Director Genndy Tartakovsky won the heart of many an animation fan with the TV shows he created, from Dexter’s Laboratory to Samurai Jack to Star Wars: Clone Wars. But he broke into film in a big way with his feature directorial debut, 2012’s monster comedy Hotel Transylvania. Featuring an all-star voice cast, led by Adam Sandler as Dracula, the film recalled the classic cartoon shorts of the ’40s and ’50s while showcasing the ensemble comedy for which Sandler and his pals are known. I spoke with Tartakovsky at last month’s CinemaCon 2015 in Las Vegas about the upcoming sequel, Hotel Transylvania 2 (due out on September 25th), which finds Drac becoming a — gasp! — grandfather. Here’s what the animation master had to tell me…
Nerdist: What were the elements from the first Hotel Transylvania that you most wanted to develop for the sequel?
Genndy Tartakovsky: We wanted to further the story. The first story was about Dracula and his daughter and their struggle. We wanted to blow up the world. Make it bigger. Now in the second movie the humans and monsters exist together happily. What does that mean? And what does it mean for Dracula? He’s getting a grandson. Mavis and Jonathan can get married. So it’s a big deal. Now there’s a new monster that’s introduced into the world. So the idea of the second one was to expand on the world, expand on out characters, and kind of catch up on how everybody’s doing.
N: How does Dracula fare as a grandparent?
GT: Pretty much as well as he did as a dad. [Laughs] He means well, but he always kind of gets in his own way.
N: The first film had an impressive lineup of voice actors. This film has an even bigger lineup. What can you tell us about the new additions?
GT: First of all, Mel Brooks. He’s amazing. I think he’s eight years old.
N: And he’s responsible for perhaps the greatest monster comedy of all time in Young Frankenstein.
GT: Yeah, there’s that whole side of it too… Coming into it, I was very nervous. It’s hard enough to direct Adam Sandler or David Spade or all these guys. Then there’s Mel Brooks, whose films I grew up with. I feel like part of my sensibility is based on his films. Having him in the room and trying to direct him… He’s very witty and quick and funny. So you become more of a student than a director. Because you see how he takes each line and warps it and translates it and makes it his own and makes it really funny. It’s such a unique talent. Every day I’m awed. Even with somebody like David Spade. What he can do with a stupid little quirky line. [Laughs] It’s fantastic… And also Keegan-Michael Key.
N: His career’s been on fire lately. He’s winning more fans every day.
GT: Yeah, his show is great. Having him be Murray the Mummy is great. That energy translates into the screen tenfold.
We’ve also got Dennis, who is the grandson. It’s this kid who’s getting pulled in every direction. So what does that mean for his personality? He’s a little more soft-spoken but still excitable. I was a big fan of Ralph Phillips in those Warner Brothers cartoons.
N: The series of shorts that Chuck Jones directed?
GT: Yeah, the daydreaming kid. There was something about that kid that was really charming. So I wanted the kid to be cute and charming and appealing. Especially in the way he’s animated. So we did a lot of that, and worked really hard to get him to be cute, but not in a…
N: A cliched way?
GT: Yeah. I think he’s pretty heartfelt.
N: Animated films are planned so meticulously. Is it a challenge to have so many comedians in the cast who are known for their spontaneity and improvisation? Do these guys improvise much in the recording booth?
GT: You’d be surprised. Not as much as you’d think. David [Spade] definitely does more improv, because he’s so naturalistic in his personality. He takes what’s written and then kind of twists it a little bit. He does probably the most ad-libbing. Because Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel write the script, it’s pretty much what they want. So there’s very little actual ad-libbing happening. Most of the time it’s what written. Because they write a joke and they want to see that joke executed perfectly. So there’s a little bit more policing going on than you think. Rather than “Hey, everybody, what should we say in this scene?” It’s actually very orchestrated.
Adam and Robert write the script, so there’s definitely sometimes the jokes are a little too adult. So we have to find our place. Yeah, it’s definitely their humor and their point of view. Then I throw him some of the physicality that comes along with it. There’s a combination of their writing and the way we animate that makes for nice bedfellows.
