Home » Henry Selick on ‘Wendell & Wild’ & A Better Future For Animation – Exclusive Interview

Henry Selick on ‘Wendell & Wild’ & A Better Future For Animation – Exclusive Interview

by Andrew J. Salazar
Kat activates her Hellmaiden powers by putting her demon skull hand over her mouth that turns her eyes green in WENDELL & WILD directed by Henry Selick.

Animation legend Henry Selick is finally back after 13 years with his latest stop motion pièce de résistance, Wendell & Wild. From The Nightmare Before Christmas to Coraline, Selick’s masterful hand in the realm of stop motion storytelling is unmatched, and yet, he’s had to continuously face one obstacle after the other in getting his projects made throughout his entire career. Wendell & Wild is no different, rising from the ashes of his canceled original Pixar tale The Shadow King – a project that was killed after the studio had already spent a reported $50 million on it. From this tragedy, Selick found an unlikely ally in Jordan Peele, who was ready to take a risk in producing a more mature, gothic animated fantasy like no other.

Just like in his other classics, Wendell & Wild brings the best of Henry Selick and his collaborators’ worlds together. Jordan Peele is a modern icon in his own right, with Nope already being a standout horror hit this year, but he’s now following down a line of past Selick co-creators that include Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Neil Gaiman. Together, Selick and Peele, tell the tale of Kat (Lyric Ross), an Afropunk juvenile who must literally, and metaphorically, wrestle her demons in accepting her destiny as a hellmaiden with supernatural powers. The demons in question are brothers Wendell and Wild, voiced by Peele and comedic partner Keegan-Michael Key, who have their own devious plans of raising the dead in Kat’s torn-down hometown of Rust Bank.

Against all odds, Henry Selick and Jordan Peele’s vision for Wendell & Wild was made possible largely thanks to countless dedicated stop motion artists who rose up to the challenge in the midst of a pandemic and Netflix. This film is Selick’s first PG-13 release, a rating that allowed the story to explore more mature, yet necessary places to get its message across. However, as Selick got to tell us in an exclusive interview, he still thinks Coraline is much more “frightening” and “intense.” Wendell & Wild uses it PG-13 rating not to neccesarily go scarier, but to present young audiences with more complex struggles that revolve around surivor’s guilt, our own identities, and beleive it not, even the crooked industrial prison complex of today.

In any other hands, all of these ideas together could have comepltely broken a film apart. Not under Jordan Peele and Henry Selick’s watch though. We were lucky enough to sit down with the master stop motion filmmaker himself and get his thoughts on the current state of animation and how Wendell & Wild can make an impact with its nuanced vision and platform on Netflix. Additionally, Selick shares with us a crucial lesson he learned from his co-writer Jordan Peele and whatever happened to the TV adaptation of the cult video game Little Nightmares he was set to direct. Could that still happen now that Selick is looking for a new project? Read on to find out!

Exclusive Interview with Henry Selick for Wendell & Wild on Netflix. Mild Spoilers ahead!

To start us off on something simple yet poignant, when watching the final film, is there a moment in particular that gets you the most choked up or that feels the most rewarding given all that you had to go through to get Wendell & Wild made?

Henry Selick: Even though I’ve seen most of the film many, many, many times, the section at the end with Kat and her vision of what the town is going to be, and sharing that with her parents. Then what follows is, for me, the most emotionally moving. It’s also something that happened much later in production, so I haven’t lived with it as long. It’s very difficult to balance out those elements of loss and then hope.

The giant purple demon Buffalo Belzer voiced by Ving Rhames wears his groovy red shades as he watches the amusement park of lost souls on his belly in WENDELL & WILD on Netflix.
‘Wendell & Wild’ courtesy of Netflix

You’ve talked a lot about your collaboration with Jordan Peele in the writing process. You two went back and forth with ideas and drafts for a long period. Is there anything specific that you learned from Jordan’s work ethic that you would like to carry for the rest of your career moving forward?

Henry Selick: Right from the start, when he expressed interest in being a collaborator and a producer, and he talked about his new company at the time, Monkeypaw, and the types of films they wanted to make, I learned a lot right up front about stepping way back. Because it’s easy to get up close and into the details too quickly on a project. You can be drawn to a subject – whether it’s original, based on a book, or whatever it might be – and you dive in too quickly.

So I think one of the best things I learned from Jordan was, you know, getting key distance and then learning how to keep the distance. Now, he was able to keep that distance. He wanted to go and did make several incredible movies. But that gave him fresh eyes. So when he was between those other projects and looked then looked at [Wendell & Wild], he had the distance that I didn’t have. So those were the main things: maintain the distance or work with other people who can do that for you.

Even with all the advancements in animation today, the medium as a whole is still greatly undervalued. A lot of people in the industry still question whether there is a space for more adult or mature animated stories in the mainstream. So, I’m dying to know, how do you feel about the current state of animation in this regard and how does Wendell & Wild fit into the equation as a PG-13 film streaming on Netflix?

Henry Selick: I think our film will be heavily scrutinized because of the [PG-13] rating. But, honestly, Coraline is a much more intense film. It’s much more frightening, but only for moments. Wendell & Wild takes on more emotional challenges. I think these challenges are good for an audience. I also think that some of our biggest fans are going to be nine to fourteen. In a way, the PG-13 rating makes them go, “I want to see that movie.” They’re aspirational to see stuff that’s for older people.

So, I’m hopeful. I think that people will take more chances on these kinds of stories. But it was something that right away when we set this film up with Netflix, and Jordan and I set it up with one of our other producers Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, we said “We want a PG-13 rating, we want that ability to play there.” And they were cool with that! So yeah, I’m hopeful.

Kat the hellmaiden is haunted by her two demons Wendell and Wild as giant floating heads in a nightmare vision in the Netflix stop motion film directed by Henry Selick.
‘Wendell & Wild’ courtesy of Netflix

Henry Selick: It’s tricky business because in this country and in a lot of the world, but not the whole world, animation is just for kids. “Let’s make sure it’s safe enough and not so boring that the adults won’t watch it.” I’m tired of that. It can be so much more and needs to be so much more. You know, all animated films don’t have to cost as much as a Pixar or DreamWorks film. Getting lower budgets and taking chances, I like that combination.

So you’ve already mentioned that you might take a break next or take time to pursue adapting Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane again. But I’m actually curious about whatever happened to the TV adaptation of Little Nightmares that was reported back in 2017? You were said to be attached as a director with the Russo Brothers producing. That video game has a strong following, so can fans still expect anything?

Henry Selick: Yeah, I was involved with that. It’s a really cool video game. It kind of just came and went… I don’t know actually what happened to it. It’s a really good story! I did a lot of work with a writer on that and I can’t really explain what happened. (laughs)

Well, at least, not all hope is lost!

Henry Selick: I’m glad you heard about that because Little Nightmares was a really interesting project. It’s really dark, shows kidnapped kids and an elitist class. It’s kind of like Squid Game quite honestly, but maybe not quite as extreme. Put the word out! Maybe that’ll come back around. Because it was a good, good project.

Wendell & Wild is now streaming on Netflix!

Follow Managing Editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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