It was like poultry in motion: 20 years ago, Aardman brought a whole new definition to fowl play with the hilarious, timeless Chicken Run.
Pitched as ‘The Great Escape with chickens’, the 2000 stop-motion comedy was the studio’s first foray into feature filmmaking – yet, it’s still its highest grossing, far surpassing Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away.
This isn’t an indictment of its later works; Chicken Run remains an unparalleled achievement in animation, equipped with all-time one-liners – ‘I don’t want to be a pie… I don’t like gravy!’ – and a fiendishly dark streak.
Just last week, a long-brewing sequel was officially announced for Netflix. To celebrate the original’s anniversary, we chatted to co-director Peter Lord about its legacy, bringing Mel Gibson aboard the production and what we can expect next. It appears those chickens are still up to something…
Tell me a little bit about the inception of Chicken Run.
Historically, we’d made A Close Shave – the Wallace and Gromit movie – and that had been very well received. It even won an Oscar. It had also been a cinemas as well, a little bit; you know for festivals and stuff. So that got us thinking: ‘We could do this thing.’
It wasn’t obvious that you could do a stop-motion movie, let alone claymation – I don’t even use that word, but anyway. Inspired by A Close Shave, we thought we’d have a go. Basically, Nick [Park] had this drawing, a single drawing, of a chicken digging a hole under a fence with a spoon. It was just a gag really… but from that gag, the story evolved.
He and I started talking about it. Very quickly the idea evolved that we’d do an escape movie, particularly The Great Escape. In the end it’s nothing like The Great Escape; it’s funny how those things work.
Having come up with that drawing of the chicken, it didn’t take us long to realise – probably about five minutes – that a row of chicken huts looks quite like a row of huts in Stalag Luft III in The Great Escape. That was the idea, but when you’ve got that idea you come up with a lot of other stuff.
We came up with a version of the film that would probably be three hours long. There was tons of stuff, you know?
I’ll tell you: in an early version of the story, the chickens were living on a cute little farm somewhere. They got up to some mischief and went out on the road, and the huts got attached to a car or something. They went around wreaking havoc, and as a result of this they ended up in some sort of chicken court or farmers’ court. Then, they got sentenced to a prison camp. That’s the sort of thing you live with for a few months before common sense intervenes.
It was fun to talk about. There was another storyline; one of the films we spoke about was Stalag 17, an American prisoner-of-war movie in which one of the prisoners was a sneaker, an informer for the Germans. So we had that in our story as well, we had a bad chicken.
You try all these things, kick around these ideas for ages and ages. Eventually, we went to Hollywood, armed with attention – everyone wanted to talk to us. Having talked to Warner Bros., Fox, Columbia and all the rest, we ended up speaking to DreamWorks, which was a new studio at the time formed by Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. We met with them, and pitched the idea… and it was a total ‘home run’, as they say.
The first line of the pitch was: ‘We’re gonna do The Great Escape with chickens.’ Frankly, we had them then. It’s one of the best pitches you can imagine, it’s just great. Work had already started on the film, but then it continued. We had to figure out: if that’s the pitch… what’s the story?
Going from short films like A Close Shave to a feature-length stop-motion production… what was the step-up like? Much of the sameness or was it a big leap?
It was pretty devastating; quite a shock to the system actually. A Close Shave was around 30 minutes long, and this new one was going to be 85 minutes, so nearly three times as long. So, one would think it’ll be three times as much work. But it’s more than that… it was more like 20 times more. Massively more than we ever imagined when we first started.
It was a hell of a learning curve for us, because we were this excellent, smallish team. When we made A Close Shave, the whole team was about 50 in the entire studio. When we finished Chicken Run, it was more like 300.
The thing that surprised me most was that by the end of Chicken Run, we probably had 30 different units. Thirty small studios, each one with a camera, a set, lights and puppets. The sheer number of puppets and sets we needed constantly surprised us as we went along. Another challenge was… well, if you look at A Close Shave‘s credits, I bet there’s eight animators credited. But of those eight, only four were really important, put it that way.
