Interview with Minions directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

I sat down with the directors of Minions in a roundtable discussion. If you’re curious about the world of the Minions, read on…

First of all, congrats on the film. You can’t deny its success – everyone is absolutely loving the Minions. What can you tell us about their made-up language? What kind of process went into that?

Pierre Coffin: Well, it started on the first Despicable Me, actually. When we came up with their look, after some research—we went through some big-looking orcs and stuff like that, and we ended up with these little characters—we knew that in one scene they were supposed to say “Gru! Gru! Gru!” when he was coming on stage. That was the extent of their language. When we started animating this shot, Chris Meledandri, our producer, saw the potential for them to live on their own and serve as funny cut-aways to help the movie in terms of rhythm. And so we started adding stuff, and the more we added the more we were wondering, like “how can we do it, just with silent characters?” And that’s when I started experimenting with gibberish, actually. Talking about nonsensical words, or words that were sort of English but not really. That was Despicable Me.

When Despicable Me 2 came along, the Minions were more central to the story, and they had to be a little bit more understandable. That’s when I started adding stuff that was hugely inspired by what I ate, usually, at lunch; stuff like “banana”, and “tikka masala”, “popadom” and whatnot. That became part of the language because, as we all discovered in the first one, it wasn’t necessarily the words that were important but rather the way they were said, and the melodic quality—the music, basically—of their language.

So, in the third one, the beauty of it came out of the fact that Brian Lynch, our scriptwriter, came up with the idea that they’ve existed for a long time and they’ve been serving all these masters all over the world, forever. That made total sense for their language to include all the languages of the world, like Italian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese… and I did the same work, meaning that every time I had an argument between two Minions, or one Minion was telling a joke, I had to find this quality of words which together helped me convey the emotional state of those characters. Basically it’s all about the performance, as opposed to the words.


Did you expect the Minions to be such a success, and what do you think is the secret?

PC: Oh man, if only I knew! If only I’d known that! We get a lot of questions like “did we know it was gonna be successful”… I think, from the moment you start thinking about making a success, that’s where you fail. That’s my theory. And I have the tendency—probably because I’m French—to say that I don’t like everything I do. I usually enjoy it but after about two years or so I look back and go “oh… it’s okay.” I just can’t tell, and I don’t think it’s a good attitude to say “we’re gonna do that because I know how to make a success” and Chris Meledandri, our producer, is the same way. He has a very acute eye on the story and on the characters and on how the movie should look, and I remember asking him, “how do you do that?” And he said… [shrugs] “I don’t know, if only I knew!” And that goes for the good things as well as the mistakes he’s made, which he totally owns up to.

Kyle Balda: Yeah. A lot of it is about finding the movie, and finding the characters. We try so many things, and then things don’t work, and we try it again. I think a lot of times when you start storyboarding or working with the characters, there’s a kind of intuition or trust you kind of have with the characters ‘cause they kinda tell you where they wanna go to, so it makes it really hard to think like “here’s a formula, and here’s what’s gonna really hit with people”. It was completely unexpected that it would become as popular as it was.


What was the attraction to you both about 1960s London? Being in an audience in London really struck a chord with everyone here. How did you decide on that location?

KB: Part of it is that the ‘60s had such a graphic style, the psychedelic and the colours and the designs of the cars and the way people dressed, and of course the music—we’re huge fans of that era of music—and we really wanted to pick a special era to tell the story and to give that as the backdrop. London became really important because it’s a huge part of the narrative, having to steal the Queen of England’s crown, but the ‘60s was just something we wanted to have some fun with, mostly.

PC: What was super cool about it as filmmakers is it gave us all these options, like “how do we [colour-] grade the movie? How do we shoot it? What kind of ‘lenses’ do we use, how do we re-create that?” I don’t know if it really shows, but we wanted really to differentiate ourselves from the others, basically. Every time we see a movie from the other studios it’s always sort of the same design, the same look. That gave us licence to basically make a timepiece, which is really fun, and music obviously became a part of it. I remember when we first pitched the idea of putting The Doors in there, it was like “what? The Doors? That’s creepy…” because I had helicopters in my head, shooting people… And then I was like “okay, let’s see how it works” – and now I’m hoping that people won’t necessarily think Vietnam or Apocalypse Now when they hear that bit, but, you know… Minions.


