From "Goof Off" to "Barnyard": One Director's Animated Rise
- Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
- 2006 31 Jul
Steve Oedekerk is a real animal. A cow, in fact. And even though the Oscar-nominated director voices an entirely different character in his upcoming children’s film, “Barnyard,” Otis the cow is exactly what Oedekerk used to be like.
“I literally just wanted to goof off,” he said, during a recent interview. “I thought that was everything
“Barnyard” tells the ‘story behind the story’ of some farm animals who come to life every night, partying and doing whatever animals would do, if they were … well, human. When the farmer’s away, this film says, the animals will play – and play they do, voiced by some very recognizable names, such as Danny Glover, Andie MacDowell, Courteney Cox Arquette and Kevin James, to name just a few.
But “Barnyard,” said Oedekerk, who also wrote the screenplays for the “Ace Ventura” movies, as well as “Patch Adams,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Bruce Almighty” and “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), is more than just fun and games. “This story is very personal to me because my sister and I are adopted; there’s an underlying theme about how great adoption is,” he explained. “That’s a cool thing for me.”
Here’s what else he had to say about the film, his faith and the kind of children’s humor he hates in movies. …
Annabelle Robertson: You’ve done animation before, of course, with “Jimmy Neutron.” How’d you get the idea for “Barnyard?”
Steve Oedekerk: I was at a friend’s house, and his dog was looking at me. And everywhere he went, it just kept looking at me. Since I am overtly visual, I had this image of me leaving the room and the dog standing up on two legs and saying, "Man, it’s about time that dude left." And he strolls over to the cat, and they go back to playing poker. It was just this funny little thought but it stuck with me. And it wasn’t too long before I thought, ‘Boy, that could really make a cool movie.’
Annabelle: How hard was it to get the film made?
Steve: Not hard. I was working on a demo for it at my house and someone from Nickelodeon was over there, after “Jimmy Neutron,” and saw it. They chased me for that thing for three years, but I was busy, so we finally did it. That’s a familiar rhythm for me. I tend to think about what I want to do next, and then I figure out a way to get it done. I’ve been sort of lucky that way.
Annabelle: Very nice.
Steve: Well, I’m not cocky about it, because sometimes it means paying my own money to do it. But generally I’ve been lucky.
Annabelle: Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up? What were your parents like? What did you do as a teen?
Steve: They were awesome. One of the things that goes on in “Barnyard” is "What is family?" My parents are my parents, and I think that a lot of times people who aren’t adopted think it’s a biological thing. My own kids are the only blood relatives I know. The concept of having a closer bond with them than my mother had with me is crazy. It’s about who cares for who and who loves who. There’s a message of "What is family?"
Annabelle: Where did you grow up?
Steve: Huntington Beach, CA.
Annabelle: Were you a surfer?
Steve: I was the rebellious kid. So I guess I didn’t surf, because everyone else was surfing. I was playing basketball and tennis.
Annabelle: When did you decide that you wanted to be a filmmaker, and how’d you go about doing that?
Steve: I wanted to do what I called “entertainment.” I was six or seven and I didn’t even know what it meant, but I wanted to do it – much to the chagrin of my teachers. College schmallage. I often say I wasn’t around until I was 20. Not unlike “Barnyard,” which was a mirror of my life, I literally just wanted to goof off. I thought that was everything. When I was about 20, I started getting those pings from God. I don’t know how else to describe it. Your conscience just gets a little louder. You start thinking about what matters, and what matters to others. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for 12 years. My mother was very devout, she was always praying for us, and wanted the best for us. So that’s when I started off the relationship that I’m still trying not to wreck.
Annabelle: So you’re a Christian?
Steve: Yes, definitely. But I don’t read the Bible every day. It’s the rule that works every time, but I don’t always do it. I mean, there are times when I read the Bible every day, but it’s in waves. I think that God’s always rolling his eyes at me. I’m there, everything’s going fantastic, then I go ‘Okay, God, I got it. Watch me do this – it’s going to be fantastic!’ Then I realize I have to read the Bible every day. I think I’m this problem child.
Annabelle: How’d you get into filmmaking?
Steve: I didn’t make any plans. I went to Golden West Junior College, playing tennis every day, which was a lot easier than at my high school, Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana. I actually got “indefinite detention,” where they just put me in detention for the rest of the year. I never did anything bad-bad. I was just cracking up and making jokes all the time. So I was at junior college and they had this talent show and I thought I would write four minutes of stand-up comedy. It was just a moment where I went, “Okay, that’s it!”
Annabelle: So it went well?
Steve: It went over really well, so I quit school and my job the next day. When you see “Barnyard,” you’ll see the lighter version of that. But basically that was my relationship with my dad, him going, “What are you doing?” while I’m laying in the back yard on a lounge chair writing jokes.
Annabelle: But isn’t stand-up comedy about life? What does a 20-year-old know about life?