One of the things we did, which is amazing now I think about it, is we set up a training course for the movie. In collaboration with the local University of the West of England, we did a dedicated course and I think there were 12 people on it, I think. They were pretty young, fairly recent graduates most of them. Mid-20s. We trained them up very intensely over the course of a few months, and of that 12, nine or 10 worked on the film quite significant. It was an amazing focus of talents.
Years later you directed The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!… and you said Chicken Run was a titanic increase in work. How as the field of clayma- sorry, stop-motion evolved since 2000?
It’s a great question, it’s become quite common, right? Take into account us doing our thing, Tim Burton doing his film, Laika doing their films in Oregon, Wes Anderson doing his films. Since Chicken Run, there’s been a lot. Tim Burton and Wes Anderson’s are all done in the UK, so the local talent has increased enormously.
We think it’s sort of a world community now. When we start on the next one, whenever that may be, the call will go around the world for talent. Certainly with Pirates, I was very aware of how great the team had become. By then, some of them had been doing it for 15 years with us. All of the stuff that was a shock on Chicken Run, we were now confident. The puppet-makers, the animators, the people doing motion control, lighting, camera – all these people, it was a really great team.
They were quite brilliant. A little detail worth mentioning is that Chicken Run was shot on film; we were a film studio then, now we’re entirely digital. The technology has made it much easier in a really good way; putting in backgrounds, changing backgrounds, set extensions, disguising rigs, all the technical stuff is brilliant now. That gives you a lot of freedom.
If we’re going back to inspirations for Chicken Run, let’s talk Mrs Tweedy… what led you to sketching such pure evil?
We knew she would be the commandant. There was definitely a pretty vague reference to German military uniform: high collar shoulders, wellington boots. That influenced the design.
We also must of known by then that Mr Tweedy would be a hopeless twit; he was all kind of stooped, bent and round and she was all upright like a ramrod. She was a great creation. These things evolve through the writing, the character design, the storyboarding and the voice actor, how they all come together.
The cast is tremendous. I need to find out more about Mel Gibson being cast in a stop-motion movie, what was it like bringing him aboard?
It is extraordinary. Originally, the whole story was we had this character – nothing to do with The Great Escape – who lived outside, but came in. He was always a bloke, because we knew everyone inside would be women.
Then we landed on the idea that we’d make it an American; that wasn’t a cynical choice, but it was a crafty choice. It worked so well for the story, it allowed for gender comedy about an English woman and American man sparring together, and it had references to what happened when Americans came over in World War II… ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’.
So, we needed an American actor. We were working at the time with a very excellent producer, Jake Eberts. He came on board to help us get this film made, and Jake was an experienced Hollywood player. He put in a call to Mel, asking: ‘Are you up for this?’
Nick and I, goggling newcomers to this world, met him in a cigar store in Beverley Hills. It was a very, very macho thing… I’ve never smoked a cigar in my life, I’d throw up if I did. Mel had a big fat Cuban cigar.
He was right up for it! I was told that he had a huge family, profusion of children, and they couldn’t see any of the films he made. They were all big macho things, you know? It’s quite often with a number of actors, they want something their kids can enjoy as well. He was great, good as gold, given that Nick and I were pretty inexperienced.
There’s an art to directing actors. A skill. People in live-action, or theatre, they learn it as part of their everyday experience – but for us, it’s not. So we we worked at it… and we were actually very good at it.
Things like… you’re not meant to tell them what to do. You’re not meant to say: ‘Do it this way, Mel!’ That’s considered bad form, and they don’t want to be told, they want you to suggest things and work together. We weren’t very good to start with, but we were better by the end.
Chicken Run remains the highest-grossing stop-motion movie ever to this day. Did you ever expect it to have such a legacy?
Thinking about the legacy, you’re right. That’s great, isn’t it? It’s terrific. There’s something about it that’s made it last very, very well, of course I’m delighted about that. The first challenge was becoming a hit. We didn’t need that, but you want a hit, don’t you? And the studio wanted a hit. DreamWorks really got behind it.
It’s so funny, I’m in my study now and I’ve got a few bits of merchandise from the movie. Not much – well, most of it’s rubbish actually – but I’ve got a few bits. I’ve got a radio with two rats carrying it, a strange machine that was never in the movie… it’s Mr Tweedy driving it.
The point is… DreamWorks really got behind it. These were the days were there was lots of merchandise around a film, so selling toys, t-shirts blah blah blah was a big part of it, which it isn’t anymore. There’s still the classics – like Toy Story will obviously sell stuff. But if it’s a new film with new characters, they don’t often bother with that anymore. Back then, they did.
DreamWorks spent a lot of money on promoting it, and that really helps, there’s no denying it. They put faith in it, and it just clicked. It was so satisfying. It was a pretty significant sum at the box office, and this world total is the best there’s been, so that’s brilliant. It was just a happy event all round.
It’s such a quotable movie. Funnily enough, the first words I ever said to my girlfriend were ‘I don’t like gravy!’ because she started the ‘I don’t want to be a pie’ quote. What was the initial reaction like? Were there many test screenings or screenings for DreamWorks execs?
[Laughs] That’s great. Well, the main man, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was already all over it that he knew it very well. There were test screenings – in truth, were they the best we ever had? Probably.
It’s part of the process in Hollywood; when the film is ideally three-quarters finished or nearly finished, you show it to the audience. They want to make sure the audience is loving it and if there’s anything we do to make them love it a bit more. They ask questions, like: ‘Who’s your favourite character?’ From those questions, you can make a few little adjustments to make it more appealing. But yeah, that went really well.
We didn’t do many, although I do remember one in Long Beach, California, or some strange place, at a shopping mall. We’d all gathered there, and the film was three-quarters finished. I remember looking at these people coming and they were all dressed how American families dress. Quite multi-racial, as that area is.
I thought: ‘Good god!’ I hadn’t considered this audience before. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but you make it for yourself, make it to be as good as you can.
Suddenly, you’re thinking: ‘Oh shit!’ These ordinary, suburban American people, especially in the US where the cultural references are much different and they don’t embrace much of ours… what were they meant to think of this film about English chickens in Yorkshire.
But it went really well. It does have a bloody good script; we got Karey Kirkpatrick in, and it was a bloody good script. Good story, very tight, very nicely shaped, some great one-liners in it.
Animal rights has become even more of a hot topic in the 20 years since Chicken Run. People can be quite anal about picking apart comedies from days of past, but it’s aged very well in that regard, especially with their escape to the ‘Chikin Sanctuary’. Not that I’m overtly suggesting you considered all that, but do you think it’s almost a little prescient?
Actually, yeah you’re right. Of course it was in our thinking; I mean, from day one, we were on the side of the chickens, you know? [Laughs] We made the humans and their motives unattractive, so yeah you’re right it has held up very well.
Another area I think it holds up very well, even more so, is it’s quite a strong feminist film. What’s the name of that test?
The Bechdel Test!
It’s something to do with the women appearing on screen without having to talk about men, isn’t it?
Yeah, the movie has to have at least two women in it, talk to each other about something else other than a man, and that’s pretty much the crux of it.
Well… we smash that! Rocky is an important character, but in terms of screen time, so much of it is women talking to each other not about men. Is that luck? I don’t know, but it does mean it holds up very well. You’re right in saying people can be a bit revisionist with old films, picking it apart like: ‘Dear, dear, dear, what deplorable morals! Chauvinist! Anti-feminist!’ We got it right at the time.
What’s your favourite moment of Chicken Run looking back?
The bit that always makes me laugh is when they capture and tie up Mr Tweedy. By that point, something’s been brewing for a long time in this film. The humans have been pretty brutal; they grab the chickens by the neck, carry them around the place, treat them like dirt.
They despise them, you know? They’re cruel to them, they’re bullying. So it’s great when the chickens turn! Mr Tweedy lifts up the roof, looks inside and all these chickens he thinks were organised are working away with tools, saws… and he says: ‘You thieving little buggers!’
That’s also satisfying, because we can say bugger and get away with it because in America they don’t recognise it as a swear word really. Then they attack him and tie him up, I remember think it was just a great moment.
Before I let you go, is there anything you can tell me about Chicken Run 2?
The only thing I can say really… is that most of the characters are back. Most of the characters that we know and love are back. They will be back, and we’ve got a great story, but it’s just not quite out there yet. We’re in development still.
There is currently no release date for Chicken Run 2.