Veteran Director Tim Story on the "Fun Game" of Creating Animation Hybrid Film 'Tom & Jerry'

Creative Space
Photographed by Damon Casarez

Story’s wife, Vicky, played saxophone in high school. “I promised when I got a big check, I would buy her one. She hasn’t touched it yet.” On William Hanna and Joseph Barbera: “Fingers crossed, if they are looking from above, they’ll be proud of what we made,” says Story.

For the upcoming film, set to bow Feb. 26 on HBO Max, the Story Co. CEO talks about the challenges of working with actors and animated characters together and why Tom and Jerry still won't be talking.

When Tim Story signed on to direct Tom & Jerry in 2018, he did so in part because he wanted a project he could show off to his then-7-year-old son. Maybe even take him to the premiere. WarnerMedia's pandemic-prompted decision to release the movie on HBO Max as well as select theaters (it debuts Feb. 26) threw a wrench in that plan, but Story, who directed two Fantastic Four movies in a pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe era and helped Kevin Hart launch two comedy franchises (Ride Along, Think Like a Man) doesn't have time to dwell.

The director, who resides in the Ladera Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles — not far from his childhood home, where his mother still lives — is building a slate that includes a possible reunion with Hart and the adaptation of another children's classic, Corduroy, as well as a move into TV. In fact, THR caught the married father of three just as he was packing to leave to Atlanta to shoot ABC's pilot Queens.

Tom and Jerry still don't speak in this movie. Was that an option?

It was. There were questions like, "It's a 90-minute movie, how are you going to navigate this real world without them explaining?" And I was always going right to the point of, "This is what this medium is all about. Let's find ways to communicate." They never spoke in the shorts, so we should find a way to do the same. It actually became a fun game. The [live-action] humans could talk to them, we made them literate, we had the angel- and the devil-on-the-shoulders gag.

This is the first movie that Chris DeFaria, the veteran animation executive, is producing. What did you learn from him?

He was so instrumental in teaching me about the process in making a hybrid movie. [The movie is primarily live-action, with some key characters animated.] I had to direct the movie a couple of times, meaning, before you step on set, you had to know actually what your [animated] characters are going to do. And that allows you to plot the set they were going to interact with. If they were going to knock over the chair, you could plan for that chair to wobble a bit. If the actors were speaking, you had to be ready to go back and get a shot of Jerry's POV. You had to always look at this film from the perspective of the cartoon characters.

What was the biggest challenge coming from the live-action world?

The hardest thing was knowing that there were actors that you would later create that don't have a say in anything. If you're actors like Chloë [Moretz] and Michael [Peña], and they ask, "What is Tom doing?" normally a human actor would be there to give his or her input. Here, I had to represent the animated characters and say, "Well, he's going to jump down there and stick out his tongue here." You had to be the one to make those specific choices, and that was odd because I've always had actors make those choices.

Were you able to test this movie or did the pandemic prevent that?

We were about to do one in a theater with about 350 people when the lockdown happened. I was able to do one with 40 people at one point, then another one with 75, virtually. The company hadn't done this before. We did keep it close to family and friends or employees of [Warner Bros.], but we found that it was fairly successful in terms of feedback. I would have loved to have been in a theater — I get so much from the immediate response — but this was a close second.

How did you feel when you heard the movie was going to HBO Max?

My career has been about the theatrical presentation. At first, you're a little bummed because you make this film for an audience, for families sitting in a theater. Laughter is infectious, and if the people behind you and in front of you laugh, you're more prone to laugh. And I really wanted to see that type of reaction. I was upset, to be blunt, but you still have to go, "Hey, this is the world we're in." It's the safest way for people to see my product, and I still believe this film resonates no matter where you watch it. The greatest thing is that it was made for families, and I believe it will still find that audience. Parents are still going to grab their kids and watch it, even if it is in their living room, no matter how big their TV is. I had to learn to adapt to the situation we're in and cross my fingers that we'll be in theaters for the next one.

In Fantastic Four, you cast a young Chris Evans in one of his earliest roles. What was that like?

You could see he was going to be a star. The first thing we shot was the sequence in the hospital where Chris and Maria Menounos have a scene together. I remember sending the dailies to the studio, and it blew their minds. He was great when he read for it, but when that camera rolled, he was Johnny Storm and had all that energy.

You're about to head to Atlanta to shoot a pilot for ABC. How do you feel about working during the pandemic?

I am indeed jumping into the COVID shooting environment. It's scary but very exciting. For me, the showrunner, the producer, the DP, all the guys that would normally be in a room and talking all day and going on location scouts, we all now have to drive separately. We have to get tested a certain number of times a week.

When I hear about the amount of extras we can have, about nobody going up to the star without a mask, how bubbles are created between the casts, and keeping certain crews isolated, it's going to be a little weird for me because I get so much energy from the interaction of people. But I'm going to have to adapt.

I hear you're a bit of a Kevin Hart whisperer. Will you be reteaming with him for his Netflix movies?

We have a couple of projects that we are discussing. We've got a few fun high-concept comedy things. Kevin is one of my closest friends, and we talk a lot of getting back on set.

What is the latest on Corduroy?

I'm waiting for the script to hit my email inbox. The writer [Jon Dorsey] is working on it now. It's going to be another hybrid project. We found a fun story based on the book, an extended version of that story that I think will be great for families. I'm hoping to get into production on that within the next year.

The book has a lot of meaning to the Black community because it was rare for a book like that to feature Black characters at that time.

We're keeping it in the era in which it was created, the late '60s. We talked about it a lot. We don't want it to be too heavy, but we also understand we have an opportunity here to give you a slice of the era in which this was created. We know how important it was in terms of having Black characters. We're being very true to that and being respectful of what it can bring. At the same time, I want to make something that families can have a good time at and enjoy the adventures of this bear.

You've been doing this for more than 20 years. When you look at Hollywood now, in terms of Black storytelling, how do you feel?

You have to admit that it is better than it was, especially when I started. This new up-and-coming group of creators have so much freedom and so many opportunities — but we still have a long way to go before it becomes normal, before you don't have to celebrate that someone got to do this or that. I see some first downs being made, but we have a ways to go before we get to the end zone.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.