N: From a visual perspective, how does this film differ from the first? What did you want from its color palette and environments?
GT: It’s definitely more colorful. We have a more sophisticated palette. Then also we just wanted to expand the world. In the first one, we really just saw the castle — what’s in the castle, and just one thing outside in the human world. In this one we go to California, we go out of the castle for most of the movie actually. So it was fun to see different how the human world has now interacted with the monster world. There’s a lot more of that. And also just to see more of the characters and have more fun with the animation, and see more of what each monster is up to.
N: Does the film function as a fish-out-of-water comedy?
GT: I think it’s more of a family struggle. It’s a clash of two worlds, and the struggle of a family for identity. It’s about being true to who you are in a way.
N: Were you surprised by the success of the first Hotel Transylvania?
GT: I was very happy because we were trying different things. I think the biggest thing that I was happy with was the success of the cartoony animation. Because going into features, cartoony is a bad word.
N: Yet many of us who love animated films going back to Bugs Bunny would much rather see cartoony than attempts at photorealism.
GT: Right, exactly. It’s whole different thing, and we’re just scratching the surface. Everybody is concerned with realism and believability, [but] Bugs Bunny is believable as anything else… I mean, I always cite scene in Snow White where Snow White’s dead, and the really cartoony, bulbous-nosed dwarfs gather around, and it’s so heartfelt. That’s the ticket. So for the first one I was just happy that audiences accepted it, and they weren’t like, “Oh, this is a TV show” or “I don’t understand cartoony animation.” So for the second one we tried to follow suit, maybe push the cartooniness here and there a little bit more. It’s an animated Mad magazine. That’s what it feels like. I always used to say “You could have the When Harry Met Sally comedy in live action, and then you can have Blazing Saddles and Airplane.” Both are very good in their own different ways. But sometimes in animation we’re limited to either the Pixar or the Disney way. Which is great, but why can’t it be something else? Dreamworks did at the beginning a little bit. They did something else. And that’s what I was trying to do with the first one. This is lighthearted comedy with heart. It’s cartoony and it’s silly and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
N: Growing up, were you a big fan of Mad?
GT: As a kid I was more of a superhero comic fan. It actually came later where I discovered Harvey Kurtzman and his art, Jack Davis, all those guys.
N: It’s probably too soon to talk about a third Hotel Transylvania, but since you’ve done so much work developing the mythos of these films, can you see a place where you’d like to take another one?
GT: I think so. The great thing is, if you have good characters, the stories come natural. I had two or three ideas for the second one. Adam had a couple of ideas. The studio had ideas. So that’s always a good sign. Going back to my TV days… if you come up with a show and you can write thirteen ideas right off the bat without struggling, it’s a sign of a good show. If you write a show and it’s working and in the third one they go into outer space, then you know you’re in trouble right away.
N: Once you reach the Moonraker phase?
GT: As soon as it’s the moon or a cowboy on a dude ranch, then you’re done. [Laughs] With this one, the characters are alive, the characters have so much to say. There’s still so much to do with Dracula as far as… Maybe he can find love. There’s so much more of the characters to explore that I think more movies could be natural.
N: Are there any Easter eggs in the film for classic horror fans?
GT: At one point we had a flashback to where Dracula grew up, to his first house. So we styled it after Dracula’s home in the original Bela Lugosi film. We styled it after that. But I think that scene got cut from the movie. So we try where we can.
N: Is there a character in the film you most closely identify with?
GT: With Vlad and his cronies — he’s got these cronies, these big, kind of Man-Bat-like things — because it was so new and fresh, those were kind of my favorite ones. Because we got to explore different kinds of animation and we wanted Vlad to move slowly. So he always moves half the speed of all the other characters. It’s stuff like that that I get excited about, where you’re trying something a little more experimental, but not really. Again, it’s character-based. Because he’s an old man, he doesn’t move as fast, even though he’s very powerful. So he either moves so fast you don’t see him or he’s much more elegant and slow. [Laughs]