Interview – ‘Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken’ director Kirk DeMicco and producer Kelly Cooney on their new Dreamworks Animation film

Sometimes the hero you are meant to be lies just beneath the surface.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken dives into the turbulent waters of high school with a hilarious, heartfelt action comedy about a shy teenager who discovers that she’s part of a legendary royal lineage of mythical sea krakens and that her destiny, in the depths of the oceans, is bigger than she ever dreamed.
To celebrate the launch of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken‘s brand-new first trailer, I had the chance to chat with the film’s director, Kirk DeMicco, and producer, Kelly Cooney about the inspiration behind Ruby Gillman’s story, the power of finding emotion in animation, and the excitement of the theatrical experience.

Nick: The thing I love most about movies is the fact that these stories can transport me to a new world or take me on a journey that I know nothing about. Now, I’m not a kraken. Nor am I a teenage girl surviving high school! So, what was the inspiration behind telling the story of Ruby Gillman? And what can audiences expect from this film?

Kirk DeMicco: I love that intro so much! It’s made me think: “How do I get Nick to understand a teenage girl or a kraken?” [laughs]

Nick: I definitely seem like I’m at the opposite end of the demographic for this, don’t I? But I’m excited!

Kirk DeMicco: We have a kraken battle at the end! That’s how we will get you!

Kelly Cooney: What’s exciting about this movie is that we are taking what audiences might be expecting, and flipping it. We all think we know the stories of the kraken – that they’re these bloodthirsty monsters, sinker of ships. And even that mermaids are traditionally fairy-tale characters that are lovely and fun. But in this movie, we are flipping it and Ruby is the epic backdrop of it.

But at it’s core, it’s a story of a teenage girl who is trying to find her place in the world. She has a secret that she has to keep and she’s not fully able to be herself in front of her friends and classmates. Eventually, she makes a leaps that  awakens a part of her and she turns into a giant kraken! That’s what takes her on a journey of self-discovery and she realises that this thing she had to hide before, is actually her superpower. She has powers within her that she can embrace and harness. That’s is what’s most exciting for us, it’s a personal story that has epic consequences.

Kirk DeMicco: I was interested in the multi-generational mother/daughter story with out three leads. Jane Fonda is being the grandma, Toni Collette is the mother, and Lana Condor being Ruby. And this story shows this family who have become estranged. Mom and Grandma aren’t talking to each other, and Ruby is stuck somewhat in the middle of it all and has to figure a way to pull her family together, while at the same time, becoming her own person.

Grandma is the queen of the Seven Seas, and she has the best of intentions with her granddaughter. And Ruby’s mom does too! But they have two very different ways of going about it. Ruby is caught in between that and a larger war that is going on between the mermaids and the krakens. It’s a dangerous war, but nothing is as dangerous as the halls of highschool, which is very relatable to a lot of people. You never get over those scars or reliving those nightmares. I feel like that’s the part that’s really fun and relatable for our entire team.

Nick: What really captured my attention in the trailer was the visual style of the film. The moments underwater, or when Ruby begins her journey, were these vivid and colourful neon lights and patterns that really transported me into this world. Can you talk to the choices behind the visual language of Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken?

Kirk DeMicco: Our production designer, Pierre Vincent, who did all of the How To Train Your Dragon films, was very inspired by the curviness of an octopus for the shape language. From the cars, to the refrigerators, and the Kraken kingdom itself, it was all based on that curviness. Then our head of animation, Carlos Pergolas, was interested in playing around with animation that contrasted that. And that contrast came from the rigidity of humans, but also the fluidity of the animation for Ruby and her family.

Then the lighting, like you pointed out, is so colourful. It really takes you on this journey and makes this underwater world like one you’ve never seen before. We wanted to really build up the Kraken kingdom. The scale is massive, too. If Ruby is like, one pixel on the screen, the Kraken kingdom is like an IMAX screen in comparison. That scale and the colours keep coming on to the screen in a way that makes the animation feel fresh.

We were inspired by jellyfish floating in the darkness of the ocean. Ruby could be perceived as a monster, but she is beautiful. And she finds her beauty and finds her power throughout this story, much like many things underwater.

Nick: About 90% of the films I’ve cried in over my lifetime were in fact animated films. There is such power in creating authentic emotion in these wonderful and fantastic worlds. What makes animation the perfect vehicle to explore the feelings that ultimately make us human?

