Director Gary Rydstrom Talks About Strange Magic

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Director Gary Rydstrom talks about Strange Magic. Photo courtesy of Merlot Mommy
Director Gary Rydstrom talks about Strange Magic. Photo courtesy of Merlot Mommy

Director Gary Rydstrom has a lengthy career in Hollywood, most famously as a sound designer at Lucasfilm and Skywalker Sound, working on films ranging from Saving Private Ryan to Wreck-It Ralph. Strange Magic represents his debut as a feature film director.

“The karma and the irony of this movie for me,” Rydstrom says, “is that I did have a long career, in this building mostly, a career as a sound designer, doing sound effects for movies. By the end, I found that I often felt at odds with the composer, so it was kind of a fight between the composer and I to have our stuff heard. So I thought of it as karmic revenge from the universe that I get to direct a feature film here and it’s a musical.”

Strange Magic is not only a musical, it’s also a love story, and as Rydstrom points out, “there aren’t that many positive love songs, because love is hard, it’s not always happy.”

Sound and its effect on the audience is still important to Rydstrom, even though he was not the sound designer on this film. “What I like in our story is we have a lizard that sounds like a dinosaur but by the end, it’s fallen in love. And so if you listen to the sound it makes when it’s in love, it’s this kind of purring.”

Photo © and TM, Lucasfilm. All rights reserved.
Photo © and TM, Lucasfilm. All rights reserved.

Rydstrom finds the plot and characters of Strange Magic to embody some universal themes, particularly the character played by Alan Cumming. “I actually like the Bog King, because of that thing about having your heart broken. And I think we all go through it, that’s a completely natural thing, it’s when you get your heart broken, you say ‘that’s it, I’m not going to let myself be vulnerable ever again.’ He goes to an extreme but it’s something that I can relate to, it’s so painful to go through something that makes you feel hurt and less than you should be, and you just don’t want to do it again. So your solution for it is to put up this shield and never let anyone in again. And I know we all do that, and I thought he was someone I could relate to. So once you get past that veneer and let your real self come out, it’s so much more satisfying both for him and for the one he falls in love with.”

He is quick to praise the cast for their performances, saying “casting is pretty key for a movie like this, and you have to find people who both act and sing; Alan Cumming, both actor and singer, is amazing, Evan Rachel Wood is as good a singer as she is an actress. And Sam Palladio, who plays Roland, is an amazing singer, as well as a very funny actor. And then Kristin Chenoweth who is funny, I was in the room with her, as I was with all the actors when they were singing their songs, and when she hit some of those high notes in ‘Love Is Strange,’ it was like my glasses broke and it was amazing.”

“For years, I was doing sound effects as a career and I hadn’t really worked with actors much. And then as I started to for animation, I really love it, animation is the same thing, animators are actors too, but I love being in the room with actors,” he says, commenting on the fact that voice actors often record their parts separately. “It’s really hard for them, because they’re acting alone, they’re not acting with other actors, it’d be great if they did but it just doesn’t work out so it’s them.”

Photo © and TM, Lucasfilm. All rights reserved.
Photo © and TM, Lucasfilm. All rights reserved.

The actors in Strange Magic put a lot of themselves and their own personalities into their roles, Rydstrom states. “Simple things, like Alan Cumming is Scottish and the Bog King has, we talked about it, about a twenty percent Scottish accent. And Evan Rachel Wood is very much like Marianne, she’s the sweetest, she’s got the most amazing happy laugh. And she’s the sweetest thing, but she can be tough as nails if she needs to be, and so they all brought something of themselves to the role.”

“I’m really proud in this movie, of that combination of the animators drawing on what the actors do with the voice and creating that side of the acting, and together creating a character that it’s still magic to me when that works.”

What works, according to Rydstrom, is the nature of love as shown in the film. “If you think about it, we are really surprised, I think, by how we fall in love and who, and it comes at us, I hear this over and over from people, it comes at us as a surprise. ‘Oh, I didn’t expect that.’ And what I think happens, if we analyzed falling in love, is that when you reveal your true self, then the other person falls in love with that true self. Often we try to hide that true self, because you think it’s odd or different or it’s not in the norm, or it’s not what other people our age or group should be like. And you hide it because you think, who would fall in love with that? But then we fall in love with what makes you unique.” He goes on to explain that Marianne, after her heart is broken, adopts this new persona of the “goth tough girl,” which is her version of what the Bog King becomes. “Bog King likes that, I mean, that’s part of her too, and that’s the real her. So being different is not only okay, it’s what’s required. And learning what’s different about each other is what’s required for falling in love. And if I sound like Dr. Phil….”

