Interview: Director Kirk DeMicco and producer Kelly Cooney on their animated creation Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken

Sometimes the hero you are meant to be lies just beneath the surface.

This year, DreamWorks Animation dives into the turbulent waters of high school with a hilarious, heartfelt action comedy about a shy teenager, Ruby Gillman (voiced by Lana Condor), who discovers that she’s part of a legendary royal lineage of mythical sea krakens and that her destiny, in the depths of the oceans, is bigger than she ever dreamed.

As the trailer for Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken launches globally, Peter Gray spoke with the film’s director and producer, Kirk DeMicco and Kelly Cooney, to discuss the exciting look of the film, where their love of animation began, and casting such powerhouses as Jane Fonda and Toni Collette.

Congratulations on the film.  As someone who grew up on animated films it’s always exciting to see stories being told in this format, and on the big screen too, where I believe films have always meant to be seen.  Because it is such an immediate thought of mine going off this year’s Oscars, and that wonderful speech from Guillermo del Toro speaking of the value of animation in telling human stories and how it shouldn’t always necessarily be treated separately.  I imagine that’s a viewpoint the both of you share?

Kelly Cooney: Yeah, I definitely think we agree with Guillermo.  What’s exciting for us with this movie (Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken) is that we’re taking classic genres we sort of all know, whether it’s the teen comedy or the epic kaiju movie, and we’re mashing those two together.  I think that’s what was so interesting and fun for us about this, is telling the story about this teenage girl and her struggle to fit in and find her own way, and set it against this epic backdrop.  We’re really excited for audiences to see that.  Kirk (DeMicco, director) likes to say, “We don’t know what’s more dangerous: The halls of high school or the raging war underneath the sea, raging between the krakens.”

You both have extensive backgrounds in animation.  Where did the love of that form start?

Kirk DeMicco: I grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s, so I fell more in love with TV animation.  I’m more of a Chuck Jones/Bugs Bunny kinda guy.  That’s how it started for me.  I was much more comedy driven.  It wasn’t until the 80’s with the Disney renaissance that the more storytelling type of stuff started to interest me.  What I really enjoy about Ruby Gillman… is that we were able to really play with this very humanistic type of family, who are all very fluid (in their appearance), they have a lot of curves and movement.  It’s being played for comedy and style.  It also goes to the beautiful style they could create with shapes and silhouettes of the giant kraken.  You’ll especially see it with one of the sequences of the grandmama, played by Jane Fonda.  She is this beautiful character, just gorgeous, and this silhouette they were able to hit, and the posing became so important.  We did some things with the characters – not seen in the trailer – where we took the opportunity to mess with their shapes.  Just the fun we achieved!

I think what Guillermo was saying, and it’s maybe not so much about separation, but it’s where our superpower is in animation.  That we can actually tell a story across many tones within one film.  The creative team are the glue that bring it all together (though).  I think what was really special is that we had complete, 100% control.  That doesn’t always happen (laughs).  I think from the art perspective, that’s our superpower.

I’m glad you confirmed Jane Fonda’s casting.  I knew when I heard her voice in the trailer that that was her, and then upon doing further research I believe Toni Collette in this movie too? So, when those conversations start about casting, do you have a list of first choice actors and hope they say yes?

Kirk DeMicco: Of those you brought up, Jane Fonda and Toni Collette, we very much wanted them.  We were very lucky they said yes after we pitched to them the story and their characters.  They asked about their place, and both of them hadn’t done very extensive work in animation before, so it was new (to them) in a lot of ways.  But both were interested in that this was a female in the titular role and that it was a multi-generational mother-daughter story.

Jane, knowing this was about the ocean, meant it meant a lot to her.  And we would talk about a lot of things as to why they were engaged with it, but every time we worked with them, as things developed, we took pieces of their recordings and what they brought to the party, and brought it up to speed with a little revamping.  Toni was just so special.  We knew that the mom (character) would be so protective of her daughter (Lana Condor’s Ruby Gillman) and keeping her quite sheltered.  It’s a tough place to be.  She had to be strong enough for Ruby to push back against, but also have warmth, and Toni was so perfect for that.  (Jane and Toni) both have such gravitas.  The dramatic parts really ground these characters.

Kelly Cooney: And with Lana Condor playing Ruby, we listened to several actresses in that age range, and I had seen Lana in To All the Boys… which is a series of films on Netflix, and I just found her to be so charming and charismatic, but also kind of quirky.  She’s not perfect.  She’s not the “perfect” rom-com lead, and I think Lana brought a lot of that quirkiness and charm to the character.  As Kirk was saying, we recorded her so much throughout this process, and she would bring something different each time.  It would give us ideas, and then we’d go back and rewrite (the script).  It was such a collaborative process in creating these characters and playing to their strengths.  I think what Lana does so well is that she’s kind of self-deprecating character who is so likeable.  Within the first few frames of this movie you’re really rooting for her as a character.  I think she gave our animators so much to play with, in terms of performance.

Off that mention of the animation earlier, I am always fascinated by how animation works from a visual standpoint and the collective that decides such.  I put this to the both of you, do you know the kind of visual style you want when creating this story? We have so many different forms of animation – computer generated, 2D, 3D – do you know which style you immediately want, or do you collaborate with the visual team who may come to you with their own vision?

Kirk DeMicco: I would say it’s a collaboration.  Especially within a studio like DreamWorks.  This is a major “world build” movie, and the principal (the visual team) used to design this movie was based off the curve of an octopus.  We have a beautiful contrast in the film where the humans are very upright, and then Ruby and her family move with more fluidity.  Then when we’re in the ocean, it’s all fluidity, and it really looks so beautiful.

Kelly Cooney: The thing we always said when developing the ocean was “It’s a part of the ocean we’ve never seen before,” so the art department really created something that will go beyond expectations.  You get a little glimpse of it in the trailer, but there’s so much more in the movie, especially when Ruby goes on her journey to, what we’re calling, “The well of seas”, and she has to traverse this magnetic underwater volcano, and it is just so incredible! It’s beyond anything I could ever have imagined.  And to Kirk’s point, I think that’s the luxury of working with a team like DreamWorks, because everyone there are masters at their craft.  And they’re always trying to up the ante on every film they work on.  Our job is really just to get out of the way (laughs) (and) give them what they need so they can develop this world.

I understand the original title of the film was Meet the Gillmans.  How long have you both been involved with this iteration of the film?

Kelly Cooney: I was on it before Kirk was.  I started on the project when we had a script in development.  This is an original film.  It’s not based on a book or an existing property, so it really just started as a pitch about a family of sea monsters that moved to land and had to go into hiding.  Around the time I came onto the film was when we were really shifting the point of view to be Ruby’s point of view, so that it could really be a teenage/coming-of-age story, with this family dynamic as the backdrop.  The more we worked on it we just kept honing in on the character of Ruby.  What her journey was, and that feeling of insecurity being actualised.  It was really exciting for us to place her front and centre and declare upfront that this was her story. It felt really bold, and we were fully behind it.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is scheduled for release in Australian theatres from September 21st, 2023.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.