Interview: Trolls Band Together director Walt Dohrn and producer Gina Shay on creating their immersive world and exploring pop music

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.

After two films of true friendship and relentless flirting, Poppy (Kendrick) and Branch (Timberlake) are now officially, finally, a couple. As they grow closer, Poppy discovers that Branch has a secret past. He was once part of her favourite boyband phenomenon, BroZone, with his four brothers: Floyd (Troye Sivan), John Dory (Eric André), Spruce (Daveed Diggs) and Clay (Kid Cudi). BroZone disbanded when Branch was still a baby, as did the family, and Branch hasn’t seen his brothers since.

Featuring Trolls’ signature psychedelic joy-bomb of new and classic pop hits, Trolls Band Together stars a dazzling cast of musical superstars and comedic powerhouses, including Andrew Rannells, Amy Schumer, and Camila Cabello.

To celebrate the global launch of the trailer, Peter Gray spoke with Trolls Band Together director Walt Dohrn and producer Gina Shay about embracing pop music, navigating the level of talent on board, and how much their musical taste informs the narrative.

I have a bit of a soft spot for the Trolls films.  I think any movie that celebrates inclusivity and pop music, which I am an unashamed lover of, is always going to sit well.  Music being such an important part of these films, to the both of you, how do you decide what songs you want to include?  And how much do they inform the narrative and vice versa?

Walt Dohrn: That’s such a good question.  (Music) is such a big part of what we do.  First of all, everything has to be driven from the narrative itself.  We map out the whole story and we know what places we want to try and submit music.  So, as we are storyboarding we’ll all try and pitch in.  With our editor we try and cut in these songs, even for medleys and mash-ups.  We try and blend them in this really rough way, you know, with different keys…and it’s a giant mess! But we imagine as to how it might work.  That’s where it starts.  Just trying stuff out.  Also, it’s finding the moments and working with Justin (Timberlake) about where an original song would work.

Gina Shay: Exactly.  It’s finding where do we need something original to carry different narrative material in the film and to create a vibe.  The original songs are so incredible, they just carry the sequence to a certain extent.

Walt Dohrn: I mean anything goes on a Trolls movie (laughs), and the last film (Trolls World Tour) was all about the difference in genres.  Here, it’s all about calibrating different pop music, especially the 90’s and the boy band eras.  That was especially a particular one we wanted to do.  Even for the villains, they’re 90’s pop divas.  That diva behaviour was an easy thing to vilify for fun.

Speaking of boy bands, the line in the trailer that was my absolute favourite was the listing off of each group.  Do either of you have a favourite boy band? Do you buy into the *NSYNC vs. Backstreet Boys rivalry? As a teen of the 90’s and 2000’s, that was a serious question! I suppose if you have Justin Timberlake on board, you have to say *NSYNC?

Walt Dohrn: *NSYNC is absolutely our favourite.  For us, we just missed that era.

Gina Shay: (Laughs) Yeah, my era was Boyz II Men more.  By the time I became an older teen I was listening to Bjork (laughs).

Walt Dohrn: I’ve always listened to everything.  I definitely have learned a lot about boy bands just by being on this movie.  My search engine, and the algorithm of that, has really changed (laughs).  We hopefully have done a good job of representation regarding that music.

That’s one fandom you don’t want to mess with either.

Walt Dohrn: Oh, no! And you can’t have a better boy band consultant than Justin Timberlake, really.

And Walt, you were the co-director on Trolls, and then took the lead on Trolls World Tour.  How did you find that leap? And did it make easier coming into this film?

Walt Dohrn: It was never easy (laughs), let me tell you.  It’s a joy and an honour, and I’m always so grateful.  That’s the first thing I tell myself when I wake up.  Regardless of any challenges, I just think “I am so grateful I get to make movies.”  You know, Gina and I have been making movies together for 18 years, so I think that’s what gives me comfort in that we are right there on the frontline.  We’re coming up with the ideas, we’re building the crew, building the cast…everything we do, we do together, so that gave me a certain amount of comfort.

But we really hit our rhythm and our stride on the last movie, and I think we took everything we learned from that and applied it to (Trolls Band Together).  But, of course, you don’t see all the troubles in it coming together (laughs).

Gina, the level of talent these films have managed is beyond scope.  Is there anyone across all three of these films that even you were surprised at getting? Like, we got this person to sing in our film!

Gina Shay: Oh man.  We are so excited.  We are so lucky to have Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake as our leads.  In this film we’re exploring (Timberlake’s character) Branch’s family and his brothers.  We pitched the movie to Eric Andre, and he’s so good.  Troye Sivan is in the movie…

Walt Dohrn: He’s so fantastic.  He was one of the last people cast.  He’s the sensitive one of the boy band.

Gina Shay: We have Daveed Digs, from Hamilton, as the heartthrob of the group.  And then we have Kid Cudi, who voices one of my favourite new breakout characters in this.

Walt Dohrn: Oh, he’s really great.  And we’re such a collaborative team.  Everyone on the crew, but especially the actors, so Scott (Mescudi aka Kid Cudi) will come in and he’ll have an idea as to how he wants to treat the character.  We’ll really support that (too) if it suits the character and the story.  We really want to grow these characters with the actors, which is such a fun part of the process.

Gina Shay: And then we have a surprise in the middle of the film, where we have Camila Cabello, who plays a very significant character.  And then our villains are Amy Schumer and Andrew Rannells! And we’re like, “How did we get Amy?!”  She’s never done an animated film.

Walt Dohrn: I think the fanbase, based off Trolls World Tour, was that so many people saw that – in the way it came out – and everyone wanted to be involved.  Everyone we liked and pitched the movie to, they all liked it and really wanted to be involved.  It was really nice.

It’s funny hearing you say that Troye Sivan is the sensitive one, and Daveed Digs is the heartthrob, and Anna Kendrick’s Poppy is just manic energy, which is how I imagine they are as people (laughs). So I’m very excited for this!  And being in these positions of power, so to speak, if there’s a song that you particularly wanted to hear, are you allowed to say, “I want this song in the film, because it’s my film!””

Gina Shay: Oh, every single one (laughs).

Walt Dohrn: I always loved Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”, and I listened to a lot of yacht-rock at the beginning of the pandemic, so I knew I had to get the song in there.  There’s a piece of it in there (laughs), because it’s one of my favourites.

Gina Shay: We have “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics in there…

Walt Dohrn: And to hear Andrew Rannells sing “Sweet Dreams”…that’s what we do with our power (laughs).

Oh, I completely understand that.  I’d do that with my power too.  I want this actor to sing this song…let’s make it happen! And after Trolls World Tour was released in this almost unprecedented fashion during the pandemic, and it almost became like a blueprint for how successful the VOD platform can be, but it must be nice to see Trolls Band Together coming to the big screen in the way we want films to be seen.

Walt Dohrn: It feels good.  We designed the movie for the theatre experience.  Everything from the concert sound of the music, which we mixed very carefully to feel like you’re at a show, to the immersive world we’ve created.  It just looks so different.  That communal experience of everyone laughing and crying all in one place…it was made for the theatre.  It obviously works and plays on all platforms, but nothing compares to that theatre experience.

Trolls Band Together is scheduled for release 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.