Thursday, July 12, 2007


The Simpsons' big screen test

First conceived 18 years ago, it took 15 people four years to write and cost a rumoured $100 million to make. On 27 July, The Simpsons Movie finally opens simultaneously in the UK and America, following a premiere in Springfield, Vermont (population 9,300), which won a competition of 13 other Springfields to host the event.

This is the most significant change in the lives of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the other animated citizens of Springfield since they first made the jump from scratchy, one-minute animations filling in between sketches on the Tracey Ullman Show, to a regular halfhour slot on the Fox network in 1989.

D'Oh! Don't you know anything? Who's who in Springfield

Video: watch The Simpsons Movie trailer here

Al Jean was one of the first writers that the Simpsons' original creator, Matt Groening, hired to develop his dysfunctional cartoon family, and he is both executive producer and chief writer of the new movie. He is also phenomenally tight-lipped.

Nobody outside the Simpsons' inner sanctum has seen more than the opening 10 minutes of the film. Here we see the rock band Green Day pelted with stones and then drowned after hectoring their audience about pollution during a free concert. Homer and Bart dare each other to wilder and more stupid acts which culminate in a flash of Bart's penis as he skateboards naked to Krusty Burger.

Grandpa Abe Simpson, meanwhile, suffers a disturbing visionary paroxysm in church, while Lisa meets the ideal Irish boy of her dreams. The internet is raging with rumours that, beyond this point, the film surges into a story about global warming (with Homer setting off a nuclear accident in Monty Burns's power plant) and religious fundamentalism.

"Both of those are a little wide of the mark," says Jean, 45. "But there is an environmental and a religious theme. There are also storylines in which Bart realises Homer may not be the ideal father, and in which Lisa meets her perfect man, except that complications naturally ensue. I will say that the main theme of the movie is that Homer should listen more to his wife." Which is pretty much the theme of every Simpson's episode, let's face it. But some further details can be revealed.

Groening let slip recently that Homer falls in love with a pig, and Jean tells me that the film sees Arnold Schwarzenegger become president ("We didn't want to make Bush the president, because in two years that'd mean the film was out of date") and that there is a cameo from a "very special, very popular guest star". Who? "I'm not gonna say." Is it Madonna? "Well I will say it's not Madonna, but I won't say any more." Since the Simpsons TV show has already bagged Michael Jackson, Tony Blair and Stephen Hawking, the mind boggles.

There will also be some two-dimensional cameos in the film as well. Jean tells me that, when a mob prepares to lynch Homer, the camera pans across the face of almost every small character or bit player to have appeared in the TV series. That's more than 320. It's an animated tracking shot to rival the recordbreaking live-action ones of Welles and Altman.

Which is one of the fun things about making a film rather than a TV series. "We knew we could do fuller stories, go deeper into characters, and we were adamant that it had to be entertaining for someone who had never, or only rarely seen the show," says Jean. "But also, y'know, I think we just all really liked the idea of making a movie."

Not that it was easy. Groening says that a joke has to amuse the creators around 350 times before it makes it into the TV show, and that for the film it was three times that. "It's TEN times that," insists Jean. "We started in November 2003, talked about the story for six months, then wrote a first draft, and that has been rewritten at least 100 times, right up to about a week ago."

The rewrites took account of test readings and screenings, and also time: to keep the film to a trim 87 minutes some celebrity cameos (probably those of Minnie Driver and Erin Brockovich) have hit the cutting room floor. But each rewrite also had to conform to the essential lore of The Simpsons: "That Homer does inconsiderate things but he would never consciously hurt Marge, while Marge thinks Homer is the handsomest man who ever lived." And the final script had to appeal to adults and children in equal measure.

D'Oh! Don't you know anything? Who's who in Springfield

Video: watch The Simpsons Movie trailer here

Although rooted in slapstick, The Simpsons has always been extremely sophisticated: I can't think of another show enjoyed by children that also has openly gay characters (Monty Burns' assistant, Smithers), deals with death (Ned Flanders's wife, Maude), or satirises religion almost as often as it pokes fun at its parent company, Fox.

"We have always assumed that kids will watch it because of the form, but after that we just wrote it for ourselves," says Jean. "We've never said, this is too smart for a kid to get, don't put it in. I'm sure that's one of the keys to the show's success."

The Simpsons is now America's longest-running sitcom, and the world's longest-running and most widely syndicated animated show. Not so long ago Homer Simpson was voted by Channel 4 viewers as the greatest television character ever. I'm relieved to reveal that if the 10 minutes I saw are anything to go by, it may also be the first TV show to spawn a movie that equals the small-screen original. And it's not finished yet. Jean confirms the 19th season will begin recording in September, and hopes to make at least one more Simpsons film, if the core voice cast (Dan Castellanata, Harry Shearer, Nancy Cartwright, et al, who get a reported six-figure sum per episode) can be kept on board. Groening has talked about 20-plus years of TV, and a cinematic trilogy.

Groening famously modelled Bart on himself and named Homer and Marge after his own mother and father, then issued an apology to all parents when he had his own two sons, saying he hadn't realised how hard it was. Jean also has two children, aged 16 and two; has fatherhood changed his view of his second, yellow TV family?

"When we started out, we did a lot of Bart-based stories," he concedes. "Then we started doing more Homer stories, which people thought was deliberate, but which was probably down to the fact that we found them easier to think up and relate to. These days ..." - and he makes an all-enveloping gesture that takes in 18 years of producing cutting-edge, hilarious television, and four years and 100 rewrites trying to translate it onto film - "I sympathise more with Grandpa."

No comments: