The latest addition to the family-friendly boy-meets-alien genre is Earth to Echo, which features characters that are much more realistic than anything you'll see on the Disney Channel. We spoke with the director about channeling authentic kid dialogue and the creation of the cutest little alien robot to ever meep.
Earth to Echo felt very genuine. It's very different from a lot of the kid-friendly films we see today; the kids feel much more real. How do you think it fits in or stands out in recent family-friendly media?
Dave Green: It was really important to us when we were making the movie to tell a story about these kids who were actually going through things kids actually go through at the age that they're in, in the movie, and that we don't portray them as "movie kids." They needed to feel authentic, like real kids, and all the feelings that go along with that. At the end of the day, the most important thing was that we wanted to make a movie that told the story about these kids who were at this very charged period of time in their lives. Dramatically charged, if that makes sense. You have kids going through divorce, kids who are moving from middle school to upper school and saying goodbye to their friends. We wanted to acknowledge these kids as real kids, who feel real feelings.
Why did you decide to connect Echo [the alien] so tightly to the kid's technology? Echo basically communicates through their technology.
Dave Green: Henry Gayden, the writer, came up with that concept pretty early on. We had this idea that there's this thing that crashes to the ground and his eyes are shattered, or his lenses are broken, he can't really see. We imagined this thing to have a little, squat body and giant eyes that are half the size of his body, but he can't really see. I think the idea of Echo [then being able to see] through the cameras of the iPhones was maybe the first thing Henry came up with. Everything trickled down from there. Wouldn't it be cool if the kids got called to this mission through their technology? For me, that was really exciting because when I was a kid growing up the biggest thing in the world, to me, was Ghostbusters. Because that technology in that movie was accessible and real. While I can never be Batman, the technology in Ghostbusters felt like I could build it in my garage and I could be a Ghostbuster. When Henry came up with that idea I got really excited because this is something that helped me access the kids. I have a cell phone; I would do the same thing as the kids ended up doing. It was something that kind of helped me connect with kids at my age.
You mentioned Ghostbusters—that's a great point about the technology. What are your favorite movies that are family friendly?
Dave Green: I grew up on movies like Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice, the Tim Burton's Batman, and Amblin movies like Back to the Future—a great deal of heart. Goonies I didn't see until I was 25. I think it was a tonal thing for me when I was growing up. All those movies, they're very fun. They had a sense of suspense and action, they also had a great deal of heart. It was just a tone that I loved in every movie that I saw growing up and watching as a kid. It was a tone that I felt like, "Hey where did that go?" It was something that Henry and I agreed on. We both grew up at that time, experienced all those movies separately as kids. Our sense of humor is pretty in line probably because of our influences.
Is that sense of humor why the kids say I'm "scared as balls?" The dialogue is just very real; they cry and fight.
Dave Green: Yeah, for sure, that was part of the whole thing for us. We really wanted the kids to feel as authentic as possible. And that meant that they shouldn't feel polished, they shouldn't always say things…
Like "oh darn."
Dave Green: Exactly. It's funny when we were developing we actually had an opportunity to go to Pixar and get their feedback on our pitch and our story, which, at the time, was just a 20-minute, verbal pitch. When they heard it there was a suggestion from someone actually, really, really high up and they were saying, "You know what would be cool? If all the kids actually cursed the entire movie. And you just bleeped out everything they said." We kind of tabled that one…
How long did it take to create the look of Echo? Was it hard to find a unique, alien look because there have been a lot of alien movies?
Dave Green: When we started the creature development process, we knew we wanted something that had giant eyes that were cracked and lovable but also couldn't see. They had to be giant eyes, but when you looked into them you could see that they were hurt. So we were looking at creatures that had giant eyes and little bodies. Echo had to have a compact form so he could kind of hide away in one of the kids' backpacks, honestly just for budget reasons. We were looking at animals that looked like that, and Henry sent me an image of this baby owl that was 90% giant eyes and 10% body. It's so lovable. So we had that, and we had this baby tarsier. It's got huge, huge globe eyes and these little hands. Those two things were on my wall when we were doing concept illustrations.
For whatever reason, a lot of the illustrations came back super weird, and gross, and slimy. Just not ever-lovable. There's not an enormous amount of screen time that we have with Echo to connect with him. So we really needed something that you kind of fall for right away. A friend, of a friend of mine was going to Art Center College of Design was on summer vacation and I called him up. I'd never met him, and a couple days later he emailed me a pencil sketch of this thing that looked like a proud little bird. And I thought it was kind of adorable. That definitely informed everything that Echo became. He had figured out 90% of it in his first sketch,
Earth to Echo hits theaters tomorrow, July 2nd.