Now that Halloween is finally behind us, all thoughts turn to…turkey! How is it that there hasn’t already been an animated Thanksgiving movie about turkeys trying to save themselves? In Jimmy Hayward’s new 3D Free Birds, the much-maligned fowl finally get their day. When Reggie (Owen Wilson) finds that he is chosen by the President of the United States as the annual “pardoned turkey,” he begins a pampered life at Camp David. The turkey spends his days watching TV, eating cheese pizza, and marveling at his good fortune in this “Turkey Paradise.” But everything changes when Reggie meets Jake (Woody Harrelson), the founder of the “Turkey Freedom Front” who tells the pardoned bird what really happens when his fellow turkeys leave the farm — they’re definitely not going to any kind of paradise! With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Jake drags Reggie to a top-secret government facility where they hijack a time machine named S.T.E.V.E. (George Takei) and head back to the year 1621, just days before the first Thanksgiving. But as soon as the birds reach Plymouth Colony, they find themselves in the crosshairs of Commander Myles Standish (Colm Meaney), who is intent on capturing enough birds to feed the colonists and their Native American allies. Before becoming the main course at Standish’s dinner, Jake and Reggie are rescued by a beautiful turkey named Jenny (Amy Poehler), the fierce daughter of the Wild Turkeys’ Chief Broadbeak. Will the three birds get out of their predicament and find a way to alter the Thanksgiving feast for generations to come? This funny and colorful trip back in time also features the voices of Keith David, Dan Fogler, and Carlos Alazraqui. I sat down with director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!) in Los Angeles.

freebirds-poster2Danny Miller: You know, in my family we’re not even allowed to allude to the fact that hamburgers come from cows for fear that the kids will never touch one again! Did you guys sit down and have discussions about how this film might affect kids’ willingness to eat turkey at this year’s Thanksgiving?

Jimmy Hayward: It’s funny — Owen and I were just talking about that a few minutes ago. My goal for this movie was to make a heartfelt, funny buddy comedy with time travel. That was my entire agenda — to entertain audiences! I never had it in my head that we were trying to change anyone’s viewpoint on anything. I worked on Toy Story — those films were extremely popular and yet kids still smash their toys, burn them with magnifying glasses, and throw them off rooftops! I think it’s a natural instinct for any character in a movie to want to survive, but the message of this film is not about not eating turkey, it’s about being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. To me, Thanksgiving is about coming together and appreciating the people you love. It’s when we all celebrate the fact that we’re part of a flock, part of a family. To me, that’s the most important part of the holiday.

Absolutely! But just to be clear, you’re not worried about people from the turkey lobby picketing the film?

(Laughs.) No, I’m not worried about any lobby! That’s why I put a disclaimer at the beginning with George Takei saying, “This movie is a total work of fiction — except for the talking turkeys, they’re totally real!”

Wow, that was a perfect George Takei impersonation! I love the look of the animation in Free Birds. Did you use any different techniques for this film? 

Rich McKain was the supervising animator, and we worked together on Horton Hears a Who where I think we pushed the animation really far. Rich and I spent a lot of time talking to the group about the style and tone we wanted to create in this film. One technique we used that I think was very effective was a lot of video referencing — I had the animators go out and shoot live-action acting to help them get all of the nuances of the animation worked out.

I liked the 3D a lot, too, and I’m not always a fan. I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t too in-your-face!

My feeling about 3D is that you have to follow the rule of the parallax line. I want it to look like you’re watching the action through a window — I rarely veer from that.


Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler are so fun in this film. I know why you record all the voices separately but I’ve always wondered why you can’t sometimes get all the voice talent together in one room when you’re making an animated film. Wouldn’t there be some benefits to doing it that way?

You know, I really don’t think so. I don’t think it would work as well. I know that the cast of The Simpsons does it that way, but I think that’s a matter of the timeframe they have. Plus, that’s a very written show. I think for me, so much of the process of creating a movie like this is about improvisation. So much of my comedy and my writing comes from interacting with people and reacting to what comes out of the situation. Sure, we write the premise and we can write funny jokes, but when you have people as fantastic as Owen and Woody and Amy, why limit yourselves to what’s written on the page?

But if they’re going off in a scene in some new way, how does that work with the other characters who are recording their parts separately?

When I’m working with an actor one-on-one, I can play the other characters and we can go back and forth and see where it goes. And because of the length of time it takes to make this kind of film, if Woody comes up with something in one session, I can develop that idea and work it up into a storyboard. Then, when I see Owen three weeks later I can show it to him and play Woody’s part.

So everyone has multiple recording sessions?

Oh, yes! Maybe 10, 12 — sometimes even more.

Wow. It must be hard for you to keep everything, including all those changes, in your head!

With something like this, you’re living and breathing it every day — it’s an exacting process — and one that I love. I might be in the room with the talent and have them do a scene 10 times and then I’ll go back and listen to it around 400 times! You end up knowing the material really well.

It almost seems like being a director on an animated feature is really a different animal than making a live-action film.

Not really. I think the prep is mostly the same. As a director, you need to understand every single component going in. And on any kind of large-scale production, whether it’s animated of live-action, you need to be able to relate to all the different people in every department and speak to them in their language. And you still have cameras and lenses and lights to deal with, you still have a production design. Of course directing an animated film is a much longer, protracted process.

And yet the two years you worked on this — isn’t that sort of a short schedule for a feature-length animated film?

Yeah, it was sort of quick but Reel FX had their pipeline in place in terms of how they work. I’ve worked with Chris DiGiovanni, my assistant director, for 20 years. Rich McKain and I have done several pictures together. Dave Esneault lit Horton Hears a Who — there were a lot of guys on this film I’ve worked with for many years. We have a kind of shorthand with each other at this point. Look, I really don’t think you need $150 million or five years to make a movie like this. And we didn’t have any committees standing in our way.

No movie executives sending you hysterical memos from the enraged turkey lobby?

No! I think Relativity was a great partner for us. And I have to give Aron Warner a lot of credit. He produced the Shrek movies and now he’s the head of animation for Reel FX. He really understood what Scott Mosier (the producer and Hayward’s co-writer on the film) and I were trying to do, we had such a great relationship with him.

You said in the press conference that one of the biggest challenges in making this film is that turkeys are not inherently attractive animals!

They’re really not. I think I said they look a little bit like melted turtles!

Well, you guys solved that problem — your characters are very cute!

I love to create characters that are really cute, that you want to pet, and then have them throw each other under the bus and try to kill each other. That’s my favorite!

Free Birds is currently in theaters everywhere.