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Crood Awakening

USC Dornsife alumnus Kirk DeMicco’s box office hit The Croods is nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. The story charts the adventures of an endearingly dysfunctional prehistoric family who must learn to evolve . . . or die.

By Susan Bell
January 16, 2014

Devoting mornings to what he calls “the carpentry” of writing, in which he frames and builds on ideas, Kirk DeMicco ’91 admits that creativity is hard work. However, <em>The Croods</em> director also relies on his subconscious to find unexpected solutions to creative challenges. Photos by Max S. Gerber.

Devoting mornings to what he calls “the carpentry” of writing, in which he frames and builds on ideas, Kirk DeMicco ’91 admits that creativity is hard work. However, The Croods director also relies on his subconscious to find unexpected solutions to creative challenges. Photos by Max S. Gerber.

As the drum rhythm and stirring horns build in intensity, the high adrenaline chase gathers momentum as the Crood family hunts down and steals a giant, blue-and-orange-speckled egg from a ramu — a hybrid of ram and emu with the strength and rushing power of a linebacker.

You know a Trojan is at the helm of this animated 3-D comedy adventure, The Croods, when you learn the drumming and horns were provided by the USC marching band.

In the opening scene, parents Grug and Ugga, rebellious teenage daughter, Eep, dutiful but dim-witted son, Thunk, ferocious baby girl, Sandy, and ancient but indomitable grandmother, “Gran,” are attempting to bring home their prehistoric breakfast.

In the scene, the Croods pass a dinosaur egg back and forth like a football until the prize is finally captured. Now, these prehistoric heroes at the heart of USC Dornsife alumnus Kirk DeMicco’s hit movie are poised to bring home something slightly more refined than a dinosaur egg: an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.

“Today's Oscar nomination is without a doubt the icing on the cake of an eight-year labor of love,” DeMicco said. “We set out to make a film that everyone in the family — especially fathers — can relate to: a story about the power of change.”

You would think as an Oscar hopeful DeMicco would be up at 5:30 a.m. glued to his television.

“Instead I was in the nursery of my 10-month-old twins experiencing the real power of change — that of diapers.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the upcoming 86th annual Academy Awards Jan. 16. The other nominees for Best Animated Film are Frozen, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, and The Wind Rises.

The Croods has won three awards and received 29 other award nominations since its release last year, including a Golden Globe nomination and 17 Annie Award nominations. The Croods was co-directed and written by Chris Sanders.

“This film has taken the work of over 300 talented artists at DreamWorks Animation to produce and on behalf of our entire crew, I send a huge thank you to the academy and raise a baby bottle in toast to our fellow nominees,” DeMicco said.

DeMicco also remarked on some of the team work demonstrated by Crood family members in the film, including the opening scene in which the Croods tackle, scramble and block a variety of strange, ferocious or mischievous beasts in order to capture that egg.

“It’s so rare that you get the chance to do that,” the film’s director and writer, Kirk DeMicco, said with obvious relish. “It’s so fun watching a family working together, struggling, playing this full contact sport, just to get breakfast. It’s like a Saturday football game, and it just keeps on going. It’s choreographed and there’s character, character, character and it’s telling you about their world. That’s something we can do very well with animation.”

Billed as “the world’s first-ever family road trip,” The Croods, DeMicco said, was inspired by comedies such as the 1983 Chevy Chase hit, National Lampoon’s Vacation, the sweeping landscapes of a number of westerns, and John Ford’s 1940 epic drama, The Grapes of Wrath.

“That was the Dust Bowl and these are cavemen,” DeMicco said of his film’s similarities with the Depression-era film based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel. “But the Croods are a very poor family. They’ve lost their home and they’re looking for a promised land. It’s the myth of going West, going toward the sun and reaching into new frontiers.”

Setting the movie in an imaginary period dubbed the “Croodacious Era” gave the filmmakers creative freedom to invent stunning landscapes and a menagerie of fantastically comical and frightening creatures. The macawnivore has the body of a sabre-tooth tiger, an over-sized head and the coloring of a macaw. The mousephant is a tiny elephant with the ears and tail of a mouse. And terrifying flocks of swarming piranhakeets — a cross between a parakeet and a piranha — swoop down to devour any creature in their path.

