Chris Miller is one of the driving creative forces of the Shrek franchise, having begun as a story artist and writer of additional dialogue on the first film and eventually graduating to director on Shrek the Third. Those pictures inspired many imitators, and since the series’ debut in 2001, the market has practically been flooded with self-conscious fairytale spoofs. Now, one of its signature characters has stepped out on his own to take over the reins of the recently retired saga: Puss in Boots. Antonio Banderas returns to voice Puss, and we get to learn of his humble beginnings and of his childhood friendship with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), who has grown up into a bitter grifter eager to steal Jack and Jill’s magic beans.. We spoke to Miller about the pressures of making a spin-off that stands separate from the Shreks, the influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, and whether or not he regrets the sub-genre of ‘pop-culture-heavy’ kids’ films he helped create.

SM: I like to begin by asking people about films they watched growing up and that inspired them to get into filmmaking?

CM: Oh wow. I’d say, the one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, of all the movies from my childhood. I had no business watching it, and I knew that, because it was one of those late-night viewings from the stair-case when I should have been in bed, and my parents were watching it with my older brothers, and I’m just peering in from the staircase. So it had that ‘forbidden fruit’ element to it. I found it to be one of the funniest films I’d ever seen. It still makes me laugh. I haven’t seen it in quite a while. And then on top of that, I just love Terry Gilliam’s animations that bridged the sequences. I was amazed – amazed – at how beautiful that stuff looked. That was a big boost to my desire to make flicks.

SM: You’ll be glad to know Holy Grail still holds up today.

CM: Yeah, I’m sure.

SM: You’ve been a part of the Shrek family since the beginning. How did it feel to find out that the series – independent of the spin-offs –  would wrap up after Shrek Forever After?

CM: Oh, it was great. I was excited. For me, I’d worked on the first three Shrek films and had a great time. It was an amazing experience, but the opportunity to then take my favourite character from that universe – far and away; even more-so than the title character. I just found Puss so intriguing that the opportunity to create a new world just for him that was a reflection of his personality, and what Antonio Banderas has put into that character, it was just a liberating experience. There were no rules, you know? He related to the Shrek films only in that he was in them, and that there was a fairytale landscape that existed. But other than that, I felt like we could do anything that we wanted, so we could create a new tone and a new feel, just in terms of the approach to shooting it and to production design. Everything about it felt very new. It had to be. It had to be unique.

SM: Was there a specific element or scene in your head that when you learnt you would be working on this, that you wanted to bring to the screen?

CM: I think there were certain inspirations early on. We knew it was going to be an origin story, and there was something about this character that demanded it just be larger than life. It needed an epic approach to filmmaking. It was going to be large in scope. So we started thinking about classic cinematic figures, or actors, that we could relate to Puss immediately. Early on Clint Eastwood was a strong force. There’s just something about Clint that was in the cat. Or Indiana Jones, with that adventurous spirit. We were looking at legendary figures, so James Bond is in that cat, and Errol Flynn is there as well. And Zorro, but Zorro you get for free with Antonio. You just heap that on top. That’s the way we proceeded with the movie, and aside from having the character of Puss in Boots as well, it just informed us stylistically how we were going to approach every scene and every shot.

SM: When the character was first imagined, how soon was Antonio Banderas brought in?

CM: Pretty soon. It’s funny, if my memory serves right, it happened pretty quickly. And then Antonio supplied a voice that just was pretty brilliant; I can’t imagine anyone else playing that character. It’s this booming, amplified version of Antonio coming out of this tiny little fury package. It was instantly funny and intoxicating and intriguing, and already a complex character. Someone who you felt like he had a great sense of history already. You’re like, ‘Oh, that guy’s been everyone; he’s done everything’.

SM: It’s a testament to the character that it’s become hard to separate Antonio from Puss. You couldn’t picture anyone else doing that voice, and you can’t say that of all animated characters. Tell me about bringing in Zach Galifianakis, who’s an interesting choice because he’s such a physical presence in his movies.

CM: Yeah, he is. We’re so fortunate that he was game to try it. He’d never done it before, but he’d seen a  little artwork and he was intrigued enough to give it a shot. We had one of those sessions where we said, ‘Just check it out and see what you think’, and we had a really good time. I mean, I try to approach the recording sessions in a really open way. It’s a collaborative art-form as far as I’m concerned; we have 400 artists working on this film, and I like to keep it open. Good ideas can come from anywhere. Zach tapped into that really quickly; it just felt natural to him, and it’s an opportunity to try comedy in a thousand different ways. We have our screenplay, we have our lines, but we have alternate versions, and we’re always encouraging improv if anyone feels like it. So he was great. But on top of all that, and as naturally funny as Zach is… he does have a distinctive, I don’t know, signature comedic appeal. I don’t know how to define it…

SM: His Zachness.

CM: He’s distinctly ‘Zach’. He’s a really great actor. That to me is what really puts him over the top in the film. You get the comedy, but you also get this performance that’s really vulnerable and fragile and it just makes him sympathetic despite some pretty horrendous things he does in the movie. You still, as an audience member, root for him. You’re hoping that he and Puss are going to be able to repair their past and renew that childhood bond they had growing up.

SM: You mentioned there were over 400 artists working on the film. Was there any particular sequence that was just a nightmare to animate?