Kelly Cooney: I think a part of the reason why animation is such a universal medium is that you can tell really humanistic stories. What person hasn’t felt like they don’t fit in before? There’s something where anyone watching the movie can connect with those characters in some way, because they’re just like them. They can put their background and their own backstory onto these characters and experience the story through that character’s eyes. You can feel that same sense of discovery and share the journey where Ruby ultimately becomes the hero. It’s such a joyful ride to go on.

From the very beginning, you’re rooting for her. You see Ruby go through some really difficult situations, and then seeing her rise throughout the film, there’s something really powerful about any person, at any age, being able to graft their own experience onto that character. I think that’s what’s so powerful about animation – being transported to a totally different world that feels real when you’re there. It’s not something you can experience every day.

Nick: One of my favourite post-pandemic cinema experiences was actually The Croods: A New Age. We had a social distanced screening, but there was the perfect number of people, families and children that  you could feel that communal experience of joy and laughter that we had been missing for so long during the pandemic. How excited are you both that Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken is getting an exclusive theatrical release? And how important is the theatrical experience for you personally?

Kirk DeMicco: I think with the sheer amount of energy and work that goes into making these movies look beautiful on the big screen – it is very important. To your point earlier about crying in movies, there is something about being in that communal, darkened theatre and feeling everything that is happening on that screen because the world is completely blocked out. That world is larger because your eyes are only seeing that in the darkened room.

I think there’s something subconscious about it too. When we were kids, we saw picture books. The first things our parents would show us are picture books, not words or real life pictures, but drawn picture books. So, I think you are hitting something a little more primal in the picture part of your brain when watching animation. You start to release yourself from your cynical self. You leave your ego at the door. I think it’s really cool.

Kelly Cooney: So much of this movie was made during the pandemic and we were working from home on tiny little screens. And when we were able to return to the office, and watch it on a big screen, it legitimately came to life. It was so thrilling. We started to show the movie to audineces, and hearing them gasp or laugh or cheer when Ruby takes action, it’s incredible. I’m getting chills now just talking about it.

It’s such a wonderful feeling to know that this story that started from nothing, has the ability to touch so many people on such a grand scale. I think we’re seeing that reaction to other films that came out last year like Puss In Boots: The Last Wish. We spend such a large part of our lives working on these movies, and it’s again like Kirk was saying, you’re trying to harness the inner child inside all of us. To be able to experience that in a community and on such a grand scale is just so thrilling.

Nick: I wanted to wrap up on some questions about things I read about you both leading up to this chat. Kirk, if I read correctly, after graduating university, you moved to Italy and worked as a journalist for an Italian film-business magazine. What’s it like now being on the other side of that coin in being interviewed? And is there anything you look out for during interviews now that sticks out to you as the sign of a good interviewer? I’ll be taking notes on this one!

Kirk and Kelly: [laughs]

Kirk DeMicco: Do research!

Nick: Who would’ve thought – research!

Kirk DeMicco: It’s all about research! I love talking about movies all day long. I see it, you’re passionate about it too. I was very lucky to find a job that somebody wanted to pay me to do something that I wanted. It worked out well.

On the other side of that now, what’s really cool is the fact that we can do this right now. You’re in Australia, and I’m here on the other side of the world. We can connect with people in a way we couldn’t before. But now we connect, and maybe you run into them at an event or something and you already have that relationship.

I was always trying to find the good that came from the pandemic, and I’m psyched this video chat became a thing, because we wouldn’t be able to do this. No one is going to pay for us to come out to Australia to talk about our trailer coming out, but through this, we now can! It’s nice that we get to talk about this. There’s a lot more engagement.

Nick: And Kelly, I read that back in 2013, you were actually out here in Australia producing and curating the Dreamworks exhibition at Melbourne’s ACMI. What was the experience of highlights Dreamworks projects through a completely different medium outside of film?

Kelly Cooney: Oh, God! You really did do your homework! I had such an incredible time working with ACMI on that exhibit. I think at that point, I had been with Dreamworks for 10 years and to be able to go through the archives and pull up these beautiful paintings and storyboards, then find ways to immerse an audience into our world – a peek behind the curtain – was really fun. The hardest part was trying to whittle down what we could fit in the space! There’s just so much artwork, and only so much money to work with. I thought the team at ACMI did an incredible job and they were so much fun to work with.

A huge thank you Kirk DeMicco and Kelly Cooney for their time, and to Universal Pictures for arranging our chat! You can watch the trailer for Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken in the article above, and the film hits Australian cinemas in September!

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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