The film’s prehistoric setting also served as an interesting philosophical device because — as DeMicco and Sanders quickly realized — once the external trappings, obligations and rules of modern society are stripped away, the characters have nothing left to talk about but life’s big questions. “When that became clear,” DeMicco said, “we realized this movie can speak to an audience on a far deeper emotional level than we had first anticipated.”

During the film’s opening titles, a single glowing ember drifts out from the screen, appearing to hover tantalizingly in mid-air, so close and so real you feel that if you reached out and touched it, it might burn your fingers. It foreshadows the prehistoric heroes’ introduction to fire (“Try hiding from it in the tall, dry grass,” Grug advises Thunk with predictably disastrous results), but it is also a reference to the spark of imagination that illuminates this whole film. While The Croods is about family and overcoming fear of change, it is also about creativity, and how if we trust and use it wisely we can shape our destiny and better our world.

“Creativity definitely takes work,” DeMicco said. He reserves mornings for “the carpentry” of writing, in which he frames his ideas. “In the mornings I am a lot clearer and I can build on my thoughts. But the actual thinking comes at other times. It’s like people say, ‘It comes to you in the shower.’ ”

If he gets stuck, DeMicco goes for a walk.

“If you just sit there and try to drum up a solution, you’ll probably come up with an answer,” he said. “But it’s probably going to be the logical answer that everyone else would come up with. The gap in the logic is where the comedy comes from — the surprise.”

The resulting movie opened to a box office win. Part of the universal appeal of the Croods, whom DeMicco has described as “timelessly dysfunctional,” is that they exhibit many of the same struggles and triumphs of a modern-day family. At the same time, they are on a perpetual voyage of discovery, as they realize if they don’t evolve … they’re history.

“We never referred to the Croods as stupid,” DeMicco said. “We would say they had ‘beginners’ minds.’ That allows them to see things anew, and that is the fresh, engaging part of the film, seeing all the wonder of the world through their eyes.”

The road-trip theme brings back memories of a comparative literature course on Western civilization DeMicco took from then-USC professor Nancy Vickers more than two decades ago.

“That class was great because it was all about journeys. We watched Apocalypse Now then read Dante’s Inferno; the great epic poems, The Iliad, The Odyssey, then saw movies with the same structure.”

Familiarizing himself with concepts such as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and learning about the shared structure that runs through all great literature was invaluable in shaping DeMicco’s storytelling skills. “I realized there are steps that happen. That was eye-opening.”

These lessons helped pave the way for the writing and structuring of The Croods. “Our movie is a journey film,” DeMicco said. “The steps are the resurrection, crossing the first threshold, the journey into the new world.”

 


“The cavemen are the only characters we’ve ever worked with who are without guile,” said DeMicco, paying tribute to the inherent sweetness of his prehistoric heroes. “They’re innocent, like babies. I love that they don’t have ulterior motives.” Croods photo courtesy of Dreamworks Animation.

The movie begins by showing the strained relationship between Grug (voiced by Nicholas Cage), the archetypal over-protective father whose mission in life is to keep his family safe by any means necessary, and Eep (voiced by Emma Stone), Grug’s rebellious teenage daughter who feels trapped inside the family cave. Then along comes Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), a handsome young caveman graced with a superior intellect.

Guy’s innovative ideas pique Eep’s curiosity, but challenge Grug’s traditional ways.

By swapping a fear of technology, which had been the creators’ original focus of the story, for a more universal fear — the fear of change — the writers hit upon a way to transcend cultural and generational barriers.

“You can understand the fear of technology intellectually, but no one really believes it. Everyone seems to love their iPhones, so it’s kind of a false argument. But no father in the world is going to say, ‘I look forward to the day my daughter brings home her first boyfriend,’” DeMicco said. “Everyone fears that. It’s the emotional part of change, and no matter what their age, everyone can identify with that.”

DeMicco admits to having a particularly soft spot for Grug, whose motto in the movie is, “Never not be afraid.”

“That’s not just a line in the film, it’s pretty much my lifestyle choice, especially where emergency preparedness is concerned,” the filmmaker confessed.

So how does he cope with the universal fear that all writers face, the terror of the blank page?