The film was made with a relatively low budget compared to other animated movies. How did you make the decision of what to include in the film?

PC: Everything we chose to put in the movie, nobody told us “you can’t do it”. The music included. Every time we went for another song, it was like “there’s no problem”. To the point of it being a little freaky. Like “oh man, we should’ve asked for more!” Kyle can talk about the other studios, but what I think is that we have a limited budget but that’s not to restrict us creatively, because it goes all over the place in development. It’s just a good thing we had a sort of bottleneck in Chris Meledandri, the producer. He’s the big chief. He’s the one that backs us like three times a week, when we show him the new stuff and he reacts, and we react to his reactions. He’s really hands-on. He’s a great storyteller so he knows what to try, and I’m personally very good at small stuff, constrained stuff. I’m really not good at longer stuff, Kyle is better at that than me.

We had these huge discussions about where the story should go and stuff, and the fact we were on such a restrictive budget puts the ‘pressure’ both on Chris Meledandri and us to try to make the best movie in those three years. We have three years, usually. I’m not sure that one can look at the movie and say it looks cheap, I highly doubt that. A lot of it falls on Janet Healey, one of our producers, who does the daily cost track and sees when Chris Meledandri should be reacting quickly because that scene is going into production and so on.

KB: It’s a little bit like flying on an airplane while you’re building it, because we start the movie really early in the process, while we’re still discovering the story. Things just get moving, and I think part of what works is that the momentum is what’s driving it. We see really quickly, we try things over and over very rapidly, editing the storyboards and testing out scenes and seeing which scenes are working and reacting to them, because of showing them so often to Chris.


PC: We basically have a three-year shoot, and up until maybe the last month there’s still writing going on, there’s still shots being animated. As opposed to a live-action shoot, where you shoot stuff over two months maybe at the most, and then you have all these rushes and you edit them… we don’t have that, we can’t shoot two shots, because we have to ask people to animate those shots. If you have three, four, five characters in there, that’s time-consuming. So the idea is to see the movie as quickly as possible in terms of storyboards, and try to get the sense of “is the global story okay? Do we care about the characters? Is the story that’s happening to these characters that we like interesting?” We see all that after a year, and we make adjustments as we go. It’s very scary.

I remember on Despicable Me, when they told me that and I said “really?” I read the script and I thought it was crap, and it was like three sequences into production, and I was really nervous, like “you’re gonna change the story?” I didn’t believe them, because I was being very pragmatic. I thought “you have a script, you get it good, and once it’s good, you put it into production and then do things in order”. Here, everything is super overlapped, which is very scary because most of the time you don’t know where you’re heading. You can’t be witty, and pre-plan the ending and know you’re aiming for it so you plant seeds here and there. Ultimately though, the three films I’ve done at least, have become witty in the end, but that was totally out of my control. I had doubts throughout, and when I saw the final results I was like “wow… how did we do that?”

Is there a lot of pressure on you? Do you feel like you need to compete with bigger studios like Pixar and Disney?

PC: I’m not thinking about that, actually. Universal is thinking about that, but I have other problems to make my life interesting.

KB: I think we’re always looking at ways to make a distinctive film, something that’s different, rather than try to look at what the other studios are doing and copy that. Especially as we were making sequels—or in this case, a prequel—we’re very careful not to go back to the well and use material that we’ve used before, to always keep it fresh and push ourselves to find a different way to tell the story.


PC: That’s very interesting, because when we pitched the story about the Minions, we had this feeling that the studios just wanted to make this movie because the characters had been really successful. I’ll get it totally wrong now and he [points to KB]’s gonna kill me but… it feels to me with all the marketing stuff that the Minions are the cash cow of Universal, and I have that very cynical, European, French mind and say “well, they wanna make money… I just wanna make the best movie ever.”

If I’m given the opportunity I’m going to try and go not where people are expecting me to go, and that’s in every scene and every shot of the movie. We try to find a way to make it original, to make it pleasing, and that’s how we approached the whole movie, by trying to make it distinctive and not like “this movie is gonna make money”, but like, a movie on its own, even if it means making less in numbers but becoming kind of cult in a way.

Everybody’s sort of expecting this movie for kids, but the truth is we were having more fun doing our movie our way than having constantly in mind “oh, we can’t do that, it’s for 4-8 year olds”. We’re always thinking about the poor parents who will be accompanying their children to the movies, because we live that thing every week. “What do they wanna see? Oh God, here we go again.” And usually I’ll be super bored or just mildly enjoy it. So you want to care about   the parents, like the kids will get the jokes at their own level, but the parents will enjoy it for other things.

