After eighteen seasons, four hundred episodes, and innumerable awards and honors (including a Peabody, 23 Emmys(R) and a designation from Time magazine as the "best television show of the twentieth century"), "The Simpsons" has become a feature-length motion picture. And it's a good thing, too, because it takes a wide screen to fully capture Homer Simpson's epic stupidity.
In the eagerly-awaited film based on the hit television series, Homer must save the world from a catastrophe he himself created. It all begins with Homer, his new pet pig, and a leaky silo full of droppings - a combination that triggers a disaster the likes of which Springfield has never experienced. As Marge is outraged by Homer's monumental blunder, a vengeful mob descends on the Simpson household. The family makes a narrow escape, but is soon divided by both location and conflict.
The Springfield citizenry has every reason to be out for Simpson blood. The calamity triggered by Homer has drawn the attention of U.S. President Arnold Schwarzenegger (voiced by Harry Shearer) and Environmental Protection Agency head Russ Cargill (voiced by Albert Brooks). "You know sir," Cargill tells the president, "when you made me head of the EPA, you were applauded for appointing one of the most successful men in America to the least successful agency in government. And why did I take the job? Because I'm a rich man who wanted to give something back. Not the money, but something." That "something" is a devil's plan to contain the disaster.
As the fates of Springfield and the world hang in the balance, Homer embarks on a personal odyssey of redemption - seeking forgiveness from Marge, the reunion of his splintered family, and the salvation of his hometown.
Starring in THE SIMPSONS MOVIE are series regulars Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Pamela Hayden, and Tress MacNeille. Albert Brooks also stars.
Producing the feature are "The Simpsons" series executive producer James L. Brooks, creator Matt Groening, current showrunner Al Jean, as well as Mike Scully and Richard Sakai. Sakai has been with the series since its inception, while also producing or executive producing such motion picture hits as "Jerry Maguire" and "As Good as It Gets." The script is written by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, and Jon Vitti - all series veterans. David Silverman, the series' supervising animation director, is helming the feature. Silverman has been with the series since its debut, and co-directed the hit animated feature "Monsters, Inc."
“The Simpsons” came to life twenty years ago, when Matt Groening was asked to provide animated segments for the comedy series “The Tracy Ullman Show,” airing on the Fox network. Groening didn’t want to give up rights to his popular “Life in Hell” cartoons, so he created, on the spot, the Simpson family characters. “The Simpsons” has been a ratings and critical hit from its inception in 1988 as a weekly half-hour series, becoming a pop culture phenomenon. The rest is television – and now movie – history.
For Groening, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE presents the chance for the filmmakers and audience to experience something the show, even with its myriad honors and enormous cultural impact, couldn’t offer: “We wanted to tell a longform ‘Simpsons’ story on the large canvas of a motion picture screen, and hear a theater full of people laughing at the same time,” says Groening.
As early as the show’s first season, the studio had approached Groening and co-executive producer James L. Brooks about turning the television phenomenon into a motion picture. But then, as the show’s legions of fans have wondered, why did it take 18 years to bring “The Simpsons” to the big screen?
Al Jean, the series’ current showrunner and a writer/producer on the film, offers some insights: “We waited 18 years to make a film, because we didn’t want to do it just because we could; we wanted to make a movie because it was right. We wanted to create a story that demanded the scope offered by a film. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is not three episodes of the show strung together. It has heart. It centers on the forces that can tear apart a family and a town, and it looks at how a man might put his life back together in such a situation.”
“What separates the movie from the show is scale,” adds James L. Brooks, the Academy Award® winning filmmaker behind “As Good As It Gets,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News,” the Emmy® winning writer-producer of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” and a writer-producer on THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. “We have one hundred speaking parts in the movie, and we created scenes we couldn’t begin to draw for the series. Most of all, we wanted a ‘Simpsons’ movie to be a real moviegoing experience for the audience, while staying true to what we do with the show. We were wary of straying too far uptown.”
The television show didn’t have the manpower to concurrently write and animate a series and a motion picture. “At the time, we didn’t have a team of writers or animators sitting around looking for something to do,” Matt Groening points out. “Unlike most series, ‘The Simpsons’ never goes on hiatus. We were devoting all our energies to the show, and never wanted to hurt it to do a movie.”
Over the years, Brooks and the showrunners expanded the series’ writing staff, which at least dealt with the manpower issue. “We got to a point where we had two writers’ rooms going at a given time,” says David Mirkin, a noted comedy director in his own right (“Heartbreakers,” “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion”), a producer-writer on the show and a writer on the movie. “So the guys who were with the show early on could go off and write the movie while the show continued to roll along, its quality unaffected.”
