'The Grinch' co-director says it was a daunting task to remake the classic: 'If I screw it up, I'll never live it down'

kenan the grinch

Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for „The Grinch.“

Universal’s remake of „The Grinch“ is now in theaters and it’s a relevant and much-needed update to the 1966 animated classic starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the meanie who despises Christmas and the Whos in Whoville who celebrate it.

INSIDER spoke with directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney some of the film’s updates, and where the green guy seems to get his unlimited cash flow from.

Kirsten Acuna: How did both of you become involved with ‚The Grinch“? Why this movie and story, which has been told before?

Scott Mosier: I grew up reading the book, and, of course, the Chuck Jones special [I] watched every year with my family. I’ve always been a fan of, also, Dr. Seuss and all of his books and his worlds, and I was approached by Chris Meledandri, who runs Illumination, and he sort of surprised me at a lunch meeting, and he was like, ‚I’m thinking about this movie that I think you’d be great for,‘ and he showed me a drawing by Yarrow that he had done of the Grinch, and I was like, „Yes!“ It was a mixture of excitement and fear. Excitement over being able to work on „The Grinch,“ which is just, I think, a sort of timeless story, but, also, intimidated, because it is a timeless story, and if I screw it up, my first chance directing, I’ll never live it down.

Acuna: And was Yarrow’s drawing very similar to the version of the Grinch that you see now on screen?

grinch max dog

Mosier: Extremely, like very, very, very close. I mean, it was a concept drawing, but, essentially, it’s the design that we built the character on.

Cheney: Yeah, for me, very similar to Scott. I grew up with this. I think my first contact with the story was the Chuck Jones Christmas special. And, it was a yearly thing. And, then getting introduced to the book and reading that, just the entire Grinch, you know, that character, that world, everything has been such an important part of my life as an artist. My wife and I met at film school, and our freshman year we used to talk about the Grinch as being such an important, inspirational project for us. So it is with a lot of reverence that I come to this project. It’s a project that I love, and just like Scott, take very seriously. 

Acuna: Scott, you spoke about this a little bit, but was it daunting to take this task on when there have been other versions of it, when it is so beloved, when you’ve been following this since your childhood?

Mosier: Yeah, I mean, absolutely, it is daunting, because the story and the character are so beloved, and people have very specific impressions of what that is, so you know you’re entering in to a situation where people have expectations. The key for us was to make sure that we met those expectations of this character who sort of delights in being mean, but, also, bring the movie to a modern audience, dig a little deeper into the Grinch’s story of why he steals Christmas, and from his childhood of isolation and loneliness, and to really build an emotional arc for this character that could make this movie be very reverent and in the spirit of all those things that have preceded it, but, also, be a new document of this amazing property.

Acuna: I’m going to get to some of the changes shortly, but did you guys go back and look at some of the other iterations, the Jim Carrey movie, the Chuck Jones animated version? What did you guys look at for inspiration?

Cheney: What we really tried to do, because, again, we grew up with the Chuck Jones version and that was such a beautifully done version, visually, storytelling, the animation, everything was so wonderful. We didn’t want to do another version of, you know, another iteration of an iteration of the story, and so we really tried to go back to the original book as our starting point for everything. I think it was very important to us to really tap into Dr. Seuss‘ initial … the first version of that character, the first version of that story, and, really, to have everything grow out of that as much as we could.

And then beyond that, because taking a very small book and turning it into a feature animated film that’s fully realized in 3D, we needed to buttress the book with more reference, and so we would look at other Seuss properties for reference for how he would treat towns, and buildings, and characters, and design, and so soaking a lot of that in for how we build out the world.

grinch concept art grinch concept art

And then, of course, the story occurs in this wonderful winter town, in the middle of these beautiful, you know, an alpine setting with the snow and then, of course, all of the holiday decorations, and food, and all of that stuff. We really looked to the real world, and, particularly, the natural world and then the holiday, all of the wonderful visual and sensory… all of the different sensory experiences of the holiday. That was sort of our line trying to build the world. And, also, with the story, we used the book, everything in the book as all of the anchors throughout the story, and then tried to fill out the story and the characters, and add where we needed to to connect those different signposts, I guess.

