In 2017, in the midst of the Comcast/NBCUniversal takeover, Dreamworks Animation axed Larrikins, an animated film set to feature 72 Australian animals, written by Harry Cripps and directed by Tim Minchin, after years of development.
At the time, Minchin made no secret of his disappointment in interviews and in his own blog, where he wrote: “Composer and lyricist of musicals Groundhog Day and Matilda, Tim is also a pianist, singer, comedian, actor, and – until 2 days ago – a director.”
So perhaps it is a surprise then to see four years later, Cripps and Minchin involved in another, different animated film about Australian animals, Netflix’s Back to the Outback.
Cripps not only wrote Back to the Outback, but directed it with Clare Knight, while Minchin plays as a self-absorbed koala, Pretty Boy, alongside a veritable who’s who of other Australian actors including Isla Fisher, Eric Bana, Miranda Tapsell, Jacki Weaver and Guy Pearce.
The children’s film follows a taipan snake (Fisher), a scorpion (Angus Imrie), funnel web spider (Pearce), and thorny devil (Tapsell) who are fed up with being treated like freaks in the reptile house where they have spent their whole lives. So one night they decide to escape to the outback – with Pretty Boy as hostage. They are tailed by their zookeeper (Bana), who is intent on capturing them.
The LA-based Cripps, whose recent credits also include The Dry (with Robert Connolly) and Penguin Bloom (with Shaun Grant), tells IF the cancellation of Larrikins was a “real blow”. He was offered to write a number of animated films set in Australia in its wake, but none interested him.
It was only when Back to the Outback executive producer Greg Lassons approached him with an idea about a film where dangerous and deadly animals got to be the heroes that something sparked. Where better to set that than in Australia – the country “where everything can kill you”? And it was different to Larrikins, which centred on a cute bilby.
Netflix bought the idea and Lassons and Cripps then took to it Knight, editor of the Kung Fu Panda films who Cripps knew from Dreamworks, to see if she wanted to direct it with him. It would be each of their directorial debuts.
“We always secretly wanted to be directors,” Cripps says.
“Clare, as she edits a movie, is sort of directing it. And of course, when you’re writing a film, in a sense, you’re sort of directing it in your head. So to get the opportunity to do it, for both of us, was just fantastic. We were just like kids in a candy store, we couldn’t believe that they agreed to let us do it.”
Knight was in board as she fell in love with the characters and Cripps’ dialogue.
“I’d traveled to Australia and I hadn’t really seen thorny-devil lizards being portrayed in animated movies, or spiders. Even in some of our first meetings people said, ‘Does it have to be a snake? Snakes aren’t cuddly.’ But we were very adamant that we were going to stick with these animals and make them as beautiful as they could possibly be,” she tells IF.
In terms of casting, Cripps says that bringing on Minchin wasn’t easy – his response post-Larrikins was a straight: “No, not going there.” Initially, the directors enticed him to supply a song – Beautiful Ugly – which they liked because it was almost a song that Pretty Boy would write. Then they eventually convinced him to play “the bastard koala” himself, noting he went to bring a further “arch quality” and intelligence to the character.
“We had to lure him back,” Cripps says. “First of all, we just said, ‘Give us a song.’ And he went, ‘Alright, I’ll give you a song – but that’s it!’ And then once he gave the song, we said, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be great if you were that koala?’.“
Some characters were clearly written with particular actors in mind; the crocodile played by Jacki Weaver is named Jackie. The rest of the casting process involved playing clips of actors in movies against images of the animals and seeing what worked.
“Isla was such a natural fit; she’s got warmth and she’s got great comic timing,” Cripps says.
As a studio, Cripps notes Netflix gave them a lot of freedom, but making the film was not without its challenges – namely, COVID-19. Normally, the team would have travelled to Australia from LA to inform the look and feel of the film, but travel restrictions made this impossible. Instead, with production designer Mike Yamada, they spent a lot of time examining Australian art and photographs to try to capture the country’s vibrant blues and deep reds.
With character designer Jesse Aclin, they again worked from images. There were pictures of thorny devil lizards, funnel web spiders and scorpions all over their offices – which meant people were often not keen to look at the walls.
Working with the animators out of RealFX in Montreal and Dallas meant there were sometimes 90 people on calls looking at shots, but Cripps says it brought an intimacy to the project.
“In a pretty grim time it was really fun to be able to dive into this world every day. It was just a bit of a play time really for us. We were blessed, we thought, to be working on something like this.”
All of the actors also recorded their parts remotely, with Netflix sending out sound kits.
“As long as they were in their closets with clothing around them, you could back out the sound,” Knight says.
“Eric Bana had these amazing curtains… But he had to become like his own sound engineer. It did give a much more intimate performance. He’d go ‘Leaf blower,” and then he’d have to stop… It was harder job for them. We were just on Zoom directing.
“But yeah, we did see a lot of actors’ closets. Isla’s closet was the most nice.”
Cripps adds: “Hers was the biggest. Guy Pearce’s was the smallest; his was a tiny one in Amsterdam. It felt at first daunting, because you think, if you can’t work personally with the actors, you won’t get the personal experience. But it became a lot more intimate because of the situation we were all in and because we were all in our homes.”
Back to the Outback has been described in press materials as “a love letter to Australia.” As an Aussie, Cripps is excited to have the opportunity to de-demonise some of Australia’s creatures via the global scale that Netflix offers.
“The hope is really to bring kids in to the world of these fascinating little creatures that they don’t really know that well. By falling in love with them, hopefully, they come to understand some of the deeper themes of the movie about, all of us just sort of getting on and not judging each other because of our differences.”
Back to the Outback is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from December 10.