“It’s a very bizarre take on a hero’s journey….an outrageous, anything-goes animated movie about the raunchy life of our food.”
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have been the masterminds behind some of the world’s most outrageous, inventive, and hilarious comedies – from Superbad to Pineapple Express to This Is the End to The Interview. Now, they go into the world of animation for Columbia Pictures and Annapurna Pictures’ Sausage Party, the world’s first R-rated CG animated comedy, about a group of supermarket products on a quest to discover the truth about their existence and what really happens when they become chosen to leave the grocery store.
“There’s an old tradition in animated films – especially the CG ones – about the secret life of the things around us,” says Goldberg. “We’ve seen cars, we’ve seen toys… we love all of those movies. And eventually we realized there’s an extremely comedic version of it in the secret life of food.”
“It’s a very bizarre take on a hero’s journey,” says Rogen. “More than any of our other movies, it allows that structure of the outcast who has a call to release the masses from their shackles. We could do a movie with these incredibly structural ideas – and at the same time, a lot of insane stuff happens.”
The film began its conception back in 2008 as one of the first three projects at Point Grey. There was the film that became This Is the End, the hit comedy that took in over $100 million; the film that became 50/50, the critically acclaimed comedy-drama; and Sausage Party, the outrageous, anything-goes animated movie about the raunchy life of our food.
“The concept of the movie was ‘what if sausages could live out their dreams of getting in buns?’” says executive producer Kyle Hunter, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
“It’s about a sausage, Frank, that’s in love with a bun named Brenda,” says Shaffir. “They believe they’re going to get ‘chosen’ to leave the store together, and getting out of the store is their version of what they believe to be heaven. But then Frank overhears a product who has actually been out of the store, who says it’s not what everyone thinks – it’s actually terrible, more akin to going to hell. They fall out of the shopping cart instead of getting chosen, and Frank goes on a journey to find out the truth about what actually happens.”
Hunter says that while the plot itself was loaded with laughs, they also looked for comedy to come through in the style, tone, structure and form of the screenplay. “We looked at some of our favorite animated movies and then put a real subversive twist on it,” he says. “We wanted it to look and feel like the animated movies you know, but with horrible things coming out of these characters’ mouths.”
Hunter and Shaffir also did their own research as well. “We went to a supermarket, just browsing together – ‘Should we use this? How about that?!” recalls Shaffir.
To direct the film, Rogen initially approached Conrad Vernon in late 2009. Vernon had recently directed the animated hit Monsters vs. Aliens, in which Rogen voiced a role. “Seth called me out of the blue,” he recalls. “He sat me down and said, ‘What do you think about doing an R-rated animated feature?’ And it’s something I have wanted to do since I was 13 years old and I saw the trailer for the movie Heavy Metal. I only had to wait 30 years to be offered the opportunity to do it.”
As his directorial partner, Vernon brought in Greg Tiernan, who is the co-owner along with wife and producer Nicole Stinn, of Nitrogen Studios, the Vancouver animation studio that was the home of Sausage Party. “Conrad and I had worked together years ago on a Ralph Bakshi movie Cool World, which was sort of a pseudo-adult movie – it was PG-13,” says Tiernan.
Tiernan, who hails from Ireland, said he was intrigued by the project not just because it was funny, but because it was a chance to work in animation for adults – a genre that has much more exposure in world cinema than in the US, where animation is mostly family fare. “The ‘South Park’ guys had obviously made a good stab at it, but nobody else has done it on a large scale – and there’s no reason why that should be. In Europe and Asia, there’s a much more free-and-easy attitude toward animation, and I’ve worked on adult animation projects before – but none that saw the light of day in North America.”
When the Point Grey team brought the film to Annapurna Pictures’ Megan Ellison, who stepped in to make the film a reality, Annapurna teamed up with Columbia Pictures as co-financier and distributor. “She agreed to give us the budget to do a proof of concept,” executive producer James Weaver recalls, giving a little insight into how the Sausage gets made.
“There was no pitch – there was the movie,” says Goldberg. “We had spent our own money, and Megan spent a bunch of her own money before there was a commitment for distribution, because we all believed in it so much and wanted it made so badly. We were able to shop it with a script, directors, animation studio, and cast.”
Weaver says that although the film is most definitely rated R and delivers what adult audiences are looking for from a comedy, Sausage Party is also more than one joke. “It’s everything audiences love about animation – it has real heart and unforgettable characters,” he says. “We just added a super-funny layer for grown-ups.”