DeMicco credits iconic British comedian John Cleese, with whom he wrote early Croods scripts, and who lectures on creativity at Cornell University, with showing him the foolproof method of creating a “mind map” by writing down all ideas on a huge piece of blotter paper. “The good thing about that system is that you have the terror of the blank page only once, and then you never have it again. When you come back each day, you’ve got a big piece of paper and there’s something on it. Then when it comes to structure, you already have this quarry of ideas to mine.”

As a 7-year-old growing up in late 1970s suburbia in Franklin Lakes, N.J., DeMicco made Super-8 movies with his Star Wars figures. He loved Roald Dahl’s novels and watching Cleese’s British TV comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and was a fan of all things Hanna-Barbera, as well as the physical comedy style of Looney Tunes, particularly the Road Runner cartoons. “I was always messing around with stories,” DeMicco said. “I knew I wanted to make movies even when I was a kid. That’s why I came to USC.”

Bitten by the travel bug, the USC Dornsife undergraduate spent his junior year at the University of Canterbury in Kent, England, where he joined a film club, before returning to USC to double major in economics and political science, the two subjects — along with film — that he remains passionate about today.

Reflecting on his decision to pursue a liberal arts degree rather than go to film school, DeMicco said: “I was convinced by a couple of professors, including professor Vickers, that a broad-based liberal arts undergraduate education would serve me well. I think a liberal arts education gives you a base to reflect critically and creatively on the world around you. And in my dreams, I’d really like to be the host of a political comedy show.”

However, once he graduated DeMicco returned to his first love, spending three years in Rome as a journalist on the Italian film publication Foreign Sales.

Returning to the United States, he landed a coveted job in the mailroom of the legendary William Morris Agency in New York City. He was soon promoted to agent’s assistant in the motion picture department and transferred to the company’s Los Angeles office in 1994. Just six months later he sold his first spec screenplay, A Day in November, to Warner Bros., after a bidding war.

Since then, DeMicco has worked with some of his childhood heroes and adapted his favorite works to film. In addition to collaborating with Cleese on an adaptation of Dahl’s novel The Twits, he worked on a Hanna-Barbera cartoon and a Looney Tunes movie for Warner Bros., adapted the Jack Kirby comic New Gods, and collaborated with filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld on an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel. He also joined forces with Sonnenfield as a first-time director on the animated film Space Chimps. He was writer and co-producer of Racing Stripes for Warner Bros., Sherlock Homeboy for Universal Family, Hong Kong Phooey for Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment, and Casper: Scare School for Classic Media.

DeMicco believes an important part of being a director is building a creative environment where everyone — actors and artists — feels comfortable experimenting and suggesting ideas. Keen to share kudos with the 385-strong DreamWorks Animation team that worked on The Croods, he related how at times the artists drove the creative process.

In possibly the movie’s most moving scene, Grug, at that point separated from his family and unsure he will ever see them again, lovingly paints their portraits on a cave wall.

“Chris and I were looking at a cave painting one of the artists had drawn and we said, ‘That’s it, this is the iconic image.’ We wrote toward there. We strove to get that in. That’s totally different from any other way of working — it was inspired by the visuals.”

“The coolest part of writing and working in animation is that the visuals inspire the writing and the writing drives the visuals,” DeMicco said.

Coming from a director who shares Grug’s mantra of fear, The Croods has a remarkably upbeat ending.

“I wouldn’t have worked on this movie for as long as I did had I not felt like I was emotionally connected to this story of a guy who cares about his family in every frame of the film,” DeMicco said. “Grug learns the biggest lesson of all is just to accept other people’s changes.”

In the movie’s most dramatic scene, Grug has to literally throw what he values most — his family — into the unknown, and simply trust. By making that leap of faith, he embraces optimism and hope. And his mantra finally changes to reflect that personal transformation.

“That’s what I’m working toward,” said DeMicco of his pessimistic alter ego’s cosmic shift in outlook. “Making this movie has been a long therapy session for me.” It’s said lightly, with a laugh, but there is clearly more than a grain of truth in his words.

“You have to believe there is an answer and the solution is out there and be patient,” he said. “You have to be optimistic to be creative.” 

Read more articles from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring/Summer 2013 issue