Interview: Carlos Saldanha


Carlos Saldanha is a happy guy. He comes leisurely strolling out of his downtown Toronto hotel room to greet me after completing a couple of phone interviews, casually chatting about the local premiere of his latest film and the cool Pebble watch that he got for Christmas. He’s incredibly warm and laid back, which is somewhat incredible considering that he’s been doing press for his latest effort, the animated adventure sequel Rio 2 from Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Epic, Robots), for the better part of two months all over the globe and the film is well under 24 hours away from release.

His cheerful demeanor is definitely reflected in his latest film, which acts as a follow up to his previous 2011 smash hit and is a film that he really just wants people to have a lot of fun watching. This second entry in the franchise once again follows the exploits of Blu Gunderson (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg), a bright coloured bird raised as a sheltered pet who was once believed to be the last Spix Macaw in existence, and his new mate Jewel (Anne Hathaway) with whom he has started a family. When Blu’s former human friends (Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro) discover the potential existence of many more Blue Macaws, Jewel wants to head to the middle of the Amazon to find them. With their numerous feathered buddies in tow, the new family makes their way to the depths of the jungle – a place that Blu has no interest in visiting – where they meet Jewel’s long thought missing father (Andy Garcia) and hundreds of other wild birds just like them. It isn’t a reunion without peril, though, as Blu has to overcome his inability to function outside the city, there’s an evil logger (Miguel Ferrer) closing in on their habitat, and the nefarious villain of the first film (Jemaine Clement) is hot on their trail and desperate for revenge.

Saldhana chatted with us on the day of his film opening the TIFF Kids International Film Festival and the eve of the film’s proper release to talk about how the sequel came together, presenting ecological messages to children, the sounds and colour of Rio, and the creation of one of the most memorable character of the year that he thinks deserves a lot more credit (and rightfully so).

Dork Shelf: The first Rio film was a love letter to the city that you grew up in, and it was this huge success with a sequel that was almost guaranteed the second the film was released. So what necessitated the move from the city to the Amazon for this film?

Carlos Saldanha - Rio 2 - F2Carlos Saldhana: I just wanted the scope of the story to be different, and I also just wanted to take them out of that particular city. At one point I toyed with the idea of taking them to another city in Brazil, like Salvador in Bahia, which has its own special rhythms that I loved. But to me it felt like that would be too much of the same story, and I wanted things to be a lot bigger and different.

 Now they have a family and I start the movie with Blu and Jewel having children, and I wanted the story to be about their future. I wanted to talk about the future of the kids, and that turned into going all the way back to the roots. It’s all about trying to infuse that into children, that it’s important to think about  these things. When they find out there are more birds, they then embark on this big, cross country adventure to the Amazon.

And I have to say that I am more than a little bit of a Jacques Cousteau buff. (laughs) I can’t help but be fascinated by the jungle and the wildlife there. As a kid I always wanted to go to the Amazon. Always. But I never have a chance. I ended up moving to the US and it just never happened, so when it came time to make this movie, I just said, “I don’t care. I’m going and I’m going to check it out.” And I went by myself and I only brought my kids along and it was a really fun trip. It was everything I expected and so much more and it inspired me to make this story.

DS: You have a main character that in the last film found love and found this surrogate family, but now he realizes there’s this whole greater potential family all around him, which is an interesting thing to pay with when you decide to make the sequel about the direct nature of families. He really is in appearance just like these other birds, but in terms of skills and temperament, he’s nothing like them.

CS: In a way, that’s reality! You meet a guy or a girl and you fall in love and it’s so great and then eventually you have to meet the family. Sometimes you’re very lucky and sometimes you might not be as lucky. (laughs) So that’s all an extension of that kind of feeling.

And Blu has always been a character that’s lived alone for the longest time, just with Linda back in his cage back in the US. When he comes to Brazil he finds love with Jewel and friends with all these other birds, but even then that’s still just the two of them. Now with the children, that’s a bit more, but in order for the children to have a future they have to find more birds. But he’s not used to all of this and it’s overwhelming when he’s presented with it. It’s just like someone coming from a very small family dating someone from a gigantic family. It’s a giant contrast and I think those ideas are very relatable, those fears and situations.

DS: The other thing that’s really relatable when it comes to families is that the kids pick up on things faster than Blu can.

