Interview: Director Walt Dohrn on Trolls Band Together, the NSYNC reunion, and cast improvisation

  • Peter Gray
  • November 20, 2023
  • Comments Off on Interview: Director Walt Dohrn on Trolls Band Together, the NSYNC reunion, and cast improvisation

This holiday season, get ready for an action-packed, all-star, rainbow-colored family reunion like no other as Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake return for the new chapter in DreamWorks Animation’s blockbuster musical franchise: Trolls Band Together.

And orchestrating this slew of superstar voices – and perhaps a few boyband members for good measure – is director Walt Dohrn, similarly returning to the pop fray after helming both Trolls and Trolls World Tour.

Speaking to our own Peter Gray (again) ahead of the film’s release, Walt touched on just how much he knew about the reunion of NSYNC, encouraging improvisation amongst his A-list cast, and how he gets away with some adult joke injections throughout his “family friendly” script.

I spoke to you back in March when the trailer dropped, and I remember you mentioning how the boyband research for Trolls Band Together had altered the algorithm of your music searches.  All this time later, are bands like NSYNC still on rotation for you?

(Laughs) They definitely are. I mean, ever since I really I started working with Justin (Timberlake), I really just listened to a lot more of his music.  “Suit and Tie” always comes up in my rotation.  And now I’ve got a lot more NSYNC and a lot more boybands.  You’re right! It just feels natural now that it’s in there since last March.

And because when we spoke you revealed how Amy Schumer and Andrew Rannells were cast as the pop diva villains, and I was very excited that Camila Cabello was involved.  But one thing that wasn’t revealed, and for good reason, as it was a lovely surprise for a teenager of the 2000s like myself, was the reunion of NSYNC.  Obviously Justin Timberlake orchestrated it, but how collaborative a process was that with you? Are you involved at all at literally getting the band back together?  Or, if not, how much knowledge did you have as it would need to be a story additive.

Pretty early on.  Once the idea happened, maybe two years in deep into production, (Justin) started working on that song (“Better Place“).  It was the perfect song.  He texted Gina Shay, our producer, she was probably there when we last spoke, he texted her and said “With this song…what if I got the guys back together?”  It just blew us all away.  It’s incredible how natural and how organic (it was), and it all came from him.  I think it came from all the work on the movie, and the nostalgia and playfulness of it.  The celebrating of it.  I think there had been enough time between NSYNC and Justin’s solo career that had felt right to get them back together.  Especially on a Trolls movie.  (And) they were so great.  So much fun.  They came in at the end (of production) and did some voices and played around.  They gave us notes and ideas on how to be treated in the movie.

I feel like you were very forward thinking in casting Troye Sivan.  In the last few months he’s having a bit of a cultural moment.  I think once you’re parodied on SNL you’ve made it.  I remember you saying that he was one of the last people cast.  How did he come on to your radar?  

Yeah, (his) was a hard role to cast.  Like you said, it was one of the last ones because we really wanted to find someone who had an authentic warmth to them.  Someone that had a really beautiful voice for the songs that we wanted (his character) to do.  There were some people in the crew who were listening to him at the time, and they shared that with us, and he just seemed so perfect.  This character was so hard because all of the stakes relied on him.  You’d have to fall in love with this character right from the word “go”.  He’s so tender the way he treats (Justin’s character), but he also has this sense of humour, and Troy had that.  I think we see it now.

I’m just so excited that he’s a part of everything.  The SNL thing was so funny, so it’s cool that we can say “He’s in our movie!”  We had the best time (with Troye).  He’s got a real wit to him and a real edge, the way that (his character) Floyd has.  He’s not just “the sensitive one”.  He’s got this other layer.

I have to talk about Amy Schumer and Andrew Rannells here.  Some of their lines of dialogue were hilarious! The “Pale, but not in that Victorian way” line and the parents being dentists cutaway joke were so good!  First, what was the inspiration behind the looks of their characters? And with their lines, how much is scripted and how much is just Amy and Andrew letting loose?

(Laughs) That’s true for a lot of the characters in the film.  You know, Justin comes up with a lot of jokes.  We definitely (encourage) this collaborative, improvisational thing.  We have a great writer in Elizabeth Tippet, and we had great story artists who add lines (too), but the actors, and especially Amy and Andrew, they went wild!  They had so much fun, and we encourage them.  I can’t even remember what was scripted and what wasn’t.  It was such a kind of playground of trying stuff out.

And then for their characters’ look, I was really challenged.  When we originally storyboarded it they were kind of cat-like creatures, and then they were Bergens, but we felt that was too human.  There’s no humans in Troll world.  We have very few rules, but that’s one of them.  Then we wanted to make them toy-like, like the Trolls, to add some cohesiveness.  We wanted them taller, like this whole kind of bendy doll look.  Then we blended this 1930s-like Betty Boop aesthetic into there, which we thought would be a nice ingredient to counteract and contrast.  They have a more contemporary, TikTok attitude.  So all of those things bled together to create this new species of character we’ve never seen before.

Also, the adult jokes slipped into this? The “pacifier” and the “Tied up on our honeymoon” line.  Dropping those kind of references must be so much fun.  Is there ever a worry of questioning how much you can get away with in a film aimed at kids?

(Laughs) Yeah, it is fun.  If we felt people were going to be uncomfortable or that we would offend anyone, first and foremost we make sure that no one ever feels accosted by the humour.  But, at the same time, these are movies for everyone.  Rarely do we spend a day (asking) “Will the kids like this?”  We want to make sure there’s clarity to it, and kids are just naturally drawn to this kind of playful, colourful atmosphere and music, but we’re always trying to make ourselves laugh.  We’re trying to make each other laugh.  The cast is trying to make us laugh.  It’s about having a good time.  And it’s nothing sneaky.  We present the movie a number of times, so (the studio) has a lot of opportunities to take things out.  Like the “Being tied up” line.  But if they’re going to keep it, they’re going to keep it.

I know it could be too early to even discuss another Trolls, but with certain character developments in Trolls Band Together, do you have ideas of where you’d like to go? Is there a musical style you’d like to explore if given the chance?

Yeah, that’s a good question.  I mean, we always want to make more.  And there’s ideas swirling around while we’ve made these three films.  The core of this film happened back on the first Trolls.  So there’s always ideas circling around.  As far as genres go, I think there’s so much to explore.  I love classic jazz standards, and we’ve never heard any kind of Frank Sinatra-like music.  Wouldn’t that be fun to explore?  There’s just endless opportunities to where you could go in the Troll universe.  So we’re ready.  We just need the world to tell us “Yes!”

Trolls Band Together is screening in Australian theatres from November 30th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.