Some of the guests at the castle in "Hotel Transylvania." (Sony Pictures Animation,…)
"Hotel Transylvania," an animated comedy about Dracula running a high-end resort for monsters, had already sucked the lifeblood out of five directors when Genndy Tartakovsky came aboard as director No. 6 in February 2011.
Tartakovsky, the Moscow-born creator of the Cartoon Network shows "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Samurai Jack," is an accomplished figure in the cozy world of TV animation. The cartooning equivalent of a live-action TV auteur like "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner, Tartakovsky has been nominated for 13 Emmys and won three, and his kids shows have attracted a following among adults for their wit, action and style. Especially, he's known for his distinctive, hand-drawn, cartoonish technique, at a time when so much computer-driven animation seeks to be hyper-realistic.
But though he has supervised hundreds of episodes in his 20 years of working in TV animation, Tartakovsky, 42, was unprepared in one key way for his first feature film — he had never experienced the enervating atmosphere of a project that has passed through many, many creators' hands.
"I was the sixth man in, and it was like being dropped into combat," Tartakovsky said recently at his office on Sony Pictures Animation's Culver City lot. "This movie's been worked for six years already and everybody's kind of bitter.... I've never had so much resistance from everywhere — the studio, the artists. It took me a while to get my feet on the ground and win everybody over."
"Hotel Transylvania" has had many renderings since its original directors, David Feiss and Anthony Stacchi, launched the movie at Sony in 2006. In Feiss and Stacchi's take, the world had gotten too scary for monsters, and they retreated to the hotel.
"We had a great premise, but it was a premise — a hotel for monsters," said Bob Osher, who came aboard as president of Sony Pictures Digital Productions two years into "Hotel Transylvania's" development. "Earlier iterations never jelled to where everyone said, 'This is the version of the story we want to make.'"
Tartakovsky's movie, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 8 and hitting theaters Sept. 28, is a father-daughter story. Dracula, a fastidious hotelier and overprotective dad voiced by Adam Sandler, invites Frankenstein (Kevin James), the Mummy (Cee Lo Green), a werewolf (Steve Buscemi) and other monster friends to his resort to celebrate the 118th birthday of his adolescent daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez). When a spirited young backpacker (Andy Samberg) inadvertently crashes the monster mash, Dracula must confront his fear of losing Mavis to the dangerous human world, as he once lost her mother.
In the high-stakes, $100-million-plus world of feature animation, many movies have a twisty back story — Pixar's summer release, "Brave," gestated for eight years and changed directors midstream. Typically, animated movies take at least four years to make, scripts linger longer than the executives who greenlight them and studios often switch directors, who are studio employees and have never been covered by the directors' union.
Founded in 2002, Sony Pictures Animation has produced box-office hits like "The Smurfs" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" at lower budgets than most of its competition, but films such as "Arthur Christmas" from its partnership with the British animation company Aardman Animations have underperformed. As five directors came and went on "Hotel Transylvania," which has a budget in the $100-million range, pressure mounted to deliver an in-house success. In late 2010, Michelle Raimo-Kouyate was named president of production at the studio, and Tartakovsky signed onto the film soon after.
Osher, who thought Tartakovsky's knack for physical humor would enliven the story, said he tried to lure the director to work at Sony for months with no success. Instead, Tartakovsky had been attempting to sell various studios on a "Samurai Jack" movie.
"I was thinking romantically," said Tartakovsky, who has a blocky, Bluto-like build and a faintly Russo-Midwestern accent. "I wanted my first feature to be an original idea. But I spent the last five or six years trying to sell a movie and it wasn't happening.... My TV reputation didn't really cross over into feature animation.... There's a level of respect that's not there. It's high pressure, a lot of money and then you have to work with voice actors."
When Tartakovsky came aboard in 2011, Sandler had just signed on and Sony's artists had created the movie's environments, chiefly the Gothic castle that houses Dracula's hotel. But Tartakovsky brought a signature visual idea — a stylized take on Dracula that owes more to the caricatured look of old Looney Tunes cartoons than it does to the hyper-real appearance of most modern, computer-animated films. Tartakovsky's TV work has mostly been 2-D and hand-drawn, but like the vast majority of animated studio movies, "Hotel Transylvania" is 3-D and computer-animated.