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It’s a Jungle out there: A Conversation with Carlos Saldanha

Rio 2
04 August 2014

It’s a jungle out there for Blu, Jewel and their three kids in RIO 2, after they venture from that magical city into the wilds of the Amazon for a family reunion. Out of his element in a land he doesn’t know, Blu must face his most fearsome adversary – his father in law – while evading Nigel’s fiendish plans for revenge.  All your favorite RIO characters are back, and they’re joined by Oscar® nominee Andy Garcia, Grammy® winner Bruno Mars, Tony® winner Kristin Chenoweth and Oscar/Emmy®/Tony winner Rita Moreno.  RIO 2 also features new Brazilian artists and original music by Janelle Monae and Wondaland.

Carlos Saldanha is a Brazilian director of animated films who works with Blue Sky Studios. He directed Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009), Rio (2011), and was the co-director of Ice Age (2002) and Robots (2005). His latest film is Rio 2, in which his memorable heroes head out into the Amazon jungle…



When did you know that you would make another Rio movie?

The idea came very soon after the first movie. Nowadays, when you decide to do a sequel you have to make them fairly fast. I didn’t want to think about it while making the first one, but the minute the movie came out and was a success I was already prepared for them to pop the question. And sure enough I was asked and I was lucky enough to have already a story in my head. I pitched it and they liked it. The biggest challenge was that I had to write the script and execute the movie so that it was ready before the World Cup! 


Does making a sequel give you the chance to shoot things that you wanted to include the first movie but couldn’t?

Yes and the soccer scene is the clearest example, something that I wanted to do in the first movie but wasn’t able to, because I didn’t plan ahead with the story and therefore couldn’t find a natural spot. I consciously put the soccer scene in this movie. It was one of the first set pieces I had in my head and when I wrote it I had to make sure that I wrote around it as well. 


Were you always going to set the film in the Amazon jungle?

I had a huge curiosity about the Amazon. Even though I am from Brazil and grew up there, I had never been to the Amazon. For us, the Amazon is far away. If you live in London it’s like you have to go to Moscow, which is quite a trek. But since I was a kid I have always had a fascination with it. I have always been into environmental things and am an animal lover. So when I was thinking about where to take [lead characters] Blu and Jewel, I thought the Amazon might be a cool place. I entertained the idea of going to another city but I thought it might look similar to Rio in some aspect and that I’d be doing the same movie. The music would be comparable. But the Amazon would be different from that and I could introduce new sounds and rhythms. I didn’t have to be bound by a region.


The Amazon must be a treasure-trove when you’re looking for new sounds and rhythms?

We explored a lot of birds in the first movie and in this one we do explore a lot of birds, but it’s more about the same kinds of birds, because Blu and Jewel find more of their kind. It allowed me to put in lots of other animals though, like anteaters and poisonous frogs, and sloths. It was fun to do that.


Did you head off into the jungle yourself for research purposes?

I did. I did! The first thing I thought about was going to the jungle. I booked a trip. I went with my kids, telling them we’d have a jungle adventure. Everyone was terrified, worrying about bugs and piranhas and alligators and stuff like that. But we were all surprised because it was one of the best trips we’ve made as a family. We had the best time. We didn’t expect it to be so daunting and so vast. It is like coming from the country and going to the big city for the first time, but when you’re from the city going to the jungle it’s even more extreme!


Was there anything from that trip that sticks in the memory and which influenced Rio 2?

Everything has an impact and I jammed everything I felt into this movie — being with the pink dolphins, seeing alligators, fishing piranhas and climbing trees. We climbed an Amazon tree and once you get to the canopies you discover this side of the forest that you are not used to seeing. You see all the colours and beauty and the life that happens above the canopy. That was one of the most enlightening and amazing experiences we had. 


Why do Blu and Jewel head off into the jungle?

They need to perpetuate their species, which they cannot do if it’s just the two of them and their kids. They need to find more of their kind, especially if I want to keep telling these stories, which I do!  For me, I always loved family dynamics and relationships and there’s always that thing about what it’s like to be with the in-laws. Lots of people go through that and find it relatable. That’s how this story begins. At first it was going to be Blu’s family but then we thought it’d be funnier if it were Jewel’s family and Blu had to try and fit in. Those are the experiments we do when we write the movie that allow us to shape the story the way we want to.


Can you give a snapshot of the new characters that we meet in the film?

The main characters that are new include Eduardo, who is Jewel’s father; Aunt Mimi; Gabi, the poisonous frog who is Nigel’s sidekick. She is great and she’s in love with Nigel and will do anything for him. She is like a groupie who is in love with a rock star! But it’s an impossible love with her being a frog and the fact that she is poisonous! So that is a funny, impossible relationship. I love it when she vows her love for him. There is the anteater, Charlie, who is a pantomime character. He doesn’t talk but he is fun to watch. We have Roberto, an old friend who makes Blu jealous, because he is handsome and musical and has everything that Blu doesn’t have.


Did Jesse Eisenberg perfectly match your vision for Blu or did Jesse’s quickfire delivery help dictate the character?

It was a little bit of both. The character was created with a Jesse-like personality but I didn’t originally write him for Jesse. He just sounded a bit like him. And Jesse wasn’t very well known back then on the first Rio movie — this was before the Facebook movie [The Social Network] came out! We were looking for a new, upcoming voice who could give us this vibe. Blu was a very difficult character to cast and nothing really clicked when we began looking. When Jesse delivered his first line, though, I knew he was Blu.


