“There are certain projects that stand out as unique and distinct, but specifically when you have a film of scale that aspires to do something different that hasn’t been done before — those projects are few and far between,” says producer Hutch Parker of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, based on the best-selling book series by Bernard Waber, featuring original songs written by the songwriting team behind The Greatest Showman and is directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon from a screenplay crafted by Will Davies.
A classic since its publication over 50 years ago, directors Speck and Gordon have been fans of the Lyle books since they were children. “It’s a great story with great architecture,” notes Speck. “Lyle comes into the lives of so many different people. Once you can get over the intimidation and the fantastical idea that this crocodile can communicate in a human way, he influences change, in a timeless and relatable way.”
“What’s great about Lyle is that it’s a bit of wish fulfillment,” says Will Speck. “It’s the pet that you wish you had. It’s the discovery you wish you had found in your attic.”
But more than that, it’s what Lyle stands for, says Gordon. “It’s the agent of change that comes in and fixes the things in your life that aren’t quite working, and brings joy and passion and music into your life.”
“Lyle is a great conduit for understanding that… your best version of your best self is when you’re sort of supported unconditionally, and that can be any shape, any form, any person, any gender,” adds Speck.
When the Primm family (Wu, Scoot McNairy, Winslow Fegley) moves to New York City, their young son Josh struggles to adapt to his new school and new friends. All of that changes when he discovers Lyle – a singing crocodile (Mendes) who loves baths, caviar and great music – living in the attic of his new home. The two become fast friends, but when Lyle’s existence is threatened by evil neighbor Mr. Grumps (Brett Gelman), the Primms must band together with Lyle’s charismatic owner, Hector P. Valenti (Bardem), to show the world that family can come from the most unexpected places and there’s nothing wrong with a big singing crocodile with an even bigger personality.
“It’s not just an adaptation of a beloved children’s book, or the realization of this unique iconic character, or a movie that features original music or choreography, or is equal parts live action and the creation of a CGI character, or that it aspires to ground the tone in something real and relatable that can also carry fantasy and whimsy. It’s the unique combination reflected in this project that has brought these people to the table and demanded everyone be on their A-game.” Hutch Parker.
It’s about a crocodile. That’s just cool.
“There’s something about becoming friends with an animal that has the capacity to eat you if it decides that you’ve said the wrong thing,” says screenwriter Will Davies, who – as a writer of How to Train Your Dragon – knows something about possibly lethal pets. “There’s something about the danger in that that’s really cool.”
Lyle isn’t just any crocodile. Baked into the DNA of the project is the fact that Lyle is a singing crocodile. “That came from the source material – Lyle was raised by a vaudevillian performer,” says Speck. “And it was a really exciting way to bring pop music into the narrative and make the film distinctive.”
There’s no better way to make a musical distinctive than to call upon the songwriting talents of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Oscar®, Tony, and Grammy Award-winning songwriters behind La Land, “Dear Evan Hansen,” The Greatest Showman, and many other breakthrough musicals of the past several years. “They’re doing something that really hasn’t been in the movies for a while, which is to write towering new works for the movies of musical theater,” says Speck. “They’re bringing music into movies in a unique, specific, incredible way. Ultimately, Benj and Justin are storytellers as much as we are or our screenwriter Will Davies is. Their songs elevate the project as they express all the excitement through the music.”
To that end, Speck and Gordon brought Pasek and Paul into the process very early – during the scriptwriting phase. “It’s like being at summer camp, when you’re all creating a show together,” says Pasek. He says that by working on the film during the script phase, they, along with Speck, Gordon, and Davies, could identify the emotional high points of the film and build those moments around a song, and vice versa. “We would decide, ‘We really want a song that Lyle is going to sing in this moment. How do we collectively get there?’” Pasek continues. “They had such passion and enthusiasm for this world. For Justin and me, getting to work with other people, to enter into that sacred space with them, is really fun and unlike any process that we’ve ever had before.”
To bring Lyle the singing crocodile to vocal life, the filmmakers tapped award-winning vocalist Shawn Mendes. He describes Lyle as a character driven by love. “He just wants to have a family, a home, and feel connected to people,” says Mendes, “and love is the reason I sing, too – I sing when I feel comfortable, when I feel accepted. I relate to him a lot.”
“Hearing your own voice come out of an animated character is such a weird experience,” Mendes continues. It can be a bit of an out-of-body experience to hear your voice coming out of a crocodile, he continues, but what he wasn’t expecting was how much the animators would capture of Mendes himself. “While I was singing in the studio, the animators were filming my facial expressions, and then animating Lyle to make similar facial expressions that I was making.”
In the lead on-camera roles, Speck and Gordon cast Oscar® winner Javier Bardem as the magician Hector P. Valenti, Lyle’s owner, who is forced to leave his beloved pet in a New York brownstone, alongside Constance Wu, Scoot McNairy, and Winslow Fegley as the Primm family, who find Lyle when they move in.
What to say about Hector P. Valenti. “He’s a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a con man,” says Gordon.
“He’s got a gigantic showbiz dream,” says screenwriter Will Davies. “He thinks of himself as a huge star of stage and screen, which is how he introduces himself. But the truth is, he’s not quite good enough to do it.”