CS: Yeah! Always! That’s the beauty of being a kid; that spirit of trying things out and not thinking too much, but just enjoying the moment and being smart about it. Kids see much further ahead than we think they do. We kind of treat them as kids, but they’re actually hearing and listening to everything. I have kids and sometimes I’m having a conversation with my wife and the kids are off playing in the background and they just stop playing out of nowhere to make a comment on our conversation. So that proves they have been listening to us the entire time. (laughs) Those dynamics are something I thought was funny.

DS: There’s also this carryover from the first film when it comes to the preservation of wildlife and the message in that. In the first film it was about saving a species, and here it’s about that and the destruction of the rainforest. What’s it like conveying an important environmental message in your film when your audience is still young? I know when I was growing up that the destruction of the Amazon was a big thing to learn about in school, but today people might not realize that this logging still happens illegally.

CS: I think that’s very important. For me in school it was a big deal, too. One of the things that took my sleep away because I loved the world so much it was environmental problems. If I heard about a place that got polluted or a jungle that was cut or a bird that became extinct, I always felt that. I was worried about that. And still today. I always read lots of things about the nature and the environment, and I’m always trying to follow up, and not just because it interests me personally.

It’s hard to take a movie to the Amazon and not talk about the dangers that the place still suffers. There are definitely parks that have been created and safe spaces here and there, but it’s still an ongoing problem.

It is never going to be said about the environment anywhere that we have reached the equilibrium. There’s always going to be a fight and there are always going to be different interests going anywhere in the world. If it’s not the Amazon, it’s the North Pole. If it’s not the North Pole, it’s the Coral Reef in Australia. There is something that’s always going to be a battle. And I think if you can make a movie that raises their awareness, especially for this new generation, when this generation grows up, hopefully they will be advocates to try and protect that. Because the more people are conscious about that, the more people spark curiosity about it.

I think even in Brazil the people don’t know The Amazon. I didn’t know The Amazon. For them it was just a far off jungle that’s out there where no one can live. It’s almost like a big blank space on the map. The people don’t look beyond their neighbourhoods or beyond their towns, and that’s one of the reasons why The Amazon hasn’t been protected as much, because people just don’t care because it’s not their home. In actuality, it’s EVERYBODY’s home. It’s one of the most important forests and ecosystems in the world. We all need it. And thankfully it’s still really intact in most of it, which means there’s still a chance. So if there’s a chance to protect it, don’t wait until it’s too late to rebuild it. Protect it now if you’re going to do it at all.

I think those messages are very important to show to kids and we do it in a very fun way, and we do it with characters that are funny. We do it with personal stories and with music and we have a lot of fun. But if the kids walk out with this information in the back of their heads and they come out of it with this idea to do their own project on the Amazon and they want to find out more about it, who knows what can happen? Maybe we’ll hear of someone who was inspired by a movie way, way, way back when and is now helping to protect that.

DS: You also still bring back the fun, funny, goofy villain of Nigel, but this time he’s too dense to realize that he isn’t the biggest threat to the heroes.

CS: Yeah! Nigel is incredible! He could be a villain, but he’s really bad at it. Even in the first movie, Nigel was one of my favourite characters. He’s a delicious villain in that you want him to suffer, but you also want him to succeed on some level. You’re not rooting for him to win, but you feel for him on some level. He’s a funny villain.

When we brought him back I wanted to give him a bigger story. That’s when I introduced Gabi the Frog, played by Kristin Chenoweth, and the pairing of Jemaine Clement and Kristin Chenoweth was such a magical connection that allowed us to create a character that’s kind of epic. He’s Shakespeare in the body of a Cockatoo. We wanted to really push that silliness. We wanted to have a bit of Hamlet and MacBeth and Romeo and Juliet. I mean, he’s a theatre guy. He’s a star. He’s one of those guys who lives in his own world where he wants to be somebody else, and that’s a funny character. That element of it makes the story a lot cooler for me. He adds this coolness factor to the movie that really was a lot of fun to deal with.

DS: I know that a lot of people talk to you about how you worked with the great Sergio Mendes on the music for this film and the last one, but you have also stacked the cast with these great musical actors like Jemaine, Kristin, and Anne Hathaway. When you hire actors like that who have those capabilities, how does that shape your approach to the story of the film when you know you have all this talent to pull from?

