Director Thor Freudenthal talks to Elbert Wyche about his entry into filmmaking and the challenges of directing a sequel.

Thor Freudenthal received a scholarship that led the German native to the US to study animation at the California Institute Of The Arts. After a few animated shorts and a string of commercials, Freudenthal made his presence known with his first live-action short and Sundance 2005 selection, Motel

Freudenthal got the call for his 2009 feature debut DreamWorks’ Hotel For Dogs and subsequently directed Diary Of A Wimpy Kid for Fox 2000, released in 2010. Fox 2000 approached the filmmaker to direct its fantasy adventure sequel, Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters.

What made you decide to become a filmmaker?

It wasn’t an immediate process of decision-making.  My first and foremost interest was in art. As a child, I remember drawing pictures on the walls and windows. Going into high school I would sell comic book-type stories to magazines that would have them. So initially I thought I would become a comic book artist. However, I felt it was too isolating to sit at a desk day-in and day-out. I like interaction with people. I grew up with the Spielberg films and I think when I saw E.T. subconsciously a decision was made to pursue something in that direction. Since I could draw the first thing I did was to try and study animation. I ended up at the California Institute Of The Arts, which has an animation programme in its film school and that was a great education about visual story telling and filmmaking. I ended up working at a visual effects company as an artist; I did concept art and story boards. I did character designs on the movie Stuart Little and Stuart Little 2.

Meanwhile I was dabbling in short films on my own and that led me to being signed at a commercial production house. Suddenly I was directing, albeit 30-second ads, for about five years. Meanwhile, I was doing a short film that ended up in Sundance [Motel] and I had written a couple of scripts that were set up at studios and never got made. That slowly opened the door to making a feature film. So, it was a gradual progression that led me to where I am. 

It seems like your creative trajectory was sending you towards animation. Why the shift to live-action?

Motel was my first full-fledged live-action film. I always loved the idea of working with actors. To me if there was one thing more interesting than animating characters, it was eliciting performances from people. I just always felt that the stories told in animation in this country are of a particular type. I’m interested in all kinds of filmmaking, all kinds of storytelling and in live-action films. At the time it felt there was a broader spectrum of what interested me.  Also, I like to be on my feet; I like to get my hands dirty and that’s what you do when you’re running a set doing a live-action film.

How did you become involved with Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters?

The simple reason is that I made a movie with Fox 2000 before that was the first Diary Of A Wimpy Kid film. We all had a great experience on that and they liked what I did in general. I had seen Chris Columbus’s first Percy Jackson film and really enjoyed it and it actually motivated me to open up the books and discover the world of Percy Jackson.

I like anything that has to do with creating a world.  I read the books and I really liked them and then surprisingly [Fox 2000] sent me the script, inquired whether I would be interested and because I had just finished the first two books of the series I said to them if we could mine the emotional depths of this, making it a kind of amplified coming-of-age story and combine it with the irreverent humour that the books had and set that against an action-adventure, then I would be totally game. And they said, ‘Alright lets do it.’ That was the short of it. 

A few of the overarching themes in this film are the feeling of inadequacy, the fear of being an outsider and the feeling of being dispensable.  Is that something you wanted the audience to experience through these characters?

Yes, totally. The thing that you find in the books as well is that at that age it’s a place in life where a lot of young people find themselves having to find out who they are and see whether they can prove to be adequate. In the case of Percy Jackson it’s very amplified because his father is a god. He doesn’t know whether he’s able to fill those gigantic shoes that are put in front of him. So I like the theme a lot.

What I tried to focus on was the relationship that he has with his brother. He’s a Cyclops who feels very much like an outsider; as if people view him as a monster. There’s a scene in the film which I really liked in which he turns to his brother and says, ‘Oh you have it easy, you never doubt yourself or think that you’re less than you are.’  And of course we as an audience know that Percy feels exactly that. In a weird way these are two characters that have in common the feeling of being less than themselves. I like the fact that the movie sees them overcome that at the end.

Does the emotional grounding of the film come more from the book or from your mind as the director of the film?

