Mike Disa is the director of the upcoming movie Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil. He was raised in a large, devout Irish Catholic family in Chicago. Mike holds a record for the most consecutive Easter Masses served by an altar boy at St. Francis of Assisi parish where his uncle, Father Pete, served as pastor. His mother jokes that he’s a convict because there’s less shame in that than being a Hollywood director. He is active in his parish in Santa Clarita where his daughter sings in the choir. Mike took time from his busy schedule to talk about his passion for his faith and the art of digital animation.
Peggy Bowes: What inspired you to become an independent director and take on the sequel to a popular animated film?
Mike Disa: I have 20 years of experience in animation, and it was the characters of Red and Granny that made me step out of the studio system and go independent and take a chance because they’re great characters. They’re heroic. How many times in an animated film have you ever seen two female, or even two characters at all, who are actively engaged in the pursuit of good, in trying to make the world a better place as part of day-to-day life? It’s not just that they’re getting swept into an adventure by accident, or going off on a romantic journey to find their true love, or trying to overcome some silly, artificial plot device like “I can’t fly,” or “I’m too fat,” or whatever it is. They’re actually good people trying to do good and trying to not only overcome external problems, but grow and become better at who they are. You just don’t get stories like that in animation, and it lends itself to great drama and adventure and comedy as opposed to the same old sight and biological humor gags you get over and over again in the other films.
Peggy: Your description sounds a lot like women saints who practice heroic virtue and try to do good. Is there are a market for that type of story in Hollywood?
Mike: There should be. I think that there’s always a market for great stories about great people, especially heroes. The most influential people in my life, other than my father, were the nuns who helped teach me and raise me. These were powerful, strong intelligent women, dedicated to making the world a better place—great role models for a young boy to grow up around. I think we should have more role models like that. There should be more people like Granny presented to young women in the world. You can grow up, and you can grow old, and you can still be a vital, smart, heroic, strong person who gets great things done. I think we need more of that in our society.
Peggy: What sort of challenges do you face as a devout Catholic in Hollywood?
Mike: I face the same challenges that any Catholic would anywhere. You’re going to be presented with choices. Some of the choices will be an easy path to riches and fame or whatever you want, and that path may not be the right one. As Catholics, Christians, or people of faith and ethical will, you’re always presented with shortcuts. Or you’re presented with temptations to do the wrong thing, get something out of it, and rationalize it to yourself. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve failed. I haven’t lived up to my faith and my training as I should have. Every time it goes wrong, I try very hard to make up for it, to ask forgiveness, to make up for anything I might have done, any weaknesses I’ve shown. If I don’t, my wife beats the living hell out of me.
The other thing about my faith and being raised as good Midwestern stock, is the kind of films I like to make. I like to make films like the classics I watched growing up— Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Wizard of Oz, Mysterious Island– those wonderful films you saw together as a whole family. Everybody in the family loved them. Those are the kind of films I’m drawn to with heroic characters, doing good, learning good, finding strength in themselves. Sure, it can be a comedy or an adventure. I’m just attracted to those classic family values stories because I love to see good people trying to succeed beyond their dreams
Peggy: On your website, you mention two films in development. One is The Seven Dwarves with Disney and the other, Wings with Warner Brothers. Can you tell me any more about these films?
Mike: Those are not in development. Those are in my resume. Wings is a film I developed with Warner Brothers years ago and Warner Brothers Features shut down before I could make it. You have to account for the time. I spent a year on it. For Seven Dwarves, I was asked to come back to Disney after leaving to do a prequel to Snow White, and I left over creative differences. Essentially the studio executive wanted Dopey to talk! [Laughs in disbelief.] It just comes down to my respect for great films. Snow White is today still the best animated film ever made. Those characters are spectacular. It’s a sad statement on our industry that the best film was 80 years ago, but it’s still the best film. I would never walk into a sequel and do anything to disrespect the core of the characters like making Dopey talk. That’s the same approach I took to Hoodwinked Too– absolute respect for the characters. They’re in different situations, they’re doing different things, they’re growing, they’re changing, but at the core these are those same admirable, heroic characters from the first movie. So what I’m developing now are two other things. I’m developing an animated holiday film and, believe it or not, a CG live action movie about a princess that breaks the mold of what you think about as your average princess. It’s kind of my response to all the princess movies I was complaining about in my blog.
Peggy: Do you have a patron saint or a favorite Catholic devotion?
Mike: I do. The one I picked for my Confirmation was St. Michael (the Archangel), obviously. He was my father’s patron saint too. He’s the patron of police officers. My grandfather was a police officer and many of the people in my family were police officers. St. Michael has been a big part of my family’s belief system for many, many years. I have some very specific [devotions] I do weekly that allow me to draw strength and comfort from my religion, but I’m uncomfortable talking about the specific details in public. Like the nuns used to say, [in a mock Irish accent] “Don’t be goin around showin’ yer faith on yer shoulder. Live it! Let people see by yer example.” As Thomas Aquinas said, and I’m paraphrasing, “You don’t want to set yourself as an example and then screw up and do more harm than good.” Be humble. Be quiet. Just let people see your example.
Peggy: On your blog, you list a number of films that inspire you but as far as I can tell, none of them are animated. How is directing an animated film different from directing a traditional film?
Mike: It’s much more complicated. As I often say to my crew, it’s a special effects movie with 1700 special effects shots. That’s ten times more than a traditional film. It takes a huge amount of planning, a huge amount of dedication. It takes a good team who you’ve worked with a lot and who understand how to do it. It takes the ability to stay on focus and keep going because these things take two years. You just don’t show up on the set with some actors and see what happens. I’ve done live action, and there’s work in that, but it’s just not how animated films work. You make a plan and you have to stick to it. Otherwise your budget goes out of control or the work just doesn’t look finished when you see it. So that’s how it’s different. But it’s very important for myself and the people I work with not to consider ourselves animation filmmakers. We’re filmmakers. We still need to approach the storytelling and the characters and the action and the comedy exactly the same way as we would if we were doing live action. That is not necessarily true in a lot of big studios. There is this tendency to only view animated films in the context of other animated films. It’s a very closed community, a very small niche but myself and the guys I work with are passionately dedicated to opening that up. Let’s tell stories the way anybody would. The way Michael Curtiz or John Ford or any of the great directors in the past would tell it. Let’s measure ourselves against the best and do our best work and excite and thrill people the way great old films did and not worry about how our film compares to the gimmicky thing on the side of a Happy Meal.
Peggy: Thanks for your time, and good luck with the release of Hookwinked Too this weekend.
Mike: Thanks to your readers and anyone who sees the film. I just want people to enjoy it. At the end of the day if people are happy and they enjoyed this experience with their kids and it becomes part of their family’s life, it’s a dream come true for me. I’m thrilled. Everybody on the film crew is a family person and we talked about how we were asking people to go to a lot of trouble to bring their families to this movie. We have to make sure that every minute of it is worth it for them, that the 3D is as spectacular as we can make it and the jokes are funny. It’s as exciting as we can make it. We’re very careful not to scare the kids, but we want to keep them excited and interested. We really did try to make a film so a family can just trust and come to it and relax and enjoy it and afterwards go have a hamburger and talk about it and laugh.
Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil opens in theaters on April 29th.