Puss in Boots director Chris Miller has always been a part of the Shrek universe. Shrek the Third was his first directing gig. Prior to that he was a co-writer on Shrek 2. The first Shrek saw his talents as a story board artist. Then there is his voice work, giving life to supporting characters such as Mirror Mirror and Puppet Master.
So it was natural step for Miller to take the reins on Puss in Boots, the first spin off from the Shrek franchise which focuses on the origins of Puss and the biggest adventure which this feisty, sword duelling feline has faced.
In a world filled with memorable characters that all have the potential to headline their own movie, a spin off starring Puss in Boots was a no brainer.
“He made a real splash the first time he appeared in the Shrek movies, and was a bit of a scene stealer” said Miller. “The personality Antontio Banderas poured into that character just made such an impact. He’s booming voice and that personality coming out of this tiny, little, furry package had such an impact, I think it was just a matter of time.”
A graduate of the California Institute of Arts where he studied animation, Miller got his big break when he landed a gig on Dreamworks animation’s first movie Antz. “I went to San Francisco and remember showing my portfolios to the head of story, who leaved through it and said ‘Sorry. This is not gonna work out’” said Miller.
“So I didn’t get the job and as I was leaving I ran into this woman, who was an assistant of the producer Aaron Warner, and it was (Puss in Boots producer) Latifa Ouaou. We were chatting and mentioned that I didn’t get this job and I was about to leave, when she said ‘What are you talking about?’ So she grabbed my portfolio and showed it to the producer, who came out a few minutes later and was like ‘You’re hired. Don’t worry about that.’”
“The personality Antontio Banderas poured into that character...he’s booming voice and that personality coming out of this tiny, little, furry package had such an impact.” - Chris Miller
A steady descent up the Dreamworks ladder saw Miller become one of the studios go to guys, with Puss in Boots his first solo directing gig after sharing co-credit with Raman Hui on Shrek the Third, an experience which was as thrilling as it was mind boggling.
“It’s pretty insane. It’s like hundreds of people involved…400-600 I think at its peak. It’s crazy,” said Miller. “It’s collaborative. You have to be really, really open and within that huge organisation there is a tight creative core when it comes to just designing the film and writing the movie.”
“It’s constantly evolving and you’re open to ideas coming from anywhere at any direction” said Miller. “But it’s pretty amazing when it works, because it can definitely fall apart. It can be a fragile thing, but when it’s working and everyone understands what you are going for, it’s amazing how that many artists sort of just create work that feeds right into a path.”
Miller knew that in order to make Puss in Boots stand apart as its own movie that some changes were needed, which is not an easy sell considering the Shrek franchise consists of four box office hits of familiar theme and tone. Fortunately for Miller, Dreamworks were a big proponent of change for the better.
“We had this character and knew we could create an entirely new world, new tone and we’re pretty big early on of saying ‘Let’s not overlap anything Shrek,’” said Miller. “The association will cease from that universe. There is a fairy tale fabric to it, but even that we wanted to treat differently”.
Instead, Miller looked to other influences to shape the tone of Puss in Boots, with the wild-west and swashbuckling adventures key inspirations in this animated action adventure.
“Legend was our big theme, like this was going to be an epic origin story” said Miller. “So a lot of influences came from cinematic figures. So there’s a bit of a spaghetti western vibe, but to me it’s more Clint Eastwood then Sergio Leone. Indiana Jones is in there a bit and James Bond, and Errol Flynn, and Zorro which you get for free with the Antonio package, so he’s in there to.”
“We had this character and knew we could create an entirely new world, new tone and we’re pretty big early on of saying ‘Let’s not overlap anything Shrek.” - Chris Miller
Ah, yes. What is Puss in Boots without the sensually gruff Latino voice of Antonio Banderas to give him life? This is the fourth time that Banderas has played the character since he made his debut in Shrek 2 back in 2004 and according to Miller, Banderas “is such a pro that he actually needs nothing. He needs very little context.”
Yet while Banderas is an old hand at the art of voice acting, Miller had to usher in a cast of star players new to the experience, among them Salma Hayek who plays the seductively dangerous Kitty Softpaws, Zach Galifianakis as the scheming Humpty Dumpty, and Billy Bob Thornton who teamed up with Amy Sedaris to play a butch, hairier version of Jack & Jill.
“I think they were a little like ‘What’s going on? We’re in a dark room with a microphone with you?’” said Miller. “I just have to create as much context as I can for them, really… If anybody wants to do improve, if they feel anything, then they’re encouraged to do that.”
Also new to the Shrek universe was acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, who came onto the project as an executive producer after he was blown away from an early screening of Puss in Boots.
“It was amazing. Even just the way he came on the project was this weird, fated thing” said Miller. “This all happened in a 24 hour period…I was reading in the trades that he was off The Hobbit and I remember thinking it’s such a shame. Because I knew that’s the version of this movie that I wanted to see. Something dark, twisted version of The Hobbit and I love his movies.”
“Later that day I found out that he was actually in L.A. at the studios looking around. We happened to be showing the movie to get notes. Guillermo accepted the invitation, saw the movie and just said that he loved it, and asked us ‘Can I work in your movie? Is there anything I can do? I would love to be a part of it.’ So we made him executive producer like that day.”
At Del Toro’s insistence his creative input was limited, in order to not get too close to the film and remain objective. It was a process which left an impression on Miller.
“We worked out a system where we bring him in once every 6 weeks, for when we really needed him and just show him stud and let him react” said Miller. “The guy is just a great creative force, because he saw where we were going and what we were shooting for, and was just so supportive of it and encouraging. Always offering suggestions that would make what we had better. He’s not the kind of guy that would tear something down…he always see’s what’s positive in it and pushed us creatively.”