In 2001, a ‘Simpsons’ movie inched closer to happening when the series’ cast signed a new deal, which included terms for them to voice the characters in a feature film. But there remained the task of finding an idea that would warrant the big-screen treatment, and then creating a shootable script.
In November 2003, writing began in earnest on a script for a ‘Simpsons’ movie. “There were four of us who were central to making the decision to move forward with a script,” explains James L. Brooks. “At a certain point, we just felt like doing it.”
“We asked ourselves the critical questions,” recalls Mike Scully. “Did we think we could come up with a story that warranted a motion picture? How would making a movie affect the production of the series?”
The producers set very high standards for themselves and the work that was to follow. “We started writing the script and didn’t stop,” Brooks adds. “The hardest thing was to pay long and extraordinary attention to every beat and joke; to stress out daily and still make it appear that we were a loose and carefree bunch of kidders. There was never that moment where we considered giving up, so we kept working on it.”
As ideas began to form for a movie story, the producers were intent on not re-creating “The Simpsons” for the big screen, opting instead to retain everything fans have loved about the characters. “The difference is, we’re telling a story that demands ninety-minutes and a big-screen format,” says Al Jean. “And there’s not just one story. Each Simpson family member has a story arc of growth and redemption, even the baby. We wanted the film to hold audiences emotionally through the end, and that was perhaps our biggest struggle. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE also had to have big scenes, locations and themes.”
These creative goals demanded the strongest possible writing team, so the producers hand-picked a lineup of star writers who had been with the show since its inception (or near), several of whom had served as showrunners. They all knew and loved the characters. In addition to Brooks, Groening, Jean and Scully, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE “all-star” writing team included David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti. (Ian Maxtone-Graham and Matt Selman, current executive producers on the show, later joined the writing ensemble.)
While the writers’ commitment to creating the best possible “Simpsons” movie script was unwavering, they didn’t take the “all-stars” designation that seriously. “It wasn’t like every minute of all our meetings was spectacular,” laughs Al Jean. “Like any ‘all-star’ we’d hit and miss.” Still, each of them embraced the opportunity to collaborate on a long-awaited movie starring the characters they had helped shape.
For these writers, working on THE SIMPSONS MOVIE had an emotional as well as creative resonance. “It was incredibly exciting to be working on a movie and have the honor of being selected to write the script,” says Mike Reiss. “More exciting than doing the movie was to be in a room with that group of people,” echoes Jon Vitti. “It was a privilege to see these guys at work every day – and just a horrible nightmare trying to keep up with them.” Adds David Mirkin: “It was great to be back together, because there’s a very specific, special energy when we all congregate. It was also very sick energy, mind you.”
The writers were so invested in the characters, and intent on creating a movie worthy of “The Simpsons” that, at least in their early sessions, they had trouble coming up with a first draft. “We cared so much that we were too tight at the beginning of the writing process,” says Brooks. “It took us a year to just get loose and start having the kind of fun we always have with the show.”
Eventually, the writers came up with an outline for a movie script, which Brooks approved. They then carved up the outline into seven chunks, with Jean, Scully, Mirkin, Reiss, Meyer, Swartzwelder and Vitti working separately, writing about 25 pages each. They reunited a month later and pieced together the seven “chapters,” producing a very rough first draft.
Over two years of rewrites ensued, encompassing at least one hundred script drafts. It was a painstaking and grueling process. “Even though the movie is three times the length of the TV show, it was hundreds of times harder to write,” says David Mirkin.
“We chewed up a lot of pencils and ordered a lot of late-night pizza to keep going,” adds Matt Groening. “It was always a matter of writing and rewriting, with an emphasis on rewriting. We were always tinkering with the script, and never stopped trying to come up with a better line or scene.”
“We were determined to keep on rewriting until the animators died of exhaustion,” laughs writer Matt Selman. “If we didn’t have a release date, we’d still be working on it.”
Everyone was grateful to have James L. Brooks back in the writing room. Brooks was a showrunner in the series’ early years, later serving as an inspiration and consultant to the show writers. (“The series was my full-time job for three years and has been a part-time job since then,” he notes.) For the movie, Brooks reconnected with the characters and world he had helped develop. “Jim’s participation is the movie’s big secret,” says Mike Reiss. “He put us through almost too many revisions to count. This is Jim’s M.O. – he works right up until they pry the script out of his hands.”