It must be great to have a star like Anne Hathaway voicing Jewel in these films?

Anne was the first person we ever cast because Anne has pathos and I wanted someone with good acting chops and at the same time could sing. I wanted her to have a singing role. This was before Les Mis but I knew that she could sing because of other stuff she’s done before. She has this likeable personality and a feisty energy that I love. 



Did you feel as though you had to eclipse the musical set pieces from the original movie?

In the first movie I had so many challenges — I had to show Rio and get people to accept it. And musically too I tried to go into things that people would understand and connect to. And being set in Rio we explore Rio rhythms like samba and bossa nova. With the second film, I didn’t feel as though I had the pressure of selling Brazil or Rio, because that was already sold with the first movie. So that gave me a little bit more freedom to go beyond Rio into different rhythms. With the help of Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown, we tried to have a lot of fun. I think the music in this movie is freer and more fun. This film is a new experience, musically.


Does the success of the first film put you under pressure when you make a sequel?

The first one had pressure of making something that people would accept; the pressure with the second one is the fact that you have the make it even better!


When you made the first film, you initially wanted to tell a penguin story. But why, when you changed animal, did you settle on the macaw?

The story is about a ‘one of a kind.’ When it was going to be a penguin, it would have been the only penguin in Rio. I am involved with environment stuff and in Brazil I looked for the rarest bird and it turned out to be the blue Spix’s macaw. That was already in the first draft. The penguin was interacting with a blue macaw and so I thought if I removed the penguin maybe I could elevate the secondary character. So that what’s I did. I definitely wanted to get a fish-out-of-water story going, though, so is Blu born in America and is smuggled out of the US and only then does he come and find his roots in Brazil. 


Did you have to think long and hard about how to stylize your birds to make them look appealing on screen?

Yes, because birds overall are tricky. If you don’t stylize them, by putting their eyes out front, it is difficult to get them to emote. I wanted them to feel fairly realistic. I worked with amazing designers and when they came to life we felt very happy with them. I wanted the bird to look cute but awkward. Blu is a hybrid of different designs. Even in the macaw world he is a hybrid of different species to make him look different and cute.


Do you hope that an environmental message comes through your film?

Very much so. The movie’s bad guys are trying to destroy their habitat and so there is a big message there. It’s not the main message but it’s there and the kids will come out with that in mind. You don’t destroy what’s there. It’s about preservation. The other big theme is that family is important – family being united and together and making decisions together, no matter how difficult. Once you embrace the family dynamic you feel protected. 


You have a wonderful personal enemy for Blu, returning in the form of Nigel. What makes a great villain like him?

Nigel is Blu’s personal enemy. He is the more relatable personal villain, while the people destroying the habitat are everyone’s villain. Here it is a lot about Jemaine Clement [who voices Nigel]. I wanted the character to be very over the top. I didn’t want him to be a straightforward villain. I wanted him to have something special that the other villains don’t have. He is a bad guy but he has pathos and you feel for him. He is there because something bad happened to him. There is something likeable about him and that makes the best kind of villain for me. Nigel is 90 per cent Jermaine Clement. What he brings transforms the character into what he is. With a different actor it would not be the same.


You have done so well with the Ice Age films. Why do you think they’ve been so popular in cinemas and on DVD?

I think we worked really hard to get good characters who people watch on the screen and relate to. They are not throwaway characters. In the first one you had the Scrat, which everyone loved and talk about, but you care for Sid and Diego and everyone. As we continued to make sequels we always created new characters that were memorable. For me, movies are about personalities and characters as much as the stories you want to tell and if you don’t care about them you don’t want to know about their stories. When I thought about Rio, it was the same. It was about the characters’ journeys. If you create a memorable character, like Nigel or Gabi the frog, people will respond.


Is Gabi your secret weapon in this film? She is a great character… 

I think so. She is deliciously evil. She is a different kind of Nigel. Nigel with a dress! It was another delicious casting success with Kristen [Chenoweth]. 


What were some of the cartoons and animations that were important to you as a child?

Most of them were international because people of my generation grew up with the Disney movies, so things like Dumbo and Bambi were very strong for me. To me, it felt as though they created not only beautiful-looking films but also characters that you remember and care for. That was one of the first lessons I learned when watching cartoons. Also, because I grew up with TV before cable, I loved the Hanna-Barbera cartoons and Loony Tunes and Wile E. Coyote because of the fast pacing and the wit of the non-talking characters. And I was a big fan of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In a way, that was my first encounter with funny, pantomime animation. For me, that felt like watching an animated movie, even though it was live action, with the exaggerations and all the fast-paced fun!


When were you first aware that the dynamic was changing between hand-drawn and computer animation?

I thought it really started to happen in the early 1990s when we started to see things happening with Toy Story. That was the beginning of the change, where you saw that you could move out of the formula of traditional, Disney 2D animation and into a computer world. I think people saw for the first time that a computer could be warm. There used to be this thing about computer imagery being a little cold and metallic but Toy Story came to prove that it could be warm and cosy, and cool at the same time. I think that was the beginning of the change and I was right into that wave of change because that is when I started to animate. For me, there was never 2D, because I could never draw well enough to do a 2D movie! The computer became my canvas, my brush and paint. I found the tools that worked for my creative process and therefore that’s where I blossomed. Luckily, CG computer movies became big and I was able to fly in that environment.



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