‘The Croods’ Director Joel Crawford On Experiences That “Empowered” Him To Put His Stamp On ‘A New Age’ Sequel
While directing The Croods: A New Age, Joel Crawford often found himself chasing that ‘Wow’ factor, which all great films (and sequels) have in common.
His follow-up to 2013’s The Croods would expand the scope of a universe established by writer/directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco, at the same time preserving those qualities that made it beloved in the first place.
Earning an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, the original film followed The Croods, a family of cavemen trekking through uncharted territory, after the destruction of their home. The sequel—produced by DreamWorks Animation, and distributed by Universal Pictures—picks up with the clan as they move in with a family that claims to be more evolved, wrestling with change in their lives, and their future as a pack.
In crafting their portrait of “the world figuring itself out,” Crawford and his team referenced everything from Swiss Family Robinson to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. All in all, making the film was a joy. But the same time, Crawford’s journey sometimes mirrored the Croods, with regard to the challenges involved.
As a first-time feature director, Crawford’s most striking encounter with the unknown came when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, requiring him to get the film completed remotely.
Below, he explains how he weathered all the challenges of bringing his “celebration of community” to the screen, touching on the experiences that made him feel “empowered” to put his stamp on The Croods’ second chapter.
DEADLINE: Why was the first Croods a film that resonated with you?
JOEL CRAWFORD: I was working side by side Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco on other projects, while they were working on that, and when I had seen it, I was just so impressed by the characters—how well rounded, funny, but also grounded they were—and the fantastical world of the Croodaceous period. I was instantly like, I love this world, I love these characters, and I would love to continue their story. [I enjoy] movies about family. Family is really important in my own life, and I love being able to tell a story that has so many different entry points for an audience. And The Croods has all that.
DEADLINE: When did you get involved with A New Age?
CRAWFORD: I got involved about three years ago. It’s been seven years since the first Croods, and obviously, sequels are hard to crack: What’s the next big story, so it feels justified, another reason to revisit that world and those characters? When I came in, they had already taken some passes at the script, and the basic idea from Chris and Kirk was, the Croods meet another family. From there, the story, the execution, even that family have morphed into a different family than originally was in the script. But it was out of that nugget of, the next big life event for this family, for the Croods, is meeting another family with different ideas, different philosophies on life, and there’s a lot of growth and clash there.
DEADLINE: How would you describe the theme at the heart of your film?
CRAWFORD: The thing that stood out to me is this feeling of what it’s like to be almost the only people in this big, unknown world. That was definitely touched on in the first movie, but I thought the sequel was a great opportunity to pick up where we left off, and even find out more about Guy, for instance. We meet him from the Croods’ point of view, and what was so thematically interesting, starting this movie from Guy’s point of view, is starting with a lone person all by themselves in the world, and then meeting another family. The Croods call their families packs, right? And it’s this idea of expanding your definition of what your pack is. So, you start off with a lone kid. He meets the Croods, and then we meet the Bettermans, and it’s a great opportunity to explore community, in addition to family.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that the script evolved over the years. How did it continue to change once you’d boarded the project?
CRAWFORD: When I first came on, there was a script, and it was a few steps removed from Chris and Kirk’s original take. What I came into was a script that [involved] meeting another family, and in this instance, it was actually Guy’s literal family. His parents turned out [to be] alive, and there were two aspects of it that we dramatically changed.
That one, to me, was a big one. Chris was nice enough to come in, give thoughts on the script and the treatment, and in talking to him, we both felt like it was so clear in the first Croods that Guy had lost his family. And it felt like if you did the sequel trope of bringing back the family and going, “Oh, they’re alive,” it felt cheap. It felt like a cheat to the audience, so that was one of the first big choices, to go, “No, it’s great to have this connection from Guy’s past, a family he grew up with. But it’s not his parents.”
The other big things, in terms of the dynamics, were early on in that script. When Eep had met this other girl, [the addition of] this other girl was treated very much as a love triangle, a romantic rivalry. The two girls were very catty in the script, and I wanted every character in this to come from a very positive place, and a very honest place.
When we backed up, we said, “Well, these are two girls in a vast world who don’t come across anyone else. This isn’t like high school. They’re so excited to see another girl their age.” So, playing a jealousy between them was one of the big things we pivoted from.
DEADLINE: What inspired your designs for the Bettermans?
CRAWFORD: We wanted them to look like the next step on the evolutionary ladder for the Croods. We wanted them to feel like they’re not from the future. They’re not from a different time, but it would be like, “Oh, instead of wearing pelts, they’ve now been sewing and weaving their own garments.” We wanted to balance it where it feels like, “Okay, they’re in the Croods’ world.” But at the same time, for the audience to go, “I know somebody like that.”
Like the forelock on Phil, with his big, old bangs and the man bun…We went through many different designs, and the character designer, when he had done that, we were like, “There’s something magic in that.” There’s a high self-value of somebody who’s going to have bangs that just hang out like that, and the man bun even draws to mind certain personality types. [Laughs] So, we did a lot of character designs, and it was always a balance like that.