Acuna: One of the big things that stuck out to me was that Cindy Lou’s mother is a single mom as far as we can tell, and what was the decision to do that? As someone who grew up with a single mom, that felt like a very real update to the story for me.

grinch cindy lou.JPG

Mosier: I mean, I think that there was a few reasons, and what you just said was a part of it. You’re making a movie where you’re in this almost fantasy world, and Seuss, obviously, with all the architecture and the design is very fun and fluid, but we wanted the story to still feel grounded, like, „Oh, we can create this world, but we want the audience to feel like we’re in a real place with real people, with real characters that they can relate to.“ 

Cheney: One of the things that I think on this film and in creating this place and these characters in Whoville is the risk has always been that, you know, we didn’t want that place and these people to seem just default happy, saccharine, just a postcard version of a happy, Christmas town. We wanted it to feel like a real place, with real people, with real problems. They have real lives. The difference between the Grinch and maybe some of the other people like Cindy Lou and Cindy Lou’s mom is how they handle their problems, how they deal with their problems. The Grinch is a character who is, in our film, has a broken heart. He’s been hurt in his life, and, because of that, he’s isolated himself.

He’s got some real problems, but the Whos are not immune to that, and I think that’s sort of what Scott was getting at was that we really wanted these characters to feel like they were real people in a real place, that we could relate to, because we all have difficulties in our lives, be it our families, or anything, work. There are all kinds of relationships that can be difficult at times.

Acuna: That definitely comes across. I think one of first things that I noticed on screen were the different colors and hues and ethnicities of the Whos, and that’s not something that you generally, I think, get the sense of in other versions of „The Grinch,“ and I thought that was really reflective of our world.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the Grinch. Can you guys could speak a little bit about what he brought to the role, and why he was your perfect Grinch.

grinch benedict cumberbatch movie

Mosier: I knew him from a lot of performances and when his name came up it was an instantaneous … You put the voice and Yarrow’s drawing in your head, and we were like, „Oh, that’s it.“ He was 100% the guy for a lot of reasons, and, mostly, we knew that we wanted to try to take the character into a deeper emotional story, and so we knew we needed somebody who would not only be able to nail the delight he takes in being mean, that sort of wicked subversiveness, we knew he could do that, but we also knew that he could make a character, become a character, and take it through a layered, emotional arc that really draws people into every moment.

Not only did we immediately want to cast him, we were like, „Why don’t we bring him in early, so we can develop the character with him?“ I mean, most of the movie is just like a dude and a dog in a cave or outside. He had to do an amazing job of drawing people without really interacting with other characters who speak. It’s a difficult role. It’s also a role, once again, that other people have played. We knew we needed someone who can really show up and do something really special, and he’s one of the best actors out there today. It was a no brainer.

Acuna: He’s known to really throw himself into some of his roles. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him doing the motion capture for the dragon in the Hobbit movies, but was there anything he did to get into the role in the booth as he was recording lines, if you were there, that you want to share?

Mosier: When he was performing, you could see him sort of physically shift a little bit. He’d seen the design of the character, and so he’d shift his shoulders a little bit. What’s amazing is it wasn’t like a big thing, it was more of these subtle changes he did to his body to get into that character, which is part of why a lot of what’s great, for me, is there’s a lot of subtlety in his performance too for an animated movie, and he brought these subtle, physical changes to become the Grinch, and then, yes, I think it really comes out in the performance that he’s doing this subtle acting that I don’t think has been in animation a lot, and I think it’s part of what makes the movie really special.

Acuna: Speaking of great actors, I was really surprised to see Angela Lansbury have a cameo in the movie. How did that come about?

angela lansbury

Mosier: We knew that we had this character in the mayor of Whoville, and we knew it wasn’t on screen a lot, and we were like, „How can we have a presence in that short amount of time?“ So we knew we needed a voice or something that can really grab your attention, and also be the voice of Whoville to express certain ideas. And we were in a meeting, and one of the guys at Illumination who deals with a lot of the casting threw out her name, and it was another immediate thing of, like, 100%. It was like, hand on heart, that would be fantastic. She’s obviously not only well known for her live action, but she’s also obviously a voice in animation that kids and adults have loved for years, so it was a no brainer.

When she came into record, it was just like royalty showing up. It was just incredible. And she’s so sharp and so smart and so easy to work with. It was just such a joy. We were all just kind of pinching each other.

