I first met Jennifer Lee in 2011 in front of the John Fluevog store in Los Angeles. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Alice Bradley, and while they caught up on each other’s lives, I proceeded to try on a bunch of $300 shoes that I couldn’t afford. Between trying on Pilgrims and Lancasters, I caught a few glimpses of Jenn’s life in L.A., which included being a single mom and directing John C. Reilly as the voice of a video-game character. So when Wreck-It Ralph came out this year, I was excited to go because, Hey! I met that lady!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in little ole Rhode Island, home to the quahog, the Iroc, and the peach fuzz mustache.
What was your first exposure to video games?
When it came to video games, I was certainly in from the start. Pong had me hypnotized. Pac Man fed my love of eating. Pit Fall Harry was my first crush . . . wait, second . . . there was Bobby in kindergarten, but he didn’t like blondes.
What character in Wreck-it Ralph is most like you, and why?
I’m three parts Vanellope, one part Fix-it Felix. I wish I was more like Calhoun, but I’ve never held a gun. Ralph is a lot like most of the men I’ve dated. Joking aside, I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of Vanellope’s journey. I was majorly bullied as a kid, always had crap in my hair, and felt like a mistake. I also have a nine-year-old daughter (exactly Vanellope’s age), and I love the confidence Vanellope gives her to be herself . . . not too shabby a mom experience, seeing her sleeping with her Vanellope doll.
What does your daughter like to do when she’s plugged in? Or is she more of a Montessori-and-wooden-toys sort of kid?
One word: Minecraft. My daughter is obsessed, which makes her the coolest girl at school as far as the boys are concerned and the most perplexing as far as the girls go. The weird thing for me is not her love of playing the game, but her equal love of watching YouTube videos of others playing the game. I’ve had to put a timer on the computer so it doesn’t eat her soul.
Were the characters in Wreck-It Ralph based on people in your life?
I can’t take credit for the origins of the character. Phil Johnston, who was on the project from the beginning, developed those with Rich Moore. I was asked to jump in starting with the third studio draft of the script. It took a few intense weeks of obsessive study to get to know these characters I hadn’t created. Felix and Vanellope came pretty easily to me, me being an outcast misfit and obsessively always wanting to fix things. As soon as I worked with John C. Reilly for the first time, I had Ralph. Calhoun was the toughest. Everything she says is as odd as it is brilliant. But luckily odd and brilliant perfectly describes Phil. We’d have him take a “Calhoun pass” with each draft. “Cy-bugs will chew up that game faster than a chicken hawk in a coop of crippled roosters,” is one of my favorite lines. That was all Phil.
How did you get hired for the job?
Phil and I went to film school together [at Columbia University] and after graduation we met weekly at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn with our writing. We were very different writers but our sensibilities fit, and we knew how to push each other. Phil developed Wreck-it Ralph with Rich Moore. But feature animation is a long process; it takes on average three to four years to get an animated feature into theaters. The writers are at the studio every day. They go to every story board meeting, editorial session, recording session, and more. The entire movie is drawn, recorded, scored, and screened at least seven times. And that says nothing about the rewrites, which are constant. Phil was getting busier with Cedar Rapids [which he wrote] and the likes. He needed someone he could trust to come in and protect the integrity of what he started. He knew he could work with me, so he passed along my scripts to Disney. I owe that man a ton, because I have fallen madly in love with animation.
What are you going to do next?
I’m actually writing Disney’s next animated feature Frozen, which comes out next year. Frozen is loosely based on, or mostly just inspired by, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. I will also have the honor of directing it, too, with fellow director and animation genius Chris Buck (who co-directed Tarzan and Surf’s Up). For me, it’s nothing short of a dream-come-true experience.
Directing the next Disney feature! I’m sure I would be terrified. Thanks for your time, Jenn, and best of luck!
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