DEADLINE: Tell us about the process of creating new environments for the film, including the Bettermans’ home.
CRAWFORD: With this movie, we wanted to make sure it felt like we were taking the audience, from the point of view of the Croods, and bringing them into a new world, a new experience. It was a great opportunity to go, “Well, the Croods in the first movie survived the end of the world, everything falling apart. It’s beautiful, but there’s a lot of destruction and volcanoes. So, where haven’t we gone with the Croods?”
The Bettermans’ world is this giant paradise. They’ve surrounded themselves with a wall, but it’s really the world’s first domesticated lifestyle, the world’s first domesticated animals. You’ve got farming, agriculture, a waterfall, a tree house. So, it was like, Wow, all of this is brand new to the Croods.
We really wanted to turn up the color experience in this next chapter, so that you feel like, as the Croods, you’re experiencing colors you’ve never seen before, just in the bright food that’s everywhere, or this lush environment. So, that was fun, to go, what can we do to make a more saturated palette?
In addition to the other fun is the inventiveness of the Bettermans, who are able to create. They have an elevator; they have huts. They’ve kind of mastered the world, or at least they feel like they have. So, we wanted the audience to feel that ‘Wow’ of being impressed.
DEADLINE: Which scenes in the film did you most enjoy bringing to life?
CRAWFORD: The dinner scene was fun, because it was such a important part in the story, when all these characters’ storylines are weaving together, and very classically ending up in a dinner blowout. That was a lot of fun because we had amazing actors, writers, storyboard artists, who would all come up with these great character moments, to make this scene feel so relatable to all of us.
Another one for me was the butterfly forests with Eep and Dawn. That felt special [because] we’re telling the story through the Croods’ point of view up until this point, and Dawn, who’s never been outside the safety of the wall, is now seeing the world outside that Eep is sharing with her. This adventure was such a fun opportunity to go to Dawn’s point of view, and really surprise the audience with a location like the butterfly forest, which just looks like a beautiful forest, and then it’s prehistoric butterflies that are epically flying away. It was so fun to see the magic of that sequence evolve through each step of the pipeline.
DEADLINE: Was there a major learning curve in making your feature directorial debut?
CRAWFORD: I mean, it’s a lot to take on, to be quite honest. It was an experience I was excited for, but at the same time, I put a lot of pressure on myself. As I mentioned, I’m such a fan of the first Croods—of Chris and Kirk, of all their work—and one of the great things that helped me feel empowered to now put my stamp on the next chapter was Chris coming in, giving me notes, giving me insights into things they’ve tried with the characters.
Brainstorming with him, I was like, “Okay, cool. I understand the characters and the world.” Now, I felt like I could run with things, like putting [the song] “I Think I Love You” in the movie, these kinds of choices [where] I go, “I don’t want to break the world, but it feels so right to tell the story in that way.”
[Another main] challenge was wrapping your arms around both ends of the story, especially when we have such an amazing returning cast, and then I’m adding three more amazing actors to go against them, making sure that this ensemble story still weaved together with the same thematic point at the end. So, weaving all those stories together was a big challenge, and I’m proud of what we ended up with.
DEADLINE: Obviously, it must have been challenging to complete the film amidst the Covid-19 pandemic for a November release. How did you navigate that situation?
CRAWFORD: One of the great things was, DreamWorks was so efficient and almost ahead of everything, where they had everybody up and running pretty much a week after everybody had to go home.
The biggest thing for me was like, how are we going to finish? How are we going to save this? Because it became more and more clear—like, “We’re not going back into the studio.” So, it was so impressive to see [that] the quality didn’t suffer. People were just bringing so much love and passion into their work at home, and found great, creative ways to work around us not being able to be in the room together. Because that was a big part.
We have a fantastic crew, where we’d laugh a lot together in the room. People would pitch ideas in the room, and I love that, as a director, where it feels like we’re all putting our fingerprint on this. That was my biggest thing, was, how are we going to continue this great process from home? I think everybody adjusted, and definitely, the movie doesn’t look like a pandemic movie—like, “Oh, they must’ve made that in 2020.” But it was definitely a challenge.
DEADLINE: What’s your takeaway from your time with The Croods?
CRAWFORD: Hearing from many people, I feel like the feeling they’re walking away from this movie with is, “It brought joy. It’s positive. It made me laugh.” That feeling was the feeling I had working on it, and speaking for a lot of our crew, it was the same. It was a very collaborative movie. It’s a celebration of community, of working together, and I’m really proud of the fact that that’s infused into the movie, so when you watch it, there’s a good feeling you have. This movie was about humans who are very different, but find not only that they put up with their differences, but celebrate them, and realize their future is brighter if they share it together. And I feel like that was the experience, working on it. So, I’m incredibly grateful to have had this as my first movie to direct.
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