You might not know writer/director Alex Zamm by name, but you’ve certainly seen his work.
Starting with the Carrot Top vehicle, Chairman of The Board, Zamm hasn’t stopped working, making films for television or the direct to video market, collaborating with some of Hollywood’s most recognizable character actors including Dabney Coleman, Vincent Schiavelli, Lacey Chabert, Fred Willard, George Wendt, French Stewart, Tom Cavanagh, Judge Reinhold, Morgan Fairchild, Rance Howard, Phil Lewis, Doris Roberts, Greg Germann, Jane Seymour and Larry The Cable Guy.
His latest film, Woody Woodpecker, brings the iconic animated character to life. Alex took some time to discuss the film, his role as a storyteller and potential upcoming projects.
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FOG!: This film originally premiered in Brazilian market where Woody Woodpecker is still a huge character. How did you get involved with the project?
Alex Zamm: I loved watching Woody Woodpecker cartoons growing up. With his manic impish nature, he was always my favorite troublemaker. I have a background in cartooning and have been heavily involved with special effects films for quite a few years. I also really enjoy making films with animals – they show us our humanity. I was looking for a new project that put all of these interests together.
Then one day, while watching a Woody Woodpecker cartoon I suddenly had the idea to star Woody in his first feature as a hybrid film, with Woody as a photo-realish, CGI character in a live action world.
To me he has always been one of the crown jewels of animation and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t have his own franchise – he’s lovable, irreverent, funny, timeless…and the technology had finally caught up to be able to pull this off.
My writing partner, William Robertson and I wrote up a very detailed treatment and I put together a visual tone book. We pitched the project to Universal’s Home Entertainment Division, 1440 Productions for whom I had just directed, a reboot of The Little Rascals. They loved the Woody pitch and committed to the project. It’s been the greatest honor to have the opportunity to adapt Walter Lantz’s wonderful creation to the screen. Throughout the entire making of the film, my team and I were committed to remaining true to the spirit of Woody’s character so that a whole new generation could fall in love with this terrific troublemaker too.
Were you a fan of Woody growing up? As one of the writers, were you tempted to bring in other Walter Lantz characters into the story?
I’m a huge fan of all of Walter Lantz’s body of work and all the character’s he helped create. It was very temping to put Winnie Woodpecker, Splinter and Knotthead into the film too, however building additional photo-real cgi cartoon characters was cost prohibitive. We ultimately decided it was better to save them for a sequel. The same goes for Chilly Willy, Andy Panda and Buzz Buzzard.
You’ve directed over 20 projects including one of my favorite Disney Channel movies, My Date with the President’s Daughter, as well as a number of direct to video sequels such as Inspector Gadget 2, Dr. Dolittle: Million Dollar Mutts, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, Tooth Fairy 2, The Little Rascals Save the Day and Jingle All the Way 2. What challenges as a storyteller do you have when creating a sequel for an established fanbase with a smaller budget, while maintaining your own vision?
When I come onboard to direct a sequel to an existing film or adapt a cartoon property, the key for me is digging deep to understand what is at the core of what made that first film or character successful and what the audience connected with. What’s the underlying myth, wish fulfillment, fear, or basic need that informs the DNA of the material?
Once I identify it, the effort of the entire filmmaking team is to support that DNA throughout the film.
And while we may have smaller budgets to work with on these sequels and may not be able to afford the same level of spectacle as the first films, these sequels always hold their own when it comes to character, comedy and theme. I believe this helps give the films the illusion of greater scale than they actually have. Whether it’s an original film, a sequel or a reboot, there’s always a personal point of view and core idea that I’m able to infuse into the work.
This past holiday season, Netflix trolled it’s own viewers who watched your 2017 film, A Christmas Prince. How do you maintain a sense of humor in the film industry?
I was thrilled with all the press surrounding A Christmas Prince and it was one of Netflix’s most successful original films ever worldwide.
To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?
— Netflix US (@netflix) December 11, 2017
That said, I tend to not read reviews, positive or negative. Instead, I just like to focus on the work and on telling stories that entertain people. Keeping a sense of humor is key to survival in both the film industry and any line of work. Equally important is keeping things in perspective — In the entertainment industry we entertain; we’re not curing diseases…but then again, laughter can be a great form of preventative medicine.
You’ve directed test shorts for Hong Kong Phooey and Marvin The Martian. Are these still in development? Is there a sequel to Woody Woodpecker in the works?
Hong Kong Phooey, the crime-fighting dog is one of my other all-time favorite cartoon characters.
That project has Eddie Murphy attached and is still in development. Marvin is sadly not in development at this time. But I hope that one comes back around – Marvin is a great character who should have his own feature film. I’d love to do a sequel to Woody and we already have a really fun idea for it.
Do you have a dream project and or collaborator?
Yes, I have a dream project, but I can’t talk about it yet. Stay tuned…it’s a fun one. And there are just so many incredible collaborators I’d love to work with it’s impossible to name just one.
What are you currently geeking out over?
For movies, I loved The Darkest Hour and The Florida Project. Both amazing films that couldn’t be more different than one another. On television, I’m enjoying Rick and Morty and American Dad; both are always hysterically funny and always clever and surprising. For music, Chris Joss, D.J. Shadow, Air, Zero-7 – Chill music that inspires me while I write. For comics, The Complete Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Watterson’s work always reminds you how magical childhood is and should be. One of the best books ever about comedy is Sick In The Head by Judd Apatow. Video games, I enjoy Soda Crush, Words With Friends….and a little GTA. Finally, for theater, the moving, inspiring, beyond awesome Hamilton.
Woody Woodpecker will be available on DVD,Digital and Netflix on 2/6!