CM: That took forever? (Laughs) There were so many challenges. There’s stuff that’s incredibly time-consuming, and we had such nice technological support on this movie that helped us to realise cloud-worlds and beanstalks growing and fur, and that fact of the matter is we had incredible artists working those tools. It’s time-consuming, but there was always a faith and a knowledge that, ‘OK, all these scenes are going to take forever, but we’re going to get there’, and I think we got there. The hardest thing – in not only this film, but making any movie – it’s not the technology, it’s not the animation, it’s not the production design, it’s none of those things. They’re really difficult, don’t get me wrong. It always comes down to the story. Is the story working? Is the story compelling? Is it entertaining? Is it going to move anyone? Is it emotionally satisfying? The whole movie takes about three years to make, and you’re writing story the entire time. That’s one thing animation affords you: the opportunity to improve your story, and change it, and evolve it. That’s by far and away the hardest thing to do.

SM: You mentioned before you were pleased to have a Puss and Boots movie stand as its own entity, but was there any temptation – or even any pressure – to connect it to the Shrek universe in a more explicit way?

CM: I never felt that from the studio, I have to say. They really bought on right away; ‘We have a great character, let’s celebrate that character, let’s create some distance’. There were times where it was mentioned, but we figured out early on that we needed distance, and we had an opportunity. We’re making a film about Puss in Boots; let’s make it new, let’s make it feel fresh. There’s been a lot of Shrek movies. We steered away as much as we could, and not in an attempt to avoid it, but it just wasn’t appropriate for this character or the way that we were going to tell this story. Our approach to comedy was very different in this movie. We wanted it to all come from character. Character interactions, and situations, and through the narrative. No pop culture references in this movie. We wanted to avoid that kind of stuff; that kind of stuff can date your film instantly. Sometimes it works great, and there’s a place for it in films, but in this movie, it would have snapped you out of the movie immediately. And even the way we approached the fairytale stories, we didn’t want to satirise them. We wanted them to feel differently. We took a bit of a mythological approach to all the fairytale creatures in this film. They’re all sort of legendary, and they’re definitely not the stories you heard growing up. We wanted them to be very different and the endings are very different. We wanted the whole thing to have a more epic feel.

SM: Do you regret the number of pop culture references in the Shrek films?

CM: No, I don’t. I don’t. I actually think the way those films were constructed, they felt very appropriate, and they were surprising when the movie came out. And the music worked; the contemporary music, and the way the comedy was presented, I remember at the time thinking it was pretty fresh. As a personal choice, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but I can’t argue that it wasn’t effective. And it was funny. It feels like it’s just been done a lot. Here we are, ten years later; Shrek‘s done it – and done it really well – and a number of peripheral films have come up and they’ve done it. There’s been a lot of fairytale storytelling going on over the last ten years (laughs).

SM: Shrek did kick off a genre of its own.

CM: It really did.

SM: I’ve read that Guillermo del Toro became somewhat serendipitously involved in the project? What influence did he have?

CM: That’s a great way to put it too. It was a very strange, and surreal and fated in a weird way. This all happened in a 24 hour period. I was reading in the trades that he was off The Hobbit, and I remember immediately going, ‘Oh, that’s a bummer’. That was the version of the movie that I wanted to see. I wanted to see Guillermo’s take on that movie. Then I found out he was at the studio that day in Los Angeles, and we happened to be showing the movie to the studio execs that day. We were about… we weren’t even halfway done. I’d say 20% of the animation was done and the story was still evolving, but it was solid. You could see what we were doing. It had its legs under it. Guillermo accepted our invitation and watched the movie, and he came out gregarious and thrilled. ‘I loved it!’ He asked me and our producer – who I have to mention, Latifa Ouaou, who was such a great creative partner in this whole experience – ‘Do you mind if I work on this movie? Can I be a part of this film?’ And we’re just sitting there, sort-of mouths open, ‘OK, what’s going on? Sure, why not Guillermo? You seem like a enthusiastic chap. Let’s make a movie together’.

I just idolise this filmmaker, and he was so enthusiastic and wanted to be a part of it. We worked out a system with him, because at the same time, Guillermo, he loves the movie, but he kept saying he didn’t want to fall in love with it too much. He wanted to be objective. He wanted to be a part of it, but he wanted to be kept away. So we worked out something where we brought him in once a month; kind of had him on call. If we had artwork to show him, let him react to the cloud-world design or the castle in the sky or the architecture in the city. He was so helpful, in that, Guillermo’s great in seeing where you’re going and then helping you achieve your goals. He’s not the kind of creative force that comes in and tears stuff down and says ‘I wouldn’t do it like that!’ He always comes from a supportive place. If we’re ever stuck in editorial, with an action scene that the pacing is just not working, we’d get Guillermo on the phone; he’d come in and help us cut a sequence. It was just like having our own private film school. Always supportive, if we were stuck with a character or a story point that wasn’t working. I remember Guillermo had a really great solution for Humpty that we had in the film. He suggested, ‘Make him a Da Vinci character, where he’s inventing all the time; he’s this great thinker and schemer, but you need to visualise that’. I love that. Notes like that help push our movie and the complexity of the film. He’s a great, supportive executive producer. The other thing he just did and it came naturally was, the studio adored him and they still do – he’s been working with DreamWorks and they were happy to have him there – he was a great buffer for us. That’s an executive producer to me. Someone who can look at the higher-ups and say, ‘Give them some space; they’re doing ok. It may not look like it today but they’re on the right track’.