It’s certainly touched upon in the book. In the book, there’s definitely the idea of Percy trying to reach out to his father and not getting a response. Percy most of the time does not think of himself as a hero. In fact, what makes the book so likable is that he’s in these extraordinary circumstances and he’s got these powers, but there’s something endearingly awkward about him. That’s what we translated to the screen. Making [the character] Tyson and Percy experience a similar feeling of inadequacy and feeling as an outsider, that’s a parallel that we discovered in the script and just tried to bring to the forefront. 

How do you take on a franchise that comes with certain expectations on execution and still make it a Thor Freudenthal film?

Certainly when you slip into a continuation of something that came before, you have to work in certain elements that have been pre-established: the cast and the world. It does bring about certain limitations but also some liberty to actually break free.

The thing that I focused on is that the books have a bounce in their step. I felt that if I could lean on that, since I responded to it, and serve it, that’s how I would give it a fresh coat of paint. And that’s what I leaned on. Alexandra Deddario [who plays Annabeth] said, ‘This is like making a different movie with the same characters,’ which showed me that they feel it as actors that the point of view, tone and pace is different.

Further, since Chris Columbus had already ably established this world and introduced us to it, you’re allowed to play in it, deepen it and expand on some of the relationships. You are allowed to expand the world with very little exposition, which is kind of liberating. In my opinion, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the first film to get into this one and that’s why we quickly establish the world.

The books have three main elements that really interested me that were left out of the first film and they’re kind of central to the entire book series. I really wanted to make those elements a big part of this film. First, it was the story of Thalia, which sort of bookends this movie. Thalia being the symbol of courage to all half-bloods, especially Percy, who either gets inspired by it or feels himself less than adequate compared to this young girl who so ably sacrificed herself for her friends.

Second was the prophecy that also influences a lot of the actions in the series. Finally, there’s this big overarching villain who is woven throughout the entire book series in the shape of Kronos, who is the father of all the gods. We took it further in this movie than it is in the second Percy Jackson book. We gave him an entrance because we talk about him so much that in the end of the third act the audience needs to see Kronos. In the book you can further tease it out; continue to dangle a carrot even after the last page. In the movie we felt that we needed to bring that to some sort of satisfying finale, having Kronos appear. 

With the main cast returning, how did you settle on the new key actors?

First of all I loved getting people like Stanley Tucci as Dionysus the god of wine, Nathan Fillion as Hermes, and Anthony Head to be the new Chiron. The other kids, namely Clarisse [Leven Rambin] and Tyson [Douglas Smith], were challenging because Clarisse is a bully with a soft heart underneath or a sense of vulnerability and she also has to be funny. It’s really hard to get someone who is mean but sort of draws you in, because someone can be mean and it can be a real turnoff.

To me, Leven Rambin is not and that’s why she got the part. She has a real twinkle in her eye; I really liked her. Douglas Smith who plays Tyson had to embody that innocence of that big log of a guy who has a very child-like demeanour but who has a sort of inherent innocent intuitive intelligence. He had all of that when he came into the room. It was quite the search, but I think in the end we found the right people for the role. 

Where and when did shooting take place?

We shot the film last summer over the course of about 68 days, which is a very short time for a movie of this size. We started shooting in Vancouver where we filmed the city scenes, all of Camp Half Blood and studio work. It was kind of fun to piece the camp together from three or four different locations. That was all in and around Vancouver. For the last third of the film we went to New Orleans where we shot all the water stuff on Lake Pontchartrain, driving back and forth on a barge for days. The Cyclops Island we shot at an old abandoned Six Flags park, which had been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. It was sticky, it was hot – it was definitely a challenge. We had to do prep and pre-visualisation for sequences that were later in our schedule, while we were shooting. It was almost like laying the tracks for the freight train while it was running forward. That was definitely a challenge.

Any upcoming projects or things you’re working on now?

I can’t be too specific. There is a new movie that I set up at Fox prior to making Percy Jackson. We set it up at a company called 21 Laps with producer-director Sean Levy. We’re all very excited about this film. I’ll only say that it’s an adventure comedy aimed more at adults. There’s a thinking man’s action movie that I’m circling and talking to producers about. Of course I read non-stop. There’s always new and interesting material to look at.