Strange Magic includes a line in the promotional materials saying it was inspired by Willian Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but actually very little of the film has any basis in the classic play. Rydstrom spoke about this, saying “Midsummer Night’s Dream, what I love about that story is that people find love in one night, and our story takes place in one night, one day, people find love, and it’s a multiple love story. An unexpected love story, so I think that’s what’s inspired by Shakespeare and luckily Shakespeare’s lawyers, I think, are long dead so we’re safe. But I think that’s as far as it got,” he laughs. “The true magic is when it happens for real without any potion, and that’s more magical than a potion.”

Despite being a love story, Strange Magic includes some dark elements, primarily the creepy elements of the Dark Forest. “In the movie, we do a place as a metaphor, kind of a dark forest that you find beauty in. I think sometimes in art you see, and I love art, yet there are some paintings that have kind of a horrifying, a kind of a darkness to them. But then you can still see the beauty in the darkness, there. Same thing with music, there’s sometimes music, especially modern music, which is a little more dissonant. John Cage was always a favorite of mine but it took a while to kind of find the beauty in it, you kind of have to get past the surface of it, in a weird way, and then you find the beauty, I don’t even know how to describe it. One of my favorite jazz artists is Thelonious Monk, who does these, when you first hear it, when I first heard them, I thought, this is not making any sense, it’s not connecting for me. But then when it does connect, and you kind of see the beauty in it, that’s the one analogy I can think of now.” He extends the metaphor to people, “and of course, there’s always people that when you first meet them, you go, I can’t stand being around this person, and then six months later, you’re best friends. I think we do judge people at first and then once we get to know them, it’s amazing who we become best friends with, or certainly amazing who we marry.”

Regarding the visual aspects of the film, Rydstrom says “I think they drew inspiration from classic fairy tale art and some people did classic fairies, but made it their own. It has a realism to it, so it’s not quite as ethereal as some classic fairy art might be.” Part of the concept of the film is that these fairies and goblins might be living in our back yard, but we never noticed them. “A lot of the design of the fairies were drawn from butterflies, so that if we see the fairies from a distance, we just think they’re butterflies. So that works for the story as well as a design thing. And then characters like Bog King and some of the goblins were mashups, visual mashups of insects and different creatures. I have no idea what the Bog King is, he’s not a cockroach, I don’t know what he is. And the imp, I don’t know what the imp is either, the imp is just kind of a mashup of different small mammals. So I think nature was one of the key things to draw on.”

Rydstrom found it difficult to let go of the sound design aspect; “The producer will tell you that I gave lots and lots of input, the mix might have gone on a little longer than it could have. It’s funny that in my directing career, directing shorts at Pixar and Studio Ghibli films and things like that, the hardest thing for me to do is the mix, it’s weird, you’d think it’d be the easiest thing but it is hard.”

“In this case I worked with Tom Johnson who is the lead mixer, the re-recording mixer on this movie. He and I went to USC Cinema School together, and he mixed my first movie when I made a sixteen millimeter film at USC, he was my mixer, and that was like ninety five years ago. So if you can lean on someone that you love and trust, then it’s not so bad.”

When asked for his favorite song in the film, Rydstrom says “I’ll give two answers; ‘Strange Magic’ is my favorite musical moment in the movie because it kind of sums up the movie, it’s a beautiful song, an ELO song, Evan Rachel Wood and Al Cumming sing it beautifully and Marius’ arrangement of it is beautiful. It’s a duet, and originally it’s not a duet, but it’s a beautiful duet. It says what the movie says, and it’s also one of my favorite looking sequences in the movie. So that works. But the moment that makes me cry, the song that makes me cry every time, is when Elijah sings ‘Three Little Birds’ to Dawn at the end. I don’t know why that gets me every time and it’s weird. And it’s really Elijah’s performance of that moment and when he sings it to her, it’s just the voice is breaking. But, you know, Meredith Bull who is the voice of Dawn, working in that scene, she and Elijah aren’t together. They’re doing this in two separate different times. They’re not together at all. And the magic of it coming together with the animators, I go, oh, that’s why I do movies. That’s great.”

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