Acuna: I grew up with the Grinch story, getting it read to me every single holiday. I think one thing I was a little surprised by was that the Grinch song wasn’t used more prominently in the movie when he’s stealing presents. Instead, there’s narration. Why was that?

Mosier: There’s a couple things from the Chuck Jones special that we knew we wanted, and we knew that the music is something that is very beloved, and we all love it too, and that theme song is very well known. In making the movie, there is something about having the song really up front and introducing the character to people who don’t know him. The song sort of functioned in a way to bring people to the movie, but, also, to bring new people into the movie to hear this song that actually talks about the Grinch and who he is a bit.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas 1966

And then in the stealing, we had talked about it [the music] a lot and we talked about bringing it back, but, tonally, we were wanting to go for something a little bit different. Like I said earlier, we really wanted to dig into why the Grinch is stealing Christmas, and the narrator is really there as a person who can fill in the details of some of why the Grinch is doing things and how he’s feeling. We wanted to show he’s stealing it for a reason. And then, visually, what we wanted to do was create something that’s fun, and inventive, and exciting, and just so amazing to watch, but we also wanted a layer that’s describing the why he’s doing it and his internal emotional state. We were able to hire Danny Elfman, so it was like, „Let’s let him go nuts,“ which is kind of all our note was.

Cheney: Throughout the film, we see him start to change a little bit, start to experience Christmas a little bit differently as he’s trying to destroy it, and, at this point in the story, from a pacing standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint, and a character standpoint, this is a guy who’s made all of his preparations, everything is going off like clockwork, and what we really wanted to feel was this euphoria.

grinch christmas

Musically, Danny did this wonderful job of bringing us through his process of stealing Christmas from an emotional level, so that you really felt this be the euphoria of everything that he’s been preparing for. This bigger than life idea of stealing Christmas, which seemed like it was crazy, he’s actually going to pull it off. The music, rather than bringing us back to, like Scott said, getting to know the Grinch that we expect at this point, is more of an emotional high that we wanted to put into the story to bring us to that collision with Cindy Lou.

Acuna: Something that just I kept asking myself repeatedly while watching, where is the Grinch getting all of his money to build these elaborate items? He doesn’t seem to have a job. He kind of reminds me of Wile E. Coyote getting boxes from Acme.

the grinch organ

Cheney: I think that’s a great analogy. What we encounter with this character is this very resourceful guy. He is able to steal Christmas with these gadgets and all of that, but I think the more we explain how and why, the less fun it is. So I think there is this magic to, you know, when you watch the Roadrunner shorts, you just kind of go with it. You accept that, OK, this guy is able to mail order [everything]. I don’t know, does he have a credit card with Amazon? I don’t know.

It’s almost a little bit more magical and, for me, it gives the character a little bit more of this cool mystery where you feel like, „OK, he’s a very capable person,“ and I think with the Grinch, he is a special person. This guy gets things done. I would never, in order to get people to do something that I don’t want them to do, decide to steal their holiday, because it seems like it’s impossible. It’s a bigger job than I know how to do, but the Grinch is a little smarter, a little bit more resourceful, and it’s fun to see the results of his resourcefulness, rather than all of the details that get us there. So that’s my answer.

Mosier: I say real estate. 

Acuna: OK. And one more fun thing. Why does the Grinch’s dog Max decide to stick with him? He’s basically his butler.

grinch max.JPG

Cheney: I think, for me, Max is the one character who does recognize the goodness in the Grinch, like he does know that, and I do think that unlike the other [versions of „The Grinch“], the Grinch does take care of Max. I mean, he has asked him to make him coffee and all the rest of it, but he is sort of taking care of him. And we’ve often said the reason the Grinch’s heart isn’t 10 times smaller is because of Max.

Mosier: There’s this special relationship that a pet has with their owner. Max gives us that way into the Grinch. A dog is just loyal to a fault. Their owner is their best friend no matter what, so you can be just a miserable person, but your dog still loves you. And so there is something really special about the dog relationship that really gives us kind of a short hand into appreciating the Grinch as a real person. If this dog that we love so much loves the Grinch, he can’t be entirely terrible. So it gives us a way to like the Grinch without the Grinch actually doing anything nice for us or for the Whos around him.

„The Grinch“ is currently in theaters. You can watch a trailer below and read our review of the movie here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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