Steve: I’m the master of being able to get a laugh out of nothing. I mean, some of my stuff is “Patch Adams” and “Ace Ventura,” but a lot of it was just inane, silly stuff. I was going through all of this turmoil at home. I was going to be the bum, and I was really confident in what I was going to do, and for whatever reason, I can’t tell you why, I picked up a Bible and started flipping through it. I wasn’t reading it in any kind of respectful way – I was just cruising through it. My dad had been filling my head with all this stuff, “What are you going to do? When are you going to get a job?” and I came across that passage where it says, “Don’t worry about the clothes you’re going to wear. Just put your trust in God.” I said, “That can’t be true.” So I decided that I was going to follow it to the letter and prove it wasn’t true. And all I can say is, cut to this day, and I can’t even begin to tell you all the things that happened in my life that proved it to be true.
Annabelle: What was your first big break?
Steve: I started working at the Comedy Store in Las Vegas and L.A. I had saved $25,000 and I thought that I could either go to film school or just make a movie. I pained over that decision for all of 29 hours and then I did what I now know is one of my traits, which is to say, “I’ll just make a movie.” I wrote the thing in a week and was shooting it two weeks later. It was crazy, but it was fast and furious. I was driving around in the middle of the night looking for places to shoot.
I edited it, then I bought out a screening room at Disney and cold-called acquisitions studios. They all said no, then a few reluctantly agreed to come. Then a few more. So I screened it and suddenly I started getting offers, and all the people who had said no to me were giving me advice. It was an awful green thing that actually had funny stuff in it, and I got offers for people to buy it. While I was in the process of making that decision, one of the print places I had dropped it off at lost it. It was essentially stolen from me.
Annabelle: What happened to the film?
Steve: Some dude took the movie to Cannes, made foreign pre-sales then called me and offered me 20 percent. I’m like 20 years old and I’m saying, “Dude, I’m gonna sue you!” but no lawyers would take my case. The guy wasn’t even a citizen of this country. They told me, “He’s got it. He’s out of this country. Your film has been exposed. You’re hosed.”
Annabelle: Did he make money off of it?
Steve: Oh, yeah. Like, he sold it to France for $60,000. Spain for $120,000 – and all the other countries. Which was a lot of money – especially for me, doing stand-up comedy. It was huge. I was p----d off at the world. I was in a funk. I had no money. I had cancelled all my road gigs and was flat broke and wallowing in the negative. I went to this place where I’d get these 37 cents bean cups. While there, I had a life epiphany. I thought, "People are calling me. I can still do stand-up. And, if things get worse, I can always come back here and get another bean cup." It was one of those things – a great low moment that I realized wasn’t really a low moment at all. There were a lot of people in the world who were a lot worse off than I was. Ever since then, I’ve not had a very desperate attitude.
Annabelle: So you’re an optimist.
Steve: People wouldn’t even call me an optimist. They’d call me an idealist. I really believe everything can have a great landing. I’ve even incorporated a severe look into life where, when, say, I’m dealing with a back-stabbing person, I think, “Could be something good going on!”
Annabelle: But you’re not so naïve.
Steve: No. After that experience, I became incredibly knowledgeable about the business side of things, about distribution and rights and everything else to do with film. I was so set up for being able to deal with good people and sharks. And that’s the way the world works. We get perks out of successes but we get perks out of failures.
Annabelle: What’s your biggest failure?
Steve: You know, I can’t even use the word. I haven’t had a failure in the traditional sense. Even the smallest things we’ve done have done well. And that’s not because it’s great – I think it’s because it’s authentic. We’re really trying to do something that will turn out cool, and it finds its audience.
Annabelle: And your audience with “Barnyard"?
Steve: Kids, families. The neatest twist of late is that the Christian community is being considered by Hollywood. I don’t think there’s been a moral awakening. It’s just that they’ve woken up to the fact that Christians are out there and need to be considered.
Annabelle: And yet, what’s coming out of Hollywood isn’t often what the average American thinks, lives or believes, is it? Much less what Christians believe.
Steve: You’re right. The moral fiber of the country is so different from what Hollywood thinks it is. It’s a gigantic advantage to understand that.
Annabelle: So much humor in children’s films is about gas and poop. It’s gross. I don’t get that.
Steve: I hate it. I wish my wife was here so you could hear her go off on that. It drives me nuts. I hate it. It’s not something I’m into. It’s a low level of comedy. There are clever jokes that can be lowbrow, but when I’m doing stuff, I’m trying to make sure that there is something there. If anything, I lean toward the weird.
Annabelle: What’s your next project?
Steve: To spend the month of August with the family. Then “Barnyard” is going to be a television show, with 13 episodes on Nickelodeon. So that will be fun. Then, on the crazy side of things, we have this thing called “Dirk Derby Wonder Jockey,” a completely insane project but we’re enamored with it. “Evan Almighty” will be out next June or July. As for what’s up next, I’ve got a few things I’m kicking around.
Annabelle: More animation?
Steve: I love animation. I’ll probably keep doing it. It’s such a huge time commitment to direct. I love it, but I can’t multi-task. I can’t write as many things. I want to go into creation wave. But when I have to direct, I’ll direct.
Annabelle: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters or filmmakers?
Steve: It sounds like such a simpleton answer, but I would just do it. The first goal is to do it, and have it be something that’s phenomenal. It’s the simplest thing but I think it’s the thing that’s skipped a lot.
“Barnyard,” is written, directed and produced by Steve Oedekerk.
The film is rated PG (for mild peril and rude humor) and opens in theaters nationwide on August 4, 2006. Click here for more information.
Photos © Paramount Pictures