A magician who makes his living by showing off Lyle’s incredible vocal skills, Hector becomes a fully realized character in Bardem’s portrayal, according to Speck. “The role has a lot of humor in it, but he comes at the character with a sophisticated approach and not just going for a joke,” says Speck. “In developing the character, Javier really found a full life, all of these idiosyncratic choices that make him completely unique.”
And then there’s Lyle. The filmmakers decided that Lyle would be a character with plenty to say, but who cannot speak – he can only express himself through music and physical gestures. “It’s in how his eyes move, his tail’s personality, how he uses his physical space – Lyle’s humor shines through,” says Speck. “He’s a towering, very intimidating creature, but also radiates warmth, whether he’s breaking your heart or singing Stevie Wonder.”
Part of the fabric of the story is that Lyle is a born-and-bred New Yorker. In the books, he and the Primms visit iconic Big Apple locations from Central Park to Tiffany’s to Bloomingdale’s to Times Square. “For us, New York was really a big character in the movie, so it was very important to shoot there and to capture the timeless vision of the city that’s such an important part of the books,” says Gordon.
Pasek and Paul Join with Top Songwriters to Help a Singing Crocodile Express Himself
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are among the most successful songwriters of their generation. They were immediately captured by the magic of the project and the fact that they felt it was perfect material for a musical. “All of these characters collide on their paths and change each other,” says Paul. “This crocodile brings their lives so much joy, and color, and vibrancy, and they also change him in unexpected ways – ways he’s needing. And it’s all done through music – it’s music that Lyle brings to their lives, literally and figuratively. It’s how they connect, how they open up to feel vulnerable, to feel celebratory, to feel understood by someone. For us as songwriters, it’s a total joy to write songs where you’re unlocking a character’s true, human heart.”
But when that character is a singing crocodile? That’s perfect too, says Pasek. “Any time you hear a person bursting out into song in a musical, you’re leaving the world of reality behind,” says Pasek. “When you’re watching a crocodile with a voice and a heart of gold – a crocodile who can literally only express himself through song – you suddenly have permission to untether from reality.”
In pitching the project to the songwriting duo, the directors Speck and Gordon were able to offer Pasek and Paul a chance to become involved much earlier in the process than they usually are – and to help shape the story of the musical comedy around the songs that they would write.
With Pasek and Paul involved very early in the script stage, they got a sense of what the directors were aiming for with the story. “A song should not be an arbitrary choice. A song shouldn’t appear out of nowhere, with nothing leading up to it,” says Speck. “What Benj and Justin were able to do, as storytellers, was seamlessly thread into the narrative why somebody has to sing at that moment. What is it about this song that’s going to influence and change the characters?”
For Shawn Mendes, who would lend his pipes to Lyle, singing the work of Pasek and Paul brought to the fore the way that gifted songwriters can make the songs of a musical work a dual purpose, building on each other as part of a cohesive whole and also providing a discrete, joyful experience. “When you watch one of their movies or shows, you’re digesting the entire thing at once, and you may not realize just how smart they are,” says Mendes. “You don’t realize how complex and how beautiful these songs are, how lyrically astonishing they are, and how much effort they put into them. But when you’re in the recording studio, going through the songs, it’s an eye-opening experience.”
To ensure that the songs would weave together a wide range of experiences and emotional threads, Pasek and Paul recruited top songwriters Joriah Kwamé, Emily Gardner Xu Hall, Mark Sonnenblick, and Arianna Asfar to collaborate with them on each of the songs. “Getting the opportunity to work with other songwriters is one of the best parts of our job. We learn so much from these new experiences and relationships. Plus, we’re just huge fans of each of them. It was a thrill to work together, to bang ideas back and forth, and to come out with songs that feel truly unique and truly Lyle,” say Pasek and Paul.
Will Speck and Josh Gordon (Directors / Producers), collectively known as Speck and Gordon, are the directing team behind such movies as Blades of Glory, The Switch, and Office Christmas Party.
As veteran commercial directors, their work has won everything from Grand Clios to British Gold Arrows and over twenty Cannes Lions. They are founding directors at Santa Monica- and London-based Furlined, which was named Commercial Production Company of the Year at the One Show and as one of the top production companies in the world by Campaign Magazine. Their work in short form content has been nominated for both Academy Awards® and Emmys. In the television space, Speck & Gordon have directed episodes of “Flaked” for Netflix and are executive producing the upcoming A24 LGBTQ thriller Silverlake starring Zachary Quinto. Most recently, they created, executive produced and directed “Hit Monkey,” starring Jason Sudeikis and Olivia Munn, for Marvel and Hulu, which is slated to start its second season.
Will Davies (Screenplay by) was born and raised in England and educated at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania and Cambridge University. After a career in journalism, he began writing screenplays, winning Annie Awards in 2007 and 2011 for his work on Flushed Away and How to Train Your Dragon. He was co-creator with Rowan Atkinson of Man vs. Bee for Netflix, and of the Johnny English movies for Universal. Other credits include Puss in Boots, Twins, and the Emmy-winning “Letter for the King.”
Bernard Waber (Based on the Books by) was the beloved author-illustrator of more than thirty picture books, including Courage, Ira Sleeps Over, and Do You See a Mouse? With the publication of The House on East 88th Street in 1962, his Lyle, Lyle Crocodile series of books became a mainstay of children’s literature and was adapted for both stage and screen. A Literary Landmark plaque commemorating the adventures of this endearing New York City reptile can now be found on East 88th Street.