A film in good taste
In creating the R-rated comedy, finding what Vernon calls “the line of taste” was a constant discussion. “That line moved all over the place,” he says. “We would step over it, and then we wouldn’t be going far enough…”
But, says Tiernan, pushing the envelope came naturally, because for an animator, it’s just what you do. “In animation, you always want to push – whether it’s the story or the execution of the animation – because it’s always easier to pull back,” says Tiernan. “We had that ingrained in us from the first day we were in the animation business. Don’t censor yourself, because other people will do it for you.”
Still, as the directors, they did have to be responsible for making sure that on balance, the film delivered as an entertaining movie experience. “We had to be careful that the movie wasn’t just about shock value,” says Tiernan. “That was never the intent – it was supposed to have heart and soul and be a great story. We could go as far as we wanted, but we always had to ask, ‘OK, is it funny? What’s it adding to the story?’”
One of the places that the filmmakers decided to push was in the character design of Brenda. “Everyone howled when they first saw the design,” says Vernon. “Our character designer, Craig Kellman, popped that vertical mouth in there – he’s not one to hold back. I took that over with a bunch of other designs to Seth and Evan and they were flipping through – ‘cool, cool, cool’ – and then it was just laughter and ‘Oh my God.’ Finally, there was one point where we asked ourselves, should we really be doing this? Can people relate to her if she has a vertical mouth? And Megan Ellison said, ‘If you don’t do a vertical mouth, I’m not making this movie.’”
As comedic as the movie is, it also has a scope that the directors brought to the entire film. “We wanted to make this movie as big, cinematic, and glorious as possible,” says Vernon. “Not only does it contrast beautifully with the subject matter, but we wanted people to feel like they had to see it in the theater.”
With that in mind, the directors were inspired not only by other animated movies, but big, epic live-action films of the past. “All along, the approach was to make this like a live-action movie that happened to be animated,” says Tiernan. “Other than Conrad and I, everybody involved in getting this movie off the ground had no animation experience. They came at it from a live-action movie perspective, which was really fresh for us.”
Vernon continues, regarding the filmmakers’ inspirations, “For the Mexican aisle, we went straight to Sergio Leone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, High Plains Drifter, Once Upon a Time in the West… we looked at the way those movies are huge and cinematic. We looked at Jackie Chan’s old kung fu movies, because they’re all shot beautifully. And of course, Saving Private Ryan was a no-brainer for us. Everything we did, we tried to reference from a point of view, of cinema scope, of huge vision.”
One of the challenges of Sausage Party was for the animators to deliver a CG-animated movie that had a look, quality, and feel that could stand alongside any other animated movie in the marketplace, but one that could work on the economics of an adults-only comedy. “On most animated movies, if something doesn’t work, they can go back and reanimate it – they can just change it,” says Goldberg. “Initially, the plan was that we couldn’t do that – we had to nail it really well in the script. And we still didn’t stick to it.”
So the animators found ways to make it work. “All of the characters are jars and boxes – there’s not a lot of hair, which takes a long time,” notes Vernon. “There’s not a lot that you need to do to make these things animate believably. There are hundreds of products on the shelves – so we made sure our rigs were scalable, and we could use maybe eight different rigs for 500 different characters. That kind of choice gave us the room to go back and tweak. And you’d never know – we have friends who are animators who watch the movie and ask, ‘How the hell are you getting this kind of quality for the budget you have?’ And the answer was, Greg’s studio, Nitrogen.”
One more way that Sausage Party pays homage to the animated movies that came before it was in the hiring of Alan Menken to co-score (with Christopher Lennertz) the film and write the music for a song. An eight-time Oscar® winner and 19-time nominee, Menken has brought memorable music to such family classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Enchanted, and Tangled.
And now Sausage Party? Maybe it’s not as offbeat a choice as it seems – after all, Menken (along with his late partner, Howard Ashman) was also behind the subversive classic Little Shop of Horrors.
“He actually came to us with several different songs,” says Vernon. “It was incredible, the number of songs he gave us – all of them great songs, by the way. And then, we were listening to one of them, and we just went, ‘That’s the one.’ Because of one word: longing. It felt like they were singing about something they were longing for – you can feel it in their hearts that they were so happy that someday they were going to go out those doors.”
To Menken’s melody, the lyrics were written by Oscar® and Tony Award nominee Glenn Slater, along with Rogen, Goldberg, Shaffir and Hunter.
“The song is kind of like a prayer that outlines their belief system,” says Rogen. “The food sings this song every morning to reaffirm the thought that it’s good to get chosen. As it turns out, the firewater and the other non-perishables wrote the song, because they were so bummed out about the truth and didn’t think there was anything they could do about it.”