Who came up with the initiative for the movie? Was it Universal or was it you?

PC: It was Brian Lynch, the scriptwriter, coming up to Chris Meledandri and pitching him the story. Like “I’ve got this idea, what if there was this thing called Villain-Con, the equivalent of Comic Con but in the evil world? So you’d have these two parallel worlds, but the normal world doesn’t know about the evil world…” So he came up with that concept, and when they pitched it out to us there was this whole thing going on, like “oh, we should make a prequel”, “we should show the Minions in time”, “oh, maybe we show them being around forever and they just want to serve the greatest master around, just to arrive at a very natural point where maybe they meet Gru at the end… I don’t know”.

I remember Chris Meledandri saying “oh man, that whole thing in the past, we’re gonna make twenty minutes of it”. And I said “twenty minutes, really? Because that’s gonna feel weird when we get into the real story.” Ultimately we nailed it down to ten minutes, though we animated a great deal of it—not twenty minutes, but it used to be way longer, “The Minions in Time”. We have all those shots, actually.


Extra footage, maybe?

PC: Maybe not, maybe like an extended version…

That sounds painful, to delete all that stuff.

PC: Oh, we’re used to it.

KB: It’s really part of the process. Sometimes it’s doing all that work that helps you find the stuff which makes it to the screen. You get attached to stuff, for sure, but you have to let go of it.

What was it like to voice the Minions?

PC: When I voiced the first two movies, it was okay. It was very small parts in the first one, then the second one was a little bit more but still okay. When I said yes to the third one, I didn’t know I was gonna voice hundreds of Minions. And how do you write for Minions? Ι remember Brian Lynch going “how do you write the dialogues?” Most of the time I’d find the comedy of their interactions, like “this one’s pissed off for some reason and then he’s gonna do this”, and all of that goes through the voice and it’s just me in front of a mic. It’s been a bit hectic. For three years I woke up at 6am, took care of my children, brought them to school, and from 8:30 to 10 I would voice whatever version of the script we had at that time. For three years. I was becoming a little crazy. Trying to keep up, trying to find words that don’t mean something by themselves but once put together they had the right melody to make an idea or a situation clear… It’s been really tricky.


So what does the screenplay look like? Do you see the gibberish written out as the Minions would say it?

KB: Well, Brian ended up finding a way of just expressing in English first… like, say, “fuck off”. Then I would find an insult equivalent to that, or put words in and find that little description that he has, like, “the Minions are hitchhiking, and nobody’s coming, and eventually a car stops and it’s the Nelsons”. Literally three sentences.

KB: We work with the storyboard artists to try and find out what actually happens in that sequence, and then it goes to Pierre who voices it after the fact. There’s a script that circulates afterwards, because the script is constantly evolving with the storyboarding etc, so eventually it gets replaced with words like “blummock” and so on, where you can actually read what the Minions are saying, but when we start there’s nothing there.

Did you record with Sandra Bullock, or did she do all her voice work separately? And how was she involved?

PC: She was great. She had this experience with The Prince of Egypt, which was pretty bad for her apparently, because she was brought in just to say words without an explanation of what was her character thinking or whatever. So we wanted to include her as much as possible within the process, and that was really helpful because, as we were saying earlier, we have this first version but in three years you can screw up like… how many times did we screw up? [They laugh.] We don’t even count anymore. But one of the screw ups was, we said “let’s have her be evil! The Minions are after someone evil to serve.” And so she played it that way, but she had great doubts about it, about her being evil throughout, because that’s not really interesting to play. And so she talked with Brian and with us and we all established together that in her introduction she needed to be super sweet, and her snapping point is actually when she’s telling this very sweet story to put them to bed but it turns into a nightmare all of a sudden, like “whoa, where did that come from?” And that’s why we went for the stop-motion, very kid-like stuff, to create that contrast between how sweet she is throughout and how dangerous she is in reality. That’s the turning point, and that was all her [Bullock]. Like with the crown at the end… she embraced that beautifully also, the fact that she gets frozen, but she has that little moment of sweetness.

KB: It humanises her character.

PC: It makes her this evil character but with a heart.

Read my review of the film here.

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