Rob Letterman talks Gulliver’s Travels

Jack Black’s comic retelling of the classic children’s story, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, casts him as a present day corporate mail worker turned travel writer who’s knocked out in a boating mishap.  He wakes up and he’s a giant in a far off land where he’s forced to fight for freedom and love while being careful not to step on the citizens of Lilliput. 

Gulliver’s Travels is in the stores this week on Blu-ray and DVD. Rob Letterman’s film is a marvel of animation-based technology, solid storytelling and Jack Black’s epic funniness and we had the chance to speak with him.  

M&C: What is it about the Swift story that resonates today?

Letterman: I read it as a kid and took it literally, a guy wakes up and he’s big etc.  Later in life when I was more in tune with what Swift was trying to do, and its well documented, I realised it was a satirical and irreverent and scatological, and meant to  poke fun at the travel adventurer, making fun of Robinson Crusoe.  It was a silly farce. And everyone takes it so seriously! 

M&C: How did you come on board? 

Letterman: I was pursued it personally and then they hired me for it.  Jack was a producer with John Davis and they had a script and I got my hands on it.  I had loved Gulliver’s Travels and those old movies and the book when I was little.  I loved Jack and seemed like a great opportunity for me.   I went after it –ten meetings later I was hired for the job. 

M&C: You have done important animation film work.  How was the transfer to live action?

Letterman: It’s funny there is a lot that’s very similar when you’re developing the script and story boarding previews. You have all that in animation and after post production after the post production similar to animation. 

What was different was shooting. In animation you’re never on a set, which can be really nice. But I don’t know what it is but I loved the live action, the pace is fast and interacting and real time thing, and for a comedy its important capturing those moments, encouraging everyone to ad lib and improv and be together organically.

M&C: Jack Black seems to be the perfect choice, he’s mainstream enough for family audiences, but his wicked physical humour takes the film further.

Letterman: He really is hysterical!  He does know how to move his body to make people laugh.  A scene where they force him into hard labour, he has that crazy walk; I had nothing to do with that. He put the harness on, he says “Give me a second” and he starts walking around the set. 

I explained “They’re operating you like you’re a giant piece of equipment”, there are cameras on his knees and he took that literally and came up with that crazy walk. My son was one and a half when we were shooting and he was laughing really hard at Jack’s walk.

M&C: He has such a strong persona, so what was it like directing him?

Letterman: He is extremely collaborative and he’s a really nice guy in general.  He was so committed to the movie as a producer and he had a vested interest in it.  We rehearsed a lot of it together and spent time on weekends rehearsing and preparing for the next weeks’ worth of scenes, depending on Jack. 

He could never be in the same space as the other actors because he was a giant, so we had to figure it out. We played and worked to ensure that it would, we thought about his scenes with Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Peet and the rest. 

Even when he wasn’t shooting Jack showed up on set every single day and stood next to me with a loudspeaker and performed and reacted to the other actors and their improvisations.  

So later when he did his side, we gathered those moments and created it organically, as though they were in the scenes together.

M&C: Tell me some of the tech magic that went into the film.

Letterman: Gulliver is 120 feet tall in Lilliput so there’s an arsenal of tech that we used.  One was fantastic and it was invented for the movie, a dual camera system that allowed us to shoot two scenes and synch them together on one screen.  At the end for the song and dance routine, there is Jack and he’s tall and there are 250 extras dancing. 

He’d been rehearsing for months and had it all worked out.  We were on location at a naval academy in England, so what we wanted was to make sure the performance was happening with the other dancers in a limited time frame. 

There was a miniature set build 100 yards away that Jack was on, and the dual cameras synched with his mini cam and with the 250 dancing extras, it looked as though he was dancing with them and he was a giant. 

M&C: This is a pretty ambitious shoot just in terms of art direction and effects. But one actual thing – I think you had an actual miniature castle which really captured my imagination.

Letterman: We shot at Blenheim Palace near Oxford and it’s my favourite location.  When I saw it I realised its where Mel Brooks shot History of the World Part One, the chess game scenes.  And I thought “Oh my God we have to shoot there!”  We flew around it in helicopters and our miniature version was built with the exact measurements.   So Jack was able to interact with it as a giant. 

The helicopters captured the images on computer and moved it on to the control camera.  Teams of people worked on that.  But I couldn’t tell you what they did!!! 

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