character.
Pitt: For me, it’s nudity [he deadpans]....I don’t completely understand that either. I mean, you guys will go, “Great performance,” and I go, “We didn’t do anything, we just showed up here.”
Katzenberg: The thing I don’t think any of you realize is that your voice is you. It is literally the essence of who you are. It’s a combination of your voice and the physical manners that you have, the animators capture that, and they put it into these creations. Sinbad doesn’t look anything like you, but if you put him into motion and let him start talking it can capture the essence of you as an actor.
Haysbert: That was the most startling thing, because I forgot about that little video recorder in the corner.
Pitt: They’re sneaky now, aren’t they?
Haysbert: You can’t see it. Your imagination takes over. You don’t have any inhibitions about what you’re doing physically. In one scene where I’m upset with his character for what he’s about to do to his buddy, I do something I always do when I get frustrated, I roll my eyes. It’s this thing my kids do that drives me nuts. I saw it in the cartoon, and I thought, “That’s me!”
Pitt: I’m amazed at the specificity and facial expressions these guys get. There’s better stuff in there than I can do on my own.
Was Jeffrey a tough taskmaster? Did he give you specific direction on your voices?
Pitt: He pretty much let us run, then everybody would get involved, which is a fun jam session with the directors and Jeffrey.
Pfeiffer: It’s all mixed up. It starts out imitating Jeffrey ...
Pitt: ... and ends up that way too.
Katzenberg: They’re just getting even with me.
Pitt: That’s not true! I got some of my best line readings with Jeffrey. On the ones where I took 20 shots and just couldn’t quite find that little zing.
In a world where image is everything, what’s the attraction of doing something where you’re invisible?
Pfeiffer: That. It’s liberating. It takes the pressure off. You can experiment in a way you can’t when there’s pressure on.
Katzenberg: We were really happy with what she did for us. When the movie was two-thirds done, enough so she could see the whole movie from beginning to end and really understand it, she said, “I could beat those lines all over the place.”
Pfeiffer: I think initially they were humoring me. I think you guys were happy with it because we have a relationship. They let me go in and redo it so that I could feel as an artist I had done everything I had wanted to do.
Katzenberg: Eris has 75 or 100 lines in the movie. Of them, there were 22 she said she would make better. We ended up replacing 17 of those. She did do stuff that was just better. And we reanimated a bunch of it.
How did you calibrate the humor level?
Katzenberg: We tried to make it work on two levels.... There’s a very sophisticated level of wit and humor in it, a lot of which goes over the heads of the kids.
How old should they be before they see this film?
Pitt: I’m the wrong one to ask. I tried to take my godson to “The Two Towers.” It was a disaster. He was about 5. It was with his mom’s permission.
Katzenberg: “Sinbad” is not for 3- or 4-year-olds. It is a PG-rated movie. Some of the action gets intense. But there’s no violence in it. No blood.
Pfeiffer: Also, some kids don’t mind that.
Pitt: That was my kind of movie when I was a kid.
Katzenberg: We’ve put this in front of half a dozen audiences. We made adjustments along the way. There were two things that were too suggestive sexually....Some parents didn’t like Proteus saying, “Stick around, there’s going to be a helluva party.” We found another take saying “one heck of a party,” and it was just as good, so we changed it....We discovered how much the kids love Spike. We went back and put seven new pieces of Spike in the movie only weeks ago.
For big-name actors, what kind of a career move is it to appear in an animated film?
Pfeiffer: I’m not sure it’s a career move one way or another. First of all, because I hate my voice.
Pitt: Me too.
Pfeiffer: I’m always shocked that they think it’s recordable.
Pitt: It’s a gorgeous voice.
Pfeiffer: Thank you. I’m flattered that they think of me, because there are so many people to choose from and almost everybody would say yes.
Haysbert: For me, it’s the audience you reach. It’s a lot different from the audience you reach in a live-action movie. Even for the audience that normally watches you, they get to see you in a different light. Or hear you in a different light....You work for the idea of it becoming a sequel. For the love of it, really. And for my kids. They’re 8 and 12.
Pitt: For me, it’s just about trying something new. I’ve got nieces and nephews; I get addicted to the little brats. I want to give them something back, I guess.