Henry Selick talks Netflix’s Wendell And Wild, the business of Jordan Peele and Afropunk

Thanks to a perfect storm of creativity and ambition, we have Wendell and Wildethe latest gem of stop motion animation from director Henry Selick.

A collaboration with Jordan Peele that originally appeared before the first pitch Get out was even greenlit, it tells the story of a pair of scheming demon brothers who get a teenage girl to summon them to the Land of the Living. It’s a wild ride wrapped in stunning vision. Now streaming on Netflix
NFLX
.

I caught up with Selick to find out more about his first film since 2009 Coralinethe narrative influences of Afropunk and why securing a PG-13 rating was key.

Simon Thompson: Welcome back. It’s great that you’re running something like this again. Is it rude to ask what took so long?

Henry Selick: Not at all. Coraline it came out in 2009 and I had a follow-up project and spent a few years on it. It was named The Shadow King, but it didn’t work out in the end. There are always other factors that go into how a movie is supported or not by a studio, and this one was shelved. What made me see again Key and Peele show on Comedy Central. It started in 2012 and by 2015 I was so into the show that I contacted Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele because I happened to have an old story in my pocket. It was just seven pages, inspired by my sons when they were young and demonic, about two demon brothers. It was the show that inspired me to try making a movie again. This led to our meeting and Jordan turned out to be super knowledgeable and a fan of stop motion animation. After hearing the story and reading the pages, you want to become a contributor. It was before he shot Get out, his first live-action horror film. His ideas were so good, his ideas for the new company he was starting, Monkeypaw Productions, were so intriguing that it really happened then. It was still a long time ago, but excluding the pandemic, it’s not that long. It took other people’s talents to inspire me to try again and make it a movie, and I’m really happy with that.

Thompson: It’s interesting that you say this when you addressed the boys before Get out? Was it weird for Jordan at the time to have someone come to him with a film project like this? He still considered himself a comedian.

Celik: I wanted to work with both of them, and Keegan-Michael just assumed that since they’d done it on other shows, it was voice work. Jordan happened to know what I was doing and loved stop motion, so it was his idea to step up and be more of a co-director. I found out what geniuses they both are from their show and that they wrote a lot of the stuff they perform, and then he let me read his script for Get out. He worked on it for many years and it was his favorite project. I immediately knew what a hell of a great writer and storyteller he was. I can’t explain it all, but I think it was meant to be and that he saw something in my work. I already knew about a certain level of talent, but then from his script I saw this whole other level. We developed and developed our story and characters, and I brought in an illustrator and another producer to help, Ellen Goldsmith-Wayne, but we still had to get the story out to present it. He had a lot of stuff, so I spent a lot of time developing it, and then he knew they were going to do it Get out; it was very low budget, and right before it went out, he said, “We have to go out and present Wendell and Wildebecause he was worried Get out can bomb. I hadn’t seen footage, but I had read it and knew it was great; then it was this phenomenal hit and everyone wanted to be in the Jordan Peele business. At that point he was the locomotive and I was the caboose. We didn’t go anywhere with it because we knew our story was very unusual and we also wanted a PG-13 rating. For animation in this country, that’s hard to come by. People don’t believe it, but we wanted this room to play. We took it to a few places and Netflix was the one that said yes and gave us the rating we wanted. It was a long journey, but after Get out was released, the world changed and we were finally on our way.

Thompson: Stop animation takes a lot of time and is not the cheapest medium to work with. How easy was it to get people on board? In a world that is hungry for constant content, there can be a tendency for people to want it immediately or sooner and as cheaply as possible.

Celik: Absolutely, and it’s a complicated thing. If you go back to The Nightmare Before Christmasit happened because it was a gift to tim burton to get him to come back to disney and make big blockbusters like he was doing out with Batman movies. The idea was to do it on a low budget. I’ve been friends with Tim for years and I knew about the original idea for this project, but he was directing other live-action films, so he asked me to direct it and we hit it off. It was made on a much lower budget than traditional Disney films and it came out and got its money’s worth. As for his afterlife, no one could have predicted it. We did James and the Giant Peach when Toy Story came out and of course CGI happened and then everything has to be CGI. Toy Story it happened to have an incredibly good story and the look was new, but it’s always, “What are the easy things to understand about how we make more money in animation?” So in the middle of James and the Giant Peach, the production manager said to me, “Well, we don’t see this stop-motion as a viable form anyway.” We weren’t even done with the film. With stop-motion animation, it comes and goes, then reappears and goes again. Things have changed with streaming because a lot of streaming groups have realized, especially Netflix, which was the first, that we don’t have to be successful with everyone in the first weekend. We can take risks and we can find our audience. This helps Netflix take risks with stop-motion, traditional hand-drawn animation, and lots of CG. They have my film, Guillermo del Toro has the beautiful Pinocchio, and they have two projects with Aardman Animation because it’s a different business model. I’d like to think that if people watch the movies, stop motion doesn’t have to go away for eight years before it comes back.

Thompson: Apart from the animation and the brilliant way the story highlights themes and issues for discussion, the film’s soundtrack is a brilliant narrative driver. It was great to hear bands I love like Fishbone used in this way. What can you tell me about this process?

Celik: I’ll take that credit. As you know, I directed a music video for Fishbone in 1985, so I knew them. I knew of their contemporaries; I’m an amateur musician, so I had this story. Where it started was Kat. How she is looking? Jordan and I both agreed that this somewhat newfangled cultural movement called Afropunk was really cool. It’s been around for about ten years, maybe a little more, where younger people worship first generation black and brown punk bands from the 70s and 80s. They have their own unique fashion and also honor new bands that are either punk or black punk-adjacent, like Janelle Monae. She has performed at their festivals and is a great role model. The outfits are some of the most creative work I’ve seen people do, including the use of color, body art and all. So it all starts with Kat and who she wants to be once she gets that chance. From there, it grew into what her music would become. It grew bigger and became an emotional connection with her father, who turned out to be a big fan of first generation bands like the ones I knew about. I didn’t know them all, but I certainly knew Bad Brains, Death, Fishbone and Living Color who came later. Then we were at races. She had this boombox and she has a mixtape, but what are the songs? Jordan had great contributions, Netflix had great people like Brandon Coulter, one of our artists, and Karen Toliver, who came in as a vice president, gave us a kind of new life to bring back some of the songs that I couldn’t afford. My editor, Mandy Hutchings, was great because she knew all the bands from all the eras, so it was a lot of fun choosing the best song for the moment and for the inner lives of our characters. It didn’t all come together until very late in the process, but I’m so happy it did. It’s just one of those things where we played with it, we pulled away from it, and then we embraced it, and it gelled about two months ago.

Thompson: You touched each other The Nightmare Before Christmas, and in 2023 they turn 30 years old. what do you have planned Have you started having discussions on how to celebrate this? I have been to previous celebrations of the film at the Hollywood Bowl and they were amazing. What do you think?

Celik: I’m on the fringes of the discussions. I hope there will be a large public gathering. Tim is very low-key, but he secretly attended the Hollywood Bowl. A reunion with the artists who are still with us and key talent would be great. I never know what Disney is up to. They are polite but they don’t keep me updated all the time.

Wendell and Wilde now streaming on Netflix.

Leave a Comment