“We had to expand our thinking and get out of the twenty-two minute structure of sitcom storytelling,” adds Mike Scully. “And that’s where we counted a lot on Jim because he’s made so many great films. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE required us to readjust the way we told stories for ‘The Simpsons,’ and Jim was a great influence in that area.”
“Jim was doing more work than any of us,” claims John Swartzwelder, who has authored more scripts of the show than any other writer. “It was amazing to watch him create these odd things that we’d stick in the movie and see if they’d work.”
“It was an incredible thrill to work on a film with Jim Brooks,” sums up Al Jean. “I’d say ‘once in a million,’ but I hope there are more.”
Several of the writers credit Brooks with making sure the script included important emotional beats. But Brooks himself says the story’s comedy, action and emotion have equal weight. “There’s nothing more important to the ‘Simpsons’ franchise than clocking laughs as much as you possibly can and including big set pieces,” he explains. “And this made creating story emotion more challenging. We always started with the laughs. But we needed that emotion, on which the jokes hang together and which leads the audience to care about what happens to the characters.”
More than anything else, Brooks sought the proper tone for the film. “Tone is the one word that describes everything we were looking for,” says Brooks. “You throw everything into the pot – story, emotion, jokes – but finally what comes out of it is tone. It’s always the biggest deal in a movie.”
The search for the proper tone extended beyond the two-year process of writing and animating the picture. Hans Zimmer, who composed the score for THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, also made key tonal contributions. “Hans was very involved in the search for the right tone, giving us a fresh viewpoint after the years we had spent on the picture,” adds Brooks.
In a room full of writers working tirelessly to create the best possible film script, none labored harder than Al Jean, who had the Herculean task of running the show and working as producer-writer on the film. “I can’t think of anyone else who could have run the show and the movie at the same time,” marvels writer Ian Maxtone-Graham. “It’s a testament to Al’s amazing mental capacity. At a given time he would be reviewing a storyboard for the show while looking up at us and pitching an idea for the movie.”
The indefatigable Jean – the one person who was keeping tabs on everything movie- and show-related – made certain there was no story overlap between the two, and that movie plot points were kept under wraps. “Since we’ve kept the plot of the movie a secret, when the show writers pitched ideas similar to those presented in the film, I’d say, ‘No we can’t use that. But I can’t tell you why.’”
The secrecy alluded to by Jean was on a level rarely seen in the motion picture industry, even in these Internet-wary times. The filmmakers kept the script under lock-and-key at the production offices and even as the film neared release, they were reluctant to divulge plot details, to ensure that audiences got the full effect of the movie’s many surprises. But an early trailer revealed the presence of a new addition to the Simpson household: Homer’s pet pig, whose most significant contribution to the community is a few tons of “fertilizer.”
The pig-droppings “issue,” combined with Homer’s cluelessness, leads to disaster for the town of Springfield. “We got excited about the idea of Homer doing the worst thing he’s ever done,” says David Mirkin. “And that leads to his moral dilemma of letting the town die or trying to save it.”
Springfield itself becomes a key character in THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, further distinguishing the film from the series. The filmmakers put the entire city on display through a big cinematic device. Additionally, they spotlight virtually every character in Springfield, most of whom turn up in a huge mob scene that is one of the film’s centerpieces.
A key player in the frequent and never-ending writers’ meetings wasn’t even a writer. Breaking tradition with animated feature filmmaking, director David Silverman worked closely with the writers, shaping the visuals and the editing, determining the best ways to visualize a joke, and devising new ways of expanding the Simpson universe for the big screen. They continually tinkered with the script and re-recorded the actors. “It was cruel and unusual punishment for David Silverman,” jokes Matt Groening.
Silverman, a twenty-year veteran of “The Simpsons,” first worked on “The Simpsons” shorts for the “Tracy Ullman Show” before becoming a director, then supervising director/producer on the series. His deep affection for the characters is unsurpassed. “I love drawing them,” he says, “and creating something inventive and funny that hasn’t been done yet.”
“David has been the spirit of ‘The Simpsons’ for such a long time,” says Brooks. “When he was working on the shorts for ‘The Tracy Ullman Show,’ he spoke to me with such passion about how much it would mean to him to have an entire television show devoted to these characters. I was so impressed by his passion that I got the ball rolling on the series.”
Silverman, of course, had a strong influence on the show’s look. “David basically gave the characters their rules of behavior and codified the rules of how to draw them,” says Groening. “For me, drawing the characters is an intuitive process – it just feels right and so I draw them. But David knows there are eleven spikes on Bart’s head, and that Marge’s head is nine eyeballs tall – or something like that.”
For THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, Silverman’s challenge was to devise a visual style that was true to the show while expanding it for the motion picture frame. Silverman made full use of the widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35 to 1, which allowed him to put more characters in the frame, lavish considerable attention on every scene, open up the film emotionally, and add a richness to the backgrounds texture and colors. “We didn’t want to break the graphic look of the series, but instead enrich it and fill it out,” Silverman explains.
For inspiration, Silverman re-watched such films as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” one of the first widescreen movies to innovatively use the format for an intimate drama, and the ensemble epic comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” which filled its frame with a multitude of characters.
The widescreen format presented many challenges and opportunities for the director. For one, he had to add dimensionality to characters that up to now had been seen primarily on small television screens, but would appear sixty-feet tall on many cinema screens. In addition, Silverman experimented with creating emotion-filled scenes in wide shots, where normally he would have cut to close-ups.
To convey emotional beats in the film, Silverman used colors, tone shadows and drop shadows to a degree not possible in the series. He also had more latitude to move the camera, most notably for an elaborate skateboarding sequence, during an epic chase, and for a mob scene. For the latter, Silverman pushed into the hordes converging on the Simpson household. “Normally, you’d have a crowd shot, then cut to a close-up,” says Silverman. “But I wanted to give the scene a lot of energy, so I kept moving the camera into the crowd.” A classic poster from the television series depicting the entire cast of characters, provided a foundation for the scene. “I envisioned running into the poster with a camera,” he adds.
For character animation, Silverman relied on the template created by Groening two decades earlier, which eschewed cross-eyed and maniacal-looking characters, both conventions of animated series and films. “We always want our characters to be reactive and impulsive,” Silverman notes. “This adds to their humor and personalities. We’re always looking for specific and realistic human-like performances from them.”
Perhaps Silverman’s biggest challenge was the film’s tight schedule. It takes nine months to make an episode of the show, and Silverman had only a year-and-a-half to make THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. (He had a luxuriant two years on “Monsters, Inc.”) To meet his rigorous deadlines, Silverman set up several production teams, with sequence directors, working under Silverman, directing their own groups.
The first step in animating the film was creating storyboards – the panels that determine the cuts, shots, angles and performances. Next, Silverman and his teams developed key animation poses, drawings and layouts, followed by animatics that provided blueprints of timing and rhythm, and helped ascertain if the jokes were playing. Along the way, props and costumes were designed, and new characters were introduced. The last steps included final timing and fine-tuning the animation.
To save time, Silverman used story reels, where he shot the storyboards, augmenting them with additional poses and a temp soundtrack, all of which allowed Silverman to convey the gist of the film at a very early stage.
The work of Silverman and his teams in the widescreen format brings a new dimension to the characters beloved by so many. “With the movie, David is topping himself completely,” says Matt Groening. “THE SIMPSONS MOVIE really honors the animators who work so hard on the show and on the film. They really put all of their craft and talent up on the screen.”
“The film is a bigger experience than the show,” says Silverman. “There’s so much in the movie that fans haven’t experienced before with the show.” And, returning to Matt Groening’s notion of creating the film to enable fans to enjoy the communal experience of watching a “Simpsons” movie in a theater, Silverman notes, “I love the idea of eight hundred people laughing at the same time at a joke or scene in the film. I’ve done a lot of college lectures where I screened clips from the show to large audiences. Watching these audiences laugh at these clips over the years – and projecting them on a big screen – gave me confidence that we’d be able to make movie audiences laugh. I think a real movie experience would only heighten their enjoyment.”
Al Jean notes that the movie’s appeal extends beyond “The Simpsons” loyalists who have followed the show for the past eighteen years. “For four years we have been killing ourselves to produce a film that would fulfill the dreams of the show’s many fans while still being completely entertaining to people who’d never seen ‘The Simpsons.’ If I felt any more pressure I’d be a diamond.”
Putting aside the myriad pressures of creating THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, the film’s imminent release led two of its visionary forces to reflect on the “Simpsons” phenomenon and how much it’s meant to them. “Twenty years ago, I was just hoping ‘The Simpsons’ would be successful, and I thought it would be,” says Matt Groening. “But I had no idea that in 2007 we’d be making this motion picture and celebrating our 400th episode. It’s really been a wild ride.”
“In the making of this movie, and despite all the pressures we’ve felt, and the critical filters I’ve been looking through, every once in a while I’d look up and see Homer doing something on the screen,” says James L. Brooks. “And I’d be awed that after all these years, I’d still a feel a rush of affection for him. Seeing Homer like that transcends the experience of working.”