Matt Groening: interview
As the Simpsons finally make it to the big screen, creator Matt Groening tells Time Out about multiple rewrites, the ’South Park‘ model and Bart‘s, er, ’doodle‘
After the rolling loops of Walt Disney, the bold, crayony block capitals of Matt Groening make up what must be the most famous cartoon signature in the world. And, like Disney, the Simpsons’ creator is not shy about claiming credit. ‘What the hell does Matt Groening do anyway?’ he rhetorically ponders. ‘I write every word and draw every cell.’
The joke, of course, is that, with 400 episodes in the can and, finally, a feature film primed for release, ‘The Simpsons’ couldn’t be anything but a colossal collaborative effort. Still, it’s Groening who remains most closely associated with the family he famously named after his own parents and siblings and shepherded from a few scratchy interludes in ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’ two decades ago to its current status as America’s longest-running sitcom and global cultural staple.
Talk of a movie began almost as soon as the TV show went ballistic – remember those rumours about a live-action version starring Macaulay Culkin? – but due to the workload of the series, plans didn’t begin in earnest until 2003. When I met Groening in London a couple of weeks ago, the process was finally complete. ‘It was just finished last Friday before we got on the plane,’ he reported. ‘We all got together to watch it, all the writers and producers, and we all agreed that the print needed more yellow…’
Still unseen by critics, the film sees the Simpsons at the epicentre of a disaster that threatens Springfield’s very existence, forcing Homer to dredge his being for something like heroism and reportedly featuring every Springfield citizen at least once. Even though many of the series’ best episodes have the narrative pace and structure of a movie – ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish’, which includes World War II flashbacks, Indiana Jones-style derring-do and an underwater chase sequence, is a personal favourite of mine – the transfer to the big screen was still ‘very difficult’, Groening says. ‘It was not just about stretching an episode into a feature, it was about getting people to care about these characters in ways that they haven’t before. We have one scene at the centre of the movie where we recorded more than 100 takes with Julie Kavner as Marge. We finally got the right one when her voice gave out.’
Groening appears confident that the film will at least equal the TV show’s almost unparalleled density of jokes – audiences can expect an Itchy and Scratchy short before the main feature and then ‘sweet little jokes from the beginning to the end, from the 20th Century Fox logo to the final credits.’ But the group writing process wasn’t straightforward. ‘I can’t imagine the stack of pages that we re-wrote. Very few jokes from the initial screenplay made it on to the screen. There were jokes that were really funny for the first 250 or 300 times and then we said, “You know, let’s try changing it…” At one point the movie was supposed to be a musical but we kept interrupting the songs to stop people getting bored, then the songs got shorter and shorter and in the end we just said, “Lets not do it.”’ Given the interest in a musical approach, it’s no surprise that the ‘South Park’ feature film was ‘a spiritual role-model, an example of a great cartoon that went on to make a great movie’.
‘The Simpsons Movie’ also seems unafraid to get to grips with some of contemporary America’s more charged topics, notably religion and green issues. Twentieth Century Fox – the corporate sponsor whose nose ‘The Simpsons’ has long delighted in tweaking – has only screened the film’s opening ten minutes; as well as being very funny, they feature Grampa Simpson in the throes of an apparent mystical vision, early signs of an environmental cataclysm, a dig at Fox and, most shocking of all, a full-frontal view of Bart’s ‘doodle’. Gratifyingly, Homer is also on spectacularly bad parenting form and, we’re told, ‘falls in love with this pig’. (This, apparently, is ‘the heart of the movie’.)
Groening clearly enjoys the film’s teasing references to church and state. ‘People always want to know things like who Homer is going to vote for, but what makes you think that he votes? With religion, it’s fun to do a family which makes half-hearted attempts at being pious while you have Homer mocking “these pious morons praying to their phoney-baloney God”.’
It remains to be seen whether the whole movie will live up to the potential of its opening scenes but, with the critical response yet to come, Groening mentions his fondness for this very magazine. ‘I came here in 1973 when I was 19 years old – the issue that was on the stands was edited by Monty Python and I’ve been a fan ever since. I’ve tried to subscribe from Los Angeles but it’s like $500 a year or something.’ His excitement, however, might yet override his frugality. ‘With the obscene profits from “The Simpsons Movie”, I will subscribe to Time Out…’
‘The Simpsons Movie’ is out July 27.
Author: Ben Walters
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