Igor: An Independent Spirit

Janet Hetherington chats with producer Max Howard about Igor, the new animated feature whose protagonist is as independent as the company that made him.

The script for Igor, an homage to the classic monster movies, attracted A-list talent like Steve Buscemi and John Cusak. ™ & © 2008 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All rights reserved.

Producer Max Howard is pumped about Igor. As president of Exodus Film Group, an independent production company formed in 2001 -- one that created one of the first private equity animation film funds -- Howard was thrilled to see his "baby" premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater on September 13, 2008.

"Almost everyone turned out for the premiere," Howard says. "It was wonderful. We were pinching ourselves."

That's because Igor's star-power voice cast includes John Cusack as Igor, Steve Buscemi as Scamper, John Cleese as Dr. Glickenstein, Jennifer Coolidge as Heidi and Jaclyn, Sean Hayes as Brain, Eddie Izzard as Dr. Schadenfreude, Christian Slater as Dr. Schadenfreude's Igor, Molly Shannon as Eva, Jay Leno as King Malpert, Arsenio Hall as Carl Cristall and James Lipton as himself.

How easy was it to attract such A-list talent? "We sent them the script," Howard says. "Steve Buscemi signed on very early, and he's an 'actor's actor.' Then others signed on... it just took off that way."

The script for Igor, by Chris McKenna (American Dad), tells the story of a hunchbacked independent spirit. Igor is sick of being a lowly lab assistant with a "Yes Master's" degree and dreams of becoming a scientist. When his nasty master dies a week before the annual Evil Science Fair, Igor gets his chance. With the help of two of his experimental creations -- Brain (a brain in a jar who is actually a little light on brains), and Scamper (a cynical bunny brought back from being road kill) -- Igor embarks on building the most evil invention of all time -- a huge, ferocious monster. Unfortunately, instead of turning out evil, the monster turns out to be Eva, a giant aspiring actress who would never hurt anyone.

"Igor is really an homage to the classic monster movies," Howard says. "It was inspired by Frankenstein, but it's not a scary movie. Igor builds a monster, but she's really a lovely monster."

The 86-minute, PG-rated film was directed by award-winning animation veteran Tony Leondis (Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch). Exodus Film Group CEO John D. Eraklis produced along with Howard, who has collaborated on such animated blockbusters as Disney's The Lion King and Aladdin, and Warner Bros.' Space Jam and The Iron Giant.

Despite Igor's impressive pedigree, Howard contends that this film is a smaller, independent production. "We're not aspiring to be Pixar or Disney," Howard says. "We're more like Juno. I'm hoping we'll be discovered."

That discovery appears to be underway. In fact, whenIgor opens on September 19 in North America, it will be on more screens than originally anticipated. "We'll be on 2,300 screens," Howard says. "We originally thought it would be 1,200 to 1,500 screens."

Igor in Paris
From the beginning, Exodus' goal has been to develop, produce, finance and distribute a multi-picture slate of CG-animated feature films, DVDs and television series. Igor is the first out of the gate, and it reflects a distinctive look, along with international handiwork.

Director Leondis found McKenna's slightly twisted take on a classic tale immediately intriguing. A lifelong fan of horror films, film noir and German expressionism, Leondis envisioned a world of Gothic romanticism that was creepy but accessible, and populated with characters and plot points reminiscent of classic Gothic novels -- realized with a strong visual take and generous amounts of humor.

Igor began his animated journey at Sparx* Animation Studios in Paris, France. Benefiting from its status as a former base for Disney Animation, Sparx* provided a pipeline of talent and an animation style that proved crucial to Leondis' vision. "I felt strongly that the look for this story needed to be very specific -- a desaturated palette with limited color -- a 'pushed' style that is not as common in the U.S.," Leondis says in production notes.

"The look has a puppet sensibility, but it is full animation," advises Howard.

Leading the design team at Sparx* was art director Olivier Besson, a French artist who was trained at Disney Paris and shared the same artistic sensibility as Leondis. At the beginning of the project, Besson met with Leondis and asked about his favorite artists, what movies he liked and what his style was. Once Besson felt that he had a feel for the style and mood that Leondis wanted to achieve, he began drawing ideas and inspiration from sources that he felt would be compatible with the director's vision -- including Rembrandt for lighting, photographer Brassaï for values (black, white and gray tones), and famed Disney colorist Mary Blair, for color.