CS: First, Jemaine is great. His version of “I Will Survive” in the film… he wrote all of those extra raps and verses. He’s incredibly musical and very talented as a writer. But when I cast the movie, if the role created requires music, I will find someone who has something they can add to it. In the case of the frog, I wanted it to have this musical element to it so it could feel like she was having a duet with Nigel all the way through it. Then with Kristin Chenoweth, you can’t go wrong with her as a singer or a star. She’s just so good.

I think that goes for everybody. With Anne Hathaway, at first, I didn’t think of any music for her, but I knew that she was musical. I wanted everybody to be musical. Even Jesse, although he doesn’t have as much to do, is very musical. In a way, everybody is musical in some way or another. And because the movie is musical in its very essence, I think they needed to have that to fit in to the stories I was telling even if they weren’t going to sing. I though that was a great thing to have. Except when it comes to someone like Bruno Mars, who is pretty much a musician, but he became an actor doing the movie. But that’s one of the things that makes the movie interesting. One of the things they all have in common besides being actors or musicians is that they are all so talented. That allows me a lot more room to create and allows me to make my own life easier because I’m in good hands. When they take over their characters or moments, they do it with a full expertise better than I could ever imagine. When I look around at the cast of this movie, I knew it happened because these people are just good enough to make it work so well.

So Sergio Mendes and John Powell the composer help me build a base on which I can bring other great artists into the process. The foundation and the essence of the movie is this attitude of Rio, with the rhythms and the bass percussion that make it edgy, but we bring all of the artists in to contribute. Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, Jamie Foxx, will i am, Jemaine Clement, all of these really talented people do all this great stuff and create this circle of trust.

DS: I know when people talk to animators about the look of their film, they tend to talk about the details and moving parts of the characters, and while I could certainly do that here with all of the birds on display, I wanted to talk to you a bit about the colours used in the film and what you settled on because the Rio films are some of the most vibrant and colourful looking animated films I have seen.

CS: Well, when we first started the first movie that was one of the things we talked about at great length. When I think about Brazil, I think about two things: I think about music and I think about colour. The palate and the lighting is very bright. Everything is present. Colour represents energy, as well, and in turn colour also represents the music. Those elements were very important on the first film.

So our art director, Tom Cardone, sat down with a palate, and we pushed it. We wanted the colours to glow and stand out. We wanted to colours to complement each other when they had to and contrast when they needed to. We wanted the movie to pop.

When we went into the second one and I sat down with him and I said, “We’re going into the jungle, and the jungle is green. How do you think we’re going to get colour.” He said to me, “That’s great because now we have to go beyond just green.” We were going to have so many shades of blue and so many shades of green and reds and oranges that we could create all of the colours we didn’t get to use in the first movie. Sure enough, the palate that we have for Rio 2 is so much broader than the palate we did for the first movie. It was much more colourful and much more bright and a lot more impactful.

Even with the bird family, everyone is a slightly different shade of blue. We wanted that!  We didn’t want everybody to look the same, so we played with every different shade of blue to do it. The way we did it was that we started with the shade of blue that was for the Blu character and the shade of blue that was for the Jewel character and we created a spectrum of everything in between, and that’s how it all came together.

DS: Before I leave you today, I have to talk to you about Charlie the Anteater, who I think is one of the funniest characters I have seen in a film all year.

CS: Oh yes! It’s so funny because no one ever asks me about poor Charlie, and I LOVE Charlie! You just made my day! The idea with him is that he’s the co-star in the background for the audience, but he’s the one as filmmakers that we have the most fun with. It’s one of those things with animated movies that people are often only looking at the main characters, but what people don’t realize is that sometimes in the background there’s always someone in the background doing something else. There are all these little details in animation that no one is going to catch. We live with these details every day as animators, and sometimes it’s just the subtlety of a look or a subtlety of a movement that makes a character really shine.

Charlie is one of those characters. We have characters on the lookout for the “secret talent of the jungle” in this film, but Charlie really IS that. He’s great. He’s an undiscovered talent, and he was always fun to work on. And, of course, the inspiration for Charlie and his hat was Charlie Chaplin. He doesn’t talk, he dances, he can look incredibly hurt. I wanted him to be the muted character in the back that gets all the best moments. He’s so funny! Overall people don’t seem to really get it, but I love it when people mention Charlie. People just talk about Gabi and Roberto and Nigel and they forget about the little guy hiding in the back stealing the whole movie! But seriously, I am so glad you mentioned him. Poor Charlie. You made my day.